Iliad: Book 21 | Achilles Fights the River

Dcn. Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan discussed BOOK 21 of the Iliad: Achilles Fights the River.

“Come friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so? […] Even for me, I tell you, death and strong force of fate are waiting.”

Achilles (21.119).


93.      What happens in book twenty-one?

The Trojans are in full retreat. Achilles drives half the Trojan army back toward Troy over the plains, but the other half is driven into the Xanthus river (21.09). Achilles, who leaps into the waters, slaughters Trojans until his arm grows tired—at which point he captures twelve Trojans for Patroclus’ funeral (21.30). Achilles, “insane to hack more flesh” (21.37), returns to the river and kills Lycaon, a Trojan hugging his knees for mercy (21.131). Achilles kill Asteropaeus, son of the river god Axius, who was ambidextrous and fought with two spears (21.185). The river Xanthus takes human shape, and the river-god cries out to Achilles: “All my lovely rapids are crammed with corpses now… Leave me alone… I am filled with horror!” (21.250)

Achilles agrees, but then overhears the river-god Xanthus asking Apollo to help the Trojans (21.258). Achilles plunges into the “river’s heart” to war against him (21.264), and Xanthus beats and batters Achilles down with roaring waves (21.281). Achilles cries out to Zeus to not let him die like some pig-boy who failed to ford the river (21.319), and Poseidon and Athena save him (21.325). Xanthus tries to attack Achilles again on the flooded corpse-ridden plains of Troy (21.370), but Hera sends Hephaestus to save him (21.377). The god of fire scorches the plains consuming the water and corpses alike (21.396). Xanthus cries out to Hera, and Hephaestus relents (21.418).

Zeus was “delighted” to see the gods in conflict (21.442). Athena once again defeats Ares (21.462) and then batters down Aphrodite when she tries to help him (21.484). Poseidon challenges Apollo, but Apollo refuses to fight (21.527). Artemis, his sister, mocks Apollo and, having caught the attention of Hera, is subsequently beaten down by Zeus’ consort (21.545). Hermes tells Leto he will not fight her and allows her to take her daughter, Artemis, up to Olympus (21.568). Apollo heads to Troy to help them not fall to the Achaeans (21.592). The book ends with Apollo saving Agenor from Achilles, but then taking on the appearance of the Trojan and leading Achilles on a chase away from Troy (21.657).


94.      Is Achilles becoming more god-like?

The increasing rage of Achilles is presented as a sort of deification. We have already seen him reject mortal food only to be fed by immortal ambrosia (19.412), and end of the last book linked his rage with being like a god (20.558). Book twenty-one continues the theme of tethering Achilles’ increasing rage with becoming more god-like.[1] Notably, in his ascending rage, Achilles the mortal elects to take on a minor god, the river-god Xanthus (21.264). One is tempted here to present Achilles’ rage as something unnatural, inhuman that is repulsive particularly to a god of nature.[2] Achilles’ ascendency to godhood via his rage shows its limitations, as he is conquered by the river-god (21.308). We should note that for him to die as a “pig-boy” would be an ignoble death in contradistinction to his elected fate to win everlasting glory in Troy. Achilles is saved by Hephaestus at Hera’s command or rather the Olympian gods save Achilles from the river-god (21.430). Achilles’ god-like rage is very much an Olympian-like rage. Many of the metaphors for Achilles’ rage are thematic to fire, and here we see the god of fire ignite and consume all around him (21.396). Zeus delights in the “chaos” between the gods (21.442). Athena beats Ares (21.462), and then cruelly and somewhat thematically beats Aphrodite on her breasts (21.484).[3] Homer shows Hera flying “into a rage” (21.546) and cruelly beating Artemis (21.561). If Achilles’ ascendency to godhood is one of rage, then Homer shows the divine rage in its maturity amongst the gods.

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[1] For example, 20.21; 358.

[2] Xanthus has his own rage, a rage of Achilles clogging up his waters with corpses (21.256).

[3] The hatred for Aphrodite demonstrated by both Hera and Athena is at the heart of the entire Trojan war as explained in book twenty-four.

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