When I read this passage from Adam Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters (NYTimes review here) a few weeks ago I was struck at how relevant it seemed to the (then upcoming) election. I don’t intend to use this blog, or any blog, as a political platform. However perhaps this passage explains something beyond the Irish (or Homeric) context:
Just before Odysseus comes to his shelter, Achilles has been singing to Patroclus of the glorious deeds of warriors, of the heroic past. When he arrives, Achilles does what the hero should, and provides for his guests the meat from fat sheep and fat goats and the meaty backcuts of a great pig ‘rich with fat’. All is ritualised and made proper, and the scene is one that would have occurred in thousands of chieftains’ huts over thousands of years in the grasslands of Eurasia.
Odysseus then lists to Achilles the wonderful things that Agamemnon wants to give him: seven tripods that the fire has not touched; ten talents of gold; twenty shining cauldrons; strong horses, winners in races, that have won prizes for their swiftness, seven women skilled in noble handiwork from Lesbos, including Briseis herself, the girl Achilles loves. And there is the promise of much more, options on the future: things from Troy; more women from Troy; one of Agamemnon’s own daughters as a bride; cities in Greece with lovely meadows outside them, grass as high as a horse’s eye, places where men can live rich in cattle and sheepflocks.
But Odysseus is slippery, and although most of his speech to Achilles repeats exactly what Agamemnon had said to him, he does not repeat the high king’s final riling words: “Let him submit himself to me, since I am so much more kingly”. Odysseus suppresses these words, knowing that the steppe consciousness of Achilles will not accept an overking. Nevertheless, that subtext persists in the proposal he makes. There is something nauseating in the accumulated enticements Agamemnon offers. They miss the point. Long, long ago, in the first lines of the poem, Achilles has called Agamemnon “the greediest, most possession-loving of men”, and this list of offered possessions is a pollution of the air he breathes. He knows Odysseus is there to lie to him. He calls him ‘many-wiled’, the trickster. ‘As I detest the doorways of Death, I detest that man who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks another.’ Instead of that clever, southern talk, he will ‘speak what I want to speak’. That relentless focus on his own individuality drives the lines forward. Achillles cannot escape from the idea that Agamemnon has been sleeping with Briseis. That vision, in the present tense, haunts him. Agamemnon has her. He has his way with her, still, now, ‘the bed partner of my heart’. The overking’s cumulative greed has taken even her. He has made her an object too. He does not know the meaning of love. All Agamemnon can imagine is ownership, and all Achilles can think of is Agamemnon’s repeated, horrible owning of his girl.
It is the most passionate speech in Homer, confused, proud, enraged, Achilles seeming not to know that Agamemnon has offered to give Briseis back. Instead, Agamemnon the criminal persists in his mind in an eternal present of wrongness, shameless as a deceiver, a man whose honour is rusted and corrupt. ‘Hateful in my eyes are his gifts. His gifts are my enemy. I count them at a hair’s worth.’ Then Achilles lists the great cities of the south, the great riches of Orchomenos and Thebes, and Troy itself, ‘where treasures in greatest store are laid up in men’s houses’. (These phrases, in one of the ironies of Homeric archaeology, led Heinrich Schliemann to dig at Orchomenos in search of the gold Achilles despised.) But Achilles will have none of it. Gifts that numbered as many as the grains of dust and sand in the world would not persuade him to change his mind until Agamemnon ‘has paid me back the pain he has done to me’. That is something which by definition Agamemnon could never do. ‘All the wealth of Troy is not worth what my life is worth.”