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Book 21

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 21 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 21 | Summary

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Summary

Achilles pushes the Trojan army back, driving a portion of it into the river Xanthus (also called Scamander), where he slaughters huge numbers of enemies. Lycaon, whom Achilles had captured in a previous battle, begs for mercy, but there is none to be found in Achilles's heart. Filled with rage at Patroclus's death, he cries, "Die, Trojans, die—/till I butcher all the way to sacred Troy!" He kills so many that their bodies clog the river.

This angers the god of the river, who nearly overwhelms Achilles with waves, whirlpools, and floods. However, Hera sends Hephaestus, the god of fire, to force back the river until its god swears not to interfere with the fate of Troy. At this point, the gods begin to fight each other directly. Athena knocks Ares out and injures Aphrodite when she tries to help him. Hera humiliates Artemis, sending her running home. Apollo declines to fight Poseidon and retreats to protect Troy.

With the Trojan army completely routed, Priam flings open the gates for the survivors, and Apollo distracts Achilles to protect their retreat. He inspires Prince Agenor to attack Achilles. When Achilles strikes back, Apollo disguises himself as Agenor and lures Achilles away until the last Trojan fighters reach the gates of Troy.

Analysis

Achilles's grief and rage results in the wholesale slaughter of the Trojan army without a shred of mercy. The episode with Lycaon highlights the difference between Achilles's past actions, when he sometimes ransomed or sold fighters he captured rather than killing them, with his current state of mind in which no one will be spared. He only seizes some enemies alive to later burn on Patroclus's funeral pyre. It is a practice that greatly honors the dead but seems a little close to barbarity, even from the ancient Greek perspective because it is not a part of any other funeral in the poem.

Achilles's rampage is unstoppable, godlike. He even attacks Xanthus, the god of the river, when he sides with the Trojans. Because he is actually mortal, Achilles ends up having to call for help, but he holds his own for an impressive length of time against the elemental force of the river.

Despite the feeling that fighting because of mortals is beneath them, for the first time the gods fight each other directly without any mortals involved. The divine conflict both parallels and contrasts with the mortal conflict playing out right beside them. As the fighting between mortals grows more brutal and deadly, fighting between the gods becomes more petty and pointless, bordering on slapstick. They no longer make any attempt to affect the course of the battle but simply act out their personal conflicts, which are only loosely based on the war.

Because the gods cannot die, they risk only temporary pain and humiliation, and their struggles have no nobility or dignity. They deal poorly with even minor injuries, running back to Zeus as soon as they are hurt. The specifics of each attack seem to fit the nature of the god being attacked. Artemis crushes Ares, the god of war, with a boulder, a common type of attack in war. Athena punches Aphrodite, the goddess of love and desire, in the breasts. Hera boxes the ears of the huntress Artemis with her own hunting implements.

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