David and Achilles: The Openings

This is the first in a weekly series (and hopefully roundup) of essays comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories.

Next week I thought we’d discuss the Duel. Dueling was a tradition which lasted until well into the 19th century. Since then, the gentler side of our culture has weeded it out. However these stories come from a time just a tad earlier than our era and the concept of a duel, not just to settle individual honor but to act in the stead of combat between two armies, was not out of bounds. The Iliad is replete with examples of two warriors duking it out where the other warriors are honor bound not to interfere. I thought we’d concentrate on just two duels … one from each story. David v Goliath and Menelaus v Paris (I had thought to include Achilles v Hector as it seems to leave our second protagonist, Achilles, out of this enterprise, so if you feel like adding that into your discussion feel free). And I just had a comment from Andrea R, to write about the women in both tales … given the testosterone laden topic I’ve suggested for next week, I figure it is only fair if we swing the other way the following week. 🙂

So on to “The Openings” (below the fold):

David’s Story begins (from Alter’s translation)

And there was a man from Ramathaim-zophim, from the high country Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives, the name of the one was Hannah and the name of the other was Peninnah. And Peninnah had children but Hannah had no children. And this man would go up from his town year after year to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh, and there the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were priests of the Lord. And when the day came round, Elkanah would sacrifice and give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. And to Hannah he would give one double portion, for Hannah he loved, and the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival would torment her sorely so as to provoke her because the Lord had closed up her womb. And thus was it done year after year — when she would go up to the house of the Lord, the other would torment her and she would weep and would not eat.

Homer begins (from Fagles translation):

Rage — Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaean’s countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Right off, the similarities seem more striking than the differences. Both storytellers come from societies very much unlike our own, in that your patronage is very important. Achilles isn’t introduced via any of his particular accomplishments but … as Peleus’ son. Elkanah (?!) is similarly introduced by way of a litany of his lineage as well as where he lived. Place and parent outweigh personal accomplishments. Both opening stanzas also showcase our storytellers playing games with the reader. Homer begs the Muse to “sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles” which rage had sent so many Achaean’s to their death. But is rage the right word, we might ask? A modern reader might see his rage as coming just prior to the end of the tale, when after Patroclus’ death an enraged, enervated, and inconsolable Achilles cuts his way through any who might oppose him seeking Hector’s life. That was rage! A modern reader might see his earlier “rage” against the injustice done him as something more akin to pride. But, we should give translator (and Homer) his due and think about what this might mean a little further. Homer is throwing us a curve ball, we have to think a little about why Achilles is enraged, for it isn’t as obvious as his later white hot rage. We also might be deceived by Homer if we think that this story is just about Rage. For it is a complex multifaceted tale. Men have studied this story for thousands of years and are still learning from it. No, the Muse may be asked to sing about rage, but she weaves a better tapestry than requested.

Similarly, the author of the David story “tricks” the reader not once, but twice (or on two levels). This is the “Story of David” which begins by starting off with Elkanah … oops. Not! Elkanah is barely in this story at all; he is in fact arguably only introduced as the husband of the main character of the story of David Samuel (err) Hannah. When telling a tale of Israel’s 2nd, and arguably greatest, King how does this tale begin? Not with a story of his beginnings, but of a tale of a broken yet wise and faithful woman. This tale told of a woman, Hannah, broken (albeit much loved by her husband) because her womb is closed and she has borne no children and hence, more importantly, no sons. Historians (Biblical and not) tell us that in this society, in this place and era, women measured success through the accomplishments of their sons. Hannah is teased by Elkanah’s other wife, for she had born sons.

Rage and tears are the contrasting response to injury, for both tales start with injustice done. Injury done in fact, prompts the same reaction. An oath is taken in response.

Achilles is affronted when Agamemnon, required to give up “his prize slave-girl”, takes from Achilles his captive beauty Briseis. Hannah is tormented sorely by Peninnah, who must have been herself a little jealous of the favor shown to the childless Hannah. Like Peninnah, Agamemnon is not completely without motivation for his actions. What about Achilles? How has he been injured? As leader, if all things were equal, Agamemnon would be within his rights. As commander he has first pick of prizes. His actions would not be beyond the pale. But, Achilles is a Hero (with caps). He knows it. He was born to this role and his Heroic exploits have been prophesied to ring down the ages (as, thanks to Homer, they have). Agamemnon, by not recognizing Achilles properly, is in modern parlance “dissing” the hero, and that just won’t do. A Hero, while being heroic, can’t abide that for … it just isn’t heroic (it might be useful to note that while a Christian hero might value humility that isn’t a virtue in the Achaean panoply). Since the goddess Athena stops Achilles from cutting down Agamemnon directly, so thus foiled Achilles gathers his troop and prepares to sit the battle out. So that he might prove to the Achaeans directly just how badly they need his help. So Achilles swears he will not help until he is given his due. That is the injury, rage, and oath that get this story rolling on its way.

Elkanah tried to console his wife, asking her “why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart afflicted? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” For Hannah has been injured by her tormentor. Indeed in tears and weeping and in response to the pain of her lot and her injury in the Lord’s house she swears, “I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, no razor shall touch his head.” The priest Eli hears her, and after a somewhat humorous exchange about drunkenness, says, “may the Lord grant your request.” The Lord does so, and … Samuel, prophet to the Lord, is born and given to the temple.

With that our two great dramas are set in motion, for Hannah gives birth to Samuel the Great Prophet who will select Saul and David for Kingship and be a major player in the ongoing drama. Achilles’ oath in response to injury sets countless Achaeans on their way to the House of Death.

To put a modern twist on these stories a point to ponder might also be to consider, for example, an essay posted by Joe Carter earlier last week about subsidiarity and how, in our modern age, and especially in our very egalitarian society he finds it hard to accept the idea of subsidiarity. Noticing, valuing, and respecting ones heritage and patrimony has been set aside in our society. Subsidiarity to my eye flows from a similar part of the human makeup. Perhaps as we set aside the one, we find the other harder to do. Perhaps the stories, praxis, thoughts, and language in these tales might help us regain some of what we have lost.

Update: I can’t leave well enough alone.

It occurred to me, I’ve left hanging (at least) one item. The two oaths are very different in character. Achilles’ oath is self-centered (and I’m not making a value judgement here, just an observation) while Hannah’s is God-centered and/or self-sacrificing. Achilles oath concerns his heroic vision and the fulfillment of his Heroic destiny. Hannah, in response to her injury, prays to God and offers to him her son. Those differences may in fact resonate with the differences in ideals of those two cultures and those differences very well may be resonating, like Achilles fame, into our society today.

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  1. Mark, Very nice first segment. Extremely interesting topic for an essay. This interested me in that I minored in the classics, and I am interested in learning more about the Bible. I’m new to this, but if I were to want to participate with an essay of my own, how would I submit it? Is it simply through ‘leave a response’? I’m eager to get started on this avenue of discourse. Thanks for the great blog and the advancement of intellectualism and the classics.

  2. Mark says:

    Write your essay and drop a comment here or just e-mail me.

    I’m planning to collect (like a Carnival) any essay’s submitted in on this topic for a post Sunday.

    At the top of this post, is the “topic” for next week’s essay. If you’re interested in hosting the “collection” in a later week, that would be great. Pass the word around.

    And thanks for the kind compliments.

  3. Mark says:

    You’re right. It Agamemnon’s actions aren’t justifiable (any more than Peninnah’s), what I should have said is that they were understandable.

  4. Piety Rewarded
    By Sean Felix McMyrth

    Have you ever wondered why bad things happen to good people? It seems that those among us who follow the word of the Lord and worship regularly run into problems even more than those who seem to live a life of depravity and turpitude. As a matter of fact those amongst us who hurt others seem to live the best lives of all. However, the Bible and other Classical texts like the Iliad teach us that though this paradox may seem the supreme law of this mortal life, a good life will eventually benefit us. You see, at first glance, those who are against God in the Bible, or against the gods in the polytheistic Iliad, seem to be rewarded for their transgressions, and the one’s who are with God, or the gods, seem to be punished; however, these stories and many others in the compendium of world literature show us that the characters who stay with God, or the gods, eventually reap their reward.
    At the beginning of Samuel I, Hannah, who seems to be very pious, appears to have been forsaken by God, while her enemy taunts Hannah even with her superior bounty. Even though her husband, Elkanah, loves Hannah, “the Lord had shut up her womb” (Sam I, 5). For all we know Hannah is a very good person, but this unhappy situation has befallen her: she cannot bare children and is childless as the story opens. The story gives us no explanation why the Lord made her barren, just that he did. As in modern life, we have no idea why unpleasant situations happen to good people. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, who has several children, receives bountiful portions from her husband for her and her children, but she “provokes her [Hannah] sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb” (Sam I, 6). Peninah probably knows that Elkanah loves Hannah more than her, or at least her jealousy makes her think so. Even though Peninah has it better than Hannah due to her several children, she still sees fit to taunt Hannah in her want, simply to see her suffer. This seems to be human nature especially in people who do not walk in the path of the Lord, but even in some who claim to walk the walk. Peninah is not pious in her actions toward Hannah. We relate to this story, because even in a faith-filled life, we sometimes wonder what we have to do to benefit from our faith. At this point in the story, Hannah has been forsaken by the God that she proves later to love, and her enemy, Peninah, is lovin’ every minute of it. This motif occurs frequently throughout the Bible but also in literature as far back as Homer’s Iliad.
    In Book I of the Iliad, Agamemnon appears to receive all that he wants even at the displeasure of the gods and men, but he cares not; on the other hand, the physically superior Achilles appeases the gods but loses his prized spoil of war. The strong-greaved Achaians feel the wrath of the god Apollo when Agamemnon ignores the requests of Apollo’s priest, Chryses. Pride causes Agamemnon to keep the daughter of Chryses, Chrysies, even as the plague brought upon them by the vengeful god ravages the Greek army. Achilles, knowing that Agamemnon’s slight to Chryses and Apollo have brought the god’s anger upon them, asks Agamemnon to “come, let us ask some holy man, some prophet…who can tell why Phoibus Apollo is so angry” (Iliad I, 62-64). Since Agamemnon did not believe a Trojan priest, Achilles offers a Greek priest or seer of Agamemnon’s choosing. I, like Achilles, would like our leaders to consult a higher power when making decisions that effect us all, but like Agamemnon, our leaders are not always ready to face the truth. Agamemnon does relent for selfish reasons, and he only agrees to let Chrysies go back to her father if Achilles agrees to give up the beautiful Briseis, his slave girl. As Achilles starts to unsheathe his sword to atone for this insult, Athene appears to him and says, “Some day three times over such shining gifts shall be given you by reason of his [Agamemnon’s] outrage. Hold your hand and obey us [the gods]” (Iliad I, 213-14). The act of killing Agamemnon would have been sweet for Achilles, but he must have faith that Athene is telling him the truth (Athene is notorious for lying, if it suits her), and it is his faith that turns the tide of the war and shapes the story of the Iliad. As humans we often desire bad things on the persons who hurt us, and our rage boils within; but as the stories of faith throughout literature show us, our reward will be far greater if we leave it up to a higher power to sort out all of the details of our perceived wrongs.
    Hannah sees her piety rewarded very quickly in Samuel I; whereas, Achilles has to suffer through the denial of his booty and the death of his closest friend and companion before his faithfulness is rewarded. Having given up hope and become despondent due to the taunts of her enemy, Hannah prays to God to open up her womb and offers, for the granting of this prayer, the gift of the service of her child to the Lord for the child’s whole life. As the story goes, “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her” (Sam I, 19). God opened up her womb because of her devotion to Him, and this is where the titular character comes into the story. Hannah very wisely turns to God to take care of her enemy instead of striking out herself. It certainly would be nice if all of our prayers were answered as quickly as Hannah’s, but the lesson to learn, and the one taught very well in the Iliad, is to remain faithful and your higher power will answer all the prayers that he or she wills. Achilles did not fare as well as Hannah. Briseis is taken from Achilles in Book I, Patroklos, Achilles best friend and companion, dies in Book 16, and not until Book 19 does Agamemnon return Briseis reportedly unmolested. We can understand from this story that rewards come slower for polytheists; or Homer just needed to fill six nights with his poetry, so he needed some filler. Either way the faith of these two characters strongly influenced Western culture, and the stories demonstrate that good does come to those who wait and have faith.
    P.S. I used the Richmond Lattimore translation of the Iliad and the King James Version of the Bible. S.F.M.


    There once was a book, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is In 1988”, written by Edgar C. Whisenant. Maybe some of you remember it. Despite it’s compelling title, it doesn’t seem to have enjoyed the longevity that, let’s say, Nostradamu…

  6. […] This is the second in a weekly series roundup of essays comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories. The first week’s essays were on the openings. My essay was here. The roundup is here. […]