• Miss Jordan Taylor

ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος

The Iliad begins with a bang. “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles… Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed” (I.1,7). What, or rather who, is behind this dramatic tension? “What god drove them to fight with such a fury?” (I.9) The answer: “Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto.” (I.11) ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος. Far-shooting Apollo. Apollo who attains his aim. Or, as Fagles translates it: “The distant deadly Archer” (I.16) and “the god who strikes from worlds away—... Apollo!” (I.24) This epithet, ἑκηβόλος, is used for Apollo several times throughout the Iliad, and Fagles translates it beautifully to draw out nuances that are lacking in plain, old “far-shooting.” Since Apollo is the one kicking off the events of the Iliad, understanding how he is affecting the mortal world is crucial to understanding the relationship of gods and men in the poem.


The lexicon entries vary slightly, but ἑκηβόλος seems to have two primary accepted meanings — “far-shooting” and “attaining his aim.” Both meanings are honored in Fagles’ two different renderings: “The distant deadly Archer” and “the god who strikes from worlds away—... Apollo!” The two literal meanings of ἑκηβόλος give me the impression of Apollo being an excellent archer (far-shooting) or an all-around effective god (attaining his aim), but Fagles goes beyond either single meaning with two synergistic combinations. When Apollo draws his bow, he is meaning to hit his mark and kill, and so both by “striking” and by being “deadly” he “attains his aim.” “From worlds away” and “distant” highlight the “far” in “far-shooting,” and he is shooting both in being deadly and by striking. But Fagles’ versions not only elegantly combine the meanings while conveying a striking image, but they bring up questions about the meaning of the poem that the more literal translations do not: How is Apollo “worlds away”? What connotations are brought up by the words “distant” and “deadly”? The interpretive phrase “from worlds away” requires an exploration into how the gods act in the human world — which is seemingly both from afar and close-up.


The gods are obviously far away when they are at home on Olympus or in Hades or the depths of the ocean, and the mortals usually speak about and address the gods as if they are physically distant. When Chryses prays to Apollo to send the plague down upon the Achaeans, it says, “His prayer went up and Apollo heard him.” (I.50) But in the Iliad at least, Apollo is not always far away. This is apparent immediately following Chryses’ prayer (I.50-60), when “Down [Apollo] strode from Olympus’ peaks” to shoot at (send the plague to) the livestock and people from “against the ships,” a location certainly not “worlds away.” Even though the epithet is only used explicitly in relation to Apollo, it is applicable to the others gods as well, who also portray this lack of physical distance at times. Book XX recounts the gods joining in the battle of Troy and has many prime examples of the gods getting up-close and personal: speaking to people (XX.99), whisking them away (XX.372), and generally altering the events of the fighting while being directly on the battlefield (XX.366). During this joining of mortal and immortal forces, Apollo is once again described as distant (XX.340), but is very soon afterwards said to be standing right next to Hector (XX.427). In fact, that mention of him as “the distant deadly Archer” is in the context of his having (while being disguised as another soldier) urged Aeneas to fight Achilles. These are further examples of the gods, or Apollo at least, being close in proximity, while, according to Fagles, they must be distant in some other way. If Fagles had just used “far-shooting,” there might have been the possibility of assuming that Apollo sometimes shoots from far-away but that he just happens to be near-by at the moment. Being called distant when he is right there implies that the distance remains with him even as he is physically close, though. How can the gods be “worlds away” when they are obviously near-by? Fagles’ rendering of Apollo’s epithet makes it seem that even when they are physically near, the gods are still distant or somehow part of another world.


Could it be that the gods are spiritually far away, even as they intimately interact with the world of mortals? “Worlds away” and even “distant” could give a sense of spiritual distance, making it seem like the gods are somehow in another world even while participating in the events of human world. This implication of partaking in two worlds at once points out the strange melding of the supernatural actions of the gods and natural phenomena that occurs throughout the Iliad. There are many times throughout the epic when certain events that could be explained by nature are described as being the actions of the gods. For example, in Book XX, Apollo encourages Aeneas to go up against Achilles by “masking his [Apollo’s] voice like Priam’s son Lycaon, / like him to the life” (XX.97-98). Lycaon likely would have actually been on the battlefield, and a skeptical reader could claim that Homer was just attributing Lycaon’s words to Apollo for the sake of the story. Even the epic’s catalytic action, a plague hitting the Achaeans, is an event that could easily be explained as being a natural coincidence, but it is said instead that Apollo is is sending the plague by shooting his arrows at them because of Agamemnon’s dishonoring of Chryses. I do suppose one could conjecture that Apollo was not literally doing those things and that those events were just being explained that way to fit a religiously-influenced narrative. But why does it matter whether or not the gods are literally acting themselves? Apollo is said to be acting; he is also said to be distant — what’s wrong with the idea of his acting while having an intrinsic distance? Fagles’ word choice nicely balances that tension of nature vs. superstitious explanation by acknowledging that the gods are “worlds away” while still being there in some way, which opens up the possibility of their acting in ways that we mere mortals can’t necessarily understand. The gods are Other — immortal beings that are shown to not be subject to the world of man. After all, Apollo is said to be able to kill multitudes with a disease by shooting his bow (I.50-60), so it makes sense that his unmistakable status and power as a deity would be conveyed through an impression of distance. A more literal translation like “far-shooting” doesn’t suggest that separation of god and man, but just makes it seem like Apollo is a good archer. The emphasized distance of Fagles’ translation brings to light that balance of the gods’ simultaneously earthly and divine presence. But perhaps there are other ways in which the gods are separate from man.


The gods do not seem to sympathize with or fully understand human mortality. At the beginning of Book XX, Zeus says that he is staying on Olympus “to feast [his] eyes and delight [his] heart” (XX.28-29), referring to watching the raging battle, which having had the gods thrown into the mix is about to get exciting. Zeus’ enjoyment in watching the men’s pain and death, some of the defining characteristics of the battlefield, implies that he is not compassionate to human suffering and is therefore emotionally distant in some way. The description “distant [and] deadly” suggests that Apollo may be that way, too. In Book I, “he swept a fatal plague through the army” after one prayer from Chryses, proving himself more than willing to sacrifice human life. The connotation of the word “distant” especially coupled with “deadly” makes Apollo seem like a cold-blooded killer who is not sympathetic to the plights of men. “Deadly” is a far more sinister word than “far-shooting,” and “distant” allows for the alternate meaning of emotional distance, as opposed to the purely physical distance implied by “far.” This disconnect between the emotional life of the gods and the hardships of humans is further shown when the gods go to war with the Trojans and Achaeans: “So the blissful gods were rousing both opposing armies/ their overpowering strife broke out in massive war.” (XX.65, 67) The gods are “blissful” as they cause this “overpowering strife”! And it gets even more extreme: “Down from the high skies the father of men and gods / let loose tremendous thunder—from down below Poseidon / shook the boundless earth and towering heads of mountains.” (XX.68-70) For the gods to not only cause terror among men and to wreak havoc to the point of almost destroying the earth but to be blissful about it would require the distance and deadliness that Fagles ascribes to Apollo.


The events of the entire epic are attributed to the gods, beginning in the first lines (“What god drove them to fight with such a fury?” I.9). And since the divine impetus, at the beginning at least, is specifically Apollo, it is important to understand how and from where he affects the events of the poem, an exploration opened up by the epithet Fagles uses to describe him. ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος as both “the distant deadly Archer” and “the god who strikes from worlds away” illustrates the spiritual and emotional distance of the gods despite their closeness to the mortal world in physicality and participation.