On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXIV

One man kills another, legally, according to the laws of war, such as they are. The two sides fight over the body, which might be ransomed, if taken by the killer’s side; however, the body is not so taken. The friend of the slain man kills the killer and takes his body to mutilate, though this be sacrilege.

The father of the newly slain man crosses enemy lines to ransom his son’s body. He puts his lips to the hand of the killer, who agrees to give up the body, even coming to admire the father, who in turn admires him.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-69), Lucretia, 1664, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Such are the emotions of the Iliad. Homer depicts them as terrifically as Rembrandt does those of a woman, Lucretia, about to kill herself in shame for having been raped. One might consider these works as “emotion porn,” where the second element of this phrase denotes

written or visual material that emphasizes the sensuous or sensational aspects of a non-sexual subject, appealing to its audience in a manner likened to the titillating effect of pornography

—in the words of the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, as quoted by Arnold Zwicky in a blog article, “X porn.”

I finish now my project, begun April 14, 2017, of blogging book by book about the Iliad, in Chapman’s translation. I am fortunate to have been able to do this at the beach, south of Mount Ida, in the last days of summer and the first days of autumn; a new semester of teaching mathematics will not begin for a couple more weeks. Meanwhile, though a few mornings here in Altınova have been too cold for sitting outdoors; but this morning is not, and I have seen our resident bat come home for the day.

I have wanted to finish my project, because sooner or later, Emily Wilson, now a MacArthur Fellow, will finish her Iliad translation. I shall want to read that, rather than Chapman’s. There is pleasure in Chapman’s poetry, which takes great liberties with English, thus reminding us that if language is a tool, it is one that we create. However, Chapman may also take liberties with Homer.

In the penultimate book of the Iliad, Achilles buried Patroclus and hosted games in his memory. Still Achilles cannot sleep. He gets up in the night to drag Hector’s body around Patroclus’s sepulcher.

After twelve days of this, Apollo suggests to the other gods that Achilles has mourned long enough (Chapman’s lines 50–54).

Other men, a greater losse then he,
Haue vndergone; a sonne, suppose, or brother of one wombe;
Yet, after dues of woes and teares, they bury in his tombe
All their deplorings. Fates haue giuen, to all that are true men,
True manly patience …

Achilles should just be a man. Instead he has abused Hector’s body, though Apollo has shielded it from damage.

All gods but Juno, Neptune, and Pallas pity Hector. Apollo points out how pious the man has been; should he not be allowed a decent burial, so that his wife, mother, and son may know the value of sacrificing beeves and goats? Instead the gods help Achilles, who himself helps nobody.

Juno has what I would call a racist response to Apollo. With a goddess for a mother, Achilles is one of their own; Hector is not.

No Trojan was so dear to me as Hector was, says Jove; therefore he has been fated to have an honorable burial. His body cannot be stolen for this; it must be ransomed in the customary way.

Jove has Iris fetch Thetis, whom he tells to have her son release Hector’s body.

Visiting Achilles, Thetis suggests that he love a woman as he has loved Patroclus—whose killer’s body he should exchange for ransom.

Achilles agrees; “Ioues pleasure must depriue Men of all pleasures” (lines 147–8).

Jove sends Iris to tell Priam to assemble rich gifts and take them to Achilles.

Ioue hath got
Hermes to guide thee; who as neare, to Thetis sonne as needs,
Shall guard thee: and being once with him; nor his, nor others deeds,
Stand toucht with, he will all containe. Not is he mad, nor vaine,
Nor impious; but with all his nerues, studious to entertaine,
One that submits, with all fit grace …

As Achilles wished to eat Hector raw in Book XXII, so Hecuba wants to devour Achilles’s liver. It makes no sense to her to visit the Greek camp.

Priam assures her that a goddess made the recommendation. How can he know? Here I think we face the “religious paradox,” mentioned in “How to Learn about People.”

As he goes out, Trojans crowd around Priam; he tells them to go home. He abuses his surviving sons as worthless. Hecuba gives him a bowl of wine for sacrifice to Jove; Priam agrees that one must never presume on a god (lines 274–5):

This I refuse not (he replide) for no faith is so great,
In Ioues high fauour; but it must, with held vp hands intreate.

Jove hears the prayer and sends the hoped-for sign of an eagle to the right-hand side.

Though Priam has been told that Hermes will guide him, when he actually encounters the young man whose guise Mercury has taken (lines 316–8),

Confusion strooke the king, cold Feare, extremely quencht his vaines;
Vpright, vpon his languishing head, his haire stood; and the chaines
Of strong Amaze, bound all his powres.

The man claims to be a Myrmidon, the one of seven brothers whose lot it has been to come to Troy with Achilles. He assures Priam that Hector’s body is untouched by dog, fowl, worm, or putrefaction.

Though Priam wants to give him a cup, the young man will not accept a gift that he cannot publicly acknowledge.

At the camp of Achilles, the young man reveals himself to have been Mercury.

Priam enters where Achilles has been feasting, and he kisses the hand of the man who has slain his sons.

Achilles’s companions are in awe, as if Priam were a cursed murderer seeking protection in Achilles’s house.

See in me your father, says Priam to Achilles.

Achilles thinks of his father and of his friend. “Cold mourning wastes but our liues heates” (line 468). Jove has two tuns, of good and evil respectively: what mixture you are given to drink, this determines your life. Peleus had a mixed cup, because of Achilles. So did Priam. One must not mourn the inevitable; therefore let Priam sit.

Priam cannot sit till he has ransomed his son’s body.

Achilles is offended. He knows he must give up Hector’s body; let Priam not tempt him not to.

Priam sits. Automedon and Alcimus take the gifts from Priam’s wagon; women prepare Hector’s body; Achilles lays it on a bed and, with his friends, lifts it into the wagon. He asks Patroclus’s forgiveness.

Then Achilles calls Priam to eat, as Niobe did, after nine days of mourning for her six sons and six daughters, killed respectively by Apollo and Diana, because their mother had thought herself superior to Latona, who had only two offspring, namely the two avenging divinities.

In Book XIX, Achilles would not eat before avenging Patroclus’s death.

Hunger satisfied, Priam admires Achilles, and Achilles Priam (lines 561–6):

Priam sate, amaz’d to see the prime
Of Thetis sonne; accomplisht so, with stature, lookes, and grace;
In which, the fashion of a god, he thought had chang’d his place.
Achilles fell to him as fast; admir’d as much his yeares;
(Told, in his graue, and good aspect;) his speech euen charm’d his eares:
So orderd; so materiall …

Priam says he needs sleep and must go home. Achilles has a bed for him made up outside the tent—not inside, lest a messenger coming from Agamemnon in the night find Priam, and three times the value of what he has already given be needed to ransom himself.

Achilles asks how long the Trojans need for Hector’s funeral; he will hold off the war till the rites are over. Priam says they can fight again, if need be, on the twelfth day. Achilles offers his hand.

Mercury gets Priam up and takes him back to Troy at dawn. Cassandra sees and announces the arrival. Priam tells the townsfolk to make way. Andromache mourns her husband and the guardian of the state; their son will be killed for what his father has done. Hecuba praises the gods for preserving Hector’s body. Helen mourns Hector too; and then funeral rites are performed, though guards are posted. Helen has said of the deceased (lines 687–9),

All brode Troy yeelding me not one; that any humane lawes
Of pitie, or forgiuenesse mou’d, t’entreate me humanely,
But onely thee …

3 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book I « Polytropy on September 29, 2019 at 5:25 am

    […] offers ransom for his daughter. He also utters the wish that the Greeks will conquer Troy. In Book XXIV, when Priam goes to ransom his son’s corpse from Achilles, we shall know how nervous Priam […]

  2. By On Translation « Polytropy on October 6, 2019 at 8:28 am

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

  3. By On Plato’s Republic, 3 « Polytropy on September 5, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    […] for Zeus’s two jars, Achilles refers to them in Book XXIV of the Iliad, when he recommends equanimity to Priam, who has come to petition for the body of […]

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