The Singer of Tales

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Chapter 9. The Iliad

The story of the Trojan War is a simple one of bride-stealing and rescue. It belongs primarily to Menelaus, Paris, and Helen, and might have remained uncomplicated even if the struggle did call forth the armada of Achaeans and a host of Trojan allies. But bride-stealing in epic was mythic before it became heroic and historical. The rape of Persephone in all its forms as a fertility myth underlies all epic tales of this sort, and until the historical is completely triumphant over the mythic, all such tales are likely to be drawn into the pattern of the myth.

I believe that it was the element of the length of the Trojan War, itself apparently an historical fact, which drew unto its story the bride-stealing theme. Once thus sanctified, the war became the setting for tales of absence and return, the mythic death and resurrection, associated with fertility myth and ritual. The story of Odysseus is one form of these tales; that of Achilles is another. In the former the length of time causes no difficulty (even though it is doubled by the addition of another form of the story, a form involving wanderings), because the lapse of time coincides with the absence from home. In the Iliad the length of the war is not conceived of as coincident with the absence of Achilles from battle. The reason for this is that the death of the substitute for Achilles, Patroclus, is stressed in the Iliad, whereas it is only vestigial in the Odyssey; Anticleia’s role in the narrative is unimportant, yet her counterparts in the Yugoslav tradition are kept even to this day (see Appendix III).

Thus in Book II when Agamemnon makes trial of the army we are in the last year of the war, but when the army reassembles and we enter into the Catalogues, a theme properly belonging to the beginning of the war, but yet not out of place here either, we find ourselves in a series of events that are logical only or chiefly in the beginning, but questionable after nine years of fighting. Helen’s pointing out the Greek leaders to Priam is scarcely sensible if the Greeks have been battling before his eyes for nine years. The single combat between Paris and Menelaus in which Menelaus claims the victory and nearly ends the war is surely better placed somewhere nearer its beginning. Zeus’ рlan as just announced is not working out very well, but this is because the events immediately following its announcement really belong earlier.

It is true that we might explain the presence of these incidents merely by saying that Homer went off the track in the reassembly theme and inadvertently went back to the beginning of the war. We might argue that in his desire to lengthen the story he has included everything he knew of the war up to this point. Such an argument and such an explanation would be consistent with oral composition. The trial of the troops and the reassembly are bound together by association of themes. The assembly and the single {187|188} combat are also bound together by association. The singer has unwittingly, or wittingly, modulated backward. All this is true. But I believe that there is a more significant reason for the return to the beginning. This material belongs with the story and is fitting. It is not mere background, not a scenic and artistic backdrop for the staging of the tale of Achilles. It has meaning in the larger tale of the war and in the tale of Achilles’ absence, the kind of essential meaning that makes epic song effective and draws multiforms together into a concentrate.

The events leading up to the wrath of Achilles in Book I follow a pattern similar to that of the poem itself. The daughter of Chryses is captured and given to Agamemnon; her father seeks her release, offering ransom; Agamemnon refuses the offer and sends Chryses away. Chryses prays to Apollo; the plague is sent; Agamemnon returns the girl to her father. Interlocking with the last theme, the pattern begins again in another form; Agamemnon’s concubine is taken from him with the consent of the Achaeans and under the protection of Achilles; Agamemnon asks them to replace her with another as his due; they refuse, and, following his prerogative, he takes Achilles’ concubine. With the appeasing of Agamemnon the first repetition of the pattern seems to be broken, but in reality the refusal of the Achaeans leads to the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles (parallel to the plague, in the pattern). Thus, whereas from one point of view the taking of Briseis satisfies Agamemnon’s anger (parallel to the return of Chryseis), from another point of view the acknowledgment of error by Agamemnon and the embassy mark, or should mark, the end of trouble, corresponding also to the last scene of the pattern, the return of Chryseis.

The difference of the working out of the basic pattern in these two cases is caused by the fact that in the first instance Apollo is a god who must be appeased when wronged or hurt, but in the second instance Agamemnon, divine king though he be, cannot really demand restitution when hurt, especially when that hurt is the result of an offense against the god. The story pattern fits the actions of a god, but when a mortal replaces the god, the pattern itself seems to condemn him on the grounds of hybris. The only possible outcome is either death or capitulation.

There are three devastations and three returns because Achilles’ actions follow three patterns. The complexity of the Iliad and some of its apparent inconsistencies come from the working out of all three patterns in this one song. The hurt caused by the taking of Briseis would have been satisfied by the embassy, but by then two other patterns were operative; it would have been satisfied by a possible return of Briseis in Book XVI, a vestige of which we see in Achilles’ conversation with Patroclus when Achilles shows an almost-willingness, and allows Patroclus to enter in his stead as a compromise. But another pattern is still left in operation, the most powerful pattern in the Iliad, the pattern which began with the withdrawal of Achilles. This pattern is the tragedy of Achilles, but the art and irony, the hybris of Achilles, arise from the fact that all three patterns are interlocked in the song.

On the other hand, the refusal of the embassy is parallel to Agamemnon’s refusal of the ransom of Chryses (still within the Chryses pattern, before the Agamemnon pattern begins). The difference is that whereas up to this point we have seen Achilles playing Chryses to Agamemnon, now we find him playing Agamemnon to Chryses. In other words, he was the bereaved seeking restitution, the god seeking retribution, but now he is the mortal refusing to accept just return. And by slipping into the role of Agamemnon he brings further disaster upon the Achaeans and on himself, thus prolonging the story until the final reconciliation with Agamemnon and the {189|190} return of Briseis to Achilles. This suggestion of a move from one pattern to another is one possible solution, made even probable by the thematic correspondences (a) of Achilles-Chryses praying to the god and (b) of Achilles-Agamemnon refusing an embassy offering ransom. However, although this might suffice to renew the fighting and to take us back to war (the plague), it would not be sufficient, I believe, to lead to the death of Patroclus, without recourse to the idea of the sacrifice of the maiden Chryseis. Of course, from Agamemnon’s point of view, Chryseis was sacrificed.

There may be truth in all of this, but if so, I think it is subsidiary to and supporting the other possibility; that by his withdrawal from the fighting Achilles has brought another powerful pattern into play, that of death and return. The story pattern of the wrath, the one that we have been considering, leads to the troubles of the Achaeans, even to the duplication of those troubles before and after the embassy. But it does not in itself seem to include the death of Patroclus. This appears to belong to another pattern into which the story of the wrath has modulated.

Captivity and rescue tales, of course, are closely allied to stories of captivity and return, as we have seen in previous chapters. They are sometimes combined, as we have also seen in the Odyssey and in the Yugoslav charts in Appendix IV. The relationship between them is close because of the captivity theme itself. But the coincidences are even greater when the captivity is of long duration and is pictured as causing devastation at home. In the wrath patterns at the beginning of the Iliad the duration is not specified as long, but rather presented as short. Hereby we have seen a difficulty arising in the poem, a difficulty involving the apparent return to {190|191} the beginning of the war. But the second element, devastation at home, links them clearly with the captivity-return pattern.

Agamemnon plays the part of captor in the first two cases in the Iliad, first as the captor of Chryseis, who is rescued by Chryses, and then of Briseis, who is “rescued” by Achilles. But by the time of the embassy his role has changed; we find him offering ransom as would either a rescuer or a captive. Achilles, when he prays to Thetis, is the rescuer (note again the parallel with Chryses), but by the time of the embassy he refuses ransom, and here he acts as captor. This is because we have modulated via the withdrawal to another, closely related, story pattern.

The idea of withdrawal is, of course, inherent in the idea of captivity. But there is another sense of withdrawal, that of return home, withdrawal from the war, which appears in the first book of the Iliad. Chryses wishes the Greeks victory and a happy return homeward. [9] Achilles, at the beginning of the assembly of the Achaeans, suggests that they will have to return home if both war and pestilence ravage them. [10] At the beginning of the quarrel Achilles threatens to depart for Phthia if his prize is taken from him; for this is not his war. Agamemnon tells him to go ahead home. [11] The subject does not come up again until Book II, and then in a controversial and important incident, when Agamemnon makes trial of his men. [12] We must consider this incident with some care. For one thing, it has been said that it does not follow logically from what precedes it, the baneful dream. Secondly, it is here that we learn for the first time that we are in the ninth year of the war. Until now we might very well have been at the beginning of the war. Thirdly, it is the start of the modulation back to events at the beginning of the war. In short, there seems to be something seriously wrong here. Except for the intervention of Athena in Book I and her speech, [13] which would seem to indicate that the death of Patroclus was not in all singings of the wrath of Achilles, this is the first real difficulty in the Iliad. Her intervention is also inconsistent with the statement by Thetis later, [14] that all the gods are on vacation in Ethiopia, whence they return twelve days later for the Iliad‘s first scene on Olympus.

The shift to Agamemnon, which has come about by his repetition of the deceptive story of the baneful dream, has occasioned Homer’s reference to a long period of time, and for him the nine years of the war properly provide that reference. By it, we have moved from an event, the withdrawal of Achilles, which belongs at the beginning of a period of troubles, to the culmination of a period of troubles and to return home. The modulation back to the beginning of the war is accomplished, as we have noted, by the assembling of the troops, leading to the catalogues. The return of the gods from their twelve-day vacation started a sequence in which the testing was in place, but in the larger sequence of the story beginning with the withdrawal of Achilles, a sequence in which return and all its associated ideas have played a part, the testing was out of place and premature, as was the return itself.

In the books which follow (П–VII) the war begins, and the Achaeans, perhaps contrary to our expectations, are almost victorious. At the end of Book VII and the beginning of Book VIII we reach a complex of themes that throws us back again to the end of Book I and the beginning of Book II and to the story of Achilles, who has been almost forgotten in the intervening episodes.

Book I ended with the feasting of the gods and their going to sleep. Book VII ends with the feasting of the Achaeans after the building of the wall, and their going to sleep. At the beginning of Book II we find Zeus wakeful, plotting the destruction of the Achaeans; at the end of Book VII Zeus plots their destruction all night long. The results of his scheming are different in each case. In Book II the result is the baneful dream; in Book VIII the result is an assembly of the gods at dawn, when Zeus tells them to refrain from fighting. After this he repairs to Ida and watches the battle resumed, until at midday he balances the scales and things go worse for the Achaeans. Hera and Athena band together to stop the carnage, but Zeus intervenes and recalls them. He tells them that nothing they can do will change the fate which has been decreed:

“For Hektor the huge will not sooner be stayed from his fighting
until there stirs by the ships the swift-footed son of Peleus
on that day when they shall fight by the sterns of the beached ships
in the narrow place of necessity over fallen Patroklos.”


This is the first we hear about the death of Patroclus. This plan is different from the earlier one in Book II. But the general sequence here is the same as that in the earlier passage: feasting, sleep, a sleepless, plotting Zeus, and action proceeding from his plot.

What follows has also a parallel in Book II, and is germane to our previous considerations. Night falls and the Trojans keep watch after a {192|193} speech by Hector. Meanwhile, Agamemnon, at the beginning of Book IX, summons an assembly, as in Book II. Now he suggests to the Achaeans, and not in a testing mood, that they return home. The similarity to events in Book II is striking. The interchange following this suggestion is reminiscent of what follows the threat of Achilles during the quarrel to return home to Phthia. It is now Diomedes, who in words like those of Agamemnon, says that Agamemnon, indeed all the rest of the Achaeans, may return home, but he will stay and fight until Troy is taken. Nestor intervenes here, as he did in Book I, and suggests a meeting of the council. At that meeting he urges Agamemnon to appease Achilles, and the embassy is the result.

The Chryses pattern, we saw, instructed us that the return of Briseis should mean the end of the wrath. Athena promised Achilles, when she restrained his hand, that he would receive threefold payment for the rape of Briseis. This promise, too, would lead us to believe that Achilles would accept the return of the girl with additional gifts as appeasement for his wrath. But the words of Zeus shortly before have notified us that this embassy is doomed to failure because Patroclus first must die. The Chryses pattern is completed formally, but we have been occupied with another pattern (that of death and return) since the withdrawal of Achilles. Now for the first time we can state this with assurance. Zeus has told us so himself. Achilles’ anger was godlike (cf. Apollo) and its effects were godlike (cf. the plague). Achilles the bereaved, the hurt, has been satisfied. The return of Briseis was all that was asked for in the Chryses pattern. The new pattern demands human sacrifice. And so Achilles, prolonging his withdrawal in the role of his own captor, refuses the inadequate ransom, and thus insists on Patroclus’ death. So far, then, in the new pattern we have an absence that causes devastation and requires human sacrifice for return. The quarrel of Agamemnon is of no import after the embassy. The devastation of the Achaeans, however, is of significance after the embassy, and must continue until Patroclus’ death. Now all hinges upon that. {193|194}

But the action of the Iliad, almost in consternation, as it were, that the embassy has not turned out as envisaged from the beginning of the song, comes to a stop at the end of Book IX, and takes a rest before continuing. Book X, the Doloneia, could be omitted without anyone being the wiser; many feel that the Iliad would be better without it. Yet it is there and we have no evidence that justifies our eliminating it, since it does not contradict anything in the song. I am not sure that we can find a satisfactory answer at the present time to the question of why the Doloneia is included in the Iliad, but we can indicate its relationship in respect to thematic patterns with other parts of the song. And this knowledge may lead us in the direction of possible solutions. Book X opens with the scene of all the Achaeans asleep by the ships except for Agamemnon, who is worried about the fate of his forces. And associated with his worry is a simile of a storm. [17] With this opening we are thrown back to the beginning of the previous book (IX) which discovers the Achaeans in panic, their panic emphasized by another storm simile; [18] here, too, Agamemnon is singled out as wandering about among his captains. In fact, we are reminded of a still earlier scene, the opening of Book II, where we find all the gods and men asleep except for Zeus, who hits upon the plan of the baneful dream, which he sends to the sleeping Agamemnon in the form of Nestor. There is a kinship in the opening of these three books, a kinship made closer by the fact that each of these books presents particular problems in the structure of the Iliad.

After the opening, the pattern in each case continues with the calling of an assembly, although the technique employed is not the same in all three books. In Book II Agamemnon orders the heralds to summon an assembly, while he holds a council of kings by Nestor’s ship. In Book IX Agamemnon orders the heralds to summon every man by name, and he himself assists. There is no meeting of the council of kings, but the assembly gathers immediately. In Book X the pace is much more leisurely, Agamemnon’s worries are described, and then Menelaus’; the latter goes to seek his brother and they exchange ideas about a plan; then Agamemnon seeks out Nestor. Menelaus has alerted Odysseus and Diomedes, and soon we find that a council of the kings has been summoned. These are all multiforms of a favorite theme, that of the assembly.

It seems that either Book IX or Book X could follow immediately upon the action of Book VIII. This would perhaps point to the fact that they are in some sense duplications, or that one is an intruder. As a matter of fact, Books IX and X are possibly interchangeable; at any rate their order could be reversed. It may be that we are dealing with two versions of the story, which have been amalgamated, one in which there was a successful embassy to Achilles, thus having a different ending to the tale; the other without an embassy but with a Doloneia leading into the Patroclus episode. I am inclined to feel that the mixing of a story of Achilles without a Patroclus substitute and one with Patroclus has again caused difficulty in the structure {194|195} of the Iliad. But whatever the answer may be, we shall undoubtedly reach it by way of a careful analysis of the repetition of thematic patterns.


The story of Patroclus really begins in Book XI, but it is interrupted at the very beginning of Book XII and does not reappear until the middle of Book XV, briefly, and at the beginning of XVI, where it is fully resumed. After this there seem to be no further interruptions.

It might be said that there is some vestige of a return after the embassy; for it is in Book XI that Achilles shows interest in the fate of the Achaeans and sends Patroclus to find out what is going on. Patroclus’ entrance on the field of battle, first as a messenger, and then in the stead of Achilles into the battle itself, is Achilles’ return by proxy. In fact, Patroclus’ mission to spy out the situation for Achilles is strangely like the mission of Diomedes and Odysseus in the Doloneia.

We would not be inclined to see any similarity between the withdrawal of Achilles and the absence of Odysseus, between the devastation caused by that withdrawal and the destructiveness of the suitors, certainly not between the death of Patroclus and that of Anticleia, nor between the role of Thetis-Zeus and that of Athena-Zeus, were it not for the character of Achilles’ return to the fighting. [20] Achilles’ return is portentous. If he has been “disguised” as Patroclus before, he now appears as himself to the Trojans, unarmed, but glorified by Athena. {195|196}

This is a mystical and magic passage, and we realize here that Achilles is more than a human hero, that he is a symbolic figure. It seems to me important that Achilles cannot wear his own armor nor is his new armor ready—though in the divine economy, I suspect, it might have been possible, had it been fitting for Achilles to be seen in it at this point.

Then in answer to her spoke Achilleus of the swift feet:
“How shall I go into the fighting? They have my armour.
And my beloved mother told me I must not be armoured,
not before with my own eyes I see her come back to me.
She promised she would bring magnificent arms from Hephaistos.
Nor do I know of another whose glorious armour I could wear
unless it were the great shield of Telamonian Aias.
But he himself wears it, I think, and goes in the foremost
of the spear-fight over the body of fallen Patroklos.”
Then in turn swift wind-footed Iris spoke to him:
“Yes, we also know well how they hold your glorious armour.
But go to the ditch, and show yourself as you are to the Trojans.”


The ashen spear of Achilles, too, has its counterpart in the bow of Odysseus. It is noteworthy that this spear is not carried by Patroclus, for only Achilles can wield it. It is an heirloom, like the bow. It, not the armor of Hephaestus, is the distinguishing mark of Achilles.

By the killing of Patroclus a feud has started in this heroic society, and according to its rules Hector must in turn be killed, Hector or one of his kin. The element that makes the situation somewhat different in the Iliad is that Patroclus has been killed by decree of Zeus or of fate. The gods have here been the aggressors. Patroclus is a sacrifice. It is Apollo who has killed Patroclus, and now one of Apollo’s men, Hector, must pay.

This is no ordinary feud, indeed. The parallel with the return complex has been fruitful and helpful in understanding some of the developments in this part of the Iliad, but it is not enough. For the closest parallel to Patroclus we must turn to the epic of Gilgamesh. It seems more and more likely that the Near Eastern epics of ancient times were known to the Greeks of Homer’s day or that they had some effect upon Greek epic before his day. In the epic, Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu have broken the taboos of the gods. The gods decide that Enkidu shall perish and not Gilgamesh. And Gilgamesh, when told of this decision by Enkidu, to whom it has been revealed in a dream says: “Me they would Clear at the expense of my brother!” [27] Here as in the Iliad it is the decree of the gods that the friend be killed for the hero. Gilgamesh, like Achilles, is part divine, “two thirds of him is god, [one third of him is human].” [28] Enkidu’s death is followed by the lament of Gilgamesh over his friend. Thus far is the parallel between Achilles and Gilgamesh clear. But here the correspondence seems to end; for now Gilgamesh departs over the steppe, and sets out for the island of the blest to visit Utnapishtim to learn the secret of eternal life. Only in the peaceful ending of the two poems, the reconciliation of Gilgamesh with his failure to learn that secret and with his loss of the plant of eternal youth, and the reconciliation of Achilles with Priam, is there a similarity of spirit. {197|}


[ back ] 1. This is, of course, basically no new idea. Émile Mireaux expressed it in his Les poèmes homériques et l’histoire grecque (Paris, 1948), and it follows from G. R. Levy’s arguments in The Sword from the Rock (London, 1953).

[ back ] 2. Both the donning of Achilles’ armor by Patroclus in Book XVI, which is a disguise for Patroclus, and also the new armor made for Achilles, which he puts on in Book XIX.

[ back ] 3. Iliad XXIII:65ff.

[ back ] 4. See Guido de Columnis, Historia Destructionis Troiae, ed. N. E. Griffin, who follows Dares and Dictys. Hector kills Patroclus in Book XV of Guido and Achilles withdraws from the fighting in Book XXV, having killed Hector in Book XXII.

[ back ] 5. For this technique of comparison of patterns see Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” Journal of American Folklore, 68:433 (1955).

[ back ] 6. Passages from the Iliad are quoted in the translation of Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1951).

[ back ] 7. See preceding chapter page 184 and Pauly-Wissowa, XXIV (1925), 2213–2257.

[ back ] 8. Evidence of this is abundant in the legend of Agamemnon and the vengeance taken by Orestes for his murder; in the many digressions in Beowulf; in the pattern of the Nibelungenlied; and even the whole corpus of Icelandic saga, which is a monument to a feuding society.

[ back ] 9. Iliad I:19.

[ back ] 10. Iliad I:59ff.

[ back ] 11. Iliad I:169ff.

[ back ] 12. Iliad II:114ff.

[ back ] 13. Iliad I:207ff.

[ back ] 14. Iliad I:423ff.

[ back ] 15. The numbers nine and twelve are also common in the Yugoslav return songs (see Appendix III), and in the songs of the taking of cities (cf. Parry and Lord, Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, I, No. 1). The number twenty found in these songs is probably an alliterative suggestion from the number twelve; dvanaest easily becomes dvadeset.

[ back ] 16. These lines correspond to Iliad II:111–118, 139–141.

[ back ] 17. Iliad X:5–10.

[ back ] 18. Iliad IX:4–8.

[ back ] 19. Iliad XVI:543.

[ back ] 20. Iliad XVIII:170ff.

[ back ] 21. The death of twelve men referred to at the end is prophetic of those who will be sacrificed at Patroclus’ funeral.

[ back ] 22. Odyssey 16:170ff.

[ back ] 23. Odyssey 5:333ff.

[ back ] 24. Parry and Lord, I, No, 4.

[ back ] 25. See below Chapter Ten, page 206.

[ back ] 26. See the discussion of this passage in The Abingdon Bible Commentary, p. 240, and in R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 155.

[ back ] 27. J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 86, lines 19–20.

[ back ] 28. Ibid. p. 73, Tablet I, (ii), line 1.