The presence of these catalogues in the Iliad is a good example of the way Homer composed his poems on a foundation of historical and literary tradition. In this instance, the god does not advise or aid the human, but actually deceives him in an effort to inflict injury on the Greeks. There is more than a hint in Zeus' use of this false dream that he thinks he can overcome fate and be able to prevent the victory of the Greeks over the Trojans.
More obviously, Zeus' intervention shows that the gods are not always concerned with the consequences their actions may have on the humans. The false dream causes death and destruction for both Greeks and Trojans, but that fact does not enter into of Zeus' thinking.
That humans are mortal is of little importance to the immortal gods. Agamemnon's reaction to the dream further calls into question his adequacy as a leader. First, he accepts the dream without question. Second, he decides to test his men's desire for battle by offering them the prospect of returning home instead of continuing in the war. To men who have been away from home, wives, and children for more than eight years, the offer seems to be worth far more than glory and honor, and a near riot of men rushing to the ships ensues.
Third, it is not Agamemnon but Odysseus and Nestor who bring the men's hearts and minds back to war and personal honor.
This issue of war and men's honor is brought into distinct focus through the speech of Thersites and Odysseus' response to it. Thersites, a physically misshapen Greek warrior, argues forcefully and effectively that the war is not worth fighting and that Agamemnon is a flawed leader, constantly taking the largest share of loot for himself and having now alienated Achilles in the process.
His argument, strong as it is, is no match for the verbal attack that Odysseus makes on Thersites. Odysseus makes the point that Thersites is a commoner and has no business speaking out against kings and nobles. Odysseus further implies that Thersites has no personal pride or honor because he does not wish to fight. Also, Thersites' lack of honor is reinforced symbolically by his deformed appearance. Odysseus punctuates his attack by slapping Thersites on the back with a scepter, raising a welt and causing tears to flow.
This public humiliation and marking of Thersites ends all talk of returning home. Pride and honor require soldiers to fight. Only the deformed in mind and body would argue otherwise. But the longer one is complicated and gets to the heart of what we may be losing in translation.
Otherwise, it feels very alien. Not to mention a meaty word in and of itself. There are further tricks here that are hard to translate. Add to that the lovely assonance in all those vowels, and the difficulty of recreating the feel of a syllabic hexameter, and you can understand why translators have such a struggle. Then you have to take into account the theory that the Iliad may have been intended to be sung - and almost certainly relied for its sound and feel on a pitch accent.
But all of this is the counsel of despair. Really, it makes up an argument for coming to a better understanding of Homeric language and culture, rather than for giving up on translations.
The Iliad of Homer (Pope)/Book 1 - Wikisource, the free online library
Homer does have a special music — but so too do plenty of the translations. Even that catalogue of ships becomes interesting if you think of the poem as something that would often be recited orally, from memory. It must have been some feat, to get all those names and their connections in order. I can imagine rapt audiences listening just waiting for the singer to slip. All those genealogies also take on deeper resonance if you think of memory in a broader sense. Listing ancestors takes on a special meaning in this context.
As the Iliad was being put together, Greek societies were only just rediscovering the art of writing.
Such memories must have felt like the only line into the past, the only link into the future. Perhaps, with added sacrifice and prayer, The priest may pardon, and the god may spare. Still must that tongue some wounding message bring, And still thy priestly pride provoke thy king? For this with falsehoods is my honour stained; Is heaven offended, and a priest profaned, Because my prize, my beauteous maid, I hold, And heavenly charms prefer to proffered gold?
Yet, if the gods demand her, let her sail; Our cares are only for the public weal: Let me be deemed the hateful cause of all, And suffer, rather than my people fall. The prize, the beauteous prize, I will resign, So dearly valued, and so justly mine.
But since for common good I yield the fair, My private loss let grateful Greece repair; Nor unrewarded let your prince complain, That he alone has fought and bled in vain. The spoils of cities razed and warriors slain, We share with justice, as with toil we gain: But to resume whate'er thy avarice craves, That trick of tyrants, may be borne by slaves. Yet if our chief for plunder only fight, The spoils of Ilion shall thy loss requite, Whene'er, by Jove's decree, our conquering powers Shall humble to the dust her lofty towers. Great as thou art, and like a god in fight, Think not to rob me of a soldier's right.
At thy demand shall I restore the maid? First let the just equivalent be paid; Such as a king might ask; and let it be A treasure worthy her, and worthy me.
Shop with confidence
Or grant me this, or with a monarch's claim This hand shall seize some other captive dame, The mighty Ajax shall his prize resign, Ulysses' spoils, or e'en thy own be mine. The man who suffers, loudly may complain; And rage he may, but he shall rage in vain. But this when time requires. It now remains We launch a bark to plough the watery plains, And waft the sacrifice to Chrysa's shores, With chosen pilots, and with labouring oars.
Soon shall the fair the sable ship ascend, And some deputed prince the charge attend. This Creta's king, or Ajax shall fulfil, Or wise Ulysses see performed our will; Or, if our royal pleasure shall ordain, Achilles' self conduct her o'er the main; Let fierce Achilles, dreadful in his rage, The god propitiate, and the pest assuage. What generous Greek, obedient to thy word, Shall form an ambush, or shall lift the sword? What cause have I to war at thy decree? Hither we sailed, a voluntary throng, To avenge a private, not a public wrong: What else to Troy the assembled nations draws, But thine, ungrateful, and thy brother's cause?
Is this the pay our blood and toils deserve, Disgraced and injured by the man we serve? And darest thou threat to snatch my prize away, Due to the deeds of many a dreadful day? A prize as small, O tyrant!
Thine in each conquest is the wealthy prey, Though mine the sweat and danger of the day. Some trivial present to my ships I bear, Or barren praises pay the wounds of war. But know, proud monarch, I'm thy slave no more: My fleet shall waft me to Thessalia's shore. Left by Achilles on the Trojan plain, What spoils, what conquests, shall Atrides gain?
Of all the kings, the gods' distinguished care, To power superior none such hatred bear; Strife and debate thy restless soul employ, And wars and horrors are thy savage joy. If thou hast strength, 'twas Heaven that strength bestowed, For know, vain man! Haste, launch thy vessels, fly with speed away, Rule thy own realms with arbitrary sway: I heed thee not, but prize at equal rate Thy short-lived friendship and thy groundless hate.
UNIVERSITY of GLASGOW
Go threat thy earth-born Myrmidons; but here 'Tis mine to threaten, prince, and thine to fear. Know, if the god the beauteous dame demand, My bark shall waft her to her native land; But then prepare, imperious prince! Hence shalt thou prove my might, and curse the hour Thou stoodest a rival of imperial power; And hence to all our host it shall be known That kings are subject to the gods alone.
Just as in anguish of suspense he stayed, While half unsheathed appeared the glittering blade, Minerva swift descended from above, Sent by the sister and the wife of Jove; For both the princes claimed her equal care; Behind she stood, and by the golden hair Achilles seized, to him alone confessed; A sable cloud concealed her from the rest. Then let those eyes that view The daring crime, behold the vengeance too. By awful Juno this command is given; The king and you are both the care of Heaven.
The force of keen reproaches let him feel, But sheathe, obedient, thy revenging steel. For I pronounce—and trust a heavenly Power— Thy injured honour has its fated hour, When the proud monarch shall thy arms implore, And bribe thy friendship with a boundless store. Then let revenge no longer bear the sway, Command thy passions, and the gods obey. I thy dictates hear. Hard as it is, my vengeance I suppress: Those who revere the gods, the gods will bless," He said, observant of the blue-eyed Maid; Then in the sheath returned the shining blade.
The goddess swift to high Olympus flies, And joins the sacred senate of the skies. When wert thou known in ambushed fights to dare, Or nobly face the horrid front of war? Scourge of thy people, violent and base! Sent in Jove's anger on a slavish race, Who, lost to sense of generous freedom past, Are tamed to wrongs, or this had been thy last. Now by this sacred sceptre hear me swear, Which never more shall leaves or blossoms bear, Which, severed from the trunk, as I from thee, On the bare mountains left its parent tree; This sceptre, formed by tempered steel to prove An ensign of the delegates of Jove, From whom the power of laws and justice springs— Tremendous oath!
When, flushed with slaughter, Hector comes to spread The purpled shore with mountains of the dead, Then shalt thou mourn the affront thy madness gave, Forced to deplore, when impotent to save: Then rage in bitterness of soul, to know This act has made the bravest Greek thy foe. With like disdain, The raging king returned his frowns again.