Homer: The Iliad
So the fighting raged, while swift-footed Antilochus brought the news to Achilles. He found him in front of the high-sterned ships, agonising over the war, communing anxiously with his proud heart: ‘What woe is this? Why are the long-haired Greeks in flight? Why are they being driven back once more from the plain to the ships? Is this another sorrow sent by the gods, one that my mother prophesied? Did she not say that while I still lived the best of the Myrmidons would forgo the light of day at Trojan hands? Is Patroclus dead, in his rashness: despite my warning, to return to the ships once the fire was out, and not to battle Hector?’
He was lost like this in reflection, when Antilochus, bathed in scalding tears, brought the bitter news: ‘Alas, warlike son of Peleus, sad are the tidings you must hear. Would it were not so, but Patroclus has fallen, and they fight over his corpse, his naked corpse, for Hector of the gleaming helm has your armour.’
At these words, a black cloud of grief shrouded Achilles. Grasping handfuls of dark sand and ash, he poured them over his head and handsome face, soiling his scented tunic. Then he flung himself in the dust, and lying there outstretched, a fallen giant, tore and fouled his hair. The slave girls he and Patroclus had seized as prizes, shrieked with alarm, and ran to warlike Achilles, beating their breasts and sinking to the ground beside him. Antilochus, weeping and groaning, grasped Achilles’ hand, fearing he might take his knife and cut his own throat, so heart-felt was his noble grief.
Such a dreadful a groan did Achilles give voice to that his divine mother Thetis heard him, deep beneath the sea where she sat beside her ancient Father. She cried out, and all the divinities, the Nereids of the depths, gathered to her. Glauce, Thaleia and Cymodoce were there; Nesaea, Speio, Thoe and ox-eyed Halie; Cymothoe, Actaeë and Limnoreia; Melite, Iaera, Amphithoe, and Agave; Doto, Proto, Pherusa and Dynamene; Dexamene, Amphinome, and Callianeira; Doris, Panope and far-famed Galetea; Nemertes, Apseudes and Callianassa; Clymene, Ianeira, and Ianassa; Maera, Oreithyia, long-haired Amatheia; all the daughters of the deep.
The bright sea-cave was filled with nymphs, beating their breasts, and Thetis led the lament: ‘Sisters, listen all, so you may hear and know the sadness in my heart. How wretched I am, who to my sorrow bore the best of men! I brought a mighty and peerless son into this world, greatest of warriors. I nursed him like a shoot in a fertile orchard, and like a sapling swiftly he grew. I sent him to Ilium with the beaked ships, to fight the Trojans, but I shall never welcome him home once more to the house of Peleus. And even now, while he lives and knows the light of day, he suffers, beyond my help, though I go to him. And go I will, to see my dear child again, and hear what grief has come to one who refrains from battle.’
So saying, she left the cave with the
weeping nymphs. They parted the waves till they came to the fertile
Swift-footed Achilles sighed deeply: ‘Mother, it is true that Zeus has brought all this about, but what is that to me now Patroclus my dear friend is dead, he whom I honoured more than all, honoured as my own self? I have lost him, and Hector who killed him has stripped him of my armour, the fine, the great, the wondrous armour the gods gave Peleus as a glorious wedding gift that day you wed your mortal spouse. How I wished you had stayed among the immortal sea-nymphs, and Peleus had taken a human bride. Now you too will know the immeasurable grief of losing a son, of never again welcoming him home alive. For my heart compels me not to linger among men once Hector is dead at the point of my spear, and has paid the price for despoiling Patroclus.’
And Thetis, weeping, replied: ‘My child, your own death will swiftly be upon you if Hector dies, for your own doom must inexorably follow.’
Then swift-footed Achilles answered, passionately: ‘Let it follow instantly, since I could not save my friend from death. He needed my help to stave off ruin, and now far from his own land has he fallen. May discord be banished from among gods and men, all that enrages a man despite his wisdom, that insidious anger that rises in the breast like smoke, sweeter to it than trickling honey, for I shall not now return home, and I have failed to protect Patroclus and all those others whom noble Hector killed, idling here by my ships, a useless burden on the earth, I who am without peer in warfare among the bronze-clad Greeks, however superior the rest may be in council. Agamemnon, king of men, stirred just such a rage in my heart. But all is past and done, despite the pain, and we must curb the wrath in our hearts. So I will go now and find Hector, the man who killed my dearest friend, and accept death whenever Zeus and the other gods decide that I must die. Not even great Heracles escaped his doom, dear as he was to Zeus, the son of Cronos, Hera’s dread anger fated to overcome him. I too, if a like fate has been spun for me, will lie quiet when I am dead. But for now, let me win fame and glory too, and make many a deep-breasted Trojan woman moan without cease, wiping the tears from her tender cheeks with both her hands, to teach her how long I have been absent from the war. Though you love me, don’t try to keep me from battle, I will never be persuaded.’
‘What you say is right, my son,’ silver-footed Thetis replied, ‘it is right to save your hard-pressed friends from utter ruin. But the Trojans have your lovely armour, your shining bronze. Hector of the gleaming helm wears it and exults. Though not for long, I say, since his own death is upon him. So refrain from battle, until you see me here again. I will return tomorrow with the sun, and bring you glorious armour from Lord Hephaestus.’
With that she turned to speak to her sister Nereids: ‘Plunge beneath the broad surface of the deep, and go to our father’s house, to the Old Man of the Sea. Tell him everything, while I go to lofty Olympus, to Hephaestus, the master-craftsman, hoping that he will deign to give my son fresh shining armour.’
At this, they dived beneath the waves,
while she, Thetis, the silver-footed goddess, set out for
While Thetis journeyed to
Fleet-footed noble Achilles answered: ‘Iris, dear goddess: which of the immortals sends you with this message?’
And Iris, swift as the wind, replied:
‘Zeus’ glorious wife, Hera, sent me. The son of Cronus, Zeus the king supreme,
knows nothing of it nor do any of the other gods and goddesses of snow-topped
‘But how can I go into action?’ said swift-footed Achilles. The Trojans have my armour, and my dear mother told me not to ready myself for battle until I see her here again. She has promised fresh armour for me, from Lord Hephaestus. I know of no other arms I could use, except for Telamonian Ajax’s shield. But he, I imagine, is in the front ranks fighting, plying his spear to defend dead Patroclus.’
Iris, swift as the wind, replied once more: ‘Your armour is in their hands, that we know, but go to the trench as you are and show yourself to the Trojans, hoping they fear the sight of you enough to cease from fighting. It would give the Greek warriors chance to catch their breath, exhausted as they are, for there are few such chances in battle.’
Fleet-footed Iris departed, while Achilles, beloved of Zeus, rose to his feet. Athene flung her tasselled aegis over his broad shoulders, shed a bright golden mist about his head, and made a fiery glare blaze from the man. Like the beacons that one by one flare out at sunset from an island besieged by an enemy, its city cloaked all day by smoke rising to high heaven, for whose safety men fought from the battlements all day in bitter conflict; like those beacons, whose light shines out on high for all their neighbours to see, in hopes they might send their ships to the rescue, so the blaze shone from Achilles’ head to the heavens.
He took his stand by the wall beyond the trench, but remembering his mother’s careful injunction, avoided joining the Greek ranks. He stood and shouted, and Pallas Athene echoed him from afar, confounding the Trojans utterly. Achilles’ voice was loud, clear as the trumpet sounding from some beleaguered city, beset by a lethal force. The hearts of the Trojans were appalled when they heard that voice of bronze, and the long-maned horses wheeled the chariots round, filled with dread. Terror-stricken the charioteers saw the restless fire blazing from the head of Peleus’ mighty son, fed by the goddess, bright-eyed Athene. Three times noble Achilles shouted beyond the trench, three times the Trojans and their allies reeled in panic. A dozen of their finest warriors died, there and then, ringed by their own chariots and spears.
But the Greeks, overjoyed, bore Patroclus out of range, and laid him on his bier, while his dear friends stood round it weeping. And fleet-footed Achilles joined them, shedding hot tears, when he saw his faithful friend lying there, mangled by the cruel bronze. With chariot and horses he had sent him to the battle, never to welcome him back alive again.
And now ox-eyed Queen Hera told the tireless sun, to return, though unwillingly, to Ocean’s stream. At last he set, and the noble Achaeans rested from mighty conflict, and war’s evils.
The Trojans, for their
part, having withdrawn from battle, loosed the swift horses from their
chariots, and without thinking of eating gathered in assembly. They stood
throughout, too anxious to sit, unnerved by Achilles’
sudden appearance after his long absence from the front. The cautious Polydamas, son of Panthous, spoke first: he alone looked before
and after. He was a friend of Hector’s,
born on the same night, the best in oratory as Hector was in war. He addressed
the assembly now, speaking for their good: ‘Think about all this carefully, my
friends. Since we are so far from the city walls, I recommend that we retreat
there, and not wait here by the ships till dawn. The Achaeans were easier to
handle while this man quarrelled with King Agamemnon,
then I too was pleased to spend the night close to the swift ships, hoping to
destroy them. But now I fear fleet-footed Achilles greatly. He is too impetuous
to settle for fighting in the plain, where Greeks and Trojans suffer war
equally, he will attack the city, putting our womenfolk at threat. Take my
advice and retreat, or expect the worst. Fleet-footed Achilles must bow to
immortal night for now, but if he enters the battle armed, at dawn, you all
will know of it. Whoever returns alive to sacred
But Hector of the gleaming helm, replied with a flash of anger: ‘Polydamas, I can’t approve of that idea, penning ourselves inside the city. Are you not tired of being caged by those walls? There was a time when men acclaimed Priam’s city for its wealth of gold and bronze, but our fine treasures and many dear possessions have been traded to Phrygia and fair Maeonia, since we incurred Zeus’ wrath. Don’t be foolish with your advice, now Zeus the son of devious Cronos, grants me the power to win glory by the ships and drive the Greeks to the sea. I’ll not let a single Trojan obey. Rather, we’ll do as I advise, go to eat company by company, keep a good watch here, and stay awake. And any of the Trojans concerned for his possessions at home, can gather them together and hand them over for all to share, better they profit from them than the Greeks. But at dawn, and armed, we’ll attack the ships, and if indeed Achilles is stirred to action, the worse for him. I won’t run from him in a battle, but fight him face to face, and see whether he shall win or I. The war-god treats all men alike, and often kills the one who thought to kill.
The Trojans foolishly
acclaimed his speech. Pallas Athene robbed them
of their judgement in praising Hector
whose plan was faulty, and not Polydamas
whose advice was good, and so they took their meal, throughout the ranks, while
all night long the Greeks lamented Patroclus.
The leader in that outpouring of grief was Achilles,
who placed his warlike hands on his friend’s chest, and groaned endlessly, like
a bearded lion whose cubs a stag-hunter has snatched from some dense thicket.
The lion returns and grieves at their absence, then, filled with fierce wrath,
tracks the man through many a glade, hoping to find them. So Achilles grieved
among the Myrmidons: ‘How idle the promise I gave to Menoetius in my father’s house, as I
tried to solace him, that when I’d sacked
With these words, great Achilles told his comrades to set a large cauldron on the fire, and heat water to fill a bath and wash the clotted blood from Patroclus. So they took wood and kindled it, filled the cauldron and set it on the blazing coals, and watched the flames play about its bronze belly till the water boiled. Then they filled the bath from the cauldron, and washed him, and anointed him with rich oil, filling the wounds with nine-year old unguent. Then they laid his body on the bier, shrouding it with soft linen cloth from head to foot, and on top of that a white robe. And all night long, round fleet-footed Achilles, the Myrmidons moaned in grief for Patroclus.
Watching them, Zeus spoke to his sister-wife, Hera: ‘Once more, my ox-eyed queen, you get your way, spurring fleet-footed Achilles into action. Those long-haired Greeks might as well be your own offspring.’ ‘Dread son of Cronos’, the ox-eyed queen replied, ‘what can you mean? Even mere mortals, that lack my wisdom, will do what they can for a friend. How could I, the greatest of goddesses, doubly so as the eldest and the wife of the king of all the gods, how could I refrain, in my anger with these Trojans, from causing them all the trouble I can?’
As they spoke, silver-footed Thetis reached Hephaestus’ house of imperishable bronze, adorned with stars and finest among those of the immortals, built by the lame god himself. She found him running back and forth to his bellows, sweating with toil, as he fashioned twenty triple-legged tables to stand round the walls of his great hall. He had fitted their legs with golden wheels, so they might take themselves to the gods’ assembly if he wished, and roll home again, a wondrous sight. They were not quite finished, still lacking elaborate handles which he was burnishing while forging their rivets. It was as he laboured at these with all his care and skill that silver-footed Thetis approached.
Lovely Charis of the glistening veil, wife of the illustrious lame god, seeing her, came forward, took both her hands in hers and spoke: ‘Thetis of the long robe, honoured and welcome, though unaccustomed, guest, what brings you here? Follow me inside, so I may offer you hospitality.’
So saying she led the goddess inside,
and made her sit on a splendid chair, elaborately adorned with silver studs,
and with a footstool beneath. Then she summoned Hephaestus, the master-smith:
‘Hephaestus, come quickly! Thetis has need of you.’ Hephaestus answered at
once: ‘Ah, a goddess I honour and revere is here in my house, she who saved me
in my hour of agony, after my mother Hera,
shamed by my lameness, threw me from
So saying, his huge form rose from the anvil, and panting heavily, he limped about, though agile enough on his withered legs. He moved the bellows from the fire, and collecting his tools together placed them in a silver chest. Then he wiped his hands and face, huge neck, and shaggy breast, with a sponge, and donned his tunic. Grasping a thick staff he limped from the forge, supported by servants made of gold, fashioned like living girls, who attended swiftly on their master. As well as the use of their limbs they had intellect, and the immortals gave them skill in subtle crafts. They supported Hephaestus as he limped towards Thetis, and seated himself on a gleaming chair. Then he took her hand and spoke to her: ‘Thetis of the long robe, honoured and welcome, though unaccustomed, guest, what brings you here? Say what you need, and my heart prompts me to fulfil it, if it can be done, and I can do it.’
Thetis, weeping, answered: ‘Is there a goddess, Hephaestus, who has suffered more heartfelt sorrows at the hands of Zeus, than I? I alone of all the daughters of the sea he wedded to a mere human, Peleus, son of Aeacus, and unwillingly it was that I lay with a mortal man. He keeps to his palace now, weighed down sadly by the years, while I suffer further grief. I brought a mighty and peerless son into this world, greatest of warriors. I nursed him like a shoot in a fertile orchard, and like a sapling swiftly he grew. I sent him to Ilium with the beaked ships, to fight the Trojans, but I shall never welcome him home once more to the house of Peleus. And even now, while he lives and knows the light of day, he suffers, beyond my help, though I go to him. King Agamemnon has taken from him the girl the Achaeans gave him as a prize. Wasting his heart in grief for her, he refused to ward off ruin from the Greeks, despite the elders offering him fine gifts, and the Trojans penned them in by their ships sterns, and proved immoveable. Then he let Patroclus don his own armour and join the battle, with his Myrmidons. All day they fought by the Scaean Gate, and would have sacked the city, if Apollo had not caused the death of brave Patroclus at the height of his success, and granted the final act to Hector. So I have come to clasp your knees, and ask you to give my son, who is doomed to an early death, a shield and helmet, a breastplate and bronze greaves fitted with ankle-pieces, to replace the armour lost when the Trojans killed his faithful friend, for whom my son now lies in the dust struck with grief to his very heart.’
The master-smith replied: ‘Take heart, and be easy in your mind. I wish that I could save him from sad death, when the fateful time arrives, as easily as I can grant him splendid armour, splendid enough to make many a man marvel who gazes on it some fine day.’
With this, Hephaestus returned to his forge, turned his bellows on the fire, and ordered them to begin. The set of twenty nozzles blew on the crucibles, sending out a varying blast of air at need, aiding his careful efforts as required, at every stage of the work. Into the crucibles went stubborn bronze, tin, precious gold and silver. He set up a great anvil on its block, and took a massive hammer in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other.
Then he first made a shield, broad and solid, adorning it skilfully everywhere, and setting round it a glittering triple rim, with a silver strap attached. Five layers it had, and he decorated it with subtle art.
On it he showed the earth, sea, sky, the tireless sun and the full moon, and all the constellations that crown the heavens, the Pleiades, Hyades, great Orion, and the Bear, that men also call the Wain, that circles round in its place, never bathing in Ocean’s stream, while gazing warily at Orion.
On it he showed two fine cities of mortal men. In one there were marriage feasts, and to the light of blazing torches, the brides were led from their rooms and through the city, to the sound of wedding songs. Young men circled in the dance, whirling round to flutes and lyres, while women stood in their doorways gazing. But the men had gathered in assembly, where two of them were arguing a case, contesting the blood price to be paid for another’s death. The defendant claimed he had paid all that was right, putting this to the people, but the accuser refused his acceptance, and the pair of them sought arbitration. Both were cheered by their supporters, whom the heralds firmly restrained. The Elders sat on the sacred bench, a semi-circle of polished stone, receiving the speaker’s staff from the loud-voiced heralds, and rising to give judgement in turn. At their feet lay two talents of gold, the fee for the one who gave the soundest judgement.
The other city was besieged by two armies clad in glittering armour. Their plan was to attempt to sack it, or accept instead a half of all its wealth. But the citizens resisted, and secretly were arming for an ambush, their beloved wives, the children, and the old left to defend the walls, while the rest set out, led by Ares and Athene, all made of gold. Tall and beautiful in their golden clothes and armour, as gods should look, they rose above the smaller warriors at their feet. Another scene showed them by a river, a watering place for the herds and a likely place to mount their ambush, and there they were seated in their bronze armour. Then in another two scouts were posted, waiting for sight of a herd of sheep or glossy cattle. Then there was shown the herds’ arrival, with two herdsmen behind playing flutes, ignorant of the cunning ambush. Then the ambushers were seen, rushing out to attack them as they neared, quickly cutting out the herd of cattle and the fine white flock of sheep, killing the herdsmen. Next, the besiegers were shown, sitting in assembly, or rising at the sound of cattle, or mounting behind their high-stepping steeds and racing towards the action. And finally he showed the ranks in battle at the river, attacking each other with bronze-tipped spears. Strife and Panic were at work, and ruthless Fate, here laying her hands on one man freshly wounded, there on another still unscathed, and next dragging a corpse through the chaos by its feet. The cloak about her shoulders was red with human blood. Just like living men they seemed to clash and fight, and drag away the bodies of those killed.
On the shield also, he depicted fallow-land, soft, rich, broad and thrice-ploughed, and on it ploughmen were driving their teams to and fro, and where they turned at the field’s end a man held a cup of honeyed wine in his hands to give to them, so they were eager to wheel about at the end of the rich furrow. Behind them the field, though made of gold, looked black as if it had been ploughed, a wonderful feature of the work.
On the shield also, he showed a royal estate, where labourers were reaping, with sharp sickles in their hands. Armfuls of corn were falling in swathes along the rows, while sheaves were being bound with twists of straw. Boys were gathering up the armfuls and carrying them to the three binders, while the king, staff in hand, stood joyfully and silently beside them. Heralds in the background beneath an oak were readying a feast, dressing a great sacrificial ox they had slaughtered, while women sprinkled the meat with white barley ready for the labourers to eat.
On the shield also, he portrayed in gold a fine vineyard laden with grapes, though the clusters of heavy fruit were black, and the vines were tied to silver poles. Round it was a ditch of blue enamel, and outside that a fence of tin and a single path led to it, that served for all the coming and going of harvest time. Girls and youths, were joyfully carrying off the ripe grapes in wicker baskets, while in their midst a boy sang of Linos, in a sweet treble voice, to the pleasant music of the clear-toned lyre. They all skipped along, with a chorus of cries, beating the earth in time, with dancing feet.
Then on the shield he showed a herd of straight-horned cattle, in gold and tin, lowing as they trotted from their byre to graze at a murmuring stream beside the swaying rushes. Four herdsmen, also in gold, walked beside them, and nine swift dogs ran behind. But in the next scene two savage lions in amongst the leaders were gripping a bull that bellowed loudly, dragging it off, pursued by youths and dogs. The lions had torn the bull’s flank open, and were devouring its innards, lapping the dark blood, while the herdsmen tried in vain to set the swift hounds on them, the dogs scared to grapple, but running in barking, then leaping aside.
On the shield, also, the lame master-smith added meadowland full of white sheep, in a fine valley, with sheepfolds, huts and pens.
Then he inlaid an intricate dancing floor like that which Daedalus once made in spacious Cnossos for long-haired Ariadne. Young men, and girls worth many cattle, were dancing there, their hands clasping one another’s wrists. The girls wore white linen with pretty garlands on their heads; the young men fine-woven tunics with a soft sheen, daggers of gold hanging from their silver belts. Here, they danced lightly with skilful steps, like the motion a potter gives his wheel when testing it out to see how it will run. There, they ran in lines to meet each other. And enjoying the lovely scene, a host of people stood round about, while a pair of acrobats whirled among them, keeping time to the dance.
Finally, round the rim of the solid shield, he laid out the mighty stream of Ocean.
When the large heavy shield was done, he made a breastplate for Achilles that shone brighter than flame; a massive helmet to fit his head, a fine one cleverly embossed with a crest of gold; and greaves of pliable tin.
And when the lame god had wrought the
armour, he took it and set it down in front of Thetis. Then she swooped like a falcon,
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