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Homer and the will of Zeus.

 After reading the Homeric poems, and indeed after reading
 interpretations of them, I cannot help asking about Homer and
 wondering what he thought he was doing. (Ford 1992, 1)

Andrew Ford's question haunts all who undertake the study of Homer, that most illusive of figures, endowed with none of the ordinary predicates of existence, the putative author, singer, or monumental composer of the incomparable Iliad and/or the Odyssey, or neither. (1) R. Martin has suggested that, in the midst of the intense revisionism that has beset tragedy and comedy, Homeric studies are still fairly removed from critical controversy (1988, 2). Martin seems optimistic, especially in light of the work done in the decade subsequent to the publication of his own book, during which the split between pure oralists and virtually everyone else seems to have grown more extreme. (2)

Still, Ford's question, while undeniably challenging, at least offers those who would attempt to answer it some hope, no matter how faint, of success, as opposed to questions of authorship and composition, which have raged unresolved for centuries. After all, as Martin observed, however the Iliad may have come into existence, it is now a text, "and that has made all of the difference" (1988, 1). A text can be analyzed, if not to discern the putative will of its author, at least to disclose its own methodology. (3) And we can perhaps do better than that. "In my father's house there are many rooms." Even the densest, least skilled, and most haphazard (and I do not mean to suggest that the Iliad reflects any such ineptitude) of architects must have included a few of them in the original plans. (4)

Like Ford, I would like to examine what Homer was doing when he composed/wrote the Iliad. (5) Yet that question, baldly stated, seems too broad for the scope of the current discussion. Alas, we possess no detailed notes from the poet on his methodology. It remains the most axiomatic of axioms in Homeric studies that the poet never injects himself into his work, and efforts to uncover a "historical" Homer invariably founder. (6) We do, however, have his poem, and we do have his plot. As Nagy observes (and repeats often [1979, 35-36, 97-99]), and Nimis (1987, 90) and Richardson (1990) also confirm, the plot of an epic poem is simply the will of Zeus. An investigation of Homer's (or the text's) own intentions can with profit begin there. Moreover, as Redfield carefully argues, following the logic of Aristotle's Poetics 1451b27-29, the invention of the plot is the invention of a narrative poem (1994, 58). Homer or the tradition invents the plot of the work; we may therefore assume that the will of Zeus conforms rather exactly to the will of the poet--in that the will of Zeus in the Iliad operates to guarantee the honor of Achilles, the will of the poet must be to do the same. Moreover, the honoring of Achilles will then condition all of the poet's decisions on the distribution of kleos, the glory (from kluein, "to hear"), gained from oral poetry. (7)

We can carry the discussion still further. To quote the cogent summary of Mark Edwards:
 Fate, of course, is the will of the poet, limited by the major
 features of the traditional legends.... In an obviously artistic, not
 religious, motif, Zeus holds up his scales to determine the decree of
 fate, and the gods act to ensure the fulfillment of such a decree;
 Poseidon rescues Aeneas for this reason, as it is fated that through
 him Dardanus' line shall continue (20.300-308). On two occasions Zeus
 considers the possibility of saving a hero from the death that fate
 has decreed (his son Sarpedon, 16.433ff., and the beloved Hector,
 22.167-81), but both times another deity declares this to be
 exceptional and a bad policy, and Zeus gives up the idea.
 (Edwards 1987, 136)

I offer a slight refinement to Edwards's initial observation: fate is not the will of the poet, but the poetic tradition, to which the poet must in most instances conform, lest he lose all of his authority. (8) The poet, however, determines the plot of the poem, and the poet's metaphor for that determination is the will of Zeus. For example, when Zeus must reluctantly allow the deaths of Sarpedon and Hector, we have a metaphor for the poet acknowledging his allegiance to a tradition, a tradition to which he must, in crucial specifics, adhere, in order to maintain his own credibility. Should Sarpedon escape the onslaught of Patroclus, or Hector fall to Ajax instead of Achilles, the poet would compromise, perhaps fatally, both his tale and his status as a "Singer of Tales," to borrow Lord's phrase.

Poetic favor, of course, offers no protective talisman to the characters. Zeus directs his affections precisely to those characters for whom the poet expresses the greatest interest, and yet, as Griffin observes, "Zeus loves Hector and Sarpedon, Patroclus and Achilles; but by the end of the Iliad three of the four are dead, and the fourth will be slain very soon." (1980, 86). Zeus's loves are the crucial figures around whom the poet fashions his tale, the men whose death in battle will earn them the kleos aphthiton, "undying fame," that epic confers. (9)

These observations still leave us with a technical problem. How does the will of Zeus actually operate in the poem, and how, specifically, does it relate to the program of the poet? How does it guarantee that Achilles will be honored? The will of Zeus makes its memorable first appearance in Book 1:
 Sing, Goddess, of the destructive wrath of
 Achilles, son of Peleus, which laid pains without
 number on the Achaeans, and sent many strong
 souls of heroes down to death and rendered their
 bodies carrion for the dogs and birds, and the
 will of Zeus [boule Dios] was accomplished, from
 the time when [ex hou] the son of Atreus, the lord of
 men, and godlike Achilles first fought in strife. (Iliad I. 1-9)

The boule Dios, and the ex hou, offer the initial difficulty. Some ancient commentators suggested that ex hou was causal, and should be taken in connection with the Kypria, in which Zeus is blamed (credited?) for starting the Trojan war in order to relieve the world of excess population. (10) Aristarchus rejected this interpretation of the neoteroi and argued that the boule Dios refers merely to the promise of Zeus to Thetis in Book I (Kirk 1985, 53). The Iliad, at first glance, appears to lend support to Aristarchus's view: the will of Zeus does not seem to enter into the story until the end of Book I, when Zeus pledges to Thetis that he will honor Achilles. Indeed, that may explain the rather independent role of Athena and Apollo in the first book. In subsequent books, the two are sent (or their interference at least tolerated) by Zeus to intervene on behalf of the Greeks or the Trojans, or, in the case of Athena's effort in Book IV to break the truce, on behalf of Zeus himself, (should the truce endure, the poem would be over). In Book I, however, the prayer of Chryses motivates Apollo to unleash a plague upon the Greek camp (I.43-52), while Athena's intervention in the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles comes at the behest of Hera, "who loves you both," (I.208-10). (11)

The other view, however, does find support from both the Iliad and the Odyssey: Agamemnon claims that Zeus "stole his wits away" in the quarrel over the girl, and Achilles does not contradict him. Indeed, he had suggested the very same thing at IX.377. As Dodds observes, this is no mere use of the gods as a facon de parler (1951, 3-5). Nor can we simply dismiss Agamemnon's remark as a facile apology: he does not deny his own responsibility for his actions. Clearly, on Agamemnon's analysis, Zeus has manufactured this episode in the Trojan War as a function of a general plan to work havoc on the Greeks. The suggestion that Zeus "started" the Trojan War for his own purposes finds additional support from the subsequent epic: in the Odyssey Zeus is described as "conjuring up a great wave of disasters for Greeks and Trojans alike," at a time before the action of the Iliad, indeed, before the Greeks ever left for Troy (8.81-82). (12) The same plan is ascribed to Zeus the summary of the Kypria in Proclus and in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. (13)

There is a way to reconcile the two possibilities. Homer employs the will of Zeus as the motivation for the action of the poem because the tradition of epic, which recorded the afflictions wrought by Zeus on Trojan and Greek alike, mandated it. (14) Thus he affirms his membership in the tradition. At the same time he claims his own originality by taking the traditional boule Dios and altering it to fit his own story and provide not merely the plot of his epic, but a mechanism for the poet to enter into the story. (15) The poet never departs from the traditional view that Zeus wants to kill Greeks and Trojans alike, but he demonstrates his mastery over that tradition by changing the terms under which the slaughter takes place. As Scodel notes:
 Since, in his Iliad, the plan of Zeus is in effect the plan of
 Achilles, the traditional theme of the Trojan War as the cause of many
 deaths has been adapted to the wrath. Homer is not ignorant of the
 Cyclic and Hesiodic explanations of the war, but he turns them to his
 own purpose. (Scodel 1982, 47) (16)

Lynn-George, for his part, reminds us of just how open the entire boule Dios is. "In all its possibilities this plan of Zeus possesses a powerful indeterminacy, a might which is a function of its mystery" (1988, 38). As he goes on to observe, there seems to be a boule already at work at the outset of the poem, yet at the beginning of Book II we see Zeus still considering what that boule might be. Hence, "Throughout the structuring of epic there is discontinuity and yet also an unpredictable indissociability of irreconcilable positions. All is both predetermined and open to choice in a narrative which is fixed forever and constantly refashioned" (41). What else accounts for such determined indeterminacy but Homer's decision to work within the Cyclic tradition and coordinate it with the specific plan of the honoring of Achilles?

The logical upshot of such coordination is that nothing within the work can truly lie outside the plan of Zeus. Zeus himself allows the delay of the accomplishment of his promise to Thetis, both when he permits the interference of Athena in Book VIII, to keep the rout of the Greeks from happening too quickly, and again when he tacitly permits Poseidon's interference, by going off to the land of the Thracians at the beginning of Book XIII, and in the apate Dios (the deception and seduction of Zeus by Hera) of Book XIV In each instance, the Iliadic plan seems derailed; but the general epic plan, the slaughter of Greek and Trojan alike, moves forward when the Achaeans rally and prolong the battle. Hence, nothing in the Iliad differs from the Plan of Zeus, and thus the plan of Zeus stands revealed as the will of the poet. As a consequence of this, we should pay very close attention to the will of Zeus, since the poet has invested the metaphor with the claim to his own authority. (17) Indeed, Morrison sees just this type of operation in the Iliad. On (18) of 33 occasions in which Homer's plot might have gone off in a different direction, a god intervenes to keep the story on track--and the gods are very often working for Zeus (1992, 62-71). Even when they seem to be working against Zeus's plan to honor Achilles, as when Poseidon rallies the Greek troops in Books XIII-XIV, they are in fact serving Zeus's other plan, to slaughter Greeks and Trojans alike. Quite simply, Homer lays claim to both "plans" to structure the plot of his poem (Richardson 1990, 187f).

Whether we accept that argument and see the will of Zeus acting on events from a time prior to the Iliad, or only posterior to the initial quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the will of Zeus guides most of the action from the end of Book I on to the ransoming of Hector's body by Priam in Book XXIV We can see how closely Zeus's will conforms to the poetic program of honoring Achilles by examining those initial passages in which Zeus consents to the desires of that hero. (The Iliad does honor Achilles, and Achilles alone, and does so rather unambiguously. He alone, in Homer's account, is responsible for the destruction of Troy, by killing Hector, the man on whose life the fate of Troy rests. He speaks the most lines in the poem. His dominance is absolute, from his repeated humiliations of Agamemnon to the assertion of his authority over all of the Greeks at the funeral games of Patroclus, and to his final mastery over the vanquished Priam.)

After the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis, a humiliated Achilles demands the help of his mother in gaining revenge over the Greeks. He cites the fact that Zeus is indebted to Thetis for her help in rescuing the king of the gods from an ignominious imprisonment at the hands of the other Olympian deities (I.348-406). (18) He continues:
 Persuade him to aid the Trojans, to pin
 the Achaeans back against their ships, trap
 them around the bay and mow them down. (Iliad I.408-10)

Thetis relays the request in terms that are somewhat more ambiguous and less bloodthirsty:
 Father Zeus, if among the immortals
 I have aided you by word or deed, fulfill
 this prayer. Honor my son, doomed to
 meet his fate more quickly than all
 other. But now the lord of men Agamemnon
 has dishonored him. For he has taken
 and kept his prize. But you honor him,
 Wise Zeus of Olympus. Give strength to
 the Trojans, until the Achaeans honor
 my son and even increase his honor. (Iliad I.503-10)

The request of Achilles to Thetis specified slaughter: tous de kata prumnas te kai amph' hala elsai Achaious kteinomenous, "push back the dying Achaeans to their ships and to the sea." (19) Thetis, however, suggests only that Zeus tithei kratos, "give strength" to the Trojans, until the Greeks restore his honor (Kirk 1985, 96). (20) In theory, the terms of Thetis's more general request may be considered fulfilled by the action of Books VIII-IX; the Trojans have won a substantial victory and the Greeks have selected delegates to offer Achilles more than adequate compensation. But Thetis's version of the story is not the one that carries authority: Zeus'a own plan agrees with Achilles's initial request, rather than the mediated version of his mother. (21) The poet depicts Zeus's rather bloodthirsty intent at the beginning of Book II:
 Sweet sleep did not hold Zeus, but rather
 he weighed in his mind how he might honor
 Achilles and destroy many of the Achaeans
 next to their ships (Iliad II.2-4)

The will of Zeus is identical with the will of Achilles himself. Zeus conjures up a plan by which olese{i} de poleas epi neusin Achaion, "he might destroy many of the Achaeans by the ships," (II.4). Moreover, we should note that the plan of Zeus will operate in its own good time. The first day of battle (Books II-VII), does not lead directly to the slaughter of the Greeks among their ships. If anything, the long day achieves nothing and ends in a draw. To derive poetic intent from the apparent gap between Zeus's conception of the specific plan to honor Achilles and its operation, which does not truly begin until the beginning of Book VIII, Homer wants us to understand that the will of Zeus encompasses the action of the entire poem, for without the first day of battle, with the aristeia of Diomedes, his fights with the gods, the Catalogue, the Teichoskopia, and the intimate portrayals of family and city life in Troy, the Iliad would lose much of its force and nearly all of its appeal. Books II through VII recapitulate the long and bloody stalemate of the first ten years of the war. Homer introduces the Greek and Trojan forces in the Catalogue and frames the actual day of battle with two inconclusive duels: Menelaus and Paris (perhaps to demonstrate that Homer's war is a poetic construct, and like any poetic construct, not accountable to practical considerations), and Hector and Ajax, whose inconclusive brawling marks the middle books, before Patroclus, the ritual substitute of Achilles, and then Achilles himself take the field. All things, even those that do not immediately work to Zeus's desire, work to the god's advantage, as the poet condenses the futility of ten years into the space of a single day.

Zeus elects to send the dream in the form of Nestor to Agamemnon, a dream that initiates the first day of battle described in the work. The choice of Nestor is hardly coincidental: Nestor, besides being the great counselor of the Greeks, occupies a prominent role as a quasi-poet in the work, providing, along with Phoenix, Priam, and a few other characters (Glaucus, for example) a deeper poetic tradition from which the poet can draw material. (22) What better way for the poet (Homer) to assert the poetic authority of Zeus's deception than by using a character who is a virtual aoidos himself (Nestor) to convey the information that will deceive the clueless Agamemnon.

Only the third day of battle, from Books XI-XVII, in which the Greek wall is pierced and the fighting takes place along the ships, actually fulfills the will of Zeus as stated in its rather limited form (and thus accounts for Achilles's final rejection of the embassy in Book IX--should Achilles have accepted the offer of the Achaeans, the will of Zeus, as well as his own, would have been left unfulfilled). (23) Zeus makes clear his own will in counsel with the Olympians and subsequently confirms it at the beginning of Book IV. After the Greeks and Trojans agree to settle the quarrel over Helen by single combat between Paris and Menelaus (a battle that we know will be inconclusive, since such an outcome would contradict the promise of Zeus in Book I--hence, the interference of Aphrodite to save Paris is not really germane to the plot), Zeus asks his fellow divinities if the war should end:
 Let us consider how this work will be,
 whether we stir up evil war and the din
 of battle, or we bring both sides together
 in friendship. If this seems good and
 pleasant to all, then the city of Priam
 might remain inhabited, and Menelaus
 might take back Argive Helen. (Iliad IV.14-19)

The goddesses are not pleased, but only Hera raises her voice against the divine plan. Zeus states quite definitely that he holds no personal grudge against the Trojans, and he compels Hera to surrender one of her favorite cities of the Greeks to him at some future time (recalling once more the divine plan suggested in the Kypria: the destruction of the Greeks as well as the Trojans seems to be an ineluctable part of the plan of Zeus). He then employs Athena, now as his own agent, to attempt to break the truce:
 Go quickly among the Trojans and the
 Greeks, and attempt to make the Trojans
 first violate their oaths and attack
 the Achaeans. (Iliad IV.70-72)

So Zeus rejects (or more properly, fails to seize) an opportunity to end the war and instead instructs Athena to encourage the Trojans to become oath breakers. Homer could not make his point more clearly: Zeus's real interests are served by more slaughter, as are the poet's (times of peace being notoriously difficult to distill into good epic). Zeus, by accepting from Hera the right to destroy Argos, Mycenae, or Sparta at some future date, seems determined to continue the slaughter of the Greeks, as the Kypria suggests. (24) However, he is equally willing to accept the destruction of Troy, a city that he finds quite innocent of wrongdoing, for Zeus in Book IV evaluates the behavior of the Trojans not by a standard of human justice, but by a standard of divine expedient. The crimes of stealing and then keeping Helen concern him not at all. The Trojans are, in his view, a just people:
 Never has my altar lacked a fair feast,
 or drink, or burnt-offering. We have
 always received our due. (Iliad IV.48-49) (25)

Zeus desires not peace, just or otherwise, but war; he is not swayed by the counsels of others. (26) Rather, he employs the gods to justify the continuation of the war, in the absence of which the poet has no story, and Zeus cannot keep his initial promise to Thetis.

Confirmation of Zeus's emotional investment in continuing the war can be detected in the numerous instances in which Zeus is shown as "delighting in war." One of the most striking instances occurs in Book XX, as Zeus unleashes all the gods to fight on whatever side they choose:
 I still care about those who are going
 to die. But I will remain on a cliff of
 Olympus, from which I will look on and
 take pleasure in my heart (phrena terpsomai).
 The rest of you may go and enter into
 the midst of the Trojans and Greeks,
 bearing aid to either side, as the
 mind of each of you desires. (Iliad XX.21-30)

The detached concern evinced by Zeus here accords well with the notion that his will is not merely the plot of the poem, but also a metonymy for the will of the poet. For what else has the poet evinced throughout the work but this same paradoxical attitude--an unflinching description of the worst horrors of war, offset to a certain extent by the brilliant similes that restore humanity, if ever so briefly, to those who have been brutalized and slain in the course of the poem.

Indeed, the proper way of relating the line in the Kypria that claims that Zeus engineers the Trojan War to rid the world of excess population is to read it as metaphor for the poets' choice of war as the subject for the works in the epic cycle. The Cycle, which almost certainly began as oral poetry, may take war, with its varied fortunes and routine changes in circumstance, as a metaphor for oral poetry itself?

After Pandarus breaks the truce, the two armies prepare for battle. Homer devotes Book V primarily to the great aristeia of Diomedes, which culminates in the wounding of Ares at the hands of Diomedes and Athena. Zeus is content to let events take their course, as befits the general action of Books II-VII, books which serve as a kind of synopsis of events that logically should have taken place before the 10th year of the war. Only at one point, Diomedes's aristeia of Book V, do we see some conclusive fighting; as befits the action of a true aristeia, a divinity assists the hero. (27) Indeed, the presence of the god at an action simply gives divine sanction to that action, and by extension, guarantees that a significant action has occurred as part of the poetic will. Diomedes's aristeia demonstrates what a hero can accomplish with a god on his side: nothing less than the ability to break the lethal stalemate encapsulated in Books II-VII and symbolized in the two futile single combats (Paris and Menelaus in Book II, Ajax and Hector in Book VII) that begin and end the day of battle. But Diomedes is not destined to slay Hector, as Achilles is, so he must be content with wounding not one but two gods. (28) In effect, he serves as a sort of demonstration blast for the poet, a preparation for Achilles. (29) Diomedes and Achilles lead strangely parallel existences in the Iliad, and in the epic tradition. Both fight with gods; both are wounded by Paris; both fight with Aeneas. In the Iliad we can see that Diomedes is, in effect, poetry's first hero, placed on the Iliadic stage by Homer to demonstrate to his audience a model for poetic heroism, in which the mortal warrior finds confirmation for his actions by the help and presence of the gods. The gods who assist the mortal warriors in their aristeiai must therefore be taken as metaphors for the poets themselves, who assign to the select warriors the kleos appropriate to their deeds. Indeed, the same pattern can be discerned in the subsequent aristeiai of Hector (who has been inspired, literally, by Apollo), Patroclus (who has been inspired by Achilles himself), and Achilles, who is assisted by Athena herself.

In Book VIII, the poet, having used his first day of battle to telescope the war to date, and having alerted his audience to the possibilities inherent in the poet-god-hero nexus, opts to change the war from a futile stalemate to the first stage of the honoring of Achilles. Predictably, Zeus calls the gods into conference and administers orders that none of them are to interfere in the battle on either side--he himself will employ force, if necessary, to see that his orders are obeyed:
 No goddess nor god should attempt to
 contravene my instructions, but let all
 pay attention, in order that I accomplish
 [teleuteso] these things as quickly
 as possible. Anyone I see wishing to
 defy heaven and aid the Trojans or the
 Greeks will return to Olympus stricken,
 or I will hurl him into murky Tartarus ...
 (Iliad VIII.7-13)

In theory, the will of Zeus, the wholesale slaughter of the Greek troops, should begin today. But we also see how thoroughly the will of Zeus is identified with that of the poet when Zeus relents slightly when Athena complains: the poet has hardly shown everything he wants to, so he allows Zeus to appear to change his mind a bit, thereby providing a rationale for a more protracted accomplishment of the boule Dios. Zeus will allow a bit of intervention by the goddess:
 Take heart, Tritogeneia, my dear child.
 I do not speak fully what is in my mind
 or heart, and I wish to be kind to you. (Iliad VIII.43-45)

The phrase ou nu ti thumo{i} prophroni mutheomai, literally, "I do not now speak with full forethought of my purpose," as ever reveals that the will of Zeus stands too closely allied to the interests of the poet to be merely the bare outline of the poetic tradition. Homer construes the Plan of Zeus broadly enough to encompass the encouraging omens that Agamemnon and Ajax receive, as well as the interference of Athena and, later, Poseidon. The war must continue and the Greeks must not abandon Troy, or both parts of Zeus's plan, the general slaughter of men, particularly the race of Homeric heroes (the hemitheoi of Book XII), and the honoring of Achilles, will come to naught.

In Book VIII, the process by which he will honor Achilles has now been activated. Lest any of the poet's audience miss the point, Homer makes it abundantly clear when Zeus employs his thunderbolts to terminate the furious attack of Diomedes, the first poetic hero (i.e., the first recipient of an aristeia), and drive him from the field:
 And now they would have been forced back
 to Ilium, penned in like lambs, if the
 father of gods and men had not quickly
 realized what was happening.
 Thundering terribly he let loose his fearsome
 silvery thunderbolt, and he struck the earth
 in front of the horses of Diomedes. (Iliad VIII.131-34)

Nestor persuades Diomedes to withdraw, but Hector's taunting proves too much for the son of Tydeus to endure, so he wheels his horses again to reengage in battle. But Zeus "thunders three times from Ida," signaling once and for all to Diomedes that his time as poetic hero has ended (VIII.139-71). When next we see him in battle, he is doing nothing more heroic than slaughtering sleeping Thracians.

Zeus, having encouraged the Trojans, obliges the desperate Agamemnon with an omen of his own: an eagle drops a fawn on the altar on which the Greeks sacrifice. Zeus's will lies not in ending the war in Book VIII, but rather in continuing it as long as possible, allowing slaughter to mount up on both sides before he unleashes Achilles. Indeed, although he will let the Greeks regroup, he will not permit Athena and Hera to turn the tide of battle, sending Iris to the recalcitrant pair to inform them of the punishment, should they attempt to drive the Trojans back to their city:
 I will maim their swift horses before their
 chariots, and I will knock them from the car,
 and I will shatter their chariot. Nor will
 they recover from their wounds for ten years,
 if my thunderbolt strikes them. (Iliad VIII.402-05)

Let me reiterate: Book VIII could, in theory, have been sufficient for the fulfillment of Thetis's request to Zeus--however, Zeus's plan exceeds the request made by Thetis, and conforms to the original request of Achilles and to the tradition of the Cycle: not merely to allow the death of many Greeks, but to create havoc sufficient to make a poem. Nor could Zeus allow the Trojan successes to come to naught because of a timely intervention by Athena: he would, on the next day, make matter far worse for the Greeks:
 At dawn, ox-eyed queen Hera, you will see,
 if you wish, the mighty son of Cronos
 destroy more of the army of the Achaean
 spearmen. For terrible Hector will not
 leave off from war until the swift son
 of Peleus rouses from his ships, on the day
 that they battle with the deadliest force
 by the prows of the ships over the fallen
 Patroclus. For so it is decreed by heaven
 [thesphaton]. (Iliad VIII.470-77)

Thesphaton, literally, "god-spoken," confirms that the most important action of the plot is solely the will of Zeus, far more so than the will of Achilles, who certainly did not want his best friend killed.

In Book XI the will of Zeus takes a slightly different turn, as he sends Iris to discourage Hector from engaging Agamemnon during the Achaean king's aristeia:
 Go, swift Iris, and tell this to Hector:
 As long as he sees Agamemnon, shepherd
 of the host, fighting in the forefront,
 slaying rank after rank of men, so
 long hold off from engaging him, and
 let the rest of your army battle with
 him with their spears. But after he
 has withdrawn in his chariot, wounded by
 spear or arrow, then I will give him
 strength to slay, until he comes to
 the well-benched ships and the sun
 sets and holy night comes on. (Iliad XI.186-94)

This passage may seem, at first glance, to represent the traditional use of the gods as facon de parler: after all, it is only good sense to avoid a fighter who is having a particularly good day. But the warning (or advice) cuts deeper on a poetic level. Zeus warns Hector, in effect, not to ruin the plot of the poem. A premature death, before he has led the Trojans in firing the ships, violates the promise of Zeus and hence the plot of the poem. (30)

Agamemnon eventually leaves the field after receiving a painful but hardly lethal wound from Coon. Paris wounds Diomedes with an arrow to the foot, while Odysseus is skewered in the latissimus dorsi by Socus. We also see in Book XI the beginning of the role of Ajax as the personal foil to the will of Zeus. Gradually, all the great warriors of the Achaeans leave the field, save Ajax, who will battle, often alone, against the onslaught of the Trojans to save his comrades and their ships. (31) Ajax receives no wound: he is rather taken out of the battle directly by Zeus, a peculiar "erasure" of the hero. After all, as Nestor says later, "the best (aristoi) of the Achaeans have been wounded," (XI.658-59), but Ajax, who certainly ought to be among the best of the Achaeans, given that he is the second best after Achilles (II.768-69) is not wounded, nor does Nestor mention him in his subsequent list of those who have fallen to the Trojans (XI.660-64). As Nimis observes, he has been replaced here by Eurypylus (1987, 53-54). (32) Zeus forces only one Achaean, Ajax, to withdraw from the field directly; all the others, even Eurypylus and Machaon, retire only after being wounded. (33)

The identity of interest between Zeus and the poet and their metonymous existence seems clear. Two test cases will demonstrate the extent of the identification.

Zeus and the Tradition 1: The Wall of the Achaeans

The battle becomes increasingly more desperate for the Greek side in Book XII, as the Trojans break the wall around the Greek camp. The wall merits and has received much discussion. (34) The Greeks build the wall at the end of Book VII: tacit acknowledgment that the inconclusive day of battle has rendered them equal to the Trojans. The poet demonstrates how futile the day has been by assigning virtually the same verses to the Greeks and the Trojans when he describes the collecting of the dead and the mass funerals held by either side:
 Then they [Trojans and Dardanians] prepared
 themselves, quickly, for either task, some
 to collect the dead, and some to gather wood.
 And the Argives on their side hastened from
 their ships, some to collect the dead, some
 to gather wood.
 The sun was now striking the fields, climbing
 the heavens from the deeps of the soft-gliding
 Ocean. The two sides met face-to-face. Then
 it was a difficult thing to recognize the
 face of each man. But washing away the clotted
 blood with water, and shedding hot tears,
 they loaded them on wagons. But great Priam
 allowed no crying; so in silence, sick at
 heart, they heaped the corpses on the fire.
 And when they had burned them all, they
 went away to holy Ilium. And in the same
 way the well-greaved Achaeans, sick at heart,
 heaped the corpses on the fire. And when
 they had burned them all they went to the
 hollow ships. (Iliad VII.417-32)

To accent the equivalence that had developed between the Greek and Trojan forces now that Achilles was no longer on the field, Homer has Nestor, "weaving a metis" (uphainein_metin), recommend that a wall be built from the funeral mound to protect the camp (VII.324-43). (35) The wall is clearly a poetic construct. The wall gives structure to the day of battle and marks the equivalence between the two sides. Moreover, the existence of the wall enables Homer to emphasize the superiority of the Trojans, backed by Zeus, when they break through the fortifications in Book XII. The besiegers have become the besieged.

Moreover, as Poseidon complains, the wall gives a variety of kleos, in competition with the fame of his own deed, when he and Apollo built the walls of Troy for Laomedon (VII.446-53). But Zeus is the final arbiter of kleos, just as the poet is the final arbiter of poetry. Kleos cannot be earned; it must be given. And Zeus will not permit the kleos of the wall to remain. Zeus answers Poseidon's complaint:
 Wide-ruling Earthshaker, what are you
 saying. Another god might fear this
 device, but only one who is weaker than
 you by far in strength of hand and
 might. But your kleos will extend
 as far as the dawn. Come. When the long
 haired Achaeans have gone home with
 their swift ships to their dear homeland,
 then break the wall and carry it into
 the sea, and cover the beach with
 sand, so that the wall of the Achaeans
 may be brought to naught. (Iliad VII.455-63)

The defensive wall of Troy shall be remembered, the kleos of Poseidon honored. The defensive wall of the Greeks shall be obliterated. Homer does not like defense; Hector fails when he retreats. Defense stands in the way of poetry, and stationary fortifications, like static texts, hold no interest for the oral poet. It is hardly coincidental that his real hero, Achilles, earns the frequent epithet "swift-footed," while Diomedes, Patroclus, and Hector, all fly about the battlefield in chariots. The hero of the later epic wins the footrace in Book XXIII, to forewarn Homer's audience that the swiftness of Odysseus's mind is nearly matched by that of his feet.

In Book XII, Homer steps outside of his narrative to describe the eventual destruction of the wall at some time posterior to the Trojan War, but prior to Homer's own time. The positioning of the account cannot be coincidental; it stands almost at the dead middle of the text. The whole passage has been much discussed, but the last part is most significant for my purposes:
 Zeus rained continuously, in order to
 overwhelm the wall with the salt sea.
 The Earthshaker, carrying the trident in
 his hands, led the way, and swept
 away in the waves the foundations of
 wooden beams and stones that the Achaeans
 had constructed with such toil, and made
 all smooth again along the stream of the
 Hellespont, and again covered the beach
 with sand, when he had swept away the
 wall. (Iliad XII.25-32)

The works of man are rendered obscured by the processes of weather and time (the turning post for the chariot race in Book XXIII affords another instance), unless they are elucidated by the poet. What the poet chooses to ignore we forget, or never learn; like the wall, which is destroyed by the natural processes of rain, wind, and earthquake, that which the poets decrees suffers oblivion. Men, affairs, events, all will be memorable only so long as poets choose to remember them. The poet shows Zeus, the poet's metonym, taking an active part in demonstrating the impermanence of human endeavor. Even Schliemann, perhaps, was defying the will of Zeus: Troy the city was less important than Troy the city of poetry, and, as it has worked out, somewhat less impressive.

Ford has written eloquently about the wall, suggesting that Homer here renders a judgment on the impermanence of the written text. Writing is ultimately an unintelligent sema, without the oral poet to elucidate the contents and contexts, and the flimsy new technology of writing cannot match the wisdom of the oral poet (192, 152-57). A written text, like the wall, is prey to any mischance, and no match for the collective wisdom of the traditions of oral poetry.

Zeus and the Tradition 2: The Death of Sarpedon

In Book XII, Homer puts in the mouth of Sarpedon the famous rationale for the hero's life:
 Glaucus, why are we two honored above all
 with seats and meat and full cups in Lycia,
 and why do all look upon us as gods?
 We possess a great tract of by the Xanthus,
 a lovely orchard, and wheat fields. We must
 now stand among the first ranks of the
 Lycians and take our part in the blazing
 battle, so that one of the Lycians may
 say, "our kings that rule us are not
 without fame [aklees], who eat fat sheep
 and drink the select, honeyed wine. Their
 might is most noble, since they fight among
 the foremost of the Lycians." Friend, if
 we could escape from the battle and live
 forever, ageless and immortal, then I
 myself would neither fight among the foremost
 nor would I send you into the battle for
 glory. But the myriad fates lead us to
 death, which no mortal can escape or avoid,
 so let us go, either to give glory
 to another, or to gain it for ourselves. (Iliad XII.310-28)

Kleos is the compensation for death, the kleos aphthiton of poetry that those who die in battle earn. Telamonian Ajax stabs at Sarpedon, piercing his shield and driving him back. But "Zeus kept death from his son, that he not be killed at the prows of the ships," (XII.402-03). Homer instead reserves the glory of killing Sarpedon for Patroclus, the "ritual substitute," as Nagy terms it, of Achilles, killing the man who best expresses the rationale for the martial ethos in his speech to Glaucus in Book XII; Tlepolemos, the son of Heracles, had been denied the chance to kill Sarpedon earlier, and now Ajax will be denied the same glory, which instead will go to the son of Menoitius: if Achilles's is the poem's hero, Patroclus is poetry's substitute.

The death of Sarpedon is traditionally considered one of the most moving scenes in the poem. He has best articulated the "heroic code" in his speech to Glaucus in Book XII, and his willingness to embrace the risks of life and death later guarantees him heroic status, cult worship, and of course poetry itself.
 As Patroclus advances towards Sarpedon, Zeus addresses Hera:
 My heart is divided in two as I consider, do
 I save him still alive, snatching him up and
 removing him from the tearful war and place
 him in the rich land of Lycia, or do I
 slay him now at the hands of the son of
 Menoitius? (Iliad XVI.435-38)

At one level, Zeus merely confronts the question that other divinities who spare favorites must confront. There are additional considerations, however. When Aphrodite saves Paris in Book III, or Aeneas in Book V, we do not see merely a goddess saving a fallen favorite: rather, the maintenance of the poetic tradition, or even the poem itself. If Paris falls to Menelaus, the Iliad may end too soon. Similarly, if Achilles kills Hector when they first meet in Book XX, the aristeia of Achilles will end too quickly. Zeus has tolerated the interventions of the gods in order to protract the action of the work, so he finds the intervention of the gods in saving a favorite here and there acceptable. Moreover, Aeneas, saved again in Book XX, must live to carry on the Trojan name. Hence, there must have been a tradition in which Aeneas survived, a tradition that the monumental composer of the Iliad feels bound to respect. Similarly, when Apollo stops Patroclus from storming the walls of Troy, or Athena helps Achilles to kill Hector, the issue is not one of the gods unfairly favoring one side or another, but the poet's use of the presence of a god (each a messenger from Zeus to the Trojans and Greeks, respectively) to ratify the maintenance of the poetic tradition, within the boundaries of which the poet operates.

For Zeus, however, the situation is not quite so simple. When Zeus faces the decision to save Sarpedon, we see how closely governed by the tradition the poet is. As Hera points out to him, if Zeus decides to rescue Sarpedon, consequences will abound.
 I will tell you this, and you lay it up
 in your heart. If you send Sarpedon home,
 beware lest someone of the gods should wish
 to send his own son away from the fierce
 battle. For their are many sons of gods
 fighting around the city of Priam. (Iliad XVI.444-49)

Should Zeus rescue Sarpedon, it will become open season for the gods to intervene. The right way to read this passage, I contend, is simply this. Should Zeus, as metaphor for the poet, exercise his right to save Sarpedon, any other poet may in turn save any other character. Should this happen, the tradition itself, which has not been substantially threatened by the other rescues of mortals in the work (instead, the tradition has been maintained and the poem itself has been enhanced), would collapse. (36) The tradition itself apparently saves Aeneas, not once but twice. Homer understands himself to be working within a tradition upon which he substantially improves, but upon which he is in no small part dependent. He has no interest in seeing the tradition collapse entirely.

Hera offers Zeus an alternative to saving his son. It is the alternative, well discussed by Nagy, of the glorious death of a hero:
 If he is dear to you, and your heart is
 heavy with grief, allow him to die in
 the fierce battle at the hands of Patroclus
 the son of Menoitius. But when his soul
 and his life have left him, send Death
 and sweet Sleep to bear him until they come
 to the wide land of Lycia. There his kin
 will bury him with a mound and a stele:
 for this is the reward of the dead. (Iliad XVI.450-57)

As Nagy observes, Sarpedon will now attain the status and receive the worship of a cult-hero (1992, 122-42). This in no way precludes, but rather complements, Sarpedon's status as a hero of epic, for he has achieved the kleos aphthiton of death in battle. Sarpedon has, in effect, lived the perfect poetic life, and Zeus/Homer, having rewarded him with poetry already, now guarantees the consequent award of cult. Most heroes who appear in the Iliad can expect cult-hero status, whether they die at Troy or not. But the memorial of a stele alone does not suffice; without the aid of the poet, who gives the warriors kleos, a stele may not communicate anything. (37)


(1) For a synopsis of the ancient opinion on Homer's date and provenance, see Kirk (1985, 2-4).

(2) A careful reading of Nagy (1996, 13-63) will give a good idea of the depth of the split. Clay (1983, 3) usefully argued that the argument over orality had improperly overwhelmed matters of interpretation. Pucci (1987, 27) outflanks the oralists by employing deconstructive techniques to assert that, whatever the manner of composition, the Odyssey and the Iliad are to be taken as texts. And Ahl and Roisman (1996, 12) have reaffirmed the essential position of Clay. Lloyd-Jones makes the best suggestion of all, that "Without a detailed re-examination of the text of the two great poems, summary treatments of the complicated problems of Homeric scholarship are of very limited value" (1990, 19). His comparison of the disputes between Analysts, Neo-Analysts, Unitarians, and the rest, to Passchendaele is characteristically colorful and apt.

(3) Ford (1992, 3) offers a memorable formulation of the theoretical objections that New Critics, structuralists, and deconstructionists would raise against any attempt to discover authorial intent. All those have been outdone by Nagy (1996, 19-27), who lays on any discussion of Homer as author a catachetical list of strictures so severe that it would have gladdened the heart of Fr. Furniss.

(4) Taplin (1992, 5ff.), performs an admirable service by reminding us of the extent to which the poet maintains control over his story, although he also considers the role of Homer's putative audience in the creation of the work. He does well to note that the characters in the work have no court of appeal--their actions do not guarantee that the poet will grant them poetry.

(5) I am intrigued by the possibility that literacy never disappeared from Greece and the attendant impact of such a possibility on the Homeric poems. On this, see Ullmann (1927), Bernal (1990, 1-26), and Ahl and Roisman (1996, 4-8). Powell (1992) has raised excellent points on Homer and his relationship to written Greek.

(6) There is no need to detail them all, but I would note that Scott, who argues for Smyrna as Homer's birthplace, sometime around 850 B.C., is still a fairly cogent and novel argument that is now largely overlooked (1921, 3-8).

(7) As Rabel observes, "The poet's ambiguous reference to Zeus's intentions is intended to offer a measure of legitimacy in advance to the stories told within the Iliad that conflict with what is said by the Muse-Narrator" (1997, 37).

(8) Leaf referring to the scales of Zeus that weigh the fate of Hector (XXII.209ff), states that "The poet has to acknowledge that there are certain data which he regards as historical, as things done, with which he himself must not tamper" (1915, 18). Given that the deaths of the characters were most likely the firmest element imbedded in the tradition, Zeus's connection to moira and aisa clearly suggests an analogy between Zeus and the poet.

(9) The matter of kleos apthiton has no doubt been too much discussed, but in the long run, I find Nagy's basic argument, made most famously in Nagy 1979 (244-55), and reiterated often since, most persuasive--kleos apthiton brought by death in battle is the prize of epic poetry itself.

(10) The reading is not impossible: Monro (1891, 191-92), allows that ex as causal with the genitive is possible, citing IX.566 and 3.135 and 5.468; Pagliaro (1963, 16ff), syntactically relates ex hou to the boule_dios. I owe this observation to Redfield (1994, 272).

(11) It is not out of place here to note the work of Bremer (1987, 32-45), that the Gotterapparat in Homer are essentially poetic devices, rather than theological or philosophical commentary.

(12) This quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus has been much discussed by Nagy (1979, 15-25), and other places. Nagy also observes that Hesiodic poetry attributes the tale of the destructive wars at Troy and Thebes, both subjects of epic, to the will of Zeus itself. It seems evident that the will of Zeus is simply the basis for epic poetry and the trope by which the epic poets named their own activities.

(13) Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, fr.204,, 95-104; for a discussion, see Nagy (1979, 219-20); For the relationship between this fragment and the plan at the beginning of the Kypria, see Scodel (1982, 39ff).

(14) For the connection of Dios boule to the tradition of the Kypria, see, in addition to those mentioned below, Kullmann (1956, 132-33), and Slatkin (1995, 118ff).

(15) On the determination of Homer to create an original work within the existing tradition, see Kakridas (1971, 65-68).

(16) Scodel errs unconscionably, though, when she suggests that Homer "is not confirming this [the Cyclic] tradition" (Scodel 1982, 39) in passages like XIV.84-87, in which of course Homer is doing exactly that. Authority comes from membership in a tradition.

(17) Nimis (1987, 90) mentions the difficulty of reconciling Achilles's prayer for the victory of the Trojans with his prayer for the success and safe return of Patroclus, and with Zeus's intention of honoring both requests. It is indeed difficult to reconcile the two, unless one realizes that Homer uses the figure of Zeus to access both plans in the Iliad.

(18) For the importance (somewhat overstated) of Thetis's rescue of Zeus, see Slatkin (1991, especially 53-84).

(19) As Kirk observes, Achilles is not unduly disturbed by the inevitable consequences of his request, that is, the death of friends and allies (1985, 96). Zanker (1994, 76-77), sees the passage largely in terms of Achilles' conflict with Agamemnon, a reading which ignores the consequences of Achilles's prayer for the Greek army in general.

(20) Kirk observes the inconsistency here and suggests that Thetis has left the details of "honoring Achilles" to Zeus' discretion.

(21) As Achilles, enjoying the benefit of hindsight, later observes, (and Dodds [1951, 3-4], usefully cautions us against reading this as a polite absolution of Agamemnon and the other Greeks), "Perhaps Zeus wished death upon many of the Greeks," (XIX.273-74).

(22) For Nestor as a singer, see MacLeod (1983, 3), and Dickson (1995, esp. 44-91).

(23) Redfield (1994, 139), errs completely when he suggests that the boule Dios is completed in Book VIII; no Achaean has died "alongside the sterns of their swift ships," since the wall around the camp is not breached until Book XII.

(24) Redfield interprets Zeus's somewhat relaxed attitude: "Men and cities are the counters in a game played between the gods. The game can become absorbing, but it is never really worth a quarrel. The gods can always repair their differences by allowing the destruction of another ephemeral human thing" (1994, 132).

(25) Lloyd-Jones (1971, 5) notes that Agamemnon claims that Zeus will punish the Trojans for breaking the truce, and uses the king's remark, among others, to argue that Zeus has a genuine moral role in the Iliad; the text would suggest otherwise. The Greeks may want Zeus to punish the Trojans for abducting Helen and other assorted crimes, but Zeus does not appear to be punishing the Trojans for any particular offense. The paradox that troubles Lloyd-Jones, that the all-powerful king of the gods yields to the demands of his queen and his daughter, while at the same time, on a human level, he affirms basic principles of justice, disappears when we realize that Zeus's decision is a metaphor for the will of the poet.

(26) Zeus, then, should not be seen as a kind of frustrated Prime Minister dealing with an exceptionally recalcitrant cabinet, as he is sometimes portrayed. See Redfield (1994,137).

(27) For the value of the aid of a god in battle, see usefully Edwards (1987, 137), and Griffin (1980, 144-78). In the long run, Athena and Apollo are both agents of the Will of Zeus. Nagy (1979, 142-50) emphasizes the role that Athena plays as special antagonist to Hector, paralleling Apollo's relationship to Achilles.

(28) Nagy (1979, 30-31) discusses the fact that in Book V, Diomedes is called aristos Achaion twice. The instance at V.103, when Diomedes is wounded by Pandarus, emphasizes the parallel between Diomedes and Achilles, who was killed by an arrow shot by Paris.

(29) Indeed, Diomedes's aristeia has, on this day at least, made him greater than Achilles has ever been, as the Trojans themselves acknowledge (VI.98-100). Homer may have included these verses to distinguish his work from the previous epics. Kirk (1990, 168) suggests that Helenus's grimly flattering remarks exceeds what Homer himself was doing, i.e., making Diomedes the equal to Achilles.

(30) It is just possible that the advice is meant to cut the other way. It is generally taken to be a warning to Hector that he will be killed or at least seriously injured if he engages Agamemnon during the king's aristeia. Another possibility might be considered: Hector might kill Agamemnon and ruin the full honoring of Achilles, since Achilles is quite prepared to humiliate a chastened Agamemnon not once but twice, first in Book XIX, in which he disregards Agamemnon's gifts, and again in Book XXIII, when, under the guise of awarding the king a prize, he prevents him from displaying his prowess in the spear-throw; see the cogent analysis of Postlethwaite (1995).

(31) It is just worth recalling that Vico argued that Ajax was not alone when he defended the ships, but alone with his vassals (1984, 1.559, 4.1033).

(32) Nimis in general provides a valuable discussion of the relationship of the similes to the action in Book XI.

(33) Possibly we see here an echo of the story of Ajax's invulnerability, but as all our sources for this are post-Homeric, and Ajax, far from being unafraid of being wounded, is very directly concerned over the possibility, as in XV.727 (repeated at XVI.102); it seems more likely that this is poetic intervention: Zeus is explicitly doing something that the poet wants done. He will do it again.

(34) It will be obvious how much I owe to Ford (1992, 147-57) who reminds us that the wall is certainly more than a collection of stones. Scodel (1982, 33-53) usefully connects the flooding and the subsequent destruction of the wall to the plan of Zeus in the Kypria to destroy the race of heroes. For doubts about the wall, see Page (1959, 315ff), who cites in support Jacoby (1944, 37ff.). Kirk (1990, 276-80) defends both Nestor's speech in Book VII (although he allows, following Jacoby, that VII.334-35 must be an Attic interpolation) and the wall itself. Hainsworth (1993, 317) makes the most cogent remark against Thucydides (Page, et al.) when he points out that the Iliad is, after all, a work of fiction.

(35) On the equivalence of weaving to the making of poetry, see Clader (1976, 7-8), Suzuki (1989, 40), on metis as a possible category encompassing the poet's craft, see Ford (1992, 35).

(36) It is just tempting to read Hera's remark that "the other gods will not agree with you," as a coded way of saying, "break the tradition, and other poets will be unhappy with you."

(37) Ford (1992, 144-45) remarks upon the stele that serves as the turning post in the funeral games of Patroclus. That stele failed its purpose, since the Greeks had no way of knowing whose marker it was, or even if it was a funeral monument.

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Joe Wilson is professor of Classical Studies at the University of Scranton. He has written extensively on Greek and Latin literature, especially on Homer and Sophocles. His book, The Hero and the City (1997).
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Title Annotation:Essays: Interpreting Homer's Texts
Author:Wilson, Joe
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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