Iliad: The Embassy to Achilles

Hector and the Trojans continue to challenge the Greeks, as you can read in the chapters omitted here if you are curious: How Hector and Ajax Fought and The Battle on the Plain. Finally, Agamemnon realizes (The Repentance of Agamemnon) that they will need Achilles to fight again if they are to win the war, and so he decides to send Phoenix, who had cared for Achilles when he was a boy, and the two great heroes Ajax, and Ulysses (Odysseus) on a mission to Achilles, to see if they can persuade him by means of their words and also with lavish gifts to set aside his anger and rejoin the battle. The selection you are about to read now is about that embassy to Achilles.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Iliad unit. Story source: The Iliad retold by Alfred J. Church (1907).

The Embassy to Achilles 

So they went along the shore of the sea, and as they went they prayed to the god who shakes the earth, that is to say, the god of the sea, that he would shake the heart of Achilles.

And when they came to the camp of the Myrmidons, for these were the people of Achilles, they saw the King with a harp in his hand, the harp he had taken from the city of Thebé (which was also the city of Andromaché). He was playing on the harp, and as he played he sang a song about the valiant deeds which the heroes of old time had wrought. And Patroclus sat over against him in silence, waiting till he should have ended his singing.

So the three chiefs came forward, Ulysses leading the way, and stood before Achilles. And he, when he saw them, jumped up from his seat, not a little astonished, holding his harp in his hand. And Patroclus also rose up from his seat, to do them honour. And Achilles said: "You are welcome, my friends: though I am angry with the King, you are not the less my friends."

And when he had said this he bade them sit down upon chairs that were there, covered with coverlets of purple. And to Patroclus he said: "Bring out the biggest bowl, and mix the wine and make it as strong and sweet as you can, and give each of these my friends a cup that they may drink, for there are none whom I love more in the whole army of the Greeks."

And this Patroclus did. And when he had mixed the wine, strong and sweet, and had given each man his cup, then he made ready a feast. Nor were they unwilling, though they had but just feasted in the tent of King Agamemnon, for the men of those days were as mighty in eating and drinking as in fighting.

And the way that he made ready the feast was this. First he put a great block of wood as close as might be to the fire. And on this he put the back, that is to say the saddle of a sheep, and the same portion of a fatted goat, and also the same of a well-fed pig. The charioteer of Achilles held the flesh in its place with a spit, and Achilles carved it. And when he had carved the portions, he put each on a skewer. Then Patroclus made the fire burn high, and when the flames had died down, then he smoothed the red-hot embers, and put racks upon the top of them, again, the spits with the flesh. But first he sprinkled them with salt. And when the flesh was cooked, he took it from the skewers, and put portions of it on the platters. Also he took bread and put it in baskets, to each man a basket.

Then they all took their places for the meal, and Achilles gave the place of honour to Ulysses. But before they began, he signed to Patroclus that he should sacrifice to the gods, and this he did by casting into the fire something of the flesh and of the bread. After this they put forth their hands, and took the food that was ready for them.

When they had had enough, Ajax nodded to Phoenix, meaning that he should speak and tell Achilles why they had come. But Ulysses perceived it, and began to speak, before ever Phoenix was ready to begin.

First he filled a cup and drank to the health of Achilles, and then he said: "Hail, Achilles! Truly we have had no lack of feasting, first in the tent of King Agamemnon, and now in yours. But this is not a day to think of feasting, for destruction is close at hand, and we are greatly afraid. This very day the Trojans and their allies came very near to burning our ships; and we are greatly in doubt whether we shall save them, for it is plainly to be seen that Zeus is on their side.

"What, therefore, we are come to ask of you is that you will not stand aside any longer from the battle, but will come and help us as of old. And truly our need is great. For this Hector rages furiously, saying that Zeus is with him, and not caring for god or man. And even now he is praying that morning may appear, for he vows that he will burn the ships with fire and destroy us all while we are choked with the smoke of the burning. And I am greatly afraid that the gods will give him strength to make good his threats and to kill us all here, far from the land in which we were born.

"Now, therefore, stir yourself if now, before it is too late, you have a mind to save the Greeks. Make no delay, lest it be too late, and you repent only when that which is done shall be past all recalling.

"Did not the old man Peleus, your father, on the day when he sent you from Phthia, your country, to follow King Agamemnon, lay this charge upon you, saying: 'My son, the gods will give you strength and will make you mighty in battle, if it be their will; but there is something which you must do yourself: keep down the pride of your heart, for gentleness is better than pride; also keep from strife, so shall the Greeks, both young and old, love you and honour you'? This charge your father laid upon you, but you have not kept it.

"Nevertheless there is yet a place of repentance for you. For the King has sent us to offer you gifts great and many to make up for the wrong he did to you. So great and so many are they that no one can say that these are not worthy."

And then Ulysses set forth in order all the things which Agamemnon had promised to give, kettles and caldrons and gold, and women slaves, and his daughter in marriage, and seven cities to be her dowry. And when he had finished the list of these things he said: "Be content: take these gifts, which, indeed, no man can say are not sufficient. And if you have no thought for Agamemnon, yet you should have thought for the people who perish because you stand aside from the battle. Take the gifts, therefore, for by so doing you will have wealth and love and honour from the Greeks, and great glory also, for you will slay Hector, who is now ready to meet you in battle, so proud is he, thinking that there is not a man of all the Greeks who can stand against him."

(1200 words)

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