Foreshadowing plays an unusually important role in The Iliad, a poem so thoroughly interwoven with prophecies, omens, and references to human characters’ fates that few major events transpire without the reader expecting them. Humans and gods alike talk frequently about destiny, and heroes make decisions with full knowledge of what fate has in store for them. As such, the future has a constant presence in the poem. The function of foreshadowing in The Iliad relates in part to the poem’s status as a fictionalized account of historical events. The Trojan War was presumed to have really taken place, and the war ended with a Trojan defeat. The reader knows that Troy will eventually fall, and the poet builds this historical reality into the poem itself. For example, in Book 2, Odysseus reminds the Achaean soldiers of a prophecy made by the seer named Calchas. Odysseus describes Calchas’s interpretation of an ominous sign:
As the snake devoured the sparrow with her brood,
eight and the mother made the ninth, she’d borne them all,
so we will fight in Troy that many years and then,
then in the tenth we’ll take her broad streets.
Even though The Iliad itself doesn’t narrate the end of the Trojan War, the reader with sufficient knowledge of Greek history understands that Calchas has interpreted the sign correctly and that the war will come to an end soon after Hector’s death, which concludes the poem.
The death of Patroclus
Several references to Patroclus’s fate prepare the reader for the moment in Book 16 when he falls to the ground, fatally pierced by Hector’s spear. The first nod to Patroclus’s destiny appears in Book 11 when Achilles calls out to his friend, planning to ask him to go to the Achaean camp and see how things are going:
He called at once to his friend-in-arms Patroclus,
shouting down from the decks. Hearing Achilles,
forth he came from his shelter,
striding up like the deathless god of war
but from that moment on his doom was sealed.
Although not yet clear, Patroclus has sealed his own devastating fate because, as the poet will go on to narrate, while he’s in the Achaean camp, the young man will decide to join the battle with or without Achilles, which in turn will lead to his death. The poet references Patroclus joining the battle again in Book 15. This time, Homer explicitly assents that when “Apollo drive[s] Prince Hector back to battle,” the event “will launch his comrade Patroclus into action / and glorious Hector will cut him down with a spear.” Thus, when the event predicted here eventually occurs nearly 1,800 lines later, the reader is not surprised but rather senses that Patroclus’s destiny has been fully realized.
Achilles rejoins the battle
In Book 1 Achilles feuds with Agamemnon over possession of the young woman Briseis, and Agamemnon’s refusal to back down results in Achilles removing himself from the battle. Although he initially threatens to sail home with his fellow Myrmidons, Achilles stick arounds to observe the war from his out-of-the-way encampment but pledges in Book 9 not to rejoin the fight until the war reaches his camp. However, even before Achilles makes this pledge, the paternal old warrior Phoenix recounts a story that foreshadows Achilles’s return to battle. Phoenix tells of Meleager, the great Aetolian warrior prince. When the Aetolians were at war with the Curetes, Meleager fought heroically but left the fight prematurely to stay in bed with his beautiful wife, Cleopatra. Eventually, Cleopatra got him to rejoin the fight by “recounting all the griefs / that fall to people whose city’s seized and plundered”:
How his spirit leapt when he heard those horrors—
and buckling his gleaming armor round his body,
out he rushed to war.
Like Meleager, Achilles will rush out to fight when the horrors of war strike close to home, and he’ll do so sooner than he anticipates. Instead of waiting for Hector to kill his way to the Myrmidon camp, Achilles will rejoin the fight when Hector kills his closest friend, Patroclus.
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