The imperfect tense. If you think of verb tenses as determining just the time of an action (future, past, presesnt) you are missing something important. Tense tells also the way in which the action happens. The most common distinction is between a perfect tense and an imperfect tense. The perfect tense tells you that the action has been completed. Imperfect means that the action has not been completed, generally in the past. Let me give you an example.
Iliad line 5:
Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή
“And the will of God was being accomplished.”
Look at the word τελέω: it is pronounced “teleo” and means “fulfill, accomplish, execute, perform.” If you read Aristotle, you see him talk of the telos, which is the good toward which actions are directed. Here it is the verb whose subject is the word “will.” But it’s not present or simple past. It is the imperfect tense. So, it means that while everything else happens, the rage of Achilles, the heroes being thrust into Hades, the will of Zeus is not yet accomplished, but is in process of being accomplished.
So, when you read the Iliad, the whole thing is the working out of Zeus’ will. He wants it all to happen. Troy must fall, but so must the Acheans who die in front of the city. Zeus wants it all, and is continuing to want it.
I have a little Greek. Not very much, enough to know the letters, some grammar, some vocabulary. I can poke my way through the text and figure out what it means, generally. It seems to me a shame, however, that I have not read my favorite author in his original words. I’m going to rectify this. Would you like to read along?
If so, you can get the Greek text at the Perseus Project. Here’s the first line:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
It starts with a command to the goddess. Sing! (ἄειδε) It’s an imperative. Sing what? The wrath of Achilles. But Achilles isn’t seen until the last word of the first line. Literally (with a weird word order)
Wrath sing! Goddess Peleus’s Achilles’
Wrath and Achilles contain the whole singing, the whole epic, between them.
Let’s dig into the word μῆνις/wrath for a bit. The LSJ (Liddell Scott James) lexicon says it means the wrath of the gods. This is an interesting twist. Achilles isn’t just angry or wrathful, he’s angry with the specific wrath of gods. See Iliad 5:34 where Athena says to Ares “Let Zeus give glory to either side he chooses. We’ll stay clear and escape the Father’s rage.” (Διὸς δ’ ἀλεώμεθα μῆνιν;) (Fagles trans.) It’s the same word, but is used there to refer specifically to the anger of Zeus. Achilles is godlike in his wrath.
Right in the first line we are given hints that Achilles is not just an angry petulant soldier. His mania/wrath is different. As Ajax will say to him later, anyone else would take Agamemmnon’s money and let bygones be bygones, but not Achilles. I don’t think you’re reading this book right if you don’t realize this.
What makes it different? The fact that Achilles is half-divine, that he can taste an immortality that he can’t actually share. Doomed to die but knowing immortality. It makes it different. It’s harder for the human to die than it is for the antelope. We, being on the border of eternity, know what we’re losing.
Shall we keep going? At this rate I’ll be done in about fifty years.