Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ajax duels with Hector - Book 7- The Greeks offend the Gods

Zeus the puppeteer 

We know that Zeus is the supreme power, lording it over the mortals and even the gods. He could be said to be the god of the gods. But the official pecking order of the Gods does not designate him as the supreme power. When Zeus overthrew Cronus with his brothers/sisters, the sky and heaven were to be in his control, the seas under the control of Poseidon and the underworld to be under the power of Hades. So theoretically Poseidon and Hades are the equal of Zeus. The earth was supposed to be common for all of them. But throughout the Greek myths we can see that this agreement is not followed always. It is Zeus who wields the most power even in the earth and in some cases in the seas and underworld too. Though the earth is said to be common, if Zeus does not agree with what a God wants to do a mortal there, then he will intervene and stop it. But on the other hand once Zeus has decided on a mortals fate no God can intervene. It doesn't mean that the Gods are totally subservient to him, they are many times on the verge of the revolt. But they finally desist from fighting with him explicitly as they know that he will finally outwit them somehow. We see several Hollywood movies where Hades and Poseidon are revolting against Zeus. In these Zeus is shown as a benevolent god who is under threat from the other unscrupulous gods. But that's not the case. The gods are not better or worse than each other. In fact one could term Zeus as a despot who rules over the entire universe with an iron hand.

The reason why Zeus wields so much power even over the other gods is that he is not just a brute who wields his thunder and destroys everyone. He is a cunning god who uses his brains as much as he uses his brawn. You can read innumerable instances of Zeus use his brain to outfox the mortals as well as the other gods. He even manipulates the other gods into doing what he wants without they themselves realizing what they are doing. On the other hand one cannot see such cunning in say Hades or the other gods. Zeus too is sometimes outwitted by the gods (particularly Hera) but they are far and in between. That's why the gods themselves refer to him as 'father' a term of endearment and respect rather than implying any such relationship.

Hector's Challenge

At the end of book 6 we saw Hector returning back to the battle field. Athena starts to go to Troy to encourage the Greeks when Apollo stops her. He proposes that a duel be fought on that day so that the armies can recover for the full battle next day. For this he chooses Hector from the Trojan side. Athena agrees and conveys the gods thoughts to Helenus son on Priam. On hearing that he encourages Hector to challenge the Greeks for single combat which he does saying

"let one whose nerve impels him to fight with me
come striding from your lines, a lone champion
If that man takes my life with his sharp bronze blade,
he will strip my gear and haul it back to his ships.
But give my body to friends to carry home again,"

Here is another instance of a warrior being more afraid about his fallen body being desecrated than about the fact that he would be killed. On hearing the challenge

"A hushed silence went through all the Achaean ranks,
ashamed to refuse, afraid to take his challenge..."

The reason being that they are aware of Hector's great strength and deserved standing as the best Trojan warrior. Anyone who goes into the battle would not be sure that he would return from it because

"Even Achilles dreads to pit himself against him
out on the battle lines where men win glory-"

But Nestor, an old warrior who acts as the Greeks main counselor boosts up their spirits and they decide to draw lots to select the warrior to fight Hector. As the lots are being drawn the warriors pray  

"Father Zeus, let Ajax win, or Tydeus son
or the proud king himself of all Mycenae's gold!"

Tydeus son - Diomedes
Mycenae - Capital of Agamemnon. Mycenae's king refers to him

The first line shows that only Ajax of Diomedes is capable to holding his own against Hector. The second line is a wickedly funny line which wants Agamemnon to be chosen. Agamemnon obviously is not a match for Hector, so why do they want him to be chosen. Maybe they want Agamemnon for once to get into the heat of the battle and suffer, maybe they want the whole thing to end which would happen if Agamemnon fights Hector because in that case there is only one result possible.

The Duel

Ajax is chosen to fight Hector. Ajax is confident of his strength but is realistic enough to know that it is the gods who finally decide the fate of the battles because he asks the armies to pray for him. Ajax marches towards the Trojans and on seeing him

"but terrible tremors shook each Trojan fighter's knees-
Hector himself, his heart pounding against his ribs."

This is a common among all the warrior in the poem. We do not see them as merely fighting machines with no emotions at all, let alone fear. All of the warriors feel fear at one point of another, they want to run back from the battle, even the bravest and strongest like Hector, Diomedes and Ajax. It is the the gods who instill confidence in them so that they are ready again to do battle. This is more realistic than seeing emotionless creatures butchering one another. Hector and Ajax then proceed to battle 

"and went for each other now like lions rending flesh
or a pair of wild boars whose power never flags."

It is a battle that could have gone either way. But any one of the warriors dying was not the result that the gods desired as they wanted this battle to be a kind of stop-gap arrangement. So as the battle reaches the critical stage and Hector falls down the gods intervene along with people from both armies who urge both

"No more, my sons-don't kill yourselves in combat!
Zeus who marshals the storm cloud loves you both.
You're both great fighters-we all know that full well.
The night comes on at last. Best to yield to night."

Both men agree and part giving each other gifts. Both armies are pleased with the result. Though no definite victory was achieved they are happy that at least there was no major setback to the current situation. 

The proposal of the Trojans

As the Trojans gather in their city, it is suggested that Helen be sent back to the Greeks as they have broken their sworn pact. This is the first time in the poem where a Trojan has said out in the open that Helen be returned, earlier too there were murmurs but nothing was said openly. Paris of course refuses this proposal 

"I say No, straight out- I won't give up the woman!
But those treasures I once hauled home from Argos,
I'll return them all and add from my own stores."

With no other option this proposal is accepted. A messenger is sent to the Greeks with this proposal and also asking for a temporary truce while the fallen warriors are given a proper funeral.

The funeral for the warriors

In the meantime, a feast is given in honor of Ajax. Nestor also advises them to seek a truce with the Trojans so that the fallen warriors can be given a proper funeral. He also wants the Greeks to build a rampart which would serve as a bulwark against the advancing Trojan armies. The emissary of the Trojan relays their proposal. The part about taking the gold and leaving is rejected, but the Greeks agree to a truce while giving funeral to the fallen warriors. So in the morning the two armies meet and the Trojans

"And hard as it was to recognize each man, each body,
with clear water they washed the clotted blood awy
and lifted them into wagons, weeping warm tears"

and returned to Troy, while

"And just so on the other side Achaean men-at-arms
piled the corpses on the pyre, their hearts breaking,
burned them down to ash and returned to the hollow ships."

A scene of pathos, men with no direct stake in the battle but still fighting due to their alliances with the great kings and dying thousands of miles away from their near and dear ones, no one other than their fellow warriors to weep over them. Even that is difficult as it is very hard to identify the body. There is not even a separate funeral for them, it is a mass funeral wherever everyone is lumped together. What would have run thorough the minds as the 'dark' came over them, would have had time for one last thought about their wives, children, homeland before the dark consumed them totally?

The mistake of the Greeks

After the funeral is over the Greeks quickly build a bulwark

".. threw up looming ramparts quickly,
a landward wall for ships and troops themselves,
and amidst the the wall built gateways fitted strong
the men dug an enormous trench, broad and deep,
and drove sharp stakes to guard it."

It does seem a good idea by the Greeks and an excellent defensive position. So mistake did they do? Well they did the cardinal sin of not offering any sacrifice to the gods before starting the work. As I mentioned in the previous book, offering to the gods is a very important concept for the Greeks and any slackening in it will be dealt with severely by the Gods, who are always watching the mortals. It doesn't matter that in this case, the Greeks are in a great hurry to get their defenses up before their next battle and it is a valid reason for forgetting about making offerings to the Gods. A mistake is a mistake whatever the reason be and there has to be suffering as a result of it. 

Poseidon comes to Zeus complaining that

"Father Zeus, is there a man on the whole wide earth
who still informs the gods of all his plans, his schemes?
Don't you see? Look there-the long-haired Achaeans
have flung that rampart up against their ships,
around it they have dug an enormous deep trench
and never offered the gods a hundred splendid bulls,
but its fame will spread as far as the light of dawn!
And men will forget those ramparts I and Apollo
reared for Troy in the old days-
for the hero Laomedon- we broke our backs with labor."

This is a very funny stanza, where you see Gods whining like kids about the actions of mortals. Gods who are supposed to be beyond all the normal human emotions like jealousy, anger etc are behaving like kids, that too Poseidon the god of seas and causer of earthquakes who in some ways is an equal of Zeus himself. And the last lines in the stanza where he says that this rampart will be more famous than the one that he built, reek of sheer jealousy. Why is such a powerful god jealous of something that man creates? Seeing such a powerful god demean himself like this is a bit comical actually, but this serves as the perfect example of how seriously the Gods take themselves and the sacrifices to them. Zeus, fed up with the cribbing of Poseidon shuts him up saying

"you with your massive power, why are you moaning so?
Another god might fear their wall - their idle whim-
one far weaker than you in strength of hand and fury.
Come now, just wait till these long-haired Achaeans
sail back in their ships to the fatherland they love,
then batter their wall, sweep it into the salt breakers
and pile over the endless beach your drifts of sand again,
level it to your heart's content-the Argive's mightly wall."

The last lines are important they give us a clue that the Greeks may finally travel back to their fatherland which implies that they may be the victors of the battle (or they could be running away). But most revealing is the manner in which Zeus describes how the rampart would be flattened by Poseidon. 'Batter', 'sweep','pile','level it to your heart's content' are the words used and it tells us about the suppressed rage that is to be let loose once the battle is over.

Meanwhile the Greeks go to their tents after building the rampart and have a feast all night where

"They flung wine from their cups and wet the earth
and no fighter would dare drink until he'd poured
an offering out to the overwhelming son of Cronus."

Alas, it is a bit late for the Greeks to start making offerings to the Gods as they have already displeased them and 

".. all night long the Master Strategist Zeus
plotted fresh disaster for both opposing armies-
his thunder striking terror-
and blanching panic swept across the ranks."

Let's see what diabolical plan Zeus has in his mind in the next book.

1 comment:

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