Homer: The Iliad

Book VIII

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved

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Contents


BkVIII:1-52 Zeus warns the gods not to join in the battle

As Dawn prepared to spread her saffron mantle over the land, Zeus the Thunderer gathered the gods to the highest peak of many-ridged Olympus, and spoke to them while all listened: ‘Hear me, gods and goddesses, while I say what my heart prompts. Let none of you try to defy me: all must assent, so I may swiftly achieve my aim. Whomever I find inclined to help the Greeks or Trojans, shall suffer the lightning stroke and be sent back ignominiously to Olympus, or be seized and hurled into dark Tartarus, into the furthest, deepest gulf beneath the earth, with iron gates and threshold of bronze, as far below Hades as earth is from heaven. Then you will see how much mightier I am than you immortals. Go on: attempt it, and see. If you tied a chain of gold to the sky, and all of you, gods and goddesses, took hold, you could not drag Zeus the High Counsellor to earth with all your efforts. But if I determined to pull with a will, I could haul up land and sea then loop the chain round a peak of Olympus, and leave them dangling in space. By that much am I greater than gods and men.’

The Gods gather

‘The Gods gather’ - Workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710

They all fell silent as he spoke, astonished by the force of his words. But at last a goddess, bright-eyed Athene, answered: ‘Our Father, son of Cronos, Lord over all, we all know your irresistible power, yet none the less we pity the Greek spearmen, doomed to die and fulfil their sad fate. We will hold back from battle, as you order; but we will still offer them our good advice, so they may not all suffer your wrath.’

Then Zeus the Cloud-gatherer smiled and said: ‘Tritogeneia, dear child, be reassured. I did not mean to threaten you, I shall be kind.’

With this, he harnessed his bronze-hoofed horses to his chariot, swift of flight they were with flowing manes of gold, and clothed in gold himself he grasped a fine golden whip, mounted the chariot, and started the team with a flick of his whip. The willing pair flew off on a course midway between earth and the starry heavens. To Ida he came with her many springs, mother of wild creatures, and to Gargarus the peak, site of his precinct and its fragrant altar. There the father of men and gods reined in his horses, loosed them, and cloaked them with deep mist, then seated himself on the heights, exulting in his glory, looking down on the city of Troy and the Greek ships.

BkVIII:53-111 Nestor defends the Greeks

Meanwhile the long-haired Achaeans ate a hasty meal in their huts then armed themselves. So, the Trojans armed themselves in their city: they being fewer, yet driven to fight, to defend their wives and children. Their gates were all thrown open, and with a great din the soldiers and chariots poured out.

So the two armies converged, with a clash of shields and spears, and bronze-clad warriors, the shield-bosses striking each other, and a great roar rose. Then the groans of the slain and the slayers’ cries of triumph sounded together, and the earth ran with blood.

All morning, while the sacred light of day grew stronger, volleys of missiles from either side reached their mark, and warriors died. But when the sun had reached the zenith, the Father took his golden scales, and placing mortal fates in either pan, one for the horse-taming Trojans, one for the bronze-clad Greeks, grasping the balance, raised it by the middle. Down it sank on the Achaean side, spelling doom for them. Their pan settled on the fertile earth, while the Trojans’ rose towards the wide heavens. Then Zeus himself thundered aloud from Ida, and sent a lightning bolt through the Greek army. Seeing it, they were dumbfounded, and terror seized them all.

Then none dared linger there, not Idomeneus nor Agamemnon, nor the two warrior Aiantes, only Gerenian Nestor, defender of the Greeks, and he not willingly, but because his horse was wounded. Fair Helen’s husband, noble Paris, had struck it with an arrow on the crown of the skull from which the mane springs: the deadliest spot. As the arrow pierced its brain the horse reared up in agony, writhing at the blow, throwing the chariot and team into confusion. The old man leapt down and was slashing at the traces, when Hector’s swift team sped towards him through the turmoil, bearing that brave charioteer. And now old Nestor would have lost his life, had not Diomedes of the loud war-cry seen them, He called to Odysseus, with a dreadful cry, to urge him forward: ‘Wily Odysseus, Zeus-born son of Laertes, where are you off to with your shield at your back, like a coward in the crowd? Mind no one plants a spear in your back as you run. Now hold your ground, so we may keep this wild man from old Nestor.’

He called, but noble long-enduring Odysseus failed to hear, as he ran for the hollow ships of the Achaeans. Then Diomedes, though alone, drove to the front, and standing before old Nestor’s horses, called to Neleus’ son with winged words: ‘It seems, my lord, these young warriors prove too much for you; your strength’s lessened by sad old age that weighs on you. Your squire is too weak; your horses are too slow. Come, mount my chariot, and see what the horses of Tros can do, bred to cover the ground quickly in flight or in pursuit. I took them from Aeneas, these causers of havoc. Let our two squires take your horses, while you and I drive my pair against the horse-taming Trojans, so Hector too can see my spear quivering in my hands.’

BkVIII:112-156 Nestor and Diomedes fight alongside

Nestor the Gerenian horseman was quick to agree. So the two squires, brave Sthenelus and gentle Eurymedon, took over Nestor’s mares, while he and Diomedes mounted the latter’s chariot. Nestor grasped the gleaming reins, and whipped on the horses. They soon were within range of Hector, and Diomedes let fly at him as he charged towards them, striking instead his charioteer Eniopeus, son of brave Thebaeus, as he gripped the reins, in his chest beside the nipple. He fell from the chariot, forcing the galloping horses to swerve, his strength faded, and his spirit was loosed.

Hector’s mind was darkened by dreadful sorrow for his comrade’s death. Yet he left him there, despite his grief, and sought another brave charioteer; nor was his team long lacking a master, since he soon found bold Archeptolemus, Iphitus’ son, and having him mount behind the swift-footed pair, threw him the reins.

Now irrevocable ruin faced the Trojans, and they would have been penned like sheep in Ilium, had not the father of gods and men soon noticed. With a clap of thunder, he let fly a dazzling lightning bolt, and guided it to earth in front of Diomedes’ team. A dreadful reek and flame of burning sulphur rose, and the pair, seized with terror, shied against the chariot. Then the gleaming reins fell from Nestor’s hands, and seized with terror he turned to Diomedes: ‘Turn back now, son of Tydeus, wheel your team in flight. Do you not see that Zeus denies you victory? Today the son of Cronos grants this man glory, later he will grant it us, if he so wills. But no man, however brave, can run counter to the will of almighty Zeus.’

‘Indeed, my aged lord, you speak true,’ said Diomedes of the loud war-cry in answer, ‘but it grieves my heart and mind to think of Hector, saying one day, in their gathering of Trojans: “Diomedes fled before me, and was first to reach the ships.” So he will brag one day, and on that day let the gaping earth swallow me.’

Gerenian Nestor replied: ‘What now, son of fierce Tydeus, what is this? Let Hector call you coward and weakling; the Trojans, the Dardanians will not believe it; for certain the proud Trojan shields-men’s wives will not, whose strong husbands you’ve left in the dust.’

BkVIII:157-211 Hera and Poseidon debate the battle

So saying, he wheeled the horses and turned back through the rout, while Hector and the Trojans, with a roar, followed them with a hail of deadly missiles. Behind them, great Hector of the gleaming helm raised a cry of triumph: ‘Diomedes, those Danaan horsemen who gave you the seat of honour at their feasts, the best cuts, and endless wine, will scorn you now. You prove a woman after all, it seems. Away with you, pale puppet! No weakness here will open our wall for you, to carry away our women in your ships: you’ll see Hades first.’

At his taunt, Diomedes had half a mind to turn again, and fight him face to face. Three times his mind wavered, while from Mount Ida three times Zeus the Counsellor thundered, as a sign to the Trojans to press home their triumph. Hector too shouted aloud, calling to his Trojans: ‘Trojans, Lycians, Dardanians who love close combat, be men, my friends, and rouse your furious valour. I hear the son of Cronos willingly grant me victory and great glory, and death to the Danaans. They made this flimsy useless wall that will fall to us, and this ditch our horses can easily leap. Once we reach the hollow ships bring fire to burn their fleet, and in the smoke and panic kill the Greeks beside it.’

With this, he called to his horses: ‘Xanthus, and you Podargus, Aethon, Lampus the noble, repay me now for the honeyed wheat and the wine mixed for your pleasure, that Andromache, daughter of brave Eëtion, lavished on you, before she thought to serve me, though she is my loving wife. After them, at the gallop, let us win the shield of Nestor, lauded to the skies for its solid gold, shield-bars and shield itself; and tear the ornate breastplate Hephaestus made from the shoulders of that horse-tamer Diomedes. Once I have those in my hands, I’d hope to make the Greeks take to their ships this very night.’

So he boasted, and royal Hera, enthroned on high Olympus, filled with such indignation her convulsions made the mountain quake. She called to mighty Poseidon: ‘Your rule is wide Earthshaker, yet not even you have pity in your heart for these doomed Danaans. Yet they ever make pleasing sacrifice to you at Helice, and at Aegae too, in your honour. You once wished victory for them, and if we chose, all we who back the Greeks, to restrain far-echoing Zeus and push the Trojans back, then he alone would grieve there on Ida.’

But the Earthshaker, deeply troubled in his mind, replied: ‘Wild words, Hera, ever reckless in your speech! I’d wish none of us to quarrel with Zeus, the son of Cronos, mightiest of us by far.’

BkVIII:212-272 Hera warns the Greeks and they rally

While they talked, the whole space, between the ships and the wall and ditch, filled up with chariots and armed men, penned in by Hector, Priam’s son, peer of Ares, to whom Zeus gave the glory. He would have put the fine ships to the torch had not Queen Hera planted the thought in Agamemnon’s mind to rally the Greeks promptly. Gripping his purple cloak with one great hand, he strode past the ships and huts of the Achaeans, and halted by the huge hull of Odysseus’ black vessel, in the midst of the line so a shout would carry to either end, to the huts of Ajax, Telamon’s son, and to those of Achilles. They had beached their fine ships on the flanks, trusting their own strength and bravery. There he gave a ringing call, shouting aloud to the Danaans: ‘Greeks, for shame, wretched creatures only fit for parade! What now of our boasts that we are bravest, the empty boasts you shouted loud in Lemnos, gorging yourself on the beef from straight-horned cattle, downing the brimming bowls of wine, that every one of you was match for a hundred or more Trojans! Now we’re not even match for one, Hector there, who will torch our fleet next. Was there ever a mighty king before, Father Zeus, whom you deceived like this and robbed of greater glory? Yet I swear that on my ill-fated journey to this place, in my benched ship, I never passed one of your fine altars without burning the thighs and fat of bullocks, eager to lay waste high-walled Troy. Zeus, grant me this at least: let us escape with our lives: let Trojans not triumph over Greeks like this.’

The Father was moved by his sorrowful prayer, and signified that the army should be saved and not destroyed, sending an eagle, greatest of winged omens, gripping a fawn, the offspring of some swift doe, in its talons. It dropped the fawn by the glorious altar of Zeus, where the Greeks offered sacrifice to him from whom all omens come. Knowing the bird was sent by Zeus, they ran at the Trojans with a better will, their minds filled with thoughts of battle.

None of the Greeks could boast, then, that he was swifter than Diomedes to guide his horses across the ditch, and fight face to face. He was the first by far to kill an armoured Trojan, Agelaus, Phradmon’s son, who had turned his team to flee. Diomedes caught him in the back, with a spear between the shoulders, as he turned, that drove on through his chest. He fell from his chariot with a crash of armour.

The Atreidae, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, came on behind; the Aiantes followed, full of furious courage; Idomeneus, and his comrade Meriones, peer of Enyalius, killer of men; and Eurypylus, noble son of Euaemon. Teucer came ninth, flexing his curved bow, taking his place behind the shield, of Ajax, Telamon’s son. Ajax would slide his shield aside, and Teucer would spy his chance. Sending an arrow flying through the ranks, his target would fall down dead where he stood. Then Teucer would scurry back, like a child to its mother, taking shelter again behind Ajax’s shining shield.

BkVIII:273-334 Hector wounds Teucer

Which of the Trojans did peerless Teucer kill first? Orsilochus, then Ormenus, Ophelestes, Daetor, Chromius, godlike Lycophontes, Amopaon, son of Polyaemon, and Melanippus. All, one after the other, he laid low on the fertile earth. And King Agamemnon rejoiced, watching the mighty bow slice through the Trojan ranks; and he ran to his side, saying: ‘Lord Teucer, Telamon’s son, dear friend, shoot on like that and prove a salvation to the Greeks, and a credit to your father, who reared you, his bastard child, in his own house: distant though he is, bring him honour. Moreover, I swear to you, that if aegis-bearing Zeus, and Athene, let me sack the fine citadel of Ilium, I will hand you, first after myself, an honourable prize, a tripod, a chariot with its team of horses, or a woman for your bed.’

‘My noble lord, Atreides,’ incomparable Teucer replied: ‘no need to urge one who is already willing. I have worked with all my might and never rested, from the moment we drove them back towards Ilium. I have watched and waited, killing them with my bow. Eight long-headed arrows I have let fly, and each has found its mark in the body of some young warrior. But here is the mad dog I cannot reach.’

With this he shot another arrow from the bow, aiming for Hector, eager to strike him. Hector he missed, but struck peerless Gorgythion in the chest, Priam’s mighty son, born of lovely Castianeira of Aesyme, goddess-like in form, whom Priam once married. His head, weighed down by the helmet, fell to one side, like a garden poppy heavy with seed and spring rain.

Then Teucer fired again at Hector, eager once more to strike him, but again he missed, Apollo making his arrow swerve. Yet he struck Archeptolemus, Hector’s brave charioteer, on the chest by the nipple. He fell from the chariot, forcing the galloping horses to swerve, his strength faded, and his spirit was loosed.

Hector’s mind was darkened by dreadful sorrow for his comrade’s death. Yet he left him there, despite his grief, and called Cebriones his brother, who was nearby, to take the reins, and he instantly obeyed. Hector himself leapt from his shining chariot with a dreadful cry, and grasping a rock in his hand ran at Teucer, his heart urging him on to the kill. Now Teucer had drawn a sharp bolt from his quiver, and laid it to the string but, as he drew, Hector of the gleaming helm struck him with the jagged stone by the shoulder where the collarbone joins the neck and chest, a fatal spot. It caught Teucer as he aimed in his eagerness, breaking the string. The hand and wrist were numbed; he sank to his knees, and remained there the bow falling from his hand. But Ajax saw his brother fall, and ran to bestride him, and protect him with his shield. Then two of their loyal comrades, Mecisteus, Echius’ son, and noble Alastor, lifted him and carried him, groaning deeply, to the hollow ships.

BkVIII:335-396 Hera and Athene arm for battle

Now Olympian Zeus gave the Trojans fresh heart, and with Hector at their head, exulting in his strength, they drove the Achaeans straight towards the deep ditch. Like a hound in full cry chasing lion or wild boar, snapping at flank and buttock, intent on every move, so Hector pressed the long-haired Achaeans, killing the stragglers as they fled in rout. When the Greeks had passed the ditch and palisade, leaving many dead at the Trojans’ hands, they halted by the ships, calling to one another, lifting their arms to the gods, and praying fervently. But there rode Hector, his eyes like those of some Gorgon or of Ares, bane of mortals, wheeling his long-maned horses to and fro.

White-armed Hera felt pity at the sight, and spoke at once to Athene: ‘Ah, child of aegis-bearing Zeus, shall we not make one last effort to save the Greeks from destruction? They fill the cup of fate with their blood, falling before a single man’s onslaught, this Hector, son of Priam, who deals great harm, raging beyond my endurance.’

Bright-eyed Athene answered: ‘I too wish to see him, strength and courage drained, slain by the Argives on his native soil, but my father’s mind is full of evil: harsh and perverse as ever, he thwarts my desires. He forgets how I rescued Heracles, his son, foiled time and again by the tasks Eurystheus set him. He had only to moan to Heaven, and Zeus would send me to his aid. If my heart in its wisdom had foreseen this, when Eurystheus sent him down to the House of Hades, Closer of the Gate, to fetch the Hound of Hell from Erebus, Heracles would never have re-passed the falls of Styx. But now Zeus slights me, and fulfils Thetis’ wish. She kissed his knees, and brushed his chin with her fingers, and begged him to honour Achilles, sacker of cities. One day he will again call me his bright-eyed darling, but ready the horses for now, while I go to his palace and don my armour. Let us see if Priam’s son, Hector of the gleaming helm, is as gleeful when he sees us join the ranks. Many a Trojan now will die by the Greek ships, and glut the dogs and carrion birds, fat and flesh.’

White-armed Hera, the great goddess, daughter of mighty Cronos, promptly complied, readying her team with their golden harness; while Athene, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, let her soft embroidered robe, adorned by her own two hands, fall to the palace floor and donned the tunic and armour of Cloud-gathering Zeus for the sad work of war. Then she mounted the fiery chariot, gripping the long, stout, heavy spear, with which she breaks the warrior ranks, when that daughter of the mighty Father is angered. Hera now flicked the horses with her whip, and of their own accord the Gates of Heaven groaned open on their hinges, those gates the Hours keep, the Guardians of the Heavens and Olympus, who roll the heavy cloud across them or away. Through the gates, the goddesses then drove their willing team.

BkVIII:397-437 Zeus turns back the goddesses

But Father Zeus, watching them from Ida, enraged, sent Iris the golden-winged to take them a message: ‘Away, and swiftly, Iris; turn them back, and keep them far from me, a confrontation will do them no good. Tell them what I say, and would surely do. I’d hamstring the horses that pull their chariot, hurl them from it, and shatter it to pieces. Not in ten years’ circuit would they be healed of the wounds my thunderbolt deals. That would show the bright-eyed goddess what a fight with her father means! I’ve less words of wrath or indignation to waste on Hera: she habitually defies my decrees.’

Zeus turns back the goddesses

‘Zeus turns back the goddesses’ - Crispijn van de Passe (I), 1613

At this, Iris, swift as the storm, sped on her way, from the peak of Ida to high Olympus, where she met them at the very gates of that many-ridged mountain, and gave them Zeus’ message: ‘Where are you rushing to, your hearts pounding in your breasts? Zeus forbids you to help the Argives. He threatens you, and he fulfils his threats. He’d hamstring the horses that pull your chariot, hurl you from it, and shatter it to pieces. Not in ten years’ circuit would you be healed of the wounds his thunderbolt deals. That would show you, bright-eyed goddess, what a fight with your father means! He has less words of wrath or indignation to waste on Hera: who habitually defies his decrees. But you’d be dreadful in your brazen impudence, if you truly dared to raise your great spear against Zeus.’

With these words, fleet-footed Iris took her divine way, while Hera turned to Athene in alarm: ‘Well now, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, I cannot sanction us waging war on Zeus for these mortals. Let events decide who lives and who dies. Zeus must decide between the Greeks and Trojans, as is only right.’

So saying, she wheeled her team and returned. Then the Hours unyoked the long-maned horses, and tethered them by their ambrosial mangers, and leaned the chariot against the bright entrance-wall, while the two anxious goddesses sat down, with the other gods, on golden chairs.

BkVIII:438-488 Zeus prophesies the course of the war

Meanwhile Father Zeus drove his fine chariot and team from Ida to Olympus, to the concourse of the gods. Poseidon, the Earth-shaker, unyoked his horses and rolled the chariot onto its stand, and covered it with a cloth. Then far-sounding Zeus sat down on his golden throne, and Olympus shook, under his feet.

Athene and Hera alone sat far from Zeus, and said not a word, asked no question of him. But he knew their thoughts, and said: ‘Why so troubled, you two? Tired already of destroying Trojans on the field of glory, those Trojans you resent so deeply? Such is the strength in my unconquerable hands, that all the gods of Olympus could not turn me, come what may, while trembling seized your lovely limbs before you even saw the battlefield and its terrors. But I tell you, and this is sure, that struck by my thunderbolt you would have needed someone else’s chariot to get back to Olympus, where we immortals dwell!’

While he spoke, Athene and Hera sat muttering and planning evil to the Trojans. Though Athene kept quiet and held her tongue, furious as she was, consumed by anger at Father Zeus, Hera burst out in rage: ‘Dread son of Cronos what are you saying? We know your strength is that of no weakling, yet we cannot but pity the Danaan spearmen who are doomed to die a wretched death. We will hold back from battle, if you so order; but we will still offer them our good advice, so they may not all suffer your wrath.’

To this Zeus the Cloud-gatherer replied: ‘Look at dawn, if you wish, my ox-eyed Queen, and see this almighty son of Cronos wreak worse destruction on the vast Argive force; for mighty Hector will not retreat until fleet-footed Achilles, son of Peleus, is roused from his hut to action, on the day when the Greeks, in desperate straits, fight at their ships’ sterns for the body of Patroclus. So it is decreed. I care nothing for your anger. Travel the bottomless depths of earth and sea, plumb deep Tartarus, view Cronos and Iapetus sitting there, deprived of Hyperion’s sunny beams, without even a breeze. Wherever you go I care nothing for your fury, you, most shameless of all.’

At this, white-armed Hera fell silent. And now the bright flame of the sun fell into Ocean, and cloaked the face of fertile earth with night’s blackness. The Trojans were unwilling to see day end, but three times prayed for and welcome was dark night to the Greeks.

BkVIII:489-565 The Trojans camp in the plain

Then glorious Hector gathered the Trojans together, leading them from the ships to a stretch of open ground, clear of dead, beside the eddying river. They leapt from their chariots to hear what Zeus-beloved Hector had to say. He held a long spear in his hand, its bronze point gleaming, and the shaft at the top ringed with gold. Leaning on the spear he addressed the troops: ‘Trojans, Dardanians, and our allies, listen: I thought to destroy the Achaeans and their ships, before ever I saw windy Troy again; but darkness fell too soon, saving the Greeks and their stranded ships. Now we must yield to night’s blackness, and eat. Loose your long-maned horses from the chariots, and give them fodder. Then bring cattle and fine sheep from the city, bread and honeyed wine from your houses, and gather wood in plenty, so we may keep fires burning all night till early dawn, lighting the whole sky, lest the long-haired Greeks, despite the dark, make a dash for safety on the open sea. They must not take ship without a fight; if they do, give as many as you can a wound as they board, from some arrow or sharp spear, to ponder on back home, so others may think twice before they make grievous war on horse-taming Trojans. And in the city let the heralds, beloved of Zeus, call out the youths and grey-haired older men to man our battlements built by the gods, while the women keep a great fire burning in each house. And mount close watch, lest the enemy penetrate the city in our absence.

Perform this, brave Trojans, as I order. It is good sound counsel, enough for now. I will speak to you, horse-tamers, again at dawn. I pray to Zeus and all the gods, with high hopes that I’ll drive away these dogs brought here on their black ships by the Fates. Guard yourselves tonight, and at dawn we’ll arm and mount a fierce attack on the hollow ships. Let us see whether mighty Diomedes, Tydeus’ son, can drive me back from their ships to the wall, or whether I shall slay him with my bronze blade, and carry away the blood-stained spoils. In the morning he’ll find if he is brave enough to face my spear. I hope to see him lying dead in the front rank among his comrades, struck by a spear at sunrise. I wish that ageless immortality and honour, such as Athene and Apollo share, were as certain for me as that this day will bring ruin on the Greeks.’

The Trojans acclaimed his speech with shouts. Each unyoked their team, and tethered the horses with leather thongs. They soon brought cattle and fine sheep from the city, bread and honeyed wine from their homes, and gathered ample wood. Then the savour of roast meat wafted from earth to heaven.

So, with spirits high, all night long they sat in their lines of war, beside the many fires. And just as the stars shine bright in windless air, about the gleaming moon, and every mountain peak and glade and high headland stands out clear, and the skies reveal their infinite depths, displaying all the stars to gladden the shepherd’s heart; so, between the ships and Xanthus’ streams, the fires the Trojans lit before Troy shone in their multitude. A thousand fires were glowing in the plain, and fifty men by each in the light of its blaze, their horses feeding on white barley and rye, waited for Dawn to mount her golden throne.