The Gods at War
Excerpt from the Iliad by Homer
Not on the tramp of the multitudes, not on the cry of the legions
Founds the strong man his strength but the god he carries within him.
Extract from Talthybius' discourse to the Greek army
Ilion - The Book of Achilles
Thus beside the beaked ships and all around you,
O war-starved Achilles, Achaeans armed for the fight,
And up the plain from them the Trojans did likewise.
But powerful Zeus, from the many-ridged peak of Olympus,
Bade Themis call the gods to a meeting, and quickly
She went to them all and summoned them to the assembly
At Zeus' palace. Not one river-god was absent
Except Oceanus, nor any nymph, of all those
Who haunt the lovely groves, the springs where rivers
Rise, and the grassy fields. Once there at the house
Of the cloud-gathering god, all the immortals took seats
Within the rows of bright columns which skillful
Hephaestus Had made for Zeus their Father.
Nor did earth-shaking
Poseidon ignore Themis' call, but emerged from the brine*
*The brine: the sea.
To join them. And now he sat in their midst and inquired
About Zeus's purpose: "Why, O lord of the lightning,
Have you called this meeting of gods? Are you worried about
The Achaeans and Trojans, between whom battle is almost
Ready to blaze?"
Then Zeus of the gathering gale
Answered him thus: "You're right, great shaker of shores,
I have indeed called this gathering of the immortals
Because of my deep concern for those warriors, doomed
Though they are. I myself, of course, will stay on a ridge
Of Olympus, from which I may watch the war as I please.
But all of you other immortals go down and help
The Achaeans and Trojans, aiding whichever side
You prefer. For if fast-fighting Achilles attacks
The unaided Trojans, they won't be able to hold out
A moment. They've never been able to so much as see him
Without fear and trembling, and now that flaming rage
For the death of his friend is eating his heart,
I'm afraid He will outstrip his fate by leveling the walls of the city."
These words of Cronos' son Zeus awoke stubborn war,
And the gods went down to join their differing favorites
Hera and Pallas Athena went to the ships
Of the Argives, and with them Poseidon and luck-bringing Hermes,
The wiliest god of all. And with these went Hephaestus,
Exulting in might, for though he limped, his thin legs
Were nimble enough. But huge bright-helmeted Ares
And Apollo with hair unshorn went down to the Trojans,
Along with arrow-showering Artemis, Leto,
The river-god Xanthus, and Aphrodite, adorer
So long as the gods were not there, the Achaeans
Won glorious victory, since now Achilles, who had
For so long stayed out of the painful fighting, had come forth
Again, and there was no Trojan whose legs did not tremble
At sight of quick-footed Achilles, flaming in arms
Like the man-maiming War-god himself. But when the Olympians
Entered the tumult, host-harrying Hatred arose
With a vengeance. Athena screamed her great war-cry, now
From beside the deep trench outside the wall, now
From the surf-beaten shore of the sea, and, opposite her
Dread Ares, ominous as a dark whirlwind, screamed
From the citadel heights, and again as he charged down the slope
Of Callicolone beside the banks of Simoeis.
Thus the happy gods greatly augmented the clash
Of battle and made bitter strife break out everywhere
Between the two armies fighting in horrible uproar.
Then from on high the Father of gods and men
Awesomely thundered, while down below Poseidon
Caused the limitless earth to rumble and quake
From plain to sheer mountain peaks. Well-watered Ida
Was shaken from bottom to top, as were the city
Of Troy and ships of Achaea. Hades, god
Of ghosts in the world under ground, was filled with panic
And sprang from his throne with a scream, lest Poseidon, shaker
Of earth, should split the ground open above him and thus
Reveal to men and immortals the ghastly abodes
Of death, the moldering* horrors that even the gods
Would look on with loathing.
Such was the mighty uproar
When god clashed with god in strife.
For against lord Poseidon
Stood Phoebus Apollo, god of the winged shafts,
And opposite Ares stood bright-eyed Athena. Opposing
* Moldering: crumbling to dust; decaying.
Hera was Phoebus' sister, the archer Artemis,
Goddess of golden shafts and the echoing shouts
Of the chase, while coming forth against Leto was powerful
Luck-bringing Hermes, and there opposing Hephaestus
Came the god of the great deep-swirling river,
Called Xanthus by the immortals, Scamander by men.
So gods advanced to meet gods. But Achilles had interest
In none but Priam's son Hector, with whose blood
He most lusted to glut the battling Ares, him
Of the tough hide shield. Host-urging Apollo, however,
Inspired great strength in Aeneas and sent him to face
The raging son of Peleus. Assuming the form
And voice of Priam's son Lycaon, Apollo,
Son of Zeus, spoke thus to the counselor of Trojans:
"Aeneas, where now are the brags you made to the princes
Of Troy when you, over wine, declared yourself ready
To fight man to man with Peleus' son Achilles?"
To which Aeneas: "Lycaon, why would you tell me
This way to fight face to face, against my will,
With haughty Achilles? Not that it would be
My first encounter with him, since once already
He put me to flight with his spear, driving me down
From Mount Ida where he had come for our cattle the time
He sacked and laid waste Lyrnessus and Pedasus both.
That time Zeus saved me by giving me strength and putting
Great speed in my legs. Else I would surely have died
At the hands of Achilles and those of Athena, who went
Before him bearing the light of victory and bidding him
Kill with his bronze-headed spear both Trojans and Leleges.
May no man, then, fight face to face with Achilles,
For always beside him a god goes, warding off death.
And even unaided his spear flies very straight,
Nor does it stop save deep in the flesh of some mortal.
Still, were God to give us an equal chance
In man-to-man combat, he would not easily beat me,
Not though he claims to be made of solid bronze!"
Then lord Apollo, son of Zeus, replied:
"Heroic Aeneas, why don't you also invoke
The gods everlasting? After all, men say Aphrodite,
Daughter of Zeus, is your mother, while surely Achilles
Was born of a lesser goddess. Remember, your mother
Is Zeus's own daughter, his the sea-ancient's child.
But on! Charge with your unyielding bronze straight at him,
And don't be turned aside by any insults
Or threats from him,"
So saying, he breathed great power
Into Aeneas, and he, the people's shepherd,
Strode out through the front line of fighters, his bronze helmet flashing.
Nor was the son of Anchises unnoticed by Hera
As out he went through the moil* of men to face
The son of Peleus. Calling her friends about her,
The goddess spoke thus:
"Poseidon, Athena, you two
Consider what we should do now. Here comes Aeneas,
Flaming in bronze, set on by Phoebus Apollo
To face Achilles in fight. But come, let us
Turn him back at once, or else let one of us stand
By the side of Achilles and give him great power too.
Nor should we allow his spirit to fail at all,
That he may know beyond doubt that we who love him
Are the best of immortals, while those who have hitherto warded
Defeat from the Trojans are deities worthless as wind.
Here we have come from Olympus to mix in this melee
* Moil: big confusion; bustle.
And keep Achilles safe all this day long,
Though afterward he shall suffer whatever Fate spun
For him with the thread of his life on the day his mother
Bore him. But if he fails to learn all this
From heaven itself, he may be unduly afraid
When some god confronts him in battle. For hard indeed
Are the gods to look upon when they appear
In their own true forms."
And Poseidon, creator of earthquakes,
Replied: "Hera, don't rage beyond what is wise.
It hardly becomes you. I myself would not wish
To hurl gods together in hate, and anyway we
Are much too strong for those others. Rather, let us
Go apart from the battle to where we can sit down and watch,
And war shall be for mortals. However, if Ares
Or Phoebus Apollo should start anything, or should they
Hold back Achilles and keep him from fighting, then quickly
Fierce war shall come from us too. And very soon then,
I believe, those others shall leave the battle and join
The gods on Olympus, defeated by our forceful hands!"
So saying, Poseidon, god with the blue-black hair,
Led the way straight to the mighty bulwark of earth
That the Trojans and Pallas Athena had heaped up high
For godlike Heracles, that he might retreat behind it
Whenever the huge sea-monster, sent by Poseidon
To lay waste the land of the Trojans, drove him back
From the beach to the plain. There the gods with Poseidon
Sat down and wreathed their shoulders with cloud that could not
Be dispelled, while opposite them the gods backing Trojans
Sat down on the brow of Callicolone round you,
O daring Apollo, and Ares, taker of towns.
Thus both parties sat in council, both uneager
To enter the sorrowful conflict, though high-throned Zeus
Had bidden them to.
Meanwhile, the whole plain was aflame
With bronze-flashing men and horses, and earth resounded
And rang beneath the tumultuous beat of their feet
As they charged toward each other. But now their two
Came out in the space between the two armies, spoiling
To battle each other, Aeneas, son of Anchises,
And noble Achilles. First came Aeneas, defiantly
Tossing his heavy-helmeted head, gripping
His gallant shield close in front of his chest, and brandishing
Fiercely his bronze-headed spear. Against him Achilles,
Son of Peleus, came charging on like a lion,
A ravenous beast that all the men of a village
Have come out anxious to kill. At first he pays them
No heed, but goes his way till one of the fast
And lusty young spearmen sinks a lance in his flesh.
Then with a jaw-splitting roar he gathers himself
To charge, and foam forms all round his fangs, while in him
His great heart groans. Lashing his ribs and flanks
With his tail, he works himself up for the fight, then charges
Straight on in his fiery-eyed fury, careless of whether
He kill or be killed there in the front line of spearmen.
So now Achilles was driven on by his fury
And warrior's pride to go out and face great Aeneas.
And when they had come sufficiently near each other,
Fast-footed royal Achilles spoke to him thus:
"Tell me, Aeneas, why have you come out so far
From the ranks to stand and confront me? Can it be
That your heart is ambitious and fills you with hope of soon
Replacing King Priam as lord of the horse-taming Trojans ?
What folly! for even i f you should kill and strip me,
Priam would not give the kingship to you. King Priam
Has sons of his own, and his mind is sound, not silly!
Or have the Trojans laid out an estate for you
Greater than any other, acres of orchard
And plowland for you to enjoy - if you should happen
To kill me, that is. Not easy, I think, you'll find
That assignment. For surely I now recall a day
Some time ago when I routed you with my spear.
Don't you remember, Aeneas, when you were alone
And I made you leave your cattle and hurtle headlong
Down the slopes of Mount Ida? Not so much as one little look
Did you cast behind you that day as you ran. From there
You fled to Lyrnessus, which I attacked with the help
Of Athena and Father Zeus and sacked it completely,
Leading the women off no longer free.
Zeus and the other gods saved you that time, but not
This day, I believe, will they save you again, as you
Undoubtedly think they will. So I myself warn you
Not to confront me, but lose yourself in the crowd
Before you suffer disaster. Once it occurs,
It will be too late for you not to play the fool ! "
And Aeneas answered him, saying: "Son o f Peleus,
Don't think to scare me with words, as if I were some
Little boy, since I am at least the equal of you
When it comes to hurling insults. We both know who
Each other is with regard to parents and lineage,
For though neither one of us ever laid eyes on the other's
Dear parents, we've both heard the stories which mortal men
Have passed down from days gone by. Men say you're the son
Of matchless Peleus and that your mother is Thetis,
She of the beautiful braids, a child of the brine.
But I claim descent from courageous Anchises, my father,
And Aphrodite herself! And of these two couples,
One or the other shall this day mourn a dear son,
For I don't think we two shall part and leave this struggle
With nothing exchanged but infantile prattle. But if
You really would hear who I am, listen and learn
What many know already. First of all
Cloud-gathering Zeus begot Dardanus, who founded Dardania
Before sacred Ilium ever went up in the plain
As a city for mortals, who lived at that time on the slopes
Of well-watered Ida. And Dardanus too had a son,
King Erichthonius, one who lived to become
The richest man in the world. He had a herd
Of three thousand horses that grazed in the low-lying meadows,
Spirited mares with fine little colts beside them.
With these as they grazed the North Wind fell deeply in love,
And changing himself to a glossy-maned black stallion
He sired twelve colts on them. These, when they galloped
The grain-giving earth, could cross in their sport a field
Of ripe barley without so much as disturbing a kernel,
And when they cavorted across the broad back of the brine,
They would skim the high waves that break on the gray salt-sea.
Erichthonius, then, begot Tros, King of the Trojans,
And Tros had three matchless sons - Assaracus, Ilus,
And godlike Ganymede, the best looking boy ever born,
So handsome the gods caught him up to Olympus, that he
Might live with them there and be the cupbearer of Zeus.
And Ilus in turn begot peerless Laomedon, father
Of Priam, Tithonus, Clytius, Lampus, and Hicetaon,
Scion* of Ares. And Assaracus' son was Capys,
Who sired Anchises, who next begot me, and Priam
Begot Prince Hector. Such is my lineage, Achilles,
And the blood I claim to be of.
"But as for prowess
In battle, Zeus gives it or takes it away as he,
* Scion: young member of a family, especially a noble one.
The almighty, sees fit. So come, let us no longer
Stand here in the midst of battle prating like two
Little boys. There is surely no lack of insults for either
Of us to mouth, vile things so many they'd sink
A ship of two hundred oars. For the tongue of man
Is a glib and versatile organ, and from it come many
And various words, whose range of expression is wide
In every direction. And the sort of words a man says
Is the sort he hears in return. But what makes the two of us
Wrangle and nag like a couple of spiteful women,
Who having aroused in each other heart-eating hatred
Go out in the street and spit harsh words back and forth,
As many false as true, since hateful rage
Does the talking? For since I am eager for combat, you'll not
Turn me back with mere words before we have battled with bronze
Man to man. Come then, let us at once have a taste
Of each other's spear-points ! "
He spoke, and drove his huge lance
Into Achilles' dread and marvelous shield,
Which loudly cried out about the bronze point of the weapon.
Achilles, gripped with quick terror, shoved the shield out
With his powerful hand, away from his flesh, for he thought
The long-shadowing spear of great-hearted Aeneas would easily
Pierce it - childish fool that he was not to know
In his mind and heart that the glorious gifts of the gods
Will not easily break or give way before the onslaught
Of mortals. Nor did the huge lance of fiery Aeneas
Tear through the shield, for the gold, the god's gift, held it back.
Though he drove it clean through the first two layers, there remained
Three other folds, for the great limping god had hammered
Together five layers in all, two bronze, two tin,
And between them a gold one, in which the ashen spear stopped.
Then great Achilles let fly his long-shadowing spear
And struck the round shield of Aeneas not far from the rim
Where the bronze and backing of bull's-hide were thinnest.
And the shield
Gave out a strident shriek as through it tore
The shaft of Pelian ash. Then Aeneas-was gripped
With panic, and cringing he held the shield up, away
From his flesh, as the spear shot over his back and stilled
Its force in the ground, though it split apart two circles
Of the Trojan's man-guarding shield. Having thus escaped
The long lance, Aeneas stood up, and the sight of that shaft
So close to his flesh filled his bright eyes with measureless
Panic and pain. But Achilles whipped out his keen blade
And charged down upon him, ferociously s creaming his
And mighty Aeneas picked up a huge stone, one
That no two men of today could even lift
But that he picked up with one hand and easily threw.
Then Aeneas would surely have struck with the stone the
Or life-saving shield of charging Achilles, who then
Would have closed with him and taken his life with the sword,
I f Poseidon had not been keeping sharp watch. At once
He spoke thus mid the gods everlasting:
"Truly my grief
Is great for high-souled Aeneas, who soon indeed
Shall go down to Hades' halls, killed by Achilles
For heeding the word of far-working Apollo childish
Fool that he was ! For Apollo will not keep sad death
From him for a moment. But why should that innocent man
Suffer woes that belong to others, he who has always
Given such pleasing gifts to the sky-ruling gods ?
So come, let us save him from death, for Zeus himself
Will be angry if now Achilles cuts the man down.
It is surely already decreed that Aeneas shall outlive
The war, so that Dardanus' seed may not die and his line
Disappear, since Zeus adored Dardanus more than he did
Any other child he had by a mortal woman.
For now Cronos' son has come to despise the house
Of Priam, and surely the mighty Aeneas shall soon rule
The Trojans, and after him the sons of his sons,
Great princes yet to be born."
Then heifer-eyed Hera,
Queen of the gods, replied: "O shaker of shores,
You must decide for yourself concerning Aeneas,
Whether you wish to save him or let him be killed,
Despite his great prowess, by Peleus' son Achilles.
For we two, Pallas Athena and I, have sworn
Very numerous oaths irt the presence of all the immortals
That we would never keep from the Trojans the hard day
Of doom, not even when Troy shall burn with furious
Fire lit by the warlike sons of Achaeans."
When Poseidon heard this, he went alone through the fight
Mid a tumult of hurtling spears till he came to Aeneas
And famous Achilles. Quickly he covered the eyes
Of Peleus' son with mist, then drew from the shield
Of Aeneas the sharp ashen spear. This he laid down
At the feet of Achilles, but Aeneas he swept from the ground
And sent him vaulting high over the heads of numerous
Heroes and horses till finally he came down
Far out on the edge of the charge-churned chaos of battle
Just where the Caucones were arming themselves for the fray.
There earthquake-making Poseidon drew close to his side,
And his word's came winged with warning:
"Aeneas, what god
Commands you to fight in such blind rage with the highhearted
Son of Peleus, who is both stronger than you
And dearer to the immortals ? Rather, give ground
Whenever you meet him, or you before your time
Will enter the house of Hades. But after Achilles
Collides with his own dark fate and dies, then summon
Your courage to fight their greatest champions, for none
Of the other Achaeans will ever be able to kill you."
So saying, he left him there, having told him all.
Then at once he dispelled the marvelous mist from the eyes
Of Achilles, who stared hard about him, and much amazed
Spoke thus to his own great heart:
"A miracle, surely!
This wonder my eyes behold. Here lies my spear
On the ground, yet he at whom I so eagerly hurled it
Is nowhere in sight. Truly it seems that Aeneas
Is dear indeed to the immortal gods, though I
Thought his claims were idle and empty. Well, let him go.
He's so glad to be still alive he'll hardly have heart
To try me again. But now I will call to the Danaans,
Lovers of fight, then go forth myself and test
The mettle* of other Troj ans.
Translated by Ennis Rees
* Mettle: quality of endurance or courage.