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With the return of Hector and Paris the battle escalates, but Apollo and Athena soon decide to end the battle for the day. They plan a duel to stop the present bout of fighting: Hector approaches the Achaean line and offers himself to anyone who will fight him. Only Menelaus has the courage to step forward, but Agamemnon talks him out of it, knowing full well that Menelaus is no match for Hector. Nestor, too old to fight Hector himself, passionately exhorts his comrades to respond to the challenge. Nine Achaeans finally step forward. A lottery is held, and Great Ajax wins.
Hector and Ajax begin their duel by tossing spears, but neither proves successful. They then use their lances, and Ajax draws Hector’s blood. The two are about to clash with swords when heralds, spurred by Zeus, call off the fight on account of nightfall. The two heroes exchange gifts and end their duel with a pact of friendship.
That night, Nestor gives a speech urging the Achaeans to ask for a day to bury their dead. He also advises them to build fortifications around their camp. Meanwhile, in the Trojan camp, King Priam makes a similar proposal regarding the Trojan dead. In addition, his advisor Antenor asks Paris to give up Helen and thereby end the war. Paris refuses but offers to return all of the loot that he took with her from Sparta. But when the Trojans present this offer to the Achaeans the next day, the Achaeans sense the Trojans’ desperation and reject the compromise. Both sides agree, however, to observe a day of respite to bury their respective dead. Zeus and Poseidon watch the Achaeans as they build their fortifications, planning to tear them down as soon as the men leave.
After prohibiting the other gods from interfering in the course of the war, Zeus travels to Mount Ida, overlooking the Trojan plain. There he weighs the fates of Troy and Achaea in his scale, and the Achaean side sinks down. With a shower of lightning upon the Achaean army, Zeus turns the tide of battle in the Trojans’ favor, and the Greeks retreat in terror. Riding the Trojans’ surge in power, Hector seeks out Nestor, who stands stranded in the middle of the battlefield. Diomedes scoops Nestor into his chariot just in time, and Hector pursues the two of them, intent on driving them all the way to the Greek fortifications, where he plans to set fire to their ships. Hera, seeing the Achaean army collapsing, inspires Agamemnon to rouse his troops. He stirs up their pride, begs them to have heart, and prays for relief from Zeus, who finally sends a sign—an eagle carrying a fawn in its talons. The divine symbol inspires the Achaeans to fight back.
As the Achaeans struggle to regain their power, the archer Teucer fells many Trojans. But Hector finally wounds him, reversing the tide of battle yet again. Hector drives the Greeks behind their fortifications, all the way to their ships. Athena and Hera, unable to bear any further suffering on the part of their favored Greeks, prepare to enter the fray, but Zeus sends the goddess Iris to warn them of the consequences of interfering. Knowing that they cannot compete with Zeus, Athena and Hera relent and return to Mount Olympus. When Zeus returns, he tells them that the next morning will provide their last chance to save the Achaeans. He notes that only Achilles can prevent the Greeks’ destruction.
That night, the Trojans, confident in their dominance, camp outside their city’s walls, and Hector orders his men to light hundreds of campfires so that the Greeks cannot escape unobserved. Nightfall has saved the Greeks for now, but Hector plans to finish them off the next day.
The Achaeans’ success so far despite Achilles’ absence, along with Paris’s cowardice and Hector’s hopeless despair in Book 6, have seemed to spell doom for the Trojans. Yet, by the end of Book 8, we recall the Achaeans’ bravado with great irony. Hector has nearly seized their ambitious fortifications, and the Trojans appear more determined than ever. The mutual exasperation with the war that motivates the cease-fire of Books 3 and 4 has now disappeared. No longer wanting to end the war, the Trojans desire to win it; that they camp right beside the Achaeans demonstrates their hunger for battle. The severity of the Achaeans’ impending loss becomes all too clear in Hector’s determination to burn their ships. In a sense, the ships symbolize the future of all Achaea, for although some Achaeans stayed behind in Greece, very few of the land’s fathers and sons remain at home. Moreover, the men who have come to Troy constitute the “best of the Achaeans,” as the poem continually calls them. Should the Trojans burn their ships, the strongest, noblest men and rulers of the Achaean race would either die in flames or remain stranded on foreign shores.
Read more about the Achaean ships as a symbol.
The catastrophic reversal of the Achaeans’ fortune not only adds drama and suspense to the poem but also marks a development in the gods’ feuding and aids the progression of the overall plot. Although the gods have involved themselves extensively in the war already, Zeus’s entrance into the conflict brings great changes. Whereas he earlier frowns upon the infighting of the other gods but remains aloof himself, he now forbids his fellow Olympians from interfering and plunges headlong into the struggle. The decline of the Achaeans marks not only a change in the gods’ behavior but also a more important change in the poem’s human dynamics: the Achaeans’ eventual collapse motivates their appeal to Achilles in Book 9, which serves to bring the epic’s crucial figure to the center of the action. Zeus’s statement to Hera that only Achilles can save the Achaeans foreshadows the text’s impending focus on the prideful hero. Until now, the reader has witnessed the consequences of Achilles’ rage; Book 8 sets the scene for an explosion of his rage onto the battlefield.
Read more about the foreshadowing of Achilles’ return to battle.
Books 7 and 8 give the reader a glimpse of some of the tenets of Greek ritual and belief, which, since Greek culture dominated the ancient Mediterranean world, the Trojan warriors uphold as well. The encounter between Hector and Ajax in Book 7, which ends with them exchanging arms and thereby sealing an unsettled conflict with a pact of friendship, demonstrates the value placed on respect and individual dignity. We see that Greek culture places great significance on both enmity and friendship—on both the taking of lives and the giving of gifts—and that each has its proper place. The characters and the text itself seem to see the proper balancing of these opposites as a manifestation of an individual’s worthiness.
Read more about Greek culture at the time when Homer wrote The Iliad.
Another aspect of the ancient Greek value system emerges in the agreement both sides make to pause their fighting to bury their respective dead. To the Greeks, piety demanded giving the dead, especially those who had died so gloriously, a proper burial, though proper burial could mean a number of things: here the mourners burn the corpses on a pyre; elsewhere they actually bury them. According to ancient Greek belief, only souls whose bodies had been properly disposed of could enter the underworld. To leave a soul unburied, or, worse, to leave it as carrion for wild animals, indicated not only disrespect for the dead individual but, perhaps even worse, disregard for established religious traditions.
Read more about burial as a motif.
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