The Story of the Iliad/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI.

THE EMBASSY TO ACHILLES.

While the Trojans watched with good hope, the Greeks were possessed with fear. And King Agamemnon was troubled beyond all others. He bade the heralds call every man to the assembly, bidding them severally without making proclamation. Gloomily they sat, and when the King rose up to speak, his tears dropped down, as the waters drop down a steep cliff-side from some spring which the sunshine toucheth not. Thus he spake: "O friends, lords and leaders of the Greeks, verily Zeus dealeth ill with me. Once he promised that I should take the city of Troy and so return home; but now he hath deceived me, bidding me go back dishonoured, having lost much people. Thus indeed do I now read his decree. Wherefore let us flee with our ships to the land of our fathers, for Troy we may not take."

Long time the chiefs kept silence, for they were out of heart; but at the last rose Diomed, and spake: "Be not wroth, O King, if I contend with this thy madness. Thou hast called me laggard and coward; whether I be so indeed the Greeks know well, both young and old. But to thee Zeus hath given lordship and the power of the sceptre above thy fellows; but courage he hath not given, and courage is best of all. Now if thine heart be bent upon return, go thou; the way is nigh, and thy ships are by the sea; but all the other Greeks will abide till they have taken Troy. Yea, and if these also will go, then we two, I and Sthenelus, will abide and fight till we make an end of the city, for it was the gods that sent us hither."

Then Nestor spake: "Thou art brave in war, son of Tydeus, and excellent in council above thy fellows. In what thou hast said none will gainsay thee. But now let us take our meal; and let sentinels watch along the trench. And do thou, son of Atreus, make a feast for thy chiefs, as is meet. And him who counsels thee most wisely thou must follow. Sorely do we need wise counsel, seeing that the enemy have so many fires near our ships. Verily this night will save our army or destroy."

So King Agamemnon called the chiefs to a feast; and when the feast was ended Nestor rose up and spake: "Zeus hath made thee King over many nations, that thou mayest deal wisely with them. Therefore it is thy part to listen to the word of another when he shall speak that which is profitable. Evil was the day, O King, when thou didst send and take the damsel Briseïs from the tent of Achilles. The chiefs of the Greeks consented not to thy deed. And I would fain have persuaded thee to forbear, but thou wouldst not hearken, but didst listen to the counsel of pride, working shame to the bravest of the people, and taking from him the reward of his labours. Let us therefore take thought how we may best appease him with noble gifts and pleasant words."

Then said King Agamemnon: "These are true words that thou hast spoken, old man. Truly I did as a fool that day, and I deny it not. For he that is loved of Zeus is of more worth than whole armies of men; and verily Zeus loveth this man, seeing that he putteth the Greeks to flight that he may do him honour. But even as I wronged him in my folly, so will I make amends, and give a recompense beyond all telling. And now I will declare before you all the gifts that I will give: seven tripods that the fire hath never touched, and ten talents of gold, and twenty shining caldrons, and twelve stout horses, that have won prizes in the race by fleetness of foot. No beggar were he, nor without store of precious gold, who should hold all that my horses have won for me. And seven women will I give him, skilled in excellent handiwork, daughters of Lesbos, fairer than all women else, whom I chose for my portion of the spoil in the day when he took Lesbos by the might of his arm. These will I give him, and with them the damsel Briseïs, even as I took her from him. And if the gods shall grant us to destroy the great city of Priam, then let him come when we divide the spoil, and choose for himself twenty women of Troy, the fairest there be after Argive Helen. And if he come again to the land of Greece, then shall he be my son, and I will honour him even as I honour Orestes. Three daughters have I in my palace at home, Chrysothemis, and Laodicé, and Iphianassa. Let him choose which of them he will, and take her, unbought by wooer's gift, to the hall of Peleus. Yea, and I will give with her a great dower also, such as man never yet gave to his daughter. Seven fair cities will I give him, with pasture-lands and vineyards, wherein dwell men that have many flocks and herds, who will honour him with gifts even as men honour a god, and will fulfil his commands. All this will I give him, if so be that he will cease from his anger. Let him yield; for only Death of all things that are yieldeth not, wherefore Death is abhorred of all men."

To him Nestor made answer: "No man may lightly esteem the gifts that thou givest to great Achilles. Come, therefore, let us choose men that they may go with all speed to his tent. Let Phœnix, who is beloved of Zeus, lead the way; and let Ajax the Greater and Ulysses go with him, and two heralds also. And now let men bring water for our hands, and let all keep silence while we pray to Zeus, that he may have mercy upon us."

Then the heralds poured water on their hands, and filled the bowls full with wine. And, when they had made libation to the gods, they drank, and so came forth from the tent of the King. And Nestor charged them all, but chiefly Ulysses, of what they should say, and how they might best persuade the son of Peleus.

So they went by the shore of the sea; and, as they went, they made instant prayer to the god that shakes the earth that they might turn the heart of Achilles. And when they came to the ships of the Myrmidons, they found the King taking his pleasure with a harp, fairly wrought, with a crossbar of silver upon it, that he had taken from the spoil of Thebé-under-Placus, that was the city of King Eëtion. There he sat, delighting his soul with music, and sang the deeds of heroes of old time. And Patroclus sat over against him in silence, waiting till he should cease from his singing. Then the two chiefs came forward, Ulysses


The Embassy to Achilles.jpg

The Embassy to Achilles.


leading the way, and stood before the face of Achilles; and Achilles leapt up in much amaze, holding the harp in his hand. And Patroclus rose also from his seat when he saw the twain. Then said Achilles, fleet of foot, "Welcome ye are, and right dear to me, for all my anger."

So spake Achilles, and led them forward; and he bade them sit on seats that were covered with coverlets of purple. Then said he to Patroclus, "Bring forth the biggest bowl, and mingle drinks of the strongest, for each man a cup, for I have not dearer friends than these that are come beneath my roof this day."

And Patroclus hearkened to his words. And afterwards he set before the heat of the fire a mighty fleshing-block; and he laid upon it the back of a sheep and of a fatted goat, and a hog's chine also rich with fat. And Automedon, that was charioteer to Achilles, held the flesh, and Achilles carved it. Well did he carve it, and spitted it upon spits, and Patroclus made the fire burn high. And when the flames had died away, he smoothed down the embers, and laid the spits with the flesh upon the spit-racks above them, sprinkling them first with salt. And when the flesh was broiled, he portioned it forth upon platters; and afterwards took bread, and set it upon the table in baskets. Then Achilles sat himself down over against Ulysses by the other wall of the tent. And Patroclus did sacrifice to the gods at his bidding, casting the first-fruits into the fire. After this the chiefs stretched forth their hands to the meat that lay ready before them. And when they had done with the desire for food and drink, Ajax nodded to Phœnix that he should speak; but Ulysses perceived it, and was beforehand with him, and filled a cup with wine, and pledged Achilles, and spake: "Hail, Achilles! No lack have we had of feasting before in the tent of King Agamemnon and now in thine; but it is not of feasting that we think this day; for we behold a sore destruction close at hand, and are afraid. Verily, we are in doubt whether or no we may save our ships, unless thou wilt gird on thy might again. For indeed this day the men of Troy and their allies came near to the ships to burn them with fire. And Zeus shows them favourable signs, even lightning on the right hand. As for Hector, he rages furiously, trusting in Zeus, and cares not aught for god or man. Verily, even now is he praying that the morning may appear; for he vows that he will cut off their ensigns from our ships,—yea, and burn the ships with fire, and make havoc of the Greeks while they are dazed with the smoke of the burning. Sorely do I fear in my heart lest the god fulfil his threats, and doom us to perish here in Troy, far from the plains of Argos. Up, therefore, if thou art minded even now to save the Greeks! Delay not, lest thou repent hereafter, for there is no remedy for that which is done. Did not the old man Peleus, thy father, in the day when he sent thee from Phthia to King Agamemnon, give thee this commandment, saying: 'My son, Athené and Hera will give thee strength, if it be their will; but do thou restrain thy pride of heart, for gentleness is better than pride; and keep thee from strife, that the Greeks, both young and old, may honour thee the more'? So the old man gave thee commandment, but thou forgettest his words. Yet even now cease from thy anger. Verily, Agamemnon offereth thee worthy gifts, so that thou put away thy wrath―ten tripods that have not felt the fire, and ten talents of gold, and twenty shining caldrons, and twelve stout horses that have won much wealth for Agamemnon by fleetness of foot, and seven women, daughters of Lesbos, skilful in handiwork, and fairer than all their kind; and Briseïs herself he will restore to thee, even as he took her from thee. All these things will he give; and if we take the great city of Priam, twenty daughters of Troy, fairest of women, after Argive Helen. And when we shall go back to Greece, thou shalt have his daughter to wife, her whom thou shalt choose, and pay no gifts of wooing for her, but rather have such dowry as never king gave with his daughter before: seven cities shalt thou have, lying all of them near to the sea, a land of vineyards, and cornfields, whose folk shall pay thee tribute and honour. But if thou yet hate from thy heart Agamemnon and his gifts, then I pray thee have pity upon the Greeks, who will honour thee even as men honour a god. Hector, too, thou mayest slay, for he will come near thee in his madness, for he deems that there is not a man of all the Greeks that can stand against him."

To him Achilles, fleet of foot, made answer: "Son of Laertes, plain shall be my speech, setting forth my thought and the steadfast purpose of my heart; for I would not have you sit before me, seeking to coax me, one man this way and another another. As for the man that hideth one thing in his heart, and speaketh another with his lips, I hate him as I hate the gates of death. Tell me, why should a man do battle without ceasing with the foe? Surely it is a thankless work, for he that abideth at home hath equal share with him that ceaseth not from battle, and the coward hath like honour with the brave, and death cometh with equal foot to him that toileth not and to him that ceaseth not from toil. No profit have I had for all the tribulation that I have endured, ever staking my life in the battle. For even as a bird carrieth morsels to her unfledged brood, but herself fareth ill, so passed I many sleepless nights, and fought for many toilsome days. Twelve cities laid I waste, sailing thereto on ships, and eleven whereunto I journeyed by land, all in this fair land of Troy; and out of all I took many and fair possessions. And these I carried to King Agamemnon; and he, ever abiding at the ships, portioned out a few to others, but kept the most himself. And what he gave to the other princes or the host he left to them; but from me, only from me among all the Greeks, he took away the gift that he had given. Yea, he took from me the lady whom I loved. He took her; let him keep her, if he will. Why must the Greeks make war against the sons of Troy? Why did the sons of Atreus gather this host together, and lead them to this land? Was it not for fair-haired Helen's sake? Tell me, then, do the sons of Atreus alone of all men love their wives? Nay, but whosoever is good and sound of heart loveth his wife and cherisheth her, even as I loved mine, though I won her by my spear. He took her from me, and deceived me; let him not make trial of me again, for I know him well, and he shall not prevail with me. Let him take counsel now with thee, Ulysses, and with the other princes of the host, how he may keep from the ships the devouring fire. Many things hath he done without my help, building a wall and digging a ditch about it, both wide and deep, and setting stakes in the ditch; yet for all this can he not keep Hector from the ships. And yet, when I fought in the host of the Greeks, this Hector dared not set his army in array far from the walls, but scarce came to the Scæan gates and the fig tree. Once did he await me there to do battle, man against man, and scarce escaped my spear. But now, seeing that I have no mind to fight with him, I will do sacrifice to-morrow to Zeus and all the gods, and I will store my ships and launch them on the sea. Yea, to-morrow, right early in the morning, thou shalt see them, if thou wilt, sailing along the Hellespont, and my men toiling eagerly at the oar; and if the god that shaketh the earth grants me a fair journey, on the third morning shall I come to the fair land of Phthia. There is all the wealth that I left behind me when I came to Troy; and hence I shall carry with me yet more of gold and bronze and iron, and fair women slaves, my portion of the spoil. My portion they are, but my choicest gift King Agamemnon has taken from me; he took it, having given it himself. Never will I take counsel with him again, nor bear him company in battle; once hath he deceived me; let this suffice. He shall not beguile me again with lying speech. And as for his gifts, I scorn them; though he give me tenfold, yea, twentyfold, all that he now hath promised, though it be as the wealth of Thebes that is in the land of Egypt, and than Thebes, I ween, there is no wealthier city. A hundred gates it hath, and from each gate two hundred warriors issue forth with horses and chariots. Yea, verily, though he give me gifts as the sand of the sea for multitude, he shall not persuade me, till he shall have endured like bitterness of soul with mine. And his daughter I will not wed—no, not though she be as fair as golden Aphrodité, and match Athené of the flashing eyes in skill of handiwork. Let him choose him, forsooth, from among the Greeks some kinglier son-in-law than I, and for me, if the gods bring me safe to my home, Peleus shall choose a wife. Many maidens, daughters of princes, are there in Hellas and in Phthia. Of these I will wed whomsoever I will. Often, indeed, in time past was I moved to take for me a wife, to be my helpmeet, that I might have joy with her of the possessions of Peleus, my father. For all the wealth that was stored in the city of Troy, in the days of peace, before the Greeks came thither, and all the treasure that is laid up in the temple of Apollo the Archer that is in the city of Delphi―all this I count as nothing in comparison of life. For a man may take cattle and sheep for spoil, and he may buy tripods and horses; but the life of a man, when it hath once passed from out his lips, he may not win back by spoiling or by buying. And to me my mother, even Thetis, the goddess of the silver foot, hath unfolded my doom. A double doom it is. If I abide in this land and fight against the city of Troy, then shall I return no more to my native country, but my name shall live forever; but if I go back to my home, then my fame shall be taken from me, but I shall live long and see not the grave. Therefore I go, and verily I counsel you all to go, for Troy ye never shall take as ye desire, seeing that Zeus, who seeth all things before, holdeth over it his hand, and her sons are a valiant folk. And now go your way; carry back this answer to the princes of the Greeks: 'Devise ye in your hearts some better counsel whereby ye may keep the men of Troy from your ships; for this counsel availeth naught, so fierce is my anger.' But let the old man Phœnix abide with me in my tent to-night, that he may sail in my ship on the morrow. Verily he shall sail, if he will; but I will not take him by force."

Thus spake Achilles. And the chiefs sat still and held their peace, marvelling at his speech, so vehement was he in his denying. But at the last the old man Phœnix made answer. With many tears he spake, for he was sore afraid lest the ships of the Greeks should perish: "If indeed thou art minded to depart, and carest not to save the ships from devouring fire, how can I endure to be left alone of thee? For the old man Peleus made me thy teacher, both of words and of deeds, in the day when he sent thee forth from the land of Phthia to King Agamemnon, a stripling without knowledge of war or of counsel. Therefore I will not leave thee, no, not if the gods would take from me my years, and make me young as I was when I left the land of Hellas. Hellas I left because I had angered the old man, my father, and he cursed me, calling instantly on the Furies that never son of mine should sit upon his knees. Thus he prayed, and the gods hearkened to him, even Zeus that rules the dead and awful Persephoné. Then was I minded to slay him with the sword; but some god kept me back, putting it in my heart that I should be called the murderer of my father throughout the land of Hellas. But I was purposed not to abide in his dwelling any more. Then came comrades and kinsmen with many prayers, and would have kept me. Nine days they slew fat sheep and oxen, and broiled the swine's flesh in the fire, and wine they drank without stint from the old man's jars. Nine nights they slept about me, keeping watch by turn, and the fires burned continually, one in the cloister of the court, and one in the porch before the chamber doors. But when the tenth night came, and darkness was over all, I brake the chamber doors for all their cunning fastening, and, coming forth, leapt over the courtyard fence, and neither watchman nor handmaid marked me. Far over the land of Hellas I fled, and came to Phthia, to King Peleus. And Peleus received me with a kindly heart, and cherished me as a father cherisheth his son, even the heir of his possessions. Yea, and he made me rich, and gave me people to be under me, and I ruled the Dolopes that dwelt in the uttermost border of Phthia. And thee, Achilles, did I rear to the stature that thou hast. With no man but me wouldst thou go unto the feast, or take thy meat in the hall; but I set thee upon my knees, and cut the savoury morsel for thee from the dish, and put the wine-cup to thy lips. Many a tunic hast thou stained for me, sputtering forth the wine upon it. Much have I suffered, and much toiled for thee; for child of mine own I had not, and thou wast to me as a son, Achilles, to cherish me in my need. And now, I pray thee, rule thy anger, for it becometh thee not to keep a ruthless heart. Even the gods are turned from their purpose, and they are more honourable and mightier than thou. Yea, men turn them with incense and drink-offering, and burnt-offering and prayer, if so be that one has transgressed against them. Moreover, Prayers are the daughters of Zeus; halt are they, and wrinkled, and with eyes that look askance, and they follow ever in the steps of Sin. Strong is Sin, and fleet of foot, and far outrunneth them all, and goeth before over all the earth, working harm to men; nevertheless, Prayers follow behind to heal the harm. And whosoever shall reverence these daughters of Zeus when they come near unto him, him they bless, and accept his petitions; but when one denieth them and refuseth them in the hardness of his heart, then they depart and make supplication to Zeus that he may perish. Take heed, therefore, Achilles, that thou pay to the daughters of Zeus such reverence as becometh a righteous man. If, indeed, King Agamemnon offered thee not gifts in the present, and promised thee more hereafter, I would not bid thee cease from thy anger, no, not to save the Greeks in their distress. But now he gives thee much and promises thee more, and hath sent his ambassadors, the men that are the noblest of the host, and withal dearest to thee. Refuse not, therefore, their words. For the heroes also in former days when fierce anger came upon them could be turned with gifts and persuaded by prayers. Listen, now, to this tale that I will tell. The Curetes in old time fought against the fair city of Calydon, and the Ætolians defended it, and there was war between them. For Artemis had brought a plague upon them, being wroth because King Œneus offered her not the first-fruits. The other gods had sacrifice, but to the daughter of Zeus he made no offering, whether he forgot the matter or heeded her not. And the Queen of Arrows was very wroth, and sent a great wild boar with long white tusks into the land, that laid waste gardens and orchards. But Meleager, son of Œneus, slew the beast, having first gathered many hunters and dogs, for only of many could he be slain, so mighty was he, and so many did he bring to the funeral fires. And when he was slain much trouble arose about his head and shaggy hide, for the Curetes and Ætolians contended together who should have them. Now, so long as Meleager fought in the host of the Ætolians, so long it fared ill with the Curetes, till they dared not to come without the walls of their city, for all that they were many in number. But after a while he went no more with the host of the Ætolians to battle, but tarried at home with his wedded wife, Cleopatra, daughter of Marpessa and of Idas, that was the strongest of mortal men. Strongest he was, and dared to stand face to face with his bow against the archer Apollo. For Idas had carried away Marpessa from the halls of her father, and when Apollo would have taken her from him, he stood against him; so the two fought together; but Zeus commanded that the damsel should choose between them. So she chose the hero rather than the god, for, she said, 'He will be faithful to me.' And now Meleager tarried at home, being wroth with his mother, Althæa; and the cause of his anger was this: He was minded to give the spoils of the wild boar to the fair huntress, Atalanta, that came from the land of Arcadia; and when the brethren of his mother would have taken them from her, he slew them. Then his mother, being grieved for her brethren, knelt on her knees upon the ground, and beat it with her hands and wept, praying instantly to Pluto and Persephoné, that they should bring her son to death. And the Fury that walketh in darkness and hath no pity upon men, heard her from the pit. And now there was the din of foemen about the gates; and the elders of the Ætolians besought him, sending the priests of the gods, the holiest that there were, to come forth and defend them, and promised him a goodly gift. For they bade him choose for himself from the plain of Ætolia, even where it was richest, a fair domain, of ploughland half and of vineyard half. Then the old man Œneus besought him, standing on the threshold of his chamber and shaking the doors. Also his sisters and his mother besought him, but he refused the more vehemently. And his comrades came that were nearest and dearest of all men to him, but they prevailed not with him. But at the last, when the enemy were now battering the door of his chamber, and were climbing on the towers, and burning the fair city with fire, then the fair Cleopatra arose and besought him with many tears that he would save the people; for she told him all the woes that come upon them whose city is taken by their enemies, how that the warriors are slain, and the streets wasted with fire, and the children and women led into captivity. Then was his spirit stirred within him, and he rose from his place, and put his shining arms upon him, and saved the Ætolians from destruction. He saved them; but the gifts, many and fair, which they had promised, they gave him not. But let not thy thoughts, my son, be as the thoughts of Meleager. It would be an ill task for thee to save the ships when they are already burning. Come, therefore, for the gifts which the King will give thee; come, and the Greeks will honour thee as men honour a god. But this honour wilt thou miss if thou receive not the gifts, yea, though thou save us from the men of Troy."

To him Achilles, fleet of foot, made answer: "Phœnix, my father, such honour as this I need not; already have I honour enough by the giving of Zeus. And this also I say to thee. Trouble me no more with thy tears and thy lamenting while thou seekest to serve King Agamemnon. Favour him not, lest thou be hated of me, who love thee now. Rather shouldst thou vex the man who vexeth me. Come, therefore, and take the half of my kingdom. Let these take my message to the King, but abide thou here with me; and when the day shall come we will take counsel together whether we will tarry here or depart."

Then Achilles nodded to Patroclus, that he should spread a couch for the old man Phœnix, that so the other twain might depart without delay. Then said Ajax, the son of Telamon: "Let us depart, Ulysses. I trow that we shall accomplish naught this day. Let us, therefore, take back the tidings, evil though they be, to them that wait for us. As for Achilles, he hath wrought his soul to fury, and he seeketh not of the love of his comrades, or of the honour wherewith they honoured him above all others in the host. And yet a man will take fit recompense at the hand of him who hath slain his brother or his son. He taketh it, and his anger is appeased—and the shedder of blood abides in peace in his own land. But thou keepest thy anger forever, and all for a damsel's sake. Look! we offer thee seven damsels, very fair to see, and many gifts besides. Think thee, and have also some thought for thy guest, for we are under thy roof, and would fain be thy friends, dearer to thee than all besides."

Then said Achilles: "Thy speech seemeth to please me well, great son of Telamon. Nevertheless, my heart swells with wrath, when I remember how the son of Atreus shamed me before all the people, as though I was some stranger nothing worth. But go and take my message. I will not arise to the battle till Hector shall come as he slays the Greeks even to the tents of the Myrmidons, and shall encircle their ships with fire. But when he shall come to my tent and to my ships, then I ween shall he be stayed, for all that he is eager for battle."

Then Ajax and Ulysses departed, and told the message of Achilles to King Agamemnon.