Excerpt of Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill
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Somehow, we feel, these motivations--and others' yet to be revealed--are propelling the action of the poem toward its inevitable conclusion. As the seer Calchas says in his fear of Agamemnon's rage:
A mighty king,
raging against an inferior, is too strong.
Even if he can swallow down his wrath today,
still he will nurse the burning in his chest
until, sooner or later, he sends it bursting forth.
That's just the way of mighty kings; there's nothing to be done about it. But it's not as if Agamemnon can in his rage own the field. His rage must contend with the rage and will of others. When he taunts Achilles that he will come personally to take away Achilles's concubine--"so you can learn just how much greater I am than you"--Homer shows us Achilles's heart pounding "in his rugged chest," torn between alternatives:
Should he draw the long sharp sword slung at his hip,
thrust through the ranks and kill Agamemnon now?--
or check his rage and beat his fury down?
Only the intervention of Hera "of the white arms," who "loved both men and cared for both alike," prevents Achilles's wrath from finding its target. She speeds down to earth the battle goddess Athena, who, unseen by all but Achilles, constrains him, seizing his "fiery hair"; and Achilles submits, though, as he says, "his heart breaks with fury," so dearly would he love to see Agamemnon's "black blood gush and spurt around my spear!" But "if a man obeys the gods, they're quick to hear his prayer."
These conflicting forces--all the rages and outrages of gods and men--seemingly balanced in an endless seesaw, will in the end produce a result, the fall of Troy. In the view of the ancients, however, to which Homer is here giving expression, this result is but another swing of the seesaw, which will eventually be balanced in its turn by an opposite result. This view of the ancients, then, is a true worldview, that is, an attempt to see the reality of human experience as a totality, both psychological (in its assessment of human motivations) and theological (in its assumption that heaven intervenes in human affairs). The results of human motivations and heavenly interventions make for preordained results, but preordained only in a way so complicated and with so many conflicting strands that no one but a seer or prophet could sort it all out beforehand and identify in the present the seeds of future results. This means that human beings--and even to some extent the gods themselves--are caught, like figures in a tapestry who cannot undo their thread, playing out their assigned roles of hero or king, loving mother or sexual prize, divine patron of this or that person or city, with only flickering insight into what result their character and needs will have upon the whole of the human enterprise.
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.