Responsibility (Iliad Book XIX)

Book XIX of the Iliad is all talk. This annoys Achilles, but is important for Agamemnon and Odysseus, and they should know better—Odysseus even says so.

Two corpulent dogs lie at the bottom of two slides in a children’s playground; one has started to raise himself
Achilles gets ready to fight while Patroclus lies dead
(or, one of two well-fed street-dogs goes through the motions of defense)
Şalcıkır Parkı, Tarabya
Sarıyer, Istanbul
Sunday morning, March 26, 2023

In September of 2019, when I wrote about the last ten books of the Iliad at the rate of one a day, not one a week as now, I think I made a good succinct summary of the speeches in Book XIX. The way Agamemnon takes responsibility for having offended Achilles: it continues to be strange to me. Literally, he denies responsibility, by blaming a divinity. He impugns not the usual god, Zeus, but Zeus’s eldest daughter, Até or Blindness. She befuddles men as she once did her father, who hurled her down to us in response.

Agamemnon’s accusation of Até is a version of “The Devil made me do it.” It is not a valid excuse, according to a “Christian, Protestant, evangelical, theologically conservative, and non-denominational … para-church ministry” called Got Questions. “Rather than blame the devil,” they say, “we need to look at ourselves.”

Agamemnon does look at himself. To prove that he repents of what he did to Achilles, he insists on giving the gifts that he offered two days ago, through the embassy of Phoenix, Aias, and Odysseus, back in Book IX.

At this point, Achilles is more interested in repenting of his own obsession with a girl. He wants to get down to work with Agamemnon and the rest of the boys.

We see the first dawn since Book XI, now at the head of Book XIX.1 As Achilles mourns over Patroclus, Thetis comes and tells him (lines 8–9),

My child, this man must we let be, for all our sorrow, to lie as he is, seeing he hath been slain once for all by the will of the gods.

Thetis tries to divert her son by showing him the armor she has brought. The distraction works, in the sense that “then came wrath (χόλος) upon him yet the more” (line 16).

  • In Book I (line 422), Thetis told Achilles to continue his wrath (μηνίω) against the Achaeans.
  • She now tells him to renounce wrath (μῆνιν ἀπεῖπον) against Agamemnon (line 35).

Achilles is ready to direct his wrath at the Trojans, and Hector in particular.

Achilles does worry that flies will breed in Patroclus’s corpse (line 23). Thetis embalms it by dripping ambrosia and nectar into the nostrils.

Achilles walks along the shore, calling the Achaeans to assemble. In the households where she sets her novels, Jane Austen almost never mentions the servants; but Homer tells us that the men who always stay at the ships, the pilots and the stewards, even they heed Achilles’s call. So do the walking wounded: Diomedes, Odysseus, and finally Agamemnon.

Achilles has become ashamed of what, by the account of Thetis to Hephaestus in the previous book, was “wasting his heart”: his attachment to a girl. The death of Patroclus has shown him what is really important. He wishes instead death had come to Briseis by the arrow of Artemis.2

Now, in Book XIX, Achilles wants to let bygones be bygones. Agamemnon’s way of agreeing is to blame what he did on Zeus, Fate (Μοῖρα), and Erinys. A spokesperson might say likewise after a hate crime in the community, “This is not who we are.” Such an assertion is literally false; however, it might be a correct statement of who the people want to be. It could be insincere, but is not automatically so.

Agamemnon tells a long story. Nestor might do that, were he present, but Homer has not mentioned him. According to Agamemnon, Até allowed Zeus to be tricked into making his great-grandson a lord of men, rather than his son. It happened like this. Zeus was crowing about the human son of his who was about to be born. Many a man might do this, and his wife would not like it, if she was not to be the mother. Zeus’s wife was able to induce her husband to make a formal declaration, to the effect that his first descendent born that day would have the honor of ruling other men. Zeus already had many human descendents, who could have gone on to procreate, but Zeus did not think about this. Hera delayed the birth of Heracles to Alcmene of Thebes, while inducing the birth of Eurystheus, after seven months in the womb, to the wife of Sthenelus, son of Perseus.

If we did not know already that Perseus was the son of Zeus, we might recall this from Book XIV. When Hera allowed him to think he was seducing her, Zeus mentioned Perseus as son of Danaë, who had been one of his several conquests, along with Alcmene, although none had been so desirable as Hera was at the moment.

If Zeus could be beguiled, it is only natural that Agamemnon could be. Note how it goes:

  1. We do things we regret.
  2. To explain this, we invent a fictitious force, as I suggested in the context of Book XVII.
  3. That force takes a human shape, such as that of Zeus.
  4. The god is then capable of error, just as we are.
  5. We explain this with another fictitious force, such as Até.

After responding to a disaster by saying, “It’s not my fault,” some politicians try to carry on as usual. Agamemnon is not like that. He needs to show that his insult to Achilles does represent who he really is. He does this by repeating the offer of gifts made in Book IX.

Achilles says it doesn’t matter, and they should all just get to fighting. Odysseus disagrees:

  • Everybody should eat first.
  • Agamemnon should
    • bring the gifts to the agora,
    • swear that he never touched Briseis.

Agamemnon himself offered to swear that oath in Book IX. It is a fictitious force, like the gods. Odysseus does not know or care whether Agamemnon actually had relations with Briseis. We may also recall from Book IX that after Odysseus and Aias left Phoenix at Achilles’s encampment,

  • Achilles slept with Diomede, daughter of Phorbas of Lesbos;
  • Patroclus slept with Iphis, taken by Achilles from Scyrus, city of Enyeus.

In the same night, as we learn in Book X, Agamemnon himself could not sleep for worry, and Homer assigned him no bedmate. On the other hand, there were those twelve days mentioned in Book I, after Agamemnon had taken possession of Briseis, but before Thetis could secure the help of Zeus, since he was away at Oceanus with the Ethiopeans.

Agamemnon’s saying, “I didn’t sleep with her,” is like saying, “Zeus made me do it”; the words mean, “I apologize.” According to Odysseus, saying the words will make Agamemnon “more just” (δικαιότερος, line 181) in future. Agamemnon agrees. He wants to swear the oath and give the gifts.

Achilles says another time would be better, for that and the eating; they can have a feast in the evening. Odysseus responds:

  • You are the better at spear-chucking.
  • I am the better at thinking (νόημα, line 218).3

How easily can one get away with such an argument today? I have known people, even men, who can admit to having poor judgment. However, does anybody ever win an actual argument by saying, “I’m smarter than you?” I gather Henry Kissinger would try to do this; however, it made him the butt of the joke told in my childhood that I recalled in “Reading Shallow and Deep.”

Objecting to Achilles’s wish to skip breakfast, Odysseus points out,

γαστέρι δ᾽ οὔ πως ἔστι νέκυν πενθῆσαι Ἀχαιούς.

But with the belly may it nowise be that the Achaeans should mourn a corpse.

The groans of an empty stomach are no substitute for proper keening. However, it is not clear that Odysseus means to be so clever. Fasting for the dead may be customary, but now is not the time for it, since so many others are also dying. Let the living now eat and fight, needing no more summons than the threat of what will happen to them if they don’t fight.

It may be recalled here that Odysseus beat Thersites in Book II for supporting Achilles’s labor strike. To fetch Agamemnon’s gifts, he goes along with

  • the unnamed sons of Nestor,
  • Meges son of Phyleus,
  • Thoas,
  • Meriones,
  • Lycomedes son of Creon,
  • Melanippus.

The gifts include seven women, with Briseis making the eighth. Imagine being one of them. There are men who feel threatened, if surrounded by other men as those women are. Apparently Deni Todorovič is such a man; I learned about him in a recent tweet of documentary filmmaker Malcolm Clark, who observes,

Deni—with moustache and penis—wants to escape the violence of a minority of men by being let into women’s spaces. But this means NO man—however violent—could be kept out, because who could possibly decide which moustache and penis was “genuinely” non-binary or trans?

Back in the agora of the Achaean camp, Talthybius holds up a boar. Agamemnon swears his oath, calling down the wrath of the gods upon himself if he is lying about Briseis. I read this entirely cynically. He cuts the boar’s throat, and Talthybius hurls the body into the sea to feed the fish.

Achilles exclaims, nominally to Zeus, how great are the blindnesses that he gives to men; but now it is time to eat and fight. “Blindnesses” is Até again, but indeed in the plural.

The Myrmidons take care of the gifts. To the body of Patroclus, Briseis recalls how he promised to make Achilles marry her, after he had killed her husband. Apparently this is meant as praise of the deceased; in a world where women are property, even as spouses, this makes some sense. The other enslaved women also mourn Patroclus, “but therewithal each one her own sorrows” (σφῶν δ᾽ αὐτῶν κήδε᾽ ἑκάστη, line 302). Homer recognizes what perhaps others call displacement: express feelings may not really concern their ostensible object.

Achilles himself will not eat. The death of neither his father, nor of his own son Neoptolemus, who could be dead even now, would be worse than that of Patroclus. Indeed, anticipating his own death, Achilles hoped Patroclus could then fetch Neoptolemus from Scyra, take him to Phthia, and show him his father’s things. Scyra was the origin of Patroclus’s concubine in Book I, as mentioned above.

As the other enslaved women added to Briseis’s lament, so now Achaean male elders add to Achilles’s, “bethinking them each one of what he had left at home” (line 339). Pitying them all, Zeus sends down Athena to give Achilles an infusion of those all-purpose substances, nectar and ambrosia.

  • They feed humans and horses!
  • They also embalm corpses!

I recall Somerset Maugham’s observation about nectar in The Razor’s Edge (Chapter 7, § iii):

Antoine, the manservant, brought in a tray with an array of bottles and Isabel, always tactful, knowing that nine men out of ten are convinced they can mix a better cocktail than any woman (and they’re right), asked me to shake a couple. I poured out the gin and the Noilly-Prat and added the dash of absinthe that transforms a dry Martini from a nondescript drink to one for which the gods of Olympus would undoubtedly have abandoned their home-brewed nectar, a beverage that I have always thought must have been rather like Coca-Cola.

As I understand about Coke, you can

  • drink it for pleasure or an upset stomach,
  • use it to clean your clothes or your toilet.

Maugham’s scene is laid in Paris. It so happens that he continues on the subject of what I am doing now:

I noticed a book on the table as I handed Isabel her glass.

“Hulloa,” I said. “Here’s Larry’s book.”

“Yes, it came this morning, but I’ve been so busy, I had a thousand things to do before lunch and I was lunching out and I was at Molyneux’s this afternoon.4 I don’t know when I shall have a moment to get down to it.”

I thought with melancholy how an author spends months writing a book, and maybe puts his heart’s blood into it, and then it lies about unread till the reader has nothing else in the world to do.

Larry had had his book printed at his own expense.

From the Achaean camp, helmets come out thick as snowflakes in a winter storm. Because of all the bronze, the earth laughs (or smiles, or is bright: γέλασσε … χθὼν, line 362). Achilles’s new shield gleams like a lighthouse. As Achilles tests the fit of his new armor, Automedon and Alcinous get his chariot ready. Automedon gets on, and then Achilles, who warns Xanthus and Balius, the immortal horses, not to leave him dead the way they did Patroclus.

Hera lets Xanthus respond:

  • The horses will save Achilles this time.
  • He is still going to die.
  • The horses will not be the causes (αἴτιοι, line 410) of this.
  • A god and Fate will be.
  • It was a god, Apollo, who let the Trojans kill and strip Hector in the first place.

Now the Erinyes silence Xanthus, and Achilles says there is no point in reminding him of his death. I think of a tweet from 2020 that I saw only yesterday, I’m not sure why unless the Twitter algorithm is trying to stir up trouble:

Part of being supportive of trans women is being considerate about the immense amounts of grief we feel about our body, and not just bringing it up in front of us as if it’s a casual subject. Not all women get to be born with a uterus.

Would it help to remind this person of how Achilles had his impending death brought up in front of him? Would it have helped Jesus during the Agony? (See Pascal, Pensées, Sellier fragment 749, Le Mystère de Jésus.)

  1. I reviewed the calendar of the Iliad, up to the dawn of Book XIX, in the context of Book XIII.↩︎

  2. We have not seen Artemis herself yet, but she has been mentioned.

    • In Book V, Artemis was the goddess who had taught Scamandrius to fight, although she was not going to keep him from being killed by Menelaus. I noted this in the context of Book VII, recalling an Onion column, “Bullshit, Jesus, Those Are Obviously My Footprints.”
    • In Book VI, Artemis is mentioned
      • to Diomedes by Glaucus as having slain his aunt Laodameia;
      • to Hector by Andromache as having slain her mother.
    • In Book IX, Phoenix mentioned Artemis (or Diana, in the version of Chapman) as having sent the Calydonian boar to plague Oeneus for his not having offered her first fruits.
    • In Book XVI, when Homer named the five commanders whom Achilles assigned to the Myrmidons, one of them was Eudorus, begot on Polymele by Hermes when he saw her on the dance floor of Artemis.


  3. Perhaps there could have been another noun, *νοήμη, in addition to νόημα, so that one of the words could refer to the act of thinking, the other to the resulting thought. In the context of Book I, I looked at the pairs λύμη/λῦμα (for polluting and the resulting pollution) and γνώμη/γνῶμα (for the knowing mind and its knowledge). There is the masculine noun νόος for the mind, namely that which is intelligent. From this derives the verb νοέω for thinking; from this in turn, more words such as


  4. I did not know, till looking him up just now, that Edward Molyneux was British and that his collection of French Impressionist paintings became part of the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, thus ending up at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where I have enjoyed them.↩︎

3 Trackbacks

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

    […] « Responsibility (Iliad Book XIX) […]

  2. By Grief (Iliad Book XXII) « Polytropy on April 27, 2023 at 6:54 pm

    […] offered in Book IX, and made in Book XIX, an oath not to have touched Briseis; but when Zeus was laying out the rest of the Iliad in Book […]

  3. By Dawn (Iliad Book XXIV) « Polytropy on May 12, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    […] think it proper nor admit that Achilles himself was so greedy as to accept gifts from Agamemnon [in Book XIX] and again to give up a dead body after receiving payment but otherwise to […]

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