Saturday, August 18, 2012

The tide of battle turns - Book 8 -Zeus gets into the act

The last we saw of the Trojan war was that the Greeks had offended the Gods. Now as dawn breaks out, Zeus gathers all the immortals and sends them a clear message about what he is about to do. The beauty of this stanza is not what he says, but how he says. It is direct, unambiguous with a clear threat to anyone who may go against his plan.

"Now as the Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth
Let no lovely goddess - and no god either -
try to fight against my strict decree.
All submit to it now, so all the more quickly
The beginning itself makes his intentions clear, he will not brook any opposition. And if some one does oppose him

"back he comes to Olympus, whipped by the lightning,
eternally disgraced. Or I will snatch and hurl him
down to the murk of Tartarus half the world away,
then he will know how far my power tops all other gods

Zeus finally ends his warning with a reminder that

"But whenever I'd set my mind to drag you up.
in deadly earnest, I'd hoist you all with ease,
you and the earth, you and the sea, all together,
then loop that golden cable round a horn of Olympus,
bind it fast and leave the whole world dangling in mid-ari
that is how far I tower over the gods, I tower over men."

We can split the entire stanza of 30 lines into 3 parts, the first one with the direct message, the second one being the threat of what would happen if Zeus is opposed. But what use is a threat if the person threatening is not capable of carrying it out? Would the person be respected. No, it would be treated as empty boasting. That's not the case with Zeus and to drive home the point that he cannot be disobeyed he mentions in the third part about his unlimited power, a reminder to the other Gods. This third part is what actually seals the deal. Any God who may have had any idea to oppose him would surely have decided against it hearing the above lines. Homer could have easily compressed the entire 30 lines into one third of it and conveyed the same message. But would it have had the same impact, no, that's why the detailed threats and punishments.

Also note the reference to Dawn as a 'her'. It is the same throughout the poem and is consistent with other ancient civilizations, like say in India where Usha/Ushas refers to the goddess of dawn. 

Hera and Athena of course are not happy with it, but have to go along because there is no other way out. So Zeus sets out from Olympus and reached the Gargaron peak where he can view the battle. The days battle begins and is on an even keel when Zeus decides at noon to alter the balance. And how does he do that? He does it in style.

"But once the sun stood striding at high noon,
then Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales:
in them  he placed two fates of death that lays men low-
one for the Trojan horsemen, one for Argives armed in bronze-
and gripping the beam mid-haft the Father raised it high
and down went Acahea's day of doom, Achaea's fate
settling down on the earth that feeds us all
as the fate of Troy went lifting towards the sky."

That's it, the fate of the Greeks has been sealed for now. Just visualize it, the God of gods, the alpha male(god) on a mountain top, the sun shining down at noon. He takes out his golden scales, which would also be glistening in the sunlight. Life and death to decided on the scales of Zeus, who then

"..Zeus let loose a huge crash of thunder from Ida
hurling his bolts in a flash against Achaea's armies."

the Greeks are stricken with terror seeing it. Odyssesus, Agamemmon and the other warriors run away. Even Great Ajax, warrior par excellence is not immune to it. The battle is now a rout with the Greek army in complete disarray. But Diomedes and Nestor decide to fight back and launch a counter attack. It would have succeeded but for Zeus, who has decided that victory would go to the Trojans. So

".. Zeus let loose a terrific bolt
and blazing white at the hoofs of Diomedes team
it split the earth, a blinding smoking flash-
molten sulphur exploding into the air,
stallions shying, cringing against the car-"

team - This term refers to a group of horses in the poem, typically a chariot drawn by horses.

This is the final straw the breaks the resistance of the Greeks, because one can fight the Trojans to the end and hope for victory, but what chance does one have against the thunderbolts of Zeus. Nestor is the first person to recognize this and alerts Diomedes who reluctantly retreats. Hector on seeing the sudden turn of events taunts Diomedes and urges his troops to take advantage of this breakthrough. As the Trojans plow through the Greeks, Agamemnon pleads to Zeus saying

"Not once,
I swear, did I pass some handsome shrine of yours,
sailing my oar-swept ship on our fatal voyage here,
but on each I burned the fat and thighs of oxen,"

Zeus relents and decides that the Greeks must be saved. So he rouses the war lust of the Greeks now and they fall upon the Trojans with renewed vigor. In Book 7 I had mentioned Zeus as puppeteer making everyone dance to his tunes. This book is an example for that, first he decides that Trojans will win, then on hearing a plea supports (temporarily) the Greeks so that they are not completely decimated. But though the Greeks are not destroyed it is clear that they are losing the battle.  Hera on seeing this cannot control herself and starts with Athena from Olympus to help the Greeks. But can anything escape from the Father? Zeus sees it and sends a strong warning saying 

"I'll maim their racers for them,
right beneath their yokes, and those two goddesses,
I'll hurl them from their chariot, smash their car,
and not once in the course of ten slow wheeling years
will they heal the wounds my lighting bolt rips open."

Maiming, hurling from chariot, hurting them with lightning which will take more than 10 years to heal. This is not a threat Zeus tells to a third person, but to his own wife/sister and daughter. If he is so tough on his own family, what hope do mere mortals have when they offend him? Hera wisely decides to back off saying

"Men - let one of them die, another live,
however their luck may run. Let Zeus decide
the fates of the men of Troy and men of Argos both,
to his deathless heart's content - that is only right."

You can sense the pained resignation of Hera from what she says. It is a state where one has fought the good fight, but has finally come to understand that it's futile to continue as only defeat is going to come and withdraws from it sorrowfully, neither able to give up the fight completely nor able to continue with it any longer. Meanwhile the Trojans continue with their decimation of the Greek armies who are saved by the onset of night as the battle has to be stopped. Both the armies retreat back to their positions. The books ends with a beautiful visual of the Trojan army waiting in the night for the next battle.

"A thousand fires were burning there on the plain
and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men
poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats
and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots,
stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne."

Nothing to say about it, just need to imagine the scale of Homer's visualization in one's mind. Haven't all armies across the ages done the same thing, waiting by the fire in the night, waiting for the next battle, enjoying the food at hand for who knows whether they would be alive the next night.

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