“The Death of Sarpedon” The Iliad: Homer. Ana Maria Guay, translator.

Translator’s Note: The following poems interpret the death of Sarpedon in Book 16 of Homer’s Iliad. King of Lycia and an ally of Troy, Sarpedon is also a son of Zeus. When Patroklos enters the battle in Achilles’ armor, leading the Greek attack, Zeus knows that Sarpedon is fated to die and debates whether he should leave his son to his fate, or snatch him away from the battle. Hera convinces Zeus that he cannot show favoritism to his son without risking the anger of the other gods. Zeus obeys her, grieving, and sends a rain of blood over the battle in honor of his son. Sarpedon soon falls in combat with Patroklos and, as the Greeks and Trojans fight over his armor, Zeus sends Sleep and Death to rescue Sarpedon’s body and carry him back to Lycia for burial.

I.

“For shame, Lycians! Where do you flee?”
It was as though they knew.
As though vultures were already circling,
claws crooked and beaks bent,
to fight with great screams
over glory, over dust, over
the bodies to which these cling.

II.

Far from the land of his fathers,
whose son is Sarpedon?
To be godlike, to be like a god
is not enough.
Gods are deaf, and know not
the horrible sound of death.

Gods do not stand for their comrades
against the boisterous rush of chariot
nor the quiet oncoming of death.

Gods watch their comrades only
to be sure no one has cheated.
For them the game must be fair,
the tomb is the reward of death.

This is how Sarpedon is like a god:
Zeus could not kill his father Kronos
but wounded him gravely.
It is sons who strike their fathers deepest.
Deathless Zeus has not known death,
not the many ways of it,
not even a small part of it,
but Sarpedon’s death will be
like a sword or a cruel sickle.

Small wonder the eyes of Zeus weep,
that blood falls in the place of rain.

III.

Sarpedon’s muscles hold his heart tightly,
loathe to release it, even to a spear.
But like the tree that yields to axes in time,
whether an oak, a white poplar
or a tall pine, which men also cut
and doom to a slow rotting,
he falls and is fallen.

Roaring, he drags his hands
through the dust, wet with his blood.
Now he is like a bull, once glorious
among the dull plodders, the shambling herd.
Now fate is a cruel-clawed lion.

 

 

At the moment of death a bull
cannot understand the knife or teeth
and cries out in betrayal,
for he does not die by his own fault.
Is this why Sarpedon dies bellowing,
like a bull who does not comprehend
the reason of the death at his throat—
is this why Sarpedon dies raging?

IV.

Death must be sweet as milk
to flies, who swarm always.

But for Sarpedon death is
a crushing thing.
His burial comes early
beneath the arms of men,
the dust and blood.
And forever the flies
and the men like flies.

Even a man who knows
could not recognize
godlike Sarpedon.

Even Zeus has turned his eyes
from the face of his son, though
only to think upon vengeance.
Soon Patroklos will learn
the fickleness of death.
Meanwhile the flies swarm
thickly.

V.

Give him a surfeit of water and ambrosia,
clean things, sweet things.
I who slew him, though by Patroklos’ hand,
cannot grant him more than this—
though he was my son.

Let Sleep and Death bear my son’s body.
They are twin brothers and gentle,
though Sarpedon has met Death in a hard way,
a terrible way. Death has many faces.
May Death at last be kind.

Let them lift him carefully, for he goes now
to Lycia, where live things grow.
Let him be surrounded by life
and kinsmen who will mourn him.
This is the reward of death.
Though they search all broad Lycia,
they shall not find him again.

Translated from the Greek epic poem, The Iliad.

About the translator: Ana Maria Guay has just started her second year at Michigan and hopes to graduate in 2014 with a B.A. in Classical Languages and Literatures.

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