The Idea of Revenge in the Iliad and the Odyssey

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we encounter vengeance exacted by the protagonists.

In the Iliad, a poem explicitly about the “rage” or “wrath” of Achilles, we discover the rage that follows from the sorrow for the death of a loved one. In Books XV and XVI, the beloved companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector of Troy who strips the beautiful armor of Achilles from his body. The Trojans proceed to defile and abuse the body of Patroclus. Upon hearing this news, Achilles is overcome with grief and sorrow, soon followed by rage -a desire to exact revenge upon Hector. His motives are guided by a will for requital. He longs to inflict an equal or greater amount of suffering on Hector. As a warrior, Achilles knows only vengeance, not justice. He is not governed by laws, or nomos, but rather justice belongs to the stronger man. Notably, the victory in the war to conquer Troy does not go to “swift-footed” Achilles, but instead to “long-enduring” Odysseus who devises the famous wooden horse plot to bring destruction to Troy.

However, in the Odyssey we discover vengeance of a similar kind. After 20 long years, Odysseus returns home from his ventures to rocky Ithaca where a cohort of suitors live in his palace, eat his food, and bathe themselves in excess and luxury hoping to court Penelope, his wife. Although, like Achilles, Odysseus is furious with rage, he cloaks himself in disguise as an old beggar. He tells false tales of his adventures:

“Falsehoods all,
but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth” (Book XIX 235-236)

Even to his close comrades and loyal supporters, he remains disguised. Revealing oneself is dangerous, threatening to elude the enduring qualities of the king of Ithaca. Even to his own wife, Odysseus’s identity stays hidden until the opportune moment of revelation when he violently destroys the suitors in a bloodbath.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus has tact. His guile separates him from the wrathful warrior, who is left vulnerable by his exposed heel. Odysseus, on the other hand, is careful not to risk his enduring name by leaving any part of his plot open to exposure. Unlike in the Iliad, where the audience feels sorrow for the death of Hector as well as Patroclus, in the Odyssey we are gratified by the revenge exacted on the suitors. The Homeric decision to introduce the audience to both sides of the Trojan war, taking us both behind the walls of Priam and also into the tents of the Achaeans, is characteristically different from the one-sided poem about “a man” that is revealed in the Odyssey. We are given a clear hero in the Odyssey, like Orestes in in his triumphant return, Odysseus reclaims his throne and exacts his vengeance.

Book XVIII of the Iliad: Examining the Shield of Achilles

In Book XVIII of the Iliad, Achilles is distraught. Patroclus has been killed by Hector, and the armor of Achilles has been stripped and stolen by Hector. Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother, travels to the house of Hephaestus to convince him to build a new shield for Achilles so he can return to the battle and exact vengeance on Hector.

Hephaestus, the crippled smith, constructs a massive shield with a silver shield strap and five layers of metal. He creates a “world of gorgeous immortal work” (564). This shield is curious for many reasons. Homer takes great length to describe its contents. It is also the only piece of armor forged by the gods, namely the lame smith, Hephaestus.

Hephaestus begins with the cosmos: the earth, the sky, and the sea -the ancient tripartite division of the known world. He also adds the sun and the moon, along with the constellations such as the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, the Great Bear (also called the Wagon, always watching the Hunter and alone is denied the plunge into the Ocean’s baths).

“Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan” by James Thornhill in 1710

Next, Hephaestus moves from the cosmic to the political. He constructs two “noble” cities filled with the mortal men. In one city, two men are feuding over a murder related to a wedding celebration. They press for legal action -a judge to cut the knot, as was customary in the ancient near east. The judge is to be awarded two bars of gold, to encourage the most just verdict.

In the second city, the men are deliberating about whether or not to plunder an enemy city or share the spoils among the people. They enter into conflict the opposing city as Strife and Havoc enter the fight.

Following the two cities, one of law, the other of war, however, both rife with conflict, Hephaestus creates a fallow field being tilled (the “wonder” of Hephaestus’ work), a king’s estate, a thriving vineyard with a young boy plucking his lyre, a collection of animals in herds, a meadow of sheep grazing, young boys and girls courting one another, and, finally, he forges the Ocean’s River. This concludes his forging of the shield, as he places it at the feet of Thetis.

Unlike the other shields or pieces of armor described throughout the poem, the shield of Achilles is sobering, and less ferocious. It’s subject matter is a world unto itself. It covers both the natural world as well as the political. It portrays a cosmos filled with conflict, strife, and envy, as is the nature of the Greeks.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

The Iliad and the Odyssey: Two Proems Compared

“Rage” is the first word presented to us in the Iliad. The Goddess, not the muse, is commanded to sing of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles. Which Goddess does Homer invoke? We are not given a clear answer, however we can acknowledge that this Goddess remains anonymous, not unlike Odysseus at the outset of the Odyssey.

Achilles’s rage is also tragic -“murderous” and “doomed,” causing the Achaean countless losses. Their deaths are innumerable -how can we then verify the causal relationship between Achilles’s rage and their deaths? We can find textual evidence of at least Patroclus’s death (Book XVI), though we will struggle in establishing a direct link between Achilles’s rage and Patroclus dying. Could it be that Homer was not referring to deaths that occurred at Ilium, nor deaths recounted in the Iliad? If so, we would be led to believe that Homer is referring to deaths that occurred after the war in Troy, perhaps including the many men that died en route home from Troy. The wrath of Achilles is, after all, not credited with winning the war -this victory is given to Odysseus for his crafty plan to infiltrate the strong walls of Ilium. Achilles’s wrath sends many souls hurling down the House of Death, but leaves their bodies for carrion, to decay and be eaten by both “dogs” and “birds.” Although there are many threats of both birds and dogs feeding on bodies, thereby defiling sacred nomos, we are given no examples of this throughout the book -not even Hector’s body that is protected from decay and feeding by a god. In addition, Achilles’s rage is clearly specified as “murderous” -it is not lawful killing, but rather unjust and contra Achaean custom.

Despite all of this, the “will” of Zeus moves toward its end. Zeus’s will is connected to the murderous rage of Achilles, and its unspoken end.

The poet commands the Muse, no longer called Goddess, to arbitrarily begin with the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. Homer asks: What god drove them to fight with such fury? Apollo is identified as the god who causes the rage of Achilles -he drives the fight between “brilliant” Achilles and the “lord of men.” Like Achilles, Apollo is not called exclusively by his name, but rather his status as a son, the son of Zeus and Leto -a stranger to the Olympians, banned by Hera. Additionally, while many are called the son of their father, Apollo is called the son of both father and mother, highlighting his elicit status of birth.

Why does Homer call upon the Goddess, or the Muse, to recall the story? Homer, being  the wily poet of antiquity, is no stranger to concealing himself. By putting the story in another being’s mouth, he removes himself from trial by the public and also creates ambiguity for the authorship of the tale. In putting the text to the rack, shall we put Homer, the Muse, or the characters who speak on trial? Justification for the poets is difficult.

At the close of the proem to the Iliad, we are brought out of a mist, like a great cloud being lifted. We meet the first character -a priest of Apollo, the archer- Chryses, who is the first character to speak in the text as he approaches the fast ships of Achaea to win back his daughter while brandishing high a staff with the leaves of the god Apollo. The primacy of the tragic rage of Achilles and also the priest of Apollo bringing the message of Apollo’s like-minded rage, play well with one another.

Curiously, though the Iliad begins with the rage of Achilles, caused by Apollo, and it concludes with the death and burial of Hector. We are brought both deeply into the Achaean camp, and also far behind the Trojan walls. Therefore the Iliad is not prejudicial, in favor of either Achaea or Troy. It is not a polemic work, but rather a mirror showing both sides.

Let us now turn to the opening of the Odyssey.

“Man” is the first word of the Odyssey, sometimes translated as “a man.” Homer, the poet, commands the Muse to sing of the “man of twists and turns”. Once again, Homer finds ambiguity in authorship by invoking the divine to shroud his tale in a deeper level of secrecy. Notably he beckons the Muse, not the Goddess, to sing. Also Odysseus remains anonymous, his name concealed. His name is not revealed until the end of the proem. Just as with the Muse and Homer, Odysseus confirms his masked nature throughout the tale -he is both “mind” and “no one” when speaking to Polephemus, the Cyclops. This is in direct contrast to Achilles who is called by name, as the son of Peleus, in the opening of the Iliad. Why is Odysseus called the man of twists and turns? Because he is continually driven off course after plundering the heights of Troy.

Odysseus also sees many cities of men and he learns their minds -he is well traveled and curious. He wants knowledge and by venturing out he gains wisdom by seeing the enduring things across the earth, but he also sees also the transient things throughout the cities of men. He also learns their mind, either referring to the minds of men or the mind of the city. Regardless, he is a wanderer but also a knower. He has also suffered many pains and heartsick, by fighting to bring his comrades home – a task we know he fails to accomplish. His story, like the Iliad, is about suffering. However, no one dies a pitiable death in the Iliad -those who find purple death swirling over their eyes die honorably and none are eaten by dogs or birds, whereas in the Odyssey, many men die, such as the suitors or Odysseus’s companions and they are killed unmercifully and sometimes dishonorably. There is a strong case to be made that Homer desires that his audience pay closer attention to Odysseus’s story than Achilles’s. For Odysseus, not Achilles, is given the opportunity to present his own song. While both face a choice: Achilles must decide whether to return home and live a long life or become a hero, or honorably divine, by killing Hector and thereby dying in Troy. Achilles’s choice is dictated by fate, a force beyond good and evil. His decision does not come from his mind with concern for the good of the Achaeans, but rather from his unrelenting passions. Odysseus, on the other hand, must make a choice to become like a god and live forever with Calypso on her island and in her cave, or return home. He chooses a fatal mortal life -one of death and suffering. Indeed, the Olympians have chosen this fate for him, too, as Zeus sends winged Hermes down to bring the message to Calypso to release Odysseus. Odysseus’s choice comes from his will to live and to know the great cities and men’s minds. He is wily and cunning, a man of many devices, yet he struggles politically to lead. His ventures and knowledge pose a threat to the city. He is unable to persuade Achilles in Book IX of the Iliad. His presence is nearly forgotten at home on Ithaca. His son does not know who his father is. Upon returning to Ithaca, he goes disguised and unrecognized, even by his own father. Only his dog Argo knows his master. After killing significant numbers of his own population, namely the suitors, as well as people in his own house, one has to wonder whether or not it would have been just for Odysseus to let his subjects live and begin to rebuild his status as leader or not. Is the killing of the suitors a just act? Odysseus, the man of many places, announces he is returning home but will go out on a “second sailing” soon when he is recognized and unsatisfied with the house of his father.

Returning to the proem, the Muse and Homer, two in one or perhaps one in two, chastise Odysseus’s men who could not be saved because they ate the cattle of the Sun, and the Sungod wiped them from sight. Why does the Muse choose the include the passage about the men eating the cattle of the Sungod? Is it to highlight Odysseus’s escape or his use of force to compel his men? Regardless there is no homecoming for these men, and perhaps for Odysseus either.

The poet beckons the Muse, identifying her as a daughter of Zeus, to begin the story (Odysseus is still anonymous) and to start from wherever she likes, singing for our time. Rather than beginning where Homer had drawn the reader, to the scene of the cattle of the Sungod, the Muse starts years later with Odysseus on Calypso’s island and Telemachus at home. All other men are now home from war, but Odysseus is not free from suffering, and will not be free from trials even when arriving home among his loved ones. The Muse states “every god” took pity on him, except Poseidon. Odysseus’s name is not revealed until the very end of the proem (1.25).

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Persuading Achilles: Books IX, XVI, XXIV Considered

“Triumphant Achilles” by Franz von Matsch

In Book IX of the Iliad, the Achaeans have been stricken with Panic (“panicos” meaning pertaining to Pan, the god of shepherds and wild animals). In the absence of Achilles on the battlefield, Hector has beaten back the Achaeans nearly to their ships. All that is left is to burn the Achaean ships into the sea. The prospect of returning home begins to cross the Greek minds, and Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people, pleads that Odysseus and Ajax form an embassy and persuade Achilles to return to the battle.

Which form of persuasion is best when speaking to Achilles? What is his response to the various methods of persuasion lobbied towards him?

Upon the Achaean arrival to the camp of the Myrmidons, Odysseus and Ajax are greeted as friends of Achilles, in fact the ‘men he loves most’ and together they feast until Ajax nods to Phoenix and Odysseus raises a toast to the “health” of Achilles (269-273).

Before we examine this diplomatic mission further, let us step back for a moment and consider the scene.

The heroes Odysseus and Ajax make their way along the beach, praying to Poseidon to “bring the proud heart of Achilles round with speed and ease” (217-221). Odysseus leads the way. Upon arrival, they find Achilles “delighting his heart” by plucking his lyre, part of the spoils from razing Eetion’s city, and singing the famous deeds of heroes. Here, Achilles assumes the role of poet with an audience of, at least, Patroclus. He is startled out of his peaceful song by his “dearest friends,” and instantly Achilles realizes that he must be sorely needed on the battlefield.

Achilles welcomes the emissaries and sits them down on purple carpets with bigger and stronger cups of wine than he and Patroclus are currently enjoying. Presumably, they are both under the comforting spell of wine as they speak with Odysseus and Ajax. Achilles carves and serves the meat, while Patroclus lights the spit and delivers the bread in wicker baskets. Together, with Achilles sitting against the far wall, they sacrifice to the gods and eat and drink.

Now that we have properly characterized the scene -a symposium, or a banquet -let us return to Odysseus’s toast. He fills his cup and raises it to the “health” of Achilles. It is healthy and fitting that friends should eat and drink with one another. Second, Odysseus compares the great feast from Achilles to that of the feast in the son of Atreus’s tent, Agamemnon. He states that they are both excellent feasts, and by making this comparison, he reminds Achilles of the unity existing between the Achaean forces.

Following this toast, that is the sweet honey he gives to Achilles before delving into political matters, Odysseus tells the great warrior that the Achaeans are “afraid” (276). First, he explains the dire situation: the Trojans have pitched thousands of tents and fires along the ramparts of the Achaean lines, Zeus sends favorable fire bolts on the right (in classical antiquity, fortune always favors the right, while the is always sinister, coming the Latin meaning “left”), and Hector yearns for morning to destroy the Achaeans. All hangs in the balance, and the fate of the Achaeans lies in the hands of Achilles.

Odysseus also recalls the parting words of Achilles’s father, Peleus, before sending him out with Agamemnon. He reminds Achilles that his father said friendship is always better than troublesome quarrels. In addition to invoking the memory of Achilles’s father, Odysseus also tries to persuade Achilles with troves of gifts and promises from Agamemnon: seven tripods never touched by fire, ten bars of golds, twenty burnished cauldrons, a dozen prize-winning stallions. He will also give twenty women, fine artisans, from Lesbos, including Briseis, whom he swears a sacred oath over that he did not have relations with her. Finally, if they conquer Ilium, Achilles will take his pleasure of the spoils: twenty women second only to Helen, and he can choose any of Agamemnon’s three daughters -Chrysothemis, Laodice and Iphianassa to marry into his family and be treated as an equal of Orestes. Agamemnon will also promise seven citadels to Achilles on sandy Pylos -all facing the sea.

Odysseus closes by beckoning Achilles to, at least, take pity on the Achaeans who will, no doubt, honor him like a god if he returns to the battle to kill Hector in his murderous frenzy.

Achilles responds to Odysseus’s attempt to persuade him (although we should bear in mind that Odysseus has been compelled to relay the messages of Agamemnon, and therefore his attempt to persuade Achilles is both a mix of Odysseus’s tact and Agamemnon’s offerings). He says he will speak bluntly with Odysseus because he hates “the man like the very Gates of Death who says one things but hides another in his heart” (378-379). Rather than riches or honor, Achilles is preoccupied with death -what is the point of fighting if the same fate awaits the coward and the hero?

He criticizes Agamemnon. While Achilles risks his life, pirating 12 cities by sea and 11 cities by land in Troy, the spoils always end up in the hands of Agamemnon. Achilles takes a stand on principle. Agamemnon gets the greatest share of goods, but is undeserving of them because he waits calmly behind the lines. Therefore Achilles’s principle is that the person, or warrior, who takes the greatest risk should receive both the greatest share of bounty and also the greatest honor. He feels cheated and lied to -and he takes down each prize offered to Achilles from Agamemnon and promises to return home after the third day. He wants no brides, or prizes, or citadels, or stallions, or any other gifts offered by Agamemnon, for what good are transient things when a man’s life breath slips away between his teeth. He reminds Odysseus of his fate as told by his mother, Thetis. Achilles can either remain in Troy and die a quick death but will be unendingly honored, or he can return home to a long but forgotten life.

Achilles’s response stuns them all into silence.

Phoenix, the great Myrmidon charioteer, speaks next. He reminds Achilles of his training, in both arms and letters, upon setting out from the house of Peleus to join Agamemnon. Phoenix teaches Achilles and helps to rear him as his own son. He recalls his childhood and running away from the house of his father, only to be taken in by Peleus. He also invokes the image of the gods, none of whom have such an inflexible, iron heart as Achilles. Phoenix, apparently the most poetic and skilled in the art of music, recalls an ancient tale for Achilles, a tale only to be told among friends. He tells the fable of Meleager, the great fighter for the Curetes, as they were locked in combat with Aetolia. His rage was so powerful that he turned the tide of the war, but he suddenly became enraged at his mother, and he retired to his bed to be with Cleopatra, his wife. It was not until Cleopatra wept bitterly as the city was torched, prizes taken, women raped that he decided to rejoin the fight, however it was too late. He ultimately won the battle, but he was not given the treasures he was promised by fighting alongside his friends.

Achilles responds firmly, not persuaded like Chauntecleer of pleasing poems and speeches. He will not rejoin the battle, so long as Agamemnon is his enemy. He also invites Phoenix to join him in his spurn of Agamemnon, as they should shun him together. He tells Phoenix to sleep in his tent tonight, and in the morning they will decide whether to sail home or not -a noticeably different answer than the one he gave to Odysseus. He, at least, leaves open the possibility that the Myrmidons will rejoin the war.

Lastly, Ajax, son of Telamon, rises and speaks to Odysseus that their mission to win over Achilles has failed. He rebukes Achilles for behaving this way over a single woman -perhaps forgetting the catalyst of the war is conducted over the illicit capture of Helen -he asks Achilles to open his heart and show respect for those who want to become his dearest, closest friends. Ajax’s chastisement of Achilles is the shortest attempt to persuade him yet.

Achilles responds “warmly” and that everything he said is after Achilles’s own heart, “or at least mostly so” (788). What could Ajax have said that is not after Achilles’s own heart? Perhaps Achilles, one of the few unmarried men in Troy, does not respond favorably to the fight over a woman, as he does not care for women the way other Achaean warriors do.

Contrast this scene with the image of Patroclus weeping to Achilles in Book XVI. He laments Achilles’s stubborn “heart of iron” and wishes there was a way to help their comrades push back the Trojans as they close in on the Achaean ships. Achilles moved to “pity” admits, for the first time, that is anger could not last forever and also that the Trojans have not yet reached the Myrmidon ships. Therefore, he tells Patroclus that he may don the mighty shield and armor of Achilles and enter the battle with the Myrmidons to push back the Trojans. However, he tells Patroclus that he must return to the camp once the Trojan army has been sufficiently stultified.

Odysseus, in his attempt to move Achilles to pity, gave the best effort at persuasion. Yet he was bound by covenant to present Agamemnon’s gifts as possible retribution. However, with Patroclus, Achilles -who is also a poet and a player of music -is moved to pity at the tears of Patroclus in his love for the Achaean comrades.

Consider a final example of persuasion and Achilles. In Book XXIV, Priam, with the help of the messenger Hermes, goes to the Achaean camp as all of the Myrmidons are stricken with wonder as they see him. Priam, as Odysseus attempted to do and Patroclus did successfully, persuades Achilles by appealing to his sense of sorrow and pity. He begs Achilles to recall his father and the great sadness that comes to a father who loses his son (presumably Achilles recalls his fate that will never let him see his father, Peleus, again). They both weep together as Priam kisses the hands of Achilles, the killer of his son. Once Achilles overcomes his state of lament, he vows to return Hector back to Priam. In addition, Priam offers gifts, as Agamemnon once did, in an attempt to persuade the Achaeans to sail away as they have won the war. However, Achilles does not respond in kind. As in the earlier case from Book IX in which Agamemnon sends Ajax and Odysseus to offer gifts to Achilles, he, once again, does not embrace the idea and also threatens Priam, alluding to his impending death.

Thus, in summary, Achilles, as a man of many passions, is persuaded best by feelings of pity. He is a tragic man who sees only sorrow and rarely comedy -we are never given an instance of laughter with Achilles, but we are given many examples of him weeping. He is compelled to act by his great tragic pity he feels for his friends, and this influences his mighty wrath, which Homer identifies as the subject of the Iliad. While Ajax chastises Achilles and Phoenix tells a pleasing fable, Odysseus makes the best presentation by appealing to his pity for his fellow soldiers. Although Odysseus ultimately fails in this mission, he, nevertheless, gives a lasting impression to the young Patroclus who is moved by feelings of pity as he sees the Achaean forces being trampled by the Trojans. This moment, in turn, causes his appeal to Achilles and Achilles relents his wrath in exchange for feelings of pity for his friends. As when Zeus bears two jars at his feet, one with honors to bestow on humans, and the other with sorrows to bestow on humans, Achilles takes far too much stock from the latter and opens his fate to a tragic demise.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.