Masculinity (Iliad Book XV)

In Book XIV of the Iliad, Hera distracted Zeus while Poseidon helped the Achaeans fight off the Trojans. Now, in Book XV, Zeus takes control again. He tells Apollo to let the Trojans, under the leadership of Hector, come to the point of burning the Achaean ships.

On a billboard by the sea, a young man with bare shoulders thrusts as us a dark blue bottle of shampoo and shower gel. The background of the advertisement is black.
Sarıyer, European Istanbul, March 6, 2023

Highlights or lessons of the book include the following.

  • Zeus states his plan. This gives us
    • a summary of the plot of the Iliad,
    • an occasion to consider
      • what it will take for Achilles to get what he wants;
      • that what he wants is
        • not a formal (ceremonial) apology, but
        • a formal (not material) apology.
  • Hera flies from Mount Ida to Mount Olympus as fast as thought.
  • Hera’s smile is not a Duchenne smile.
  • The antithesis of democracy and autocracy is represented by
    • Poseidon, one of three brothers;
    • Zeus, the eldest of the brothers.
  • Apollo wields the aegis the way Zeus does the golden scales.
  • Hector has to lead men whose motivation is different from his.
  • With the Achaean defenses, Apollo is like Hobbes’s friend Calvin in the sand.
  • One’s own prayers can help one’s enemies.
  • The chalk line is a new metaphor from civilian life.
  • You can curse your fate or make the best of it.
  • There is no Planet B (I said that too in 2019).

As I review Book XV below, I shall expand on those points.

On another billboard by the sea, a smiling woman is cheek to cheek with each of two smiling little girls. All are wearing white tops, and the background is orange, for a product in an orange box: fish oil
Sarıyer, European Istanbul, March 6, 2023

The Iliad is dominated by men and is in that sense masculine; but if masculinity is to mean anything, it should be juxtaposed with femininity. Speeches by women are few in the Iliad; I think of

  • Helen in Books III and VI;
  • Andromache, Hecuba, and Theano in Book VI;
  • Briseis in Book XIX.

I am not counting goddesses. I read what Hera does in Book XIV as an example of womanly behavior, set against the manliness of Zeus and Poseidon in Book XV.

How much is that reading influenced by others who have had it? If I think, “Women and men are like Hera and Zeus,” corroborating examples will be from literature (in a broad sense, including television and film). That literature may trace its lineage back to Homer.

I noted last time that some websites today advised women how to use their “feminine wiles.” How much are those sites influenced by literary sources?

I also brought up the Shahnameh. It features an “Alexander romance” in which (among many other things) the character called Sekandar visits a city called Harum, inhabited by warrior women who sleep in their armor and are “veiled virgins.” They tell Sekandar,

If a woman decides she wants a husband, she must leave us … After taking a husband, if she gives birth to a daughter and the girl is feminine by nature and interested in pretty colors and scents, then she will remain where she was born and breathe the air of that sky. But if she is a manly, confident child, she is sent to Harum. If she gives birth to a son he stays where he is and has nothing to do with us.

Thus, as some might say today, gender is different from sex—at least in a story told by the man called Ferdowsi.

Let us move on to Book XV of the Iliad. Zeus awakes on Mount Ida from his Hera-induced, Sleep-induced sleep and sees

  • Hector invalided,
  • the Trojans in rout.

Threatening to beat his wife, he recalls how he tortured her for interfering with a voyage of his son Heracles. Presumably this was when Hera had also secured the aid of Sleep, as he recalled in Book XIV.

Hera denies telling her brother to harm the Trojans (lines 41–2):

Not by my will doth Poseidon, the Shaker of Earth, work harm to the Trojans and Hector, and give succour to their foes.

She is strictly correct. In Book XIV (lines 357–60), it was Sleep who told Poseidon to assist the Danaans while Zeus slept.

Hera also says she would advise Poseidon to obey Zeus. Perhaps that is not really true, but Zeus accepts it, provided she serve as a messenger to summon

  • the messenger goddess,
  • the god whose plague led to Achilles’s conflict with Agamemnon in the first place.

Zeus plans to tell

  • Iris to tell Poseidon to go home;
  • Apollo to strengthen Hector.

Now Zeus summarizes the Iliad:

  • Hector shall drive the Achaeans to the ships.
  • Achilles shall send Patroclus out to fight.
  • Hector shall kill him.
  • Patroclus himself shall have killed many.
  • Those many shall include Zeus’s own son, Sarpedon.
  • Achilles shall kill Hector.
  • The Achaeans shall take Troy.

Zeus will not stop his wrath, nor suffer other immortals to help the Danaans, until the fulfilment of Achilles’s wish, as Zeus promised Thetis.

  • Wrath here is χόλος (masculine), not the μῆνις (feminine) that is the theme of the whole epic, as Homer told us at the beginning.
  • Wish is ἐέλδωρ (neuter), from the verb ἐέλδομαι (“to wish for, desire, covet”).
    • For Cunliffe, the words are obtained from ἕλδωρ and ἕλδομαι by prothesis with ἐ-.
    • For Beekes, the longer forms must have been the originals; also, the words have “No cognates outside Greek,” but are still somehow judged to be Indo-European.

The taking of Troy will not occur in the Iliad, but a lot more does occur that Zeus leaves out. I have mused on the concept of summary before, as in taking up

  • Book VII in 2017 (as I recalled during the current reading);
  • Book III currently, when I proposed my own Iliad summary.


  • Zeus’s summary names no mortal besides Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, and Sarpedon.
  • My summary leaves out Sarpedon, but includes also Agamemnon, Helen, Menelaus, Paris, and Priam.

Achilles’s dispute with Agamemnon concerns justice. Perhaps justice is only an excuse for a personal conflict; but if it can serve as an excuse, this is because we recognize justice as a worthy aim.

Zeus’s aim would seem not to be justice, except insofar as keeping a promise is just. However, what Zeus promised was to honor Achilles. Will it honor him for Patroclus to be killed?

Thetis told Zeus in Book I that Agamemnon had dishonored Achilles. Then she put in a request (lines 508–10):

But do thou show him honour, Olympian Zeus, lord of counsel; for thus long do thou give might to the Trojans, even until the Achaeans do honour to my son, and magnify him with recompense.

In Book IX, the Achaeans did honor Achilles. Agamemnon offered to “magnify him with recompense,” through the intermediaries of Phoenix, Aias, and Odysseus. Zeus is off the hook now. It is not his fault that Achilles rejected the proferred honor. Why then does Zeus still care?

I don’t know, but I note:

  • What Agamemnon offered was a formal apology: a pro forma apology, not a real, heartfelt one.
  • What Achilles wanted was a formal apology, as real as the forms of Plato, and not a merely material one.

“Formal” can have opposite meanings. I examined how “automatic” was like that, in the context of Book VIII and earlier. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, formal sin is sin in the full sense, not just outwardly or materially. There is a rough analogy:

formal sin : material sin :: spirit of law : letter of law.

However, to obey the letter of the law is to obey it in outward form, rather than in its substance. Moreover, the substantial can be confused with the material.

The formal can be the ceremonial, and this is the kind of apology that Agamemnon offered. Perhaps Achilles could not have known that there was another kind until he failed to get it. He wanted a real apology: in one sense, a solid or even “material” one. Perhaps he cannot get it until being debased as much as he wants the other Achaeans to be.

Keep that in mind for the remainder of the epic. Meanwhile, in Book XV, when Hera goes to Mount Olympus to tell Iris and Apollo to go see Zeus (lines 80–4):

And even as swiftly darteth the mind of a man who hath travelled over far lands and thinketh in the wisdom of his heart, “Would I were here, or there,” and many are the wishes he conceiveth, even so swiftly sped on in her eagerness the queenly Hera.

Sitting now in Byzantium or rather Pharmakia in Thrace, northeast of Mount Ida, I can think back on visits to Greece—to Delphi for example (I haven’t seen Mount Olympus). As quickly as my thoughts go there, a god can go. This could mean

  • our world is in the mind of the gods;
  • the gods are in our mind.

Having something in mind, or being in its mind, used to be characteristic of the highest reality; now, the lowest, at least for some people.

Themis makes the first of two brief appearances in the Iliad when she greets Hera and observes her distraction. Joining the other Olympians, Hera smiles, but not with her eyes. Before reading about it in some contemporary publication, I may not have recognized that a merely oral smile was not a full one; but the idea goes back to the Iliad.

The Homeric laughter at the Olympic banquet at the end of Book I is supposed to show how little the gods care about us. Hera would seem to care now; but perhaps what troubles her is only that her husband is the one who has taken control of our fate.

Hera points out that Ares’s son Ascalaphus has been killed (we saw it happen in Book XIII). The stupid war-god gets ready to take revenge, but wise Athena stops him. It is interesting how little we see of the supposed God of War in an epic of war.

Hera fulfils her mission of sending Iris and Apollo back to Ida. Zeus tells the former to tell Poseidon that Zeus is

  • mightier,
  • elder.

She does this. Poseidon takes the democratic side against Zeus’s autocracy. The two gods are brothers with Hades, and they are equal, in the sense that their respective domains (“gray sea,” “murky darkness,” “broad heaven”) were assigned by lot, not according to any ranking; moreover (line 193),

γαῖα δ᾽ ἔτι ξυνὴ πάντων καὶ μακρὸς Ὄλυμπος.

but the earth and high Olympus remain yet common to us all.

Therefore, Poseidon says,

  • he will not obey Zeus;
  • Zeus
    • should stay in his own domain,
    • can be high-handed with his own sons and daughters.

Iris invites Poseidon to think again, since (line 204)

οἶσθ᾽ ὡς πρεσβυτέροισιν Ἐρινύες αἰὲν ἕπονται.

Thou knowest how the Erinyes ever follow to aid the elder-born.

Poseidon agrees.

  • He will yield to Zeus for now.
  • Troy had better not be spared in the end.

He goes back into the sea, and the Achaeans miss him.

Zeus tells Apollo to support Hector, but only until the Achaeans flee to their ships on the Hellespont.

Hector recognizes that some god has visited him. Apollo identifies himself. Recovering from the blow of the stone that Aias threw at him at the end of Book XIV, Hector can now come out like a well-fed horse from his stall.

Hector is to the Danaans as a lion to “dogs and country-folk” (κύνες τε καὶ ἀνέρες ἀγροιῶται, line 272) who have been pursuing a stag or wild goat. Thus Thoas son of Andraemon proposes that

  • the multitude flee to the ships, while only
  • those who claim to be best (ἄριστοι, line 296) take a stand.

The best whom Homer names are

  • Aias,
  • Idomeneus,
  • Teucer,
  • Meriones,
  • Meges.

These men call out to the “chieftains” (ἀριστῆες, line 303); the rest retreat.

Hector leads the Trojans, but Apollo leads him with the aegis, which serves rather as Zeus’s golden scales of fate did in Book VIII:

  • When Apollo holds the aegis still, men are killed on both sides, though Homer does not name them individually.
  • When Apollo shakes the aegis, looking and shouting at the Achaeans, then they become like cattle or sheep, beset by two wild beasts—presumably two, because Apollo and Hector are two, but I imagine the two could also be
    1. Hector,
    2. the other Trojans collectively.

Now some killings of Achaeans by Trojans are specified:

  • Stichius and Arcesilaus, by Hector;
  • Medon and Iasus, by Aeneas;
  • Mecisteus, by Polydamas;
  • Echius, by Polites;
  • Clonius, by Agenor;
  • Deïochus, by Paris.

The killers or their comrades fall to stripping the bodies, until Hector makes this a capital offense. The Trojans should not fight for personal gain, but they have trouble remembering.

Three thousand years before Bill Watterson had Calvin erect castles on the beach, only to destroy them, Homer was observing that children do this. As if they were sand, Apollo fills in the Achaean moat and tears down the wall.

The Danaans pray, and especially Nestor. Zeus hears and shows it by thundering. The sound of thunder also invigorates the Trojans. If there is a theological point, I can only liken its tragedy to the comedy of “Black-Nosed Buddha” from 101 Zen Stories:

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.

The Trojans come over the wall like a wave over the gunwales of a ship. The Achaeans fight from their ships, with pikes.

Patroclus has been tending to the wound of Eurypylus since the end of Book XI; now he sees he has to continue on his way back to Achilles.

For the only time in the Iliad (lines 410–8), Homer mentions an implement that could be in Euclid’s toolkit:

But as the carpenter’s line (στάθμη) maketh straight a ship’s timber in the hands of a cunning workman, that is well skilled in all manner of craft by the promptings of Athene, so evenly was strained their war and battle. So fought they on, divers of them about divers ships, but Hector made straight for glorious Aias. They twain were labouring in the toil of war about the same ship, nor might the one drive back the other and burn the ship with fire, nor the other thrust him in back, now that a god had brought him nigh.

I can read this two ways.

  1. Neither side can cross a line that divides them.
  2. They hold a line in tension, so to speak, as in a tug of war; but the ends do not move, just as the ends of a chalk line do not move after the carpenter pulls it taut.

Tension builds in the reader. Are the Achaeans done for? Not yet; for Aias gets a break, killing Caletor son of Clytius with a spear. Hector wants the body protected from spoliation. He throws a spear at Aias, but misses; with his sword he hits Lycophron, son of Mastor.

Aias calls on Teucer to get out his bow. He does, but Zeus breaks the string. Teucer complains: “It was brand-new this morning!” Hector is glad to see the hand of God at work. Meanwhile, Aias tells Teucer to be practical: “Use a spear.”

What kind of person do we want to be? Epictetus raised the question, and Gregory Sadler gives it a contemporary context in a recent blog post, “Chapter 10 of Epictetus’ Enchiridion Explained”:

You’re driving somewhere, and your car breaks down. Do you actually get out and try to fix it? Do you take a walk, and try to get to a service station? Do you try to flag a car down? Or do you just sit in your car and mumble to yourself how unfair this is, and hope that somebody else will come along and solve the problem for you?

The example that comes to my mind is from a summer evening in 1986, when I was talking with somebody in the “coffee shop” at St John’s College in Santa Fe. Another person put coins in a vending machine, but it didn’t work, and she cursed. My companion pointed out where she knew there was a working machine, “If you just want a Coke.” I thought the frustrated person wanted more than a carbonated beverage, she wanted justice; but it may indeed have been a futile hope.

Hector seems to say that his wounded comrades should be left to die; he may only mean that death should not be feared. On his side, Aias points out that death should be feared:

  • if they lose their ships, the Achaeans cannot walk home;
  • Hector didn’t come to dance.

More killings, on both sides:

  • Hector kills Schedius, son of Perimedes.
  • Aias kills Laomedon, son of Antenor.
  • Polydamas kills Otus of Cyllene.
  • Meges, son of Phyleus, jumps at Polydamas, but kills Croesmus.
  • Dolops, son of Lampus, makes a counterattack, but Meges is saved by the corselet his father was given by a guest-friend. With his spear, Meges cuts the plume from the helmet of Dolops, whom Menelaus finally kills with his own spear.

Hector reproaches Melanippus, son of Hicetaon, for holding back.

  • Aias tells his side it would be a shame (αἰδώς, line 561) to flee.
  • Agamemnon said in Book XIV it would be no shame (νέμεσις) to flee.

Menelaus encourages Antilochus as being youngest. The boy strikes Melanippus and

  • springs on the body like a hound,
  • is scared off like a wild beast by Hector.

Working towards the goal of having Hector set fire to the ships, Zeus has Hector himself raging like a fire in a mountain forest. Athene is getting ready to end Hector’s life afterwards, and meanwhile the Achaeans hold firm like cliff by the sea. Hector falls on them like a wave—and like a lion on cattle whose herdsman is unskilled at defense. He kills only Periphetes of Mycenae, son of Copreus, when the man trips over his shield.

Nestor urges shame (αἰδώς again, line 661). With a pike, Aias runs over the ships like an acrobat on the backs of four horses. Hector attacks like an eagle. Homer addresses each of us, in the second person singular (lines 697–9):

Thou wouldst have deemed that all unwearied and unworn they faced one another in war, so furiously did they fight.

φαίης κ᾽ ἀκμῆτας καὶ ἀτειρέας ἀλλήλοισιν
ἄντεσθ᾽ ἐν πολέμῳ, ὡς ἐσσυμένως ἐμάχοντο.

The men are too close for arrows and javelins, but wield axe, hatchet, sword, two-edged spear; “and the black earth flowed with blood” (ῥέε δ᾽ αἵματι γαῖα μέλαινα, line 715)—that sounds like one of the bland similes I criticized Ferdowsi for last time.

Hector calls for fire. As if in anticipation of the downfall that we know is scheduled for him, he says cowardly elders kept him from approaching the ships before. I guess those elders didn’t want to be stuck with Achaeans who could not go home.

Aias reminds his men that they have no city walls to retreat to. He himself keeps up a good fight, wounding a dozen of the men who approach the ships with fire. Stay tuned.

2 Trackbacks

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

    […] « Masculinity (Iliad Book XV) […]

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

    […] Hector casts at Aias, but strikes Schedius, son of Iphitus (Hector killed a different Schedius in Book XV). […]

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