The Story of the Iliad/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.

THE ASSEMBLY.

When the twelfth day was come, Thetis rose out of the sea, and went to high Olympus. There she found Zeus sitting apart on the topmost peak of Olympus, and she knelt down before him; with her left hand she clasped his knees, and with her right she took his beard, and she made her supplication to him.

"O Father Zeus, if ever I have aided thee by word or deed, fulfil now my prayer. Give honour, I beseech thee, to Achilles my son, that hath so short a space of life; for now Agamemnon hath put dishonour upon him, taking away the gift that the Greeks gave him. Grant, therefore, that the men of Troy may prevail for a while, so that the Greeks may do honour to my son."

So she spake, but Zeus sate long time silent; but Thetis would not loose her hold. Then she spake again: "Give me now thy promise, and confirm it with a nod, or else deny me. So shall I know that I am held least in honour of all the gods."

Then Zeus made answer much disturbed: "This is a hard matter, for thou wilt set me at strife with Hera, and she will upbraid me with bitter words. Even now she is ever reproaching me, saying that I favour the men of Troy in the battle. Therefore do thou get thee away, that she know not of thy coming; and I will consider how this thing may be best accomplished. And now I will assure my promise with a nod; for when I give my nod, then the thing may not be repented of or left undone."

So he spake, and nodded with his dark brows, and the hair waved about his head, and all Olympus was shaken.

Then Thetis departed, diving into the deep sea, and Zeus went to his own house, and all the gods rose up before him. And when he sat upon his chair, then Hera, knowing that Thetis of the silver feet had held counsel with him, addressed him with bitter words.

"Who hath been in counsel with thee, thou plotter? Thou dost always take pleasure, when I am absent, in secret devices, and never tellest thy thought to me freely."

To her the sire of gods and men made reply: "Hera, think not to know all my thoughts; that were too hard for thee, even though thou art my wife. That which is fitting thou shalt hear first; but into such counsel as I take by myself inquire thou not."

Hera answered: "What sayest thou? I have not pried into thy counsels. These thou devisest as thou wilt. And now I sorely fear that Thetis of the silver feet hath prevailed with thee. At dawn of day I saw her kneeling before thee; thou hast granted, I doubt not, that Achilles shall have honour, and that many of the Greeks shall die beside their ships."

To this Zeus made reply: "Verily nought escapeth thee, thou witch. If it be as thou sayest, such is my will. Do thou sit silent, and obey. Else all the gods in Olympus shall not save thee, when I lay upon thee the hands that none may stay."

Then Hera was afraid, and held her peace, and all the gods were troubled. But Hephæstus the craftsman spake, saying: "This indeed will be a grievous business, if ye two come to strife for the sake of mortal men, and make trouble among the gods. If such ill counsels prevail, what pleasure shall we have in our feasting? Now will I advise my mother that she make peace with Zeus, lest he rebuke her again. Were he minded to hurl her from these seats, who should withstand him?"

Thereupon he put the double-handled cup into his mother's hand, and said: "Have patience, mother, for all that thou art vexed, lest I see thee beaten before mine eyes. I could not help thee. Once before, when I would have succoured thee, he grasped me by the foot, and flung me from the threshold of heaven. All day I fell, and at sunset I lighted in Lemnos."

Then Hera smiled, and took the cup from her son. And he went round to all the gods, going from left to right as a cupbearer should, and poured the nectar from the mixing-bowl, and laughter without end was woke among the blessed gods, when they saw the Haltfoot go puffing through the hall.

So they feasted in the hall, lacking neither the lyre, for on this Apollo played, nor singing, for the Muses sang sweetly, answering one to the other.

Gods and men slept that night; but Zeus slept not, for he thought in his heart how he might do honour to Achilles. And as he thought, he judged it best to send a deceiving dream to Agamemnon. Therefore he said: "Go, deceiving Dream, to the swift ships of the Greeks, and seek the tent of Agamemnon. Bid him make haste and arm the Greeks, for that he shall of a surety take the city of Troy."

So the dream went to the tent of Agamemnon, and found him wrapped in sleep. It took the shape of Nestor, the old chief, whom the King honoured more than all besides.

Then the false Nestor spake: "Sleepest thou, Agamemnon? It is not for kings to sleep all through the night, for they must take thought for many, and have many cares. Listen now to the words of Zeus: 'Set the battle in array against Troy, for the gods are now of one mind, and the day of doom is come for the city, and thou shalt take it, and gain everlasting glory for thyself.'"

And Agamemnon believed the dream, and knew not the purpose of Zeus in bidding him go forth to battle, how that the Trojans should win the day, and great shame should come to himself, but great honour to Achilles, when all the Greeks should pray him to deliver them from death. So he rose from his bed, and donned his tunic, and put over it a great cloak, and fastened the sandals on his feet, and hung from his shoulders his mighty silver-studded sword, and took in his right hand the great sceptre of his house, which was the token of his sovereignty over all the Greeks.

First he called a council of the chiefs by the ship of King Nestor; and when they were seated, he said: "Hear me, my friends. This night a dream came to me in my sleep; most like it was to Nestor. Above my head it stood, and said: 'Thou sleepest, son of Atreus. It is not for kings to sleep all through the night. Now mark my word; I come to thee from Zeus, who careth for thee, though he be far away. He bids thee call the Greeks to battle, for now thou shalt take the city of Troy.' So spake the Dream. Come, therefore, let us rouse the Greeks; but first I will try their spirit, counselling them to flee to their homes, and do ye dissuade them."

Then up rose Nestor in his place, and spake: "Had any other told us this dream, we had thought it false; but seeing that he hath seen it who is chief among us, let us call the people to arms."

Then the heralds made proclamation, and the people hastened to their places. Even as the bees swarm from a hollow rock and cluster about the flowers of spring, and some fly this way and some that, so the many tribes marched from the ships and the tents to the place of the assembly. Great was the confusion and great the uproar, and nine heralds sought to quiet the people, that they might listen to the speaking of the Kings; and at the last the Greeks ceased from their shouting, and sat in their places.

To them Agamemnon rose up, holding the sceptre in his hand, and spake thus: "O my friends, ill hath Zeus dealt with me. He promised me that I should take the city of Troy, and so return to my home. But his words were deceitful, for now he bids me go back to Argos, inglorious, having lost much people. Shame indeed were it for men to know hereafter that we who are so many have yet fought in vain; many we are, and we fight with them that are fewer than ourselves, and yet we see no end. Verily, if the Greeks and the men of Troy should make a truce and number themselves, and the Greeks should be ranked in tens, and for each ten should take a man of Troy to pour the wine, verily, I say, many a ten would lack a cupbearer. Fewer indeed by far are the Trojans, but they have allies, valiant spearmen, who hinder me from taking the city. And now nine years have passed, and the timbers of our ships are rotted, and the rigging is worn; and our wives and our children sit at home and wait for us. Come, therefore, let us flee to the land of our fathers, for Troy we may not take."

So spake the King, and stirred the hearts of the people; that is to say, of all that knew not his secret counsel. All the assembly was moved as the sea is moved, when the east wind raiseth the waves, or as a cornfield, when the strong west wind comes upon it, and shakes the ears Shouting they hasted to the ships, and laid hands on them to drag them down, and some made clear the launching channels, and drew the shores from under the sides.

Then had the Greeks returned, even though fate willed it not. But Hera spake to Athené: "Will the Greeks thus idly flee to their homes? and will they leave Helen a boast to Priam and to Troy, Helen, for whom so many have fallen far from their fatherland? Hasten now, and turn them from their purpose."

So Athené hastened down from Olympus, and she found Ulysses, who had laid no hand upon his ship, for grief had touched him to his heart. To him she said: "Son of Laertes, will ye indeed flee to your fatherland, and leave Helen, for whom so many have fallen, to be a boast to Priam and the men of Troy? Go now, and dissuade the Greeks, and suffer them not to drag their ships to the sea."

And when Ulysses heard the voice of the goddess, he cast away his cloak, and ran. King Agamemnon gave him his sceptre, and, bearing that, he went among the ships. When he saw a chief, he said with gentle words, "Hold, sir, it ill becomes thee to be a coward; sit still and hold the people back. Thou knowest not the mind of the King; he did but make trial of the spirit of the Greeks. Anger him not, lest he do some mischief to the people."

But when he saw a common man, he smote him with his sceptre, and said: "Fellow, sit still, and listen to them that are better than thou. Let there be one master, one king, to whom Zeus has given authority."

Thus did he turn them from their purpose. And they hasted again to the assembly with such a noise as when a wave breaks along the shore.

But, when all the rest were silent, Thersites alone flouted and jeered the princes, that he might move laughter among the Greeks. Most ill-favoured was he of all that came to Troy, bandy-legged, and halting on one foot, with a hump on his back, narrow-chested, and his head misshapen, with straggling down thereon. Loud he shouted now, reviling Agamemnon:—

"What lackest thou yet, son of Atreus? Full of bronze are thy tents, and many the fair women whom we have given thee for a prey. Wantest thou more than these? Surely a leader of men should not bring the Greeks into trouble. And ye, who are women rather than men, why sail ye not home, and leave this man to gorge himself with his spoils alone? For now he hath wronged Achilles, taking away his gift—Achilles, who is far better than he. Surely Achilles is mild of temper, or this, son of Atreus, had been thy last wrong-doing!"

Thereupon Ulysses rose up beside him, and spake in wrath: "Peace, babbler; take not the name of kings upon thy lips, nor taunt thy betters. Hearken now to me: if I hear thee speak idle words again as thou hast done this day, surely I will strip from off thee cloak and tunic, and drive thee to the ships with shameful blows." So speaking, he smote him with the sceptre on back and shoulders; and a bloody weal rose up beneath the blow. All dazed, the fellow cowered down and wiped away his tears.

Merrily laughed the others, saying one to his neighbour: "Often hath Ulysses done well, but never better than now, when he hath stopped this babbler's tongue. He will not rail against the kings again."

Then Ulysses stood up to speak, holding the sceptre in his hand; and Athené stood by his side, in the likeness of a herald, bidding the people keep silence that all, nearest and farthest alike, might hear his words.

"Now, O King," he said, "the Greeks go about to shame thee, abiding no more by their promise which they made thee coming from Argos; to wit, that they would not return till they had taken the city of Troy. Truly there is toil enough here to make us sick of heart and wishful to return. For a man will feel weary if he be kept but a single moon from his wife by winter winds and stormy sea, and we have lingered here for twelve moons nine times told. But it is not well to tarry long and come back empty-handed, after all. Ye all remember—all whom death hath not carried away—what befell in Aulis when the host was gathered to make war on Troy, and we were sacrificing to the immortal gods under a fair plane tree by a spring,—ye remember, I say, how a great serpent, fiery red and horrible to behold, glided from beneath the altar, and darted to the tree. There on the topmost bough was a sparrow's brood, crouching beneath the leaves. Eight were they in all, and the mother was the ninth. These the serpent devoured, one by one, twittering piteously; and the mother flew around, crying for her children. Her last he caught by the wing, twisting himself about. And when he had devoured the brood and the mother, the god that sent him made the sign yet more manifest, turning him into stone. Then Calchas said, as we stood wondering: 'Why are ye silent? It is to us this portent hath been sent. As the snake hath eaten the brood of eight and the mother the ninth, so for nine years shall we make war in the land whither we go, and in the tenth we shall take the fair city of Troy.' So he spake; and, without doubt, his words shall be fulfilled. Remain, therefore, ye Greeks, till ye have taken Priam's mighty town."

So he spake, and all the Greeks shouted in assent; and the ships sent back the shout as it had been thunder.

Then King Agamemnon stood up, and said: "Go now to your meal, and afterwards we will join the battle. Let every man whet well his spear, and fit his shield, and feed his horses abundantly, and look to his chariot, that all day long we may fight, and cease not, even for a little space, till, haply, night shall come and separate the hosts. Truly the band of the shield shall grow wet, and the hand be weary that holdeth the spear, and the horse shall sweat that draweth the polished car. And whoso holdeth back from the fight, tarrying at the ships, nothing shall save him from feeding the dogs and the fowls of the air."

Then the Greeks shouted again. Quickly did they scatter themselves among the ships and the tents, and make their meal. And Agamemnon made a feast, and called thereto the chiefs, Nestor and Idomeneus, and Ajax the Greater and Ajax the Less, and Diomed, and Ulysses; but Menelaüs, good at need, came uncalled, knowing that he would be welcome.

Then King Agamemnon stood up and prayed: "O Zeus, let not the sun set and the darkness fall before I humble Priam's roof-tree in the dust, and burn his doors with fire, and rend the coat of Hector on his breast!"

So he prayed, but Zeus hearkened not as yet.

And when the feast was ended, the chiefs marshalled their hosts for the battle; and Athené in the midst swept through the host, urging them to the conflict; and in every heart she roused delight of battle, so that there was no man but would have chosen war rather than to return to his home. As is the flare of a great fire when a wood is burning on a hilltop, so was the flash of their arms and their armour, as they thronged to the field. And as the countless flocks of wild geese or cranes or swans now wheel and now settle in the great Asian fen by the stream of Caÿster, or as the bees swarm in the spring, when the milk-pails are full, so thick the Greeks thronged to the battle in the great plain by the banks of the Scamander.