Study Guide

The Iliad Book 23

By Homer

Book 23

  • When they get back to camp, Achilleus doesn't immediately let his Myrmidons take off their gear. Instead, he commands them all to drive around the body of Patroklos and say their farewells.
  • He himself mourns by the corpse, and promises to sacrifice his twelve Trojan prisoners in Patroklos's honor.
  • Achilleus throws Hektor face down in the dirt in front of his friend's body.
  • Next he commands the Myrmidons to eat—even though he himself is taken off to feast with the other Achaian leaders.
  • Even at the feast, however, he refuses to wash the blood off himself.
  • After the feast, Achilleus lies down by the sea.
  • As soon as he falls asleep, the ghost of Patroklos appears to him. Patroklos asks Achilleus to burn his body quickly. He explains that his spirit can't be accepted into the underworld until his body has been disposed of.
  • Knowing that Achilleus will die soon, the ghost of Patroklos requests that their bones and ashes be mingled together in a single urn. That way, they can be together in death just as they grew up together.
  • Achilleus tries to embrace the ghost, but his hands pass through it. With a shriek, the apparition vanishes, and Achilleus wakes up. It is morning.
  • That day, the Achaians make a pyre for Patroklos.
  • Standing beside it, Achilleus cuts off a lock of hair he had planned to give to the River Spercheios, in his homeland, upon his return. Now, since he won't be going home, he places the lock in the hand of his dead friend.
  • Then Achilleus dismisses the rank-and-file soldiers to their meal, but keeps the chieftains to witness the funeral.
  • Achilleus slaughters a great many animals on the pyre—plus the twelve Trojan prisoners.
  • Achilleus boasts to Patroklos how he will feed Hektor to the dogs.
  • Then we are told that, without Achilleus knowing it, Aphrodite is guarding Hektor's corpse from wild animals. At the same time, Apollo has drawn a cloud over it to protect it from the harmful rays of the sun.
  • Meanwhile, Patroklos's pyre isn't blazing.
  • Achilleus prays to the North and West winds to act as bellows.
  • Iris brings them the message—and the fire gets going. It blazes all night.
  • In the morning, Achilleus, after briefly succumbing to sleep, wakes up and tells the others to put out the fire with wine.
  • Then he instructs them to gather the bones of Patroklos and place them in an urn. Once this is done, they should raise a burial mound over the urn—but not a huge one. Soon enough, it will need to be excavated so that his bones can be mingled with those of his friend.
  • The men do as they are commanded.
  • Achilleus still won't let them go, however. He keeps his men nearby so they can participate in funeral games—athletic competitions held in honor of the dead man.
  • Achilleus calls everyone to assembly and sets out prizes for the contests—horses, cauldrons, women, the usual. The first competition will be a chariot race.
  • Various men come forward to compete in the event—or simply to serve as spectators.
  • Among the prospective competitors is Nestor's son, Antilochos.
  • As you might have guessed by now, this provides Nestor with a perfect opportunity to make a long speech showing how he's a know-it-all at chariot racing, too. Actually, what he has to say is interesting. Basically, he's trying to get Antilochos to focus on his horsemanship. Nestor argues that skill wins the race, not the speed of your horses.
  • As the competitors get ready, Phoinix heads out to the turn post to act as referee.
  • And… they're off!
  • A warrior named Eumelos takes the lead, followed by Diomedes.
  • Apollo sabotages Diomedes by stealing his whip, but then Athene finds it and gives it back to him. For good measure, she also smashes the yoke of Eumelos's chariot, making him wipe out.
  • Diomedes surges ahead, trailed by Menelaos, while Menelaos is followed by Antilochos.
  • Antilochos tells his horses that they've got to beat Menelaos or they'll be slaughtered. As you can imagine, this is strong encouragement. They pick up the pace.
  • Antilochos gets an advantage when, through some white-knuckle brinksmanship, he cuts Menelaos off at the entrance to a narrow part of the course, a sunken riverbed.
  • The racers round the turn and start coming in for the homestretch.
  • Back at the finish line, Idomeneus and little Aias get in an argument over who is in the lead. Idomeneus says it isn't Eumelos anymore, but he can't tell who it is.
  • Little Aias firmly maintains that it is still Eumelos.
  • They are about to get in a bet about it, but Achilleus tells them to knock it off.
  • As it turns out, Diomedes comes in first, followed by Antilochos. Menelaos comes in third, but we are told that he would have passed Antilochos if he'd only had time.
  • Fourth is Meriones; Eumelos comes in last.
  • Seeing Eumelos, Achilleus pities him; he knows that he was the best charioteer and was unfairly robbed of victory. Achilleus proposes giving him the second-place trophy.
  • But Antilochos—who came in second—speaks up for himself. He says to Achilleus, "You can give him a consolation prize if you want, but don't do it in front of everybody. I want my mare." (A mare had been selected as the second-place prize.)
  • Achilleus appreciates Antilochos's courage and says, "Right you are. I'll give him a breastplate. You get the mare."
  • But then Menelaos starts making a stink. He says that he should have second prize, and complains that Antilochos only beat him by deliberately cutting him off. He says that Antilochos can only keep his prize if he's willing to swear by the gods that he didn't use any foul play. (This is basically the ancient version of a lie-detector test.)
  • Antilochos backs down. He says that he would gladly give his prize to Menelaos.
  • Menelaos is so impressed with Antilochos's manners that now it is his turn to be generous. He says, "No, I'll give you the mare."
  • After this exchange, Achilleus gives out the rest of the prizes. This leaves one left over, however: a two-handled jar, the fifth-place prize that would have gone to Eumelos. But now Eumelos has received a breastplate instead.
  • Achilleus decides to give the jar to Nestor as a sort of lifetime achievement award.
  • Nestor accepts the award graciously, and then tells them all a story about how awesome he used to be back in the day.
  • The next event is boxing.
  • A guy called Epeios says that no one can beat him.
  • As it turns out, he's right. He knocks the challenger Euryalos out cold.
  • Next comes wrestling. The first place prize is a large tripod worth twelve oxen. The second place prize is a woman skilled at handicrafts. They say she's worth four oxen.
  • Odysseus goes up against Aias. They are starting on their third round when Achilleus declares a draw. He tells them to share the prizes (we are not told how).
  • Next comes the footrace. We are told that little Aias would have won this event if it weren't for Athene, who helped Odysseus close the gap by making Aias slip in some cow dung. Adding insult to injury (or is it the other way around?) he even gets some on his face. Bummer.
  • Antilochos, who comes in last place in the footrace, praises the warriors of the older generation. He says that the only person who could have beaten Odysseus was Achilleus.
  • Pleased with this flattery, Achilleus gives Antilochos an extra prize.
  • Then Aias and Diomedes have a duel with spears—the idea is that the winner is whoever draws blood first.
  • When it looks like Diomedes is about to get the better of his opponent; however, the spectators shout out that the fight should be called a draw.
  • All the same, Achilleus gives the first prize to Diomedes.
  • Next comes archery. Teukros comes in second behind Meriones because he fails to make appropriate prayers to Apollo, god of archery.
  • Then comes spear throwing. A bunch of dudes show up, but Achilleus just gives the prize to Agamemnon, because he knows he's the best.
  • Agamemnon, in turn, gives his prize to Talthybios the herald.

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