Late Light

An Argument with Apollo

How the Iliad was sung

The oral poets of the Iliad and the Odyssey performed their poems every time anew, creatively attentive to the particularities of occasion and the live responses of audiences, including the patron who was paying the bill. The Iliad and the Odyssey were, as Albert Lord and others have taught us, poetry in performance.1 Contemporary editions and translations of Homer have largely effaced that performative aspect, which was dependent, in part, on the bards’ knowledge of a variety of variant paths for their songs. Those paths are recoverable, though incompletely, through the collation of manuscripts and papyrus fragments, as well as through the study of metrically cognate passages from the extant Homeric poems—i.e., where the same words and phrases appear in the same metrical positions, if to different local effects and to larger cumulative resonances. In the translation that follows, I have—in the indented lines—interwoven some of those cognate lines and passages, so as to give some sense of the repertoire of lines—and the consequent thematic density—that would have been available to the singing, performing bard and his audience.

1. Apollo complains of Akhilleus (Iliad 24.33–48):

You gods, you want to uncurse cursed Akhilleus,
whose feeling knows no balance, whose mind does not uncoil.
He thinks beyond bounds, like a lion,
who frees his own force, his own malice,
who goes among the mortal flocks, to seize a feast.

Divide a feast, as befits old kings …

The bodies of heroes
the accursing fury of Akhilleus was preparing as prey for dogs
and a feast for birds …

So Akhilleus has destroyed fellow-feeling and has no awe of camps or cities—
the awe that devours men and sustains them too.

As the Skylla devours …
As the Cyclopes devour …
As starving men devour …

And come on, surely before now a man must have lost
a blood brother or a son: they cry, they mourn; they let it go.
The Apportioners set in mortals a spirit that balances and bears.

2. Akhilleus laments Patroklos (Iliad 19.319–26):

Now you lie mangled before me, and my heart
fasts from drink and meat,
longing for you,
mourning for you.

And when they had stilled their desire for drink and meat, they

took counsel
slept …

I can suffer nothing worse,
not even if I should hear of the death of my father
or my son.

3. Akhilleus in motion (Iliad 24.2–12):

… the others turned their thoughts to food
and sweet sleep. Akhilleus alone yet wept,
remembering Patroklos, queer beyond all relation.
Nor did Sleep, who stills us all, come,
but Akhilleus contorted in every direction,
desiring Patroklos’ sap, swell, flux.

… death enfolded Patroklos
and the life-breath flew from his limbs,
mourning her end, leaving behind sap, bloom, flux.

Remembering, torrential Akhilleus wept.
On his side, his back, his chest, he rose and fell. In upheaval
he whirled, wandering, beside himself.

The young men whirled in the dance …

And the wild dove, as she
whirled, the spear passed straight through.
Her neck droops, her wings beat limp, down to the earth
she falls …

And Bellerophon too was despised by all the gods.
He wandered alone on the Wandering Plain,
Devouring his own spirit, wandering apart from all human traces.

Greek for “An Argument with Apollo”

Iliad 24.33–48:

σχέτλιοί ἐστε θεοί, δηλήμονες: οὔ νύ ποθ’ ὑμῖν
Ἕκτωρ μηρί’ ἔκηε βοῶν αἰγῶν τε τελείων;
τὸν νῦν οὐκ ἔτλητε νέκυν περ ἐόντα σαῶσαι
ᾗ τ’ ἀλόχῳ ἰδέειν καὶ μητέρι καὶ τέκεϊ ᾧ
καὶ πατέρι Πριάμῳ λαοῖσί τε, τοί κέ μιν ὦκα
ἐν πυρὶ κήαιεν καὶ ἐπὶ κτέρεα κτερίσαιεν.
ἀλλ’ ὀλοῷ Ἀχιλῆϊ θεοὶ βούλεσθ’ ἐπαρήγειν,
ᾧ οὔτ’ ἂρ φρένες εἰσὶν ἐναίσιμοι οὔτε νόημα
γναμπτὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι, λέων δ’ ὣς ἄγρια οἶδεν,
ὅς τ’ ἐπεὶ ἂρ μεγάλῃ τε βίῃ καὶ ἀγήνορι θυμῷ
εἴξας εἶσ’ ἐπὶ μῆλα βροτῶν ἵνα δαῖτα λάβῃσιν:
ὣς Ἀχιλεὺς ἔλεον μὲν ἀπώλεσεν, οὐδέ οἱ αἰδὼς
γίγνεται, ἥ τ’ ἄνδρας μέγα σίνεται ἠδ’ ὀνίνησι.
μέλλει μέν πού τις καὶ φίλτερον ἄλλον ὀλέσσαι
ἠὲ κασίγνητον ὁμογάστριον ἠὲ καὶ υἱόν:
ἀλλ’ ἤτοι κλαύσας καὶ ὀδυράμενος μεθέηκε:
τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν.

Iliad 19.319–26:

νῦν δὲ σὺ μὲν κεῖσαι δεδαϊγμένος, αὐτὰρ ἐμὸν κῆρ
ἄκμηνον πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἔνδον ἐόντων
σῇ ποθῇ: οὐ μὲν γάρ τι κακώτερον ἄλλο πάθοιμι,
οὐδ’ εἴ κεν τοῦ πατρὸς ἀποφθιμένοιο πυθοίμην,
ὅς που νῦν Φθίηφι τέρεν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβει
χήτεϊ τοιοῦδ’ υἷος: ὃ δ’ ἀλλοδαπῷ ἐνὶ δήμῳ
εἵνεκα ῥιγεδανῆς Ἑλένης Τρωσὶν πολεμίζω
ἠὲ τὸν ὃς Σκύρῳ μοι ἔνι τρέφεται φίλος υἱός,

Iliad 24.2–12:

ἐσκίδναντ’ ἰέναι. τοὶ μὲν δόρποιο μέδοντο
ὕπνου τε γλυκεροῦ ταρπήμεναι: αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς
κλαῖε φίλου ἑτάρου μεμνημένος, οὐδέ μιν ὕπνος
ᾕρει πανδαμάτωρ, ἀλλ’ ἐστρέφετ’ ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα
Πατρόκλου ποθέων ἀνδροτῆτά τε καὶ μένος ἠύ̈,
ἠδ’ ὁπόσα τολύπευσε σὺν αὐτῷ καὶ πάθεν ἄλγεα
ἀνδρῶν τε πτολέμους ἀλεγεινά τε κύματα πείρων:
τῶν μιμνησκόμενος θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυον εἶβεν,
ἄλλοτ’ ἐπὶ πλευρὰς κατακείμενος, ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖτε
ὕπτιος, ἄλλοτε δὲ πρηνής: τοτὲ δ’ ὀρθὸς ἀναστὰς
δινεύεσκ’ ἀλύων παρὰ θῖν’ ἁλός: οὐδέ μιν ἠὼς
φαινομένη λήθεσκεν ὑπεὶρ ἅλα τ’ ἠϊόνας τε.

  1. 1.   See Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, edited and introduced by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, 2nd edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). The work of Gregory Nagy has been central to our understanding of both the performance and the traditional thematics of Homeric poetry; see the foundational Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).
Bruce King teaches ancients and moderns at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU, and at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He has published articles on Homer, Sophokles, and Empedokles, and, most recently ( with Lynn Kozak), on the queer reception of Akhilleus and Patroklos. His book on the Iliad, Akhilleus Unheroic, is forthcoming.