On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book III

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The Iliad is about the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon, a feud that occurs during the Trojan War. Book III of the Iliad has nothing to do with Achilles, a little to do with Agamemnon, and everything to do with why the whole war is happening at all.

Photo of the tower of books used for this article

The war is being fought because Paris, also called Alexander, has run off with Helen, the wife of the man he was visiting. Paris is one of the sons of King Priam of Troy; Helen’s husband was Menelaus, who, as King of Sparta and brother of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, was able to call all of the Greeks to defend his honor.

In Book III of the Iliad, Paris offers single combat with “the best of Grecian hearts.” When Menelaus eagerly accepts the challenge, Paris shrinks back; but his brother Hector shames him into putting his money where his mouth his. He agrees to fight Menelaus, the winner to take Helen. The duel happens. Without divine interference, Menelaus would win; but Aphrodite spirits Paris away before Menelaus can kill him.

Helen has been watching the battle from the walls of Troy with the old men of the city. Aphrodite orders her to go tend to the erotic needs of her current husband.

That is the story.

Shame

I say that Hector shames Paris into fighting Menelaus; but to be the kind of person he is, Paris must be largely shameless. His deity is the goddess of love. Nothing is more important than love, as Paris understands it: not wealth, not honor.

As a lover, Paris has to be able to make a show of himself. I suppose this is why he is able to prance out before the Trojans and offer to fight the best of the Greeks. He is not a warrior at heart. His preferred weapon is the arrow, shot at a distance from a bow. When he understands that his challenge to the Greeks will bring him face to face with a real man, he has second thoughts.

Paris agrees with Hector to fight Menelaus, but only if the dual will settle the whole war. This takes some presumption. The Greeks could be ashamed to win the war on such terms, after beseiging Troy for nine years. Hector expresses the contempt for Paris that many Trojans must share:

No soul, an empty shape,
Takes up thy being; yet how spite to ev’ry shade of good
Fills it with ill!

Why should the Greeks let the Trojans get away with saving their city, at the cost only of giving up their most despised prince?

With his smooth tongue, Paris glibly accepts the reproof of his brother Hector. He admits that Hector is better at the art of war; but Paris is better at the art of love, and this is something men would pay a great price for:

Yet I, less practis’d than thyself in these extremes of war,
May well be pardon’d, though less bold; in these your worth exceeds,
In others mine. Nor is my mind of less force to the deeds
Requir’d in war, because my form more flows in gifts of peace.

Reproach not, therefore, the kind gifts of golden Cyprides.

All heav’n’s gifts have their worthy price; as little to be scorn’d
As to be won with strength, wealth, state; with which to be adorn’d,
Some men would change state, wealth, or strength…

Cyprides is Aphrodite, goddess of Cyprus.

Menelaus is not so self-important. He is game. When he first hears Paris’s challenge, he simply rejoices, as when a lion comes upon a deer or goat.

At the end of Book III, when Helen accuses Paris of cowardice, he is able to say, “Disgraces will not ever last.”

Cranes and Pygmies

At the very beginning of Book III, before the challenge of Paris, the opposing armies rush at each other in a way that Homer describes with interesting similes.

First the Trojans make noise as if they were cranes, migrating to the coast in winter. I do not know anything about this migration. Homer must be aware that some birds go away for part of the year. He may not be in a position to know where they go.

Homer says of the cranes that they bring death to “Pygmy soldiers.” This could mean that, while the cranes fly overhead, soldiers die on the ground, in the vain belief that their little disputes have any importance. The word πυγμαῖος used for the soldiers is originally an adjective meaning small, derived from πυγμή, a noun indicating either (1) a fist or (2) the distance from the elbow to the front of the fist. This noun in turn derives from the adverb πύξ, “with the fist.”

My proposed interpretation of the Pygmy soldiers may be excessively poetical. Modern scholars think Homer is referring to a myth that the cranes are actually at war with the Pygmies of Africa. None of the derivatives of πύξ is found in Cunliffe’s Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (1924, new edition 1963), and I suppose this means Cunliffe interprets Homer’s Πυγμαίοι as a proper noun, just as Liddell and Scott do in their big Greek–English Lexicon (1843, ninth edition 1940). Liddell and Scott cite precisely the passage of the Iliad in question, along with Aristotle and Herodotus.

According to Harvey’s Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1937, corrected 1980), the belief in a war between the cranes and the Pygmies “is frequently referred to by ancient writers, e.g. Homer, Aristotle, Ovid, and Pliny.” Homer was reciting the Iliad centuries before the other “ancient writers.” Perhaps it is not likely that they are all just taking Homer’s poetical pygmy reference too literally. It is plausible that they are all referring to a common myth, for which the oldest extant written source only happens to be Homer.

On the other hand, there are Christians who base their religious practice on a statement of Jesus that appears only in the Gospel of Mark, in Chapter 16:

17 And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.

The speaker here is the Jesus who has risen from the dead. The verses are regarded as later additions to the text of the gospel, although they are “of evident antiquity and importance,” in the terminology of the Greek New Testament (1966, Fourth Revised Edition 1993).

Jehovah’s Witnesses drew my attention to the verses of Mark above. They ridiculed the Christians who cherry-picked from the Bible the parts that they liked. The Bible, said the Witnesses, had to be taken as a whole. The same recommendation could be made for the Iliad.

In the second simile of Book III, if simile it be considered, the Greeks approach the Trojans silently, but raising a cloud of dust, such a cloud as would be grateful to thieves who desired the cover of darkness. Possibly Homer is suggesting ironically that the Trojans should appreciate this cloud, since it is they who were the thieves that stole Helen. But then I am not aware that Homer ever blames the Trojans for the crime of Paris.

Ritual

After Paris has agreed to meet Menelaus on the terms discussed, Hector goes out to treat with the Greeks. As a sign of this, he holds up his lance. The common soldiers either do not or will not see this, but try to hit him with rocks and darts. Agamemnon stops them.

Menelaus generously accepts the offered challenge, saying,

I now have hope to free
The Greeks and Trojans of all ills, they have sustain’d for me,
And Alexander, that was cause I stretch’d my spleen so far.

Menelaus calls for the performance of certain rites by Priam himself, as a sign of good faith: the sacrifice of a black lamb and a white lamb, “for the Earth, and for the Sun (the Gods on whom ye call).” The Trojans seem not to have quite the same pantheon as the Greeks.

The Virtue of Helen

Meanwhile, in the guise of Paris’s sister Laodice, Iris comes to tell Helen to go see what is happening outside the city. Here Chapman seems to embellish Homer, but in an obscure way. In the Loeb translation by Murray,

So spake the goddess, and put into her heart sweet longing for her former lord and her city and parents; and straightway she veiled herself with shining linen, and went forth from her chamber, letting fall round tears, not alone, for with her followed two handmaids as well…

Chapman tries to bring out the meaning of those tears:

Thus spake the thousand-colour’d Dame, and to her mind commends
The joy to see her first espousd, her native tow’rs and friends;
Which stir’d a sweet desire in her: to serve the which she hi’d,
Shadow’d her graces with white veiles and (though she tooke a pride
To set her thoughts at gaze and see, in her clear beautie’s flood,
What choice of glorie swum to her yet tender womanhood)
Season’d with tears her joys, to see more joys the more offence
And that perfection could not flow from earthly excellence.

Thus went she forth, and took with her her women most of name…

Here I follow the spelling and punctuation of Allardyce Nicoll. Absence of a comma after “offence” suggests that “that perfection could not flow from earthly excellence” should be taken as a noun clause, which then, coordinately with “more joys the more offence,” is an object of “to see.”

It seems to me more likely that “that perfection could not flow from earthly excellence” is an independent clause, in which “that perfection” refers to the perfection displayed in Helen’s crying. The word “offence” (or “offense” in American spelling) must have what is now an obsolescent meaning: as the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition 1971) puts it,

A stumbling-block; a cause of spiritual or moral stumbling; an occasion of unbelief, doubt, or apostacy.

An illustrative quotation for this meaning is Tyndale’s 1526 rendition of Galatians 5: 11:

Brethren yf I yet preache circucision: why do I then yet suffre persecucion? For then had the offence which the crosse geveth ceased.

This makes its way into the King James Bible (1611) as

And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.

The Greek original for “offence” is σκάνδαλον, which comes into English as “scandal” and whose original meaning is of a trap or snare. But this is the Greek of the New Testament; there is no Greek original for Chapman’s “offence,” but Chapman’s argument seems to be that Helen’s tears are owing to her moral perfection—not hers alone, but a perfection due to divine grace. A lesser woman would simply gloat over the armies that are fighting for her.

Chapman presently refers again to divine grace, or its opposite,
when he has Priam tell Helen,

Come, do not think I lay the wars, endur’d by us, on thee,
The Gods have sent them, and the tears in which they swum to me.

This couplet does seem to be an honest translation, except for the swimming: Murray’s version is,

thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans.

Priam echoes the other old men of Troy, among whom Iris has brought Helen. They say of her,

What man can blame
The Greeks and Trojans to endure, for so admir’d a dame,
So many mis’ries, and so long? In her sweet count’nance shine
Looks like the Goddesses.

The old men are still practical-minded. They would be better off if Helen returned to Greece:

And yet (though never so divine)
Before we boast, unjustly still, of her enforcéd prise,
And justly suffer for her sake, with all our progenies,
Labour and ruin, let her go; the profit of our land
Must pass the beauty.

Cold profit before divine grace. Even then,

They could not choose but welcome her, and rather they accus’d
The Gods than beauty.

Cicadas

Homer likens the old men to cicadas, τεττίγες. Chapman calls them grasshoppers:

And as in well-grown woods, or trees, cold spiny grasshoppers
Sit chirping, and send voices out, that scarce can pierce our ears
For softness, and their weak faint sounds; so, talking on the tow’r,
These seniors of the people sat…

Is it wrong to translate τεττίξ as grasshopper? The OED uses the quotation just given to illustrate the meaning of grasshopper. The 1880 quotation allows grasshoppers to belong to several genera, including Tettix; but the family is not clear. It seems today grasshoppers constitute the suborder Caelifera of the order Orthoptera, while cicadas constitute the superfamily Cicadoidea within the order Hemiptera. Grasshoppers stridulate; cicadas vibrate their tymbals.

In his “Commentarius” at the end of Book III, Chapman suggests that Spondanus (in his 1583 Latin translation) misunderstands the grasshopper simile as meaning that the old men are garrulous. Chapman’s “weak faint sounds” are Homer’s ὄπα λειριόεσσαν, the singular accusative case of ὄψ λειριόεσσα—“lily-like voice,” as Murray has it, adding in a footnote that this is

but a striking instance of the transference of an epithet from one field of sense-perception to another, which often meets us.

Murray cites two examples: (1) Hesiod, Theogony 41 and (2) Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica IV.903. When you look these up, you indeed find mentioned a lily-like voice: but now this is the voice of the Muses, not of old men.

Here is Hesiod, from the Loeb edition by Glenn W. Most (which I happen to have in print; the online Project Perseus has the 1914 Loeb version by Evelyn-White, and Most says this is the first Loeb he ever bought, but it is, “though useful, rather idiosyncratic, and the extraordinary progress that scholarship on Hesiod has made since then has finally made it altogether outdated”):

But what is this to me, about an oak or a rock? Come then, let us begin from the Muses, who by singing for their father Zeus give pleasure to his great mind within Olympus, telling of what is and what will be and what was before, harmonizing in their sound. Their tireless voice flows sweet from their mouths; and the house of their father, loud-thundering Zeus, rejoices at the goddesses’ lily-like voice (ὀπὶ λειροέσσῃ) as it spreads out, and snowy Olympus’ peak resounds, and the mansions of the immortals.

Glenn Most has a note on “what is this to me, about an oak or a rock?” He calls it “a proverbial expression, possibly already so for Hesiod; its origin is obscure, but its meaning here is evidently, ‘Why should I waste time speaking about irrelevant matters?’ ”

Why indeed waste time on irrelevant matters? Towards the end of the Phaedrus, after Socrates tells the story of the Egyptian origin of letters, and of how writing is an aid to reminding (ὑπόμνησις), not to memory (μνήμη), Phaedrus retorts, “Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.” Socrates replies,

They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth; but to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not consider only whether his words are true or not.

Socrates may be alluding not to Hesiod as such, but to Hesiod’s proverbial expression, “What is this to me, about an oak or a rock?”—as if perhaps it is only young people who would show such contempt for a supposedly inanimate object.

The Phaedrus is where Socrates explains that cicadas were once men. For the Loeb translator, Harold North Fowler, the τεττίγες are locusts (which now are strictly swarming grasshoppers), and

when the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died. From them the locust tribe afterwards arose, and they have this gift from the Muses, that from the time of their birth they need no sustenance, but sing continually, without food or drink, until they die, when they go to the Muses and report who honours each of them on earth.

It is a story I remember when I hear cicadas in the summer. Socrates uses the story as a reason for not being lazy on a fine summer day. Homer may have such a story in mind when he likens the old men of Troy to cicadas. As Murray translates the passage, using the alternative form “cicala,”

Because of old age had they now ceased from battle, but speakers they were full good, like unto cicalas that in a forest sit upon a tree and pour forth their lily-like voice; even in such wise sat the leaders of the Trojans upon the wall.

The lily-like voice could well be an allusion to the Muses—or to the Sirens, daughters of the muse Terpsichore, by the account of Apollonius Rhodius in the Argonautica:

Now when dawn the light-bringer was touching the edge of heaven, then at the coming of the swift west wind they went to their thwarts from the land; and gladly did they draw up the anchors from the deep and made the tackling ready in due order; and above spread the sail, stretching it taut with the sheets from the yard-arm. And a fresh breeze wafted the ship on. And soon they saw a fair island, Anthemoessa, where the clear-voiced Sirens, daughters of Achelous, used to beguile with their sweet songs whoever cast anchor there, and then destroy him. Them lovely Terpsichore, one of the Muses, bare, united with Achelous; and once they tended Demeter’s noble daughter still unwed, and sang to her in chorus; and at that time they were fashioned in part like birds and in part like maidens to behold. And ever on the watch from their place of prospect with its fair haven, often from many had they taken away their sweet return, consuming them with wasting desire; and suddenly to the heroes, too, they sent forth from their lips a lily-like voice (ὄπα λείριον). And they were already about to cast from the ship the hawsers to the shore, had not Thracian Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, stringing in his hands his Bistonian lyre, rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens’ voice.

It is hard to understand how the Sirens’ song might be like the voices of old men. According to Cunliffe under λειριόεις, the literal meaning, “lily-white,” is an epithet for “the thin voice of the cicada…(the tenuity of the sound app. suggesting the tenuity of the flower’s form).” This interpretation, made by Chapman, seems more appropriate for the old men than the Music interpretation.

Digressions

In having Helen visit the old men on the walls, Homer may be introducing to the world the technique of having one’s characters tell one’s story. Priam asks Helen about the Greeks whom he sees:

Sit then, and name this goodly Greek, so tall, and broadly spread,
Who than the rest, that stand by him, is higher by the head;
The bravest man I ever saw, and most majestical,
His only presence makes me think him king amongst them all.

He is indeed a king, as Helen says, and then she breaks into self-deprecation:

That’s Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, the great in empery;
A king, whom double royalty doth crown, being great and good,
And one that was my brother-in-law, when I contain’d my blood,
And was more worthy; if at all I might be said to be,
My being being lost so soon in all that honour’d me.

For Priam this is only an occasion to admire the Greeks, and to reminisce. In Phrygia once he joined a campaign against

“Th’ Amazon dames, that in their facts affected to be men.”

This was by the River Sangarius, today’s Sakarya. The Phrygians fought under Otreus and Mygdonus, and there were a lot of Phrygians; but now, before Troy, there are more Greeks. Chapman’s translation does not specify numbers, but only “such a world of Grecian youths, as I discover here!”—all fighting under Agamemnon. Priam is impressed.

The next man observed by Priam is shorter than Agamemnon, but broader-shouldered. Helen explains,

This is the old Laertes’ son, Ulysses, call’d the wise;
Who, though unfruitful Ithaca was made his nursing seat,
Yet knows he ev’ry sort of sleight, and is in counsels great.

Odysseus is good at tricks, and good at giving advice on how to avoid tricks—and these skills are surely not unrelated, as Socrates might well point out. In Book I the Republic, he gets Thrasymachus to agree that

Of whatsoever, then, anyone is a skilful guardian, of that he is also a skillful thief…A kind of thief then the just man it seems has turned out to be, and it is likely that you acquired this idea from Homer. For he regards with complacency Autolycus, the maternal uncle of Odysseus, and says he was gifted beyond all men in thievery and perjury. So justice, according to you and Homer and Simonides, seems to be a kind of stealing, with the qualification that it is for the benefit of friends and the harm of enemies. Isn’t that what you meant?

Like uncle, like nephew.

On the walls of Troy, Antenor breaks in to recall the time when Odysseus came to Troy with Menelaus, to ask for the return of Helen. The Greeks tried diplomacy first. Menelaus was taller and louder-voiced, but had little to say: he was indeed Laconical. When Odysseus spoke, he “fix’d upon the earth his eyes,” but his words “flew about our ears, like drifts of winter’s snow.”

Telamonian Aias and Idomeneus are described more briefly. Helen looks for her brothers Castor and Pollux. She does not realize that they died back home in Sparta. Homer has no words of pity.

Rites

Priam is called to perform the rites that will seal the agreement between the Trojans and the Greeks. Paris and Menelaus will fight, the winner will take Helen and her wealth, and—says Idaeus to Priam—

The rest knit friendship, and firm leagues; we safe in Troy shall dwell,
In Argos and Achaia they, that do in dames excel.

Agamemnon prays to the universe:

O Jove, that Ida dost protect, and hast the titles won
Most glorious, most invincible; aid thou all-seeing Sun,
All-hearing, all-recomforting; Floods; Earth; and Pow’rs beneath,
That all the perjuries of men chastise ev’n after death!

As the wine is poured on the ground, “one of both the hosts” prays,

O Jupiter, most high, most great, and all the deathless Pow’rs!
Who first shall dare to violate the late sworn oaths of ours,
So let the bloods and brains of them, and all they shall produce,
Flow on the stain’d face of the earth, as now this sacred juice;
And let their wives with bastardice brand all their future race.

Wine symbolizes blood, not only for Christians. The pious pour it out, in a controlled way, in hopes that they can also control whose blood will flow. The spelling here of the obsolete word “bastardice” parallel to “cowardice”; but the spelling in the edition of Nicoll is “bastardise,” paralleling “expertise.”

Homer tells us that the pouring of the wine is in vain. Zeus will not grant the prayers.

War and Peace

Priam cannot watch his son fight; he goes back into the city.

The combat will begin with a javelin throw. The first to throw will be chosen by lot. Hector

Pray’d Jove the conquest might not be by force or fortune giv’n,
But that the man, who was in right the author of most wrong,
Might feel his justice, and no more these tedious wars prolong.

The lot falls to Paris. His spear is stopped by the shield of Menelaus, who prays for success, a success that will benefit the sacred bond of host and guest.

That any now, or anyone of all the brood of men
To live hereafter, may with fear from all offence abstain,
Much more from all such foul offence to him that was his host,
And entertain’d him as the man whom he affected most.

Here “affected” apparently means loved.

Presently Menelaus will complain, “Why have I pray’d in vain?” His lance hits Paris in the gut, and Menelaus brings his sword down on Paris’s helmet; but the sword breaks. He grabs the helmet and would strangle Paris; but Aphrodite breaks the chin-strap and carries Paris away.

She hid him in a cloud of gold, and never made him known,
Till in his chamber, fresh and sweet, she gently set him down.

The goddess now takes the guise of Graea, a servant whom Helen brought from Sparta. But Helen can tell the Graea is really Aphrodite. Apparently Helen knows that Menelaus has won the duel, and so she expects to go home with him, except that now the goddess may find some other man, in Phrygia or Maeonia, to whose lusts she will give Helen. The goddess herself should go serve the pleasure of Paris. Helen does not want to see him:

What shame were it for me to feed
This lust in him; all honour’d dames would hate me for the deed!
He leaves a woman’s love so sham’d, and shows so base a mind,
To feel nor my shame nor his own; griefs of a greater kind
Wound me than such as can admit such kind delights so soon.

Helen thus still recognises the power of love, and Aphrodite traps her with this:

Incense me not, you wretch, lest, once incens’d, I leave
Thy curs’d life to as strange a hate, as yet it may receive
A love from me…

Aphrodite could allow the Greeks and Trojans to recognize Helen as the cause of all their troubles. She would be instantly killed. Is it not better to go to bed with Paris?

Helen goes to Paris, but taunts him with his cowardice. He should be ashamed to be seen alive. Paris brushes it off:

Pray thee, woman, cease, to chide and grieve me thus.
Disgraces will not ever last. Look on their end. On us
Will other Gods, at other times, let fall the victor’s wreath,
As on him Pallas put it now. Shall our love sink beneath
The hate of fortune? In love’s fire, let all hates vanish.

Seize the day. Paris has never desired Helen more than now, not even when he first took her. She yields.

Meanwhile, outside the city, Menelaus looks frantically for Paris. The Trojans are not hiding him: “All hated him.”

Agamemnon finally observes that Menelaus did win the duel, and the Trojans should now return Helen.

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2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Priam goes to ransom his son’s corpse from Achilles, we shall know how nervous Priam is. In Book III, he will be too nervous to see his son Paris fight a duel with Menelaus. But now I see no clear […]

  2. By War and Talk « Polytropy on June 18, 2017 at 7:41 pm

    […] « On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book III […]

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