Last Updated on April 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1692
The Iliad begins with the narrator requesting help from his Muse in telling his tale. In this introductory piece, the hero of the epic is “Godlike Achilleus.” The plot of the story involves a quarrel between Achilles (styled in Richard Lattimore’s translation as Achilleus) and Agamemnon and its disastrous consequences.
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One of the many exploits of the Achaian army was the sacking of the city of Thebe. The Achaians brought back the spoils and divided them equally among the warriors. Agamemnon’s prize was a maiden named Chryseis. Achilles’s prize was a maiden named Briseis.
Some time later, the father of Chryseis—Chryses—comes to Troy to plead with the Achaians for her return. He brings with him vast amounts of riches to offer as ransom. After Chryses pleads his case, all of the Achaians (except Agamemnon) agree that Chryseis should be returned to her home. Rather than give up his war prize, Agamemnon sends Chryses away with harsh, angry words.
Chryses, a priest of Apollo, prays to his god to avenge the wrong done him by the Achaians. Apollo then sends “deadly arrows,” or a great plague, against the Achaians, and many of them are killed. After ten days of this deadly attack, Achilles calls the Achaians together to discuss what can be done. They ask the advice of Kalchas, a seer. He advises that the only way to stop the bloodshed is to let Chryseis go. Agamemnon is extremely angry. He agrees to give up Chryseis if forced to, but only if he can have another prize in her place. Achilles offers to compensate Agamemnon three or four times over when Zeus gives the Achaians the victory over Troy. However, Agamemnon insists that he will take his prize immediately and that his prize will be Briseis. At this point, Achilles nearly kills Agamemnon on the spot, but he is restrained by the goddess Athena.
Achilles is greatly angered by these events, which he considers grossly unfair. He pulls his troops out of the battle against the Trojans. After all, Achilles had no personal stake in the fight with Troy. He was there only to help Menelaus retrieve his wife, Helen, who had run off with Paris. Achilles announces that he and his army will return to their own land. Agamemnon sends his men to retrieve Briseis from Achilles’s tent. Realizing he has little choice, he lets her go.
Achilles then meets with his mother, Thetis, goddess of the water, and pours out his tale to her. Achilles asks her to beseech Zeus for help in his revenge. His plan is to have Zeus aid the Trojans in their fight against the Achaian army, thereby destroying many of them in the fighting. The Achaians will then realize how valuable a warrior Achilles was to them and repay the wrong done to him. Thetis is moved by her son’s anger. She knows that his fate is to die at a young age. Because of this, she agrees to do what she can to make his brief time on earth more bearable. She speaks to Zeus, who reluctantly agrees to aid the Trojans.
Meanwhile, Odysseus has sailed to Thebe to return Chryseis to her father. Along with the girl he has brought 100 oxen to be sacrificed as a peace offering. He is joyfully received, and a great feast is held to celebrate Chryseis’s return. The anger of Chryses and Apollo has been appeased.
When Zeus’s wife, Hera, discovers what Zeus has promised to Thetis, she is not pleased. She chastises him for agreeing to bring honor to Achilles at the expense of many Achaian lives. Hera cared for the Achaians when they were dying in Apollo’s assault. She also despises the Trojans. Zeus makes it very clear that he is not only her husband, but also the king of the gods, and as such he is not obligated to answer to her for every choice that he makes. Hera’s son Hephaestus urges his mother to make peace with her husband. The gods are planning a great feast, and he does not wish it to be spoiled. Hera agrees, and the chapter concludes with the great feast of the gods, and Hera and Zeus sleeping peacefully side by side.
Book 1 opens with the standard epic invocation to the Muse. In this case, the goddess invoked is not named. We can assume, however, that Homer is requesting help in telling his tale from the goddess of poetry. The poet hoped that the Muse would reveal elements of the story that could not be known by normal means. He also requested artistic assistance to render the tale in a beautiful and entertaining manner. We learn in the invocation that “godlike Achilleus” will be the epic hero and that the action will stem from his tremendous anger against the son of Atreus—Agamemnon. We know from this invocation that a very significant part of the action has already occurred. The narrator has employed the epic convention of in medias res. We can then expect the narrator to fill in the details of the events that led to Achilles’s great quarrel with Agamemnon.
The example of Chryseis and Briseis is a dire reminder of what will become of the women of Troy should the Achaians succeed in taking Troy. At this time, any warrior who was not killed in battle was kept as a slave or sold into slavery. The women were taken as concubines or wives for the conquering heroes. A warrior who proved himself worthy in battle would receive a larger share of the spoils than a warrior who had been cowardly. As Achilles showed himself to be the best of the Achaians in combat, he justly deserved a large share of the spoils. Agamemnon is taking treasure that he has not earned.
However, it will become clearer as the epic unfolds that the real issue for Achilles is not treasure. Achilles is far more interested in honor. When Agamemnon takes Briseis, he is insulting Achilles and demeaning his position in the social order. Achilles will come to represent internal values such as spirit and honor. It is Agamemnon who will prove to be far more interested in possessions. Agamemnon will represent external values and place large emphasis on gifts. He will prove again and again to be devoid of substance.
While the anger of Achilles is justified, his reaction reveals his tragic flaw. Achilles shows not only anger, but excessive pride. He is certainly the best warrior among the Achaians. His strength and bravery have been proven in many battles. In a society which places the highest value on these assets, Achilles can rightly claim great honor and deference. It is also true that Agamemnon acted childish when he insisted on taking Briseis. There was cause for both pride and anger. However, when Achilles removes his forces from the battle, he takes his anger too far. As the epic continues, it will become clear that Achilles can control neither his pride nor his anger. Eventually, this tragic flaw will lead to a string of disastrous decisions and, finally, death.
The act of Achilles withdrawing from the Trojan War is the most significant event of book 1. This single act will propel the plot throughout the epic. Achilles has agreed to fight to help Menelaus recover Helen. His quarrel here, however, is not with Menelaus, but with Agamemnon, who has been put in charge of the Achaian forces. The tone of the first chapter leads us to believe this action will have dire consequences. In fact, the narrator describes the results of Achilles’s anger as bringing “uncounted anguish on the Achaians” as a result of “Zeus’ will.” In asking Zeus for help in his revenge, Achilles will bring great tragedy to the Achaians.
We also know from book 1 that it is Achilles’s fate to die young. Knowing that Achilles has already made a name for himself in battle, and that he commands a good-size army, we can assume that his own demise is not far off. The events of this introductory chapter set up the machinery that will lead inevitably to his death. The theme of mortality is strong throughout the epic, and Achilles is only one example. In a war-loving society where glory comes on the battlefield, the characters are constantly aware that they could face their death at any time. Because of this awareness, they attempt to perform great feats of battle that will be talked about long after they have died. In this way they achieve a degree of immortality.
The large role of the gods is also established in book 1. The first major encounter with the gods involves the wrath of Apollo. Agamemnon’s actions lead directly to retaliation by Apollo on Chryses’s account. The gods are not distant supreme beings remote from human life. They are very much involved with the actions of mortals. Achilles’s plan to win greater glory for himself by withdrawing from the action and then enlisting the help of the gods to assist the Trojan forces escalates the conflict with Agamemnon. By enacting this plan, Achilles has broadened the action to include not only all of the Trojan and Achaian armies, but also the entire range of gods. As the gods choose sides, assisting either the Trojans or the Achaians, the immortal action mirrors that of the mortals on the battlefield.
The gods, however, are not remote supernatural beings who control the circumstances on earth. Instead they are greatly humanized, experiencing the whole range of human emotions. Zeus and Hera experience the same bickering and emotions as a mortal married couple. They also engage in the very human activities of feasting and sleeping. Throughout the epic, the gods will be vitally involved in the action. While there are many offerings and sacrifices made to the gods, they do not need to be summoned by prayer. They are present spontaneously, encouraging men to act. At the same time, the gods seem to be vitalized by men. Gods and men are interdependent to a large degree.