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Iliad - Book One - Homer


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Themes: AngerPrideReligion


Book One


The Iliad opens with an invocation of the muse; the narrator asks the “goddess” to “sing…the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus / and its devastation” (1.1-2). Beginning the story of the Trojan War in the midst of the flighting, the narrator focuses on the “bitter collision” between the leaders Agamemnon and Achilles (1.8). Tracing their conflict back to a “foul pestilence” (1.10) sent by the god Apollo in anger at the king Agamemnon, because Apollo’s priest Chryses has been dishonoured. This disrespect came about because Agamemnon had refused to let a captive, the daughter of Chryses, be ransomed.


When the cause of the plague is revealed, Agamemnon is displeased and demands that this girl, his prize, if she must be delivered back to her family, be replaced with another. He says that it is “unbefitting” that everyone else have a gift but he, king over the others, does not have a prize. Achilleus insists that Agamemnon return the girl without a replacement, and in anger Agamemnon decides that Achilleus must be the one to give up his prize. Revealing the reasons for his involvement in the war, Achilleus responds, “I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan / spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing / …but for your sake. / O great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favor, / you with the dog’s eyes, to win your honor and Menelaos’ / from the Trojans” (1.152-160).


When Agamemnon threatens to take Achilleus’ own prize to show him how much “greater” he is than Achilleus, the warrior is tempted to kill Agamemnon on the spot. The goddess Athene is sent by Hera, “who loved both men equally in her heart,” to stop Achilleus (1.196). Grabbing him by the hair, Athene warns Achilleus to “keep clear of fighting” (1.210), though attacks of words are allowed. Instead of killing Agamemnon, then, Achilleus makes an oath that a time will come that the Achaians (that is, the Greeks) will desperately long to have him fighting for them and saving them from destruction at the hands of Hektor the Trojan. Although Nestor tries to make peace between the two Achaian leaders, Agamemnon will not back down from his threat, and Achilleus goes back to his ship. 


When the men come to take Briseis, Achilleus’ prize, he lets her go, despite the indignity, and Briseis “all unwilling went with them still.” Achilleus cries out his sorrow at the seashore, calling his mother, the sea goddess, Thetis: “Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life, therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me honor at least” (1. 352-353). Rising from the depths of the sea, Thetis tries to console her son; she ultimately agrees to supplicate Zeus, the king of the gods, in the matter. Going to find him on Olympos, Thetis implores Zeus to do honor to Achilleus, to make up for the dishonor done him by the Achaians. Although he is reluctant, Zeus accepts her request. “I will look to these things that they be accomplished,” he solemnly agrees, nodding his head to ratify the promise (1.523, 1.528). 


The goddess Hera, noticing Thetis talking to Zeus, reproaches her husband. Zeus replies to her, “Dear lady, I never escape you; you are alwasys full of suspicion. / Yet thus you can accomplish nothing surely, but be more / distant from my heart than ever, and it will be worse for you” (1.561-563). Hephaistos tries to comfort his mother, asking them to not fight and expressing a desire for harmony among the gods; he moves then to serve the other Olympian gods at their feast nectar from the mixing bowl. And “among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter / went up as they saw Hephaistos bustling about the palace” (1.599-600). The book closes with the sun going down and Zeus and Hera retiring to sleep in their bed. 

Opening questions:


What was the cause of the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles?


What was the will of Zeus that the narrator says was accomplished (1.5)?

Suggested Pairing:


Gods and Epics - Hamilton, Mythology; Homer, Odyssey; Homer Odyssey

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