A sampling of comments on Iliad Rhapsody 21

2016.12.15 / updated 2018.09.20 | By Gregory Nagy

The momentum of Achilles continues to heat up. The Trojans are now retreating as fast as they can, heading back toward Troy to find safety there within the sacred walls of that ancient citadel. In their hurry to get away from the field of battle, their hasty retreat has quickly turned into a chaotic and humiliating rout. Achilles is right behind them, in hot pursuit, slaughtering left and right the fleeing Trojans. The hero seems unstoppable. But Achilles meets his match when he provokes the river god Scamander, whose clear streams he has polluted with the gore of countless Trojans that he slaughters while they are desperately attempting to ford the god’s river.

Copperplate etching (1795) by Tommaso Piroli, after a drawing (1793) by John Flaxman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Copperplate etching (1795) by Tommaso Piroli, after a drawing (1793) by John Flaxman.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The momentum of Achilles continues to heat up. The Trojans are now retreating as fast as they can, heading back toward Troy to find safety there within the sacred walls of that ancient citadel. In their hurry to get away from the field of battle, their hasty retreat has quickly turned into a chaotic and humiliating rout. Achilles is right behind them, in hot pursuit, slaughtering left and right the fleeing Trojans. The hero seems unstoppable. But Achilles meets his match when he provokes the river god Scamander, whose clear streams he has polluted with the gore of countless Trojans that he slaughters while they are desperately attempting to ford the god’s river. [[GN 2016.12.15.]]

 

I.21.001–021
subject heading(s): Scamander

So long as the anger of Achilles remains in force, the Trojans will remain in possession of the east side of the river Skamandros, latinized as Scamander, while they continue to fight the Achaeans on the west side. On this principal river of the Trojan plain, see already the comments on I.08.220–227 and I.11.497–500. Only after Achilles rejoins his companions and returns to the battlefield will the Trojans be pushed back to the east side of the Scamander, and this major retreat finally happens here in Iliad 21. Now the raging Achilles pushes the Trojans back to the edge of the west bank of this river, I.21.001, and there they perish in droves, either at the hands of Achilles or by drowning, I.21.007–021—unless they manage to escape by crossing over to the east bank of the river, I.21.002–004. [[GN 2016.12.14 via HPC 164.]]

 

I.21.134–135
Q&T via BA 75
subject heading(s): loigos ‘devastation’

We see here a retrospective reference to the loigos ‘devastation’, I.21.134, suffered by the Achaeans because of the absence of Achilles. [[GN 2016.12.16 via BA 75.]]

 

I.21.184–199
subject heading(s): eukhesthai ‘claim’; Asteropaios; river gods; Axios; Akhelōios; Ōkeanos

In this speech of Achilles, the hero is boasting, as expressed by way of the solemn word eukhesthai ‘claim’, I.21.187, about his genealogy as son of Peleus son of Aiakos son of Zeus himself, I.21.188–189. The point of the boast that Achilles makes here is that his genealogy is superior to that of the hero Asteropaios, whom he has just killed, I.21.139–183. This hero of the Trojans, as we learn at I.21.130–143, is the grandson of the river god Axios. Provocatively, Achilles is boasting that the lineage of Zeus, from which he is descended, is superior to the lineage of any river god, I.21.193–199, and, in this context, Achilles mentions by name two of the mightiest river gods: Akhelōios at I.21.194 and Ōkeanos at I.21.195. Even the Ōkeanos, Achilles goes on to say, would be defeated by Zeus in a one-on-one combat of cosmic proportions, I.21.196–199. This whole speech of Achilles is of course a direct provocation to the river Scamander, I.21.136–138. As we saw previously at I.20.74, the name of this river Scamander, Skamandros in Greek, is also the name of the river god who embodies the river, and that is how mortals address the god of the river, as Scamander, while Xanthos is the name that the gods themselves give to him. See the comment on I.20.001–074. Thus the river god Scamander can take it personally that Achilles here is insulting not only the river god Axios, from whom his dead enemy Asteropaios was descended, but also all river gods. And Achilles goes even further: he insults Scamander directly, declaring earlier at I.21.130-132 that the river god had failed to rescue the Trojans— despite the fact that they would customarily offer sacrifices of bulls and stallions to Scamander, I.21.131-132. [[GN 2016.12.16.]]

 

I.21.194–197
subject heading(s): river gods; Akhelōios; Ōkeanos; athetesis

In his edition of Homer, Zenodotus athetized—that is, he rejected as non-Homeric—the verse at I.21.195, as we know from the scholia for this verse in the Geneva manuscript of the Iliad. (On Zenodotus and on athetesis, see the Inventory of terms and names.) At I.21.195, Ōkeanos is named as the referent of the relative clause at I.21.196–197, where Ōkeanos is described as a cosmic river that has always been the ultimate source for all the water in the world. If this verse at I.21.195 were omitted, then the referent for this description of the ultimate source for all water would shift from the river Ōkeanos to the river Akhelōios, which is named at verse 194. Zenodotus’ rejection of verse 195 was not the result of some arbitrary editorial decision: there is external evidence for an alternative textual tradition of the Iliad where this verse 195 was in fact missing, and there is also external evidence for an alternative oral poetic tradition where Akhelōios rather than Ōkeanos figures as the primal stream that generates all other streams (HC 2§196; also D’Alessio 2004). For example, Pausanias 8.38.10 follows a version of I.21.194–197 that does not include the verse we know as I.21.195. Similarly, at I.18.483–608 in his edition of Homer, Zenodotus athetized the entire sequence of verses that narrated the images displayed on the Shield of Achilles. By dissociating the world of the Shield from the world of Homer, Zenodotus also dissociated the Ōkeanos, the cosmic river that ever encircles and defines the Shield at I.18.607-608. See the comment on I.18.483–608. Unlike Zenodotus, however, Aristarchus in his edition of Homer refrained from athetizing the verses describing the images on the Shield at I.18.483–608 (HC 2§198, with reference to primary and secondary sources). So, he did not athetize the verses about the Ōkeanos at I.18.607–608; nor did he athetize the verse about Ōkeanos at I.21.195 (again, HC 2§198, with reference to primary and secondary sources). Here we have the clearest indication that all these verses were conventionally thought to belong to the Homeric tradition—even in the age of Aristarchus. (On Aristarchus, see the Inventory of terms and names.) Viewing the differences between Zenodotus and Aristarchus in their editorial treatment of Homeric passages involving the Ōkeanos, we can see that Zenodotus was more extreme than Aristarchus in his efforts to purge Homeric poetry from what he considered to be Orphic elements. At the other extreme was Crates, whose edition of Homer did not treat the supposedly Orphic elements as extraneous to Homeric poetry (HC 2§199). For more on Orphic elements in Homeric poetry and on the occasional preservation of such elements in the edition of Homer by Crates, see the comment on I.14.245–246–246a. (On Crates in general, see under Crates in the Inventory of terms and names.) In view of what we know, then, about the textual transmission of I.21.194–197, I argue that both the longer version, featuring Akhelōios and Ōkeanos, and the shorter version, featuring only Akhelōios, are authentic multiforms. On multiform, see the Inventory of terms and names. And, what is more, Homeric poetry recognizes both versions as multiforms. Here I return to the comment on I.20.001–074, where I noted that Ōkeanos is ostentatiously singled out at I.20.007 as the only river god who did not attend the council of divinities that Zeus had assembled in his divine plan to allow those attending to intervene in the ongoing struggle between the Achaeans and the Trojans. Just as this river god Ōkeanos is ostentatiously present in the story by way of being specially marked as absent at I.20.007, so also now he can continue to be ostentatiously present at I.21.195 by not being marked as absent in the longer version—or he can continue to be present by being ostentatiously absent from the words of insult formulated by Achilles in the shorter version, just as he was absent also from the original council of the divinities. The river god Scamander, by contrast, was not absent but present at that council, and he did intervene in the war, since he was provoked to fight Achilles not only by that hero’s actions when he was slaughtering droves of Trojans in the waters of the river but also by that earlier boast where Achilles claimed to be superior in genealogy to heroes who were descended from river gods. It was in the context of that boast, as I noted in the comment on I.21.184–199, that Achilles had insulted Scamander. But he also insulted Ōkeanos and Akhelōios in one version of I.21.194–197. Or at least, according to the other version, he also insulted Akhelōios. Considering that Achilles was almost destroyed by Scamander, we may infer an even worse outcome for the hero if he had faced in combat not this local river god but rather the cosmic river gods Akhelōios or Ōkeanos. By implication, Akhelōios chose not to intervene, though he was present, whereas Ōkeanos could not intervene, since he was absent. Through its multiformity, then, the Homeric tradition acknowledges both a potential presence and a potential absence for Ōkeanos. [[GN 2016.12.16 via HC 2§§144, 155, 196, 198, 207–213; HPC 356; see also GMP 238.]]

 

I.21.200–327
subject heading(s): battle between Achilles and the river god Scamander

Outraged by all the carnage caused by Achilles as that hero relentlessly keeps slaughtering droves of Trojans and clogs the river with their bloody corpses, Scamander as the divine embodiment of the river rises up with all his watery might and proceeds to fight Achilles one-on-one. What follows is an epitome from HQ 145–146. We know that ancient Greek narratives about hostile encounters between heroes and river gods can traditionally picture the river as taking the shape of a ferocious beast: a prime example is Archilochus F 286-287 (ed. West), where the hero Hēraklēs fights with the river god Akhelōios, who has taken on the shape of a raging bull. We may contrast the treatment of the fight between the hero Achilles and the river god Scamander here in Iliad 21, where the river Scamander does not take the shape of a bull and is not even theriomorphic: rather, the narrative opts for a variant tradition highlighting the elemental aspect of the river, as water personified, struggling with a hero whose ally, as we are about to see, will be the god Hephaistos in his role as fire personified. It has been argued, partly on the authority of the scholia for I.21.237, that the Archilochean representation is pre-Homeric. But it is enough for now to say that the Archilochean representation stems from a tradition that is independent of Homer. And the Homeric narrative goes out of its way to make an indirect reference to the other tradition. The river god Scamander, in the heat of battle with the hero Achilles, is described at I.21.237 as ‘bellowing like a bull’ (μεμυκὼς ἠύτε ταῦρος). The simile amounts to a conscious acknowledgment of a variant tradition. Finally the river god, after a lengthy struggle, is starting to overwhelm Achilles, and now this main hero of the Iliad finds himself in danger of getting swept away, cut off from all epic memory, in the flooding streams of the enraged Scamander. [[GN 2016.12.16.]]

 

I.21.328–384
subject heading(s): cosmic conflict between Fire and Water

In order to save the endangered Achilles, Hērā now induces her son Hephaistos to join the fray and to fight actively against the river god Scamander. Since Hephaistos is god of fire, he is the elemental antithesis of Scamander as god of water, that is, as the local god who embodies the principal river that waters the plain of Troy. So now the fight between fiery hero and streaming god escalates into a cosmic conflict between the elements of fire and water. In the end, then, fire wins over water, but now Hērā induces Hephaistos to stop his fight with Scamander. [[GN 2016.12.16 via BA 321–322.]]

 

I.21.385–514
subject heading(s): comic brawl between pro-Achaean and pro-Trojan divinities; divine burlesque

Following up on the combat between Hephaistos and Scamander, other gods now also join in the fight, and, the next thing you know, the cosmic conflict between the elemental forces of fire and water is transformed into a personalized brawl between divine partisans of Trojans and Achaeans. The personalization intensifies to the point of becoming ludicrous, and, once such a point is reached, the whole scene becomes an exquisite exercise in divine burlesque. As Walter Burkert (1960:132) has observed, however, such a comic form is not innovative but archaizing, and there are numerous parallels to be found in the myths and rituals of ancient Near Eastern civilizations; this observation applies also to the divine burlesque that characterizes other narrative sequences Homeric poetry, most notably in Odyssey 8 and in Iliad 1 as well as here in Iliad 21—and in the Homeric Hymns. [[GN 2016.12.16 via HPC 88–89.]]

 


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ      = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM    = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a

 


Bibliography

See the dynamic Bibliography for AHCIP.

 


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for AHCIP.

 

 



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