Monism (Iliad Book XII)

At the end of the first half of the Iliad, as measured by its twenty-four books, the Trojans breech the Achaean defenses, in an assault led by Hector, who smashes through a gate with a stone. Homer describes even the physics involved (lines 457–60):

He came and stood very close and taking a strong wide stance threw
at the middle, leaning into the throw, that the cast might not lack
force, and smashed the hinges at either side, and the stone crashed
ponderously in …

Before this breakthrough, the two sides have been deadlocked, as in two examples from civilian life.

  • In the first example, neighbors are fixing the property line that divides them (lines 421–4):

    but as two men with measuring ropes in their hands fight bitterly
    about a boundary line at the meeting place of two cornfields,
    and the two of them fight in the strait place over the rights of division,
    so the battlements held these armies apart …

    Two cats, one black one white, keep their distance at the head of a stone walkway
    Above Kireçburnu (Κλειδὴς καὶ κλεῖθρα Πόντου, Lock and key of the Pontus)
    Sarıyer, Istanbul, Thursday, February 9, 2023

  • In the second example of deadlock, the Trojans and Achaeans are as balanced as wool and weight in the scales of a spinster who is trying to feed her children (lines 433–5):

    ἀλλ᾽ ἔχον ὥς τε τάλαντα γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής,
    ἥ τε σταθμὸν ἔχουσα καὶ εἴριον ἀμφὶς ἀνέλκει
    ἰσάζουσ᾽, ἵνα παισὶν ἀεικέα μισθὸν ἄρηται.

    I have used “spinster” here in its original sense. Murray has her being “a careful woman that laboureth with her hands at spinning”: this is a literal translation of γυνὴ χερνῆτις ἀληθής, if we leave off “at spinning.” This is Murray’s interpolation, albeit justified by Homer’s ensuing mention of the wool (τὸ εἴριον) that the woman is weighing out. Leaving us to infer not only the spinning, but the laboring at all, while interpolating her marital status, Lattimore has the woman being simply “a careful widow.”

    Carefulness is the attribute that Murray and Lattimore infer from the adjective ἀληθής, but Cunliffe suggests also the translations “not forgetting” or “anxious.” However, the Greek adjective shares the logical meaning of the English “true,” the words being thus opposite to ψευδής and “false.” The true can be the honest, but Liddell and Scott say this meaning is post-Homeric, although one might take careful weighing as a sign of honesty.

    The adjective ἀληθής occurs only once more in the Iliad, in Book VI (line 382), where it has the synonym νημερτής (line 376), used perhaps for the meter:

    εἰ δ᾽ ἄγε μοι δμῳαὶ νημερτέα μυθήσασθε:
    πῇ ἔβη Ἀνδρομάχη λευκώλενος ἐκ μεγάροιο;

    “Come then, tell me truthfully as you may, handmaidens:
    where has Andromachē of the white arms gone?”

    Ἕκτορ ἐπεὶ μάλ᾽ ἄνωγας ἀληθέα μυθήσασθαι,
    οὔτέ πῃ ἐς γαλόων οὔτ᾽ εἰνατέρων ἐϋπέπλων

    “Hektor, since you have urged me to tell you the truth, she is not
    with any of the sisters of her lord or the wives of his brothers …”

    The verb for telling here is from the noun μῦθος from which we get “myth.”

    There is no end to what one can learn by studying Homer’s words; concerning the spinster’s weighing, I note finally that the masculine noun σταθμός means “weight” only here in all of Homer (according to Cunliffe); elsewhere it means a farmhouse with its outbuildings; a doorpost; or a column.

Thus does Homer draw analogies between warfare to peacetime activities. Is this to help explain things to civilians, or to warriors?

In Book XI, there was an analogy with childbirth, and I wondered if this said something about Homer’s intended audience. In 2017, before setting out to read Chapman’s translation of the Iliad and to write about it book by book, I posted an essay that had originated eight years earlier, after a military man had objected when I said my department chair had insulted me as Agamemnon had insulted Achilles. I stand by my essay, “Homer for the Civilian,” though I may have forgotten the passion that produced it.

Today I can add an observation that seems obvious now, although I did not make it explicit, either in that essay or in “Thinking & Feeling” of the previous year, when I looked at analogies in Homer, Greek mathematics, and the teachings of Jesus. Homer encourages comparisons of military and civilian life by making them himself. When the pans of the balance of the spinning woman are even, this must be because a customer is watching. These two humans are contending with one another like the Trojans and Achaeans. If to draw such an analogy is to trivialize war, then that is what Homer is doing.

In “Homer for the Civilian,” I suggested perhaps a less trivializing analogy, between Priam’s meeting with Achilles in Book XXIV and a meeting in Belfast arranged by Desmond Tutu. Let me just add that the meeting is probably the one described in “A Televised Reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” by Ronald A. Wells.

In an example of the even balance at the Achaean wall, Zeus’s own son pulls some of it down, but is met by the resistance of Aias and Teucer. Sarpedon calls for help from his compatriots, who feel obliged to give it (lines 409–14):

Lykians, why do you thus let go of your furious valor?
It is a hard thing for me, strong as I am, to break down
the wall, single-handed, and open a path to the vessels.
Come on with me then. This work is better if many do it.”

So he spoke, and they, awed at the reproach of their leader,
put on the pressure of more weight around their lord of the counsels.

Thus Lattimore’s verse; Murray’s prose version of the last two lines has a different flavor:

So spake he; and they, seized with fear of the rebuke of their king, pressed on the more around about their counsellor and king.

The bolded words represent ὑποδείσαντες ὁμοκλὴν, literally something like “fearing [the] call”; but I think it is open to interpretation whether that call is the one

  • that Sarpedon just gave (Lattimore),
  • that he would give, if the Lycians didn’t heed the first one (Murray).

In any case, Sarpedon practices what he has preached to Glaucus about leadership, in the speech that I quoted at the end of my 2018 account of Book XII. The pleasures and benefits of office must continually be earned. Thus sayeth a man from three thousand years ago, hailing from southwest Anatolia. Today, the ruling party of Anatolia adhere to a religion that teaches a day of judgment, which will be followed by eternal life in heaven or hell. Nonetheless, when it suits them, the rulers also preach fatalism:

“What happens, happens, this is part of fate’s plan,” he told one person in Pazarcık, echoing his statements just months earlier after a deadly mining disaster at a state-run coalmine, where the president blamed “fate’s design”, for an explosion that left at least 41 dead. During a speech in nearby Kahramanmaraş, Erdoğan also lashed out at “provocateurs” who criticised rescue efforts, adding: “Of course, there are shortcomings. The conditions are clear to see. It’s not possible to be ready for a disaster like this.”

(Source: Ruth Michaelson, “‘What happens, happens’: how Erdoğan’s earthquake response tarnished his brand,” The Guardian, Thu 9 Feb 2023 19.44 GMT.) Many people may agree with that last statement, “It’s not possible to be ready for a disaster like this”; however, it is belied by the buildings still standing among those that collapsed in the earthquake.

As for Sarpedon, were it only possible, he would choose eternal life over death on the battlefield. As it is, he too adheres to a kind of fatalism (lines 326–8):

νῦν δ᾽ ἔμπης γὰρ κῆρες ἐφεστᾶσιν θανάτοιο
μυρίαι, ἃς οὐκ ἔστι φυγεῖν βροτὸν οὐδ᾽ ὑπαλύξαι,
ἴομεν ἠέ τῳ εὖχος ὀρέξομεν ἠέ τις ἡμῖν.

but now—for in any case fates of death beset us, fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us.

But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

The bolded words, κῆρες θανάτοιο μυρίαι, are literally “Deaths of death—myriads.” One may understand the myriad deaths

  • like Murray, as abstractions: fates, dooms, perhaps mortalities;
  • like Lattimore, as spirits, the Keres: exterminating angels, angels of death.

The Greek noun is feminine, with singular form κήρ; according to Beekes, the word is not Indo-European and is thus not related to the neuter κῆρ, meaning “heart” and cognate with (or being another form of) the feminines κραδίη and καρδίη.

The death to which Sarpedon refers in the singular is the masculine θάνατος, whose personification will help carry Sarpedon’s lifeless body back to Lycia in Book XVI.

Meanwhile, I imagine Sarpedon’s point is that death is around us like virus particles, against which no precaution is foolproof. Some people use this as a reason or an excuse to do as they please. Sarpedon will seek the only kind of immortality that is available to us, which is glory.

“Glory” represents the neuter noun εὖχος, which like the feminine εὐχή “prayer” comes from the verb εὔχομαι, which has meanings of pray, vow, and boast. In his translation of Plato’s Republic, Allan Bloom has seen fit to list uses of εὐχή (and apparently εὔχομαι) under the heading “prayer” in his Index of Subjects. Thus is suggested a connection between what Socrates tells us at the beginning of Book I—

I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and, at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time

—and what he reports telling Glaucon at the end of Book VII (540d–e):

Do you agree that the things we have said about the city and the regime are not in every way prayers; that they are hard but in a way possible; and that it is possible in no other way than the one stated: when the true philosophers, either one or more, come to power in a city, they will despise the current honors and believe them to be illiberal and worth nothing. Putting what is right and the honors coming from it above all, while taking what is just as the greatest and the most necessary, and serving and fostering it, they will provide for their own city.

I am not prepared to say whether there is an important connection between these two passages, or between Plato and Homer, or within the Iliad, on the subject of praying and vowing and boasting. One may ponder the question; but this pondering becomes more daunting with the knowledge (shared with me by a fellow reader of the Republic) that there is a whole monograph called The meaning of Homeric εὔχομαι through its formulas (1976), by Leonard Muellner. At least this monograph helps me figure out that the Greek verb shares its Indo-European root with the Latin sources of English words such as “vow” and “vote.”

Sarpedon is out for the vote of history, so to speak; but it could be for him or for somebody else. Hector thinks he has been promised Zeus’s vote. At any rate, as recounted in Book XI, Zeus told Hector earlier in the day that he should fight until he reached the ships and the sun went down. Therefore Hector is going to do this, single-mindedly, with no thought for the next day (which Zeus did not discuss) or for anything else.

The moat around the Achaean wall is filled with stakes, which frighten the Trojan horses. Asius drives his horses through anyway, but regrets it when he meets the resistance of Polypoetes and Leontius, sons of Lapith spearmen. For his own bad judgment, Asius blames Zeus, lover of lies (φιλοψευδής, line 164).

Taking initiative before Hector, as Diomedes does in Book IX before Agamemnon, Polydamas has urged an assault on foot. Then a bird (ὄρνις -ιθος, line 200)—an eagle (αἰετός, line 201)—drops the snake that has bitten it. For Polydamas,

eagle : snake :: Trojans : Achaeans;

therefore the Trojans should delay their assault. Hector will have none of it (lines 236–42):

But you: you tell me to put my trust in birds, who spread
wide their wings. I care nothing for these, I think nothing of them,
nor whether they go by on our right against dawn and sunrise
or go by to the left against the glooming mist and the darkness.
No, let us put our trust in the counsel of great Zeus, he who
is lord over all mortal men and all the immortals.
One bird sign is best: to fight in defense of our country.

τύνη δ᾽ οἰωνοῖσι τανυπτερύγεσσι κελεύεις
πείθεσθαι, τῶν οὔ τι μετατρέπομ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἀλεγίζω
εἴτ᾽ ἐπὶ δεξί᾽ ἴωσι πρὸς ἠῶ τ᾽ ἠέλιόν τε,
εἴτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ τοί γε ποτὶ ζόφον ἠερόεντα.
ἡμεῖς δὲ μεγάλοιο Διὸς πειθώμεθα βουλῇ,
ὃς πᾶσι θνητοῖσι καὶ ἀθανάτοισιν ἀνάσσει.
εἷς οἰωνὸς ἄριστος ἀμύνεσθαι περὶ πάτρης.

Lattimore’s “birds” and “bird sign” represent the same word in Greek, οἰωνός. With Murray, if you didn’t check the Greek on the facing page, you could miss the connection completely:

But thou biddest us be obedient to birds long of wing, that I regard not, nor take thought thereof, whether they fare to the right, toward the Dawn and the sun, or to the left toward the murky darkness. nay, for us, let us be obedient to the counsel of great Zeus, that is king over all mortals and immortals. One omen is best, to fight for one’s country.

The last sentence did lead me to check the Greek, because, like “My pronouns are prosecute/Fauci,” the sentence makes no sense in isolation. I don’t suppose it makes any more sense in Greek, if an omen is a prediction rather than a commandment. I think we could just as well put Hector’s words as, “One bird’s best: to defend the fatherland.”

Thus does Hector espouse a kind of puritanical monotheism, his words echoing in those of Abraham Davenport on New England’s Dark Day (May 19, 1780):

The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty.

But then, Davenport was sitting in a meeting, not throwing stones at fortifications with the hope of killing those behind them.

Concerning the location of the photo at the beginning, Wikipedia says (without citing a source) that Kireçburnu was called Kleidai tou Pontou in Byzantine times; according to Dünden Bugüne İstanbul Ansiklopedisi (1994), it was called Kleides kai kleithra Pontou, meaning “Karadeniz’in kilidi”

3 Trackbacks

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    […] such as those of boundary-measuring and wool-weighing, described at the beginning of the post on Book XII. Ferdowsi is not so creative as Homer with these. Here is a case in point, from the translation of […]

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    […] the body of Sarpedon, who was the first man to penetrate the Greek defenses (he became this in Book XII, but I did not remark on it […]

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