Book I Lines 33-44
In the last post we saw how Agamemnon incurred Apollo’s wrath by refusing to return Chryseis to her father, a priest of the god.
Agamemnon angrily ordered Chryses out of his presence and so today, we meet the latter wandering helplessly ‘along the shore / of the loud-roaring sea’ (L.34-5).
I have just started reading The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicholson, which is sub-titled Why Homer Matters. In it, he notes Homer’s reference to the pontos atrygetos, the unharvestable sea.
The second I saw that phrase I knew exactly what Homer meant: death; the sea is a place of death. In an agrarian culture, something that was unharvestable could be absolutely nothing else.
With this in mind, Homer’s positioning of Chryses next to the sea as he silently – perhaps numbly – contemplates the enslavement of his daughter becomes overwhelmingly sad*. She is now effectively dead to him.
But Chryses isn’t finished, yet. After reaching a self distance from Agamemnon, or – I imagine – the Achaeans as a whole – he stops and prays to Apollo that he might ‘take vengeance upon the Danaans for my tears’ (l.44).
Chryses’ prayer to Apollo has a formulaic feel to it. He starts by praising the ‘all-glorious ruler’ before addressing him by a couple of his titles— this stopped me in my tracks, for one of them was ‘Mouse-god’. Mouse god?! Where does this title come from? Is it one of Apollo’s oldest, dating to a time when he had not yet risen to his full dignity? At first sight it seems a name that is more suited to a Disney film than The Iliad.
Having praised Apollo and addressed him in a fitting manner, Chryses invites the god to consider his loyal service. Thus, if I have ever pleased you – please destroy the Achaeans**. It is a brutal prayer but we are visitors to a brutal world.
The Alexander Connection
Alexander prayed often, but never – as far as I can recall – in the way that Chryses does here. He didn’t really need to.
In the next post, we’ll see how Apollo attacked the Achaeans for nine days with his deadly arrows. ‘[T]his plague is killing our men’ (l.62). Alexander was on the road for thirteen years and I can’t think of one outbreak of disease within his camp that threatened it in the way that Apollo’s is about to threaten the Achaeans.
Perhaps Alexander was lucky – it wouldn’t be the first time – but it does seem rather remarkable that it never, ever became an issue for him.
* Later on in the poem we will see Achilles take a similar journey after the all too real death of his beloved friend, Patroclus
**Danaans is term synonymous with Achaeans. Later on, we’ll also find Homer referring to the Achaeans as Argives