The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth

By Donald H. Mills | Go to book overview

Chapter III
Achilles and the Scamander

In the twenty-first book of the Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles does battle with the Scamander, Troy’s divine, tutelary river. The narrative tells how the personified river seeks to protect the Trojans, whom Achilles has been pursuing and slaughtering with violent abandon. Finally, the river rises in anger like a flood and attempts to destroy the hero:

[The river] spoke and rose turbulent against Achilles,
boiling upward, / muttering in foam and blood and
dead bodies. / Then the purple billows of the rain-
swollen river, / rising high, stopped and caught the son
ofPeleus.*

This almost surrealistic conflict between mortal and chaotic deity is a variation of the common folklore motif of a hero’s struggle with a river god. In the Iliad, it encapsulates the uniquely supra-human qualities of the hero, and the image of the river’s anger, rising ever upward to a climax, reveals the chaotic forces at work both within Achilles himself and in the world without. (In the Homeric dialect, the participle

is used to describe both human emotion and the turbulence of waves, seas, and rivers.) As the anger of the river mirrors the anger in Achilles’ soul, the struggle of mortal hero and divine river expands into a multivalent symbol of heroic conflict with the chaotic. Before considering further the implications of this scene, it will be useful

* Translations from the original Greek are the author’s.

-55-

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The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Foreword iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • Chapter I - Mythic Patterns 1
  • Chapter II - Gilgamesh and the Heroic Confrontation with Death 21
  • Chapter III - Achilles and the Scamander 55
  • Chapter IV - Odysseus and Poseidon 95
  • Chapter V - Old Testament Patterns- Creation, Flood, Exodus 135
  • Epilogue - Chaos and Cosmology, the Modem View 161
  • Bibliography 185
  • Index 195
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