On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXI

Jove allowed the gods to aid whom they would, in the previous book of the Iliad; now, in Book XXI, they fight with one another. The god of fire attacks a river god; the god of war, the goddess of wisdom. This calls into question the notion of gods as personifications of abstract concepts.

Road to beach, shaded by pines

One may say that of course fire is at war with water, and war with wisdom. I would say rather that we can be at war with one another, because none of us is simply one thing distinct from any other.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

We have similarities and differences, and so do the gods. We can all do many things.

Achilles himself attacks Xanthus and almost loses. Neptune and Pallas heed his cries and save him from drowning. In anger he goes back into the flood; but then the river calls on Brother Simois (Chapman’s lines 291–8):

Come, adde thy current, and resist, this man halfe deified;
Or Ilion he will pul downe straite; the Troians cannot stand
A minute longer. Come, assist; and instantly command
All fountaines in thy rule to rise; all torrents to make in,
And stuffe thy billowes; with whose height, engender such a din,
(With trees torne vp, and iustling stones) as so immane a man,
May shrinke beneath vs: whose powre thriues, do my powre all it can:
He dares things fitter for a god …

Juno calls on her son Mulciber to burn the trees on Xanthus’s shore. He does not only that, but adds to the flames the bodies of men whom Achilles has killed. The river cries uncle and promises not to help Troy any more.

Jove is amused to see gods fighting. Mars gives him more amusement by attacking Minerva, in return for what happened in Book V, when she helped Diomedes to attack him (lines 366–71):

Thou, dog-flie, what’s the cause,
Thou mak’st gods fight thus? thy huge heart, breakes all our peacefull lawes,
With thy insatiate shamelesnesse. Rememberst thou the houre,
When Diomed charg’d me? and by thee? and thou with all thy powre,
Took’st lance thy selfe; and in all sights, rusht on me with a wound?
Now vengeance fals on thee for all …

Minerva lays him on the ground—seven acres of ground—with a stone. When Venus goes to help him, Minerva lays her on the ground.

Neptune reminds Phoebus of building the walls of Troy for Laomedon, and tending his oxen, and then being given not recompense, but threats of slavery. Apollo now says he will withdraw from the fight. Diana chides him for this, but Juno grabs her and knocks down her bow, and she runs off to Jove without it. Her mother Latona gathers up the bow after an odd interjection by Mercury, to the effect that she has already beaten him, and he will not fight her.

Closer to shore from under the pines

Back on earth, seeing Achilles’s rout of the Trojans, Priam has the city gates opened to let them in; but the Greeks need to be kept out. Here Apollo returns to helping Troy by giving Antenor to think:

—If I run like everybody else, then Achilles, being faster, will catch me. If I stand, I shall die too. But wait; Achilles has but one soul in his body, and my steel can drive it out as well as his can mine.

Antenor does threaten Achilles, and throw at him, and strike his tin greaves. Before Achilles can strike back, Antenor flees. It is not really Antenor though; it is Apollo in his guise, leading Achilles away from Troy, so that the Trojans can get inside. Here the book ends.

In the beginning, Achilles attacks the river after driving half the Trojans into it. Hiding his lance among the tamarisks on shore, he enters the flood with his sword, and “every way he doubl’d slaine on slaine” (line 20). He does take twelve young men alive, to serve as human sacrifice at Patroclus’s funeral; and Homer knows how terrible this is:

These led he trembling forth the flood; as fearefull of their end,
As any Hinde calues: all their hands, he pinnioned behind
With their owne girdles; worne vpon, their rich weeds; and resign’d
Their persons to his Myrmidons, to beare to fleete: and he
Plung’d in the streame againe; to take, more worke of Tragedie.

Some time before, Achilles captured Lycaon and sold him into slavery; but he was redeemed and came home to Troy just twelve days ago. Now Achilles meets him as he is trying to get out of the river. He embraces Achilles’s knees and points out that, while he and Hector may have the same father (namely Priam), they have different mothers; so let Achilles have mercy.

Beach with concrete walk to sea

Achilles has a lesson for him instead (lines 104–9):

Die, die, (my friend) what teares are these? what sad lookes spoile thy face?
Patroclus died, that farre past thee: nay seest thou not beside,
My selfe, euen I, a faire yong-man, and rarely magnifide;
And (to my father, being a king) a mother haue, that sits
In ranke with goddesses; and yet, when thou hast spent thy spirits,
Death, and as violent a fate, must ouertake, euen me.

The fish of Xanthus shall make a funeral feast of the white fat of Antenor’s body. Achilles will continue to drive Trojans to their deaths, as if he had the horns of a bull. However many bulls the Trojans sacrificed to Xanthus, the river shall be of no help.

That’s what Achilles says; but Xanthus is getting fed up (lines 137–9):

This speech, great Xanthus more enrag’d; and made his spirit contend,
For meanes to shut vp, the o’pt vaine, against him; and defend
The Troians in it, from his plague …

Meanwhile, Achilles takes up the spear he hid. Chapman calls it Pelias, presumably because it came from Mount Pelion, as we were told in Book XVI, lines 125–9, when Patroclus was suiting up:

But the most fam’d Achilles speare, big, solid, full of weight,
He onely left, of all his armes; for that, farre past the might
Of any Greeke to shake, but his; Achilles onely ire
Shooke that huge weapon; that was giuen, by Chyron to his sire,
Cut from the top of Pelion, to be Heroes deaths.

Now Achilles meets Asteropaeus, a descendent of the river Axius in Paeonia. Ambidextrous, Asteropaeus lets fly with two javelins at once; one strikes Achilles’s shield, while the other draws blood from Achilles’s right hand. Achilles throws Pelias, but it sticks in the ground. Asteropaeus tries three times to pull it out, but Achilles dispatches him with a sword.

Achilles boasts that while Asteropaeus may descend from a river god, he himself descends from the highest god, Jove, father of Aeacus, father of Peleus, Achilles’s father; and “Ioue must not be withstood” (line 184).

Achilles the misogynist does not mention his divine mother, whom he will presently curse for letting him believe that he would die otherwise than by drowning. Being killed by Hector would be better.

Sea sparkling under the sun

Achilles is brought to this despair after Xanthus tells him to stop filling him with dead bodies. Achilles only jumps in himself, and there is a bizarre struggle (lines 223–9):

… A horrid billow stood
About Achilles. On his shield, the violence of the flood
Beate so; it draue him backe, and tooke, his feet vp; his faire palme,
Enforc’t to catcht into his stay, a brode, and loftie Elme,
Whose roots he tost vp with his hold; and tore vp all the shore,
With this then, he repeld the waues; and those thicke armes it bore,
He made a bridge to beare him off …

Achilles soon enough finds himself back in the water.

We could offer a Euhemeristic explanation of all of this, suggesting that a warrior once pursued his enemies into a river and almost drowned. What then is the lesson: beware the water, or beware your passions?

Dog on beach, glaring at you

3 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXII « Polytropy on September 24, 2019 at 7:15 am

    […] « On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXI […]

  2. […] Achilles laughed and gave Eumeleus the arms spoiled from Asteropaeus in Book XXI. […]

  3. By Dawn (Iliad Book XXIV) « Polytropy on May 12, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    […] literally “womb-mate” or “belly-mate,” from karın “womb.” In Book XXI (as I noted in 2019, though not this time around), one reason why Lycaon hoped for mercy from Achilles was that he and […]

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