Words (Iliad Book XX)

“The feeling of helplessness and humiliation in the face of an abuse of power is an awful one.” That’s what Achilles found out, back in Book I of the Iliad; however, the words themselves, dated April 11, 2023, are by Claire Berlinski. Her Agamemnon is Elon Musk.

Two cats sit facing one another on a narrow ledge below one window and above another
“And when they were come near, as they advanced one against the other, then first unto Aeneas spake swift-footed goodly Achilles: ‘Aeneas, wherefore hast thou sallied thus far forth from the throng to stand and face me?’ ” (Iliad 20.176–9)
Kireçburnu (“Lime Point”)
Κλειδὴς καὶ κλεῖθρα τοὺ Πόντου (“Lock and Key of the Pontus”)
Sarıyer, Istanbul
Sunday morning, March 26, 2023

Berlinski is calling for a strike against Twitter, to begin on May Day. In Book XIX of the Iliad, Achilles’s own strike against Agememnon comes to an end formally, in one of the senses that I looked at in the context of Book XV. In Book XX, the strike is over materially, in the sense that Homer is again able to describe the guts of a man, because Achilles exposes them.

The book still features a lot of talk, even talk about talk, from the third cousins Aeneas and Hector. Apparently what Winston Churchill said on this subject is, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”; it was Harold Macmillan who said, later, “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” Achilles gets down to war anyway.

To deliver messages to gods and men, Zeus has used Iris several times:

  • to alert Priam that the Achaeans are as multitudinous as leaves or grains of sand, in Book II;
  • to warn Hera and Athena not to interfere in his divine plan, in Book VIII;
  • to advise Hector to take it easy until Agamemnon is wounded, in Book XI;
  • to remind Poseidon who the elder and stronger god is, in Book XV.

To deliver that last message, since he was not at home, Zeus did not call Iris directly; he gave that job to his wife, who had tricked him into bed. When Hera got back to Olympus, her consternation was visible to Themis. That goddess now, in Book XX, is the vehicle that Zeus uses to summon all of the gods, and not just the Olympians. Heeding the call are

Poseidon wonders whether Zeus is engaged in the activity for which the verb is μερμηρίζω (line 17). This could mean just making a plan, but it may connote anxiety. According to Beekes, the verb derives from the adjective μέρμερος, “conventional epithet of unclear [meaning] … apparently a reduplicated intensive formation.” Perhaps it is somehow like the English “murmur.” The Greek adjective occurs five times in the Iliad, as for example in Book VIII (line 453), when Zeus tells his wife and his daughter,

σφῶϊν δὲ πρίν περ τρόμος ἔλλαβε φαίδιμα γυῖα
πρὶν πόλεμόν τε ἰδεῖν πολέμοιό τε μέρμερα ἔργα.

and for you twain, trembling gat hold of your glorious limbs or ever ye had sight of war and the grim deeds of war.

Now, in Book XX, at the meeting of all the gods, Zeus does seem to acknowledge some anxiety for the humans down below (line 21):

I have regard unto them, even though they die.

μέλουσί μοι ὀλλύμενοί περ.

Wyatt has turned Murray’s archaic English into,

I care for them, even though they die.

Homer literally has it the other way around, grammatically speaking:

The humans concern me.

The verb “concern” seems to fit: like Homer’s verb μέλω, it connotes an indeterminate level of anxiety. Perhaps any cognitive activity must be provoked by some unease. Zeus suggests that he wants none of this; for, while he invites the other gods to interfere as they will with the battle below, he declares for himself (line 23),

I will gaze and make glad my heart.

ὁρόων φρένα τέρψομαι.

The verb here is the first element of the name of the Muse called Terpsichore, “Delight in Dancing.” (Homer never mentions her.)

Zeus’s point seems to be that there is no stopping Achilles. Even without divine aid, the man may well be able to storm the Trojan wall, although it would be beyond what he is fated to do. Therefore, let the gods interfere, especially since they are not going to agree on one side in the war anyway. They divide up as follows.

For the Achaeans:
Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, Hephaestus.
For the Trojans:
Ares, Apollo, Artemis, Leto, Xanthus, Aphrodite.
  • Leto is 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 moment.
  • Xanthus is not the horse of Achilles, introduced in Book XVI, but the river so called by the gods; humans call it Scamander. In Book XIV there was a bird whom gods and humans named differently; I looked then at Socrates’s remarks in the Cratylus on these two examples.

The Achaeans have been routing the Trojans, now that Achilles is in the game. With gods in the field, Athena especially, and Ares on the other side, a real fight gets going (line 48):

ὦρτο δ᾽ Ἔρις κρατερὴ λαοσσόος.

then up leapt mighty Strife, the rouser of hosts.

(The “of hosts” is Murray’s interpolation.) Zeus is making thunder; Poseidon, earthquakes. Aidoneus worries his roof will collapse. The Underworld would then be exposed like the tunnels of an ant colony, but this is my analogy, not Homer’s, who calls the place (line 65)

the dread and dank abode, wherefor the very gods have loathing.

σμερδαλέ᾽ εὐρώεντα, τά τε στυγέουσι θεοί περ.

The gods face off as follows.

Poseidon Apollo
Athena Ares (now called Enyalius)
Hera Artemis
Hermes Leto
Hephaestus Xanthus

Aphrodite from the earlier list is omitted.

Achilles wants to meet Hector. However, in the guise of Priam’s son Lycaon, Apollo tells Aeneas to go meet Achilles instead. Aeneas is reluctant:

  • Achilles has already met and driven him from Mount Ida.
  • Some god is always helping him anyway.

If there were no divine interference, Aeneas says he would definitely have a go at Achilles.

Lycaon/Apollo points out that there is already divine interference on the side of Aeneas, after a fashion:

  • his goddess-mother, Aphrodite, is daughter of Zeus himself;
  • Achilles’s is “only” the daughter of the old man of the sea (Nereus, whose other daughters, the Nereids, gathered around Thetis in Book XVIII).

Since Hera can see that Apollo is helping Aeneas, she tells Poseidon and Athena that they must either stop Apollo or help Achilles:

  • Later, Achilles can suffer the thread that fate spun for him at birth.
  • Today, Hera and comrades are there to help him.
  • He should know this, lest indeed Apollo frighten him off.

Poseidon recommends that all of the gods stay out of it. Apparently they all agree, for they end up on the sidelines.

  • The Achaean partisans sit on the wall built for Heracles by the Trojans and Athena as protection from the sea monster.
  • The Trojan partisans sit on a hill called Callicolone, which seems to be of little significance, but Strabo investigates it in his Geography.

As Homer says (lines 153–5),

So sat they on either side devising counsels (μητιόωντες βουλάς), but to make beginning of grievous war both sides were loath, albeit Zeus, that sitteth on high, had bidden them.

Cats, dogs, and children can be like that: keen to do something only when it is forbidden or impossible. I’m thinking especially of videos with titles such as, “Barking dog never bites—Dog barking throught the gate”; there’s also T.S. Eliot’s Rum Tum Tugger, “a terrible bore”:

When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He’s always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.

Aeneas and Achilles come together, the latter like a lion, but first warning the former:

  • Even if Aeneas does slay Achilles, Priam will give him nothing for it, because he favors his own sons. (We are going to see that Priam and Aeneas’s father Anchises are second cousins.)
  • Achilles already drove off Aeneas (in the incident that he himself mentioned to Apollo).
  • The gods saved Aeneas then, but will not do so now. (This will turn out to be wrong.)
  • “when it is wrought even a fool getteth understanding” (Murray); “What is done, even a fool can understand” (Wyatt: ῥεχθὲν δέ τε νήπιος ἔγνω, line 198).

Aeneas in response tells Achilles the same thing that Hector will (lines 200–2 and 431–3):

Son of Peleus, think not with words to afright me, as I were a child, seeing I know well of myself to utter taunts and withal speech that is seemly (ἠμὲν κερτομίας ἠδ᾽ αἴσιμα μυθήσασθαι).

Murray here uses the adjective αἴσιμος (“seemly”), in the neuter plural accusative, where the manuscripts have the corresponding form of αἴσυλος (“unseemly”). Perhaps it is plausible that

  • a copyist might confuse the two words,
  • Homer would not have had Aeneas and Hector use the men-de (μὲν … δέ) construction unless they were going to talk about constrasting kinds of speech.

Lattimore goes with the manuscripts:

Son of Peleus, never hope by words to frighten me
as if I were a baby. I myself understand well enough
how to speak in vituperation and how to make insults.

Vituperation and insults may or may not make the kind of opposition suited for “on the one hand, on the other hand,” which is a crude interpretation of men-de. I looked at two examples in the context of Book IV:

  • In a quotation from Book III:
    • men, Paris and Helen were in bed;
    • de, Menelaus was out looking for the former.
  • The archer who shot Menelaus achieved
    • men, glory for himself;
    • de, sorrow for the Achaeans.

In any case, Aeneas goes on to make seemly speech:

  • Neither he nor Achilles has met the other’s parents.
  • Achilles is apparently son of Peleus and Thetis.
  • Aeneas is son of Anchises and Aphrodite.
  • One set of parents will mourn today (spoiler alert: they won’t).
  • That is because the two warriors are going to do more than just taunt one another like children.

Aeneas goes on talking though, tracing his descent back to Zeus, who begat Dardanus, who begat Erichthonius, who begat Tros, who begat Ilus, Assaracus, and Ganymede.

  • Ilus begat Laomedon, who begat Priam.
  • Assaracus begat Capys, who begat Anchises.

Nonetheless, regardless of lineage, Zeus may assign valor (ἀρετή, line 242) as he likes. Aeneas is saying:

  • Ancestry doesn’t matter.
  • Mine is good anyway.

That may or may not be hypocritical. At least (or at best), Aeneas fails at being self-aware, as when he goes on about how there is no point behaving like women quarrelling in the middle of the road, saying many things, both true and false (πόλλ᾽ ἐτεά τε καὶ οὐκί, line 255). The adjective for “true” here is ἐτεός, not the ἀληθής that I looked at in the context of Book XII, where it was used for the spinster who weighed out wool carefully.

According to Beekes, ἐτεός may come from the Indo-European root that he writes as *set- and glosses as “stable, true.” However, I find no such root on Pokorny’s list, as published by the University of Texas at Austin. English, like Greek, has an alternative word for “true,” although it is archaic: “sooth.” I wonder if this could share an ancestor with ἐτεός. According to the scholars, “sooth” shares its Indo-European root *h₁es-ont- with the Greek participle for being, itself the base of the abstract noun οὐσία. On this model, Latin forms essentia, which becomes our “essense”; but substantia, our “substance,” is supposed to be the standard translation of οὐσία.

Returning to the concrete: Aeneas throws his spear at Achilles, piercing some layers of his shield. Achilles is frightened, foolishly so, since divine armor is not overcome so easily.

Aeneas is frightened by Achilles’s spear, though he does manage to dodge it.

Achilles now draws his sword, while Aeneas hefts a stone. Despite his general support for the Achaeans, and despite his wish that the gods sit out the day’s battle, Poseidon is now worried for Aeneas, because

  • Apollo led him to Achilles and has now abandoned him;
  • he makes good sacrifices;
  • somebody has to carry on the Dardanian line;
  • Zeus now hates the branch of that line that passes through Priam.

Poseidon says Aeneas himself is fated to ensure that the race of Dardanus not die out. I wonder then if Poseidon worries about letting fate be violated, if that is even possible. Hera warned Zeus about changing fate in Book XVI, when the male god wanted to save his son Sarpedon.

In his own taunt of Aeneas, Achilles alluded to the suggested rivalry among the descendents of Dardanus.

Hera reminds Poseidon that she and Athena have it in for the Trojans. Nonetheless, Poseidon

  • shields Achilles’s eyes,
  • brings back his spear,
  • carries off Aeneas,
  • warns him to avoid Achilles.

It seems fate will protect Aeneas from everybody but Achilles.

That warrior regains his vision, amazed to see his spear back in front of him. He figures, correctly, that he will be seeing no more of Aeneas. He also calls for help from the other Achaeans, since he cannot fight the whole war alone.

Hector tells his side that Achilles’s threats cannot all come true. Hector would fight even the gods, if the weapon were words alone. With a spear, he would not fight the gods, but he will fight Achilles. Apollo warns him off of this though, and he obeys.

Therefore Achilles starts killing others:

  • Iphition son of Otrynteus,
  • Demoleon son of Antenor,
  • Polydorus son of Priam.

Seeing the last victim with his guts in his hands, Hector can no longer hold himself back.

Achilles taunts him: Come closer, die sooner.

Hector responds as Aeneas did, as I mentioned. He acknowledges being the lesser man, but like Aeneas says the outcome of their fight is up to the gods.

Athena blows back Hector’s spear.

Apollo four times saves Aeneas from Achilles’s spear.

Therefore Achilles again directs his attention to killing others:

  • Dryops;
  • Demuchus son of Philetor;
  • Laogonus and Dardanus, sons of Bias;
  • Tros, son of Alastor;
  • Mulius;
  • Echeclus son of Antenor;
  • Deucalion;
  • Rhigmus son of Peires.

Achilles is like a fire on a parched mountainside; his horses are like bulls on the threshing floor.

Edited May 3, 2023 (I had left out Tros from the genealogy of Aeneas)

3 Trackbacks

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

    […] « Words (Iliad Book XX) […]

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

    […] can now be used to ransom her two sons, if they be alive. We know they are not, from Books XXI and XX […]

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

    […] Diomedes, with the horses of Tros, taken from Aeneas in Book V, where one learns that Tros had been given horses by Zeus in exchange for Ganymede, and Anchises had put mares under them without knowledge of Laomedon, thus breeding six horses, of which he gave two to his son—who would recount his genealogy, including the people just named, in Book XX. […]

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