Iliad I.215-244 (II)
Bill Long 1/21/10
The Sceptre and the Oath (233-44)
We are later told (XXIII.568) that a speaker in the assembly held a sceptre given him by one of the heralds. Now, Achilles holds that scetre and swears a most solemn oath. It takes Homer one and a half lines to get to the oath.
"But I say to you and swear a great oath upon it. Indeed, I swear by this sceptre," 233-34.
We have seen that little word ma, used in the most solemn oaths, when Achilles swore by Apollo that he would protect Calchas (86). Achilles wants that same kind of utter seriousness to attend his words. Enough of the bitter rancor, the vituperation, the screaming sarcasm. Now we have the sober and irreversible oath.
In order to increase the intensity of the oath yet more, Homer gives us five lines about the sceptre that Achilles holds. Though these lines describe what one might call the "natural history" of the sceptre, they fall quite flat in trying to solemnize the occasion. Thus, Homer's first "simile" fails. Let's go through it so that you can see if it "works" for you.
Achilles will swear by the scepter. No longer will leaves and branches grow on it, and since indeed it first left the stump in the mountains, it will never sprout again. That is the first thought. Then, he has another thought. Literally, "The bronze (axe) stripped it of its leafs and bark, but now the judges among the sons of the Achaians carry it in their palms. These are the ones who observe the laws of Zeus" (235-39).
A vivid and vigorous Homeric simile takes an object, usually in nature, and uses it as an illustration to clarify the situation at hand. As bees swarm around their nest, so the Achaians swarmed around their leaders. As ants in their serried rows built up their houses, so the Achaians reinforced their trenches. Etc. You now get the idea. The key to a simile is the connection, sometimes apparently unlikely, between the object and the situation. But what is the connection here? Is he trying to say that the useless wood is now useful? No, not really. He is just giving us a natural history of the sceptre. But he doesn't take the opportunity to use the image for any strong purpose. I could have seen him playing on the "dead/life" contrast. I would have said something like this:
'As the sceptre, which was once a sprig of a vibrant tree, high in the shadow-throwing hills, and which drew its life from the verdant plants and ever-flowing streams but which, by the labor of diligent men, seeking out a symbol of living authority, was cut down and became lifeless, apparently never to return to life again; yet, it, when taken up by a member of the assembly, brings that assembly to life and presides over the most important act of a gathered people....So Achilles picked up the sceptre and swore his most sacred vow..'
Well, maybe I can be an epic poet in my next life!
Thus, his digression on the sceptre doesn't really work. But, no matter. The focus of Achilles' words will now be the oath. He states it plainly: "This will be (my) great oath to you" (239).
The Oath (240-44)
It begins with a "sometime" (pote). I would like to pause here for a second. We so often see this little word in Book I. It is an indefinite particle. I think the characters in Book I use it so often because it goes well with threats and dreams, both of which suffuse our book. Some day one will get three or four times the rewards. Some day we will destroy Troy. Some day you might find a dagger in your back. We all live in the "some days" of our lives, and if we truly think how much of our lives is dreaming about things, we understand the Iliad.
The little word occupying the center of line 240 is the key to the five lines: pothe. Thus, we have "pote..pothe, an alliterative pair separated only by "for Achilles."
"At some time a longing for Achilles will come upon all the sons of the Achaians."
The word "all" is enjambed. Could he possibly mean "all"? Is he looking at Agamemnon when he says this? It might have been enough if he had just ended the thought with "the Achaians" without specifying "all," for the word "Achaians" would have left Agamemnon some wiggle room. But no. It is here. Agamemnon is included in the future longing for Achilles. What is this longing, this desire, this love, even this regret? It will be a desire to have Achilles present, a regret at having treated him so badly, a yearning for his strong spirit and inspiring presence. The Achaians will need this in that indefinite future, but the future is now described with laser-sharp precision. One day many will fall dead at the hand of "man-slaying" or "murderous Hector."
Ah, now we are talking about something completely different. This isn't just a quarrel between two of the "big" Achaians. It now slops over to a person we haven't met and won't really meet for several books, Hector, the hero of the Trojans. Achilles continues.
"You (singular) then will tear out your heart in grief/anger, when (you realize) you in no way honored the best of the Achaians" (243-44).
The verb translated "tear out" (amusso) means to scratch, mangle, lacerate, tear. It is a rare word in Homer, and its rarity strikes us hard in the midst of all the traditional terminology and imagery (oaths/sceptres). The emotional overtones of the passage are enormous. Not only has Achilles spent himself in vitriol, but he now expresses the great yearning they will have for him. One might score him for being arrogant; criticize his anger; bereate him for his insults to the established authority; but you can't say that he isn't aware of himself and what he brings to the Greeks. He will put the lie to Agamemnon's blithe words of 173: 'Run along home...we can do well without you.' In fact they can't, as the sad tale of the Iliad narrates.