Fifth Chapter of the Iliad and the Problem of the Diomedes
Homer’s Iliad tells the tale of how Achilleus, the all-powerful warrior of the Achaian army, turned the tides of the Trojan War following a dispute with Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae. While this story does not serve as a telling of the commencement or conclusion for this great war, much like its companion piece The Odyssey, it provides an in-depth view into the inner workings and aftermath of this iconic battle in Greek mythology. Similarly, although this tale has been attributed to the singular poet and author Homer, it is believed that many authors may have contributed to this work due to the “traditional culture of oral storytelling” (Martin 16) during Homer’s time. Professor Murray, who is quoted in Albert Lord’s article “Homer and Huso II: Narrative Inconsistencies in Homer and Oral Poetry,” suggests that the Homeric works were “the creation of whole generations of men, poets, and hearers, working through many ages.” As Martin states in his introduction to The Iliad of Homer, however, “More work remains to be done on all the sources that may have contributed to the masterwork of the Iliad.” Nonetheless, this may serve as an explanation for the inconsistencies found throughout the Iliad, such as in Book Five, and the necessity—or lack thereof—for all twenty-four books to be included in publications of this poem.
This lengthy narrative poem discusses the events within the years-long war being fought between the Greeks and Trojans, the origins of which can be traced back to Helen, wife to Agamemnon’s brother and King of Sparta Menelaos. During the wedding of the mortal Peleus and sea-nymph Thetis, Paris, a Princes of Troy, was selected by Zeus to determine who was the fairest between the goddesses Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite, thanks to a ploy orchestrated by Eris, the goddess of Discord, and her apple kallest?i (Martin 9-10). Paris’ selection of Aphrodite grants him the ability to seduce Helen and from there, it is believed that they elope or Helen is abducted, inciting the beginnings of the Trojan War. During this time, Agamemnon’s refusal to return the beautiful Chryseis to her father Chryses leads to Apollo sending a plague upon the Achaians and Achilleus refusing to fight in the war, thus setting up the start of the Iliad.
In Book Five, the Achaian commander Diomedes prays to Athena for strength, vengeance, and assistance. In return, she grants him courage and the divine ability to discern the gods from mortals on the battlefield. “I have taken away the mist from your eyes, that before now / was there, so that you may well recognize the god and the mortal” (The Iliad of Homer 5.127-28), she tells him. While these upgrades prove highly useful as the violent slaughter continued, it is a fact seemingly forgotten later on in Book Six when Diomedes approaches the Trojan warrior Glaukos in preparation to fight, only to discover the kinship previously forged between their families and thus refuses to initiate combat. He asks in The Iliad of Homer 6.123-29:
“Who among mortal men are you, good friend? Since never
before have I seen you in the fighting where men win glory,
yet now you have come striding far out in front of all others
in your great heart, who have dared stand up to my spear far-shadowing.
Yet unhappy are those whose sons match warcraft against me.
But if you are some one of the immortals come down from the bright sky,
know that I will not fight against any god of the heaven …”
This line can be interpreted as inconsistent with the earlier act of Athena granting Diomedes divine vision, as he would have been able to identify whether Glaukos was man or god even prior to speaking.
Another slight inconsistency originating from Book Five features the death of Pylaimenes, “lord of the Paphlagonian men in armor, high-hearted” (The Iliad of Homer 5.577). His violent death is carried out by Menelaos, who stabs Pylaimenes in the collarbone with his spear. Following this, however, in Book Thirteen, the very same Pylaimenes makes a reappearance mourning his son’s death (The Iliad of Homer 13.656-659):
“… the great-hearted Paphlagonians busied about him,
lifted him into a chariot and brought him to sacred Ilion
in sorrow, and his father, weeping tears, walked beside them,
and no man-price came his way for his son’s slaying.”
It can be argued that Book Five should thus be omitted based on the faulty narration provided, but that would thus sacrifice many details essential to the overall storyline, as demonstrated by key supporting characters. Albert Lord argues, using critical analyses by Professors Scott and Murray in his article “Homer and Huso II: Narrative Inconsistencies in Homer and Oral Poetry,” that such mistakes could serve as proof of the oral origins of this tale, and perhaps reinforce the belief that this was no story spun by one Homer but a collective telling with slight variations between each narrator (Lord 440, 444). It is also implied by Professor Scott that Book Five may have been the conclusion to one section of a recital, and the Homeric narrative “takes a new start in book six” (Lord 444), based on the thematic shifts within Diomedes’ refusal to engage with Glaukos in battle.
Another notable feature contained within Book Five is the underlying battle between mortals and their immortal counterparts that is brought to the forefront of the Iliad. Despite the fact that many of the mortal characters—namely Diomedes—relied on the great gods and goddesses for power and inspiration, it may be evidence of the struggle for men to control their own will against the gods who toyed with them through their every move. Crudely put, the events of the Iliad would have played out much more differently if the unending divine influences were not present. Taking the premise of the Iliad and the Trojan War in relation to the aforementioned struggle into consideration, it can be seen that both occurrences were heavily influenced by the acts of the gods and immortals. However, regardless of the otherworldly powers wielded by these immortal beings and the actions they take with such powers, it is almost as though the Iliad draws a parallel within the distinction between man and god using the states of being mortal or immortal. While being able to live eternally seems like a tangible concept, the actual idea may be more complex. In Book One, Thetis laments for her son Achilleus’ destiny to live a short, difficult life (The Iliad of Homer 1.413-18):
my child. Your birth was bitterness. Why did I raise you?
If only you could sit by your ships untroubled, not weeping
since indeed your lifetime is to be short, of no length.
Now it has befallen that your life must be brief and bitter beyond all men’s. To a bad destiny I bore you in my chambers.”
Achilleus was doomed from the beginning to live a mortal life, unable to reap the same harvest as his sea-nymph mother. Yet, much later on in Book Nine, Phoinix “the aged horseman” (The Iliad of Homer 9.432) tells Achilleus that “the Achaians will honor [him] as they would an immortal” (The Iliad of Homer 9.603), to which Achilleus counters that he had no need for such honor as he has Zeus’ support but would be willing to share this honor with Phoinix who could “be king equally with [Achilleus]” (The Iliad of Homer 9.616). Being fully aware of the life he would have to face if he chose to return to his homeland, Achilleus thus presents this idea of immortal preservation through honor and glory. The gods may have been born into immortality, but the mortals could earn this through great heroic feats as well, therefore demonstrating that immortality is not as unattainable as it may seem.
To conclude, Book Five of the Iliad could be considered inferior to the rest of the poem when based purely on literary consistency in relation to the other books, and could very well be omitted for this reason alone. However, in doing so, much of the vital information shown by the various supporting characters and much proof supporting the prospect of the Homeric works being created by a number of authors will be lost. Without Book Five, a huge chunk of the formulating conflict between the gods and mortals, as well as the characters’ struggles to seek control over their lives despite the celestial forces at play, will thus be sacrificed. Therefore, as the thematic importance of Book Five outweighs its minor plot-related flaws, it should remain as part of the greater narrative within the story of the Iliad.
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