A hero’s suffering—the gods’ happiness

In the first book of the Iliad, Achilleus, most gifted of all heroes, a man who is half god himself but is destined to die young, and yet is promised everlasting glory in exchange for his short life, is insulted and stripped of his war prize, his mistress Briseus, by his overlord in the war against the Trojans, Agamemnon. In rage and fury, Achilleus withdraws from the Achaian army, swearing not to fight for them again. Deprived of his only recompense for his brief life span, his honor, Achilleus is plunged into despair, and asks his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to intercede with Zeus. She promises to do her best, then leaves him alone on the sea shore:

But that other still sat in anger beside his swift ships,
Peleus’ son divinely born, Achilleus of the swift feet.
Never now would he go to assemblies where men win glory,
never more into battle, but continued to waste his heart out
sitting there, though he longed always for the clamour and fighting.

But when the twelfth dawn after this day appeared, the gods who
live forever came back to Olympos all in a body
and Zeus led them; nor did Thetis forget the entreaties
of her son, but she emerged from the sea’s waves early
in the morning and went up to the tall sky and Olympos.

The sudden transition from Achilleus in his mortal agony to the gods in their immortal bliss is one of the most beautiful and poignant moments in the Iliad, capturing the essence of Homer’s tragic vision. There is, also, a particular place in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that has always made me see in my mind’s eye this same scene from the Iliad, where the gods are moving in victorious procession through the sky.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 16, 2006 11:58 PM | Send

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