Chronicling the deeds of great heroes from the past who helped form a society, the Iliad is an epic poem. As such the epic stands as a bridge between history and literature. As was the tradition in epic poetry, the Iliad opens in medias res, meaning “in the middle of things,” although the action is always preceded by the poet’s invocation to the muse (the goddess) of poetry. In this invocation, Homer states his theme — the wrath, or the anger, of Achilles and its effects — and requests the aid of the muse so that he can properly recount the story. The reader is then carried to the point where the trouble originally arose, which is where the story of the Iliad actually begins: in the middle of war.
During one of the Achaian (Greek) army’s many raids on the cities located near Troy, the Achaians captured two beautiful enemy maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. The troops awarded these girls to Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the army, and to Achilles, the Achaians’ greatest warrior.
Chryses, the father of Chryseis, pleads for her return but Agamemnon denies the plea. Consequently, Chryses prays to Apollo who brings a plague on the Achaian camp. On the tenth day of the plague, Achilles can wait no longer for King Agamemnon to act to end the plague. Usurping Agamemnon’s authority, Achilles calls an assembly of the army, and he suggests that a soothsayer be called upon to determine the cause of Apollo’s anger. Kalchas, an Achaian soothsayer, volunteers to explain the cause of the pestilence, but only if he is guaranteed personal protection. Achilles agrees to this condition.
When the soothsayer reveals that the plague is the result of Agamemnon’s refusal to return Chryseis to her father, Agamemnon is furious that he has been publicly named as being responsible for the plague. He insists that if he is forced to surrender Chryseis, his rightful war prize, then he must be repaid with Achilles’ war prize, Briseis.
However, Achilles is stunned by the public disgrace of having Agamemnon demand Briseis, and he refuses to accept the indignity that he feels Agamemnon has made him undergo in full view of all the soldiers. Thus, he announces that he is withdrawing all of his troops from battle. He will not fight, and, furthermore, he and his men will return to their own country as soon as possible.
Nevertheless, Agamemnon decides to appease Apollo; he will return Chryseis, his war prize. He sends her safely aboard a ship heading home, and then he sends his heralds to collect Briseis (Achilles’ war prize) for him. Surprisingly, Achilles surrenders the girl without any difficulty.
Achilles, in despair, prays to his mother, Thetis, the sea-goddess asking her to use her influence with Zeus to ensure that the Trojan armies defeat his fellow Achaian soldiers. Achilles hopes that this result will cause disgrace for Agamemnon and so repay the wrong that the King did to Achilles.
Thetis visits Zeus on Olympos, and the king of the gods agrees to aid the Trojans, although he expresses a fear that his wife, Hera, will be annoyed because she is jealous of Thetis and hates the Trojans and hence cannot bear to see them win the war. Readers discover that Hera does indeed hate the Trojans, but she fears Zeus’ wrath even more, and so she quiets her protests. The first book ends with a banquet of the gods in Zeus’ palace.
In Book I, the initial quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, mediated by Nestor, is paralleled at the end of the book by the quarrel between Zeus and Hera, mediated by Hephaistos. The quarrel among the gods breaks down into a humorous scene that ironically accentuates the seriousness of the human quarrel. Homer’s technique of repeating an earlier scene with a later one is used throughout the Iliad. In fact, this structural technique is a basis for the entire work. However, Book I essentially sets up the tension for the rest of the poem. The wrath of Achilles seems justified from Book I to Book IX. Achilles’ wrath is held up for criticism from Book IX to Book XVIII. And finally there is reconciliation in Books XVIII and XIX. This pattern repeats in Books XIX through XXIV. Achilles wrath is justifiable in Book XIX to Book XXII. His wrath is criticized in Books XXII to Book XXIV. And finally, there is reconciliation in Book XXIV when Achilles and Priam meet.
Book I opens with the words, “Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Homer invokes the muse (“Goddess”) of epic poetry to aid him in telling the story of Achilles’ anger and the great war for Helen and Troy. He further introduces in the word “rage” one of the human qualities, along with pride and honor, that will make up a major theme of the work as a whole. Initially, Achilles’ anger seems a reasonable response to the arrogance of Agamemnon, but as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that righteous anger can degenerate into petty resentment or escalate into uncontrollable rage. The necessity for reason and self-control over emotions becomes an overriding idea in the Iliad.
Similarly, the related concepts of pride and honor are introduced in Book I. Both Agamemnon and Achilles believe that their honor is compromised in the decisions involving the female captives, Chryseis and Briseis. Pride and honor were important principles to the Greeks, particularly because those traits involved public perception. Agamemnon thinks that Achilles, by calling the council and demanding that Chryseis be returned to Chryses, has challenged his leadership and impugned his honor. Likewise, Achilles feels that Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis as a replacement for Chryseis is an affront to his honor and a public show of disrespect by the Achaian leader. Individual senses of pride and honor here blind the two warriors to the greater good. Their hubris — overweening pride — requires them to react in foolish ways, Agamemnon in taking Achilles’ captive Briseis and Achilles in withdrawing himself and his troops from battle. Homer once again shows that a noble human trait can be subverted by emotion into pettiness and irrationality.
However, Achilles’ decision to withdraw appears much more reasonable in Book I than it will later in the poem. From Book I to Book IX, Achilles’ anger and withdrawal from battle seem to have some justification. He retains the reader’s sympathy even though his decisions seem to be overreactions.
A second theme introduced in Book I is the nature of the relationship between the gods and men. When Agamemnon refuses to give up Chryseis, Chryses prays to Apollo, who comes down to devastate the Achaians with his arrows, a symbolic representation of plague. Later, angered by Agamemnon, Achilles starts to draw his sword to kill the Achaian leader. Athena intervenes and calms the overwrought Achilles, a symbolic representation of reason controlling the will. Finally, Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, goes to Zeus to ask for punishment on Agamemnon and the Achaians for their actions against her son. Zeus nods in agreement, thereby initiating the series of Trojan triumphs that make up much of the first half of the work. Zeus’ decision leads to a quarrel among the gods that humorously reflects the quarrel among the Greeks.
Homer shows the gods in a variety of relationships with humans. First, in the instances of the destruction caused by Apollo and the forbearance produced by Athena, Homer is using the gods as dramatic, almost allegoric causes for natural events and actions. Second, just as clearly, he also shows that the gods take an active role in human affairs. Apollo and Zeus both mete out a kind of rough justice, a justice that seems in both cases much harsher than the offense warranted. Third, the intervention of the gods also suggests an interrelationship between humans and gods that is related to the fate of humans. At times, characters such as Achilles seem to have free will. At other times, the gods seem to control the destiny of humans. And, at other times, neither gods nor men seem to be in control of human fate — it simply is what it is.
In the past few decades, some psychological studies have suggested a different approach to the god/human relationships in the Iliad. An entirely different approach to the god and human relationship has been offered by psychologist Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, 1990). Jaynes presents the idea that modern consciousness is of relatively recent origin and that earlier man had a bicameral mind, one chamber of which literally spoke to the other when decisions or thoughtful action was needed. Jaynes sees the Iliad as a book dealing with pre-modern minds. Therefore, when Athena tells Achilles not to draw his sword to kill Agamemnon, the speaker is actually one side of Achilles’ brain. Jaynes idea accounts for the intervention of the gods as a way in which these early men accounted for the voices they heard within their own brains.