Femininity (Iliad Book XIV)

An editor of the Iliad might remove Book XIII, as I said last time; however, the book has

  • its own intrinsic interest, in its portrait of the two brothers, Hector and Paris;
  • a function in Homer’s main story, by showing that Achilles’s labor strike can fail.

The strike can fail through the prowess of scabs. Poseidon encourages crossing the picket line. In Book XIV,

  • Agamemnon worries that not enough men are crossing the line;
  • Hera uses her feminine wiles against the virility of her husband;
  • her brother can now pursue strike-breaking more openly.

A crow behind him, a helmeted man sits on motorcycle contemplating his mobile while the Bosphorus, and Asia beyond, is to his left At the edge of the Bosphorus, a woman squats to photograph a gull with her mobile

Yeniköy (Νεοχώριον), Sarıyer, Istanbul
Tuesday afternoon, February 21, 2023

I have held back from comparing the Iliad with the Shahnameh, which I am also currently reading (in a Catherine Project group). I have three English translations of the Persian epic, but they all leave out parts. The Shahnameh differs from the Greek epic by

  • being longer,
  • covering many generations,
  • lacking realism.

Yes, I say the Iliad somehow is more realistic than the Shahnameh, even though

  • several deities are characters in the Iliad;
  • there is only one god in the Shahnameh, and he makes no appearance.

Homer’s realism lies not just in the similes, 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 Dick Davis (Penguin, 2016; page 545):

For his part Bahman drew up his battle lines, and the shining sun could no longer see the ground. The mountains rang with the squeal of trumpets and the clanging of Indian bells. The sky seemed to soak the world in pitch, arrows rained down from the clouds like dew, and the earth seemed to shudder with the din of battleaxe blows, the humming of released bowstrings. For three days and nights, by sunlight and moonlight, maces and arrows rained down and the sky was filled with clouds of dust. On the fourth day a wind sprang up, and it was as if day had turned to night: the wind blew against Faramarz and his troops, and king Bahman rejoiced to see this.

That’s a nice try, but look what Homer does in Book XIV (lines 389–401):

Then verily were strained the cords of war’s most dreadful strife by dark-haired Poseidon and glorious Hector, bearing aid the one to the Trojans, the other to the Argives. And the sea surged up to the huts and ships of the Argives, and the two sides clashed with a mighty din. Not so loudly bellows the wave of the sea upon the shore, driven up from the deep by the dread blast of the North Wind, nor so loud is the roar of blazing fire in the glades of a mountain when it leapeth to burn the forest, nor doth the wind shriek so loud amid the high crests of the oaks—the wind that roareth the loudest in its rage—as then was the cry of Trojans and Achaeans, shouting in terrible wise as they leapt upon each other.

The poets also tell us what happens up close. Here is Ferdowsi with a particularly horrifying example (page 546).

With a few remaining warriors, his body covered in sword wounds, Faramarz fought on, for he was a lion fighter, descended from a race of lions. Finally, the long arm of Bahman’s might caught him, and he was dragged before the king. Bahman glared at him in fury, and denied him all mercy. While still alive, Faramarz’s body was hoisted upside down on a gibbet; and Bahman gave orders that he be killed in a storm of arrows.

That’s a pedestrian effort next to Homer’s (lines 493–500):

Howbeit Peneleos thrust and smote Ilioneus, son of Phorbas, rich in herds, whom Hermes loved above all the Trojans and gave him wealth, and to him the mother bare Ilioneus, an only child. Him then did Peneleos smite beneath the brow at the roots of the eyes, and drave out the eyeball, and the shaft went clean through the eye and through the nape of the neck, and he sank down stretching out both his hands. But Peneleos drawing his sharp sword let drive full upon his neck, and smote off to the the ground the head with the helmet, and still the mighty spear stood in the eye, and holding it on high like a poppy-head he shewed it to the Trojans, and spake a word exultingly …

At the beginning of the book, there is an image less gory. Nestor has been drinking wine with the wounded son of Asclepius, namely Machaon; but then he hears the din of war grow louder. Going out to investigate, he picks up a spear and a shield, but not just any shield: he takes his son’s, because Thrasymedes has taken his father’s.

Why did the boy take his dad’s equipment? Homer leaves us to find our own answer. Mine is, Father’s shield being better than his own, Thrasymedes wanted to show it off. We already know it’s jolly good. Indeed, Hector lusted after it yesterday, in Book VIII: after pointing out that Andromache gave food and even wine to them before she did to her own husband, that husband tells his horses (lines 191–3),

Nay, haste ye in pursuit, that we may take the shield of Nestor, the fame whereof now reacheth unto heaven, that is all of gold, the rods alike and the shield itself.

In the Achaean camp that night, in Book X (lines 255–9), when Diomedes was setting out with Odysseus to spy on the Trojans, Thrasymedes lent him a sword, shield, and helmet. If the shield was

  • Nestor’s, why did Thrasymedes have it then?
  • Thrasymedes’s, it must have been returned; so why has Thrasymedes got his father’s shield now?

I’ll stick with my explanation: he likes it better than his own. I think this became a cliché in postwar suburban America. I am not prepared with a specific example, as I was for Book IX, where I likened the loneliness of Achilles to that of a girl in a 1978 episode of Family. I can imagine another television program, perhaps Father Knows Best, in which a son has his own rattletrap, but borrows his father’s car for a date.

So Nestor takes his son’s shield and wonders whether

  • to join the fray,
  • to seek out Agamemnon.

Deciding on the latter, Nestor finds the commander in chief with two other wounded men, Odysseus and Diomedes. We are reminded that, in Book VIII (lines 173–84, just before he talked to his horses), Hector vowed to kill the Achaeans and burn their ships. Agamemnon fears this will now be accomplished, not simply because Achilles is not fighting, but because others have joined his strike.

In Book XI, when Nestor suggested that Patroclus might fight in Achilles’s armor, he intended that the Myrmidons would fight too. Thus presumably they have not been fighting; but I don’t think it has been so clear, till now, that others too are not fighting. We did see in Book II how readily the Achaeans started making for home, once Agamemnon had suggested it to them in a test of their fighting spirit.

Nestor now proposes, not to fight (because his companions are wounded), but to think (lines 61–3):

ἡμεῖς δὲ φραζώμεθ᾽ ὅπως ἔσται τάδε ἔργα
εἴ τι νόος ῥέξει: πόλεμον δ᾽ οὐκ ἄμμε κελεύω
δύμεναι: οὐ γάρ πως βεβλημένον ἐστὶ μάχεσθαι.

We then must take thought together how these things shall be done
if wit can do anything for us now. I think that we must not
enter the fight; a man cannot fight on when he is wounded.

The verb for taking thought here is φράζομαι, which is of unknown origin, but through Latin is the ancestor of our “phrase.” As for the doing anything, ῥέζω, it is cognate with our “work.”

Agamemnon proposes to float the ships nearest the water, the easier to set sail with all of the ships tonight (line 80):

οὐ γάρ τις νέμεσις φυγέειν κακόν, οὐδ᾽ ἀνὰ νύκτα.

For in sooth I count it not shame to flee from ruin, nay, not though it be by night.

Perhaps remembering Agamemnon’s foolish experiment in Book II, Odysseus calls him an idiot now. If the men see ships in the water, they will stop fighting again.

Agamemnon says he wasn’t going to make anybody launch a ship; but young or old, who can give better advice?

Diomedes speaks up, acknowledging his youth, while boasting of his noble lineage. He proposes at least to encourage others in their fighting, even those who aren’t doing it now. Thus he confirms that Achilles’s strike has support.

Off the men go. In the guise of an old man, Poseidon takes the hand of Agamemnon and tells him the gods are on his side. Then Poseidon shouts as loudly as nine or ten thousand warriors: should we understand this to symbolize the encouraging effect of the sight of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus, and Diomedes?

Comic Relief

I suggested that, as Thrasymedes had taken his father’s shield, so a boy in postwar suburban America could have taken his father’s car. The house where that happened could serve as the locus of such a seduction as Hera now works on Zeus.

From the Wikipedia article on the cliché, I learn words attributed to Gérard de Nerval (1808–55; see note 1):

Le premier qui compara la femme à une rose était un poète, le second un imbécile.

As for the power of a woman to manipulate a man with her sex appeal, as far as I know, Homer was first to put it writing. Now it is a cliché, taken up for example in an online magazine called Independent Femme (see note 2):

Seduction, deception, manipulation—men can call it whatever they want, but for me, I consider feminine wiles a powerful art … The capability of unleashing one’s feminine wiles is inherent in every woman by virtue of our femininity … even if most women don’t know the exact term, I believe that deep down, they already know this mysterious power that women have over men.

The use may be through a lot of different ways. Just think about the women in the Greek play Lysistrata or Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand ships; can we not say that even they used their feminine wiles at some extent?

Perhaps the writer meant little by mentioning Lysistrata and Helen. I don’t know what one sees in the TV miniseries about Helen, but in Book III of the Iliad, while we see power of her looks, we get no account of any conscious use of them (lines 154–60):

Now when they saw Helen coming upon the wall, softly they spake winged words one to another: “Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans should for such a woman long time suffer woes; wondrously like is she to the immortal goddesses to look upon. But even so, for all that she is such an one, let her depart upon the ships, neither be left here to be a bane to us and to our children after us.”

In Book XIV though, we see Hera set out deliberately to draw her husband’s attention from the battlefield to her looks—and to her smell. She

  • cleans her body with ambrosia,
  • anoints it with ambrosial oil,
  • plaits her ambrosial tresses,
  • dons an ambrosial robe.

Like feminine wiles themselves, ambrosia has many uses. The noun ἡ ἀμβροσίη is

  • the feminine form of the adjective ἀμβρόσιος η ον, meaning sweet-smelling;
  • not used in the Iliad for the food of the gods;
  • used in Book V (line 777) for the fodder given on earth, by the River Simoïs, to the divine horses that have carried down
    • Hera, who chides the Argives for not having held off the Trojans;
    • Athena, who gives Diomedes her support.

Ambrosia will not be enough for Hera. She secures the aid of her husband’s daughter, who gives her a magic strap. Perhaps this functions like a wonderbra, since Aphrodite tells Hera to put it in her bosom. However, because the Love Goddess supports the Trojans in the war, Hera has lied to her, saying she wants to patch up the quarrel of her foster-parents, Oceanus and Tethys.

The magic strap will not be enough for Hera’s actual purpose. She goes to Lemnos to secure a sleeping aid. The aid is Sleep himself, Hypnos, who initially declines to get involved, because of how he was punished after putting Zeus to sleep so that Hera could waylay his son Heracles as he returned from sacking Troy. Heracles’s son Tlepolemus taunts Sarpedon with the story of the sacking in Book V (lines 638–51). Only Night then, Nyx, could save Sleep from oblivion. The offer of a throne made by Hera’s son Hephaestus cannot secure the aid of Sleep now. The Grace whom he has had his eye on, Pasithea, will do the trick, and somehow Hera is in a position to offer her.

Sleep accompanies Hera to Ida, where he hides from Zeus at the top of a tall fir tree, in the form of a bird called (line 291)

This is the only use of those words in Homer, and we do not know what bird they refer to. However, Plato has Socrates discuss the passage in the Cratylus. (See note 3.)

Hera now faces her husband, and her first trick is obsequiousness. She tells him she didn’t want to visit her foster parents without letting him know.

Zeus is aroused. His seduction method is to say that, of all of the goddesses and women he has had, he has never desired one more than Hera. Some men wish this method would work for them. Jessica Wildfire talks about them in “Incels at The End of The World”:

No, women aren’t responsible for the emotional distress of lonely young men.

But the emotions are valid.

A lot of young men out there feel an intense sense of isolation and hopelessness.

What they need to understand is,

If finding a beautiful woman and banging her brains out for years was enough, then we wouldn’t keep reading about all these celebrities who destroy their families and relationships …

This is what happens when the most powerful country on earth spends five decades promoting consumerism and teaching their citizens that everything and everyone is replaceable and disposable—and that meanwhile everyone can have everything they want if they just “work hard enough.”

The advice of Epictetus in the Enchiridion (chapter 2) is,

destroy desire completely for the present. For if you desire anything which is not in our power, you must be unfortunate: but of the things in our power, and which it would be good to desire, nothing yet is before you.

Jessica Wildfire’s advice is different and perhaps better:

We have to be okay with wanting things, and not getting them. We also have to acknowledge that sometimes we only think we want something.

Maybe you can live with your desire without either destroying it or letting it destroy you.

Hera’s next trick is to play hard to get. She cannot make love, right there on a mountaintop; what would the other gods think? It would be shameful—νεμεσσητός, properly something that would provoke retribution, that is, νέμεσις, which Agamemnon said would not be the result of fleeing by night from ruin.

Zeus’s trick in response is to produce a magic cloud of invisibility.

Back to War

Now Sleep can go tell Poseidon that the coast is clear. The Earth-Shaker suggests to the Achaeans that they do not need Achilles. The din of battle rises, louder than sea, fire, or wind, in the similes quoted above. Hector throws at Aias, but the spear hits where two baldrics cross. Baldric is τελαμών, which is also the name of this Aias’s father. Hector is protected by the best of men, Polydamas, Aeneas, Agenor, Sarpedon, and Glaucus; still, Telamonian Aias is able to put him out of commission with a stone. The Argives are now encouraged:

  • Aias son of Oïleus wounds Satnius.
  • Polydamas protects Satnius from further harm, strikes Prothoënor, and exults.
  • Telamonian Aias
    • throws at Polydamas, but hits Archelochus, son of Antenor;
    • pretends to have to guess at who his victim is, though he knows full well;
    • says the victim is requital for Prothoënor.
  • Prothoënor is brother of Acamas, who takes vengeance by killing Promachus, who had been trying to drag off Prothoënor’s body.
  • This is why a man wants kin, says Acamas, who now avoids the attack of Peneleos, who instead kills Ilioneus in the gruesome fashion quoted above.

Homer lists a few more killings of Trojans, but ends up just saying that most are due to the son of Oïleus.

Stone wall next to iron gate with two Byzantine cross-crosslets. Sign on wall is engraved with words in Greek and Turkish: “ΟΡΘΟΔΟΞΟΝ ΝΕΚΡΟΤΑΦΕΙΟΝ / ΝΕΟΧΩΡΙΟΥ / YENİKÖY RUM / MEZARLIĞI”
Greek Orthodox Cemetery of Neochorion
February 21, 2023


  1. I am not sure we can trust the attribution to Nerval of the saying, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.” A page of a French site called Dicocitations traces the quotation to Vocabulaire esthétique (1946) by Roger Caillois; but then another page of the same site features a quotation that attributes a similar quotation to Voltaire (although an otiose guillemet confuses things):

    Voltaire a dit : « Le premier qui a comparé une femme « à une rose était un poète, le second était un imbécile. ».

    In any case, I have liked Nerval’s poem “Vers dorés” since reading it in college:

    HOMME, libre penseur ! te crois-tu seul pensant        
      Dans ce monde où la vie éclate en toute chose ?
    Des forces que tu tiens ta liberté dispose,
    Mais de tous tes conseils l’univers est absent.
        Respecte dans la bête un esprit agissant :
    Chaque fleur est une âme à la Nature éclose ;
    Un mystère d’amour dans le métal repose ;
    « Tout est sensible ! » Et tout sur ton être est puissant.
        Crains, dans le mur aveugle, un regard qui t’épie :
    À la matière même un verbe est attaché…
    Ne le fais pas servir à quelque usage impie !
        Souvent dans l’être obscur habite un Dieu caché ;
    Et comme un œil naissant couvert par ses paupières,
    Un pur esprit s’accroît sous l’écorce des pierres !

    Except in the guillemets, I am following the typography of The Oxford Book of French Verse (1908), which does not include the epigraph attributed to Pythagoras,

    Eh quoi ! tout est sensible !

    I do not recall hearing that Pythagoras also had a work called “Golden Verses”; but neither do I find Nerval’s epigraph there. In college, because it has us being constantly under surveillance, I compared Nerval’s poem with “No Attachment to Dust,” the 77th of the 101 Zen Stories:

    Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.


  2. I suspect that the writing of Independent Femme aims to keep a reader focused on a webpage, without getting so lost in thought that her eyes will avoid the advertisements. You learn to write that way for the TOEFL, where you need to produce a lot of syllables quickly. Except that his concern was “political speech and writing,” which “are largely the defence of the indefensible,” Orwell could have taken up the verbal padding of Independent Femme in “Politics and the English Language”:

    The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.

    The article in Independent Femme is called “Feminine Wiles—When And When Not To Use Them.” The title is given thus, in “start case,” which is easier to automate than title case. The article itself is attributed to a “Dating Senior Writer” called Erin Lane, which is probably a pseudonym, since, with the help of TinEye, I find that her photo is used also for

    • the Twitter account (with seven followers) and the Medium account (with two followers) of somebody called Shira Winget,
    • the dress code page of the website of an Alabama establishment called Big Fish Restaurant (I had to use the Internet Archive for this).

    “Erin Lane” could have written more simply:

    Seduction, deception, manipulation—men can call it whatever they want, but feminine wiles are a powerful art … The capability of unleashing one’s feminine wiles is inherent in every woman … even if most women don’t know the term, they know the mysterious power that they have over men.

    It can be used in a lot of ways. Think of the women in the Greek play Lysistrata, or of Helen of Troy; did they not use their feminine wiles?

    I have deleted the phrase about how Helen’s visage set a chiliad of vessels afloat: it is apparently due to Christopher Marlowe. The Independent Femme article itself links to the IMDb page of a 2003 television miniseries called “Helen of Troy.”

    I think the article corroborates a description of English itself as nebulous. That word was chosen by a translator from English to Swedish called Mats Andersson to answer on Quora the question, “If the French language is considered soft and poetic/romantic, and the German language is considered harsh and authoritarian, how do Europeans perceive the English language? What is its ‘vibe’?”

    I work with the English language. You could even go so far as to say I understand it for a living. And if I were to use one word, it is this:


    It’s a wonderful language to do business in, or write poetry, because every listener will hear what they want to hear. It was designed for this.

    It’s a horrible language for law, and requires immense discipline to be used for science, precisely because it is so vague. Every passage I translate requires that I actually know the subject matter, so that I can figure out which of the dozen or so possible translations is the correct one …

    I have on occasion gotten complaints that the translated text did not make much sense, that it was in fact mostly empty platitudes; this is invariably due to the source English being skilfully written in empty platitudes, but artfully hidden in the inherent vagaries of the English language.


  3. According to Beekes,

    • man’s word κύμινδις is “Clearly a loanword, because of the suffix -νδ-”;
    • the gods’ word χαλκίς is derived from χαλκός “bronze,” whose “prehistory … is obscure. An IE term is improbable, as a word with an aspirate and a voiceless stop is not tolerated.”

    As for why humans do not share the gods’ word, it is from ignorance, according to Socrates in the Cratylus. The title character

    says that everything has a right name of its own, which comes by nature, and that a name is not whatever people call a thing by agreement, just a piece of their own voice applied to the thing, but that there is a kind of inherent correctness in names, which is the same for all men, both Greeks and barbarians.

    Those words, from the beginning of the dialogue (383), belong to the man whom Cratylus provokes by saying that, regardless of what people call him, he cannot really be Hermogenes. The name means Son of Hermes, and that god favors merchants, but Hermogenes is not rich. Socrates gets Hermogenes to agree that naming things is a skill, like weaving, cutting, or boring. In particular (388b–c),

    ὄνομα ἄρα
    διδασκαλικόν τί ἐστιν ὄργανον καὶ διακριτικὸν τῆς οὐσίας
    ὥσπερ κερκὶς ὑφάσματος.

    A name is, then,
    an instrument of teaching and of separating reality,
    as a shuttle is an instrument of separating the web?

    In short, Cratylus must be right; but Hermogenes is not convinced. Socrates tells him ironically (391b),

    The best way to investigate, my friend, is with the help of those who know; and you make sure of their favour by paying them money.

    If we cannot afford to hire a sophist, we should learn from Homer, who teaches us about the river of Troy, and the bird that Sleep impersonates (392a):

    Well, do you not think this is a grand thing to know, that the name of that river is rightly Xanthus, rather than Scamander? Or, if you like, do you think it is a slight thing to learn about the bird which he says “gods call chalcis, but men call cymindis,” that it is much more correct for the same bird to be called chalcis than cymindis?

    Perhaps Socrates does not know what bird it is, any more than we do.


7 Trackbacks

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    […] « Femininity (Iliad Book XIV) […]

  2. By Focus (Iliad Book XVI) « Polytropy on March 17, 2023 at 1:35 pm

    […] by verse (and his was the first translation I had ever read); I switched to Murray’s prose for Book XIV, when I brought in also quotations from Dick Davis’s prose translation of the Shahnameh. For […]

  3. By Mind (Iliad Book XVII) « Polytropy on March 24, 2023 at 3:00 am

    […] reminds him that he killed his brother, Hyperenor. This was the last killing of a named person in Book XIV, while Zeus was still sleeping off the bout of marital activity that Hera had seduced him […]

  4. By Responsibility (Iliad Book XIX) « Polytropy on April 6, 2023 at 5:27 pm

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  5. By Words (Iliad Book XX) « Polytropy on April 13, 2023 at 6:34 pm

    […] the mother of Apollo and Artemis, and she was another one of the conquests that Zeus mentioned in Book XIV as being inferior in attractiveness to Hera at the […]

  6. By Fishes (Iliad Book XXI) « Polytropy on April 19, 2023 at 6:51 pm

    […] Hermes loved Phorbas, the severed head of whose son Ilioneus, Peneleos held up on a spear like a poppy in Book XIV. […]

  7. By History (Iliad Book XXIII) « Polytropy on May 4, 2023 at 9:06 pm

    […] I did not note this possible connection, when I looked at the use of φράζομαι in Book XIV for what Nestor proposed to engage in with his wounded comrades Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Diomedes. […]

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