On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XIV

Index to this series | Text of Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad

When Neptune was helping the Greeks stave off certain defeat, I tried to suggest that divine intervention in the course of events might be understood as human resolve to change that course. This was in Book XIII of the Iliad, where Neptune took the form of one of the Greeks—Calchas—in order to exhort the others. They would have listened to Calchas anyway; he was a prophet. Ajax Oileus said he could tell Calchas was “really” a god; we can read this to mean Calchas was inspiring. We can say this of somebody today, without meaning to suggest any supernatural influence.


Nonetheless, in Book XIV, Neptune appears to the Greeks as himself, and he gives advice on arming. “Ile leade you all,” he says:

  1. Nor thinke I, but great Hectors spirits, will suffer some apall,
  2. Though they be neuer so inspir’d: the ablest of vs then,
  3. That on our shoulders worst shields beare, exchange with worser men
  4. That fight with better. This proposd, all heard it, and obeyd.

Still, it is “the kings (euen those that sufferd wounds, Vlysses, Diomed, / And Agamemnon)” who see that Neptune’s armorial instructions are carried out. Neptune leads the army to battle,

  1. A long sword in his sinowy hand, which when he brandished,
  2. It lighten’d still: there was no law, for him, and it; poore men
  3. Must quake before them…

Humans do the actual fighting. Though Hector contends with “the blew-haired god” (κυανοχαίτης Ποσειδῶν, dark-haired Poseidon), the target for Hector’s javelin is Ajax, who is saved by his baldrics, and who himself fells Hector with a stone:

  1. And, as when Ioues bolt, by the rootes, rends from the earth an Oke;
  2. His sulphure casting with the blow, a strong, vnsauoury smoke;
  3. And on the falne plant none dare looke, but with amazed eyes,
  4. (Ioues thunder being no laughing game) so bowd strong Hectors thyes.

Hector is taken from the field and sprinkled with water from the Xanthus. Rising no further than his knees, he spits blood and collapses. Reading Homer’s account of these events requires no particular suspension of disbelief regarding supernatural intervention in human affairs.

We forget that modern physics requires such suspension. Copernicus tells us the earth moves through space; Newton, that the earth is held in orbit by some mysterious attraction between itself and the sun. There is no explanation for this invisible force, but it respects a mathematical law, and this is enough to make us believe in it. The belief seems well requited: it lets us send a spaceship to the furthest planet, called Pluto in modern times after one of the ancient gods.

Perhaps we do not think much about how many problems mathematical physics does not solve. Neither does the subject lend itself to popular celebration. The general public are not so enamored of Newton’s Laws that they insist on their being taught to all children.

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes suggests that the gods are an explanation for the thoughts that the Greeks find themselves thinking. Perhaps then Collingwood is my god. I appeal to him now for a more detailed account of the gods. In any essay called “The Existence of God,” included as an example of metaphysics in An Essay on Metaphysics (pages 208–9), Collingwood says of the Greeks,

Their habit of representing their gods in vividly realized human form was not a piece of theology, it was a piece of poetry.

We should understand theology here as Aristotle did. Theology is metaphysics. This is the science of absolute presuppositions, and especially the presuppositions at the foundation of the natural sciences. Monotheism is a poetic formulation of the absolute presupposition that all natural scientists are studying the same world. This presupposition is absolute because nothing else justifies it, not because it can never change. The supposition of the unity of the world must not always have been held, at least not knowingly; otherwise Thales would not be celebrated for recognizing it.

The Greeks are said to be polytheist, but this does not concern their natural science. Thales lived after Homer and Hesiod, but before just about everybody else whom we read.

The Iliad tells us something about natural world. It tells us what happens to the human body when pierced with a javelin or struck with a big rock.

The poem tells us more about our passions. In Book XIV, Neptune is bold enough to lead the Greeks into battle, because he knows that Jove is asleep. He knows, because the god of sleep has told him that Juno has seduced her brother-husband. Juno has borrowed a love-charm from Venus and visited Jove on Mount Ida. She says she is off to visit her quarrelling parents (who are also his parents); but he stops her. He tells her she arouses more passion in him than any other female he has had his way with, be she human or divine:

  1. Iuno, thou shalt haue after leaue, but ere so farre thou stray,
  2. Conuert we our kind thoughts to loue; that now, doth euery way
  3. Circle, with victorie, my powers: nor yet with any dame;
  4. (Woman, or goddesse) did his fires, my bosome so enflame
  5. As now, with thee: not when it lou’d, the parts so generous
  6. Ixions wife had, that brought foorth, the wise Pyrithous;
  7. Nor when the louely dame, Acrisius daughter stird
  8. My amorous powres, that Perseus bore, to all men else preferd;
  9. Nor when the dame that Phenix got, surprisd me with her sight;
  10. Who, the diuine-soul’d Rhadamanth, and Minos brought to light;
  11. Nor Semele, that bore to me, the ioy of mortall men,
  12. The sprightly Bacchus; Nor the dame, that Thebes renowned then,
  13. Alcmena, that bore Hercules; Latona, so renownd;
  14. Queene Ceres, with the golden haire; nor thy faire eyes did wound,
  15. My entrailes to such depth as now, with thirst of amorous ease.

Robert Graves observes that the Greek divinities are like the family of a feudal lord, as perceived by his serfs. The family must be respected, but they can be laughed at behind their backs. Homer now presents us with a spectacle to be laughed at. Did any of Homer’s audience try to control their smiles, lest Jove understand and smite them down?

Juno feigns indignance at being asked to make love in the open:

  1. The cunning dame seem’d much incenst, and said, what words are these,
  2. Vnsufferable Saturns sonne? What? here? in Idas height?
  3. Desir’st thou this? how fits it vs? or what if in the sight
  4. Of any god, thy will were pleasd? that he, the rest might bring
  5. To witnesse thy incontinence; t’were a dishonourd thing.
  6. I would not shew my face in heauen, and rise from such a bed.
  7. But if loue be so deare to thee, thou hast a chamber sted,
  8. Which Vulcan purposely contriu’d, with all fit secrecie:
  9. There sleepe at pleasure…

Jove cannot be bothered. He casts a golden mist around them, such that even the sun cannot see through. Because of this mist, or because of sexual passion followed by the work of Somnus, Jove in turn does not see what happens down below at Troy, as Neptune leads the Greeks to put Hector out of commission.

To win the cooperation of Somnus, Juno has again used the promise of sex—not with her, but with “One of the faire young Graces borne.” Somnus is reluctant to risk Jove’s displeasure, but he will relent, provided Juno swear to give him “Pasithae” (Πασιθέη, Pasithea).

On what can a goddess swear? On material existence, with the Titans as witness. Somnus demands that Juno swear,

  1. By those inuiolable springs, that feed the Stygian lake:
  2. With one hand touch the nourishing earth; and in the other, take
  3. The marble sea; that all the gods, of the infernall state,
  4. Which circle Saturne, may to vs, be witnesses; and rate
  5. What thou hast vow’d: that with all truth, thou wilt bestow on me,
  6. The dame (I grant) I euer lou’d, diuine Pasithae.

I suggest the Titans as a metaphor for the absolute presuppositions mentioned above. We normally do not think about them, but they are still somewhere in the background, with more power than we may realize.

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