Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Rage of Achilles

“ Down from the high skies the father of men and gods let loose tremendous thunder,
   from down below Poseidon shook the boundless earth and towering heads of mountains.
   The whole world quaked, the slopes of Ida with all her springs and all her peaks
   and the walls of Troy and Achaea’s ships... ”

                              - ZEUS UNLEASHES WAR UPON THE FIELDS OF TROY

Thetis presents the arms to Achilles
Painting by Giulio Romano.
Newly furnished with a magnificent gift of arms from the forge of Hephaestus himself, with a roar of fury Achilles vowed bloody vengeance upon the sons of Troy, and death to Prince Hector, whose hand had felled his cousin Patroclus (for the immediate lead up to these events, please click here). As the rage pounding through Achilles reached even lofty Olympus, the gods above met in council to lay out the brutal final act of the siege of Troy. But Achilles, one of the greatest warriors ever born, was unleashed upon the field of war, the only place ever his true home.

Seeing the unstoppable power of Achilles gathering its strength, Zeus the Thunderer is worried. The Fates have decreed that Priam’s citadel will indeed fall, but also that Achilles will not be the one to take it, that he must die at Troy. Fearing that Achilles will dare to raze the walls of Troy himself if unopposed, Zeus commands the gods to take their sides and journey down to the field of war, granting aid to whoever their desire drives them. With a flash of lightning, the gods descend from on high, their spirits going one way or another. Hera, Queen of the gods, races to the Achaean ships, followed closely by Poseidon, the god of the sea and Lord of Earthquakes, Athena, the lady of war and wisdom, as well as Hermes the god of messengers and luck and Hephaestus, the god of fire and the forge. But murderous Ares, the god of war himself, swept to the Trojan ranks, flanked by Apollo, the god of the sun and the archer, Artemis his twin sister and Aphrodite of the golden hair.

As gods waged war upon gods, so too down on the plain did man against man. Spying his first foe, Achilles charged upon Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite and cousin of Hector. Breathing strength into the Trojan warrior, Apollo turned to face the wrathful Achilles. Taunting his audacity to face him alone, Achilles sprinted toward Aeneas. Facing his foe honourably, Aeneas hurls his heavy lance at the golden clad Achilles. His aim is true, and surely it would smite the life from Achilles, but no, the glittering gifts of the gods guarded the favoured Achilles. Five plies thick was the Shield of Achilles, the outer two forged of bronze, the inner two of tin and between them one of purest gold. The mighty ashen spear of Aeneas bores through two plies and held fast in the gold. Now Achilles’ turn. Taking up his spear of strong Pelian ash, the son of Peleus hurled with all his might. Straight through Aeneas’ shield the spear punched, but the Trojan crouched low, and the spear soared inches from his head and embedded firmly in the ground behind. Anguish rising in him, Aeneas fears that his time has come, as do the gods above. Drawing his sword, Achilles lunges to strike down the prince, but his blade passes only air, for Poseidon rushes to the field and bears Aeneas away to safety. The Fates have a plan for Aeneas, a magnificent destiny ahead in a distant land, it is not his time.

The Fury of Achilles
Painting by Charles-Antoine Coypel.
Furious at his humbled glory, Achilles charges into the massed ranks of the Trojans. Iphition is the first to fall, as Achilles deals him so violent a blow with his spear that the Trojan’s skull splits in half. His rage growing, Achilles rounds on Demoleon next and, with a shout, spears him in the temple, the bronze helmet buckling before the great warrior, Demoleon’s brains and gore showering his comrades. The carnage rising, Polydorus, the Prince of Troy and brother to Hector, falls to Achilles’ hands, the blood of yet another of Priam’s sons staining the fields of Troy. Then he sees him. Hector himself is close at hand. Gaze fixed upon the man who is the cause of his grief, Achilles speeds toward him as Death to a man. Apollo, seeing the danger, whisks Hector away from the battle. Roaring in defiance at the Heavens, the godlike Achilles hurls himself once again into the thick of war, rage tempered by grief for his fallen cousin. His blade hot with the blood of Trojan sons, and his anger hotter still, Achilles gives chase to his fleeing foe.

Achilles fights the River
Painting by Auguste Couder.
Coming to the banks of the Scamander River, many Trojans, looking upon the golden clad Achilles in terror, hurl themselves into its foaming waters, desperate to escape his spear. But nothing will break the lust for slaughter in Achaea’s greatest champion. Casting aside his great spear, he dives in, relentless in pursuit, hurling countless heroes to the House of Death. But Scamander is angered by the desecration of his waters. Rising from a whirlpool, the shape of a man, the god of the river begs Achilles to stop his rampage, as his channels are already choked with corpses. Scorning the god’s plea, Achilles advances, as Scamander swirls his waters to protect the fleeing Trojans, calling to Apollo for aid. His rage fired once more, Achilles charges the god himself. Bellowing as a bull, Scamander, his white rapids churning in fury, hurls his thunderous currents upon the hero. The powerful torrents batter that mighty shield, forcing Achilles on one knee. Cursing the river’s power, Achilles moves for the bank, eager to return to the battlefield. But the river refuses to let up, crashing upon the furious hero again and again:

                  “ Again and again the brilliant swift Achilles whirled...

                     Again and again the mighty crest of the river fed by the rains of Zeus

                     Came battering down on his shoulders, down from high above

                     But Achilles kept on leaping, higher, desperate now... ”

                                                 - SCAMANDER FIGHTS ACHILLES

Bemoaning that it is better to die under the spear of Hector than broken by the river, the lamentations of Achilles are heard throughout the Heavens. Rushing to his aid, the god Hephaestus, whose mighty hands made the shining armour now protecting Achilles, moves against the river. Conjuring up his divine power, the god of fire unleashes a maelstrom of fiery rage upon Scamander. The elms, willows and tamarisks upon its banks roar with flame, the lotus plants amongst its waters blacken with heat and the creatures within its waves writhe in agony as the blazing inferno takes hold. Hera sends the West and South Winds forth, and a searing gale blasts the Trojan troops, as the whole arena now erupts with fire. His waters bubbling and boiling with agony, Scamader cries in cruel pain, crippled under the onslaught. Relenting at last, the river releases its hold on Achilles, surrendering the great hero to his fate. Hephaestus quenches his flame, and makes his peace with Scamander. Fury pounding through his veins, Achilles leaps from the river and sprints toward the towering walls of Troy, focusing on one thing alone – Hector. The gods above will not interfere this time. This time, there will be no escape for the Prince of Troy, as total war descends upon the vast plains...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)

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