Excerpt of Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill
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The Mycenaean world that Schliemann discovered was the world of Agamemnon and his predecessors, the world sung by Homer in his two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, set, so far as we can judge, in Aegean Greece of the twelfth century b.c., an age I have called "protohistoric" because a cumbersome form of writing, Linear B, was then in existence, though usable only for accountants' ledgers. The stories of this age, however, were preserved as oral poetry by wandering bards and written down only much later when a far more flexible form of writing came into currency that permitted the recording of epics of massive length and graceful subtlety.
The Iliad begins not with the apple and the goddesses but with a far more earthly contest--between Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, the preeminent Greek champion. The Greek fleet has been long since beached on the Trojan shore and the army of the Greek chieftains is wearily besieging the well-fortified city, which has been able to withstand its assaults for nine years. But brilliant, unbeatable Achilles--whom Homer immediately calls dios or "noble," a word whose Indo-European root means "godlike" or "shining like the divine stars"--has left the field of battle in outrage at his treatment by haughty Agamemnon. For Agamemnon has commandeered Achilles's concubine, a girl Achilles won as war booty. Agamemnon feels justified in taking Achilles's concubine because he has had to accede to the unthinkable and give up his battle-won concubine. Her father, Chryses, priest at a nearby shrine of Apollo, called down his god's wrath upon the Greeks--whom Homer calls "Achaeans," "Argives," or "Danaans," depending on the needs of his meter. Homer's audience would already have known the details of the story, so they would not have been the least disoriented as he begins thus, summarizing the conflict between the two men, a conflict with fatal consequences for Greeks and Trojans alike:
Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king
he swept a fatal plague through the army--men were dying
and all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo's priest.
Yes, Chryses approached the Achaeans' fast ships
to win his daughter back, bringing a priceless ransom
and bearing high in hand, wound on a golden staff,
the wreaths of the god, the distant deadly Archer.
He begged the whole Achaean army but most of all
the two supreme commanders, Atreus' two sons,
"Agamemnon, Menelaus--all Argives geared for war!
May the gods who hold the halls of Olympus give you
Priam's city to plunder, then safe passage home.
Just set my daughter free, my dear one . . . here,
accept these gifts, this ransom. Honor the god
who strikes from worlds away--the son of Zeus, Apollo!"
And all ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent:
"Respect the priest, accept the shining ransom!"
But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon.
The king dismissed the priest with a brutal order
ringing in his ears: "Never again, old man,
let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!
Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.
The staff and the wreaths of god will never save you then.
The girl--I won't give up the girl. Long before that,
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed!
Excerpted from Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Cahill. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.