On Homer’s Iliad Book V

Tangles of rebar from a building demolition sit, with a backhoe on top, on a narrow street paved with setts
Creative destruction
Arpa Suyu Sokağı, Şişli, Istanbul
Thursday, December 22, 2022

In Book V of the Iliad, the battlefield deaths that started in Book IV continue. Some of them are caused by Diomedes, who also stalks higher prey:

  • Giving him the power to recognize gods, Athena tells him to avoid all of them but Aphrodite, whom he then wounds.
  • When Athena gives him permission and encouragement to attack Ares, Diomedes wounds him too.

In echo of Achilles’s summoning of Thetis in Book I, the wounded gods go crying to their parents.

  • Aphrodite goes to her mother, Dione, who tries to reassure her:
    • “Full many of us that have dwellings on Olympus have suffered at the hands of men, in bringing grievous woes one upon the other” (lines 383–4). For example, Hades had to be healed by Paeëon, after being wounded by Heracles, ὃς οὐκ ὄθετ’ αἴσυλα ῥέζων “who recked not of evil deeds” (line 405).
    • “The heart of Tydeus’ son knoweth not this, that verily he endureth not for long who fighteth with the immortals” (lines 406–7). Dione is wrong here, as far as the Iliad is concerned; for Diomedes will not die in the epic, but will stick around to compete in the games organized by Achilles in memory of Patroclus in Book XXIII.
  • Ares goes to his father, Zeus, whom he blames for encouraging Athena, his daughter, ᾗ τ᾽ αἰὲν ἀήσυλα ἔργα μέμηλεν “whose mind is ever set on deeds of lawlessness” (line 876). Zeus’s response is equivocal.
    • Quit your whining, says Zeus; you are just like your mother.
    • Zeus also summons Paeëon, who causes Ares’s wound to heal as quickly as fig juice curdles milk. The simile is known to cheesemakers today.

The adjectives αἴσυλος and ἀήσυλος used by Dione and Ares respectively are spelled differently, but are presumed to be related. However, they are rare, and the latter one appears nowhere else in all known Greek literature. Here then is a clear case where we can infer meaning only from context.

Book V seems like good evidence for the assertion of Robert Graves that the Greeks

thought of Heaven as ruled by a divine family rather like any rich human family on earth, but immortal and all-powerful; and used to poke fun at them at the same time as offering them sacrifices.

If Book V makes light of the gods, what does it say about humanity, who can kill one another on the battlefield in so many ways?

I quoted more of Robert Graves in writing on Chapman’s version of Book I in 2017.

My write-up from that year of Chapman’s version of Book V is pretty much just a summary. It brings out a couple of points that I hadn’t paid attention to, this time around, when reading Murray’s translation.

  • The Trojans should not have taken to the sea, according to the “oracles of the gods” (θέσφατα, plural of θέσφατον, lines 62–4). This is why Meriones is able to kill Paris’s shipwright. By using the particle γάρ “for,” Homer attributes the skill of Phereclus to the love of Athena:

    Μηριόνης δὲ Φέρεκλον ἐνήρατο, τέκτονος υἱὸν
    Ἁρμονίδεω, ὃς χερσὶν ἐπίστατο δαίδαλα πάντα
    τεύχειν: ἔξοχα γάρ μιν ἐφίλατο Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη.

    And Meriones slew Phereclus, son of Tecton, Harmon’s son, whose hands were skilled to fashion all manner of curious work; for Pallas Athene loved him above all men. (lines 59–61)

    Nonetheless, Athena now supports the Achaeans. The ships built by Phereclus are “sources of ills” (ἀρχέκακοι, plural of ἀρχέκακος, which appears in Homer only here). Thus are inanimate objects blamed for human foolishness. Phereclus is shot through the right buttock, and the spear punctures his bladder. War is an anatomy lesson.

  • Because he feared they would not eat well in Troy, the man who would shoot Menelaus in Book IV left his horses at home (lines 201–3). Back there, his father Lycaon has a “yoke of horses” (δίζυγες ἵπποι, line 195) for each of eleven new “chariots” (δίφροι, plural of δίφρος, “carrying two,” line 193). I don’t know why one has such equipment, if not for warfare; but Pandarus, the softie, has thought best to leave the horses “feeding on white barley and spelt” (κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας, line 196). Thus, when Pandarus teams up with Aeneas, they have to use the latter’s horses. Pandarus could not recognize Athena when she told him to shoot Menelaus. Since the shot didn’t kill, and assuming Pandarus does survive the war, he now wants to have his own head cut off if he does not break and burn his bow (which he had had fashioned from ibex horn, as we heard). He can recognize Diomedes, who must either be a god or have the aid of a god.

Presently Diomedes will be telling Sthenelus that not only should the two of them not avoid Pandarus and Aeneas (who is the son of Aphrodite), but Sthenelus should make sure to capture the horses of Aeneas, because they are offspring of the horses whereby Zeus paid for Ganymede.

I wrote in 2017 that Athena had a rudimentary theory of just war. This was because of Chapman’s interpolation: “Tis true, Mars hath iust rule in warre, / But iust warre.” For Chapman, Athena’s speech in full is as follows:

What then was fit is chang’d: Tis true, Mars hath iust rule in warre,
But iust warre; otherwise he raues, not fights; he’s alterd farre;
He vow’d to Iuno and my selfe, that his aide should be vsd
Against the Troians, whom it guards; and therein he abusd
His rule in armes, infring’d his word, and made his warre vniust:
He is inconstant, impious, mad: Resolue then; firmly trust
My aide of thee against his worst, or any Deitie:
Adde scourge to thy free horse, charge home: he fights perfidiously.

In Murray’s translation, what Athena says is:

Son of Tydeus, Diomedes, dear to my heart, fear thou not Ares for that, neither any other of the immortals; so present a helper am I to thee. Nay, come, at Ares first drive thou thy single-hooved horses, and smite him in close fight, neither have thou awe of furious Ares that raveth here a full-wrought bane, a renegade, that but now spake with me and Hera, and made as though he would fight against the Trojans but give aid to the Argives; yet now he consorteth with the Trojans and hath forgotten these. (lines 826–34)

I think we have not seen Ares making any such promise to Hera and Athena. Early in the book, Athena gets him to sit on the sidelines with her; but then she goes back to war before he does.

At the beginning of the book, Athena gives to Diomedes “might and courage” (μένος καὶ θάρσος, line 2). He then kills Phegeus, although his brother Idaeus is saved by Hephaestus, whose priest their father Dares is. That’s what you can get for being a priest:

  • the death of one son, if you are a pessimist, and the glass is half empty;
  • the salvation of the other one, if you are an optimist, and the glass is half full.

Diomedes takes the brothers’ horses.

Although Athena now (lines 29–36) induces Ares to stay with her out of the fight, she comes back to it when Diomedes prays to her (lines 115–20), after he has become the second Achaean to have his blood drawn by Pandarus. Pandarus will die, because it will be the case that

Athene guided the spear upon his nose beside the eye, and it pierced through his white teeth. So the stubborn bronze shore off his tongue at its root, and the spear-point came out by the base of the chin. (lines 290–3)

In Thelma and Louise, after the women taunt the trucker, blow up his rig, and drive off, Louise asks Thelma, “Where d’you learn to shoot like that?”

Thelma says what I had remembered as “Watchin’ TV,” but now sounds like, “Oh, off the TV!”

That line is not in the “final shooting script” that I found. Not having fired a pistol myself, I still suspect Thelma’s explanation of her skill is not plausible. Louise must have practiced, to be able shoot the truck’s tires. Thelma’s target was easier: the tank the truck was hauling. Maybe TV had taught her that shooting the tank was possible.

The Iliad teaches warfare in that way. It shows you what a weapon can do. Everybody who dies in Book V has been struck in a different part. Antenor’s bastard son Padaeus takes a spear though the tendon that holds the head erect; the root of the tongue is severed, and the “cold bronze” (ψυχρὸς … χαλκός, line 75) comes out between his teeth.

4 Trackbacks

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