Greek literature opens with a problem of the first magnitude. Two splendid Epics have been preserved which are ascribed to “Homer", yet few would agree that Homer wrote them both. Many authorities have denied altogether that such a person ever existed; it seems certain that he could not have been the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, for the latter describes a far more advanced state of society; it is still an undecided question whether the Iliad was written in Europe or in Asia, but the probability is that the Odyssey is of European origin; the date of the poems it is very difficult to gauge, though the best authorities place it somewhere in the eighth century B.C. Fortunately these difficulties do not interfere with our enjoyment of the two poems; if there were two Homers, we may be grateful to Nature for bestowing her favours so liberally upon us; if Homer never existed at all, but is a mere nickname for a class of singer, the literary fraud that has been perpetrated is no more serious than that which has assigned Apocalyptic visions of different ages to Daniel. Perhaps the Homeric poems are the growth of many generations, like the English parish churches; they resemble them as being examples of the exquisite effects which may be produced when the loving care and the reverence of a whole people blend together in different ages pieces of artistic work whose authors have been content to remain unnamed.
It is of some importance to remember that the Iliad is not the story of the whole Trojan war, but only of a very small episode which was worked out in four days. The real theme is the Wrath of Achilles. In the tenth year of the siege the Greeks had captured a town called Chryse. Among the captives were two maidens, one Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo, the other Briseis; the former had fallen to the lot of Agamemnon, the King of the Greek host, the latter to Achilles his bravest follower. Chryses, father of Chryseis, went to Agamemnon to ransom his daughter, but was treated with contumely; accordingly he prayed to the god to avenge him and was answered, for Apollo sent a pestilence upon the Greeks which raged for nine days, destroying man and beast. On the tenth day the chieftains held a counsel to discover the cause of the malady. At it Chalcas the seer before revealing the truth obtained the promise of Achilles' protection; when Agamemnon learned that he was to ransom his captive, his anger burst out against the seer and he demanded another prize in return. Achilles upbraided his greed, begging him to wait till Troy was taken, when he would be rewarded fourfold. Agamemnon in reply threatened to take Achilles' captive Briseis, at the same time describing his follower's character. “Thou art the most hateful to me of all Kings sprung of Zeus, for thou lovest alway strife and wars and battles. Mighty though thou art, thy might is the gift of some god. Briseis I will take, that thou mayest know how far stronger I am than thou, and that another may shrink from deeming himself my equal, rivalling me to my face.” At this insult Achilles half drew his sword to slay the King, but was checked by Pallas Athena, who bade him confine his resentment to taunts, for the time would come when Agamemnon would offer him splendid gifts to atone for the wrong. Obeying the goddess Achilles reviled his foe, swearing a solemn oath that he would not help the Greeks when Hector swept them away. In vain did Nestor, the wise old counsellor who had seen two generations of heroes, try to make up the quarrel, beseeching Agamemnon not to outrage his best warrior and Achilles not to contend with his leader. The meeting broke up; Achilles departed to his huts, whence the heralds in obedience to Agamemnon speedily carried away Briseis.
Going down to the sea-shore Achilles called upon Thetis his mother to whom he told the story of his ill-treatment. In deep pity for his fate (for he was born to a life of a short span), she promised that she would appeal to Zeus to help him to his revenge; she had saved Zeus from destruction by summoning the hundred-armed Briareus to check a revolt among the gods against Zeus' authority. For the moment the king of the gods was absent in Aethiopia; when he returned to Olympus on the twelfth day she would win him over. Ascending to heaven, she obtained the promise of Zeus' assistance, not without raising the suspicions of Zeus' jealous consort Hera; a quarrel between them was averted by their son Hephaestus, whose ungainly performance of the duties of cupbearer to the Immortals made them forget all resentments in laughter unquenchable.
True to his promise Zeus sent a dream to Agamemnon to assure him that he would at last take Troy. The latter determined to summon an Assembly of the host. In it the changeable temper of the Greeks is vividly pictured. First Agamemnon told how he had the promise of immediate triumph; when the army eagerly called for battle, he spoke yet again describing their long years of toil and advising them to break up the siege and fly home, for Troy was not to be taken. This speech was welcomed with even greater enthusiasm than the other, the warriors rushing down to the shore to launch away. Aghast at the coming failure of the enterprise Athena stirred up Odysseus to check the mad impulse. Taking from Agamemnon his royal sceptre as the sign of authority, he pleaded with chieftains and their warriors, telling them that it was not for them to know the counsel in the hearts of Kings.
“We are not all Kings to bear rule here. 'Tis not good to have many
Lords; let there be one Lord, one King, to whom the crooked-counselling
son of Cronos hath given the rule.”
Thus did Odysseus stop the flight, bringing to reason all save Thersites, “whose heart was full of much unseemly wit, who talked rashly and unruly, striving with Kings, saying what he deemed would make the Achaeans smile”.
He continued his chatter, bidding the Greeks persist in their homeward flight. Knowing that argument with such an one was vain, Odysseus laid his sceptre across his back with such heartiness that a fiery weal started up beneath the stroke. The host praised the act, the best of the many good deeds that Odysseus had done before Troy.
When the Assembly was stilled, Odysseus and Nestor and Agamemnon told the plan of action; the dream bade them arm for a mighty conflict, for the end could not be far off, the ten years' siege that had been prophesied being all but completed. The names of the various chieftains and the numbers of their ships are found in the famous catalogue, a document which the Greeks treasured as evidence of united action against a common foe. With equal eagerness the Trojans poured from their town commanded by Hector; their host too has received from Homer the glory of an everlasting memory in a detailed catalogue.
Literary skill of a high order has brought upon the scene as quickly as possible the chief figures of the poem. When the armies were about to meet, Paris, seeing Menelaus whom he had wronged, shrank from the combat. On being upbraided by Hector who called him “a joy to his foes and a disgrace to himself", Paris was stung to an act of courage. Hector's heart was as unwearied as an axe, his spirit knew not fear; yet beauty too was a gift of the gods, not to be cast away. Let him be set to fight Menelaus in single combat for Helen and her wealth; let an oath be made between the two armies to abide by the result of the fight, that both peoples might end the war and live in peace. Overjoyed, Hector called to the Greeks telling them of Paris' offer, which Menelaus accepted. The armies sat down to witness the fight, while Hector sent to Troy to fetch Priam to ratify the treaty.
In Troy the elders were seated on the wall to watch the conflict, Priam among them. Warned by Iris, Helen came forth to witness the single combat. As she moved among them the elders bore their testimony to her beauty; its nature is suggested but not described, for the poet felt he was unable to paint her as she was.
“Little wonder,” they exclaimed, “that the Trojans and Achaeans
should suffer woe for many a year for such a woman. She is marvellous
like the goddesses to behold; yet albeit she is so fair let her depart
in the ships, leaving us and our little ones no trouble to come.”
Seeing her, Priam bade her sit by him and tell the names of the Greek leaders as they passed before his eyes. Agamemnon she knew by his royal bearing, Odysseus who moved along the ranks like a ram she marked out as the master of craft and deep counsel. Hearing her words, Antenor bore his witness to their truth, for once Odysseus had come with Menelaus to Troy on an embassy.
“When they stood up Menelaus was taller, when they sat down Odysseus
was more stately. But when they spake, Menelaus' words were fluent,
clear but few; Odysseus when he spoke, fixed his eyes on the ground,
turning his sceptre neither backwards nor forward, standing still
like a man devoid of wit; one would have deemed him a churl and a very
fool; yet when he sent forth his mighty voice from his breast in words
as many as the snowflakes, no other man could compare with him.”
Helen pointed out Ajax and Idomeneus and others, yet could not see her two brothers, Castor and Pollux; either they had not come from her home in Sparta, or they had refused to fight, fearing the shame and reproach of her name. “So she spake, yet the life-giving earth covered them there, even in Sparta, their native land.”
When the news came to Priam of the combat arranged between Paris and Menelaus, the old King shuddered for his son, yet he went out to confirm the compact. Feeling he could not look upon the fight, he returned to the city. Meanwhile Hector had cast lots to decide which of the two should first hurl his spear. Paris failed to wound his enemy, but Menelaus' dart pierced Paris' armour; he followed it up with a blow of his sword which shivered to pieces in his hand. He then caught Paris' helmet and dragged him off towards the Greek army; but Aphrodite saved her favourite, for she loosed the chin-strap and bore Paris back to Helen in Troy. Menelaus in vain looked for him among the Trojans who were fain to see an end of him, “and would not have hidden him if they had seen him”. Agamemnon then declared his brother the victor and demanded the fulfilment of the treaty.
Such an end to the siege did not content Hera, whose anger against the Trojans was such that she could have “devoured raw Priam and his sons”. With Zeus' consent she sent down Pallas Athena to confound the treaty. Descending like some brilliant and baleful star the goddess assumed the shape of Laodocus and sought out the archer Pandarus. Him she tempted to shoot privily at Menelaus to gain the favour of Paris. While his companions held their shields in front of him the archer launched a shaft at his victim, but Athena turned it aside so that it merely grazed his body, drawing blood. Seeing his brother wounded Agamemnon ran to him, to prophesy the certain doom of the treaty breakers.
“Not in vain did we shed the blood of compact and offer the pledges
of a treaty. Though Zeus hath not fulfilled it now, yet he will at
last and they will pay dear with their lives, they, their wives and
children. Well I know in my heart that the day will come when sacred
Troy will perish and Priam and his folk; Zeus himself throned on high
dwelling in the clear sky will shake against them all his dark aegis
in anger for this deceit.”
While the leeches drew out the arrow from the wound, Agamemnon went round the host with words of encouragement or chiding to stir them up to the righteous conflict. They rushed on to battle to be met by the Trojans whose host
“knew not one voice or one speech; their language was mixed, for they
were men called from many lands.”
In the fight Diomedes, though at first wounded by Pandarus, speedily returned refreshed and strengthened by Athena. His great deeds drew upon him Pandarus and Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite and the future founder of Rome's greatness. Diomedes quickly slew Pandarus and when Aeneas bestrode his friend's body, hurled at him a mighty stone which laid him low. Afraid of her son Aphrodite cast her arms about him and shrouded him in her robe. Knowing that she was but a weak goddess Diomedes attacked her, wounding her in the hand. Dropping her son, she fled to Ares who was watching the battle and besought him to lend her his chariot, wherein she fled back to Olympus. There her mother Dione comforted her with the story of the woes which other gods had suffered from mortals.
“But this man hath been set upon thee by Athena. Foolish one, he
knoweth not in his heart that no man liveth long who fighteth with
the gods; no children lisp 'father' at his knees when he returneth
from war and dread conflict. Therefore, albeit he is so mighty, let
him take heed lest a better than thou meet him, for one day his
prudent wife shall wail in her sleep awaking all her house, bereft
of her lord, the best man of the Achaeans.”
But Athena in irony deemed that Aphrodite had been scratched by some Greek woman whom she caressed to tempt her to forsake her husband and follow one of the Trojans she loved.
Aeneas when dropped by his mother had been picked up by Apollo; when Diomedes attacked the god, he was warned that battle with an immortal was not like man's warfare. Stirred by Apollo, Ares himself came to the aid of the Trojans, inspiring Sarpedon the Lycian to hearten his comrades, who were shortly gladdened by the return of Aeneas whom Apollo had healed. At the sight of Ares and Apollo fighting for Troy Hera and Athena came down to battle for the Greeks; they found Diomedes on the skirts of the host, cooling the wound Pandarus had inflicted. Entering his chariot by his side, Athena fired him to meet Ares and drive him wounded back to Olympus, where he found but little compassion from Zeus. The two goddesses then left the mortals to fight it out.
At this moment Helenus, the prophetic brother of Hector, bade him go to Troy to try to appease the anger of Athena by an offering, in the hope that Diomedes' progress might be stayed. In his absence Diomedes met in the battle Glaucus, a Lycian prince.
“Who art thou?” he asked. “I have never seen thee before in battle,
yet now thou hast gone far beyond all others in hardihood, for thou
hast awaited my onset, and they are hapless whose sons meet my
strength. If thou art a god, I will not fight with thee; but if thou
art one of those who eat the fruit of the earth, come near, that
thou mayest the quicker get thee to the gates of death.”
In answer, Glaucus said:
“Why askest thou my lineage? As is the life of leaves, so is that of
men. The leaves are scattered some of them to the earth by the wind,
others the wood putteth forth when it is in bloom, and they come on
in the season of spring. Even so of men one generation groweth,
He then told how he was a family friend of Diomedes and made with him a compact that if they met in battle they should avoid each the other; this they sealed by the exchange of armour, wherein the Greek had the better, getting gold weapons for bronze, the worth of a hundred oxen for the value of nine.
Coming to Troy Hector bade his mother offer Athena the finest robe she had; yet all in vain, for the goddess rejected it. Passing to the house of Paris, he found him polishing his armour, Helen at his side. Again rebuking him, he had from him a promise that he would be ready to re-enter the fight when Hector had been to his own house to see his wife Andromache. Hector's heart foreboded that it was the last time he would speak with her. She had with her their little son Astyanax. Weeping she besought him to spare himself for her sake.
“For me there will be no other comfort if thou meetest thy doom, but
sorrow. Father and mother have I none, for Achilles hath slain them
and my seven brothers. Hector, thou art my father and my lady mother
and my brother and thou art my wedded husband. Nay, come, pity me and
abide on the wall, lest thou make thy son an orphan and thy wife a
He answered, his heart heavy with a sense of coming death:
“The day will come when Troy shall fall, yet I grieve not for father
or mother or brethren so much as for thee, when some Achaean leads
thee captive, robbing thee of thy day of freedom. Thou shalt weave at
the loom in Argos or perchance fetch water, for heavy necessity shall
be laid upon thee. Then shall many a one say when he sees thee shedding
tears: 'Lo, this is the wife of Hector who was the best warrior of the
Trojans when they fought for their town.' Thus will they speak and thou
shalt have new sorrow for lack of such a man to drive away the day of
He stretched out his arms to his little son who was affrighted at the sight of the helmet as it nodded its plumes dreadfully from its tall top. Hector and Andromache laughed when they saw the child's terror; then Hector took off his helmet and prayed that the boy might grow to a royal manhood and gladden his mother's heart. Smiling through her tears, Andromache took the child from Hector, while he comforted her with brave words.
“Lady, grieve not overmuch, I beseech thee, for no man shall thrust me
to death beyond my fate. Methinks none can avoid his destiny, be he
brave or a coward, when once he hath been born. Nay, go to the house,
ply thy tasks and bid the maids be busy, but war is the business of
the men who are born in Troy and mine most of all.”
Thus she parted from him, looking back many a time, shedding plenteous tears. So did they mourn for Hector even before his doom, for they said he would never escape his foes and come back in safety.
Finding Paris waiting for him, Hector passed out to the battlefield. Aided by Glaucus he wrought great havoc, so much that Athena and Apollo stirred him to challenge the bravest of the Greeks. The victor was to take the spoils of the vanquished but to return the body for burial. At first the Greeks were silent when they heard his challenge, ashamed to decline it and afraid to take it up. At last eight of their bravest cast lots, the choice falling upon Ajax. A great combat ended in the somewhat doubtful victory of Ajax, the two parting in friendship after an exchange of presents. The result of the fighting had discouraged both sides; the Greeks accordingly decided to throw up a mound in front of their ships, protected by a deep trench. This tacit confession of weakness in the absence of Achilles leads up to the heavy defeat which was to follow. On the other side the Trojans held a council to deliver up Helen. When Paris refused to surrender her but offered to restore her treasures, a deputation was sent to inform the Greeks of his decision. The latter refused to accept either Helen or the treasure, feeling that the end was not far off. That night Zeus sent mighty thunderings to terrify the besiegers.
So far the main plot of the Iliad has been undeveloped; now that the chief characters on both sides have played a part in the war, the poem begins to show how the wrath of Achilles works itself out under Zeus' direction. First the king of the gods warned the deities that he would allow none to intervene on either side and would punish any offender with his thunders. Holding up the scales of doom, he placed in them the lot of Trojans and of Greeks; as the latter sank down, he hurled at their host his lightnings, driving all the warriors in flight to the great mound they had built. For a time Teucer the archer brother of Ajax held them back, but when he was smitten by a mighty stone hurled of Hector all resistance was broken. A vain attempt was made by Hera and Athena to help the Greeks, but the goddesses quailed before the punishment wherewith Zeus threatened them. When night came the Trojans encamped on the open plain, their camp-fires gleaming like the stars which appear on some night of stillness.
Disheartened at his defeat, Agamemnon freely acknowledged his fault and suggested flight homewards. Nestor advised him to call an Assembly and depute some of the leading men to make up the quarrel with Achilles. The King listened to him, offering to give Achilles his own daughter in wedlock, together with cities and much spoil of war. Three ambassadors were chosen, Phoenix, Ajax and Odysseus. Reaching Achilles' tent, they found him singing lays of heroes, Patroclus his friend by his side. When he saw the ambassadors, he gave them a courtly welcome. Odysseus laid the King's proposals before him, to which Achilles answered with dignity.
“I hate as sore as the gates of Death a man who hideth one thing in
his heart and sayeth its opposite. Do the sons of Atreus alone of
men love their wives? Methinks all the wealth which Troy contained
before the Greeks came upon it, yea all the wealth which Apollo holds
in rocky Pytho, is not the worth of life itself. Cattle and horses
and brazen ware can be got by plunder, but a man's life cannot be
taken by spoil nor recovered when once it passeth the barrier of his
teeth. Nay, go back to the elders and bid them find a better plan
than this. Let Phoenix abide by me here that he may return with me
to-morrow in my ships if he will, for I will not constrain him by
Phoenix had been Achilles' tutor. In terror for the safety of the Greek fleet, he appealed to his friend to relent.
“How can I be left alone here without thee, dear child? Thy father
sent me to teach thee to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.
In thy childhood I tended thee, for I knew that I should never have a
son and I looked to thee to save me from ruin. Tame thy great spirit.
Even the gods know how to change, whose honour is greater, and their
power. Men in prayer turn them by sacrifice when any hath sinned and
transgressed. For Prayers are the daughters of great Zeus; they are
halt and wrinkled and their eyes look askance. Their task it is to go
after Ruin; for Ruin is strong and sound of foot, wherefore she far
outrunneth them all and getteth before them in harming men over all the
world. But they come after; whosoever honoureth the daughters of Zeus
when they come nigh, him they greatly benefit and hear his entreaties,
but whoso denieth them and stubbornly refuseth, they go to Zeus and ask
that Ruin may dog him, that he may be requited with mischief. Therefore,
Achilles, bring it to pass that honour follow the daughters of Zeus,
even that honour which bendeth the heart of others as noble as thou.”
When this appeal also failed, Ajax, a man of deeds rather than words, deemed it best to return at once, begging Achilles to bear them no ill-will and to remember the rights of hospitality which protected them from his resentment. When Achilles assured them of his regard for them and maintained his quarrel with Agamemnon alone, they departed and brought the heavy news to their anxious friends. On hearing it Diomedes briefly bade them get ready for the battle and fight without Achilles' help.
When the Trojan host had taken up its quarters on the plain, Nestor suggested that the Greeks should send one of their number to find out what Hector intended to do on the morrow. Diomedes offered to undertake the office of a spy, selecting Odysseus as his comrade. After a prayer to Athena to aid them, they went silently towards the bivouac. It chanced that Hector too had thought of a similar plan and that Dolon had offered to reconnoitre the Greek position. He was a wealthy man, ill-favoured to look upon, but swift of foot, and had asked that his reward should be the horses and the chariot of Achilles.
Hearing the sound of Dolon's feet as he ran, Diomedes and Odysseus parted to let him pass between them; then cutting off his retreat they closed on him and captured him. They learned how the Trojan host was quartered; at the extremity of it was Rhesus, the newly arrived Thracian King, whose white horses were a marvel of beauty and swiftness. In return for his information Dolon begged them to spare his life, but Diomedes deemed it safer to slay him. The two Greeks penetrated the Thracian encampment, where they slew many warriors and escaped with the horses back to the Greek armament.
When the fighting opened on the next day, Agamemnon distinguished himself by deeds of great bravery, but retired at length wounded in the hand. Zeus had warned Hector to wait for that very moment before pushing home his attack. One after another the Greek leaders were wounded, Diomedes, Odysseus, Machaon; Ajax alone held up the Trojan onset, retiring slowly and stubbornly towards the sea. Achilles, seeing the return of the wounded warrior Machaon, sent his friend Patroclus to find out who he was. Nestor meeting Patroclus, told him of the rout of the army, and advised him to beg Achilles at least to allow the Myrmidons to sally forth under Patroclus' leadership, if he would not fight in person. The importance of this episode is emphasised in the poem. The dispatch of Patroclus is called “the beginning of his undoing", it foreshadows the intervention which was later to bring Achilles himself back into the conflict.
The Trojan host after an attempt to drive their horses over the trench stormed it in five bodies. As they streamed towards the wall, an omen of a doubtful nature filled Polydamas with some misgivings about the wisdom of bursting through to the sea. It was possible that they might be routed and that they would accordingly be caught in a trap, leaving many of their dead behind them. His advice to remain content with the success they had won roused the anger of Hector, whose headstrong character is well portrayed in his speech.
“Thou biddest me consider long-winged birds, whereof I reck not nor
care for them whether they speed to right or left. Let us obey the
counsel of Zeus. One omen is the best, to fight for our country. Why
dost thou dread war and tumult? Even if all we others were slain at
the ships, there is no fear that thou wilt perish, for thy heart
cannot withstand the foe and is not warlike. But if thou holdest from
the fight or turnest another from war, straightway shalt thou lose
thy life under the blow of my spear.”
Thus encouraged the army pressed forward, the walls being pierced by the Lycian King Sarpedon, a son of Zeus. Taking up a mighty stone, Hector broke open the gate and led his men forward to the final onslaught on the ships.
For a brief space Zeus turned his eyes away from the conflict and Poseidon used the opportunity to help the Greeks. Idomeneus the Cretan and his henchman Meriones greatly distinguished themselves, the former drawing a very vivid picture of the brave man.
“I know what courage is. Would that all the bravest of us were being
chosen for an ambush, wherein a man's bravery is most manifest. In
it the coward and the courageous man chiefliest appear. The colour of
the one changeth and his spirit cannot be schooled to remain stedfast,
but he shifteth his body, settling now on this foot now on that; his
heart beateth mightily, knocking against his breast as he bodeth death,
and his teeth chatter. But the good man's colour changeth not, nor is
he overmuch afraid when once he sitteth in his place of ambush; rather
he prayeth to join speedily in the dolorous battle.”
Yet soon Idomeneus' strength left him; Hector hurried to the centre of the attack, where he confronted Ajax.
At this point Hera determined to prolong the intervention of Poseidon in favour of the Greeks. She persuaded Aphrodite to lend her all her spells of beauty on the pretence that she wished to reconcile Ocean to his wife Tethys. Armed with the goddess' girdle, she lulled Zeus to sleep and then sent a message to Poseidon to give the Greeks his heartiest assistance. Inspired by him the fugitives turned on their pursuers; when Ajax smote down Hector with a stone the Trojans were hurled in flight back through the gate and across the ramparts.
When Zeus awakened out of slumber and saw the rout of the Trojans, his first impulse was to punish Hera for her deceit. He then restored the situation, bidding Poseidon retire and sending Apollo to recover Hector of his wound. The tide speedily turned again; the Trojans rushed through the rampart and down to the outer line of the Greek ships, where they found nobody to resist them except the giant Ajax and his brother Teucer. After a desperate fight in which Ajax single-handed saved the fleet, Hector succeeded in grasping the ship of Protesilaus and called loud for fire. This was the greatest measure of success vouchsafed him; from this point onwards the balance was redressed in favour of the Greeks.
Achilles had been watching the anguish of Patroclus' spirit when this disaster came upon their friends.
“Why weepest thou, Patroclus, like some prattling little child who
runneth to her mother and biddeth her take her up, catching at her
garment and checking her movement and gazing at her tearfully till
she lifteth her? Even so thou lettest fall the big tears.”
Patroclus begged his friend to allow him to wear his armour and lead the Myrmidons out to battle, not knowing that he was entreating for his own ruin and death. After some reluctance Achilles gave him leave, yet with the strictest orders not to pursue too far. Fresh and eager for the battle the Myrmidons drove the Trojans back into the plain. Patroclus' course was challenged by the Lycians, whose King Sarpedon faced him in single combat. In great sorrow Zeus watched his son Sarpedon go to his doom; in his agony he shed tear-drops of blood and ordered Death and Sleep to carry the body back to Lycia for burial.
The great glory Patroclus had won tempted him to forget his promise to Achilles. He pursued the Trojans back to the walls of the town, slaying Cebriones the charioteer of Hector. In the fight which took place over the body Patroclus was assailed by Hector and Euphorbus under the guidance of Apollo. Hector administered the death-blow; before he died Patroclus foretold a speedy vengeance to come from Achilles.
A mighty struggle arose over his body. Menelaus slew Euphorbus, but retreated at the approach of Hector, who seized the armour of Achilles and put it on. A thick cloud settled over the combatants, heightening the dread of battle. The gods came down to encourage their respective warriors; the Greeks were thrust back over the plain, but the bravery of Ajax and Menelaus enabled the latter to save Patroclus' body and carry it from the dust of battle towards the ships.
When the news of his friend's death came to Achilles his grief was so mighty that it seemed likely that he would have slain himself. He burst into a lamentation so bitter that his mother heard him in her sea-cave and came forth to learn what new sorrow had taken him. Too late he learned the hard lesson that revenge may be sweet but is always bought at the cost of some far greater thing.
“I could not bring salvation to Patroclus or my men, but sit at the
ships a useless burden upon the land, albeit I am such a man as no
other in war, though others excel me in speech. Perish strife from
among men and gods, and anger which inciteth even a prudent man to
take offence; far sweeter than dropping honey it groweth in a man's
heart like smoke, even now as Agamemnon hath roused me to a fury.”
Being robbed of his armour he could not sally out to convey his companion's body into the camp. Hera therefore sent Iris to him bidding him merely show himself at the trenches and cry aloud. At the sound of his thrice-repeated cry the Trojans shrank back in terror, leaving the Greeks to carry in Patroclus' body unmolested; then Hera bade the sun set at once into the ocean to end the great day of battle.
Polydamas knew well what the appearance of Achilles portended to the Trojans, for he was the one man among them who could look both before and after; his advice was that they should retire into the town and there shut themselves up. It was received with scorn by Hector. In the Greek camp Achilles burst into a wild lament over Patroclus, swearing that he would not bury him before he had brought in Hector dead and twelve living captives to sacrifice before the pyre. That night his mother went to Hephaestus and persuaded him to make divine armour for her son, which the poet describes in detail.
On receiving the armour from his mother Achilles made haste to reconcile himself with Agamemnon. His impatience for revenge and the oath he had taken made it impossible for him to take any food. His strength was maintained by Athena who supplied him with nectar. On issuing forth to the fight he addressed his two horses:
“Xanthus and Balius, bethink you how ye may save your charioteer
when he hath done with the battle, and desert him not in death as
ye did Patroclus.”
In reply they prophesied his coming end.
“For this we are not to blame, but the mighty god—and violent Fate.
We can run quick as the breath of the North wind, who men say is
the swiftest of all, but thy fate it is to die by the might of a
god and a man.”
The Avenging Spirits forbade them to reveal more. The awe of the climax of the poem is heightened by supernatural interventions. At last the gods themselves received permission from Zeus to enter the fray. They took sides, the shock of their meeting causing the nether deity to start from his throne in fear that his realm should collapse about him. Achilles met Aeneas and would have slain him had not Poseidon saved him. Hector withdrew before him, warned by Apollo not to meet him face to face. Disregarding the god's advice he attacked Achilles, but for the moment was spirited away. Disappointed of his prey Achilles sowed havoc among the lesser Trojans.
Choked by the numerous corpses the River-God Scamander begged him cease his work of destruction. When the Hero disregarded him, he assembled all his waters and would have overwhelmed him but for Athena who gave him power to resist; the river was checked by the Fire-God who dried up his streams. The gods then plunged into strife, the sight whereof made Zeus laugh in joy. Athena quickly routed Aphrodite and Hera Artemis. Apollo deemed it worthless to fight Poseidon.
“Thou wouldst not call me prudent were I to strive with thee for
cowering mortals, who like leaves sometimes are full of fire, then
again waste away spiritless. Let us make an end of our quarrel;
let men fight it out themselves.”
Deserted by their protectors the Trojans broke before Achilles, who nearly took the town.
Baulked a second time of his vengeance by Apollo, Achilles vowed he would have punished the god had he the power. Hector had at last decided to face his foe at the Scaean Gate. His father and his mother pleaded with him in a frenzy of grief to enter the town, but the dread of Polydamas' reproaches fixed his resolve. When Achilles came rushing towards him, his heart failed; he ran three times round the walls of the city. Meanwhile the gods held up the scales of doom; when his life sank down to death Apollo left him for ever.
Athena then took the shape of Deiphobus, encouraging him to face Achilles. Seeing unexpectedly a friend, he turned and stood his ground, for she had already warned Achilles of her plot. Hector launched his spear which sped true, but failed to penetrate the divine armour. When he found no Deiphobus at his side to give him another weapon, he knew his end had come. Drawing himself up for a final effort, he darted at Achilles; the latter spied a gap in the armour he had once worn, through which he smote Hector mortally. Lying in approaching death, the Trojan begged that his body might be honoured with a burial, but Achilles swore he should never have it, rather the dogs and carrion birds should devour his flesh. Seeing their great foe dead the Greeks flocked around him, not one passing by him without stabbing his body. Achilles bored through his ankles and attached him to his car; then whipping up his horses, he drove full speed to the camp, dragging Hector in disgrace over the plain. This scene of pure savagery is succeeded by the laments of Priam, Hecuba and Andromache over him whom Zeus allowed to be outraged in his own land.
That night the shade of Patroclus visited Achilles, bidding him bury him speedily that he might cross the gates of death; the dust of his ashes was to be stored up in an urn and mixed with Achilles' own when his turn came to die. After the funeral Achilles held games of great splendour in which the leading athletes contended for the prizes he offered.
Yet nothing could make up for the loss of his friend. Every day he dragged Hector's body round Patroclus' tomb, but Apollo in pity for the dead man kept away corruption, maintaining the body in all its beauty of manhood. At last on the twelfth day Apollo appealed to the gods to end the barbarous outrage.
“Hath not Hector offered to you many a sacrifice of bulls and
goats? Yet ye countenance the deeds of Achilles, who hath forsaken
all pity which doth harm to men and bringeth a blessing too. Many
another is like to lose a friend, but he will weep and let his
foe's body go, for the Fates have given men an heart to endure.
Good man though he be, let Achilles take heed lest he move us to
indignation by outraging in fury senseless clay.”
Zeus sent to fetch Thetis whom he bade persuade her son to ransom the body; meanwhile Iris went to Troy to tell Priam to take a ransom and go to the ships without fear, for the convoy who should guide him would save him from harm.
On hearing of Priam's resolve Hecuba tried to dissuade him, but the old King would not be turned. That night he went forth alone; he was met in the plain by Hermes, disguised as a servant of Achilles, who conducted him to the hut where Hector lay. Slipping in unseen, Priam caught Achilles' knees and kissed the dread hands that had slain his son. In pity for the aged King Achilles remembered his own father, left as defenceless as Priam. Calling out his servants he bade them wash the corpse outside, lest Priam at the sight of it should upbraid him and thus provoke him to slay him and offend against the commands of Zeus. As they supped, Priam marvelled at the stature and beauty of Achilles and Achilles wondered at Priam's reverend form and his words. While Achilles slept, Hermes came to Priam to warn him of his danger if he were found in the Greek host. Hastily harnessing the chariot, he led him back safely to Troy, where the body was laid upon a bed in Hector's palace.
The laments which follow are of great beauty. Andromache bewailed her widowhood, Hecuba her dearest son; Helen's lament is a masterpiece.
“Hector, far the dearest to me of all my brethren, of a truth Paris
is my lord, who brought me hither—would I had died first. This is
the tenth year since I left my native land, yet have I never heard
from thee a word cruel or despiteful; rather, if any other chode me,
thy sister or a brother's wife or thy mother—though thy father is
gentle to me always as he were my own sire—thou didst restrain such
with words of persuasion and kindness and gentleness all thine own.
Wherefore I grieve for thee and for myself in anguish, for there is
no other friend in broad Troy kind and tender, but all shudder at me.”
Then with many a tear they laid to his rest mighty Hector.
Such is the Iliad. To modern readers it very often seems a little dull. Horace long ago pointed out that it is inevitable that a long poem should flag; even Homer nods sometimes. Some of the episodes are distinctly wearisome, for they are invented to give a place in this national Epic to lesser heroes who could hardly be mentioned if Achilles were always in the foreground. Achilles himself is not a pleasing person; his character is wayward and violent; he is sometimes childish, always liable to be carried away by a fit of pettishness and unable to retain our real respect; further, a hero who is practically invulnerable and yet dons divine armour to attack those who are no match for him when he is without it falls below the ordinary “sportsman's” level. Nor can we feel much reverence for many of the gods; Hera is odious, Athena guilty of flat treachery, Zeus, liable to allow his good nature to overcome his judgment—Apollo alone seems consistently noble. More, we shall look in vain in the Iliad for any sign of the pure battle-joy which is so characteristic of northern Epic poetry; the Greek ideal of bravery had nothing of the Berserker in it. Perhaps these are the reasons why the sympathy of nearly all readers is with the Trojans, who are numerically inferior, are aided by fewer and weaker gods and have less mighty champions to defend them.
What then is left to admire in the Iliad? It is well to remember that the poem is not the first but the last of a long series; its very perfection of form and language makes it certain that it is the result of a long literary tradition. As such, it has one or two remarkable features. We shall not find in many other Epics that sense of wistful sorrow for man's brief and uncertain life which is the finest breath of all poetry that seeks to touch the human heart. The marks of rude or crude workmanship which disfigure much Epic have nearly all disappeared from the Iliad. The characterisation of many of the figures of the poem is masterly, their very natures being hit off in a few lines—and it is important to remember that it is not really the business of Epic to attempt analysis of character at all except very briefly; the story cannot be kept waiting. But the real Homeric power is displayed in the famous scenes of pure and worthy pathos such as the parting of Andromache from Hector and the laments over his body. Those who would learn how to touch great depths of sorrow and remain dignified must see how it has been treated in the Iliad.
A few vigorous lines hit off the plan of the Odyssey.
“Sing, Muse, of the man of much wandering who travelled right far
after sacking sacred Troy, and saw the cities of many men and knew
their ways. Many a sorrow he suffered on the sea, trying to win a
return home for himself and his comrades; yet he could not for all
his longing, for they died like fools through their own blindness.”
Odysseus, when the poem opens, was in Calypso's isle pitied of all the gods save Poseidon. In a council Zeus gave his consent that Hermes should go to Calypso, while Athena should descend to Ithaca to encourage Odysseus' son Telemachus to seek out news of his father.
Taking the form of Mentes, Athena met Telemachus and informed him that his father was not yet dead. Seeing the suitors who were wooing his mother Penelope and eating up the house in riot, she advised him to dismiss them and visit Nestor in Pylos. A lay sung by Phemius brought Penelope from her chamber, who was astonished at the immediate change which her son's speech showed had come upon him, transforming him to manhood.
Next day Telemachus called an Assembly of the Ithacans; his appeal to the suitors to leave him in peace provoked an insulting speech from their ringleader Antinous who held Penelope to blame for their presence; she had constantly eluded them, on one occasion promising to marry when she had woven a shroud for Laertes her father-in-law; the work she did by day she undid at night, till she was betrayed by a serving-woman. Telemachus then asked the suitors for a ship to get news of his father. When the assembly broke up, Athena appeared in answer to Telemachus' prayer in the form of Mentor and pledged herself to go with him on his travels. She prepared a ship and got together a crew, while Telemachus bade his old nurse Eurycleia conceal from his mother his departure.
In Pylos Nestor told him all he knew of Odysseus, describing the sorrows which came upon the Greek leaders on their return and especially the evil end of Agamemnon. He added that Menelaus had just returned to Sparta and was far more likely to know the truth than any other, for he had wandered widely over the seas on his home-coming. Bidding Nestor look after Telemachus, Athena vanished from his sight, but not before she was recognised by the old hero. On the morrow Telemachus set out for Sparta, accompanied by Pisistratus, one of Nestor's sons.
Menelaus gave them a kindly welcome and a casual mention of his father's name stirred Telemachus to tears. At that moment Helen entered; her quicker perception at once traced the resemblance between the young stranger and Odysseus. When Telemachus admitted his identity, Helen told some of his father's deeds. Once he entered Troy disguised as a beggar, unrecognised of all save Helen herself. “After he made her swear an oath that she would not betray him, he revealed all the plans of the Greeks. Then, after slaying many Trojans, he departed with much knowledge, while Helen's heart rejoiced, for she was already bent on a return home, repenting of the blindness which Aphrodite had sent her in persuading her to abandon home and daughter and a husband who lacked naught, neither wit not manhood.” Menelaus then recounted how Odysseus saved him when they were in the wooden horse, when one false sound would have betrayed them. On the next morning Telemachus told the story of the ruin of his home; Menelaus prophesied the end of the suitors, then preceded to recount how in Egypt he waylaid and captured Proteus, the changing god of the sea, whom he compelled to relate the fate of the Greek leaders and to prophesy his own return; from him he heard that Odysseus was with Calypso who kept him by force. On learning this important piece of news Telemachus was eager to return to Ithaca with all speed.
Meanwhile the suitors had learned of the departure of Telemachus and plotted to intercept him on his return. Their treachery was told to Penelope, who was utterly undone on hearing it; feeling herself left without a human protector she prayed to Athena, who appeared to her in a dream in the likeness of her own sister to assure her that Athena was watching over her, but refusing to say definitely whether Odysseus was alive.
The poem at this point takes up the story of Odysseus himself. Going to the isle where he was held captive, Hermes after admiring its great beauty delivered Zeus' message to Calypso to let the captive go. She reproached the gods for their jealousy and reluctantly promised to obey. She found Odysseus on the shore, eating out his heart in the desire for his home. When she informed him that she intended to let him go, he first with commendable prudence made her swear that she did not design some greater evil for him. Smiling at his cunning, she swore the most solemn of all oaths to help him, then supplied tools and materials for the building of his boat. When he was out on the deep, Poseidon wrecked his craft, but a sea goddess Leucothea, once a mortal, gave him a scarf to wrap round him, bidding him cast it from him with his back turned away when he got to land. After two nights and two days on the deep he at length saw land. Finding the mouth of a small stream, he swam up it, then utterly weary flung himself down on a heap of leaves under a bush, guarded by Athena.
The next episode introduces one of the most charming figures in ancient literature. Nausicaa was the daughter of Alcinous, King of Phaeacia, on whose island Odysseus had landed. To her Athena appeared in a dream, bidding her obtain from her father leave to go down to the sea to wash his soiled garments. The young girl obeyed, telling her father that it was but seemly that he, the first man in the kingdom, should appear at council in raiment white as snow. He gave her the leave she desired. After their work was done, she and her handmaids began a game of ball; their merry cries woke up Odysseus, who started up on hearing human voices. Coming forward, he frightened by his appearance the handmaids, but Nausicaa, emboldened by Athena, stood still and listened to his story. She supplied him with clean garments after she had given him food and drink. On the homeward journey Nausicaa bade Odysseus bethink him of the inconvenient talk which his presence would occasion if he were seen with her near the city. She therefore judged it best that she should enter first, at the same time she gave him full information of the road to the palace; when he entered it he was to proceed straight to the Queen Arete, whose favour was indispensable if he desired a return home.
Just outside the city Athena met him in the guise of a girl to tell him his way; she further cast about him a thick cloud to protect him from curious eyes. Passing through the King's gardens, which were a marvel of beauty and fruitfulness, Odysseus entered the palace and threw his arms in supplication about Arete's knees. She listened kindly to him and begged Alcinous give him welcome. When all the courtiers had retired to rest, Arete, noticing that the garments Odysseus wore had been woven by her own hands, asked him whence he had them and how he had come to the island. On hearing the story of his shipwreck Alcinous promised him a safe convoy to his home on the morrow.
At an assembly Alcinous consulted with his counsellors about Odysseus; all agreed to help in providing him with a ship and rowers. At a trial of skill Odysseus, after being taunted by some of the Phaeacians, hurled the quoit beyond them all. Later, a song of the wooden horse of Troy moved him to tears; though unnoticed by the others, he did not escape the eye of Alcinous who bade him tell them plainly who he was. Then he revealed himself and told the marvellous story of his wanderings.
First he and his companions reached the land of the Lotus-eaters. Finding out that the lotus made all who ate it lose their desire for home, Odysseus sailed away with all speed, forcing away some who had tasted the plant. Thence they reached the island of the Cyclopes, a wild race who knew no ordinances; each living in his cave was a law to himself, caring nothing for the others. Leaving his twelve ships, Odysseus proceeded with some of his men to the cave of one of the Cyclopes, a son of Poseidon, taking with him a skin of wine. When the one-eyed monster returned with his flock of sheep, he shut the mouth of the cave with a mighty stone which no mortal could move; then lighting a fire he caught sight of his visitors and asked who they were. Odysseus answered craftily, whereupon the monster devoured six of his company. Odysseus opened his wine-skin and offered some of the wine; when the Cyclops asked his name, Odysseus told him he was called Noman; in return for his kindness in offering him the strangely sweet drink the Cyclops promised to eat him last of all. But the wine soon plunged the monster into a slumber, from which he was awakened by the burning end of a great stake which Odysseus thrust into his eye. On hearing his cries of agony the other Cyclopes came to him, but went away when they heard that Noman was killing him. As it was impossible for anyone but the Cyclops to open the cave, Odysseus tied his men beneath the cattle, putting the beast which carried a man between two which were unburdened; he himself hung on to the ram. As the animals passed out, the Cyclops was a little surprised that the ram went last, but thought he did so out of grief for his master. When they were all safely outside, Odysseus freed his friends and made haste to get to the ship. Thrusting out, when he was at what seemed a safe distance he shouted to the Cyclops, who then remembered an old prophecy and hurled a huge rock which nearly washed them back; a second rock which he hurled on learning Odysseus' real name narrowly missed the ship. Then the Cyclops prayed to Poseidon to punish Odysseus; the god heard him, persecuting him from that time onward. Reassembling his ships, Odysseus proceeded on his voyage.
He next called at the isle of Aeolus, king of the winds, who gave him in a bag all the winds but one, a favouring breeze which was to waft him to his own island. For nine days Odysseus guarded his bag, but at last, when Ithaca was in sight, he sank into a sleep of exhaustion. Thinking that the bag concealed some treasure, his men opened it, only to be blown back to Aeolus who bid him begone as an evil man when he begged aid a second time.
After visiting the Laestrygones, a man-eating people, who devoured all the fleet except one ship's company, the remainder reached Aeaea, the island where lived the dread goddess Circe. Odysseus sent forward Eurylochus with some twenty companions who found Circe weaving at a loom. Seeing them she invited them within; then after giving them a charmed potion she smote them with her rod, turning them into swine. Eurylochus who had suspected some trickery hurried back to Odysseus with the news. The latter determined to go alone to save his friends. On the way he was met by Hermes, who showed him the herb moly, an antidote to Circe's draught. Finding that her magic failed, she at once knew that her visitor was Odysseus whose visit had been prophesied to her by Hermes. He bound her down by a solemn oath to refrain from further mischief and persuaded her to restore to his men their humanity. When Odysseus desired to depart home, she told him of the wanderings that awaited him. First he must go to the land of the dead to consult the shade of Teiresias, the blind old prophet, who would help him.
Following the goddess' instructions, they sailed to the land of the Cimmerians on the confines of the earth. There Odysseus dug a trench into which he poured the blood of slain victims which he did not allow the dead spirits to touch till Teiresias appeared. The seer told him of the sorrows that awaited him and vaguely indicated that his death should come upon him from the sea; he added that any spirit he allowed to touch the blood would tell him truly all whereof he was as yet ignorant, and that those ghosts he drove away would return to the darkness.
First arose the spirit of his dead mother Anticleia who told him that his wife and son were yet alive and his father was living away from the town in wretchedness.
“For me, it was not the visitation of Apollo that took me, nor any
sickness whose corruption drove the life from my frame; rather it
was longing for thee and thy counsels and thy gentleness which
spoiled me of my spirit.”
Thrice he tried to embrace her, and thrice the ghost eluded him, for it was “as a dream that had fled away from the white frame of the body”. A procession of famous women followed, then came the wraith of Agamemnon who told how he had been foully slain by his own wife, as faithless as Penelope was prudent. Achilles next approached; when Odysseus tried to console him for his early death by reminding him of the honour he had when he was alive, he answered:
“Speak not comfortingly of death; I would rather be a clown and a
thrall on earth to another man than rule among the departed.”
On hearing that his son Neoptolemus had won great glory in the capture of Troy, the spirit left him, exulting with joy that his son was worthy of him. Ajax turned from Odysseus in anger at the loss of Achilles' armour for the possession of which they had striven. The last figure that came was the ghost of Heracles, though the hero himself was with the gods in Olympus.
“Round him was the whirr of the dead as of birds fleeing in panic.
Like to black night, with his bow ready and an arrow on the string,
he glared about him terribly, as ever intending to shoot. Over his
breast was flung a fearful belt, whereon were graven bears and lions
and fights, battles, murders and man-slayings.”
He recognised Odysseus before he passed back to death; when a crowd of terrifying apparitions came thronging to the trench, Odysseus fled to his ship lest the Gorgon might be sent from the awful Queen of the dead.
Returning to Circe, he learned from her of the remaining dangers. The first of these was the island of the Sirens, who by the marvellous sweetness of their song charmed to their ruin all who passed. Odysseus filled the ears of his crews with wax, bidding them to tie him to the mast of his ship and to row hard past the temptresses in spite of his strugglings. They then entered the dangerous strait, on one side of which was Scylla, a dreadful monster who lived in a cave near by, on the other was the deadly whirlpool of Charybdis. Scylla carried off six of his men who called in vain to Odysseus to save them, stretching out their hands to him in their last agony. From the strait they passed to the island of Trinacria, where they found grazing the cattle of the Sun. Odysseus had learned from both Teiresias and Circe that an evil doom would come upon them if they touched the animals; he therefore made his companions swear a great oath not to touch them if they landed. For a whole month they were wind-bound in the island and ate all the provisions which Circe had given them. At a time when Odysseus had gone to explore the island Eurylochus persuaded his men to kill and eat; as he returned Odysseus smelled the savour of their feast and knew that destruction was at hand. For nine days the feasting continued. When the ship put out to sea Zeus, in answer to the prayer of the offended Sun-God, sent a storm which drowned all the crew and drove Odysseus back to the dreaded strait. Escaping through it with difficulty, he drifted helplessly over the deep and on the tenth day landed on the island of “the dread goddess who used human speech", Calypso, who tended him and kept him in captivity.
On the next day the Phaeacians loaded Odysseus with presents and landed him on his own island while he slept. Poseidon in anger at the arrival of the hero changed the returning Phaeacian ship into stone when it was almost within the harbour of the city. When Odysseus awoke he failed to recognise his own land. Athena appeared to him disguised as a shepherd, telling him he was indeed in Ithaca:
“Thou art witless or art come from afar, if thou enquirest about
this land. It is not utterly unknown; many know it who dwell in the
East and in the West. It is rough and unfitted for steeds, yet it is
not a sorry isle, though narrow. It hath plenteous store of corn and
the vine groweth herein. It hath alway rain and glistening dew. It
nourisheth goats and cattle and all kinds of woods and its streams
Such is the description of the land for which Odysseus forsook Calypso's offer of immortality. After smiling at Odysseus' pretence that he was a Cretan Athena counselled him how to slay the suitors and hurried to fetch Telemachus from Sparta. The poet tells why Athena loved Odysseus more than all others.
“Crafty would he be and a cunning trickster who surpassed thee in
wiles, though it were a god who challenged thee. We know craft
enough, both of us, for thou art by far the best of mortals in speech
and counsel and I among the gods am famed for devices and cunning.”
Transformed by her into an old beggar, Odysseus went to the hut of his faithful old swineherd Eumaeus; the dogs set upon him, but Eumaeus scared them away and welcomed him to his dwelling. In spite of Odysseus' assurance that the master would return Eumaeus, who had been often deceived by similar words, refused to believe. Feigning himself to be a Cretan, Odysseus saw for himself that the old servant's loyalty was steadfast; a deft touch brings out his care for his master's substance:
“laying a bed for Odysseus before the fire, he went out and slept
among the dogs in a cave beneath the breath of the winds.”
By the intervention of Athena the two leading characters are brought together. She stood beside the sleeping Telemachus in Sparta, warning him of the ambush set for him in Ithaca and bidding him to land on a lonely part of the coast whence he was to proceed to the hut of Eumaeus. On his departure from Sparta an omen was interpreted by Helen to mean that Odysseus was not far from home. As he was on the point of leaving Pylos on the morrow a bard named Theoclymenus appealed to him for protection, for he had slain a man and was a fugitive from justice. Taking him on board Telemachus frustrated the ambush, landing in safety; he proceeded to Eumaeus' hut, where Odysseus had with some difficulty been persuaded to remain.
The dogs were the first to announce the arrival of a friend, gambolling about him. After speaking a word of cheer to Eumaeus Telemachus enquired who the stranger was; hearing that he was a Cretan he lamented his inability to give him a welcome in his home owing to the insolence of his enemies. Remembering the anxiety of his mother during his absence he sent Eumaeus to the town to acquaint her with his arrival. Athena seized the opportunity to reveal Odysseus to his son, transforming him to his own shape. After a moment of utter amazement at the marvel of the change, Telemachus ran to his father and fell upon his neck, his joy finding expression in tears. The two then laid their plans for the destruction of the suitors. By the time Eumaeus had returned Odysseus had resumed his sorry and tattered appearance.
Telemachus went to the town alone, bidding Eumaeus bring the stranger with him. They were met by one Melanthius a goatherd, who covered them with insults. “In truth one churl is leading another, for the god ever bringeth like to like. Whither art thou taking this glutton, this evil pauper, a kill-joy of the feast? He hath learned many a knavish trick and is like to refuse to labour; creeping among the people he would rather ask alms to fill his insatiate maw.” Leaping on Odysseus, he kicked at him, yet failed to stir him from the pathway. Swallowing the insult Odysseus walked towards his house. A superb stroke of art has created the next incident. In the courtyard lay Argus, a hound whom Odysseus had once fed. Neglected in the absence of his master he had crept to a dung-heap, full of lice. When he marked Odysseus coming towards him he wagged his tail and dropped his ears, but could not come near his lord. Seeing him from a little distance Odysseus wiped away his tears unnoticed of Eumaeus and asked whose the hound was. Eumaeus told the story of his neglect: “but the doom of death took Argus straightway after seeing Odysseus in the twentieth year”. In the palace Telemachus sent his father food, bidding him ask a charity of the wooers. Antinous answered by hurling a stool which struck his shoulder. The noise of the high words which followed brought down Penelope who protested against the godless behaviour of the suitors and asked to interview the stranger in hope of learning some tidings of her husband, but Odysseus put her off till nightfall when they would be less likely to suffer from the insolence of the suitors.
In Ithaca was a beggar named Irus, gluttonous and big-boned but a coward. Encouraged by the winkings and noddings of the suitors he bade Odysseus begone. A quiet answer made him imagine he had to deal with a poltroon and he challenged him to a fight. The proposal was welcomed with glee by the suitors, who promised on oath to see fair play for the old man in his quarrel with a younger. But when they saw the mighty limbs and stout frame of Odysseus, they deemed that Irus had brought trouble on his own head. Chattering with fear Irus had to be forced to the combat. One blow was enough to lay him low; the ease with which Odysseus had disposed of his foe made him for a time popular with the suitors.
Under an inspiration of Athena, Penelope came down once more to chide the wooers for their insolence; she also upbraided them for their stinginess.
“Yours is not the custom of wooers in former days who were wont to
sue for wedlock with the daughter of a rich man and contend among
themselves. Such men offer oxen and stout cattle and glorious gifts;
they will never consume another's substance without payment.”
Stung by the taunt, they gave her the accustomed presents, while Odysseus rejoiced that she flattered their heart in soft words with a different intent in her spirit. The insolence of the suitors was matched by the pertness of the serving maids, of whom Melantho was the most impudent. A threat from Odysseus drew down upon him the wrath of the suitors who were with difficulty persuaded by Telemachus to depart home to their beds.
That night Odysseus and his son removed the arms from the walls, the latter being told to urge as a pretext for his action the necessity of cleaning from them the rust and of removing a temptation to violence when the suitors were heated with wine. At the promised interview with his wife Odysseus again pretended he was a Cretan; describing the very dress which Odysseus had worn, he assured her that he would soon return with the many treasures which he had collected. Half persuaded by the exact description of a garment she had herself made, she bade her maids look to him, but he would not suffer any of them to approach him save his old nurse Eurycleia. As she was washing him in the dim light of the fireside her fingers touched the old scar above his knee, the result of an accident in a boar-hunt during his youth.
“Dropping the basin she fell backwards; joy and grief took her
heart at once, her eyes filled with tears and her utterance was
checked. Catching him by his beard, she said: 'In very sooth thou
art Odysseus, my dear boy; and I knew thee not before I had touched
the body of my lord.' So speaking she looked at Penelope, fain to
tell her that her lord was within. But Odysseus laid his hand upon
the nurse's mouth, with the other he drew her to him and whispered:
'Nurse, wouldst thou ruin me? Thou didst nourish me at thy breast,
and now I am come back after mighty sufferings. Be silent, lest
another learn the news, or I tell thee that when I have punished
the suitors I will not even refrain from thee when I destroy the
other women in my halls.'“
Concealing the scar carefully under his rags by the fireside he put a good interpretation on a strange dream which had visited his wife.
That night Odysseus with his own eyes witnessed the intrigues between his women and the suitors. He heard his wife weeping in her chamber for him and prayed to Zeus for aid in the coming trial. On the morrow he was again outraged; the suitors were moved to laughter by a prophecy of Theoclymenus:
“Yet they were laughing with alien lips, the meat they ate was
dabbled with blood, their eyes were filled with tears and their
hearts boded lamentation. Among them spake Theoclymenus; 'Wretched
men, what is this evil that is come upon you? Your heads and faces
and the knees beneath you are shrouded in night, mourning is kindled
among you, your cheeks are bedewed with tears, the walls and the
fair pillars are sprinkled with blood, the forecourt and the yard is
full of spectres hastening to the gloom of Erebus; the sun hath
perished from the heaven and a mist of ruin hath swept upon you.'“
In answer Eurymachus bade him begone if all within was night; taking him at his word, the seer withdrew before the coming ruin.
Then Athena put it into the heart of Penelope to set the suitors a final test. She brought forth the bow of Odysseus together with twelve axes. It had been an exercise of her lord to set up the axes in a line, string the bow and shoot through the heads of the axes which had been hollowed for that purpose. She promised to follow at once the suitor who could string the bow and shoot through the axes. First Telemachus set up the axes and tried to string the weapon; failing three times he would have succeeded at the next effort but for a glance from his father. Leiodes vainly tried his strength, to be rebuked by Antinous who suggested that the bow should be made more pliant by being heated at the fire.
Noticing that Eumaeus and Philoetius had gone out together Odysseus went after them and revealed himself to them; the three then returned to the hall. After all the suitors had failed except Antinous, who did not deem that he should waste a feast-day in stringing bows, Odysseus begged that he might try, Penelope insisting on his right to attempt the feat. When she retired Eumaeus brought the bow to Odysseus, then told Eurycleia to keep the woman in their chambers while Philoetius bolted the hall door.
“But already Odysseus was turning the bow this way and that testing
it lest the worms had devoured it in his absence. Then when he had
balanced it and looked it all over, even as when a man skilled in
the lyre and song easily putteth a new string about a peg, even so
without an effort Odysseus strung his mighty bow. Taking it in his
right hand he tried the string which sang sweetly beneath his touch
like to the voice of a swallow. Then he took an arrow and shot it
with a straight aim through the axes, missing not one. Then he spake
to Telemachus: 'Thy guest bringeth thee no shame as he sitteth in
thy halls, for I missed not the mark nor spent much time in the
stringing. My strength is yet whole within me. But now it is time to
make a banquet for the Achaeans in the light of day and then season
it with song and dance, which are the crown of revelry.' So speaking
he nodded, and his son took a sword and a spear and stood by him
clad in gleaming bronze.”
The first victim was Antinous, whom Odysseus shot through the neck as he was in the act of drinking, never dreaming that one man would attack a multitude of suitors. Eurymachus fell after vainly attempting a compromise. Melanthius was caught in the act of supplying arms to the rest and was left bound to be dealt with when the main work was done. Athena herself encouraged Odysseus in his labour of vengeance, deflecting from him any weapons that were hurled at him. At length all was over, the serving women were made to cleanse the hall of all traces of bloodshed; the guiltiest of them were hanged, while Melanthius died a horrible death by mutilation. Odysseus then summoned his wife to his presence.
Eurycleia carried the message to her, laughing with joy so much that Penelope deemed her mad. The story of the vengeance which Odysseus had exacted was so incredible that it must have been the act of a god, not a man. When she entered the hall Telemachus upbraided her for her unbelief, but Odysseus smiled on hearing that she intended to test him by certain proofs which they two alone were aware of. He withdrew for a time to cleanse him of his stains and to put on his royal garments, after ordering the servants to maintain a revelry to blind the people to the death of their chief men.
When he reappeared, endued with grace which Athena gave him, he marvelled at the untoward heart which the gods had given his wife and bade his nurse lay him his bed. Penelope caught up his words quickly; the bed was to be laid outside the chamber which he himself had made. The words filled Odysseus with dismay:
“Who hath put my bed elsewhere? It would be a hard task for any man
however cunning, except a god set it in some other place. Of men
none could easily shift it, for there is a wonder in that cunningly
made bed whereat I laboured and none else. Within the courtyard was
growing the trunk of an olive; round it I built my bed-chamber with
thick stones and roofed it well, placing in it doors that shut tight.
Then I cut away the olive branches, smoothed the trunk, made a
bedpost, and bored all with a gimlet. From that foundation I smoothed
my bed, tricking it out with gold and silver and ivory and stretching
from its frame thongs of cow-hide dyed red. Such is the wonder I tell
of, yet I know not, Lady, whether the bed is yet fixed there, or
whether another hath moved it, cutting the foundation of olive from
On hearing the details of their secret Penelope ran to him casting her arms about him and begging him to forgive her unbelief, for many a pretender had come, making her ever more and more suspicious. Thus reunited the two spent the night in recounting the agonies of their separation; Odysseus mentioned the strange prophecy of Teiresias, deciding to seek out his father on the morrow.
A vivid description tells how the souls of the suitors were conducted to the realm of the dead, the old comrades of Odysseus before Troy recognising in the vengeance all the marks of his handiwork. Odysseus found his father in a wretched old age hoeing his garden, clad in soiled garments with a goat-skin hat on his head which but increased his sorrow. At the sight Odysseus was moved to tears of compassion. Yet even then he could not refrain from his wiles, for he told how he had indeed seen Odysseus though five years before. In despair the old man took the dust in his hands and cast it about his head in mighty grief.
“Then Odysseus' spirit was moved and the stinging throb smote his
nostrils. Clinging to his father he kissed him and told him he was
indeed his son, returned after twenty years.”
For a moment the old man doubted, but believed when Odysseus showed the scar and told him the number and names of the trees they had planted together in their orchard.
Meanwhile news of the death of the wooers had run through the city. The father of Antinous raised a tumult and led a body of armed men to demand satisfaction. The threatening uproar was stopped by the intervention of Athena who thus completed the restoration of her favourite as she had begun it.
* * * * *
It is strange that this poem, which is such a favourite with modern readers, should have made a less deep impression on the Greeks. To them, Homer is nearly always the Iliad, possibly because Achilles was semi-divine, whereas Odysseus was a mere mortal. But the latter is for that very reason of more importance to us, we feel him to be more akin to our own life. Further, the type of character which Odysseus stands for is really far nobler than the fervid and somewhat incalculable nature of the son of Thetis. Odysseus is patient endurance, common sense, self-restraint, coolness, resource and strength; he is indeed a manifold personality, far more complex than anything attempted previously in Greek literature and therefore far more modern in his appeal. It is only after reading the Odyssey that we begin to understand why Diomedes chose Odysseus as his companion in the famous Dolon adventure in Noman's land. Achilles would have been the wrong man for this or any other situation which demanded first and last a cool head.
The romantic elements which are so necessary a part of all Epic are much more convincing in the Odyssey; the actions and adventures are indeed beyond experience, but they are treated in such a masterly style that they are made inevitable; it would be difficult to improve on any of the little details which force us to believe the whole story. Added to them is another genuine romantic feature, the sense of wandering in strange new lands untrodden before of man's foot; the beings who move in these lands are gracious, barbarous, magical, monstrous, superhuman, dreamy, or prophetic by turns; they are all different and all fascinating. The reader is further introduced to the life of the dead as well as of the living and the memory of his visit is one which he will retain for ever. Not many stories of adventure can impress themselves indelibly as does the Odyssey.
To English readers the poem has a special value, for it deals with the sea and its wonders. The native land of its hero is not very unlike our own, “full of mist and rain", yet able to make us love it far more than a Calypso's isle with an offer of immortality to any who will exchange his real love of home for an unnatural haven of peace. A splendid hero, a good love-story, admirable narrative, romance and excitement, together with a breath of the sea which gives plenty of space and pure air have made the Odyssey the companion of many a veteran reader in whom the Greek spirit cannot die.
* * * * *
Of the impression which Homer has made upon the mind of Europe it would be difficult to give an estimate. The Greeks themselves early came to regard his text with a sort of veneration; it was learned by heart and quoted to spellbound audiences in the cities and at the great national meetings at Olympia. Every Greek boy was expected to know some portion at least by heart; Plato evidently loved Homer and when he was obliged to point out that the system of morality which he stood for was antiquated and needed revision, apologised for the criticism he could not avoid. It is sometimes said that Homer was the Bible of the Greeks; while this statement is probably inaccurate—for no theological system was built on him nor did he claim any divine revelation—yet it is certain that authors of all ages searched the text for all kinds of purposes, antiquarian, ethical, social, as well as religious. This careful study of Homer culminated in the learned and accurate work of the great Alexandrian school of Zenodotus and Aristarchus.
In Roman times Homer never failed to inspire lesser writers; Ennius is said to have translated the Odyssey, while Virgil's Aeneid is clearly a child of the Greek Homeric tradition. In the Middle Ages the Trojan legend was one of the four great cycles which were treated over and over again in the Chansons. Even drama was glad to borrow the great characters of the Iliad, as Shakespeare did in Troilus and Cressida. In England a number of famous translations has witnessed to the undying appeal of the first of the Greek masters. Chapman published his Iliad in 1611, his Odyssey in 1616; Pope's version appeared between 1715 and 1726; Cowper issued his translation in 1791. In the next century the Earl Derby retranslated the Iliad, while an excellent prose version of the Odyssey by Butcher and Lang was followed by a prose version of the Iliad by Lang Myers and Leaf. At a time when Europe had succeeded in persuading itself that the whole story of a siege of Troy was an obvious myth, a series of startling discoveries on the site of Troy and on the mainland of Greece proved how lamentably shallow is some of the cleverest and most destructive Higher Criticism.
The marvellous rapidity and vigour of these two poems will save them from death; the splendid qualities of direct narration, constructive skill, dignity and poetical power will always make Homer a name to love. Those who know no Greek and therefore fear that they may lose some of the directness of the Homeric appeal might recall the famous sonnet written by Keats who had had no opportunity to learn the great language. His words are no doubt familiar enough; that they have become inseparable from Homer must be our apology for inserting them here.
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and Kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken,
Or like stout Cortes, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
TRANSLATIONS. As INDICATED IN THE TEXT OF THE ESSAY.
The whole of the Homeric tradition is affected by the recent discoveries made in Crete. The civilisation there unearthed raises questions of great interest; the problems it suggests are certain to modify current ideas of Homeric study.
See Discoveries in Crete, by R. Burrows (Murray, 1907).
A very good account of the early age of European literature is in The Heroic Age, by Chadwick (Cambridge, 1912).
The best interpretation of Greek poetry is Symonds' Greek Poets, 2 vols. (Smith Elder).
Jebb's Homer is the best introduction to the many difficulties presented by the poems.
Flaxman's engravings for the Iliad and Odyssey are of the highest order.