Stories from the Iliad

Stories from the Iliad

H. L. Havell
H. L. Havell

Author: Havell, H. L. (Herbert Lord), -1913
Epic poetry
Greek — Adaptations
Tales — Greece
Achilles (Mythological character) — Fiction
Trojan War — Fiction
Stories from the Iliad

“Athene shot down from Olympus like a falling star” (Patten Wilson)



A nation without fancy, without some romance, never did never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun…. What enchanted us in our childhood, and is captivating a million of young fancies now, has, at the same blessed time of life, enchanted vast hosts of men and women who have done their long day’s work and laid their grey heads down to rest.


First published February 1908
39-41 Parker Street, Kingsway, London, W.C.2
Reprinted: August 1908; February 1909; May 1910; July 1913;
July 1916; July 1917; August 1919; April 1922; April 1924;
March 1926; April 1928; November 1929

Printed in Great Britain by The Riverside Press Limited


I. The Story
II. The Divine Characters
III. The Human Characters
IV. The Similes
The Quarrel
The Dream: The Muster of Greeks
Greeks and Trojans Face to Face: The Duel
The Breaking of the Truce
The Exploits of Diomede
The Battle continued: Hector and Andromache
Second Battle: Repulse of the Greeks
The Embassy to Achilles
The Night Raid on the Trojan Camp
The Brave Deeds of Agamemnon: Reverses of the Greeks
The Attack on the Grecian Camp
Poseidon aids the Greeks
Zeus is Beguiled by Hera
The Last Battle by the Ships
Achilles sends Patroclus to Battle
The Fight for the Body of Patroclus
The News is brought to Achilles
The Shield of Achilles
The Reconciliation
Achilles in the Battlefield
The Death of Hector
The Funeral Games of Patroclus
Priam Ransoms the Body of Hector
Pronouncing List of Names


“Athene shot down from Olympus like a falling star” (Patten Wilson) Frontispiece
The Leaders of the Greeks (Christian G. Heyne)
Paris (Vatican, Rome)
Helen on the Walls of Troy (Lord Leighton)
Hector’s Farewell (Friedrich Preller, Jr.)
Menelaus (Vatican, Rome)
Homer Hymning the Fall of Troy (Baron H. de Triqueti)
Captive Andromache (Lord Leighton)



In order to understand the structure of the Iliad, we must keep fast hold of the guiding clue which is supplied by the author in the first line of his poem. The subject, he tells us, is the Wrath of Achilles. The motive of the greatest of epics is wrath—blind, unreasoning fury, which knows no law, and acknowledges no right. Keeping this in view, we are able to explain what seems at first sight to be a strange anomaly in the conduct of the story—the absence of the hero from the scene of action during three-fourths of the narrative. For Achilles is not less the hero of the Iliad than Odysseus is the hero of the Odyssey, and in both cases the character of the man determines the structure of the poem. Odysseus is a man of middle age, in the maturity of his splendid powers, with his judgment refined by experience, and his passions cooled by time. From the moment when he sets sail from Troy he remains faithful to the fixed desire of his heart. All the malice of Poseidon, all the spells of Circe, all the loveliness of Calypso, cannot shake him from his resolve to return to his home in Ithaca, and live out his life in calm domestic happiness and peace. Yet he is entirely free from the narrowness which commonly belongs to a fixed idea. He knows the uncertainty which attaches to all human hopes, and is as ready to enjoy the passing hour as the youngest sailor of his crew. He has the hungry intellect, which would fain take all knowledge into its compass, and the spirit of soaring enterprise, which delights in discovery and daring adventure. But above all he has the patient, constant human heart, faithful through all turns of fortune to one sober ideal. It is this steadfastness of purpose and sweet reasonableness in the hero which gives to the narrative of the Odyssey its smooth and pellucid flow, and makes it the most delightful of all story-books.
Achilles, on the other hand, is the incarnation of the spirit of youth, with its passionate pride, its acute sensibility, and its absorption in self. He is like one of the great forces of nature—unreasoning, elemental, mighty to create or destroy. His inaction is as tremendous as his action. He is offended, and the Greeks, deprived of his aid, are brought to the brink of ruin—his friend is slain by Hector, and the current of his fury, thus directed into a new channel, sweeps the whole Trojan army before it in havoc and rout.
This, then, is the plan of the Iliad—to describe the effects of Achilles’ anger, first on the Greeks, then on the Trojans. A brief review of the story will show how the plan is worked out. In the ninth year of the war, the Greeks have taken a small town in the neighbourhood of Troy, and Agamemnon has received a maiden named Chryseis as his share of the spoil. Chryses, the maiden’s father, comes to the Grecian camp to ransom his child, but he is rudely repulsed by Agamemnon, and invokes the vengeance of Apollo, whose priest he is, on the Greeks. Apollo sends a pestilence on the camp, and Agamemnon is compelled in consequence to restore Chryseis, but he recompenses himself by seizing another maiden, named Briseis, awarded to Achilles as a prize at the capture of the same city. Achilles vows vengeance on the whole Greek army for this outrage, and Thetis, his mother, obtains a promise from Zeus, the supreme god of Olympus, that her son’s vow shall be fulfilled to the letter. Accordingly Zeus sends a false dream to Agamemnon, bidding him lead the whole army against Troy, with the assurance of a decisive victory. Agamemnon obeys the summons in all good faith, and the two armies meet on the plain before the city. But just as the general encounter is about to begin, Paris offers to meet Menelaus in single combat, and a truce is made in order that the duel may take place. They fight, and Menelaus is victorious, but Paris is saved from death or capture by the intervention of Aphrodite.
Menelaus now claims the fulfilment of the conditions of the truce—the restoration of Helen with all her wealth. But before the point can be debated, Pandarus, a Trojan, at the instigation of Athene, aims an arrow at Menelaus, and wounds him in the side. This treacherous act leads to an immediate renewal of hostilities, and in the battle which follows the Trojans are reduced to such straits by the powers of Diomede that Hector goes on a mission to the city, to institute a solemn supplication in the temple of Athene, in the vain hope of diverting her anger from the Trojans. Having accomplished his errand, he returns to the field, bringing with him Paris, who, since his defeat by Menelaus, has been dallying in Helen’s bower; and then follows a duel between Hector and Ajax, in which the Greek champion has the advantage. At the suggestion of Nestor, the Greeks fortify their camp with a moat and rampart; and this brings us to the end of the seventh book.
Hitherto the Greeks have had a decided advantage in battle with the Trojans, and nothing has been done to carry out the promise which Zeus made to Thetis. But now the father of gods and men begins to take decisive measures to fulfil his pledge; the gods are forbidden to interfere between the rival armies, and in the next day’s battle the Greeks are driven back in panic to their camp, while the Trojans, contrary to their custom, keep the field all night, intending to attack the Greek stronghold in full force next day. So despondent are the Greeks that an embassy is sent with an offer of magnificent gifts to Achilles, if he will lay aside his anger and come to the help of his distressed countrymen. Achilles refuses all compromise, and the rest of the night is occupied by the bold raid undertaken by Diomede and Odysseus on the Thracian camp.
At the opening of the eleventh book our attention is concentrated on the valorous exploits of Agamemnon, who is at length compelled to retire by a severe wound in the arm; Diomede is pierced through the foot by an arrow from the bow of Paris, and Odysseus, Machaon, and Eurypylus are also disabled. Patroclus is sent by Achilles to inquire of Nestor concerning the fortunes of the Greeks, and Nestor then makes the suggestion which marks the turning-point in the first act of the great epic drama: if, he says, Achilles will not go to the field himself, at least let him send Patroclus to lead the Myrmidons[1] against the Trojans. Nothing comes of the proposal for the present, but it is to bear fatal fruit both for Patroclus and Achilles in the near future. The Greeks are again driven behind their defences, and a furious struggle ensues, at the end of which the gates of the camp are demolished, and the Trojans, led by Hector, are on the point of setting fire to the ships.

[1] The followers of Achilles

At this moment the attention of Zeus is withdrawn from the battle, and Poseidon seizes the opportunity to interfere in favour of the Greeks. By his influence the scale is turned again, Hector receives fearful injuries from a huge stone hurled by Ajax, and the Trojans are driven headlong across the plain. Zeus is lulled to sleep by the contrivance of Hera, and when he awakens it is to find his whole scheme of vengeance on the point of being frustrated. In great anger he sends a peremptory message to Poseidon to withdraw from the battle, and lays his commands on Apollo, who brings back Hector, healed and whole, to the field, and leads the Trojans once more to the assault of the camp. In spite of the desperate valour of Ajax, the Greeks are driven back to their ships, and the Trojans bring torches, with the intention of burning the whole fleet.
Then at last Achilles, yielding to the earnest entreaty of Patroclus, sends him to the aid of the Greeks, equipped in his own armour, and leading the whole force of the Myrmidons. Patroclus easily drives the Trojans back from the camp, and slays Sarpedon, one of the bravest warriors among the allies of Troy; but he himself falls by Hector’s hand, and the armour of Achilles passes into the possession of his slayer. A tremendous struggle ensues over the body of Patroclus, which is only ended by the appearance of Achilles himself, who comes, attended by strange prodigies, to the wall, and, by the mere terror of his presence, scares the Trojans from the field, and saves his friend’s body from outrage.
The rest of the story may be briefly told. By the intercession of Thetis, Hephæstus, the divine smith, makes a splendid suit of armour for Achilles, and, after a solemn scene of reconciliation with Agamemnon, Achilles leads the Greeks to battle. The whole torrent of his fury is now turned upon the Trojans, and, after a wholesale massacre of lesser victims, he meets Hector in single combat, slays him, and drags his body behind his chariot to the camp. The funeral obsequies of Patroclus are celebrated with great pomp, and then Achilles, who is possessed by a demon of rage and grief, continues for a space of twelve days to wreak his vengeance on the lifeless body of Hector, which he drags repeatedly behind his car round the tomb of Patroclus. The gods interpose to make an end of this senseless fury, and Hector’s body, which has been miraculously preserved from harm, is restored to Priam, who comes in the night, under the conduct of Hermes, and redeems the corpse with a heavy ransom. With the burial of Hector the poem reaches its conclusion.
Such, in the briefest and baldest outline, is the story of the Iliad. Space does not allow us to discuss the various objections which have been raised against some of the details of the narrative, still less to enumerate the reconstructions and mutilations to which the great epic has been subjected in the dissecting-room of criticism. Where opinion is still so much divided, we may be allowed to state our conviction that the Iliad, though wanting the structural perfection of the Odyssey, is one poem, and the work of one master mind.


The gods in the Iliad play a very active and human part, and indeed they may be said in a sense to be more human than the men themselves. They are passionate, sensual, vindictive; they have no sense of fair play, but are always ready to help their favourites by all means, fair or foul. When Patroclus is to die, he is stripped of his armour and beaten half senseless by Apollo, and delivered over in this helpless state to Euphorbus and Hector; and Hector, in his turn, is cheated and beguiled to his death by Athene. In the chariot race which is described in the twenty-third book Athene wrecks the car of Eumelus to secure the victory for Diomede; and the same goddess interferes in the foot race on behalf of Odysseus, whom she loves like a mother. We have already remarked, in the Introduction to the Odyssey, that the only humorous scenes in the Iliad are those in which the gods play the chief or sole part. And, in fact, the want of dignity and decorum which we find in these mighty beings is simply astonishing. The battle of the gods, which is introduced with such pomp and parade, ends in the broadest farce. In the fifth book, Ares roars and bellows like a beast when he is wounded by the spear of Diomede, and Aphrodite, whose hand has been scratched, goes whimpering and whining to her mother for comfort. Only in a few passages do we find a great and worthy conception of the divine nature—as in the famous lines in the first book, when Zeus nods his immortal head confirming his oath to Thetis, and in the sublime description of Poseidon at the beginning of the thirteenth book.
At the head of the Olympian hierarchy stands Zeus the lord of the sky, who divides with his brothers, Hades and Poseidon, the empire of the universe. He is the highest in power and authority, and with him rests the final decision in all the disputes of Olympus. But this genial and patriarchal deity is not without his troubles: he rules over a disorderly household, and his purposes are constantly thwarted by the lesser powers who reign under him. In his heart of hearts he favours Priam and the Trojans, but he is a fond and indulgent father and husband, and Hera, his wife, and Athene, his daughter, cherish an implacable hatred against Troy and all things Trojan. The reason for this bitter animosity does not appear: for the judgment of Paris, which is the cause assigned by later legends, is only mentioned in one passage, of doubtful authenticity. Hera is described as a lady of shrewish and vixenish temper; she will never be satisfied, says Zeus, until she has gone down into Troy and eaten Priam and all his people raw! Her human counterpart is Hecuba, who would like, she says, to tear out the heart of Achilles, and devour it. On the side of the Trojans are Apollo, Artemis, Hephæstus, the river-god Scamander, and Leto.
Such are the gods of Homer, and such the national divinities of Greece. For the poems of Homer and Hesiod, as Herodotus informs us, are the chief sources of the popular theology. Small wonder, then, that the more earnest minds of a later age were much occupied by the endeavour to raise and purify the accepted mythology, or that Plato excludes Homer, “the great magician,” from his scheme of reformed education.


Of Achilles and Odysseus we have already spoken at some length, so that we have only to notice briefly the other chief characters. At the head of the Greek army stands Agamemnon, whose authority rests on his personal prowess, his vast wealth, and the extent of his dominions. In the absence of Achilles he shares with Ajax and Diomede the highest place among the warriors of Greece. A certain strain of weakness runs through his character. He is jealous of his authority, and somewhat covetous, and at moments of crisis and peril he is always foremost in the counsels of despair. Next to him in rank comes Menelaus, his brother, an amiable but somewhat feeble prince, to whom the poet shows a certain playful tenderness, such as is felt by chivalrous natures towards a woman or a child.
The most knightly figure on the Greek side is the young Diomede, whose wonderful exploits fill so large a space in the earlier part of the poem. His gallant and buoyant spirit shines brightest when the fortunes of the Greeks are at their lowest ebb; and the beautiful episode of his meeting with Glaucus on the battlefield is a rare exception to the savage ferocity of Homeric warfare.
After Achilles, the mightiest champion of Greece is the great Telamonian Ajax. He is a giant in stature and strength, and is the chief bulwark of the Greeks against the impetuous valour of Hector. In character, he is modest and unassuming; he lacks the brilliant qualities of Achilles, though equal to him in sheer physical force. He is the type of the rugged soldier, such as we find among the Spartans of a later date, loyal to his prince, a faithful comrade, ever at the post of danger, ever prompt to help where the need is sorest. His plain, frank nature views with contempt the fantastic pride of Achilles, whose frightful egoism, and indifference to the sufferings of his countrymen, revolt and disgust him.

The Leaders of the Greeks (Christian G. Heyne)
This list may fitly be closed with the name of Nestor, “the clear-voiced orator, from whose lips flowed eloquence sweeter than honey.” As becomes his age, he assumes the office of peacemaker between Agamemnon and Achilles; in spite of his eighty years, he still takes the field and fights in the van, though his arm is now of less value than his head. With regard to his eloquence, it can hardly be said, judging by the specimen preserved, that he is quite worthy of his reputation. He is, in fact, garrulous, rambling, and tedious—though in these qualities he is even surpassed by the aged Phœnix, who has played the part of male nurse to Achilles, and excels in a style of oratory dear to the professional guardians of childhood.
The great champion of the Trojans is Hector, the son of Priam and Hecuba. His character is, in every respect, a contrast to that of Achilles. With him the claims of king and country ever come first, though he is not indifferent to personal distinction. He falls very far short of the ideal knight—without fear and without reproach. In these qualities he seems to be eclipsed by Glaucus and Sarpedon, the princes of Lycia, whose beautiful friendship finds its most illustrious record in the immortal lines of the twelfth book,[2] the finest exposition in the world of the principle involved in the words noblesse oblige. Hector, on the other hand, is full of weakness: at one time he is faint-hearted, and has to be recalled to the duties of his great position by the reproaches of those who serve under him; at another time he is overbold, and his rashness brings upon the Trojans overwhelming disaster. Yet with all this, his character is full of interest. In his greater moments he rises to sublime heights of heroism. He does not shrink from the consequences of his actions, but goes to certain death with the spirit of a patriot and martyr. He is the mirror of knightly courtesy, kind and gentle even to the guilty and the fallen; and his last meeting with Andromache is hardly to be matched for beauty and pathos in all literature.

[2] See p. 107.

A bare mention must suffice for Priam, the white-haired King, and the most tragic figure in the poem; Paris, the curled darling of Aphrodite, a mere beautiful animal, without soul or conscience, and the lovely passion-stricken Helen, whose strange story seems to have a closer affinity with mediæval romance than with classical antiquity.



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