Iliad: Book 2

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan take a slow read of Book 2 of The Iliad. Adam is not sure about this book, but by the end of the discussion, Deacon Garlick has talked Adam off the ledge.

Book Two

The Great Gathering of Armies

The rage of kings is strong—they’re nursed by the gods, their honor comes from Zeus—they’re dear to Zeus, the god who rules the world.

Odysseus (2.226)

14. What happens in the second book of the Iliad?

Having accepted the petition of Thetis, Zeus sends a “murderous dream” to Agamemnon imploring him to muster his army and attack Troy (2.07). It is notable that “Dream” is personified, as is the “Dawn,” as a goddess (2.57), and Rumor, as “Zeus’ crier” (2.109). Agamemnon receives the dream and shares it with his war council (2.63). The high king or chieftain of the Greeks then elects to test his men (2.86) and tells the army Zeus commands them to return to “Argos in disgrace” (2.129). The men rush to the ships to leave (2.174), but Hera sends Athena to intervene (2.183). Athena inspires Odysseus who in turn rouses the men to stay—reminding them of Calchas’ prophecy they would conquer Troy in the tenth year (2.386). Nestor, the oldest of the Achaean war lords, encourages the men to stay as well (2.398), and, notably, Agamemnon only thanks Nestor afterward (2.439). There is then a roll call of the Achaean kings (2.573). The book ends with a similar roll call for the Trojans, which serves to introduce Prince Hector, commander of the Trojans and son of Priam, King of Troy (2.927). 

15. What is the relation between Zeus and the kings of men?

Odysseus declares, “The rage of kings is strong, they’re nursed by the gods, their honor comes from Zeus—they’re dear to Zeus, the god who rules the world” (2.226). Zeus’ governance of the world is, at least in part, mediated through the kings of men. Homer provides such an example by Zeus working his will by influencing the actions of Agamemnon via the dream (2.07). The episode sheds further light on the relation between the will of Zeus and the free will of man. Note also, however, that the dream is a deceit. The gods are not united and Troy is not prime to be destroyed (2.16). The Dream also takes on the voice of Nestor (2.24). It is common for the gods to present their messages through faces familiar to the recipient. In response to the dream, Agamemnon tests his men and tells them Zeus has “plotted brutal treachery” and now commands they return home (2.134). The levels of irony and of deceit are notable. As Zeus lied to Agamemnon, Agamemnon now lies to his men. Moreover, Agamemnon’s lie to his men about Zeus’ treachery is more true than Agamemnon realizes. 

16. Why is the dream repeated three times?

It is a common characteristic for messages to repeated in full within the Homeric epics. Outside the benefit this would have for a bard, it also permits Homer a subtle literary device. Though the reader may be tempted to a certain inattention by all the repetition, Homer often has retellings change, add, or omit something. These small changes can have significant plot effects. A moderate example of this exercise can be seen in the fact that Zeus does not state that he pities Agamemnon. Such a statement is a gloss provided by Dream. To the extent such a statement could be true, it is certainly not true in the way Agamemnon believes. 

17. Who is Odysseus?

Odysseus, the Achaean who piloted the ship that returned Chryseis to her father in book one, is the king of Ithaca. He is known for his cunning and his rhetoric. It is telling that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, flies first to Odysseus to help unravel the knot Agamemnon has caused by his test (2.196); and more telling that Odysseus “knew the goddess’ voice” (2.211). In the Iliad, the gods will work upon man in various ways, but not all men have the capacity to discern it is the gods at work. It is another facet of the interplay of divine providence and the actions of man. Finally, it is not unremarkable that Odysseus, and not Agamemnon, bears the epithet of “a mastermind like Zeus” (2.197). We may draw a connection here back to Athena, as Athena emerged from the head of Zeus. Given Zeus’ deceit upon Agamemnon, however, we are left to wonder about the true nature of a man who bears such an epithet. Odysseus and his character merit careful observation.

18. Who is Helen of Argos?

In book two of the Iliad, Homer provides a few broad references to the Achaeans warring in Troy for Helen (2.189, 423, 682). The story of Helen would have been known to Homer’s ancient audience and is an ancillary story to the Iliad (Question 7). Helen is a daughter of Zeus and was known throughout ancient Greece for her goddess-like beauty. Her mother’s husband, King Tyndareus of Sparta, was inundated with marriage proposals for the hand of Helen from every imaginable suitor in Greece. As Hamilton records, the king “was afraid to select one among then, hearing that the others would unite against him.” It was Odysseus who advised the Spartan king on how to deal with the suitors. Following Odysseus’ plan, “he exacted first a solemn oath from all that they would champion the cause of Helen’s husband, whoever he might be, if any wrong was done to him through his marriage.” The king then chose Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, to marry Helen and become king of Sparta. As Lattimore observes, “the oath of the suitors to Tyndareus is not mentioned in the Iliad,” least not explicitly. Homer more fully develops the connection between Helen and the war in book three.

19. What is the significance of the roll call of Achaean warlords?

The listing of the Achaean chieftains and their peoples bears, for most people, a similar charm as the genealogies in the Bible. A broad consideration here, however, would be that Homer includes such a passage as a sign of Greek unity. As aforementioned (Question 1), ancient Greece was a collection of independent city-states and for them to unite toward a common cause was unique. War amongst the city-states was the norm. A clue to the importance of this passage is found in Homer’s threefold invocation to the Muses (2.573, 787, 664). It also serves as a formal introduction to many of the characters. It also tells us that the best warrior amongst the Achaeans, save Achilles, is Telamonian Ajax (2.873)—not to be confused with “Little Ajax” (2.617). Achilles, per his promise, remains by his ships, and the Achaeans awaiting his return provides much structure to the text (2.791).

Similarly, a short listing is made for the Trojans, which, amongst others, includes Prince Hector, Aeneas, a son of Aphrodite (2.931), and Sarpedon, a son of Zeus (2.988).

20. What can be observed in the sacrifice made to Zeus?

Agamemnon prays to Zeus for victory, and Zeus denies his prayer—least for now (2.487). It is not unremarkable that Agamemnon, as high king, offers the prayer and sacrifice to Zeus. He offers the fat and bones to Father Zeus, while the meat is feasted upon by man. The allotment of the sacrifices finds its genesis in a myth of the titan Prometheus. In addition to giving mankind the divine gift of fire, 

Prometheus also tricked Zeus into choosing the bones and fat as the portion due to him. As Zeus’ will is unalterable (Question 12), man may retain the best of sacrifice for his own feast. Recalling Agamemnon’s murderous dream and his subsequent test of his men, it seems fitting that not even the virtue of religion for the ancient Greeks, i.e., giving to the gods what is due to them, is free from cunning and deceit. On a more positive tone, the sacrifice bears both a horizontal and vertical dimension; thus, the sacrificial act binds man to both the gods and his fellow man. It is a political, cosmic act.

Leave a Comment