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Power of prayer
Seeing gods, 1
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Seeing gods, 2

Cult of Achilles

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Lesson 3

We search for Homer's gods.

And they're hard to miss, right from the famous opening scenes of the Iliad, scrolls 1 and 2.

In Lesson 2 we speculated that western literature originated in magical ceremonies in which victim food animals and, eventually, dead ancestors and prophets were raised. Now in Lesson 3, we begin to look more closely at ancient magic, and the spirits that were believed to make it work, as we read the brilliant opening of the Iliad.

The power of entertainment is an explicit theme in the voyage of Odysseus [Odyssey 6 -12, discussed in Lesson 2]. As if in paradise, Homer's Phaeacians devote themselves to the good life of feasts, sports, and  songs. Their "divine" entertainer Demodokos is a stress relaxation trainer.  He's a master of both comedy (the capture of Aphrodite and Ares by cuckolded Hephaestus) and tragedy (the fall of Troy)--a virtuosity that is is not surprising, since laughing and crying physiologically produce very similar throbs that alternately tense and relax muscle tissues, eventually relieving the sympathetic nervous system.

Once Odysseus has wept at Demodokos' account of the fall of Troy, he is relaxed enough to complete his woeful story in a detached, subliminal way. He seems to be recounting dreams or fantasies rather than harrowing experiences of war, imprisonment, starvation and shipwreck. The storybook monsters are absurd, curious, grotesque but certainly not dangerous.

The Teiresias episode at the center of Odysseus' story reflects the ancient practice of resurrecting the dead by means of hero ceremony  [as described in Lesson 2]. These  necromantic rituals often included not only a sacrifice meal, attracting the spirits with food offerings, but "incubation,"  the appearance of the spirits during the celebrants' sleep. In these festivities, heroic songs would have shortened the hours between eating and sleeping. There can be no conclusive proof as to the original, historical context of the Homeric songs, but their hypnotic cadence, repetitive phrasing, and surrealistic presentation of action suggest that Homer knew and borrowed parasympathetic techniques used in the incubation of heroes. Odysseus' story puts its audience to sleep.

The Iliad , to which we turn our attention in this Lesson, is no less dreamlike than the Odyssey. Its emphasis on fantasy begins with the opening scene, where Achilles and the Argive leader Agamemnon are consulting a mage--the seer Kalkhas. Within a few hundred lines after this consultation all of the spirits of the universe are angry. They are angry because Achilles became angry at the meeting, and so he stirred them up. Achilles has power to influence them, far beyond his power in arms. Even though he alone among mortals is strong enough to hurl his huge spear of Pelian ash, Achilles' true strength is his magic. When it is working, he controls the Trojan War as he pleases.

Homer's magic is thus two-fold. On the macro-level, there's the physical power that the song exerts upon the audience. On the micro level, within the fiction, characters' words have similar powers, such as the effects of Demodokos' words on Odysseus, of Odysseus' words on King Alkinoos and the Phaeacians, and of Achilles' words on almost all of the other characters in the first part of the Iliad. It's this micro-magic that is examined in this Lesson.

The power of prayer and hymns
Iliad scrolls 1-2

Words in the Iliad are described as "winged." They're alive. They fly not only between and among mortals but also up to the mountaintops and down into the depths of the sea where they are heard by gods and goddesses who have substantial control over events. That is, words can have extraordinary power to make things happen.

Prayers can be answered, as we see at the beginning of the story. Chryses, the priest of the god Apollo, has tried to ransom his daughter who has been enslaved by Agamemnon. Because Agamemnon has refused the ransom and insulted him with rough words, Chryses curses all of the Achaeans (also known as Argives or Danaans) in an angry prayer to Apollo: 

"Hear me," he cried, "O god of the silver bow. . . If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned for you thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans." Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. Iliad 1.35 (emphasis added)

Chryses claims power because he has taken care of the god's temple and "offered" sacrifices to him. (Recall our discussion of sacrificial "offerings to" gods in Lesson 2.) These spiritual practices have not been in vain; they have awakened the god to Chryses' desires. Apollo hears Chryses' prayer even though it is uttered beside the seashore with seemingly nobody nearby. In anger, the archer god brings a plague upon the Achaean camp by "ringing death" with his bow.

Agamemnon and his warriors can't understand what's happening, since Apollo shoots from a distance and his face remains "dark as night," invisible to his victims (Iliad 1.45). Achilles calls in a seer, a specialist interpreter, to explain. This explainer is the prophet or mage Kalkhas, Apollo's oracle and wisest of augurs who knows "things past, present and to come" (Iliad 1.65).

Apollo Sauroktonos ("Lizard Slayer") by Praxiteles, Hellenistic.As an augur (the ancient counterpart of the modern coroner) Kalkhas is a professional reader of victims: he deciphers what the dead tell the living. (Recall the beginnings of story-telling in the speech of victims, described in Lesson 2). Kalkhas reads the plague. In this epidemic he skillfully diagnoses what Agamemnon and his followers can't see, but what the Muse has already told us: that Apollo angrily demands the unconditional return of Chryses' daughter. 

Agamemnon has been blind to the spirit world. Because of his political power he is not attuned to spiritual concerns; to him Chryses' daughter has been simply one more addition to his harem. Once he hears Kalkhas' explanation of the plague, however, he grudgingly accepts it. He frees Chryses' daughter, the priest recants his curse through another prayer to Apollo, and Odysseus and his crew offer an all-day ritual sacrifice to the god, including songs, hymns and chants. These procedures work. The singing is magical. Apollo hears the singing and takes pleasure in the musical voices (Iliad 1.470), and the plague is over.

Words cause the plague, and words (at least when accompanied by proper rituals) end it. Words magically come true. In the space of only a few lines Homer's Muse is telling us that one who sacrifices may be more powerful than the greatest king. Society is ruled by magic, not military or political power.

The lesson is a hard one for the king to accept. Chryses is pacified, but Agamemnon now is angry instead. He demands compensation from the Achaeans for his loss of Chryses' daughter. Achilles objects to paying Agamemnon, and a shouting match between Achilles and Agamemnon erupts in the council of war. 

In the heat of this anger, Agamemnon pulls rank. To show who's boss, and to replace Chryses' daughter in his harem, the king takes away Achilles' war prize, the lovely slave girl Briseis. Now Chryses' anger is appeased, and Agamemnon's anger is resolved also, but anger transfers to Achilles. It is this disastrous anger that the Iliad is about (Iliad 1.1). Its mere expression in prayer sends countless Argives to their deaths.

Seeing the gods, Part 1

Bring me your victims.Point of view in the Homeric songs is omniscient: it sees everything. The story-teller of the Iliad sees what all-knowing Kalkhas sees. Like Kalkhas, the singer sees that there is a plague, that the immediate cause of the plague is the god Apollo, that the intermediate cause is the priest Chryses' curse, and that the original cause is Agamemnon's arrogant dishonor of Chryses. (And Agamemnon's rash behavior toward Chryses is only the original cause within the Iliad; later in the story an apologetic Agamemnon will say that a god was responsible for his bad manners in dealing with Chryses and Achilles. There are causes of all kinds going back in time before the opening of the Iliad, but Homer sees them all.)

Here and elsewhere, Homer presents a vision of the whole story, not only the obvious action on the surface, the superficial part that an insensitive Agamemnon can see without any professional assistance, but all of its causes, both human (seen, normal) and divine (unseen, paranormal). Unlike you or I or even Albert Einstein, Homer can explain everything that happens.

We can have this powerful vision of heaven and earth because the song itself comes from the goddess, the Muse (Iliad 1.1). The song takes us, without any ifs or maybes, to every place and time that a goddess can go, in and out of the ordinary world of normal human experience. The human singer or performer is only the medium, like a radio or other music playing machine, through which the goddess' song is received.

The Muse and the rest of the gods and goddesses are essential characters in Homer because they explain things that are not apparent on the surface of mortal experience. Revealing or asserting underlying realities that are hidden behind the illusion of everyday appearances, Homer anticipates later Greek philosophy, metaphysics, science, and medicine. From the beginning the genius of the Hellenes depended on the recognition that the world is not what it appears to be. What is it really? That's the Hellenic question.

As an entertainer, Homer wants to account for human behavior. It's no easy job. What could be more mysterious or more in need of explanation? The specific behavior that Homer considers, on its surface, looks particularly unaccountable: men dying in large numbers from some unknown epidemic, while those in high command are ready to kill one another over slave girls. The Achaean forces are acting in complete disarray. Why? (Or, as Homer puts the question: what god has done this?)

Homer's method for making sense of the situation is to link events together that, in normal perception, are not linked, such as deaths from plague and brawls over slave girls. A deeper, spiritual level of existence is posited to join these apparently separate events into one coherent picture. Interaction of spirits, such as Apollo and Athena, supplies the necessary relationships.

Apollo is the immediate and unseen cause, the magical agent, linking Chryses' curse with the deaths of the Achaeans from pestilence. The deaths are not accidental or coincidental. There's an explanation, even though it involves an invisible agency in which imaginative belief is required. Explanation is critically important because it allows the possibility of cure.

Science clearly has a more powerful explanation for this disease today, but the Homeric explanation may have been useful in its day. In Homer, plague can be controlled through appropriate worship of Apollo, which includes not simply ritual songs but important ritual acts that are remembered in the songs: washing, removal of all wastes, and burning of disease victims. In ancient times, these rituals could have been effective means to stop the spread of epidemics. (Medieval approaches, many centuries later, had forgotten not only Apollo but the basic ritual acts of plague control. The Pied Piper is supposed to remove rats through music alone.) 

Artist's sketch of Athena in the Parthenon.The Iliad is filled with god-explanations of this kind, where gods are links in chains of causality that make sense of seemingly inexplicable events. Another example early in the song comes when, due to Agamemnon's threat to take Briseis, Achilles is seized with furious anger (Iliad 1.185). He is drawing his sword to kill Agamemnon, right there in front of everybody in the council of war, when suddenly something seizes him. He has a vision that Agamemnon and the other Achaeans can't see. The restraining influence is the goddess Athena, grabbing Achilles by the hair and advising him that Hera loves Agamemnon as well as Achilles.

By revealing some of her perspective to Achilles, Athena prevents disaster. She is the civilizing influence, an enforcer of the fragile moral code that holds society together even under conditions that are very close to anarchy. In abstract, secular terminology developed centuries after Homer, she is "wisdom" or "reason." When Athena holds him by the hair, Achilles cools his anger. He puts down his sword.

If this little episode seems absurd, if Athena's hair-pulling doesn't explain how murderous anger is restrained, what does? The Muse could have left Athena out of the description, and said simply that "Achilles changed his mind," but these words would indicate only vaguely what went on in Achilles' head. They might also give the wrong impression that Achilles has good control over his impulses.

I like a man with hair.The elaborate spiritual description that Homer actually uses to describe Achilles' mental process is dramatic, and therefore attention-getting. More, the drama describes an important behavioral mechanism, how "fight" turns to "flight" in the mental operation that psychologists today call "the male fight-or-flight response to stress." Credit Homer with the earliest recorded observation of this characteristic male overreaction toward aggression and toward withdrawal. Homer merely uses an archaic terminology to describe this condition. He speaks of "Athena" where rationalists of later ages would speak of "reason," and where medicine today would speak of "impulse" or "brain chemistry" or perhaps some set of genetically encoded behaviors. In any case, men are still troubled by their Achilles' anger, and they are still trying to name the gods, principles, or mechanisms that account for it.

Gods and goddesses are critical to understanding the Iliad, and all of ancient Hellenic civilization, even including its later rational developments in philosophy and science. These spirits explain things. Life is not presumed to be fragmented or meaningless, though that is how it appears to the senses in ordinary experience. The spiritual presumption is that ultimately the universe makes sense, but our sensory perceptions of it are incomplete. Spiritual practices are meant to reveal the more complete picture. 

This mystical sense of a further reality is not necessarily at odds with modern science. Physicists have "discovered" phenomena that they have never seen: gravity, black holes, and the "dark matter" of the universe, for instance. Many things have their presence only in imagination, thought, concept or theory--but that certainly doesn't mean they don't exist. We can't see the gods, but Homer posits them to explain the causes of what we do see.

At the instant that I finished this image, an enormous thunder storm struck my village, and we lost electric power. No kidding! Dr. Gutchess

Agamemnon's plague
& the idea of ransom

Apart from physical and mental disorders, like plague and irrational aggression, social disorders also catch Homer's attention--and so the interest of Homer's gods.

Agamemnon is the Achaean commander, the "Lord of Men," but he does not command wide respect among men or gods. He abuses power, divides his warriors and repeatedly threatens the mission. He insults both the priest of Apollo and Achilles, he issues foolish orders to test how his troops will respond, and he personally hoards a large share of the plunder although apparently he does little of the real work of fighting or preparing strategy.

The first that we hear of Agamemnon is that he has refused a ransom offered by a holy man. The rest of the Iliad follows from this improper, god-offending act. We may be tempted to view Apollo's anger at the humiliation of his priest as a bit of Homeric superstition, but there is more to it. A crucial rule in the Homeric code of warfare is that ransom is to be accepted. If proper compensation is offered, a slave is to be freed, and even the dead body of an enemy is to be surrendered for a proper funeral. 

Ransom gives plundering the same level of legitimacy as any voluntary commercial enterprise. The defeated agree to pay; the victors agree to back down when paid. Ransom is a charade, making duress appear like cooperation. Yet ransom is also a humane rule, designed to maintain order in warrior society by cooling anger and providing some measure of dignity even to the vanquished. If the rules of ransom are followed, hostilities can cease because the vicious cycle of revenges can be broken.

Violation of the Homeric code of ransom, like the plague, is a progressive and communicable disease that is passed along from one victim to the next. Agamemnon's injustice, refusing ransom from Chryses, later becomes Achilles' own injustice when he refuses compensation from Agamemnon for his loss of Briseis. Only at the end of the story, after great suffering, does Achilles accept King Priam's ransom for the dead body of Hektor. Zeus requires Achilles to accept the ransom, and Achilles ultimately obeys, bringing an end to the story of his hateful anger and revenge.

Ransom in Homer isn't simply a custom, a norm of acceptable behavior, or a good idea. Apollo is angry that his priest has been denied ransom. The punishment for this offence seems far more serious than the crime: hundreds of Argives die for it. Justice isn't the issue. Control of dangerous emotions is at stake. Homer fears a world in which the institution of ransom has broken down. When it does, the contagion of violence spins out of control.

Clearly, readers today may disagree with Homer about the usefulness of ransom in conflict resolution. A skeptic might wonder whether ransom does not reward violence. Some have blamed Homer for encouraging violence by glorifying warfare, but this criticism surely misses the mark. In his theme of anger, Homer stimulates our thought about the important questions: where does violence come from, how does it spread, and what can be done to stop it. We are far more to blame than Homer that these important questions remain largely unanswered in our day.

Story upon story,
without beginning or ending

We have been considering one of the most famous openings in all of literature. As the Roman poet Horace admired, the Iliad begins "in medias res," in the middle of things.  The story starts with an argument over ransom between Agamemnon and Achilles (which is a reflection of a prior argument over ransom between Agamemnon and Chryses). It ends there, too, somewhere in the middle of things, in another conversation about ransom between a wiser Achilles and pathetic King Priam.

Note that the story does not open with the beginning or asserted causes of the Trojan War. It does not conclude with the end of the war or its asserted consequences. It does not start with the birth of the hero or end with the hero's death. Homer does not have a historian's plan to tell the story of a particular war or to tell the biography of any particular person. Such beginnings and endings are quite important for mortals, but we have a different point of view here, the view of the immortal goddess.

What the goddess sees is a recurring story. A recurring story is a magic story, one that leads forever to something else, another repetition of itself.

Repetition, retelling and re-enactment of stories are epidemic in Homer. Within the Iliad, there are many replays of the same story. Chryses' plague is an echo of the larger story. Athena's hair-restraint of Achilles is an echo of the larger story. In the broadest repetition of all, the Odyssey is a final Homeric re-telling of the Iliad; its reflective hero Odysseus wanders home from Troy haunted by his experience of the war. Homeric song is an incredible nest of stories, all of which are intricately interrelated like a musical theme with brilliant variations.

Joining stories to one another, finding parallels or relationships between them, Homer establishes an imaginative world in which events don't simply happen without causes; they don't just end without consequences. Modern ideas of an accidental universe, ruled by chance and characterized by randomness of events, are entirely at odds with this Homeric view of the relatedness of stories. Homer looks for underlying principles to make sense of the apparent chaos and to unify time into a meaningful whole. The songs find patterns and comparisons, ways in which episodes go together into a coherent whole.

Homer provides the vision of the goddess, not a view of a certain time and particular people but a way of seeing that collapses multiple events into one timeless essence. It's no accident that Homer sang about male fight-or-flight response more than 2500 years before its scientific "discovery" in the 20th century. Homer's general method, seeking after "human nature" by comparing many stories, is not different in kind than the process of modern clinical psychology. (Psychologists in fact continue to draw important behavioral insights from Homer's stories: for an interesting recent example see R. William Betcher and William S. Pollack's In a Time of Fallen Heroes: The Re-Creation of Masculinity, a study of male anger, Homer's major theme.)

Achilles' prayer

Once Briseis is taken away by Agamemnon, humiliated Achilles seeks revenge, much as Apollo's priest Chryses had done, through a vindictive prayer spoken down by the sea shore. Achilles calls upon the goddess Thetis, his mother, to pray for him to Zeus:

Let the Achaeans be hemmed in at the sterns of their ships, and perish on the sea-shore, that they may reap what joy they may of their king, and that Agamemnon may rue his derangement in offering insult to the best of the Achaeans. Iliad 1.405

tickle, tickleThetis of course hears this anguished prayer and takes it to Zeus. In fact the prayer will be granted in time. Words will prove magical for Achilles as for Chryses.

Achilles' prayer, however, is more fully elaborated by Homer than Chryses' prayer. In this more complete or enlarged view, the prayer and its consequences appear more complicated. Achilles' wish looks partly righteous or just, partly self-righteous or unjust. The ambivalence becomes apparent in the cautious and mixed reception that the prayer receives among the gods:

  • Thetis presents the positive side of the case to Zeus, as she calls on the "Olympian lord of council" for justice: where Agamemnon has done Achilles "dishonor" by taking away his prize Briseis, Zeus should "honor" Achilles by forcing Agamemnon to compensate Achilles for his loss. (Note: this isn't exactly what Achilles asks for; he doesn't seek compensation. He wants the Achaean army to be smashed so that Agamemnon and his supporters will be sorry.)

  • Hera is peeved that Achilles is asking for the deaths of many Achaeans. This is the dark side of the case: Achilles only wants to show that he, not Agamemnon, is the "best of the Achaeans," and he will show it through the destruction of Agamemnon's followers.  

Hera makes her point. Zeus hears both sides, and Homer makes sure that we hear them, too. 

It's a disturbing idea that Achilles or anybody else can pray for something evil, or viciously selfish, and that such a prayer can be granted after careful consideration by the king of all the gods. Wouldn't a good hero pray only for that which is good? Wouldn't a just god deny any prayer that is evil? Why should we be interested in the raging jealousy of this vengeful Achilles, and the spirits of wickedness that assist his tantrum?

Moralizing and theologizing questions of this sort don't get us very far in an understanding of Homer. It is not Homer's point to show that god is love or that magic is good or that life is fair. Plague happens, revenge happens. In the Iliad, Homer is interested in describing the reality that he finds, not in showing some utopia or ideal world. If there were spirits in charge of human affairs during the Helladic dark ages, the destructive and violent time that Homer sings about, clearly they had other interests than in making mortals happy. 

Much the same is often said of genes today. A genetic version of the Troy story is easily told, for genes would have the males chiefly interested in killing one another and in raping as many women as possible. The genes wouldn't care whether any particular men or women were happy, or whether life was fair; they would care only about their own survival into the next generation of human bodies. Homer's gods are only slightly more sympathetic to mortals than this.

Seeing the gods, Part 2

Whew!The gods of Homeric song are in part powers who can turn words, like the prayers of Chryses or Achilles, into realities. Such powers can be dangerous, of course, and so these gods were banished from western society centuries ago on fabricated charges of immorality. I say fabricated, because human bad behavior, not the immorality of the gods, obviously was to blame. 

These gods (as they relate to humankind) can be agents of human desires, dreams and wishes, including bad or self-destructive ones, like Achilles' prayer. As Xenophanes of Colophon, the earliest of recorded Greek critics noted: "Homer and [fellow poet] Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things which among men are reproach and blame: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception." In fact, they attributed to the gods all things that are human--good as well as evil things.

Although they are capable of more, Homer's gods usually look like humans, act like humans, and--most important--they often make things happen that humans desire or imagine. They are the agents posited to explain why magic sometimes works, why Achilles' prayer comes true but Agamemnon's fails.

Unlike the god of Genesis who is the creator of humankind, the Homeric gods are largely anthropomorphic (that is, human formed). The ancient Hellenes, in general, were less concerned with the creation of humankind than they were interested in human creations. Unlike the monotheistic followers of Moses, the Hellenes did not see themselves as a single uniform culture working out the plan or destiny of a single god. They were polytheists who typically saw themselves as related individuals working out their own individual plans, privately or in small groups, through the help of gods. This human-centered society of the Hellenes was multi-cultural in its acceptance of beliefs. It stimulated a variety of points of view, brilliant personal achievement, and fierce competition, even to the point of devastating social strife.

If you see this lady, be careful not to offend her.Strife is represented in mythology as conflict among gods (or gods versus monsters or devils or false idols). We first see it in the Iliad at the end of scroll 1, when Achilles' destructive anger turns into to a nasty quarrel on Mount Olympus between Zeus and Hera. In this manifestation Hera becomes the scolding prying wife, Zeus becomes the secretive abusive husband, and the pair fight publicly in front of all of the other amazed gods who have gathered at the big mansion in the sky for a party. The heavenly scene is peculiarly frightening and ridiculous at the same time, like the scene that it reflects, the hostilities down below between Achilles and Agamemnon.

In this little episode on Olympus, however, the gods are shown to be more than the human warriors' view of them. The gods can be perfectly polite and sociable, but peace is made among them only when they turn their attention away from the mortals and back to the regular routines of nature. Achilles' prayer doesn't keep the sun from setting:

Hephaistos began to try to pacify his mother Hera. "It will be intolerable," said he, "if you two [Hera and Zeus] fall to wrangling and setting heaven in an uproar about a pack of mortals. If such ill counsels are to prevail, we shall have no pleasure at our banquet.". . . Then Hephaistos drew sweet nectar from the mixing-bowl, and served it round among the gods, going from left to right; and the blessed gods laughed out loud their approval as they saw him bustling about the heavenly mansion. Thus through the livelong day to the going down of the sun they feasted, and every one had his full share, so that all were satisfied. Apollo struck his lyre, and the Muses lifted up their sweet voices, taking turns. But when the sunís glorious light had faded, they went home to bed, each in his own abode, which lame Hephaistos with his consummate skill had fashioned for them. So Zeus, the Olympian Lord of Thunder, hied him to the bed in which he always slept; and when he had got on to it he went to sleep, with Hera of the golden throne by his side (Iliad i. 570-610 [emphasis added]).

The gods have their own immortal lives to lead. Mortals can influence them, but as the Iliad stresses the influence is temporary, and it is subject to conflict with other mortals. In this respect magic is limited by nature and culture, just as it is in Genesis. (Recall Lesson 1.) Magic's limitation by nature and culture is a central issue in the Iliad. (More on this in Lesson 6.)

The culture of Achilles
scroll 2

We don't see Achilles at all in scroll 2, but Achilles' prayer is working, controlling the action, as Agamemnon musters his forces to walk into the slaughter that Achilles has prayed for. Achilles' hopes come true just as certainly as Odysseus' wishes are fulfilled at Phaeacia.  

Zeus is the immediate cause that links Agamemnon's misdirected battle plan with Achilles' prayer. Zeus confuses Agamemnon through a false messenger named Lying Dream, who promises Agamemnon an immediate god-given victory over the Trojans, a victory that we know isn't going to happen (Iliad 2.1-30). The gods are not united behind Agamemnon, as Agamemnon flatters himself in his imagination. They are, against some of their better judgment, honoring Achilles' wishes. 

Achilles' powerful words are mightier than his spear, which is resting. Thanks to the spirit world, his words are turning into Agamemnon's dreams and actions. After receiving the false dream and calling his troops together, Agamemnon says exactly what Achilles would want him to say. He regrets that he has offended Achilles and taken Briseis (Iliad 2.375-380). Then he prays to Zeus for victory, but the prayer goes unanswered:

"Zeus, most glorious, supreme, you who dwell in heaven, and ride upon the storm-cloud, grant that the sun may not go down, nor the night fall, till the palace of Priam is laid low, and its gates are consumed with fire. Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hektor about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him." Thus he prayed, but the son of Kronos [Zeus] would not fulfill his prayer (Iliad ii. 415-420 [emphasis added]).

Achilles has the ear of Zeus; Agamemnon doesn't. In the competition for which of the warriors is the "best of the Achaeans," Achilles is winning because his words are controlling. Achilles is the more powerful mage.

The war with the Trojans now begins to be described in terms of Achilles' point of view. For example, at this point in the story, when things are under Achilles' control, Helen of Troy is introduced. Before the war Helen has been stolen from Agamemnon's family (she is Menelaus' wife and Agamemnon's sister-in-law) by Trojan prince Paris (who is also called Alexander). 

Where to this time, boys? The Helen story comes in here, in scroll 2 of the Iliad, because it is a parallel story to Agamemnon's theft of Briseis from Achilles. Obviously, from Achilles' point of view, the war now is about raped women: Agamemnon is no longer viewed as the defender of his wronged brother's honor, but he now looks instead like the trouble-maker Paris, the woman-stealer.

At this point in the story, all of the followers of Agamemnon are seen as would-be rapists, too. They all seem to approve counselor Nestor's advice: "Let none make haste to go [from Troy] till he has first lain with the wife of some Trojan, and avenged the toil and sorrow that he has suffered for the sake of Helen" (Iliad 2.355). Why should Achilles aid and protect such comrades as these? He refuses to take part in their rape gang.

Illustration based on a classical dish decoration.Achilles is paying the price for raping Briseis, but he doesn't make the connection between winning and losing her. It was hard work destroying her city, and putting her family to the sword, so he thinks he has earned his reward to keep her, and the boss has no right to dock his wages. (More on the importance of this rape theme in Lesson 6.)

Much of the story of the war, and its aftermath beyond the Iliad too, in the failed  homecomings of the Argives, goes forward as angry Achilles desires that it should. Even the sarcastic figure of Thersites echoes Achilles' point of view:

"Agamemnon," he cried, "what ails you now, and what more do you want? Your tents are filled with bronze and with fair women, for whenever we take a town we give you the pick of them. Would you have yet more gold, which some Trojan is to give you as a ransom for his son, when I or another Achaean has taken him prisoner? or is it some young girl to hide and lie with? It is not well that you, the ruler of the Achaeans, should bring them into such misery. Weakling cowards, women rather than men, let us sail home, and leave this man here at Troy to stew in his own prizes of honor, and discover whether we were of any service to him or no. Achilles is a much better man than he is, and see how he has treated him -  robbing him of his prize and keeping it himself. Achilles takes it meekly and shows no fight; if he did, son of Atreus, you would never again insult him." Iliad 2.225-240 (emphasis added)

The next time that we will see Achilles in the Iliad, he is sitting in his tent away from the battle singing a song, playing the lyre, the traditional musical instrument of Pythian Apollo and the archaic poets (Iliad 8.186). We can't hear exactly what heroic song Achilles is singing, but we don't need to know. The war that rages around him around him is his song.

.Rembrandt's Hera.

Lesson Summary: The Homeric songs are preoccupied with the theme of magic. Homer is fascinated by the power of words to influence behavior and to shape events. Homer's gods are the agents that explain how this magic works. They are seen primarily from the point of view of the goddess Muse and secondarily from the point of view of the mortals who are dependent on them.

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. Let us pray: "Prayer is not an old woman's idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action." Mohandas K. Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War (1948), 2.77.

"Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you." Are these famous words from Matthew's Gospel advising us that magic works? Clearly, doors usually won't be opened unless we knock. To have objectives or goals in life, we must identify them, visualize their achievement, and express heart-felt desire that they be accomplished. In many cultures, prayer is the traditional model for this process of goal-setting, motivation or mental conditioning.

Prayer manuals provide useful instructions on this subject. Secular self-improvement books often borrow the techniques of prayer and spiritual exercise, too; see for example Steven R. Covey's popular The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). 

2. Augury: Story-telling began in the sacrifice of animals (see Lesson 2), but other spiritual disciplines evidently developed from the same source. One example in classical civilization was augury, a practice of reading the body parts of sacrificed animal victims to find encoded spiritual messages, especially predictions about the future. Western medicine is likely to have developed after the extension of augury to pathological practice in classical Greece. The coroner's post-mortem report, the journalist's obituary or death notice, and the funeral eulogy or sermon also seem to be modern survivals of the very ancient practice of listening to voices of the dead.

Consider someone who has died recently. What's the meaning? What do people say that it is? 

3. Anger: Describe anger, a particular anger that is best known to you, either because it is/was your own anger or because it possesses or possessed someone you know very well. Where does it come from? Where does it go to or how is it controlled?

4. God(s): Do you believe in God or gods? Why or why not? 

INSTRUCTOR'S DISCLAIMER: This course on literature necessarily takes a literary view of all questions about God, gods, spirits of every kind, spiritual practices and spiritual ways of life. That is, spiritual activity is regarded here as simply one way of describing or explaining events--and it is not considered to be inherently better or worse than other ways of describing or explaining happenings that are mysterious, hidden or speculative. As to the existence or non-existence of spirits, apart from the realm of literature, this course expresses no opinion whatsoever.

5. Magic, culture, and cult: these terms are used by various scholars to mean various things. This web uses them in a basic, non-technical way: magic is the expression of desire; culture is the manifestation or realization of the magic; and cult is the group that acknowledges and believes in the magic. So, for example, Achilles prays for the Achaeans to be destroyed (his prayer is magic), Achaeans drop dead as a result (the magic comes true in the culture), and the survivors recognize Achilles' power (they become his cult in their awe and fear of his god-like power).

Yet it wouldn't be magic if Achilles destroyed the Achaeans with his spear, would it? What if Achilles killed all of his comrades with one hand tied behind his back? What if he killed them by stabbing tooth picks into voodoo dolls? What is it exactly that differentiates magic from non-magic? Is it simply the extreme unlikelihood or seeming impossibility of producing an intended result that makes any act or technique "magic"? 

When you think about the process of cult making--let's call the process itself acculturation--you soon will recognize how extremely common it is. All of us are successful to some degree in having our expressed wishes come true and, sometimes, gaining recognition for the accomplishment. Simple example: a child says that she wants a bicycle for her birthday; she receives a bicycle on her birthday as a result of her stated wish, and the whole family acknowledges that she received the bicycle on her birthday because that's what she said that she wanted. A  child can have such magical power even if her mother is not a goddess and her father is not a king. 

Consider examples from your own experience. How powerful are your words? How powerful over you are the mere words of other people?

6. Mages: Hellenes began to ridicule magical superstition three centuries or more after Homer, following the Persian Wars (490-479 BC). They coined the word "mageia" (which later became Latin "magia," and English "magic") in connection with the strange practices of the Medes, a caste of priests who advised the Persian Emperors in their failed invasions of the Greek peninsula.  (See Herodotus, Histories 1.140).

These "magoi" (mages or magicians) were in charge of religious rituals, prophecies, divination, interpretation of dreams, and spiritual matters generally in the Persian state. They prophesied Persian victories over the Hellenes on the basis of dreams, organs of sacrificed animals, stars, unusual weather, and other phenomena in which they claimed to read the will of the gods. Somehow these wise men read the "signs" wrong. The prophesies didn't come true.

So magic made a poor impression in the West, beginning at least in the Greek classical period, following the Persian Wars, and godless thought eventually emerged in Western humanism, skepticism, rationalism, empiricism and science. Yet all of these secularizing developments happened long after Homer. The Homeric songs are powered by Athena, Apollo, Hera, Zeus, Aphrodite and a host of other spirits. 

7. Openings: what is your favorite opening in literature? What does it accomplish, and how does it achieve its effect? It was a dark and windy night. . . Oh, no!

8. Nested stories: Homer, Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and other great tale tellers seem to have an uncanny ability to weave rich fabrics of nested or multiple plots. Can you describe two separate events that seem to have nothing to do with each other but that actually have a subtle or hidden connection in your mind? What is it that makes them similar? "The story of X always reminds me of the time when Y." If you can articulate one pair, you probably will be able to uncover other events or stories that also belong to the same category or nest.

9. For another early literary view of the fight-or-flight response: see the medieval French epic The Song of Roland (written cir. 1200 AD, concerning events in Charlemagne's military campaign against Saracens in Spain in 778 AD). Roland and all of his troops die as a result of his failure to foresee when to stay and fight an honorable battle and when to call for help to avoid wasting lives needlessly in combat. Roland and his command are wiped out because he is carried away with the illusion of heroic deeds when he should be assessing the unfair odds in a battle where his forces are grossly outnumbered.

Marc Siegel, "Can We Cure Fear?" Scientific American Mind December 2005: "'Fight or flight,' or the acute stress response, was first described in the 1920s by Walter B. Cannon, a physiologist at Harvard University. Cannon observed that animals, including humans, react to dangers with a hormonal discharge of the nervous system. The body unleashes an outpouring of vessel-constricting, heart-thumping hormones, including epinephrine, norepinephrine and the steroid cortisol. The heart speeds up and pumps harder, the nerves fire more quickly, the skin cools and gets goose bumps, the eyes dilate to see better, and the areas of the brain involved in decision making receive a message that it is time to act. "

Powers of Literature

Copyright © 2001, 2002


















Figure left: Odysseus' sacrifice raises Teiresias' head from the underworld, as depicted on an ancient Greek vase (lighting effects added).



(On incubation, see Daniel Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy 11.





















The first part of the Iliad shows in detail how Achilles' prayer is answered.















Left: Apollo the Pythian god of death and poetry. . .






. . .among other aspects!


























Figure left: the prophet Kalkhas, carved image from the temple of Zeus at Olympia.  











































Image left:Phidias' huge statue of Athena once stood in the Parthenon at Athens. See mouseover.















Image left: "Athena and the Centaur" by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. A centaur stands in for Achilles. Athena becomes an allegorical figure for wisdom or reason, the tamer of the beast-man.


















Image of Zeus the storm god, based on an early Hellenic carving. As king of gods, Zeus maintains order against the forces of chaos, including human injustice like that of Odysseus and his crew.








































Achilles instinctively draws his sword on Agamemnon in the non-Homeric story of Iphigenia. Image based on a painting by David, "The Anger of Achilles" (1819). Click on picture for details.
































Homer is known for his remarkable attempts to describe human nature. Serious students of human behavior still regard his portrait of Achilles as life-like.












Image left: Jean Ingres, "Jupiter and Thetis" (Jupiter = Latin Zeus)



































Image left: early classical carving (cir 460 BC, Temple of Hera, colorized). In a comic scene from the Iliad, Hera seduces Zeus so that he can't keep watch over the Trojans.























Image left: Hera, as shown in a classical vase decoration.






























Scroll 2 unfolds as Achilles wishes.























Classical drinking bowl with illustration usually described as the taking of Briseis from Achilles, but the scene could be Paris and Helen, Jason and Medea or some other rape. Classical literature is full of rapes.































Image left: Hera on a microchip. Rembrandt's Hera as a Renaissance era Dutch Queen on mouse over. Where are the gods these days?