Iliad: Book 8 | The Tide of Battle Turns

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan sit down to talk about the tide of battle turns in Book 8.

In this episode we will discuss:

  • What happens in book eight?
  • Do the Achaeans actually need Achillies?
  • What is the relationship between Athena and Zeus?
  • What else should be observed in book eight?

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Book Eight

The Tide of Battle Turns

Many attempts have been made to reconcile these two ideas, to assert the overriding power of Zeus’s will on the one hand, or that of a nameless destiny on the other. – Knox

43. What happens in book eight?

Zeus issues a new, “strict decree” that the gods are no longer to help the Achaeans or the Trojans in order that Zeus may “bring this violent business to an end” (8.08). The gods are in “stunned silence” when Athena acknowledges Father Zeus’ command but also provides the caveat that she’ll “simply offer the Argives tactics” (8.42). As the fighting begins anew, Zeus holds out his “sacred golden scales” of fate, and they show a “day of doom” for the Achaeans, the Greeks (8.85). Zeus makes known this judgment by letting loose his lightning and thunder against the Argives (8.89), and as they retreat, Nestor is left behind—because Prince Paris shoots his horse (8.97). Diomedes charges the front lines by himself and saves Nestor using the horses he took from Aeneas (8.116); but then he also decides to charge Troy alone in an attempt to kill Hector (8.129). Diomedes turns around, however, due to the advice of Nestor and the lightning and thunder of Zeus (8.163). 

Hector, bolstered by Zeus’ favor, leads Troy in an onslaught against the Argives (8.197). The goddess Hera, who is raging in Olympus, first tempts Poseidon to intervene against Zeus’ decree, but Poseidon wisely declines to fight Zeus (8.239). Hera inspires Agamemnon (8.250), the Achaean high chieftain inspires his men and cries out to Zeus for mercy (8.271). Zeus, moved by the weeping of Agamemnon (8.280), sends an eagle as an omen that the Argives may turn and fight (8.282). Zeus, however, favors the Trojans, and Hector leads an assault with eyes blazing like the war god, Ares (8.383, 398). Having failed to tempt Poseidon, Hera tempts Athena to intervene against Zeus’ decree, and Athena acquiesces and prepares for war (8.401). Zeus sends Iris, the messenger goddess, to Hera and Athena, and the two goddesses, not wanting to war with Zeus, call off their return to the battlefield (8.490). On Olympus, Zeus partially reveals his plan to Hera and Athena, the so-called “doom of Zeus” (8.551)—that there will be a battle over the body of Patroclus, friend of Achilles. Hector pushes the advance against the Greeks until nightfall, and the Trojans, the Achaeans, and the gods all wait for “Dawn to mount her glowing throne” (8.654). 

44. Do the Achaeans actually need Achilles?

The movement of book eight is largely structured by Zeus’ promise to Thetis—that the Trojans would prosper until King Agamemnon sees his need for Achilles (8.423). Often times, however, this is read as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, that the lack of Achilles on the battlefield will inevitably lead to a Trojan advancement; yet, in contrast, it would seem that Homer presents a situation in which Zeus must bless the Trojans or the Argives will win even without Achilles. For example, examine the role of Diomedes. First, the Trojans have already stated they fear Diomedes more than they even did Achilles. Second, when Diomedes charges the Trojans to kill Hector while the rest Achaeans are in retreat (8.129), one would suspect this to be a death sentence carried out by the Trojans; yet, Zeus sends Diomedes one lightning strikes and three clashes of thunder to convince Diomedes not to engage the Trojans (8.192). Why does Zeus do this? One argument would be that it is for the benefit of Hector who, despite the current situation, will die to Diomedes—which would at least complicate Zeus’ dictate for a Trojan advance (4.83-84). Recall that Ajax arguably already bested Hector in a duel and would have died not for Apollo’s intervention (7.322). 

To unearth Homer’s intent, it seems worthwhile to engage the hypothetical of what would happen if Achilles refused to fight and the two armies were allowed to fight without divine interference. Simply because Achilles is the best warlord amongst the Achaeans does not mean he is necessary for their victory over Troy.

45. What is the relationship between Athena and Zeus?

Book eight provides another look into the intimate relationship between Athena and Zeus. At the end of book four, Ares tells us that Athena sprung from the head of Zeus, and that Zeus greatly favors her. That favored relationship, however, is in conflict in book eight. Athena states: “Zeus hates me now. He fulfills the plans of Thetis” (8.423). Yet, she states, “but the day will come when Father, well I know, calls me his darling gray-eyed girl again” (8.427). Even when she prepares for war against the Father’s command, she still dons his battle-shirt of lightning (8.442). Zeus makes a similar statement, as he is commanding Iris to tell Hera and Athena to stand down. He states, “So that grey-eyed girl of mine may learn what it means to fight against her Father” (8.465). Note also that when Iris gives the message to Athena and Hera, Iris comments that Zeus is less angry at his wife, Hera, as her actions are expected (8.483). But to Athena, Iris calls her a “insolent brazen bitch” who would “really dare to shake that monstrous spear in Father’s face” (8.485). The closeness between Athena and Zeus makes her actions more insulting. The relation between Zeus and Athena is somewhat tender as far as Hellenic gods are concerned, though Zeus is certainly no paragon of fatherhood. Despite Athena and Hera obeying him, he mocks them (8.515). Athena is quiet, but Hera—her strategy of open disobedience having failed—now employs Athena’s first strategy of a caveat of helping with tactics (8.539). It would appear the goddess of wisdom allowed the rage of Hera to tempt her into a decision less prudent than her own. 

46. What else should be observed in book eight?

One of the key texts of understanding the distinction between Zeus and fate appears in book eight: the sequence with the golden scales (8.81). Some commentators see a Homeric tension between the will of Zeus and a nameless fate, while others confidently declare: “Zeus is not subject to fate.” The latter sees the scales as simply a “ceremony representing compromise with a different view.” In other words, fate is simply the alter ego of Zeus. Homer will provide further opportunities to explore the will of Zeus and its relation to the nameless fate. Once again, Homer refers to the Trojans as “sheep” (8.150). Andromache’s unique care for Hector’s horses is notable (8.211), as is the appearance of Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer (8.307)—whose mother was a Trojan princess. 

We may also debate whether Apollo defies Zeus’ strict decree to not intervene by protecting Hector from an arrow (8.356). Observe that Homer describes Hector with eyes “glaring bright” like Ares and then uses Arean (i.e., like Ares) language, e.g., “hacked to pieces” and “this maniac,” to describe Hector’s actions (8.397, 406). The text ends with Troy being placed on alert, because its army is camping away from the city, which includes a reference to the towers of Troy being “built by the gods” (8.602)—a citation to the myth of King Laomedon.

Amongst all the important aspects of book eight, the body of Patroclus, friend of Achilles, lending to the “doom of Zeus,” is the most important to note (8.550).

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