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Supplication in the Iliad

Supplication or petitioning can be considered a kind of prayer where a person asking his superior for something. This prayer can be for himself or for someone else. The person who is making the supplication is referred to as a supplicant. Normally the supplicant is the inferior of the person he is praying to. The supplicant makes his request because he ascribes some unique and irreplaceable importance to the thing his is requesting. In the Iliad there are many scenes of supplication. Two of the most important scenes are the supplication of Chryses to Agamemnon and the supplication of Priam to Achiles. These two will be compared and contrasted.

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The first comparison is the subject of their supplication. Chryses, priest of Apollo, performs his supplication early in the Iliad. He goes to the camp of the Greeks / Achaeans to ask Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and supreme commander of the Greeks, to return his daughter Chryseis whom Agamemnon had taken as a war prize. Priam, King of Troy, comes before Achilles, greatest warrior of the Greeks, to ask for the corpse of his slain son Hector. In both cases the supplicants are asking for something dear bought and not easily forsaken by the men to whom the pray. Agamemnon took Chryseis as a war prize and would be utterly shamed if he were to be forced to return her because he alone among the Greek kings would have no prize-of-honor, a euphemism for war bride. Achilles defiled and kept the body of Hector out of rage for his murder of Patroclus.

The manner in which the two men supplicate is very different. Chryses is a proud, wealthy and powerful man. He is a priest of Apollo one of the most powerful gods in the Pantheon. Thus, when he comes before Agamemnon he comes in his full official regalia as Apollo’s priest and bearing “boundless ransom” (Book I Verse 10-16). When making his supplication Chryses invokes the Greeks’ fear of Apollo and his supplication appears to be more of a threat than a prayer. He is sure of himself, he does not kneel before Agamemnon nor sue for pity, he is certain of his success. Yet he fails. Priam is also a proud and powerful man. He is king of Troy, a kingdom whose wealth is the envy of the Greeks. Up to this point in the story the might of his armies humbles the Greek host of a thousand ships. Yet when he comes before Achilles it is his turn to be humbled. He kneels before the mighty Myrmidon Lord and kisses his hands as if Priam were a common peasant seeking a boon from his lord. Like Chryses Priam is prepared to offer Achilles a boundless ransom for Hector’s remains. Priam also invokes the gods in telling Achilles that he has blasphemed against them by defiling the body of Hector and denying him the proper funeral rights. However, Priam humbles himself and makes an emotional appeal invoking Achilles love for his father Peleus and comparing that love to that of Priam and Hector. Ultimately, it is the emotional appeal that moves Achilles hardened heart to finally give in an turn over Hectors remains to Priam. Priam succeeds in recovering his son’s body while Chryses only succeeds with the intervention of Achilles.

Honor was very important to the Greeks most especially to their lord. Agamemnon would not surrender Chryseis because he would be greatly dishonored if he did so. Honor is also the reason for the whole Trojan war because Menelaus is trying to recover his lost honor from the Trojan Paris who dishonored him by stealing his wife. In the first supplication Chryses is apparently dishonored because of the way he was refused by Agamemnon. Despite his status and power he is turned away empty-handed by Agamemnon. However, Agamemnon himself is later dishonored when Achilles intervenes on behalf of Chryses and recovers Chryseis for him. In this way the supplication of Chryses earned neither him nor Agamemnon any honor. Only Achilles gains honor for his nobility in wanting to follow the law of the gods. When Priam supplicates Achilles both gain honor from their actions because both behaved in a manner befitting the lords that they were. Achilles corrects the fault he committed when he defiled the corpse of Hector by dragging behind his chariot and refusing to bury it. Priam gains honor because his supplication is successful and he goes home with the body of his beloved son. In this case, Priam gains further honor because despite being king of Troy and mortal enemy of the Greeks he is willing to humble himself before his enemies. It shows how much he loves his son and how far he is willing to go to spare Hector the final dishonor of rotting without burial. His honor is further enhanced because he is able to show Achilles how far he has debased himself for the sake of his petty rage.

In conclusion, both supplications are ultimately successful because the supplicants got what they wanted. Chyrses got his daughter back, albeit with the intervention of Achilles, Priam got his son’s body back as well also by the grace of Achilles. However Priam followed the proper forms of supplication and his success can be attributed to this while Chyrses could not swallow his pride and consequently failed to have his prayer granted by Agamemnon. Priam and Achiles gained honor by their actions while Chyrses and Agamemnon were dishonored. Ultimately both supplications are very important to the storyline of the Iliad. Agamemnon, understandably stung by what happened, steals Achilles own war-bride and this sets off a chain of catastrophic events, Achilles refuses to fight resulting in disaster for the Greeks, Patroclus impersonates Achilles and is slain by Hector. Hector is slain and defiled by Achilles in his wrath. Priam’s supplication humanizes Achilles shortly before he himself is slain with an arrow.

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