This time around, we covered a long stretch of readings: Books 11-15 and the first 100 lines of Book 16. In years past, I have skipped straight from Book 11 to 16 because the transition is so seamless. But this time around, I wanted the students to see , Poseidon’s direct contravention of Zeus’ order for all gods to remain off the battlefield (13.10-38), Agamemnon’s second attempt to flee (14.74-81), the seduction and deception of Zeus (14.160-360), and Poseidon’s near fight with his brother, equal in rank, but not in power (15. 167-235), and of course the fateful request of Patroklos to Achilleus for his armor and return to the battle at the head of Myrmidons (16.20-100).
A major theme which shows up again and again in Homer’s Iliad is power and its manifold expressions–and also the intricacies connected to differences in power and rank. For instance, in Book I, one of the governing reasons for the conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon in the first place is that Agamemnon exceeds Achilleus in rank, but Achilleus is “far stronger” than is Agamemnon (1.130-245), In similar but distinctly different fashion, we observe the machinations of both Hera and Poseidon, in defiance of Zeus, during Books 13 and 14. Both may claim to be equal to Zeus in terms of birth and in fact Poseidon in his response to Iris suggests that either he or Hades could easily be king over the sky as Zeus is had the lots been cast in their favor. The difference, however, seems to be that equal as Hera and Poseidon may be to Zeus in rank and as siblings, they have not his brutal power. Even Poseidon is cowed by Zeus’ might (15.205-215). This difference in power leads to another expression of power, particularly feminine, by Hera.
Hera observes her brother Poseidon enter the Trojan battlefield against the orders given by Zeus (from 8.1-28) at 13.10-28. Knowing that if her brother and husband finds out about this that he will be angry and immediately seek to stop Poseidon from helping the Achaian side, Hera seeks a way to keep Zeus’ attentions divided. Her solution, since she can hardly force Zeus, is to use the tools at her disposal: deception and male weakness for female flesh–which she actually uses on two gods. First and foremost, Hera goes to Aphrodite with a contrived tale of how she wishes to go see Okeanos and Tethys and “reignite the passion” between them that has been lost (she wants to return them to the same marriage bed). But in order to accomplish this act she requires the “zone” of Aphrodite which will make her irresistible to mortal men and gods. Aphrodite willingly gives the zone over citing the fact that Hera shares the bed of Zeus as her reason. Interesting to note is that Hera is not explicit about how she wishes to use the zone–is it to give to Tethys so that she is irresistible to Okeanos? Or is it that Hera will have limitless persuasive power over both with the zone? In any case, Hera acquires the belt, and then she goes to see the god Sleep (Hypnos).
Just as Hera played on the weakness of Aphrodite’s position in requesting the zone of her, so here does she play on the weakness Sleep has for a certain Grace, Pasithea. First, Hera attempted to offer a throne and footstool wrought by Hephaistos, but apparently this is not the first time Hera has made this request of Hypnos, and he is wise to the consequences of interfering with the plans of Zeus. The last time Hera made such a request–after Zeus fell asleep, Hera sent a storm with the help of Boreas (the North Wind) to drive Herakles, her most hated step-son, off course to Kos. When Zeus woke up, however, he threw all the Olympians and gods on Olympus in rage and only retreating to Mother Nyx (Night) saved Sleep from bearing the full fury of wrath of Zeus (14. 245-269). All that said, Sleep, being male, is immediately swayed to do as Hera asks when she offers to him the Grace that he is soft for.
All the pieces in place, Hera then seeks out Zeus at Mount Ida and makes a pretense to request his permission before leaving for Okeanos and Tethys. Looking as good as she does though, and augmented by Aphrodite’s zone, Zeus suggests that they bed-down before she goes–he does not even want to wait the span of time necessary to go to Hera’s house, which we find out in Book 15 would be the span of a thought (15.78-82). He shrouds them in a golden cloud, and Hera buys Poseidon time to undue as much of the harm as Zeus has caused to the Achaians as possible.
The whole scene–and what leads up to it and what comes after (with Iris commanding Poseidon off the battlefield after Zeus sends Hera to convey his will to her) is a fascinating study in the use of varying powers. Hera, knowing her brute force is far less than that of her husband, knows that she can still circumvent his will by deceiving him and Aphrodite, and convincing Sleep to help. All this she does, too, in such a way that she can still swear a holy oath on Styx that she did not put the thought to act against Zeus into Poseidon’s mind (15.35-45). Clearly, she did help Poseidon by distracting Zeus and worked hard to ensure his success, but in the face of the rage of the Olympian she can claim to have been innocent of orchestrating the plan. For those who feel powerless in the wake of the force and strength of their betters, Hera is truly the acme of resourceful cunning in these two books.
All the while that this is happening, Agamemnon, too shows himself to be still a weak and easily discouraged leader. Just as in 9.17-28, so does he again suggest fleeing at 14.65-81 (and if one counts his failed attempt to rouse the battle spirit of his men by reverse psychology, he did the same at 2.111-141). Although Agamemnon is remarkable for his ability on the battlefield, particularly in Book 12, as a leader he is easily discouraged, and he is rightfully admonished by Diomedes in Book 9 and Odysseus in Book 14. The students, as any person reading this epic poem might imagine, maintain a low opinion of Agamemnon’s gift for marshaling the men and maintaining morale. Interestingly, when asked who they would prefer leading the troops, many suggest Diomedes, but most suggest Odysseus. One, however, suggested that Odysseus, though he leads well, especially in the aftermath of Agamemnon’s speech in Book 2, is of higher value in his current place as the man who “gets things done”: whether he be re-invigorating troops in Book 2, or drawing off lines for one on one combat in Book 3, or going as an envoy to Achilleus in Book 9 or stalking through the night for information in Book 10, Odysseus is the man “who gets the job done.”
Patroklos’ request to don the armor of Achilleus at the suggest of Nestor was touched on, but largely it will be discussed during seminar this upcoming Wednesday in the wake of Patroklos’ death. For one of the most hotly debated topics of seminars on Homer’s Iliad is this: who is responsible for the death of Patroklos? In our next post, we will delve into the subtleties and complexities of this question.
Nota Bene*The students are beginning to see that that which is flashy, superficial, and without substance is weak and without value, not simply in Homer’s Iliad but in the world around them.