By Study and Also by Faith  >  The Honey and the Smoke: Achilles and Ate in the Iliad

The Honey and the Smoke:
Achilles and Ate in the Iliad

The Honey and the Smoke: Achilles and
Ate in the Iliad

Douglas Phillips

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

In the ninth book of the Iliad, in a speech intended to persuade
Achilles to return to the war, Phoenix warns his young friend, who has just
reiterated his denunciation of Agamemnon and his blindness (Iliad 9.377, ek gar eu phrenas heileto metieta Zeus: “For Zeus the counsellor
has taken away his wits”), that he, Achilles himself, is in danger of
succumbing to the same state of mind if he refuses Agamemnon’s offer of
reconciliation and rejects the embassy. Phoenix’s warning takes the form of an
allegory or parable in which a man who commits an offense may gain pardon if he
allows the Litai (Prayers), the
daughters of Zeus, to intercede in his behalf; but if he refuses, then Ate (which we here translate as
“delusion”) visits the unrepentant transgressor and punishes him:

For there also the Prayers (Litai), the daughters of Zeus,
and they are lame of their feet, and
wrinkled, and cast their eyes sidelong,
who toil on their way left far behind
by Ate;
but she, Ate, strong and sound on her feet, and therefore
far outruns all Prayers, and wins into
every country
to force men astray; and the Prayers
follow as healers after her.
If a man venerates these daughters of
Zeus as they draw near,
such a man they bring great advantage,
and hear his entreaty;
but if a man shall deny them, and
stubbornly with a harsh word
refuse, they go to Zeus, son of Kronos,
in supplication
that Ate may overtake this man, that he be hurt, and punished.
So Achilleus: grant, you also, that
Zeus’ daughters be given
their honour, which, lordly though they
be, curbs the will of others.

Iliad 9.502-14

This is the first hint we find in the
epic that Achilles, who as the wronged party in the quarrel has been blameless
to this point, as Phoenix himself points out, may fall victim to ate. The question whether he does in
fact succumb to it arises since he does reject Agamemnon’s offer.

Some, like Cedric Whitman, reject the
idea that Achilles is a victim of ate: “The highest heroes,” he writes, “are not men of delusion.”1 And although he does
discuss other parts of Phoenix’s speech, such as the Meleager story, which
ironically has exactly the opposite effect on Achilles to that which Phoenix
intended, he does not mention the allegory of Ate and the Litai at all.
For Whitman, the members of the embassy — Odysseus, Aias, and Phoenix
— are bound to the “simple assumptions” of the conventional
heroic code, and cannot therefore understand Achilles’ conception of his own
honor, for which, according to Whitman, he wills his own death to maintain his
integrity. Phoenix offers an easy answer, says Whitman, which Achilles cannot
accept. The idea, therefore, that Achilles, like some of the other major heroes
in the story (e.g., Hector, Agamemnon, Patroclus, and so forth), might have
become a victim to delusion, as Phoenix implies he will if he spurns
Agamemnon’s offer, would be fatal to his interpretation.

Martin Mueller, on the other hand, sees
in Achilles the blinded and deluded hero. Indeed, from the moment when he asks
Thetis for Zeus’s help in Book 1, to his disillusionment through the death of
Patroclus, delusion is the essential part of his tragedy. But Mueller does not
discuss the source or nature of his delusion, nor does he refer to him as a
victim of ate. For this reason he
does not refer to Phoenix’s parable. Doyle, in his recent book on ate, does deal with the language of

Assuming that Phoenix’s parable and its
implied warning were intended by Homer to be taken seriously, we should like to
see whether Achilles did in fact fall victim to ate and what form his delusion took. If, however, we follow those
like J. Bremer, in his work Hamartia, and others who maintain that ate is a
blindness or delusion caused by malicious divine interference, then it is easy
to show that Achilles does not fit this pattern, and Bremer himself
acknowledges the difficulty: “In Achilles’ case, too, the element of
divine intervention and malicious interference is there, though less marked and
prominent than in, e.g., the case of Patroclus,”3 although the only
evidence that Bremer can produce is Phoenix’s speech (which is, as we have
seen, thoroughly allegorical, that is, ate is not to be seen as a real “goddess”), a problematical statement of
Aias, also in Book 9, which we shall examine presently, and Achilles’ words at
Book 19.270-74, where he refers to Zeus’s having deluded Agamemnon. These words
supposedly apply also to Achilles, since he in turn was indirectly a victim of
the ate or delusion that befell

Aias’s remarks in Book 9 on Achilles’
mental state, referred to above, are significant since they provide a good
example of the complex motivation of the heroes in the Iliad that Albin Lesky describes in his study of divine and human
motivation in the Homeric epic.4 At verses 628-32 Aias,
who feels that Achilles is beyond persuasion, says:

has made savage the
proud-hearted spirit (thymos) within
his body.
He is hard and does not remember that


Iliad 9.628-32

But at verse 636, he says:

But the
put in your breast a spirit (thymos)
not to be placated, bad, for the sake of a single girl.

Iliad 9.636-38

In the next verse, however, it is
Achilles himself who is responsible:

Now make gracious the spirit (thymos) within you.

Iliad 9.639

One is reminded here of the passages
from the book of Exodus, where, on the one hand, the Lord says to Moses:
“See that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in
thine hand; but I will harden his heart that he shall not let the people
go” (Exodus
4:21), but elsewhere we read: “And when Pharaoh saw that the rain and
hail and the thunders were ceased, he sinned yet more, and hardened his heart, he and his servants” (Exodus 9:34-35).

But Achilles’ reply to Aias is perhaps
more to the point when he says, without any reference to the gods:

All that you have said seems spoken
after my own mind.
Yet still the heart in me swells up in
anger (cholos), when I remember
the disgrace that he wrought upon me
before the Argives,
the Son of Atreus, as if I were some
dishonored vagabond.

Iliad 9.645-48

We shall have occasion to return to
this idea of the heart swelling with anger.

Since there are clear intimations of
tragedy in Phoenix’s and Aias’s words to Achilles, if Homer means for us to
take them seriously, as I believe he does, it would be surprising, I think, if
Homer did not compose some part in his epic to correspond to and balance the
speeches in Book 9, especially Phoenix’s warning regarding ate. It would be dramatically effective to see his words fulfilled.
We do witness, in Achilles’ sending Patroclus to Nestor’s tent in Book 11, a
chain of events that begins to operate on Patroclus’s own feelings, events that
have nothing at all to do with divine influence or intervention, but which become
an essential part of Patroclus’s ate, and we see in Achilles’ allowing him to go into battle in his stead and with
his armor in Book 16, a man making fatal decisions without foreseeing the
consequences. We can agree with Mueller that what characterizes Achilles in
these decisions and acts is the unreality of his thinking, which Mueller calls
“the rhetoric of the unreal.” He writes, for example:

When Patroclus asks for the arms of
Achilles and for permission to defend the Achaeans, Achilles at first does not
answer his request but instead indulges in the memory of the injustice that he
has suffered at the hands of Agamemnon. The present situation would not seem so
bleak, he argues, if Agamemnon had treated him kindly (16.72). From his
rehearsal of past injuries his mind moves on to an imagined future. He will
allow Patroclus to help the Achaeans, and as a result of this partial change of
mind he expects that the Achaeans will honor him and bring him presents. It has
always baffled critics how Achilles at this stage could not only omit any
mention of Agamemnon’s previous offer, but could express a desire for
“gifts” when he had so violently rejected the treasures that
Agamemnon had promised him. The rhetoric of the unreal provides the solution to
this difficulty. The significance of Achilles’ speech lies not in its
psychological continuity with the past but in the violent contrast it
establishes between his indulgence in an imaginary future and the actual
reality that awaits him.5

We see this unreality and delusion in
Achilles’ thinking reach its climax in his prayer at Book 16 that he and
Patroclus alone may sack Troy, a delusion underscored by the irony that these
two heroes will not be present on
that occasion:

Father Zeus, Athene and Apollo, if only
not one of all the Trojans could escape
destruction, not one
of the Argives, but you and I could
emerge from the slaughter
so that we two alone could break Troy’s
hallowed coronal.

Iliad 16.97-100

Thereupon, “at the deepest point
of delusion,” to use Mueller’s words, he sends his friend into battle and
to his death.6

We expect, then, after the death of
Patroclus, some statement on the part of Achilles expressing his
disillusionment and recognizing the mental state which has caused him to commit
his fatal error, a recognition such as we have in the case of Hector, for
example, or Agamemnon. Nor are we disappointed. In Book 18, after the news of
Patroclus’s death is brought to him, Achilles, in his long conversation with
his mother, experiences a kind of anagnorisis or recognition. When Thetis reveals to her son that if he kills Hector in
avenging Patroclus’s death, he must then lose his own life, Achilles delivers
what Malcolm Willcock calls “a very powerful and psychologically motivated
speech comparable to Achilles’ great speech of Book 9.308-409.”7 Totally disillusioned,
Achilles says:

May I die soon then; since I was not to
stand by my companion
when he was killed. And now, far away from the land of
his fathers,
he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him.

Iliad 18.98-100

Now I shall go, to overtake that killer
of a dear life, Hektor; then I will accept my own death at whatever time Zeus
wishes to bring it about, and the other immortals.

Iliad 18.114-16

Placed at the center of this speech and
forming the emotional climax is an outburst, a hopeless and anguished wish, by
Achilles, which must apply to him especially and which provides the best
insight into the true nature of his wrath and the blindness that it has
produced, and which may be regarded as that ate, which Phoenix in Book 9 had warned would befall him:

Why, I wish that strife would vanish
from gods and mortals
and gall (cholos),
which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind,
that gall of anger that
swarms like smoke inside a man’s heart
and becomes a thing sweeter to him by
far than the dripping of honey.
So it was here that the lord of men
Agamemnon angered me.

Iliad 18.107-11

In using the figures of the smoke and
the honey in this striking double simile to describe Achilles’ mental and
emotional state, Homer shows himself not only a sensitive poet but a sound
psychologist. The gradual and imperceptible darkening of the mind suggested by
the image of the “smoke from a very small smouldering fire that fills all
the house,” as Leaf puts it in his comment on this passage,8 recalls Achilles’ words
to Aias in Book 9.644-48, quoted above: “Yet still the heart in me swells
up in anger (cholos).” Although
some commentators see in the figure of the dripping honey the idea that anger
slips easily like honey down the throat, it is more likely that Homer uses it
to suggest how Achilles’ anger and the hurt which produced it have become so
delicious to him as he indulged himself, that he could not bring himself to
give it up until it was too late, and now he curses it. The image of the sweet
honey used in connection with cholos may be a little surprising and paradoxical since it literally means
“gall” or “bile” and when used metaphorically refers to a
“bitter anger.” But Homer surely knew human nature well enough to
know how sweet anger and resentment can be to one who sulks, and it is most
important to note that it is Achilles himself who uses the simile, showing that
he himself is eminently aware of the consequences of his anger.

When we consider the significance of
this passage, that it constitutes Achilles’ own statement on his mental and
emotional state when he made the most disastrous decision of his life, that it
is found in one of his most important speeches in the Iliad, and, as I believe, in a passage which Homer intended as a
recognition, then it is safe to say that he is here referring to his blindness
or delusion or ate, which destroyed
his judgment, as Phoenix had warned that it would. This can be seen
particularly in the words at verse 108, which in spite of the gnomic aorist
must refer to Achilles’ own case:

cholos, hos t’ epheeke polyphrona per chalepenai

and gall,
which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind.

Iliad 18.108

It is significant that there is no mention
here of any malicious interfering deity or god. So far as any outside agency
inciting Achilles’ ate is concerned,
it is to be found in Agamemnon.

It is clear, then, that the source for
Achilles’ blindness or ate is to be
found in his own being. Yet it appears to be an article of faith among some
critics that Homer could not possibly have conceived of any delusion or ate that was not caused by an external
divine agency, and that he could not have imagined a delusion that came from a
man’s own personality. This view takes its extreme form in the words of Bremer:
“The Homeric conception of ate relates the error to an arbitrary and malicious interference of the gods with
human action, causing infatuation in man and resulting in disaster.”9

It may be objected that since Homer
does not use the word ate in this
passage, or, more correctly, that he does not have Achilles use it of himself,
specifically of his state of mind, he cannot be thinking of it. Yet there is
one other nearly equally important instance in the Iliad in which a hero is deluded and may properly be said to have
become a victim of ate, without the
word actually being used in his case. It seems to me that one cannot read the Iliad without believing that Homer
expects us to see Hector as much blinded or deluded as was Agamemnon or
Patroclus or Paris, who are specifically described as victims of ate. After he shows us Hector in his
disturbing scenes with Poulydamas earlier, in his dangerous overconfidence at
the end of Book 8, in his taunting of the dying Patroclus in Book 16, Homer
says of him in Book 18 as Hector makes his disastrous mistake when he rejects the wise counsel of Poulydamas to lead the
Trojan forces into the citadel of Troy and not remain that night on the

So spoke Hektor, and the Trojans
thundered to hear him;
fools, since Pallas Athene had taken away the wits from
They gave their applause to Hektor in
his counsel of evil,
but none to Poulydamas, who had spoken good sense before

Iliad 18.310-13

And yet when Hector has his moment of
recognition in Book 22, before the gates of Troy, shackled by his fate (moira), as Homer says, where he refers
to this very incident and his fatal mistake in rejecting the warning of
Poulydamas, he does not ascribe his error and delusion to Athene or any other
god, but to his atasthaliai, his own
recklessness. In his case, then, we cannot take the phrase that “Pallas
Athene took away the wits” in Book 18 as the whole or even the most
important element in his delusion. I suspect that a careful examination of
other examples of delusion or ate in
the Iliad from the standpoint of
Homer’s imaginative use of poetic language — for example, in the
so-called apology of Agamemnon, and from his dramatic technique as found in his
portrayal of Patroclus’s career — would, as in the case of the simile of
the honey and the smoke, reveal a much less rigid conception of ate and a greater appreciation of
Homer’s use of motivation in the Iliad.

In conclusion, I think that Homer
intended us to see Achilles as a victim of ate in fulfillment of Phoenix’s warning in Book 9, but that this delusion had its
source in his own nature and being, as Homer’s magnificent simile suggests, and
was not due to the external operation of some malignant god.


1. Cedric Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (New
York: Norton, 1965), 189.

2. Richard E. Doyle, “Ate, Its Use and Meaning: A Study in
the Greek Poetic Tradition from Homer to Euripides
(New York: Fordham
University Press, 1984), 9-11.

3. J. M. Bremer, Hamartia: Tragic Error in the Poetics of
Aristotle and in Greek Tragedy
(Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1969), 110.

4. Albin Lesky, Göttliche und menschliche Motivation in
homerischen Epos
(Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 1961).

5. Martin Mueller,
“Knowledge and Delusion in the Iliad,
in John Wright, ed., Essays on the Iliad (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 118.

6. Martin Mueller, The Iliad, Unwin Critical Library (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984), 50.

7. Malcolm Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1976), 204.

8. Walter Leaf, The Iliad, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1902), 2:277.

9. Bremer, Hamartia, 111-12.