We can’t spend all our time back at the beginning of things, but it is helpful to return periodically to where it all started.
I don’t mean a simple chronological rewind, though it is indeed fun to think back to the earlier time when that piece of music first broke one’s taste free of the usual round of radio hits or that prayer first resounded with new life in one’s soul. The truth is that the starting point is not merely a historical fact but a formative principle: that piece of music that changed my way of hearing still informs the growth of my listening, though I have moved far beyond it; that first moment of spiritual life still gives structure to my inner growth, though I may have been drawn well past it. For better or worse, the soul imprints on those first articulations of experience. So, to rediscover the promise that can inspire us, we need to return to the first aspirations.
This return to beginnings transcends the personal realm. For example, if you want to explain the nature of American history, then it will make a difference whether your starting point is the Declaration of Independence or the Mayflower Compact or if you start with the terms of indenture or a bill of sale at a slave auction. Or take the example of Christianity: from outside, one might think that the story begins with the birth of Christ, but the truth is—and it makes a difference—that Christian tradition always reaches further back, at least to the experience of Israel, to its patriarchs, prophets, and sages, to its rulers and judges, to its heroes and sinners. The Gospel of Matthew takes Christ’s origins back to Abraham (1:1–16), while the Gospel of Luke goes back to Adam and thus to God (3:23–38)—various possible beginnings, all somewhat different but all equally essential and pertinent.
Here I want to go back to the beginnings of literature to find out what we are doing, what we are hoping for, in our stories. Indeed, such questions of where to begin have become quite charged, even in literary education. What books should we have our children read? We know that even a pretty inattentive young person finds a whole framework of imagination in their formation, and we want to be wary of “installing” biases that can have bad effects later. So, where do I start them? Do I have them read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? The Catcher in the Rye? The Scarlet Letter? Frankenstein? Great Expectations? Pride and Prejudice? Midnight’s Children? Kafka on the Shore? As it turns out, no great work is so easy to master that we can expect everyone, without fail, to derive only good from it; the works of the liberal arts tradition do not unfailingly liberate. Even divinely inspired texts have caused some problems in human history, so I can’t retreat to teaching only scripture. I fear the most common solution may simply be to teach nothing at all, since no text or topic is totally effective in making the world perfect immediately—or at least to teach nothing as if it were really important, as if it were really a point that a young individual looking into life and its possibilities could take as a beginning of her own real journey. How much easier it is to offer the young comforting distractions and basic skills rather than challenging imaginative experiences.
It could be that we need several such beginnings open to us at once, and open to us in every way that is properly our own, so that when the promises of one framework seem to be going astray or we’re just not finding the gold in that vein anymore, we can complement and confirm our quest with another view that we were also truly formed by, rather than having to resort to a kind of self-abandonment and flight to something extraneous—rather than just dropping everything and starting over somewhere else, that is. Maybe, like the Evangelists, I need at one point to think of Christ in his connection to Abraham, but on another day, in his connection to Adam. The real and the good, because it is beautiful, must be approached as multidimensional, something I can rotate and consider the fuller form of when I’m making no gains in staring at one side.
Literature leads us to the good, the beautiful, and the true, and so we can approach understanding its promise from many starting points. The first book of the Iliad, however, is one we can never leave behind. When Homer starts that great poem, what promises does he make? What pathways does he open to us? In what ways does he mark forever the nature of our experience?
We should, however, be careful in presuming that the Iliad is the most obvious starting point today, even if we occasionally hear said of its relation to Western literature something like Whitehead’s remark that European philosophy can be seen as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”1 More people today seem to be making footnotes to Homer’s Odyssey, with its fascination with the individual man, with the son’s quest to find his father, with the problem of getting back to where one belongs and reestablishing order, with what it means to narrate one’s identity.2 The Iliad, by contrast, is an epic of battle and strife, full of savage violence and mutual recrimination, peopled with gods who do not exactly inspire devotion. We might admire Homer for not demonizing the Trojans as enemies, but we would rather not find parallels too easily between the grief and agony of the poem and our own hopes for success in life. Nevertheless, the Iliad does make bold promises: that we can consider deeply the nature of our mortality and our strife without being plunged into misery; that we can learn to love this frail and fated mortal life of effort and dying, of striving and submitting, as we learn more deeply that sadness about inevitable loss somehow makes us beautiful. The Iliad is not an easy beginning, but only because the poem faces problems that have no easy solutions, or perhaps no true solution at all on this side of things.
In a recent essay, James Matthew Wilson writes that the Iliad’s first lines “are like a fossil containing the whole of poetry in miniature.”3 If we take the opening of the Iliad as the beginning of our literature, then the first words of our tradition are “wrath” and “sing” (mēnin áeide). Well, that explains a lot of our problems! Why did we start with wrath of all things? Why not peace? Freedom? Trust? Consolation? Love? Have we brought a curse upon ourselves by starting this way? Just a hop, skip, and a jump to nuclear weapons, we might say.
Homer, however, is himself cursing wrath here: the first word of the second line describes the wrath as “accursed” (ouloménēn).4 The full beginning of the tradition is, to put it more bluntly, “that damned wrath.” This poem does not glorify wrath but laments it. And this is certainly the first step to take: if we cannot understand anger and strife, the accursedness of wrath and power, what room will there be for anything else, for any culture, for any song? If we cannot get wrath into song, no song will there ever truly be. Thus, Homer’s opening lines express an urgent need, and by doing so, they resound with an honesty and realism we can gladly take as marking our tradition. The epic that begins, “Sing to me, Muse, of sunshine,” is a lying epic not worth reading. Homer catches us where it counts: wrath and devastation. As Jasper Griffin wrote, “It is not, and can never have been, a theme for those who simply ‘like to be amused.’”5 By these opening words, the poet enters us into our true world rather than aesthetically elevating us beyond it. “Deep-browed” Homer does not lull us to sleep but “speaks out loud and bold,” as Keats heard him in Chapman’s translation. In Homer’s school, we must take anger seriously—as that shameless Agamemnon fails to do when he says to Achilles in 1.181, “I take no heed of your being angry” (oud’ óthomai kotéontos).
We start, then, with wrath, but the second word is the imperative sing. A song is something crafted and proclaimed to an audience, or even something that sweeps the audience into participation. The Odyssey, by contrast, begins as a private consideration: “Tell me of the man.”6 A tradition that begins with the Iliad faces the first and greatest problem—the power of anger—and does so in a public way. What does it mean to make wrath into a song? First, this means performing a sweeping and pathos-filled recollection of the beauty and glory of the dead. Our first poem is a commemoration of pain and loss, suffered in times ancient even to Homer, and suffered most of all by the wrathful Achilles himself in the death of Patroklos. To sing the wrath is to transform it, to make it accessible in a sorrow that is visceral but is also sublimated to the level of beauty that somehow eternalizes what has been lost and what it means to have to lose.
Homer’s verb is sing, not record the causes. This is not history,7 though the poem’s plot is brilliant and well-crafted. This is song. Thus the tradition begins with the conviction that devastation can become song—a bold promise! Can the poem really respond to suffering in this way? Is art this powerful? Homer teaches us that facing suffering squarely is precisely what we must aim for. He has a bold faith in the power of the art he has mastered to form a beautiful and very human hope within us, even though the song will not free us from the burden of having to die.
The third word of the Iliad is the small but powerful word “goddess” (theá): “Sing of the anger, O goddess, of Peleus’s son Achilles.”8 What does it mean for us that Homer ascribes the foundation of song to divinity?
First of all, the literary tradition does not start with a poet who makes appeal to himself, to his own knowledge and craft and genius. The poem presents itself not as an experiment in individual creativity, but opens as a prayer, an urgent prayer that the goddess’s voice be what we really hear as the epic poet sings. He does not draw a careful line here at the beginning between his poem and the goddess. No quotation mark indicates when she starts singing; the song simply commences.
To whom does he speak that word, “Sing!”? In this opening of the Iliad, Homer addresses simply the “goddess,” but in the first line of the Odyssey he calls her “Muse,” as he also does when he appeals to all the Muses in Iliad 2.484. The invocation of the Muse is one of those things we’ve learned to expect in big poems ever since, even when they are not written by pagans. For this important opening moment, however, the poet simply calls her “goddess,” as if, by not specifying, he can access a fuller and more general significance, reducing to a singular reference not only the nine Muses but the whole picture of divinity as well. (Also, the Greek word for Muse would not fit in the meter here, as the third word.)
This goddess is the Muse, and she is associated with memory: in the myth, the nine Muses are the daughters of Zeus and Memory (Mnemosyne). This beginning, then, is not really a pure beginning but a remembering. Homer does not offer us an immediate narration of unformed, undigested experience but rather prays to the daughter(s) of Memory to give order to the collecting of experience, to help us understand the poet’s singing about events that actually far antedate him too. A lot has already happened before this beginning. The address to the Muse is about having arrived at a mature understanding, and reaching that point of confident expression is actually more of a beginning than is the mere commencement of raw experience. The goddess is there when things start to add up, not when they merely begin to accumulate. Thus, the literary tradition begins not in naïveté but with an active, aware, and engaged spirit.
“If we cannot understand anger and strife, the accursedness of wrath and power, what room will there be for anything else, for any culture, for any song?”
To get a little closer to what it means that he appeals to the goddess, we can use another work, one that could easily have been itself the subject of this essay when it comes to beginnings of our tradition: Hesiod’s Theogony. Hesiod begins his mythological poem with more than a hundred lines about the Muses, who taught him “first and last always to sing of themselves” (34).9 The Muses are beautiful; as Hesiod says in his opening lines,
[They] haunt Helicon’s great and holy mountain, and dance on their soft feet round the violet-dark spring and the altar of the mighty son of Kronos. And when they have bathed their gentle skin… then on the highest slope of Helicon they make their dances, fair and lovely, stepping lively in time. From there they go forth, veiled in thick mist, and walk by night, uttering beautiful voice, singing of Zeus… and the rest of the holy family of immortals who are for ever. (2–21)
We can happily fold this complex image of the Muses into our experience of Homer’s first line. The Muses’ beauty is delicate, soft-footed, pure and youthful, always fresh: they make the ancient mysteries of Memory present as newly bathed, beautiful movements. Furthermore, they dance in lively time—meaning not in ecstatic confusion but with an order, with coordinated, mutual, interchanging, symmetric movements. They are exalted on the mountaintop, swathed in dark mist, and yet at ease even in the night, incantatory like dreams. Hesiod calls them “all of one mind, their carefree hearts set on song” (60–61). When they speak to the shepherd Hesiod, they tell him, “We know to tell many lies that sound like truth, / but we know to sing reality, when we will” (27–28). The Muses, then, are sure of their utterance: the poet must appeal to them first of all because they have true judgment, understanding highest beauty and fullest reality itself “from within,” we might say. Along with this sure-footed and intimate access to the nature of things, however, these singing, dancing divinities have also the total freedom that characterizes the divine. We might wonder further about this mixing of truth and falsehood, but for now, what matters is that it manifests their free control. The declaration “when we will” (eut’ ethélōmen) manifests not divine indifference to mortals but rather the inherently free nature of the gracious expression. Homer cannot take them for granted, so he asks them to sing.
What Homer needs most immediately is the connection to Memory that reaches this divine, insightful, orderly level of making reality present and beautiful. When he calls on the Muses in Book Two, for example, he is about to produce the vast catalogue of ships, and so he prays to the Muses because they “know all things,” while “we have heard only the rumor of it and know nothing” (2.485–86).10 Calling upon the Muse thus also says something about what is being remembered, marking it as past, not as an obvious chronological indication here but rather as a sign of difficulty and even mystery in the human reality: our own selves in all their array (like the ships of the catalogue) are somehow inaccessible to us and hard to tell rightly.
The Muses are the beautiful manifestation of the possibilities of Memory when it is united with power—the nine daughters born of Zeus’s nine-night union with Memory. They represent not just access to things that are hard to remember but the revelatory reviving of the human truth that is buried in the past, in all that happened before this beginning. That, rather than mere recollection, is the power Homer is nodding to in his opening line when he calls on the goddess. At the same time, Hesiod links the Muses to good kingship, which is rooted in the ability to persuade with gentle words:
Whomsoever great Zeus’ daughters favour among the kings that Zeus fosters, and turn their eyes upon him at his birth, upon his tongue they shed sweet dew, and out of his mouth the words flow honeyed…. This is why there are prudent kings: when the peoples are wronged in their dealings, they make amends for them with ease, persuading them with gentle words. When he goes among a gathering, they seek his favour with conciliatory reverence, as if he were a god, and he stands out among the crowd. (81–92)
Homer needs to be this persuasive, kingly man, not because he himself will rule but because the matter of his poem will concern rulers, especially the one who fails with gentle words. In fact, Agamemnon’s inability to do what Hesiod said—his not having been graced by the Muses at his birth—is the main issue at play in the first book of the Iliad. The true kingship the Muses grant is the kingship of words, of rhetorical power. This is the promise and hope that Homer boldly gives himself over to in that small but densely meaningful “goddess” of the first line.
The cursed wrath of Achilles and its consequent devastation are the matter of Homer’s poem—and how, through this, “the plan of Zeus was accomplished” (1.5)—but the ensuing strife of Book One and of a good portion of the Iliad is the strife of debate rather than of combat. In the first lines of the poem, Homer directs the Muse to a particular starting point as the true root of wrath and evils, asking her to begin “since that time when first there stood in division of conflict / Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus” (Lattimore, 1.6–711). Having dealt abundantly with the first three words of the poem, we must look to the moment of assembly that leads to radical division—the beginning of ills for Achilles and his companions, and an image of much we might see in ourselves.
Broadly speaking, the problem is that a disrespectful but acknowledged leader, Agamemnon, slights his greatest warrior by taking his legitimate prize from him. The challenge is, how will the mighty and passionate Achilles deal with this shameless but powerful man who has treated him ill? Most readers today, I suspect, see Agamemnon as a disrespectful jerk: he has captured the girl Chryseis, and when her father, a priest of Apollo, comes to beg for her return, Agamemnon rudely dismisses him; then, having thus disrespected the priest and through him the god Apollo, Agamemnon has brought a plague on the Achaians,12 and has chosen so far to do nothing about it. The other Greeks do not know the cause of the plague, because their leader has not revealed what he did, and that is where the assembly begins. On the tenth day of plague, Achilles takes it upon himself to face down Agamemnon and look for a solution, but it all goes haywire pretty quickly as the series of some dozen speeches almost inevitably tumbles down into harder and larger problems. Our own recent experience should help us recognize Homer’s intuition: arguing about a plague can quickly reveal much profounder divisions and difficulties. “Why does everything have to be political?”
“The poem does not offer a solution to every possible human strife and debate, but it does start us off on the path of using words, which can lead to greater rewards, rather than violence that dooms all to meaninglessness.”
Achilles first raises a basic issue: we can’t face both plague and battle, so we either have to leave Troy or “ask some holy man, some prophet, / even an interpreter of dreams” (1.62–63) what the cause of the plague is. But when Kalchas, the best interpreter of signs, stands up to respond, he feels he must first ask for protection: he knows not to anger the king, for “when he is angry with a man beneath him,” he is “too strong” (1.80). This foretells the coming problem: Agamemnon is too harsh with everyone—both those beneath him and those beyond him—and so we see the general difficulty of the political situation, when those who know the real causes of danger are hindered from speaking by fear of senseless authorities whose grudges matter more than truth. Achilles immediately promises Kalchas protection against whoever might resent his words, “even if you mean Agamemnon, / who now claims to be far the greatest of all the Achaians” (1.90–91). And Agamemnon is exactly Kalchas’s target: he reveals that the plague comes from Apollo because of what Agamemnon did to the priest Chryses, and explains that to end the plague, Agamemnon must give back the daughter without even receiving a ransom.
Up to this point, the assembly has considered a practical problem (how to end the plague) and found a clear solution. But Agamemnon’s response raises this practical concern to a new level by linking it to the larger problem of his status. Agamemnon, “raging, the heart within filled black to the brim with anger / from beneath,” curses the seer as something of a loser: “Always the evil things are dear to your heart to prophesy, / but nothing excellent have you said nor ever accomplished” (1.103–8). Agamemnon then agrees to give the prize girl back to her father—and as if to emphasize how gracious he is being, he first asserts that he loves her more than his own wife13—on the condition that they find someone to replace her: “Lest I only / among the Argives go without, since that were unfitting” (1.116–19). So, although Agamemnon does rather quickly agree to the solution of the practical problem of plague (there being only one possible solution, anyway), he creates a new problem by demanding the Greeks themselves now provide something for him. In this, he subtly turns the battle against his own people: he will be replacing the girl captured from a conquered people with a gift taken from among his own followers. Not very wisely, Agamemnon decides to make this moment, in which his error and disrespect are on display for all to see, a chance to test the loyalty of his fellow kings.
Achilles first tries to negotiate with Agamemnon: all the booty has already been distributed, so there is no way to find some replacement for you now, so just give the girl back to her father and, “if ever Zeus gives / into our hands the strong-walled citadel of Troy to be plundered,” we will pay you three or four times the usual (1.129–30). In some ways, to sacrifice now for the sake of earning more later is a good offer. But Achilles’s words have a further point to them. First of all, he does address Agamemnon as “greediest for gain of all men” (1.122). But more importantly, with those final words, he raises a question: Will we ever conquer Troy? Achilles subtly questions the wisdom of their entire situation, and thus the problem of plague has revealed a deeper distrust about the nature of the whole Trojan venture.
Agamemnon refuses this offer of delayed repayment and says he will go himself to take the prize girl from one of the other great men—Ajax, Odysseus, or even Achilles. After taking this assertive stance, he tries to shift the topic back to the practical: they need to get Chryseis on a ship to her father, and not Agamemnon but someone else should do it. He adds this last bit perhaps to avoid open conflict with the girl’s father but also certainly to distance himself from that scene of repenting for an error; he can’t be seen doing things like that. He will go himself to take a prize away from one of his men14 but will send someone else to return what he should not have taken from an enemy.
At this point, Achilles has a chance to back down: let’s just solve the immediate problem and see later what Agamemnon will do about this replacement prize. But (to his credit?) Achilles does not back down. Rather, he pours out a complaint that was already boiling under the surface:
I for my part did not come here
for the sake of the Trojan
spearmen to fight against them,
since to me they have done nothing
But for your sake,
O great shamelessness,
we followed, to do you favour…
Always the greater part of the painful
fighting is the work of
my hands; but when the time comes
to distribute the booty
yours is far the greater reward,
and I with some small thing
yet dear to me go back to my ships
when I am weary with fighting.
Achilles complains that this is “not his war” and he is not receiving favor and payment in line with his actual contributions. He says he will just leave now. The practical crisis that arose with the plague has now become a graver political crisis: the members of the army no longer believe in the purpose of this war and do not have faith in the leader for whom they started what is, to them, a meaningless conflict. But this political crisis is also a crisis of clashing personalities and wounded pride. Agamemnon responds by taunting Achilles—“Run away by all means if your heart drives you” (1.173) and by expressing personal animosity toward him: “To me you are the most hateful of all…. Forever quarreling is dear to your heart, and wars and battles…. I take no account of your anger” (1.176–81). Agamemnon thus decides that he will requisition none other than Achilles’s prize girl as a replacement for his loss, so Achilles can learn how much greater Agamemnon is and serve as an example for others who might contend with the leader.
With all of this back-and-forth, the poem offers us an image of a dysfunctional polity or, more plainly, of an attempt at practical dialogue about a life-and-death matter that descends into political crisis and then personal animosity. This image is not very consoling or idealistic, but it makes a good beginning for us because it reminds us of certain inherent perils: we frequently imitate these sparring partners, though we don’t want to do so. The key moment, however, and what really makes this a moment that initiates our tradition, is what follows upon Agamemnon’s aggressive attack on Achilles. That is, Achilles puts his hand to his scabbard; he thinks to just kill the guy, but then he does not.
I suggested earlier that this poem was not written in praise of strife and anger but rather proposes to us that these are the first things that need some level of resolution before we can really begin a tradition. In that sense, Achilles has here returned to the starting point of it all: he hates and resents Agamemnon for now thoroughly clear reasons, and he has nothing to lose and nothing to stop him from acting in violence. Homer has led us carefully to this point of decision, of fundamental crisis. Achilles’s heart is divided between slaying Agamemnon and checking his own anger. In that moment, the poem offers us a new beginning: the goddess Athena appears to Achilles to give him a third way out. She tells him not to use his sword and says that if he is patient now, he will have “three times over such shining gifts” later (1.213). But her counsel of prudence is not just about economics, but about speech: “Come then, do not take your sword in hand, keep clear of fighting, / though indeed with words you may abuse him, and it will be that way” (1.210–11). Of course, Achilles has already been abusing Agamemnon with words; here, however, the divine voice of practical wisdom seems to give new force to words with that emphatic “and it will be that way” (hōs esetaí per), or “as it will indeed be.” The poem does not offer a solution to every possible human strife and debate, but it does start us off on the path of using words, which can lead to greater rewards, rather than violence that dooms all to meaninglessness. Wrath can be channeled into a form that separates it from violence and opens it to transformation.
Achilles lets go of his sword and the recrimination continues with a pretty useless intervention by the elder Nestor. Achilles says Agamemnon can take his prize girl to replace the one returned to Chryses, but he vows not to fight for the Greeks anymore—with the threatening curse that “some day longing for Achilleus will come to the sons of the Achaians, / all of them” (1.240–41). The contention has settled into an impasse, and Achilles now sits on that literally liminal space, the shore—between running off to his home in Phthia and joining in the battle at Troy, between a long and dull life and a short and glorious one. But before the first book concludes and the poem follows the painful destiny of this radical oath, Homer opens deeper dimensions of the problem: the crisis involves mortality itself, and the disrespect Achilles feels reaches the very heavens.
In the last third of Book One of the Iliad, Achilles complains to his divine mother, Thetis, who takes his concerns up to Zeus on Olympus.
The Olympian gods form a second world that floats above this earth, and while this cast of divinities observe and engage with the human world, they mirror events to help us see the fuller outlines of what the song presents. Thus, Homer has included a layer of commentary, as it were, an audience inside the poem itself, a space within which he can create the reflection into a carefree and immortal world of the all too fleeting, too bitter struggles of mortal life. We may well think it is a regrettable feature of his pagan polytheism that his gods are not truly transcendent and can seem to us quite frivolous and cruel in their passions and abuses; in our enlightened state, we may be tempted to push this feature of the poem aside or interpret it in a more psychological, or at any rate nontheological, way. But if, with greater simplicity of heart, we take this feature of the poem, too, as part of what begins for us with Homer, we can see how it adds to starting the tradition off in a beautiful way, for it hints to us that humanity and divinity are close—not only that the gods often seem like wayward human beings, but also that human beings and their struggles can find a proper audience among the gods. Man, though mortal, is meant to be reflected in the world of the gods and is of interest from the eternal point of view, and this notion of Olympian divinity corroborates the poet’s own effort to memorialize his characters in a way that immortalizes them for us in the power of epic song.
“Every human’s suffering, unlike the suffering of gods or beasts, has within it the hint of our mortality, the reminder that we can dream of untroubled life and can hope for glory yet must always fade in death.”
Achilles is the son of the sea nymph Thetis, so after Agamemnon sends for Briseis, Achilles’s prized girl, to replace the one he sent away to appease the priest of Apollo, Achilles goes to the seaside to weep and complain to his mother. He explains the whole story, but his lament uncovers a higher level of the problem: before he explains the bad behavior of Agamemnon, he says, “Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life, / therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me / honor at least. But now he has given me not even a little” (1.352–54). The poet reveals that the disrespect Achilles has suffered is rooted in the larger problem, namely that man’s life—even the greatest man’s life—is short. Every human’s suffering, unlike the suffering of gods or beasts, has within it the hint of our mortality, the reminder that we can dream of untroubled life and can hope for glory yet must always fade in death. The problem to which Homer directed the Muse in the first lines of the poem—the debate between Agamemnon and Achilles—is, by the end of the first book, an image of or occasion for considering the problem of mortality itself. We are all Achilles weeping at the seaside. We are all half-gods, humiliated by suffering and bitterness, who cry with the deep-seated knowledge that within the wellsprings of our life, we have some claim to the highest power, just as Achilles begs his divine mother to go to Zeus, who he knows owes her a favor.
And Zeus of the counsels, lord of Olympus, attends to her. When Thetis kneels in supplication and presents her case in favor of her only son, “short-lived beyond all other mortals” (1.505–6), “Zeus who gathers the clouds made no answer / but sat in silence a long time” (1.511–12). Zeus is silent for a long time because he knows how much his consort Hera will dislike this, because he knows what anger will flow from his getting involved again. This silence heightens the mystery: Zeus has total authority, but not even for the god is this easy. Dealing with Achilles will be a complex fold in the plan for the destruction of Troy that he has been working out. But once the silence has been observed, the mystery underlined, and the plea repeated, he grants his almighty nod: “He spoke, the son of Kronos, and nodded his head with the dark brows, / and the immortally anointed hair of the great god / swept from his divine head, and all Olympos was shaken” (1.528–30). His almighty authority is beheld in the shifting of these glorious locks of hair; the divine consent to the whole painful plan, the whole “damned wrath” that will follow, is also evident in this light, beautiful, conciliatory act. Zeus recognizes his debt to Thetis and acknowledges the nobility of her sorrowing for her mortal son—and by extension, the glory of her son’s mortality.
The gods’ problems come from mortals, and this enigma of not being able to ignore these passing creatures plagues Zeus, for all his majesty and power. The reader of the epic is a new Zeus; we nod with Zeus and assent to the mysterious plan that will both devastate Achilles and elevate him into the immortality of poetry. Homer has taken the particular strife of an argument toward the end of the Trojan War and revealed within it the broadest problem: the pain of mortality itself. By sending this pain up to Olympus, in supplication to the throne of Zeus, and by showing us that earth-shaking nod of the storm god, Homer has affirmed that every human thing and the whole human reality are worth presenting to the everlasting view, are worth writing about. His poetic labor does not shy away from the ultimate problem but opens itself to the truth of wrath and to the fear of final dishonor, which is the pain of mortality. That nod of Zeus is a divine assent to the remarkable power of poetry.
Though the first book of the Iliad begins with cursed anger among men, it ends with feasting and mirth on Olympus. The path to that mirth, however, is not easy. After Zeus assents to Thetis, strife enters the Olympian feast: Hera, who wants Troy destroyed, suspects Zeus of plotting with Thetis to give the Trojans glory in order to honor Achilles’s wrathful refusal to fight, and she berates her husband. She demands to know more about the plan, but Zeus rejects her and is forced to assert his dominance, saying, “If what you say [about Thetis] is true, then that is the way I wish it. / But go then, sit down in silence, and do as I tell you” (1.564–65). Thus, by trying to peer too closely into the divine counsels, Hera has actually distanced herself from Zeus’s heart: the mystery of the plan manifests itself as fearful authority. The thunder has begun rumbling within the darkness of the cloud. Zeus has a plan, and indeed is called the “lord of counsels,” because, as Hera herself said, he is “entirely free to think out whatever pleases” him (1.554). He is “entirely free,” “at ease,” “free from care,” “unhindered” (eúkēlos)15 in his planning, an echo of the freedom of song and movement I observed as characteristic of the Muses. By singing of Hera’s frustrated insistence and of Zeus’s higher freedom and total power over all the gods, the poet has in a sense released his hold on divinity in the song, has backed away from presuming to unfold the mystery and make it a matter of simple explanations. Through the poet and his Muse, we, unlike Hera, are graced to overhear the conversation between Thetis and Zeus, but even there the poet allows Zeus that long period of silence and the equally silent gesture of the nod. We hear Zeus ponder and assent, we feel the mountain quake, but we do not get to see the full nature of the god’s plan. This divinity whose plan is accomplished—as Homer put it in the fifth line of the poem—is indeed both the lord of counsels and the god who gathers the storm clouds about him. Within the poem itself, the poet has demarcated a fearful boundary between his poem’s striving to reach into the nature of things and the god’s mysterious plan, and in this way, has rightly relinquished some control.
So, Zeus has been stirred by Hera’s nagging to assert his dominance, and this has ruined the mood of the festive meal. And so the poet has Hephaistos bustle in. First, Hephaistos advises everyone to get along peacefully, and to convince them he appeals to his own experience of Zeus’s wrath: once, when Hephaistos sided with Hera, Zeus hurled him from the threshold of Olympus, and after dropping helpless from the sky all day long, he crashed onto the island of Lemnos half-dead. That occasion permanently marked him with the limp that is his characteristic as a god of craft rather than combat. After making this appeal, Hephaistos serves the goblet of divine nectar to his mother (Hera) and to the others, causing “uncontrollable laughter” as he limps around with the wine cup (1.599)—a comic replacement for the beautiful Trojan boy Ganymede, cup bearer of Zeus. The limp, a sign of his inferiority to Zeus (and to Ares et al.), is now also a restorative sign; it allows him to serve a bit as jester, to lighten the atmosphere. With his permanent wound, Hephaistos bears witness to the power of Zeus, while at the same time he shows that he is at peace with his subordination. Because he is wounded, he, unlike the others, is capable of recognizing his subordinate role and can lean into it, serving the nectar even though he is obviously the least equipped to do so. He makes a joke of himself and his limp, and so he subtly makes a joke of Zeus’s power that caused the limp, which perhaps is why Hera smiles at him (1.595). To the heaviness of the moment of Zeus’s harsh declaration of free exercise of thought and power, the god of craft has contributed a new and comic lightness. The poet and we his readers, by the power of the epic and its song, have learned something about the freedom of the gods in relation to the grave pain of mortality. We limp but give cause for delight.
The poet, like the limping god of craft, admits his limitations and thereby establishes a kind of mastery. Once Hephaistos has changed the mood, Apollo can play his lyre while the Muses sing; the goddess of the first line of the poem, now in her fully plural company, is released by the poet to sing all the other parts of divine song to delight the Olympian gods. Thus, just as Homer initiated this great first book by calling on the Muse, so he relinquishes control at the end of the book, allowing the Muses to sing their “antiphonal sweet sound” (1.604) in the presence of gods, a song whose content he does not and cannot offer us in its entirety.
The first book of the Iliad is an extraordinarily good beginning. It is so rich, so capable of giving rise to true life and understanding, that it imposes itself upon us as a good beginning for our tradition. It is not just one among many possible starting points; it is so closely in touch with our own real needs that we cannot deny it as properly ours, as something we simply must engage with, correspond to, and love, for all its difficulty and for all our pain.