On Homer’s Iliad Book VII

Book VII of the Iliad shows us the paradox of men at war who can still work together.

Street scene: a rooster walks down the road while, on his right side, a cat faces him. A minibus, car, and building are in the background, along with some greenery
Cock and cat on a village street
near a stream channelled between concrete walls
Tarabya, Sarıyer, Istanbul
Wednesday, January 11, 2023

We saw cooperating belligerents also in Book III, when the two sides in the Trojan War agreed to let the outcome be decided by a duel between Paris and Menelaus; however, in Book IV, the agreement was broken, when Aphrodite spirited Paris away, and then Pandarus drew the blood of Menelaus with an arrow.

In Book VI, we saw how nominal enemies, Diomedes and Glaucus, could recognize themselves as friends, because their grandfathers had been. At Diomedes’s urging, the two new friends exchanged gifts, namely their armor; but this was bronze and gold respectively, valued at nine oxen and a hundred. According to Lattimore’s note here,

A cynic might read Diomedes’ whole tale as a devious ploy to wrest gold armor from his innocent opponent. Most critics see the episode as a sincere, humane interlude amid mutual slaughter. Either way, Diomedes has benefited from the iron-clad rules of exchange, which ignore asymmetry of gifts.

If I read this when younger, or heard the idea it expresses, it did not leave an impression, perhaps because I could not understand a social obligation to cheat yourself.

As for the notion of a “humane interlude,” the word “humane” is just an alternative spelling of “human” that appeared after 1700. The cynic might call it an attempt to make the good person the true human. However, warriors bent on slaughtering one another are truly human too.

Reluctant to face what they eat, Anglophones use the word “pork” to describe the meat of the animal whom they otherwise call a pig, who may be the most intelligent of those animals whom humans eat regularly, and who is the only animal not domesticated originally for other reasons, such as draft or milk (according to an assertion spotted recently on Mastodon).

Differentiating the humane from the merely human does allow us to avoid such confusion as over who is a gentleman, as discussed in “Biological History.”

As for Diomedes’s tale to Glaucus, it includes the assertion (lines 219–21),

Οἰνεὺς μὲν ζωστῆρα δίδου φοίνικι φαεινόν,
Βελλεροφόντης δὲ χρύσεον δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον
καί μιν ἐγὼ κατέλειπον ἰὼν ἐν δώμασ᾽ ἐμοῖσι.

Oineus gave his guest a war belt bright with the red dye,
Bellerophontes a golden and double-handled drinking-cup,
a thing I left behind in my house when I came on my journey.

The red dye is ὁ φοῖνιξ ικος, apparently after the Phoenicians, but I cannot tell whether the dye was Tyrian purple. It is what the blood of Menelaus looked like in Book IV (line 141), after Pandarus shot him. Could the scarlet belt given by Diomedes’s grandfather be equal in exchange value to the big gold cup given by Glaucus’s grandfather? For what it is worth, I don’t get the feeling that Diomedes is making things up. If the unequal exchange on the battlefield is supposed to tell us something, perhaps it is simply that Glaucus did get softened up by being invited to tell his own story.

Book VII combines the incidents of Books III, IV, and VI.

  • There is an actual duel, which could be to the death.
  • Blood is drawn, albeit this time on the Trojan side.
  • The combatants make friends and exchange gifts.

Indeed, Hector tells Aias (lines 299–302),

“Come then, let us give each other glorious presents,
so that any of the Achaians or Trojans may say of us:
‘These two fought each other in heart-consuming hate, then
joined with each other in close friendship, before they were parted.’”

Then Homer tells in his own voice (lines 303–5),

ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας δῶκε ξίφος ἀργυρόηλον
σὺν κολεῷ τε φέρων καὶ ἐϋτμήτῳ τελαμῶνι:
Αἴας δὲ ζωστῆρα δίδου φοίνικι φαεινόν.

So he spoke, and bringing a sword with nails of silver
gave it to him, together with the sheath and the well-cut sword belt,
and Aias gave a war belt colored shining with purple.

In Greek, after the first three syllables, that last line is the same as the one Homer used in Book VI (line 219) to let Diomedes tell what Oeneus had given Bellerophon.

Back at camp, Nestor advises the Achaeans to gather and burn their dead. In Troy, Priam decides to propose a ceasefire for that very purpose, and the Achaeans go on to accept it.

Before Priam makes his decision, Antenor recommends that the Trojans simply return Helen and her treasure to the sons of Atreus—that’s “sons” in plural, Agamemnon as well as Helen’s old husband Menelaus. Paris agrees to return the treasure, but not the woman. When Idaeus visits the Greek camp with the ceasefire proposal, he offers the treasure, saying the Trojans want to offer Helen as well, but Paris will not allow it. After a silence, Diomedes rejects the treasure. Agamemnon confirms this rejection, but accepts the ceasefire.

I wrote a more thorough summary in September, 2017. I mused on the general idea of summarizing and “memorizing,” that is, remembering. In December, 2020, I added some remarks about the automatic as being not mindless, but self-minded, etymologically speaking. I elaborated further in “Automatia.” The Greek root of “automat-” does not actually occur in Book VII, but the “-mat-” part does, in lines 159–60, after Nestor has explained how a younger he would take up Hector’s offer of a duel; according to Murray and Lattimore, Nestor goes on to say,

Whereas ye that are chieftains of the whole host of the Achaeans, even ye are not minded with a ready heart to meet Hector face to face.

But you, now, who are the bravest of all the Achaians,
are not minded with a good will to go against Hektor.

As I said in those earlier posts, I think the Greek is more literally

Even those who are best of all you Greeks, those who have heart in front: you are not minded to face Hector.

Meanwhile, after the duel of Book III, general hostilities did not have to recommence in Book IV, just because Pandarus had wounded Menelaus; however (lines 220–5),

While they were working over Menelaos of the great war cry
all this time came on the ranks of the armored Trojans.
The Achaians again put on their armor, and remembered their warcraft.

Then you would not have seen brilliant Agamemnon asleep nor
skulking aside, nor in any way a reluctant fighter,
but driving eagerly toward the fighting where men win glory.

It sounds as if the Trojans broke the truce. They could have arrested Pandarus and offered him up to the Achaeans for the sake of peace. But then, did the Achaeans give the Trojans the opportunity to do this? Maybe they had all the opportunity they needed.

Lattimore’s phrase, “and remembered their warcraft,” is based on μνήσαντο δὲ χάρμης, which Murray renders as “and bethought them of war.”

  • The first word of the Greek is a form of the verb μιμνήσκω, which is cognate with the “-mat-” mentioned above.
  • As for the last word of the Greek, neither translation captures the etymological sense of ἡ χάρμη, which derives from χαίρω “rejoice.” The Greek noun alone need not retain the sense of the verb; but the sense is there in the ensuing verses. Agamemnon seems happy for the chance of marshalling his troops.

By the way, etymologically speaking, χάιρω happens to give us the first component of “chervil,” from the word coined in Latin as chaerephylon, as if there had been a Greek word τὸ χαιρέφυλλον, though it seems such a word is unattested. Natural cognates in English of χαίρη include the verb “to yearn” and the noun “greed.” The American Heritage Dictionary lists all of these words under the sixth of seven Indo-European roots, all spelled *gher-; I don’t know how etymologists distinguish them.

In Book VII, the old duel of Paris and Menelaus is forgotten. Hector offers another one, believing what his brother Helenus has told him, that he is not fated to die. Thus Hector sees a chance for glory. This seems to be his only reason for offering the duel; however, Helenus is said to have understood the purpose of Apollo and Athena, that all of the other warriors should have a rest.

At the end of Book VI, back in Troy, Paris has taken his time to get ready for battle. Trying to be the good older brother, Hector looks for the right balance of

  • praising Paris’s fighting ability,
  • blaming his laziness or timidity.

When the brothers do come out of the city to fight, this itself offers relief to the Trojans, as is explained in an analogy corresponding to the proverb, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”

The analogy and the proverb are expressions of the “just world hypothesis” mentioned in the long previous post, “Biological History.” I looked at several works of Somerset Maugham in that post, and I seem to have learned from him the proverb about tempering wind. The character of Elliott Templeton uses it in The Razor’s Edge, by way of explaining how he survived the Wall Street Crash of October, 1929. Here is Maugham’s account in the novel.

I was in London then and at first we in England did not realize how grave the situation was nor how distressing its results would be. For my own part though chagrined at losing a considerable sum, it was for the most part paper profits that I lost, and when the dust had settled I found myself little the poorer in cash. I knew that Elliott had been gambling heavily and feared that he was badly hit, but I did not see him till we both returned to the Riviera for Christmas. He told me then that Henry Maturin was dead and Gray ruined.

“And what about you, Elliott?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m not complaining,” he answered airily. “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.”

I did not question him further, for his financial affairs were no business of mine, but whatever his losses were I presumed that like the rest of us he had suffered.

He hadn’t suffered, because he was a Catholic convert, and:

“I don’t think I ever told you that I spent September of ’29 in Rome. I thought it a bore having to go because of course Rome is empty then, but it was fortunate for me that my sense of duty prevailed over my desire for worldly pleasures. My friends at the Vatican told me that the crash was coming and strongly advised me to sell all my American securities.”

Back in the Iliad, here is how Book VI ends and VII begins (in lines 526–9 and 1–7 respectively):

“Let us go now; some day hereafter we will make all right
with the immortal gods in the sky, if Zeus ever grant it,
setting up to them in our houses the wine-bowl of liberty
after we have driven out of Troy the strong-greaved Achaians.”

So speaking Hektor the glorious swept on through the gates,
and with him went Alexandros his brother, both of them minded
in their hearts to do battle and take their part in the fighting.
And as to men of the sea in their supplication the god sends
a fair wind, when they are breaking their strength at the smoothed oar-sweeps,
driving over the sea, and their arms are weak with weariness,
so these two appeared to the Trojans, who had longed for them.

Lattimore’s phrase here, “both of them minded / in their hearts,” is reminiscent of his “minded with a good will” quoted above (from line 160 of Book VII), translating Homer’s προφρονέως μέματε. However, Homer now has θυμῷ / ἀμφότεροι μέμασαν, with θυμός in place of φρήν. Here is Murray’s version of the transition from Book VI to Book VII:

“But let us go our way; these things we will make good hereafter, if so be Zeus shall grant us to set for the heavenly gods that are for ever a bowl of deliverance in our halls, when we have driven forth from the land of Troy the well-greaved Achaeans.”

So saying, glorious Hector hastened forth from the gates, and with him went his brother Alexander; and in their hearts were both eager for war and battle. And as a god giveth to longing seamen a fair wind when they have grown weary of beating the sea with polished oars of fir, and with weariness are their limbs fordone; even so appeared these twain to the longing Trojans.

If God didn’t temper the wind to the shorn lamb, the poor thing would catch cold, die, and be unable to tell the tale. The gods always provide relief to those who are on the edge of death; at least, we can never hear a first-hand account of the alternative.

I don’t recall when I first read “Footprints in the Sand,” about how the track of your life shows two pairs of footprints, except at the worst times, when your companion has been carrying you. “Bullshit, Jesus,” says an alternative opinion in the Onion (October 14, 1998): “Those Are Obviously My Footprints.” Sometimes Homer gives reason for that opinion, as in Book V (lines 49–58), where the role of Jesus is played by Artemis, and

Scamandrius, son of Strophius, cunning in the chase, did Atreus’ son Menelaus slay with his sharp spear, even him the mighty hunter; for Artemis herself had taught him to smite all wild things that the mountain forest nurtureth. Yet in no wise did the archer Artemis avail him now, neither all that skill in archery wherein of old he excelled.

6 Trackbacks

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