The Asıl of the Iliad

Etymologically speaking, the asıl of a thing is its root. The Arabic root of the Turkish word means bitki kökü, “vegetable root,” according to Sevan Nişanyan’s Turkish etymological dictionary.

In the Iliad, why is Achilles so affronted by Agamemnon as to refuse to help the Greeks, even as their attack on Troy is becoming a defensive war, at the wall that they have erected about their own ships? If the answer is to be found through study, then Book IX of the Iliad is what to study.

One also needs imagination. Must it be based on battlefield experience, or on having any kind of ability that others take for granted? Perhaps not, by the account of Chuang Tzu; but I have already talked about that in my original post on the next book, Book X.

Book IX is all talk and no action, if one thinks talk is not action. One might try to infer the gist of the talk from the rest of the Iliad. For all I know, Homer interpolated the talk in an earlier legend, as Evangeline Walton made the interpolation in the Mabinogion that I discussed in “Return to Narnia.”

The talk in Book IX of the Iliad goes something like this.


We’re losing. Let’s go home.


You may be king, but you’re crazy.


Call a feast for the elders, Agamemnon, and listen to the wisest counsel.

The feast is called.


You dishonored our best by taking his prize. Make amends.


I’ll give him stuff. I’ll give back his woman and swear I didn’t sleep with her. I’ll give him six more women besides. But let him yield to me, as being older and more kingly. Because Hades is unyielding, everybody hates him.


Send Phoenix to Achilles ahead of Ajax and Odysseus.


Welcome, friends!

Achilles puts aside the lyre he has been singing to and calls for drinks and a feast. He himself cuts up the carcasses to be roasted.

Ajax nods to Phoenix. Odysseus notices.


We need you, Achilles. Agamemnon will give you a lot of stuff. He will give back your woman and swear he didn’t sleep with her.


Let Agamemnon keep my wife. Didn’t we come here to fight for his brother’s wife? Look how much Agamemnon has already done without me, by building a wall and digging a ditch. Not all the wealth that Troy ever had is worth life itself. My mother says I can choose between living on in memory or reality. I choose the latter.


I raised you, Son, after my own father cursed me, and your father Peleus took me in. The gods and the warriors of old could be plied with gifts; you be the same, not like Meleager, who came to the aid of his compatriots only after what they could give him had been destroyed.


Zeus honors me, just by letting me live.


Families accept blood-money for a slain brother or son; you will not take seven girls, even including the one that was taken from you in the first place!


You’re right.

ἀλλά μοι οἰδάνεται κραδίη χόλῳ ὁππότε κείνων
μνήσομαι ὥς μ᾽ ἀσύφηλον ἐν Ἀργείοισιν ἔρεξεν
Ἀτρεΐδης ὡς εἴ τιν᾽ ἀτίμητον μετανάστην.

That seems to be the key passage. Here are some translations, from newest to oldest.

Alexander (2015).

But my heart swells with rage when I recall those things—
how in the presence of the Argives he degraded me,
the son of Atreus, as if I were some worthless vagabond.

Lattimore (1951).

Yet still the heart in me swells up in anger, when I remember
the disgrace that he wrought upon me before the Argives,
the son of Atreus, as if I were some dishonoured vagabond.

Murray (1924).

But my heart swelleth with wrath whenso I think of this, how the son of Atreus hath wrought indignity upon me amid the Argives, as though I were some alien that had no rights.

Butler (1898).

But my blood boils when I think it all over, and remember how the son of Atreus treated me with contumely as though I were some vile tramp, and that too in the presence of the Argives.

Pope (1715).

Well hast thou spoke; but at the tyrant’s name
My rage rekindles and my soul’s on flame;
’Tis just resentment, and becomes the brave;
Disgraced, dishonoured, like the vilest slave!

Chapman (1611)

But still as often as I thinke, how rudely I was vsd,
And like a stranger for all rites, fit for our good, refusd:
My heart doth swell against the man, that durst be so profane
To violate his sacred place: not for my priuate bane;
But since wrackt vertues generall lawes, he shamelesse did infringe:
For whose sake I will loose the reines, and giue mine anger swinge,
Without my wisedomes least impeach. He is a foole, and base,
That pitties vice-plagu’d minds, when paine, not loue of right giues place.

For Alexander, Lattimore, and Butler, what enrages Achilles is being treated like somebody whom he himself might have contempt for. Achilles then is like the college friend whom I recalled in “All You Need Is Love”: he was white, and read National Review, and was offended at the suggestion that his girlfriend’s name sounded black.

For Murray, Pope, and Chapman, what disturbs Achilles is the injustice of his treatment. Chapman embellishes the thought here; but he may be the most faithful to Homer’s meaning. At any rate, he has a meaning; other translators are working more mechanically, more “automatically.”

If two university professors appear on television, and only one of them is labelled as a professor, it means no disrespect to non-professors to object to the unequal treatment. Debbie Cameron took up the issue recently in language: a feminist guide.

The interpretation of Achilles’s words hinges on the adverbial clause, ὡς εἴ τιν᾽ ἀτίμητον μετανάστην, “as if [I were] some dishonored alien.” Here I have used Murray’s word “alien,” but we have to investigate this choice for μετανάστης, along with “dishonored” for ἀτίμητος.

Even the Greeks themselves lost track of the etymological sense of μετανάστης. According to Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (2010), the word occurs in Homer only in the phrase ἀτίμητον μετανάστην, as here. Herodotus and contemporaries

already understood the word as ‘wanderer’, and connected it (as μετ-ανά-στη-ς) with μετ-ανα-στῆ-ναι ‘to move, emigrate’, μετανάστασις ‘removal, emigration.’

Thus Herodotus has Athenians describe themselves as being people (VII.162),

μοῦνοι δὲ ἐόντες οὐ μετανάσται Ἑλλήνων

who alone among the Greeks have never changed our place of habitation.

In other words, the Athenians are not settlers who have ever lacked the rights of a native population. They are not the “outlanders” described in the note of Benner, Selections from Homer’s Iliad (1904), on μετανάστην in our passage (Iliad IX.648):

The South African Uitlander (outlander) affords a suggestive modern instance of the prejudice against the intruding foreigner.

Beekes thinks the presumed etymology of Herodotus wrong, but that the word is better analyzed as μετα-νάσ-της, coming from an unattested compound *μετα-ναίω.

By itself, ναίω means “to live, inhabit,” and (by Beekes’s account) is possibly connected with ναός “temple, house of a god, sanctuary.” Cunliffe has the same analysis of μετα-νάσ-της in A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1963/1924), but reads the μετά as indicating change, rather than being among. this would seem to give the word the same interpretation as Herodotus’s.

At any rate, words like “vagabond” and “tramp” suggest isolated rootless individuals. I may be rootless for having moved across an ocean; but that was twenty years ago. Now, in what seems likely to be the sense of Achilles, I live among the citizens of Turkey, without sharing all of their rights.

Such an interpretation of Achilles’s word may be reinforced by the modifier, ἀτίμητος. The form of the word suggests the meaning, “not capable of receiving τιμή”; but what then is τιμή? A standard translation is “honor,” but the root sense may be of value or price, and Cunliffe gives the meaning of ἀτίμητος as

Despised; or perh., to whose life no blood-money is attached, whom anyone may slay with impunity.

This is plausible, given what Ajax has been saying about accepting blood-money. His argument does not work for Achilles, against whom Agamemnon has committed a crime worse than murder. A slain man still has rights, but Achilles has none that Agamemnon feels bound to respect.

I have adapted some of the foregoing from recent additions made to my earlier article on Book IX of the Iliad; but there are more additions that I have not used here. I want to recall what may be another mundane example of the kind of disrespect shown to Achilles. I’m remembering this from a recorded address broadcast by WPFW in Washington in the 1990s. A firm hired a man to do German translation, but when he came to the office, and the secretary found out he was black, she told her boss later that she didn’t want him around. The boss asked the translator to work from home, and offered him more money. That’s Agamemnon’s idea, that everything can be taken care of with money.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Loneliness (Iliad Book IX) « Polytropy on January 24, 2023 at 7:50 am

    […] translation, because it is in verses corresponding to Homer’s; but as I observed in “The Asıl of the Iliad” and in additions to the original post “On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book IX,” Murray’s […]

  2. By Verity (Iliad Book X) « Polytropy on February 1, 2023 at 6:42 am

    […] main exception is Book IX. I have said this book contains “The Asıl of the Iliad,” but Jaynes cites Walter Leaf for the idea that the book is a late addition to the epic. In A […]

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