Comic relief in the Iliad?

The Iliad is a great work of literature but there are moments where it plumbs the depths of banality. Book 21 has some of the most dramatic scenes in the Iliad. Achilles is on the rampage avenging the death of Patroclus. He has just battled with the river God and got out. Then suddenly Homer switches gear. He describes an unlikely battle between various of the gods. It looks as though it is inserted for comic relief at a time when it is least needed or wanted – or perhaps we just don’t see the humour. One can only assume that the work of a lesser poet has found its way into our text.

In this passage Athene lays low Aries, the God of war. He is improbably large at 200 meters. Even gods weren’t that big. There even seems to be a pun. Athene claims to be ἀρείων (better) than Ἄρης (Aries).

ὣς εἰπὼν οὔτησε κατ᾽ αἰγίδα θυσσανόεσσαν
σμερδαλέην, ἣν οὐδὲ Διὸς δάμνησι κεραυνός:
τῇ μιν Ἄρης οὔτησε μιαιφόνος ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ.
ἣ δ᾽ ἀναχασσαμένη λίθον εἵλετο χειρὶ παχείῃ
κείμενον ἐν πεδίῳ μέλανα τρηχύν τε μέγαν τε,
τόν ῥ᾽ ἄνδρες πρότεροι θέσαν ἔμμεναι οὖρον ἀρούρης:
τῷ βάλε θοῦρον Ἄρηα κατ᾽ αὐχένα, λῦσε δὲ γυῖα.
ἑπτὰ δ᾽ ἐπέσχε πέλεθρα πεσών, ἐκόνισε δὲ χαίτας,
τεύχεά τ᾽ ἀμφαράβησε: γέλασσε δὲ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη,
καί οἱ ἐπευχομένη ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα:
νηπύτι᾽ οὐδέ νύ πώ περ ἐπεφράσω ὅσσον ἀρείων
εὔχομ᾽ ἐγὼν ἔμεναι, ὅτι μοι μένος ἰσοφαρίζεις.

So speaking, Aries struck Athene’s tasselled aegis, the dreadful aegis that not even the lightning of Zeus can subdue. That’s where bloody Aries struck with his long spear. But she stepped back and picked up a stone with her strong hand which was lying on the plain, dark and rough and large which men in the past had placed to mark the boundary of a field. With it she hit Aries on the neck and weakened his limbs. When he fell he covered seven pelethrons (about 200 meters), and got his hair covered in dust and his armour rattled. Pallas Athene laughed and she boasted over him with these words. “Idiot, even now you haven’t got into your head how much I claim that I am braver than you seeing that you were trying to match your strength with mine

Iliad 22.400

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