The Iliad, Book 1 Analysis: Rage Against The Will Of Zeus
By Christopher Cataldi
I took the time to be way more thorough with Book 1, which introduces crucial themes to the rest of the story. I usually like my reading to raise some higher-order question, so, after writing this out, my question is as follows: does anyone else believe Homer is making a parallel in Book 1 between Zeus and Agamemnon and again between Hera and Achilles?
In accordance with my reading for my OGB seminar, the book in general is about rage, an effect of a disharmony between the will of Zeus and any of the lesser powers. Conformity with the will of Zeus is harmony in The Iliad. Because ‘might makes right’ in the world of The Iliad, the paramount power of the will of Zeus determines what is right.
Although there are many competing powers, both divine and mortal, the contest of those powers reveals an order of subjection below the highest power of Zeus. From what I gather, divine powers supersede corporate powers in order of potency. In so far as mortal powers conform to the actuating principle of Zeus’ divine will, or an uncontested will of another god, then they enjoy all benefits of grace and honor; if not, then falsehood, plague, weakness, disgrace, and ignominy proceed.
The will of man can either assimilate or differentiate itself to the divine will. That is to say, free will is this choice of either assimilation or differentiation. However, the exercise of free will in a differentiating manner results in madness, rage, and foolishness. In other words, action against the will of the gods is hubris.
It does not seem to be the case that the divine is not corporate and the corporate not divine since it does not seem to be a universe that has supernatural entities in so far as those entities would be considered beyond or outside of nature. Rather, the divine has intercourse with the corporal and frequently takes possession of different aspects of nature in The Iliad. Corporal nature itself has divinity, such as rivers; it may be that in The Iliad, all of nature is in some respect divine. The Greeks and Zeus in particular enjoy conflict, as seen later in Book 21.442, because victory, in either war or sport, clearly differentiates which powers are superior.
The unity of a story is always in its plot, so the plot of book is as follows: Agamemnon, Supreme Argive Commander, irresponsibly angers Apollo with the result that disease obtains, Achilles in an effort to diagnose the cause of the disease by support of Chalchas, who is accused of trying to cheat Agamemnon, because of Agamemnon’s anger at paying the price of his original offense. Achilles would kill Agamemnon for this personal attack, but Athena interjects, resulting in further verbal insults only. Nestor’s attempts to counsel the parties to yield to one another result only in further verbal hostilities. The price of the girls are exchanged; Chryseis to her father and Briseis to Agamemnon. Achilles, in complaint, prays to his mother Thetis for justice. Thetis brings this supplication to Zeus who is angered by the request, but grants the favor. In parallel to the rift between Agamemnon and Achilles, a rift between Zeus and Hera results. Haphestus interjects (in parallel to Athena doing so during the argument of Agamemnon and Achilles), and Hera acquiesces, so that a harmonious feast ensues.
If the parallel holds that Agamemnon, as supreme mortal commander, is assimilable to Zeus, “the father of men and gods”, just as Achilles is assimilable to Hera at the end of Book 1, as powerful but subjected to the stronger will, and if we assume that Hera’s actions exemplify the fitting and proper response of a subject, namely to yield rather than be estranged, then Achilles’ rage challenges his allegiance to the state in preference to his personally divine origins. Achilles rage and supplication to his divine mother is disharmonious; thus, the Achaeans would have been better off if Achilles took Nestor’s advice and yielded to Agamemnon, not only because Agamemnon derives authority from Zeus, but also because he has more power in terms of rule over more men.
Although the book begins with both the rage and irresponsible actions of Agamemnon, with his baseless accusations of Achilles, the book is actually about the rage of Achilles, which is more disharmonious or hubristic than the former, because, like Zeus, Agamemnon is the supreme commander, and his subjects must submit to his will no matter how capricious or suffer estrangement and all the ills of disharmony.