Study Guide

The Iliad Book 2

By Homer

Book 2

  • While all the other gods and mortals are sleeping, Zeus is lying awake at night. He is wondering how he can help Achilleus and hurt the Achaians.
  • Finally, he decides to send a dream to Agamemnon. The dream, which takes the shape of Nestor, explains that Hera has brought all the other gods on board, that the city will soon be captured, and that the Achaians must attack immediately, in full force.
  • "Hot diggity!" Agamemnon says (yes, Agamemnon is a chump) the next morning, "That's better than black coffee." He immediately finds his generals and repeats the dream's message word-for-word. He says that they should attack Troy that day, but, first, they should make a test of the soldiers' loyalty. Agamemnon will tell the men they can go home; then the generals will hold them back.
  • Nestor agrees with this plan, and praises Agamemnon's ingenuity. The generals summon the troops, who gather to receive their instructions.
  • Agamemnon stands in front of the troops, holding his royal scepter. We get a time-out from the main story while Homer explains the origins of the scepter.
  • Once that's over with, Agamemnon tells the soldiers that Zeus has commanded them all to go home. The soldiers all start running for their ships.
  • The soldiers are all showing a bit too much enthusiasm. At least that's what Hera thinks, so she sends Athene down to put a stop to it.
  • Okay, so if you haven't noticed yet, Hera really has it in for the Trojans. In case you've been wondering why this is, you're in luck. It is now time for us to interrupt our regular programming to bring you: The Backstory's Backstory.
  • Many years before the Trojan War began, Zeus developed a crush on the sea-goddess Thetis. (Remember her? If not, check out our summary of Book 1.) Usually the king of the gods wouldn't think twice about making his move, except this time something held him back: he learned of a prophecy that said she would bear a child more powerful than its father.
  • Zeus didn't like the sound of that one bit. In fact, he disliked it so much that he immediately arranged for Thetis to be married off to someone much, much weaker than himself—the mortal prince Peleus.
  • (Okay, we know one of you mathematicians is going to point out that the child of Thetis and a mortal could still end up being more powerful than his father and Zeus. Maybe it's best to think of Zeus as trying to improve his chances.)
  • When the day of Peleus and Thetis's wedding arrived, all the gods were invited, except for Eris, the goddess of Hate (sometimes translated as "Strife"). But do you really think the goddess of Hate isn't going to show up uninvited?
  • Of course she crashed the party. Knowing she had to make her mark before being thrown out by security, Hate threw a golden apple into the midst of the crowd. Inscribed on the apple were the words "For The Most Beautiful." To nobody's surprise, the three most powerful goddesses—Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite—all claimed the apple for themselves.
  • Zeus knew better than to pass judgment in such a delicate matter. Instead, he sent the goddesses to the area around Troy. There, they would let the judge be the Trojan prince Paris—Paris who, even before he got into the wife-stealing business, was known to have a keen eye for the ladies.
  • The problem with Olympian Idol is that there can only be one winner. Paris gave the apple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who had promised to reward him with the most beautiful woman in the world if he picked her.
  • The problem with Aphrodite's promise was that the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, was already married to king Menelaos. When Aphrodite helped Paris sail to Sparta, capture Helen, and take her back to Troy—well, we already know how that turned out.
  • The problem with there only being one winner was that, in this case, the two losers were extremely powerful goddesses. Ever since Paris's judgment, Hera and Athene have been nursing a serious grudge against Paris and all other Trojans.
  • What about Peleus and Thetis, whose wedding started it all? Well, the child of their union was none other than Achilleus. But since he's currently out of commission, let's not worry about him for the moment.
  • This brings us to the end of The Backstory's Backstory—and right into the action, where Athene has been sent by Hera to stop the Achaians from sailing back home.
  • First Athene approaches Odysseus, her favorite among the Achaian warriors, and tells him to intervene.
  • Odysseus, who had been hanging back, and had not even touched his own ship, is only too happy to oblige. First he borrows Agamemnon's scepter, as a sign of authority. Then he goes among the soldiers; whenever he sees a soldier of high rank, he asks him politely not to run away. Whenever he sees a soldier of lower rank, he gives him the same message—by hitting him with the scepter!
  • Eventually, the Achaians come back to the assembly hall. Just when things are starting to settle down, though, up stands Thersites, the ugliest and most cowardly of the Achaians. Thersites says that they should all sail home, that Agamemnon is a big jerk, and that Achilleus could have mopped the floor with him if he'd wanted to.
  • Odysseus intervenes, tells Thersites off, and then beats him up with Agamemnon's scepter. The other soldiers cheer.
  • Now is the moment for Odysseus to follow this up with an inspiring speech. He reminds them of something that happened nine years earlier.
  • When the Achaians were making their way to Troy, they stopped for a while at the city of Aulis. One day, while making sacrifices, they saw a snake crawl out from under the altar. It slithered up a tree and promptly devoured a nest of eight sparrow hatchlings, plus the mother to boot.
  • Worried that this might be a bad omen, the Achaians asked the soothsayer Kalchas to interpret it for them. Kalchas explained that the nine sparrows the snake swallowed represented the nine years the Achaians would have to spend besieging Troy. The soothsayer then said that they would capture the city in the tenth year.
  • When Odysseus has finished his story, Nestor steps forward and calls for less gabbing and more stabbing. Being Nestor, he launches into a rambling speech complaining about those who only think for themselves and don't help the group effort (Achilleus, hint-hint?).
  • Finally he gets to the point: Agamemnon should arrange his soldiers in order of city of origin. That way, if they're unsuccessful in the battle, he'll be able to tell if the will of the gods is to blame, or just some incompetent commander.
  • Agamemnon thinks this is a great idea. He orders the soldiers to get all their equipment ready and have a hearty meal, so they'll all be ready for a long day of fighting.
  • While the soldiers eat breakfast, Agamemnon and the other generals make a sacrifice. Agamemnon prays to Zeus for success in battle, but Homer tells us that Zeus will not fulfill his request.
  • When everyone has eaten, Nestor tells Agamemnon to get everyone ready. Agamemnon agrees, the heralds announce the order, and the men begin to assemble.
  • What follows next is known as the Catalogue of Ships. Basically, it's a list of all the different contingents that make up the Achaian army, where they come from, who commands them, how many ships they have, and any other relevant background info. There are so many different names and numbers here that the poet actually has to call on the Muses again, just to help him remember everything.
  • Even though the Catalogue of Ships can make even hardcore Homer fans feel their eyes glaze over, it isn't without its highlights.
  • For example, keep an eye out for the tribe of the Abantes from Euboea, whom Homer describes as rocking the mullet haircut.
  • Later on in the Catalogue, Homer tells us about the Myrmidons—the tribe that Achilleus leads—and how they are not taking part in the preparations, in solidarity with their leader. We are told that, even if Achilleus isn't fighting now, the day is coming when he will again.
  • After the Catalogue of Ships comes the Catalogue of Chariots. We think you get the idea what this is all about. Once again, pay attention to the description of the Myrmidons, the only ones who are just training, not getting ready to fight.
  • While the Achaians are getting ready, Zeus sends Iris, the messenger of the gods, to warn the Trojans. Taking the shape of Polites, the son of the Trojan king Priam, Iris finds the Trojan elders in a meeting.
  • After she passes along Zeus's message, Hektor, the greatest Trojan warrior, declares the meeting adjourned.
  • The Trojans start assembling for battle on a ridge in front of Troy. Because Homer never misses an opportunity for some good cataloguing, he rounds out the book with a list of the Trojan forces and their allies.

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