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Book 2

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 2 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 2 | Summary

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Summary

To fulfill his promise to Thetis, Zeus sends Agamemnon a dream that he will defeat Troy, leading him to believe all the gods support him. Agamemnon gathers the troops, and in an act of trickery tests their will to fight by encouraging them to sail for home. Soldiers rush for the ships, but Odysseus and Nestor both berate and inspire the troops, recalling the signs that foretold their victory. Agamemnon commands the army to prepare for battle, and he makes sacrifices to Zeus.

Seeing the Achaean army organizing, the Trojans muster as well. The poet celebrates the origin, commander, and strengths and talents of each group in both armies. Achilles and his Myrmidons are catalogued but, true to Achilles's vow, will be sitting out the upcoming battle.

Analysis

Homer starts both his epics—The Iliad and The Odyssey—in medias res, meaning "in the middle of things." It is revealed in Book 2 that the Achaeans and Trojans have already been fighting for nine long years. Homer only refers to the cause of the war in passing. He assumes that his listeners know the whole backstory: Zeus (wisely not wanting to do it himself) appointed Prince Paris of Troy to judge which of the goddesses—Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite—was most beautiful. Paris picked Aphrodite because she promised him the love of the most beautiful mortal woman in the world. Unfortunately, that was Helen, the wife of Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus. When Helen ran away with Paris, the Achaeans gathered allies and attacked Troy. So Paris's choice has brought down the hatred of the powerful goddesses Hera and Athena upon his city of Troy.

Homer's distinctive epic similes—extended comparisons between elements of the story and scenes from nature and everyday life—first appear in Book 2. In this section the Achaean army is compared to swarming bees and flies, a wildfire, and circling flocks of birds. Although these images evoke life outside of the war that dominates the poem, many contain suggestions of the aggression, violence, or destruction of war. The bees are "dark hordes," "seething over spring blooms"—an image more threatening than peaceful. Only the simile comparing captains splitting the army into groups to "seasoned goatherds" with their flocks is relatively organized and peaceful. The overall effect is a sense that war and conflict are integral parts of life.

As at the beginning of the poem, Homer invokes the help of the Muses in Book 2 to list and describe the commanders of the Achaean army and where they come from. The Muses are goddesses of the arts and literature. This lends the human poet superhuman knowledge of what ancient Greeks regarded as historical events. This long catalog of places and backgrounds may be boring to modern readers, but Greek listeners would have been thrilled to hear their city or area celebrated in the entertainment of the day.

The repetition of passages is another feature of oral poetry, from simple phrases up to long chunks of the poem. At the beginning of Book 2, Zeus dictates his message for Agamemnon in a personified dream. The dream repeats it nearly verbatim to Agamemnon. Agamemnon then relays the whole dream in exactly the same words to his troops. Descriptions of the ritual of sacrifice in other sections of the poem often repeat part or all of the description in Book 2. These repetitions highlight and reinforce important ideas for listeners (who cannot go back and reread if they didn't understand something the first time). They also give the poet time to think ahead to the next section to be performed.

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