Stories from the Iliad Told to the Children - Jeanie Lang

The Burning of the Dead;
and the Battle of the Plain

With feasting did the Greeks do honour to Ajax, and when the feast was ended, Nestor, the oldest and the most wise of the warriors, gave counsel that at daybreak on the morrow they should gather the bodies of their dead and burn them on a great pyre.

But while the Greek chiefs in peace took council together, they of Troy with fierce and angry words disputed at a gate of their city.

Said one:

"How can we hope to prosper in the fight when our oath is broken? Let us then give back to the Greeks fair Helen and all her wealth."

But Paris, in wrath, made reply:

"Mad indeed thou art if thou dost think I will do as thou sayest! The wealth of Helen will I return with a willing heart, and to it add more wealth of mine own. But Helen my wife will I give back never!"

At dawn on the morrow did the Trojan heralds come to the camp of Agamemnon and gave to him the message.

"Thus saith Priam of Troy and all his nobles, The wealth that Helen brought with her to Troy will Paris return, and more besides of his own, but the beautiful wife of Menelaus he saith he will not give. But grant to us a truce until we have buried our dead, and then again will we fight until the gods grant us victory."

Then said Diomedes:

"Let us take none of the treasures of Helen nor of Paris, neither Helen herself, for well we know that the days of Troy are already numbered."

In applause of the words of Diomedes the Greek host shouted, and Agamemnon said to the heralds:

"I Thou hearest the answer of the Greeks. Yet we grant ye the truce, that ye may bury your dead."

The sun was rising from the sea and chasing grey darkness from the fields of Troyland when on the morrow Greeks and Trojans met in peace, and tenderly, and with hot tears falling, carried away the bodies of the fallen and buried them in mighty pyres.

A deep ditch and a high wall did the Greeks also make for themselves. And at nightfall they feasted, and when some ships from Lemnos came to the harbour, well laden with wine, they bought a goodly supply. Some of them paid the men of Lemnos with bronze, and some with iron, some with hides and kine, and some with prisoners.

All night long they feasted, and in Troy also did the Trojans feast. But in Olympus did Zeus angrily plan the overthrow of the men who seemed to fear him not, and the noise of his thunderings filled the feasters with dread of what was to come.

On the next day, when golden dawn was spreading over the earth, Zeus held a council of the gods, and with a fearful doom did he threaten the god or goddess who should dare to aid either Greek or Trojan.

"We bow to thy will, great father Zeus," Athene made answer. "Yet let us, I pray thee, give counsel to the Greeks that they may not all perish before the mightiness of thine anger."

"So be it," answered Zeus, smiling upon her, for dear to the king of the gods was Athene, his beautiful daughter.

Then did Zeus, in his armour of gold, mount upon his car. His fleet-footed horses, bronze-shod, had flowing tails of gold, and them he lashed with his golden whip so that like lightning they flashed across space, be tween earth and the starry heavens. High up on Mount Ida did he rein them in, and in thick mist upon the mountain-top he sat him down and watched the Greeks and Trojans, as though they were his playthings, fighting far below on the plain.

Early that day did the two hosts meet, and soon was the morning air filled with the cries of pain and of rage, of defeat, and of victory, and the fair earth was streaming with the blood of men, dead and dying.

When midday came, Zeus stretched out from his throne on the mountain his golden scales, and in them laid two weights of death, one for the Greeks and the other for the men of Troy. And the scale of the Greeks sank down low, and as it sank, Zeus sent down a blazing lightning flash so that the two armies saw the great god and his scales, and fear seized upon the Greeks.

The mightiest Greek no longer kept his courage. Only Nestor, oldest of the warriors, still had a dauntless heart. With an arrow from his bow had Paris slain one of the horses in Nestor's chariot, but from his chariot did the old man leap down and with his sword fiercely hewed at the traces. But as he still hewed, through the throng Hector furiously drove his chariot. Then had Nestor indeed perished, but that Diomedes marked what would befall.

With a great shout did he call to Odysseus:

"Whither fleest thou, like a coward, Odysseus? Stand thy ground till we have saved the old man from his mighty foe!"

So spake he, but Odysseus heard him not, and hastened onward.

Alone then did Diomedes take his stand by the side of Nestor.

"Younger warriors than myself beset thee hard!" said Diomedes. "Thou art feeble, thy charioteer is a weakling, and thy horses slow. Quickly mount my car, and see what are the paces of any horses that I took from Aeneas. Straight against Hector shall we guide them, that he may know the power of the spear of Diomedes."

On the chariot of Diomedes did old Nestor then mount; in his hands he took the reins, and he lashed the horses. In furious gallop they came to meet Hector, and Diomedes hurled his spear. But the spear passed Hector, and in the breast of his brave charioteer was it buried, so that he fell to the ground and there he died.

Upon the men of Troy might defeat then have come, but in his hands Zeus took a thunderbolt, and right in front of the horses of Diomedes it burst in awful flames, making the horses in desperate panic rear back- wards.

"Zeus himself fighteth against thee, Diomedes!" cried Nestor. "Let us flee, for no man is so great in might that he can fight against the will of Zeus."

"Thou speakest truth, old man," said Diomedes, "yet sore grief it is to my heart to think that some day the boast of Hector may be, 'To his ships fled Diomedes, driven before me.' May the earth swallow me up on that day!"

"Hector may call thee coward," said Nestor, "yet no son of Troy will believe him, nor any of the widows of these men whom thou hast slain."

Then did Nestor wheel the horses and flee, while thick the spears and darts from the Trojan host followed him.

And above the din of battle rose the voice of Hector

"Behold the hero of the Greeks! Hero no longer art thou! Begone, feeble girl! poor puppet!"

Furiously did Diomedes listen to his taunts, and fain would he have turned back and tried to slay him. But three times did Zeus send peals of his thunder rolling down from the mountain-top, and to the Trojans was it a sign of victory, and fear did it send into the hearts of the Greeks.

Then did Hector call on his men to be of good courage, for with them fought Zeus, the Thunderer. And to his horses he called:

"On, now, Bayard, and Whitefoot, and Flame of Fire, and Brilliant! Forget not how Andromache hath cared for and tended you! Make haste that we may seize from old Nestor his shield of gold, and strip Diomedes of his gorgeous breastplate!"

Onward, then, dashed his chariot, while the Trojans followed him, driving the Greeks in headlong flight before them. Soon had the Greek ships been burned and the long war ended, had not Hera put it into the heart of Agamemnon to arouse the Greeks and force them on to battle.

"Shame on you, ye Greeks!" he cried. "What hath come of all your boasting?" Then did he pray to Zeus that even now he would grant the victory to the Greeks.

And his prayer was heard by Zeus, who sent a portent in answer. For there came, winging through the sky, an eagle with a young fawn in its talons. By the altar of Zeus did the eagle drop the fawn, and the Greeks took the sign to mean the favour of Zeus, and afresh they went to battle.

Then did gallant warrior slay warrior as brave as himself, and hero fall before hero.

Teucer, a mighty archer, sheltering under the great shield of Ajax, sent one arrow speeding after another, and each arrow brought death. But against Hector in vain did he drive his shafts, slaying, each time he drew his bow, one standing near the man whose life he longed to take.

One arrow smote the charioteer of Hector in the breast, and from the chariot did he fall dead. Full of rage and grief was Hector, and from the car he leapt, with terrible shout, and, with a jagged stone in his hand, rushed at Teucer. Even at that moment had Teucer pulled his bowstring to let an arrow fly, but on the collar bone Hector smote him. His bowstring snapped, his arm grew numb, the bow fell from his hand, and on his knees he sank. But swiftly did Ajax stand astride him, and with his shield he sheltered him until two of his comrades bore him, groaning in grievous pain, to the ships.

Once again did Zeus put courage in the men of Troy so that they drove the Greeks in rout before them.

Then did Hera and Athene mark their plight, and pity them, and would have come down from Olympus to their aid, had not Zeus sent stern warning to them of the doom that should be theirs were they to go against his bidding.

"On the morrow,"said he, "more evil things shall thine eyes behold, for Hector will not cease to slay until that day when fleet-footed Achilles be roused to come and fight for the Greeks where Patroclus the brave lies dead. Such is the doom of heaven."

Then did black night fall, and while the Trojans chafed at the darkness, the Greeks rejoiced that rest had come to them at length.

Leaning on his bronze-pointed spear, Hector spoke to the Trojans.

"Hearken to me!" he said. "This day I thought to destroy the Greeks and all their hosts and return to our own windy Troy, but Night hath come too soon. To Night, then, must we yield, so let us take food, and give fodder to our horses. All night long let us burn fires lest in the darkness the Greeks strive to make for the sea. And let the heralds proclaim that boys and old men must guard the battlements of Troy, and each woman burn a great fire in her house lest the Greeks send an ambush to enter the city while we men are here. At dawn will we fight by the ships, and we shall see whether Diomedes will drive me back from the shore to the walls of Troy, or if with my spear I shall lay him low."

So spake Hector, and the Trojans shouted aloud.

They unyoked their horses, and gave them fodder, and from the city they brought food for the fires.

All night they sat by the battlefield, high hopes in their hearts, and their watch-fires burning. As when the moon shines clear on a windless night, and all the crags and glens and mountain-tops stand sharply out, and wide and boundless is the sky, and all the stars are seen; even so many were the lights of the watch-fires that gleamed in the plain before Troy. A thousand fires did burn there, and in the red glow of each blazing fire sat fifty men. Beside the chariots stood the horses champing barley and spelt, waiting for the coming of dawn.