Thursday, January 21, 2010

In God We Trust by Caroline Alexander

From the peak on Mount Ida overlooking the plain of Troy, Zeus, the father of gods and men, sat in splendid isolation, rejoicing in the pride of his strength, watching the flash of bronze, and men killing and men killed. The harsh injunction that Zeus laid upon the other gods to keep clear of the battle is still in force: "any one attempting to go among the Trojans and help them, or among the Danaans, he shall go whipped against his dignity back to Olympos." The momentum of the war, now in its tenth year, continues in favor of the Trojans, as Zeus intends.

The Achaeans and the Trojans square off like two lines of reapers facing each other, driving their course down a field of wheat or barley. Although hard pressed, the Achaean lines stand firm, like the scales which the widow holds, the balanced beam to weigh her wool evenly, working to win a pitiful wage for her children. Pierced by a spear, a warrior's heart still panted and beat to shake its butt end. An arrow driven into his bladder, a fallen warrior gasped out his life then lay like a worm extended along the ground.

Behold Agamemnon and his splendid shield with its ten circles of bronze, studded with pale tin and dark cobalt, with the blank-face of the Gorgon with her stare of horror, fear and terror inscribed upon it. He comes on in a fury, stabbing his sharp spear straight at the face of his enemy, passing through his bronze-edge helmet and bone, spattering forth his inward brain, as a lion seizes the innocent young of the running deer and easily crunches and breaks those caught in its strong teeth, ripping out their hearts, cutting away their arms and legs. Briefly, the Trojans are routed and flee towards their city while Agamemnon follows screaming, his invincible hands spattered with bloody filth.

At length, Agamemnon's bloody rant is ended by a wound to his arm, pain breaks upon the son of Atreus like the sharp pain of sorrow descends on a woman in labor, the bitterness that the hard spirits of childbirth bring on. One by one, the Achaeans' best warriors limp off the field and it is now the Trojan warriors who shine. They arrive at the very gates of the Achaeans' camp. Beneath the high walls of the palisade that shelters the beached Achaean ships, Hektor heaves up a massive stone and hurls it a the gates which groan and give way under the impact. Hektor bursts in, with a dark face like sudden night shining with the ghastly glitter of bronze, his eyes flashing like fire.

But Zeus has become bored with events on the Trojan plain. His attention drifts; there are other mortals to watch, the Mysians, for example, who, it seems, are also fighters, or the Hippomologi, the nomadic Scythian mare-milkers. Other Gods are watching, however. From his own lookout on a forested summit on the island of Somothrace, Poseidon- Zeus's younger brother- lord of the sea and shaker of the earth, regards the plight of the Achaeans with pity and he sees that Zeus's attention has turned elsewhere. Seizing the moment in impulsive defiance, Poseidon descends to his golden, glittering house beneath the sea, harnesses his wing-footed, bronze-shod horses and flies to the field of battle. In disguise, Poseidon whirls through the demoralized Achaeans- weeping with weariness, mutilated and dying- inspiring them with hope and renewed strength.

The goddess Hera- wife of Zeus- has also seen that her hated husband's attention has drifted and observed that Poseidon has managed to deploy himself among the Achaeans. She decides to help his efforts with a scheme of her own to beguile the brain of Zeus.

"And to her mind this thing appeared to be the best counsel, to array herself in loveliness, and go down to Ida and perhaps he might be taken with desire to lie in love with her next her skin and she might be able to drift an innocent warm sleep across his eyelids, and seal his crafty perceptions. She went into her chamber and closed the leaves in the door-posts snugly with a secret door-bar, so no other god could open it. First from her adorable body she washed away all stains with ambrosia, and next anointed herself with ambrosial sweet olive oil, which stood there in a fragrance beside her, and from which, stirred in the house of Zeus by the golden pavement, a fragrance was shaken forever forth, on earth and in heaven. When with this she had anointed her delicate body and combed her hair, next with her hands she arranged the shining and lovely and ambrosial curls along her immortal head, and dressed in an ambrosial robe that Athene had made her carefully, smooth, and with many figures upon it, and pinned it across her breast with a golden brooch, and circled her waist about with a zone that floated a hundred tassels, and in the lobes of her carefully pierced ears she put rings with triple drops in mulberry clusters, radiant with beauty, and, lovely among the goddesses, she veiled her head downward with a fresh veil that glimmered pale like the sunlight. Underneath her shining feet she bound on the fair sandals."

Armed like a warrior, Hera set forth to conquer her hated adversary. And like a strategizing general, she solicited allies. For her plan to succeed, she needs both the seductive charms of Aphrodite and the complicity of Sleep. Hera spins her story with false lying purpose. From Aphrodite she extracts the loan of the goddess's charm, an amulet on which are figured all beguilements and loveliness, the passion of sex and the whispered endearments that steal the heart away even from the thoughtful. From Sleep Hera extracts a pledge to descend upon Zeus after she has seduced him.

Zeus who gathers the clouds saw and when he saw her desire was a mist about his close heart and, as planned, he suggested they lie together. Hera protested that they cannot do so on the peaks of Ida in the open where everything can be seen. Then in turn Zeus answered her:

"Hera, do not fear that any mortal or any god will see, so close shall be the golden cloud that I gather about us. Not even Helios can look at us through it, although beyond all others his light has the sharpest vision. So speaking, the son of Kronos caught his wife in his arms. There underneath them the divine earth broke into young, fresh grass, and into dewy clover, crocus and hyacinth so thick and soft it held the hard ground deep away from them. There they lay down together and drew about them a golden, wonderful cloud, and from it the glimmering dew descended. So the father slept unshaken on the peak of Gargaron with his wife in his arms, when sleep and passion had stilled him."

When Zeus finally awakens, he opens his eyes to see Hektor, who had been almost killed by a boulder hurled by Aias, lying in pain, his companions sitting around him, dazed at the heart, breathing painfully and vomiting blood. Men are fighting for their lives, suffering mutilating wounds and dying but Zeus the father, distracted, is heedless of them.


  1. Reworked from the English translation by Richard Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 1951 and

    'The War That Killed Achilles; The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War." by Caroline Alexander; Viking Press, 2009

  2. Glory for these Greeks was heroic savagery in the effort to become rich at someone else's expense. Achilles was just satisfying conventional expectations, thought the King was a jerk and wanted to go home but his best pal was killed and the thirst for revenge overcame him. The only idea they had of an afterlife was Hades, rightly so, I suppose, considering their attitude!

  3. "The audacity of nope"

    By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    "American people know what they don't like, which is: everything. .....In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama imagined a new path forward, one in which partisans would overcome their differences, suppress their rancor and work together to achieve wonderful things:

    "It's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. . . . What's needed is a broad majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents of goodwill -- who are reengaged in the project of national renewal, and who see their own self-interest as inextricably linked to the interests of others."

    The book now seems as dated as "The Iliad." The common ground that Obama hoped for has turned out to be the size of a bathroom scale."

    It's worth pointing out again: Glory for the Greeks in "The Iliad" was heroic savagery in pursuit of riches at someone else's expense, a consensus of inextricably linked mutual self-interest with exceptional predictability and ideological purity:the Bronze age orthodoxy. It is precisely the breakdown of this orthodoxy which turns what might have been just another epic into one of the world's great tragedies. The Achaeans besieging Troy could not agree on how the spoils of war should be taken or divided. Achilles thought it might be better to return home and stood on the sidelines until the thirst for revenge drove him to his doom.

    " The educator himself must first be educated."