Excerpt from Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Why the Greeks Matter

by Thomas Cahill

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2003, 320 pages
    Jul 2004, 352 pages

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Print Excerpt

Now go,
don't tempt my wrath--and you may depart alive."

The old man was terrified. He obeyed the order,
turning, trailing away in silence down the shore
where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag.
And moving off to a safe distance, over and over
the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,
lord Apollo, "Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow
who strides the walls of Chryse and Cilla sacrosanct--
lord in power of Tenedos--Smintheus, god of the plague!
If I ever roofed a shrine to please your heart,
ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats
on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.
Pay the Danaans back--your arrows for my tears!"

His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.
Down he strode from Olympus' peaks, storming at heart
with his bow and hooded quiver slung across his shoulders.
The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,
the god himself on the march and down he came like night.
Over against the ships he dropped to a knee, let fly a shaft
and a terrifying clash rang out from the great silver bow.
First he went for the mules and circling dogs but then,
launching a piercing shaft at the men themselves,
he cut them down in droves--
and the corpse-fires burned on, night and day, no end in sight.

I have set out this generous quotation to remind you of Homer's splendor. If I could, I would now proceed to quote the whole poem before going further--it is so glorious, the foundation masterpiece of Western literature--in this immaculately forged new translation by Robert Fagles, which gives us much of Homer's precision, resurrecting the terrible beauty of Greece's Bronze Age in language as swift as Apollo's arrows--note the overwhelming inevitability of the half line "and down he came like night"--yet enclosing a gorgeous strength capable of burnishing each detail to brilliance.

The upshot of Apollo's plague is that all the Greeks come to realize the cause of their misfortune and that the priest's daughter needs to be returned to her father if the plague is to leave them. Their leader Agamemnon, forced to assent to their consensus, takes as his consolation prize Achilles's concubine, thus precipitating Achilles's withdrawal from the war. For most of the poem's twenty-four books Achilles sits in his tent in a rage, deliberating whether to remain on the sidelines or to abandon the Greeks altogether, raise his sails, and push off for home, along with the fellow countrymen who are under his command.

What a strange world this is, so far from our own. The theme of the poem, as Homer tells us in his very first word, is a hero's rage--"wrath" in the older translations--but rage and wrath seem to be everywhere: in Achilles, Agamemnon, Chryses, and Apollo, in every character to whom we are introduced in the course of the first fifty lines. Homer begins with a prayer of invocation--to the Muse of epic poetry--but within a few lines we hear a second prayer: from the priest to his many-named god, the consummately graceful but "deadly Archer" Apollo. And a third god is invoked: Zeus, to whom Achilles and Apollo are both "dear" and who, it is implied, is the hidden force behind the story, somehow pulling the strings of the action, for, as Homer tells us in an arresting phrase, "the will of Zeus was moving toward its end."

Homer has little time for comment on his characters. They reveal themselves in word and action, not in the poet's commentary. But we feel from the outset that the human characters are caught like strong swimmers in an undertow that is much stronger than their most strenuous strivings, an undertow that will take them where it will, despite their efforts. At the same time, this undertow is not entirely a substance apart: it is rather the sum of all the characters, both gods and men, for both gods and men are driven by their need for honor. Hera and Athena's dishonor at the hands of Aphrodite and Menelaus's subsequent dishonor at the hands of Paris have made the war inevitable; Apollo is dishonored by the dishonor shown his suppliant, Chryses; Agamemnon's need to appear as supreme commander clashes with Achilles's need to be honored as supreme warrior.

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.

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