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A call to the goddess

In the first book of The Iliad, Homer calls for a muse to help him recount the story of Achilles, the epic Greek hero of the Trojan War. The poet begins his account nine years after the start of Trojan war, with the capture of two maidens, Chryseis by Agamemnon, the commander of the Achaean Army, and Briseis by the hero Achilles. We present a brief extract of the opening below, interspersed with audio recordings of it in Greek and English. Our poet here is classicist and author of a new free verse translation of the Iliad, Barry B. Powell.

The rage sing, O goddess, of Achilles, the son of Peleus,
the destructive anger that brought ten-thousand pains to the
Achaeans and sent many brave souls of fighting men to the house
of Hades and made their bodies a feast for dogs
and all kinds of birds. For such was the will of Zeus.

    Sing the story from the time when Agamemnon, the son
of Atreus, and godlike Achilles first stood apart in contention.
Which god was it who set them to quarrel? Apollo, the son
of Leto and Zeus. Enraged at the king, Apollo sent an
evil plague through the camp, and the people died.
For the son of Atreus had not respected Chryses, a praying
man. Chryses had come to the swift ships of the Achaeans
to free his daughter. He brought boundless ransom, holding
in his hands wreaths of Apollo, who shoots from afar,
on a golden staff. He begged all the Achaeans, but above all
he begged the two sons of Atreus, the marshals of the people:

    “O you sons of Atreus, and all the other Achaeans,
whose shins are protected in bronze, may the gods who
have houses on Olympos let you sack the city of Priam!
May you also come again safely to your homes. But set free
my beloved daughter. Accept this ransom. Respect
the far-shooting son of Zeus, Apollo.”

The First 100 lines of The Iliad in Greek:

                                                                        All the Achaeans
shouted out that, yes, they should respect the priest
and take the shining ransom. But the proposal was not
to the liking of Agamemnon, the son of Atreus.
Brusquely he sent the man away with a powerful word:
“Let me not find you near the hollow ships, either
hanging around or coming back later. Then your scepter
and wreath of the god will do you no good! I shall not
let her go! Old age will come upon her first in my
house in Argos, far from her homeland. She shall
scurry back and forth before my loom and she will
come every night to my bed. So don’t rub me
the wrong way, if you hope to survive!”

                                                                            So he spoke.
The old man was afraid and he obeyed Agamemnon’s
command. He walked in silence along the resounding
sea. Going apart, the old man prayed to his lord
Apollo, whom Leto, whose hair is beautiful, bore:
“Hear me, you of the silver bow, who hover over
Chrysê and holy Killa, who rule with power
the island of Tenedos—lord of plague! If I ever
roofed a house of yours so that you were pleased
or burned the fat thigh bones of bulls and goats,
then fulfill for me this desire: May the Danaänsº pay
for my tears with your arrows!”

                                                            So he spoke in prayer.
Phoibos Apollo heard him, and he came from the top
of Olympos with anger in his heart. He had on his back a bow
and a closed quiver. The arrows clanged on his shoulder
as he sped along in his anger. He went like the night.

    He sat then apart from the ships. He let fly an
arrow. Terrible was the twang of the silver bow. At first
he attacked the mules and the fleet hounds. Then he
let his swift arrows fall on the men, striking them
with piercing shafts. Ever burned thickly the pyres
of the dead.

                        For nine days he strafed the camp with his
arrows, but on the tenth Achilles called the people to assembly.
The goddess with white arms, Hera, had put the thought
in his mind, because she pitied the Danaäns, when she saw
them dying.

                        When they were all together and assembled,
Achilles, the fast runner, stood up and spoke: “Sons of Atreus,
I think we are going back home, beaten again, if we
escape death at all and war and disease do not together
destroy the Achaeans. So let us ask some seer or
holy man, a dream-explainer—dreams are from Zeus!—
who can tell us why Phoibos Apollo is angry.
Is it for some vow, or sacrifice? Maybe the god
can accept the scent of lambs, of goats that we kill,
perhaps he will come out to ward off this plague.” So speaking
he took his seat.

The First 218 lines of The Iliad in English (from Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation):

                                                            Kalchas arose, the son of
Thestor, by far the best of the bird-seers, who knows
what’s what, what will happen, what has happened.
He had led the ships of the Achaeans to Ilion by his seership,
which Phoibos Apollo had given him. He spoke to the troops,
wishing them well: “Achilles, you urge me, you whom Zeus
loves, to speak of the anger of Apollo, the king who strikes
from afar. Well, then I will tell you. But first you must
consider carefully. You must swear to me that you will
defend me in the assembly and with might of hand. For I’m
afraid of enraging the Argive who has the power here, whom
all the Achaeans obey. For a chief has more power against
someone who causes him anger, a man of lower rank.
Maybe he swallows his anger for a day, but ever
after he nourishes resentment in his heart, until he
brings it to fulfillment. Swear then, Achilles, that you will
protect me.”

                                    The fast runner Achilles answered him:
“Have courage! Tell your prophecy, whatever you know.
By Apollo, dear to Zeus, to whom you yourself
pray when you reveal prophecies to the Danaäns—not so
long as I am alive, and look upon this earth, shall anyone
of all the Danaäns lay heavy hands upon you
beside the hollow ships, not even if you mean
Agamemnon, who claims to be best of the Achaeans.”

    The seeing-man, who had no fault, was encouraged,
and he spoke: “The god is not angry for a vow, or sacrifice,
but because of the priest whom Agamemnon dishonored
when he would not release the man’s daughter. He would not take
the ransom. For this reason the far-shooter has caused these pains,
and he will go on doing so. He won’t withdraw the hateful disease
from the Danaäns until Agamemnon gives up the girl with
the flashing eyes, without pay, without ransom, and until he leads
a holy sacrifice to Chrysê. Only then might we succeed in
persuading the god to stop.”

Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of a new free verse translation of The Iliad by Homer.

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