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The Illiad
Book 1:
Summary:
The Iliad begins with the Trojan War already in progress. Greek audiences would have been familiar with the background of the story, and here a brief summary of events is necessary to help the reader to put these events in context. It is important to remember that these stories had a life outside of Homer: he did not invent his characters or the main events of the epic. He did make key choices regarding which events and characters were to be emphasized and reinterpreted. The Iliad focuses on events that take place in the tenth year of the Trojan War. Myth, in constant retelling, changes its form constantly. The myths have some elements that are very familiar to modern readers but were unknown or ignored by Homer. For example, a widely known story holds that Achilles was immortal, except for his heel. But although Homer's Achilles is an unmatched warrior, not once in the Iliad does Homer present Achilles as more or less vulnerable than anyone else; either the story was a later addition or Homer chose to ignore it. The myths Homer drew on for his tale had many variants, so in giving the background outside of Homer's text this study guide will try to present only the most fundamental elements of the story of Troy. Paris, also known as Alexander, was a prince of Troy, a kingdom in Asia Minor. During his travels, he was a guest of Menelaus, a king in Sparta. Menelaus' wife was Helen, a woman of legendary beauty; she and Paris fell in love and he took her with him back to Troy. The rulers of the Greek kingdoms raised a powerful army and a fleet of over a thousand ships to win back Helen with strength of arms. Led by Agamemnon, Menelaus' older brother, the Greeks (called "Achaeans" or "Argives" or "Danaans" throughout the poem) sailed for Troy and began a war that was destined to last for ten long years. In the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, the fighting is temporarily stalemated. While on a previous raid, Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaean forces, has taken as plunder the beautiful girl Chryseis. Chryseis' father, Chryses, is a priest of the god Apollo. Chryses pays a visit to Agamemnon, treating him with great respect and courtesy and offering an opulent ransom in exchange for the freedom of his daughter. Although the Achaeans cry out their approval for Chryses' request, Agamemnon refuses to grant it. He threatens to kill Chryses if the priest should ever come into Agamemnon's presence again. Chryses flees, but he prays to Apollo for vengeance and justice. The god, angered by Agamemnon's disrespect for his priest, rains arrows on the Achaeans. The result is a horrible plague, as men and animals die mysteriously for nine days. On the tenth day, Achilles calls the Greeks to assembly, the idea put into his head by the goddess Hera, who sides with the Achaeans against Troy. Achilles asks for some prophet or seer to tell them what has caused the plague and what must be done to end it. Calchas, a great prophet, says that he knows the answer, but he makes Achilles vow to protect him once he has revealed it. Achilles vows, and Calchas tells them that the plague has been sent by Apollo in punishment for Agamemnon's treatment of Chryses. To atone for the sin, the Achaeans must give Chryseis back without accepting any ransom and in addition they must give a hundred sacred bulls to Chryses for sacrifice. Agamemnon is furious with Calchas, saying that the seer enjoys delivering evil prophecies, but the king agrees to give up the girl. He insists, however, that one of the Achaeans give him a prize to compensate him for his loss. Achilles is enraged by the request. The plunder has already been distributed, he argues, and a good man does not take back what he has given. Agamemnon and Achilles argue, each man insulting the other. Agamemnon threatens to take a prize if one is not given to him, and Achilles reminds him that all of the Achaeans are fighting against foes who have only wronged...
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