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The Iliad


Book 1

Summary Book 1

But while the poem focuses most centrally on the rage of a mortal, it also concerns itself greatly with the motivations and actions of the gods. Even before Homer describes the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, he explains that Apollo was responsible for the conflict. In general, the gods in the poem participate in mortal affairs in two ways. First, they act as external forces upon the course of events, as when Apollo sends the plague upon the Achaean army. Second, they represent internal forces acting on individuals, as when Athena, the goddess of wisdom, prevents Achilles from abandoning all reason and persuades him to cut Agamemnon with words and insults rather than his sword. But while the gods serve a serious function in partially determining grave matters of peace and violence, life and death, they also serve one final function—that of comic relief. Their intrigues, double-dealings, and inane squabbles often appear humorously petty in comparison with the wholesale slaughter that pervades the mortal realm. The bickering between Zeus and Hera, for example, provides a much lighter parallel to the heated exchange between Agamemnon and Achilles.

Indeed, in their submission to base appetites and shallow grudges, the gods of The Iliad often seem more prone to human folly than the human characters themselves. Zeus promises to help the Trojans not out of any profound moral consideration but rather because he owes Thetis a favor. Similarly, his hesitation in making this promise stems not from some worthy desire to let fate play itself out but from his fear of annoying his wife. When Hera does indeed become annoyed, Zeus is able to silence her only by threatening to strangle her. Such instances of partisanship, hurt feelings, and domestic strife, common among the gods of The Iliad, portray the gods and goddesses as less invincible and imperturbable than we might imagine them to be. We expect these sorts of excessive sensitivities and occasionally dysfunctional relationships of the human characters but not the divine ones.

The clash between Achilles and Agamemnon highlights one of the most dominant aspects of the ancient Greek value system: the vital importance of personal honor. Both Agamemnon and Achilles prioritize their respective individual glories over the well-being of the Achaean forces. Agamemnon believes that, as chief of the Achaean forces, he deserves the highest available prize—Briseis—and is thus willing to antagonize Achilles, the most crucial Achaean warrior, to secure what he believes is properly owed to him. Achilles would rather defend his claim to Briseis, his personal spoil of victory and thus what he believes is properly owed to him, than defuse the situation. Each man considers deferring to the other a humiliation rather than an act of honor or duty; each thus puts his own interest ahead of that of his people, jeopardizing the war effort.