The Iliad

Sleep denied, sleep disturbed

‘What is more gentle than a wind in summer?/ […] What, but thee Sleep?’ (Keats, Sleep and Poetry). The widely shared sentiment expressed in these verses finds a voice already in Homeric epic, which almost always describes sleep as a sweet, soft state.1 It is one of life's joys, alongside love, song and dance (Il. 13. 636). Pleasantness is its formulaic quality. It does not apply selectively as in the Old Testament, where slumber is sweet only when produced under certain circumstances, for instance a hope-filled revelation or a life of wisdom.2 Homer calls sleep kind regardless of whom it holds, regardless even of its appropriateness or effects.

In the Iliad, however, sleep's formulaic sweetness is either in the words of the primary narrator or of an agent other than the sleeper:3 never of the sleeper himself. The heroes of this epic do not even talk about their slumber, whether pleasant or not. While characters in the Odyssey often pause to describe the length, quality and aftermath of theirs, no one in the Iliad ever mentions one's own. This absence is consonant with the sleep-depriving urgency that pervades the action. The exhausted, shipwrecked Odysseus is allowed to sleep a ‘boundless’ slumber, which lasts well into the day (Od. 7. 286–8), but warring Agamemnon must remember that a leader should not even sleep all night (Il. 2. 24 and 61). Prolonged rest is an indulgence for ‘Iliadic managers’.4 No individual hero is said to sleep all night long, a luxury afforded only to the community at large and to the gods, and even in these cases descriptions of unbroken slumber serve only to provide a foil for scenes of wakefulness.5 Other references to hosts asleep point to the threat looming over them,6 while mentions of sleeping individuals tend to privilege those who are about to rise.7 Characters are abruptly shaken out of their sweet slumber, by a dream, a noise, a god or another warrior. No hero is said to awake naturally. In contrast, many a character in the Odyssey gets up with the sun: ‘When early-born, rosy-fingered dawn appeared, [he] rose from his bed’.8

True, the day of the Iliadic warrior ideally follows an orderly course. Fighting begins at dawn and should end at dusk. This ideal is captured in the phrase, ‘Let us obey the night’.9 But in fact warriors do fight after dark, and they also hold nocturnal gatherings at critical junctures. In the Odyssey, Nestor remembers the last assembly before leaving Troy, when strife over the route for the return journey divided the Achaeans into two camps. The assembly started at sundown. Nestor sees this fact, along with the conduct of the warriors, as foreshadowing the strife that unfolded; as he says, they gathered ‘recklessly, not in order, near sunset’, and drunk (3. 138). This negative picture of an assembly held in the evening hours highlights Nestor's etiquette-driven vision of the events at Troy, which he can maintain now that the war is over and there is no need to summon assemblies after dark.10 But in the Iliad such gatherings happen regularly. Obeying the night is not incompatible with making war decisions, for it means that one should stop fighting and eat a meal, but still keep watch, not sleep.11

Even in a night with no fighting, the Homeric warrior does not expect to rest. Both Achilles and Odysseus allegedly ‘spent many sleepless nights’.12 Odysseus rejects the rich bedding Penelope offers him because, he tells her, in the years at Troy he has grown accustomed to lying awake on foul beds (Od. 19. 337–42). To be sure, his words are strategic, for he seeks to deflect Penelope's possible suspicions about his identity by faultlessly impersonating a beggar unused to comforts.13 But his words match Achilles' unquestionably sincere avowal. In another story, one of his made-up tales, Odysseus again pictures the hardship of nights spent on the field (Od. 14. 462–502), claiming that he was freezing for lack of proper clothing. Along with his protestation to Penelope, this ‘lie similar to the truth’ (Od. 19. 203) suggests that in his memory the war was fraught with sleep deprivation.14

Other warriors would agree with Odysseus' reminiscences, for only two days of the six that cover the fighting in the Iliad end in sleep: days three and four, the latter only in the Greek camp.15 And how do the warriors rest? At the close of day three, while Greeks and Trojans are feasting ‘all night’, Zeus has been pondering evil ‘all night’ and thundering loudly (7. 476–8). The repetition of ‘all night’ sets Zeus' wakefulness and his control of the action off in contrast with the warriors' blind feasting, followed by equally blind sleep (7. 482). Over that sleep there sounds Zeus' thunder, which breaks in more loudly as the next day dawns and the god ‘who rejoices in thunder’ (8. 2) summons the other Olympians to initiate another day of fighting. This day leads to a wakeful night in the Trojan camp. The victorious and hopeful warriors sit by burning fires ‘all night’ (8. 554) and communicate their excitement to their horses, which, standing by the chariots, ‘waited for Dawn of the beautiful throne’, as if eager for the next day of battle; while on the Greek side the same day ends with slumber but only after protracted night activity: ‘There they lay down and took the boon of sleep’ (9. 713). And again sleep is soon interrupted when Agamemnon, restless at the opening of Book 10, causes the other warriors to be shaken awake. Alternatively, if we leave out Book 10, which may be a later addition,16 the boon of sleep points ahead to more doom, to Zeus' momentous attack in the morning, when he hurls awful Discord at the Greek ships (11. 3–4). This day, the day of Hector's victory and Patroclus' death and the longest in narrative time (11. 1–18. 241), ends with a wakeful night on both sides (18. 299 and 314–5). And the day of Achilles' superhuman victory, the last day of fighting, does not wind down in restful slumber either,17 but climaxes in a resonant night of mourning around Patroclus' pyre.

Soft sleep rather belongs to the prewar past. It is inscribed in the Trojan landscape or evoked in a simile. Athena, removing the shaft that has pierced Menelaus' breastplate, evokes a loving mother keeping a fly away from her child, ‘when he lies in sweet slumber’ (4. 130–1). The simile plays up the incongruity between an image of innocence and peace and the theatre of war, where flies turn into arrows and slumbering children into vulnerable fighters. Another sleeping child, a thing of the past, takes shape in Andromache's memory as she broods over the gloomy future that awaits the orphaned Astyanax: ‘Before […] when slumber seized him and he stopped his childish games, he would lie in a bed, in the arms of his nurse, on a soft couch, his heart full of happy thoughts’ (22. 502–4). This portrait will provide the archetype for several images of sleeping children set off against frightful backgrounds.18

Trojan adults used to enjoy sleep as well, in their bedchambers, the evocation of which is prompted by Hector's visit to his family's palace:

There were fifty chambers of polished stone, built next to each other. Priam's sons were accustomed to sleep there next to their wedded wives. And on the opposite side inside the courtyard there were twelve lofty chambers of polished stone, built near each other. Priam's sons-in-law were accustomed to sleep there next to their revered wives.

(6. 244–50)

While Hector and his relatives used to retire to their appointed quarters every night, he now walks by them quickly, only to rush back to the arena of war. The leisurely description of a place of rest in an ‘exceedingly beautiful’ palace (6. 242) contrasts with Hector's haste in moving through it and away from it and with his repeated refusal to accept the minimal comforts (a seat, a cup of wine) offered by his womenfolk to restore his strength (6. 258–62; 6. 354). Outward and hurried movements prepare for the scene of Hector's farewell to his wife. He does not find her inside the house because she has ‘rushed’ to the walls like one possessed (6. 388–9). He then goes through the city and returns to the Scaean gates, where the parting takes place: not in the couple's bedroom or in the palace, but at the entrance to the war, by the gates ‘which he was about to cross to the plain’ (6. 393), soon to meet his death. Hector and Andromache do not part in the intimacy of their home, because they will never again retire to their bedchamber to sleep together.

There is only one episode in the Iliad in which an undisturbed, nightlong rest is followed by the resumption of activity on the next morning. After returning Chryseis to her father, Agamemnon's envoys feast and sing, and ‘when the sun set and darkness came, they slept by the stern of the ship. But when early-born, rosy-fingered dawn appeared, they put out to sea to return to the great host of the Achaeans, and far-darting Apollo sent them a favourable wind’ (1. 475–9). This episode stands nearer to the Odyssey, with which it shares language and themes, mood and morals: a feast after a sea journey, the coming of night (couched in words that occur only here in the Iliad, but six times in the Odyssey), sleep, the rising of ‘early born, rosy-fingered dawn’ (with a line that appears only twice in the Iliad, but 20 times in the Odyssey), more sea travel with the help of a god-sent wind19 and an outcome that is ethically satisfying, with Chryses obtaining his due and Apollo rewarding the Greek envoys with a fair return journey.

Wakeful plotters: Zeus and Agamemnon

The sleep-depriving urgency that pervades the Iliad is reflected in the manner in which the core of its plot is launched: from wakeful thinking, which breaks into a landscape of sleep and targets a sleeper. At the end of Book 1, all the gods retire after feasting:

When the bright light of the sun sank, they went each to their homes to lie down […] and Olympian Zeus, the lord of lightning, lay down where he used to sleep before, when sweet slumber would come. There he went and lay down, and near him was Hera of the golden throne.


The retiring scene crowns the reconciliation that ends the strife on Olympus, while down on earth Agamemnon and Achilles are not shown in their sleeping quarters after they part in anger. Though the first line of Book 2 says that ‘the men were sleeping all night’ along with the gods, and though Agamemnon dreams, there is no record of the human players' going to rest. Such a detail would be at variance with the tensions dividing the leaders. In contrast, the gods' orderly retiring puts the appropriate seal on their peacemaking and points to their serenity, ultimately untroubled as they are by quarrels caused by humans. (We might recall Hephaestus' words to Hera: ‘Do not spoil our banquet for the sake of mortals!’).

But Zeus, far from enjoying a good night's sleep, plays the wakeful party in the first scene of lonely vigil in western literature: ‘The other gods and chariot-marshalling men were sleeping all night, but sweet slumber was not holding Zeus. He was pondering in his heart how to honour Achilles and destroy many by the Greek ships’.20 Zeus is worried about the politics of Olympus, for he knows that his promise to honour Achilles will create tensions in his family, above all between himself and his wife.

Sleepless pondering, however, does not trouble Zeus for long: it instantly yields the ‘best plan’, ἀρίστη βουλή (2. 5), which activates the god's βουλή announced in the epic's opening lines. Zeus' power is enhanced by the vulnerability of his victim: a human, and a sleeping one at that. The dream sent by Zeus finds Agamemnon ‘asleep in his tent, and ambrosial (ἀμβρόσιος) slumber was poured around him’ (2. 19). Though Homer does not say it, Agamemnon's slumber also seems to have come from Zeus.21 It is ἀμβρόσιος – the only time sleep earns this epithet in the Iliad – as is night, the uncanny, awe-inspiring cover of darkness that belongs to the gods and is safe only for them. A mortal should not be out alone ‘in the ambrosial night’, when others are resting.22 The very night in which the god-sent dream comes to Agamemnon feels ‘ambrosial’ to him (2. 57), and in that eerie night he sleeps an eerie slumber. Its divine provenance is further suggested by the identity of its action with the lingering of the god-sent dream: sleep ‘was poured around him’ (περὶ […] κέχυτο) just as the dream's voice ‘was poured around him’ (ἀμφέχυτ’) when he awoke (2. 41).

As is typical of Homeric dreams, the one sent by Zeus rouses the sleeper. It scolds him: ‘You slumber, son of wise Atreus, the tamer of horses? To sleep all night does not become a man who brings counsel, to whom many people turn and so many cares belong’ (2. 23–5). If Agamemnon's slumber comes from Zeus, the dream adds insult to injury by denouncing it as irresponsible. The censure, though, fittingly highlights Agamemnon's unreflective self-importance and his unawareness of the crisis he has caused.23 The action he takes upon awakening is as unseeing as his sleep, and this in spite of dawn rising when he sets out to gather the heroes. For Dawn this time is biased: ‘Now the goddess Dawn went to Olympus, announcing light to Zeus and the other immortals’ (2. 48–9). Contrary to its normal pattern, the new day brings light to the gods but not to men.24 Dawn's bias reinforces the opposition between Zeus' seeing wakefulness and Agamemnon's blind slumber, suggesting that the deluded human leader calls the assembly in the dark, as it were.25 He does not see the light even when daylight comes, while Zeus sees at night and is the first to see the light of day.26

At the beginning of Book 10, however, Agamemnon proves that he has learnt the lesson taught him by the dream,27 for this time it is he who plays the wakeful party in a scene of lonely vigil:

The other leaders of the Achaean host were sleeping all night by the ships, overcome by soft slumber, but sweet sleep was not holding Atreus' son Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people, who was pondering many things in his heart.


Audiences are sent back to the opening of Book 2 by the recurrence of words in the same order (‘the other’ begins both sequences and ‘were sleeping all night’ the second line), by the status of the wakeful character (the king of the gods and the king of men respectively) and by the emphasis on retiring that prefaces both vigils: just as all the gods ‘went each to their homes to lie down’ (1. 606), all the Achaeans ‘went each to their tents after making libations, and there they lay down and took the boon of sleep’ (9. 712–3).

The detailed parallels between the two episodes bring the weakness of Agamemnon as decision maker into stark relief by inviting comparison with Zeus' plot-driving sleeplessness.28 While Zeus immediately finds ‘the best plan’, Agamemnon is prey to gnawing agitation. The simile that describes his state further contrasts him with Zeus, the maker of rain, blizzard or war:

As when the husband of Hera of the fair tresses hurls lightning and produces much rain or unspeakable hail or snow that sprinkles the fields, or the wide mouth of piercing war, thus thickly did Agamemnon groan in his breast (ἐν στήθεσσιν ἀναστεναχίζε), from the innermost of his heart, and his mind inside trembled.

(10. 5–10)

Zeus sends storms; Agamemnon is stormy within. The alliteration st-st in ἐν στήθεσσιν ἀναστεναχίζε (‘he groaned in his breast’), reinforced by the similarly sounding ê-e and en/an, absorbs one term into the other, conveying the introverted fruitlessness of Agamemnon's groaning with an etymologizing wordplay. Achilles' warning to him, that he will ‘lacerate his heart inside’ (1. 243), has come true.

At last a ‘best plan’ dawns on Agamemnon as well (10. 17=2. 5), but it consists of nothing better than seeking advice: he will approach Nestor (10. 19). Agamemnon's weak grip on the situation is further brought out by Menelaus' own sleeplessness, shaking (10. 25–6) and fear for his brother's sake (10. 38–9). Agamemnon admits to his distress when he tells Nestor that, ‘I wander thus, since sweet slumber does not rest on my eyes’ (10. 91–2). His self-portrait conveys even stronger anxiety than the authorial description of his state: ‘my mind is not firm, but I wander to and fro, and my heart leaps out of my chest, and my glistening limbs tremble’ (10. 93–5). The series of wake-up calls that follows from the consultation with Nestor (10. 108: ‘Let us rouse others as well!’) dilutes Agamemnon's authority and builds yet another contrast with Zeus. For Zeus comes up with a decision all alone, unbeknownst to his sleeping recipient, whom he causes to awaken to carry out his plan, whereas Agamemnon causes many to rise so that they can form a plan together. The contrast highlights the difficulties that he faces both as a human leader, who has to reach a consensus, and as an incompetent one, who needs the advice of many.

The deadly sleep of Rhesus

The mission decided in that wakeful night culminates with the killing of Rhesus. He is sleeping with his Thracians, likewise sleeping, all around him, overcome by fatigue (10. 471–4), when ‘the son of Tydeus came […] [and] him the thirteenth he robbed of his life. He was panting, for a bad dream stood over his head that night, Diomedes, by Athena's device’ (10. 494–7). Rhesus' dream of death merges with his death in slumber.29

Did the killing of a sleeping foe conjure up military practice to audiences in the late-eighth or early-seventh century (roughly the time of the epic's composition)30 or did it sound more mythical than real? Scholars are divided as to whether night-time attacks were acceptable in archaic Greek warfare and how frequent they were. According to one view, they are altogether rare: a powerful idea more than an actual fact.31 Others prefer to see a development in military ethics towards a greater acceptance of deceptive methods, with the turning point coinciding either with the Persian Wars or even later, with the Peloponnesian War.32 On any of these models, an audience contemporary with Iliad 10 (even if the book was added in the sixth century) would find the long nocturnal action in it remarkable, if not extraordinary, in light of their own dominant ethics.33 According to yet another view, however, deceptive strategies, including attacks at night, were acceptable in military ethics already in the early archaic period.34 This view finds some support in Homer, where ambushes are considered part and parcel of heroic conduct because of the courage they require (Il. 13. 276–87), and even Achilles is not ashamed of capturing enemies at night (Il. 21. 35–40).

How frequently nocturnal attacks occurred is another matter. Historical data for the archaic period are scanty. We know that night-time fighting was prescribed to the Spartan youths during their coming-of-age military service,35 and Herodotus recounts two early instances of attacks on sleeping foes: Pisistratus falling on the Athenians after their lunch, while some of them were napping (1. 63), and Cyrus and his Persians slaughtering the enemy while they were likewise dozing after a meal (1. 211).36 The record is slightly richer for the fifth and fourth centuries,37 which might (but need not) suggest a change in military ethics. Xenophon, for one, has no compunction about narrating how his model king and general, Cyrus the Younger, learned to attack men in their sleep (Cyr. 1. 6. 35) and remembered the lesson (7. 5. 21). But all in all, night-time fighting was far from common practice, possibly because of the tremendous risks it involved.38

Against this background, it is likely that in the seventh century and even later the Trojan saga stood out for featuring extended scenes of night-time combat: in addition to the capture of Dolon and the killing of Rhesus, it also includes the theft of the Palladium and the final sack.39 There are further references to night-time war activities, and led not only by Odysseus,40 as one would expect of that embodiment of cunning, with his special talent for stealthy manoeuvring in the dark,41 but also by that arch defender of openness and directness, Achilles.42

This concentration of night-time fighting looks ahead to Troy's last night, when the sleep-unto-death of Rhesus and his Thracians will be replayed by all the Trojans, in the Iliad the wakeful protectors of their wives and children, but on that night no longer protecting or protected by their wakefulness. As Diomedes and Odysseus learn from Dolon, while Rhesus is deep in slumber Hector is holding assembly and the Trojans are on guard duty: ‘They are awake and urge one another to keep watch. But the allies, called from many lands, sleep. They entrust the Trojans with watching, for their own children or wives are not around them’ (10. 419–22). To audiences who knew how the war ended, the vigilance of the Trojans contrasted with the relaxed and death-causing slumber of their allies must have sounded an ominous note.

The ‘deadly’ sleep of Zeus

Next it is Zeus' turn to be hurt by a deep slumber. To engineer it is Hera, who enlists the help of Hypnos himself (Figure 1.1) to secure the soporific effects of lovemaking: ‘Put to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus under his eyelids, straightaway, after I lie with him in love’ (14. 236–7). And sleep seizes the god, a deathlike, still slumber, which prompts two descriptions, one in the authorial voice (‘He was slumbering, motionlessly [ἀτρέμας εὗδε] […] overcome [δαμείς] by sleep and love, holding his wife in his arms’ [14. 352–4]), the other by Hypnos himself (‘Zeus still sleeps, since I have enfolded him in a soft, deep slumber [κῶμα]’ [14. 358–9]). Zeus awakes 168 lines later, ‘on the peaks of Ida next to Hera of the golden throne’ (15. 4–5). Ironically, the all-seeing and most vigilant god is tricked into sleeping the eeriest sleep of the epic and the longest in narrative time.

Hypnos emphasizes the depth of Zeus' slumber by calling it κῶμα: a condition in which every mental activity is stopped. The lexicographer Hesychius explains κῶμα as an ‘oblivious sleep’, and Hippocrates defines it as a state of unconsciousness different from ὕπνος.43 For modern scholars, κῶμα is either deadness, a ‘turning off of the entire consciousness’, or ‘a deep sleep induced by enchantment or other special or supernatural means’.44 The possible etymological connection with κωφός (‘deaf and dumb’)45 would suggest that κῶμα is a loss of consciousness deeper than even the deepest slumber.46 On the other hand, a κῶμα can be slept,47 as is Zeus', and caused by Hypnos himself. Whatever the case, in archaic and classical texts κῶμα comes from the gods or godlike forces. Pindar uses the term for the irresistible slumber induced by the lyre's music, so spell binding that it can assuage even the god of war (Pyth. 1. 12).48 In Homer, Hypnos' privilege of sending κῶμα is shared only by Athena.


Figure 1.1 Bronze head of Hypnos, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original (first or second century AD), London, The British Museum

Athena forces κῶμα on Penelope to neutralize her resistance and beautify her against her wishes,49 just as Hera mobilizes sleep to promote her wishes against Zeus. But there is an important difference: while Athena knocks out Penelope in order to activate a plan that ultimately is meant to help her, Hera intends to harm her husband and undermine his power. To force sleep on him she hires, and for the second time (14. 252–3), a god who is hierarchically subjected to him (as Hypnos' reluctance to reoffer his services spells out, 14. 247–8) but whom she honours with a phrase that normally belongs to his superior: ‘lord of all gods and men’ (14. 233).

Though Hera means to flatter Hypnos by placing him at the top of the divine ladder, the compliment is not hyperbolic. It is true that Hypnos' control even over mortals is limited. While Death ‘holds fast whichever human he has once seized’, ‘all powerful Hypnos releases those he binds, and does not hold them forever once he has seized them’.50 If Hypnos' grip is not irreversible, however, his empire is larger than Death's, for he can master even the deathless gods.51 In the Homeric imaginary, Hypnos is indeed lord of every living being: sleep, and only sleep, earns the epithet πανδαμάτωρ, ‘subjugating everything’.52 The Orphic Hymn to Hypnos (85) agrees with Homer in celebrating the god's sweeping power – again, his alone: ‘Hypnos, lord of all the blessed and of mortal men and of all the animals that the wide earth breeds, you alone rule over everyone and come to everyone, binding bodies in chains not forged of metal’. In later art and poetry, sleep's rule over the gods is brought into bold relief by images of a slumbering Eros (Figure 1.2) in which the god who shares Hypnos' prerogative of ‘subjugating […] the minds of all gods and men’ (Hes. Theog. 121–2) is overcome by a force stronger than he.53 Both sleep and love are ‘limb loosening’;54 but sleep loosens the limbs of Eros.

Hera's address to Hypnos as lord of all gods and men underscores his power specifically over Zeus, whose title he appropriates right when he is about to prove that he deserves it.55 In fact, while Zeus slumbers he loses his rule over gods and men and forfeits control over his own plan. And it is Hypnos himself who puts the plan in jeopardy by urging Poseidon to favour the Greeks (14. 354–5), that is, to implement a ‘plan of Hera’ against Zeus' own.56

But why does Hera summon Hypnos, since originally she thought that lovemaking would be enough to produce the deep slumber she needed to carry out her plan (14. 163–5)? As it seems, she secures the god's help because her victim's eyes and mind are exceptionally vigilant, requiring more than just natural sleep to be turned off. It is those eyes in particular that she asks Hypnos to neutralize: ‘Put to sleep Zeus’ bright eyes under his eyelids' (14. 236). The first time Hypnos acted on Zeus, he aimed at his waking mind: ‘I put the mind of Zeus to sleep’ (14. 252). Likewise Hera was hoping to pour slumber ‘over his eyelids and solid mind’ (14. 165; see also 160) before she asked Hypnos for help. Zeus' formidable vision causes both Hera and Hypnos to cover themselves in mist so that they can remain unseen while they travel to Ida (14. 282), where he stops ‘before Zeus’ eyes saw him' and hides in the branches of a pine tree, likening himself to a dark bird (14. 286–91), while she does offer herself to Zeus' eyes (14. 293) but in order to seduce him. Hera's job is to exploit the erotic force of sight to numb her husband's vigilance: ‘Zeus saw her. And as he saw her, desire enfolded (ἀμφεκάλυψεν) his solid mind’ (14. 293–4), compelling him to make love to her and fall asleep as a result. Hypnos' job is to finish the mind-enfolding work of love by enfolding (περὶ […] κάλυψα, 14. 359) Zeus further in an eerily deep loss of consciousness, which ‘kills’ him.


Figure 1.2 Eros Sleeping, bronze statue, Greek or Roman (third century BC – first century AD), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While plunged in his κῶμα Zeus comes as close to death as a god can. The equation of sleep and death is coeval with Greek culture.57 In Homer, death is ‘brazen slumber’ (Il. 11. 241), and sleep can be ‘most similar to death’ (Od. 13. 80). One warrior boasts that a man he has just killed ‘slumbers, overcome by my spear’ (Il. 14. 482–3). Sleep and Death are called ‘brothers’ when Hera first approaches Hypnos (Il. 14. 231),58 and ‘twins’ when they are summoned jointly to carry Sarpedon's dead body home (Il. 16. 672–3 and 682–3). (Figures 1.3 and 1.4). Both ‘charm’ the eyes.59

Sleep substitutes for death in one version of the myth of Endymion, to whom Zeus granted ‘to slumber for the rest of time and remain immortal and ageless’ (Apollod. Bibl. 1. 56). Eternal rest removes mortality, characterized by becoming, by the alternation of sleep and wakefulness.60 But sleep can also ‘kill’ the deathless gods. In another version of his polymorphic legend, Endymion precipitates from the gods' company into an everlasting slumber. The two opposite functions of sleep, as the substitute for death or the qualifier of immortality, appear back to back in this comment: ‘Epimenides says that when he [Endymion] consorted with the gods, he fell in love with Hera, for which reason Zeus became angry and caused him to sleep forever. But some say that, because of his great justice, he was made a god and Zeus caused him to sleep forever’.61 Zeus disposes of Cronus in the same way.62 A loss of consciousness like Zeus' own in Iliad 14, but not as sweet, is the κῶμα that engulfs the perjured gods in Hesiod's Theogony (798), ‘hiding’ them as death hides humans.63


Figure 1.3 John W. Waterhouse, Sleep and his Half-Brother Death (1874), Private Collection.


Figure 1.4 Euphronios Painter, red-figure calyx crater (‘Euphronios Vase’, late sixth century BC), Rome, Villa Giulia. The dead Sarpedon transported by Hypnos and Thanatos, with Hermes looking on.

In Homer's description Zeus' ‘death’ is highlighted by more details. He ‘was slumbering, motionlessly’ (ἀτρέμας εὗδε): the only other instance of this phrase in Homer refers to Odysseus plunged in deathlike sleep as a magic ship takes him to Ithaca (Od. 13. 92). And Zeus is ‘overcome’ (δαμείς) by sleep, as the warriors are by death.64 But his ‘temporary death’65 is a travesty of the real death that warriors meet in combat,66 most poignantly during his long and undisturbed slumber. The sequence of Hera's seduction of Zeus and his forced sleep has rung comical to many readers, who stress the levity and frivolity of the scenes in contrast to the tragedy of the war below, which a deity steers as she pleases while another one deeply slumbers, and which causes many humans to die a real death because a god is put to ‘death’ by sleep and love. Upon awakening, Zeus instantly and effortlessly reverses the power balance by reactivating his plan with greater impetus and announcing more deaths, ‘until the Achaeans will sack steep Ilion’ (15. 70–1).67

Divine sleep and sleeplessness in Homer and beyond

The sleep patterns of the Homeric gods are noticeably close to those of humans. Did this fact bother ancient audiences? Did they find fault with gods tricked by sleep, unable to control their sleep or simply sleeping?

Predictably, the gods' slumber came under attack for betokening humanlike weakness. Alexander the Great allegedly said, when hailed as a god, that two things made him doubt his divinity: his need for sleep and his need for sex (Plut. Mor. 65F). In Quintus of Smyrna's epic (third or fourth century AD), sleep and immortality are at variance: ‘The gods, much troubled, went each to their homes and beds and, for all their immortality, slumber the gentle helper was spread over their eyes’ (2. 180–2). As immortals, the gods should not need to rest.

Quintus is not the only late author to find sleep at odds with immortality. Commenting on Plato's criticism of Zeus' desire for Hera in Iliad 14 (Resp. 390b–c), the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus (fifth century) observes that the Homeric passage includes the problematic view that Zeus could slumber. Was Homer blasphemous in saying that the king of the gods could be wakeful and asleep in turn? Proclus' solution is that the two states depict the twofold relationship of the first principle (‘Zeus’) to the material world: awake, in its providential intervention, asleep, in its self-sufficiency as mind separated from the world of sense perception.68 God is unsleeping because he cares for the world, but asleep because he withdraws from it and dwells with himself. From this convoluted allegorizing, we can gauge to which extent Zeus' slumber bothered the Neoplatonic thinker.

An earlier admirer of Plato, Celsus in the second century AD, attacks the God of the Old Testament for resting on the seventh day after completing the world's creation. Celsus is peremptory: this deity is ‘a poor artisan’ because ‘for the supreme god to be tired is against divine law’. Rest is an anthropomorphic feature, and thus un-godlike.69

Earlier still, the doxographer Aetius (second century BC) likewise takes issue with the idea that god, as immortal, needed to sleep. He criticizes Anaxagoras and Plato for arguing that god put order in the world, claiming that his meddling in human affairs would detract from his perfect beatitude and that he would not be eternal if the world existed before he put order into it. Otherwise, what would he have done prior to arranging the world? He must have been slumbering since the beginning of time. But this is unacceptable, because it would be tantamount to denying his immortality: ‘If god had slept since eternity, he would be dead, for death is an eternal slumber. But god cannot be affected by sleep, for divine immortality and nearness to death are much at variance’.70 Aetius extends his criticism from the notion of a god sleeping through the immensity of time to that of a god simply sleeping.

No such criticism of divine slumber, however, can be found in classical Greek thought. We can imagine that Xenophanes, who objects to the gods' anthropomorphic shape, objected to their rest as well, but the extant evidence does not prove it. Plato, who admires Zeus' wakeful planning, does not target sleep as its negative counterpart, but rather the effects of desire: we should not admit that Zeus, ‘who, while the other gods and men were slumbering, was awake alone and made those decisions, forgot them all easily because of erotic passion and was so struck by the sight of Hera that he did not even want to go to his bedchamber’ (Resp. 390b–c). Unlike Proclus, Plato passes over Zeus' sleep. He omits Hera's summoning of Hypnos and stops before the sleep scene, reading Zeus' oblivion as the result of mind-numbing desire alone. The erasing of Hypnos from the picture demonstrates that Plato's criticism is aimed at Zeus' sexual appetite and its consequences rather than at sleep's compulsion. And as a matter of fact, Plato does not attack Homeric scenes in which the gods just slumber. Neither does Aristotle. When he claims that the gods must be engaged in some kind of activity because we cannot imagine them to sleep always (Eth. Nic. 1178b 19–20), he implies: we can imagine them to do so sometimes.

Yet we cannot help asking: why do the gods sleep? And how? How can they demonstrate their divinity if they rest like humans? The gods' eating habits show that they are both close to humans (because they eat) and distinct from them (because they follow a special diet). They mark their difference from mortals by choosing different foods and drinks, nectar and ambrosia (the two diets are contrasted in the scene in which Calypso and Odysseus eat together at Od. 5. 196–9). But can they sleep a different sleep? What is it that would mark the difference?

A god's slumber, as it seems, does not shut down his power. This is true for Eros in the representations of the god asleep that populate Hellenistic and Roman art and poetry, where his apparently deep slumber is a deceptive image of innocence and vulnerability. It is the harmless child that is forefront in those representations, his weapons at repose while his body abandons itself to sleep's spell (Figure 1.2). But even so we are not protected from that child, who can still shoot.71

Zeus' sleep likewise does not neutralize his powers because it has eyes. The supreme god is vigilant even when he slumbers, and that is why Hera feels the need to reinforce the work of sleep with that of Hypnos to engulf Zeus in a κῶμα and close his eyes shut. Hypnos alone can ‘charm even the eyes of Zeus’, as Meleager puts it (AP 5. 174. 3); for during natural sleep Zeus' eyes are open. While he was napping, Typhon attempted to steal his thunderbolt, but he saw him and struck him with lightning72 or a ‘sleepless shaft’, as Aeschylus calls it (PV 358). Zeus' power remains untouched: ‘Not even sleep takes it away, which makes everything age; not even the inexhaustible months of the gods. Not aged by time, you rule and hold the dazzling brightness of Olympus’.73

But why would Zeus and the other Olympians slumber? Do they need to recover from weariness? Apparently Zeus does in Iliad 14. The regularity of the gods' sleeping patterns – they retire at night after carrying out their business by day – likewise seems to suggest that they need to rest. This need, though, is not spelled out but remains implied. In Homeric poetry the gods are never said to sleep from tiredness. Terms such as κάμνειν or κάματος (‘to be tired’, ‘tiredness’), which time and again gloss human sleep,74 never explain a deity's. How could they, since ‘the tired ones’ (καμόντες) are the dead? To say of gods that they are exhausted is tantamount to qualifying their godhead, as in the tableau at the beginning of Eumenides, where the Furies are heavily asleep, worn out by the toil of travelling. Weary slumber lessens the gap between these deities and their human prey, Orestes, also condemned to the wearying toil of travel.75 Conversely, in the Homeric Hymn devoted to him, Apollo stops from travelling not in order to rest but to promote his divinity by spreading his cult.

Rather than sleeping to cure their tiredness, the gods do so to enjoy a languorous pleasure. Just as they eat not to quiet their hunger but to entertain themselves with feasting,76 they sleep because sleep is blissful. When, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, Apollo marvels listening to Hermes' music, he adds: ‘Truly here are three things to choose from: mirth, love, and sweet slumber’ (449). We are reminded of Menelaus' words, ‘There is satiety in everything, even in sleep, love, sweet song and the excellent dance, things in which one would rather slake one's pleasure than in war’ (Il. 13. 636–8). We might also recall Eumaeus' declaration: ‘There is satiety also in too much slumber’ (Od. 15. 394), and add to it the Phaeacians' pronounced taste for ‘beds’ (Od. 8. 249) and Mimnermus' inclusion of the bed among the pleasures that make life worth living (Fr. 1. 3).77 The gods celebrate the joy of sleep as humans do.

To be sure, Mimnermus combines the luxuriousness of divine slumber with a humanlike need to rest in a charming poem about Helios:

Helios' lot is to toil day after day. He and his horses take no break once rosy-fingered Dawn leaves Oceanus and goes up to the sky. For a lovely bed, of many colors, a work of metal beaten by Hephaestus' hands, of precious gold, winged, carries him, slumbering pleasantly, across the sea, on the surface of the water, from the country of the Hesperides to the land of the Aethiopians, where his swift chariot and his horses stand at repose until early-born Dawn arrives. Then the son of Hyperion goes on another ride.

(Fr. 12)

The god is imagined to sleep in order to restore himself after his toil. The poem, though, is not a serious work of theology but a playful exercise in aetiology: it imaginatively explains why the sun is not in the sky at night by humanizing the ‘tireless’ Helios of Homer (Il. 18. 239 and 484). And the god's tiredness is not what the poem emphasizes. Rather, in describing Helios' sleep Mimnermus puts a premium on the pleasure it offers and on the elaborate craftsmanship, precious material and magical powers of the bed, worthy of the sleeper's divine status.78

Mimnermus' poem calls to mind the opening paragraphs of Lucian's The Double Indictment (1–3), where Zeus complains that he cannot enjoy sweet slumber as much as he would like because he is too busy: if Selene and Hypnos lose sleep doing their job at night, even more so does he, the king of the gods, who has to supervise the work of his immortal subjects and cannot afford aloofness, lest mortals believe Epicurus and stop sacrificing. Citing Iliad 2, Zeus protests that ‘while the other gods and chariot-marshalling men sleep all night’, ‘sweet slumber does not hold me, though I am Zeus’: the king of the gods is like the pilot of a ship, who gets no rest but ‘ponders in his heart’ for the benefit of all. Zeus wishes for a more leisurely lifestyle, with a more generous sleep allowance.

These gods, however, do not oversleep. They retire with the darkness and get up with the sun. They are bound to the same schedule as men: ‘The time-limit for natural sleep among both gods and humans is sunset’.79 The Homeric gods are not as fond of slumber as their Mesopotamian counterparts, who can even default from their duties for its sake and make such a cult of it as to punish humans and other gods for disturbing their peace.80 Had the Olympians overindulged in sleep, perhaps they would have come under more severe scrutiny (as suggested by Aristotle's assertion that the gods should not be asleep all the time). But instead, their sleeping patterns show them in harmonious concert with humans (‘all the other gods and men were slumbering all night’) and equally submitted to cosmic law, to the orderly rhythm of day and night. Dawn rises for mortals and immortals alike (Il. 11. 2; 19. 2), both of whom have to wait for it;81 and the sun shines for both (Od. 12. 385–6).82 The gods' sleep belongs in the order of things.

Nevertheless, Homeric literature is noticeably shy about describing individual gods asleep. There are only two in the corpus: Zeus in the Iliad and Hera in the Homeric Hymns,83 where it is her turn to suffer injury from her husband. Zeus goes off to Maia's cave to make love to her ‘in the dead of night, when sweet slumber held white-armed Hera fast’ (Hymn to Hermes 7–8). Both Zeus and Hera are shown asleep only to tell a story of deceit at their expense. These pictures of gods made vulnerable by slumber further validate Hera's address to Hypnos as ‘lord of all gods and men’.

The story of Hermes' birth and first exploits in the Homeric Hymn devoted to him teases out the association of sleep with un-godlike vulnerability. The circumstances of Hermes' conception – on the sly, in the nocturnal recesses of a cave, and away from the other gods – qualify him to ‘see at night’ (15) and roam around in it even as a newborn babe.84 He spends no time in his cradle: ‘Born at dawn, he played the cithara at noon, and stole Apollo's cattle in the evening’ (17–8). His un-childlike deeds quickly succeed one another in the course of one day, at the end of which he pretends to be a somnolent child. As he catches sight of Apollo, he snuggles up in his swaddling clothes ‘and squeezed his head, hands and feet in a small space, like a newborn babe seeking sweet slumber. But in fact he was awake’ (240–2). Apollo, however, detects him and asks him about the cattle. To no avail, for Hermes sticks to his role as the sleep-loving child, incapable of stealthy deeds: ‘I am not a cattle thief […] This is no work for me, but I rather care for other things: I care for sleep, and the milk of my mother's breast, and swaddling clothes around my shoulders, and warm baths’ (265–8). Hermes has just given demonstration of godlike powers when he fakes the opposite, a child's need for warmth, nurture and a cosy slumber. Since he is a god of yet unclear status, however, his game risks becoming real. Indeed, Apollo pays him back by undermining his immortality in the language of sleep: ‘Come, lest you sleep your very last slumber’ (289), and by calling him ‘swaddling baby’ (301). Apollo downgrades Hermes to a sleeping mortal child and threatens him with the sleep of death, while Hermes is wide awake and striving to be acknowledged as his brother's equal.

The protagonist of another Homeric Hymn, Aphrodite, asserts her divine status by staying awake and forcing sleep on her mortal lover. The Hymn to Aphrodite tells the story of a loss of power: the goddess of love is compelled to fall in love with a human. Though she causes Anchises to return her passion (91, 143), she falls prey to erotic desire first, a ‘terribly strong desire’ (57), which Zeus inflicts on her (45, 53) usurping her own powers. But as soon as the mating is over and evening descends, at ‘the hour when the shepherds drive their oxen and fat sheep back to the hut from the flowery pastures’, then ‘she poured sweet slumber upon Anchises and put on her beautiful clothes’ (168–71). This conclusion to their lovemaking enhances their asymmetry in status: instead of dozing off along with her mortal lover and in his arms, the goddess compels him to sleep and gets up to prepare her epiphany. After getting dressed and recovering her divine stature and dazzling beauty, she shakes him out of sleep in the manner of a Homeric dream, forcing him to see her divine self:

‘Awaken, son of Dardanus! Why do you sleep so deeply? And mark, do I look the same as I did when you first saw me with your eyes?’ So she spoke. He instantly awoke and obeyed her, and as he saw the neck and beautiful eyes of Aphrodite, he was afraid and turned his eyes aside another way.


The goddess who averted her eyes upon approaching the couch (155–7), behaving like the virgin she pretended to be (133), is now in full view, and the mortal who led her there averts his gaze in turn, in recognition of her divinity. Aphrodite has wielded sleep as a weapon against her mortal lover to reestablish the balance of power. Her exploitation of slumber to control her mate while she remains awake brings this story near to two Homeric tales: Poseidon's rape of Tyro, over whom ‘he poured sleep’ after taking her virginity (Od. 11. 245), and Hera's seduction of Zeus in Iliad 14.85 Though Hera herself does not wield sleep, as do Aphrodite and Poseidon, she secures it with the help of Hypnos. And although Zeus is next to her when he awakens (Il. 15. 5), she is not said to sleep. The Homeric gods do not slumber after making love unless they are forced to.

This can be inferred also from the behaviour of Ares and Aphrodite in the lay sung by Demodocus in Odyssey 8. This story bears many resemblances to Hera's seduction of Zeus. Ares and Aphrodite are adulterers; Hera and Zeus behave like adulterers (her extravagant toilette, his listing her amongst his extramarital affairs, his hurry to ‘do it’ right on the spot rather than in the proper marital setting turn wedded love into an illegitimate consummation). Both stories hinge on deception, and both deceivers, Hera and Hephaestus, count on the irresistible compulsion of sex.86 A fundamental difference, however, is that Ares and Aphrodite have the same desire and the same intentions. Another is that they remain awake after making love. It is true that Hephaestus summons the other gods to come watch ‘where the pair sleeps in love’ (313) and predicts that ‘soon they will not want to sleep together’ (316–7). The spectacle would gain force if the adulterers should be deep in slumber under the public eye. Nevertheless, the meaning of ‘sleep’ in those phrases seems to be erotic.87 The lovers are not dozing, for immediately after mating and before the other gods assemble around their bed, they ‘realize’ (299) that they are trapped in the net of chains that surrounds them, and as soon as the chains are removed, they jump up and flee (361–2). The absence of sleep from this episode bears out its role in the other stories of divine lovemaking: post-coital slumber in them does not express harmony and togetherness, as it does, for instance, in the scene of Odysseus and Penelope dozing off after their reunion, but unequal power or intentions, for only the weaker and human party (Anchises, Tyro) or the party who is being tricked (Zeus) goes to sleep.

Let us now turn briefly to the gods' sleeplessness. Later authors, it seems, were not bothered by it. Divine sleeplessness could easily be salvaged, even admired, because it lent itself to being read as the unceasing activity of a responsible ruler (like the one Plato describes at Leg. 808a–c) or as a force that cares and oversees and is stronger than sleep. As we have seen, Plato approved Zeus' wakeful deliberation in Iliad 2, and Proclus read in it the first principle's concern for the world. But was the gods' sleeplessness perceived to be identical with its human counterpart? If not, what features marked the difference?

As conceived in the Iliad, sleeplessness both brings the gods nearer to and sets them apart from mortals. Unsleeping Agamemnon and unsleeping Zeus are in a similar predicament, equally in need of ‘the best plan’. The parallel suggests that the gods cannot suppress or even postpone their worries when they would wish to rest. But on the other hand, their wakefulness does not bear visible marks of anxiety. Agamemnon's disquiet can be seen and heard: it has a voice, a body that shakes and trembles, a heart that also trembles and groans, limbs that cannot stay in place, hands that pull hair from his head by its roots (Il. 10. 15). His despair and helplessness are conveyed by his physical agitation, exposed. The same, as we shall see, holds true for Achilles and, in the Odyssey, for Odysseus, both of whom move restlessly during their sleepless nights. The narratives about their condition are much longer than those describing wakeful gods and devote a wealth of detail to the character's feelings, postures or words. In sharp contrast, Zeus' insomnia is bodiless and wordless: we neither see his movements nor hear him while he is considering how to reach his goals. The divine protagonist in the last scene of sleeplessness in the Iliad, Hermes, is likewise pictured in soundless and invisible mental activity. The only thing both gods do is to ponder (2. 3; 24. 680). Plato might have found it easy to read Zeus' insomnia as responsible, but not agitated, wakefulness because he was not confronted with an image of the god roaming and groaning or debating with himself, but only thinking, and instantly solving his predicament. A god's sleeplessness does not last in narrated or narrative time but quickly turns into effective action.

Achilles' insomnia

After the funeral games in honour of Patroclus,

The rest thought of supper and of delighting in sweet slumber (ὕπνου γλυκεροῦ ταρπήμεναι), but Achilles wept, remembering his dear friend, and sleep that subjugates everything did not seize him, but he tossed this way and that […] He lay now on his side, now on his back, now on his face. Then, up on his feet, he would wander (δινεύεσκ᾽) distraught, by the seashore […] And dawn would not miss (λήθεσκεν) him when it shone on the sea and the shore. Then he would yoke his swift horses beneath the chariot and would bind (δησάσκετο) Hector behind it to drag him, and after driving him three times around the grave marker of the dead Patroclus, he would rest (παυέσκετο) again in his tent, and would leave (ἔασκεν) Hector in the dust.

(Il. 24. 2–17)

Achilles continues in this state for twelve days (24. 31). His chronic insomnia, highlighted by the oxymoronic phrase, ‘sleep that subjugates everything did not seize him’,88 is the farthest removed from the bodiless sleeplessness of the Homeric gods: Achilles' body is forefront as it tosses, turns, wanders, and performs a desperate daily ritual, while his mind is filled not with thinking but with anger and longing.

Achilles' insomnia dramatically reverses the unconcerned slumber in which he indulged prior to Patroclus' death. The Iliad's main hero stands apart from the others also in his sleep patterns, for he rests undisturbed in his tent while the war raging outside deprives his fellows of sleep. After the visit of Agamemnon's envoys,

Patroclus ordered his companions and the handmaids to spread a thick bed for Phoenix straightaway. They obeyed and spread the bed as he ordered, fleeces and a rug and soft linens. There the old man lay and waited for divine Dawn. But Achilles slept in the innermost part of his well-built tent, and next to him there lay a woman he took from Lesbos, fair-cheeked Diomede, the daughter of Phorbas. And Patroclus lay on the other side, and next to him was fair-girdled Iphis.

(9. 658–67)

Achilles and his friend are the protagonists of a retiring scene in the style of the Odyssey, with the guest sleeping in a separate area from the hosts, whose bedchamber lies far inside the house. The careful making of Phoenix's bed is one more feature that conjures up the retiring scenes of the Odyssey, where hosts show attentiveness to their guests by providing copious and soft beddings, elaborately described by the narrative. This leisurely enactment of a retiring scene underscores the autonomy of the two friends, their separation from the community of warriors, and gives an impression of calmness that clashes with the hectic climate of the night.89 In particular Achilles' sleep spells out his indifference to the fate of his fellows. While Phoenix waits for dawn, uneasy about the future, he can rest as in times of peace, because he has created an artificial world of peace around himself.

This retiring scene is nonetheless unique in Homeric epic because the hosts in it are a pair of couples: Achilles and Diomede, Patroclus and Iphis. The parallel sleep of the two friends interlocks them in an interdependent unity, faintly suggesting that the peace Achilles has created around himself will be broken when Patroclus does not return to sleep opposite him the next night, that he cannot retire without his friend doing the same.90 And in fact Patroclus' death causes him to experience sleep disturbances even prior to his twelve nights of insomnia.

Achilles cannot rest between the death of Patroclus and that of Hector. After the latter, he falls asleep at last, twice in a short interval. The first episode begins as a lonely vigil, with Achilles as the waking party: ‘When they had put away their desire for food and drink, they went each to their tents to lie down, but the son of Peleus lay by the shore of the much-sounding sea, groaning heavily’ (23. 57–60). The contrast between the restful background and the groaning Achilles is, however, corrected by the onset of a soothing slumber: ‘And sleep caught him, freeing his heart from cares, sweet, poured around him, for he was very tired in his glistening limbs’ (23. 62–3). Achilles' sleep is fully described, with three verbs for its action. The account, unusually rich by the Iliad's standards, conveys the force with which peace-bringing slumber takes hold of Achilles. But the vision of Patroclus awakens him, reminding him that the job is not done yet.

After the ‘all night’ burial (23. 217), Achilles dozes off again: ‘He lay down tired (κλίνθη κεκμηώς), and sweet slumber leapt on him’ (232). Both times sleep overpowers the weary hero, proving that he cannot challenge his human limits, as he was eager to do earlier, when he refused to eat before fighting and killing Hector. At that point, the gods underscored his human weakness by treating him with ambrosia to keep him strong (Il. 19. 347–8; 353–4). Now sleep demonstrates his weakness by falling on him suddenly and even violently: ‘catching’ him, ‘leaping on’ him.

In the second episode, however, sleep does not catch Achilles unawares, but finds him already disposed to rest. When daylight spreads over the sea, the fire on Patroclus' pyre dies out and the winds that have been feeding it leave. The pacified landscape harmonizes with Achilles' pacified spirit,91 which relaxes into a deeper acceptance of sleep. In the previous episode, his withdrawal from the other, slumbering, heroes is the dominant note, as signified especially by his choice to lie down on the ‘shore of the much-sounding sea’. Furthermore, in that scene Achilles does not lie down in order to sleep, but on account of his misery. He yields to sweet slumber unprepared, from exhaustion.92 And that sleep carries a dream that shakes him awake and urges him to bury his friend.93 After the funeral, in contrast, Achilles lies down with the express purpose of relieving his fatigue. The description begins with the weary hero assuming a sleeping position (‘he lay down tired’), and with five long syllables (κλίνθη κεκμηώς) to slow him down and lay him to rest. And this time he would have slept soundly, for it is not any uprising in his heart that rouses him but the noise around him (23. 234).

Still, Achilles is far from ready to retire again to the ‘innermost part’ of his tent. Both times sweet slumber catches him while he is outside. After the games he intermittently enters his tent, even to rest, but only as part of the desperate sequence of actions that fill his restless nights. Achilles loses sleep to an excess of memory.94 He was able to doze off only when he forgot, as his dead friend protested when he awoke him: ‘You slumber, Achilles, and have become forgetful of me’ (23. 69). Then, Achilles' memory of Patroclus yielded to a sleep that had the power, uniquely in the Iliad, of ‘freeing one's heart from cares’. But that oblivious relaxation caused by extreme fatigue was superficial. The burial and the games should have helped Achilles contain and transform his memory permanently. Instead, he is remembering his friend more vividly than ever95 and longing for him, as loving wives long for their husbands, dead or thought dead. We might think of Penelope's restless nights,96 or of Aigialeia, who would ‘wake her household from sleep with her lament, longing for her wedded husband’, should Diomedes die (Il. 5. 413–4).

The cause for Achilles' insomnia singles him out from the other sleepless characters in the epic. While Zeus, Agamemnon and, as we shall see, Hermes stay awake to come up with a plan in response to a crisis, Achilles is not seeking a way out of his predicament.97 The exceptional nature of his insomnia is reflected in its frame, which does not follow the ‘habitual pattern’, as the Byzantine commentator Eustathius calls the background to the sleeplessness of Zeus, Hermes and (if we leave out the gods) Agamemnon. The pattern runs: ‘The other gods and men slept all night, overcome by soft slumber, but sleep did not seize such and such a character, who was pondering in his heart’.98 Since Achilles is not ‘pondering in his heart’, his sleeplessness is introduced in markedly different language: ‘They thought of supper and of delighting in sweet slumber. But Achilles…’99

Because of its purely emotional content, Achilles' insomnia will provide a template for love-induced sleeplessness in later Greek literature. Two frustrated novelistic lovers, Artaxerxes and Arsace, imitate the nocturnal restlessness of the Homeric hero by tossing and turning in their beds.100 The exploitation of the insomniac Achilles as a model for those lovers, while it might imply an eroticized reading of his longing for Patroclus, must have come naturally to the novelists, because love-induced sleeplessness is not the response to a problem that calls for creative thinking but is the expression of unmanageable inner turmoil.

Achilles' turmoil traps him in a cyclical repetition of destructive and self-destructive gestures, in which he finds no purpose.101 His imprisonment in his emotions is effectively conveyed by the frequentative verbs that his insomnia breeds (δινεύεσκ᾽, λήθεσκεν, δησάσκετο, παυέσκετο, ἔασκεν), which take him on the same journey over and over again, with no new beginnings. Sunrise, which in the Odyssey often marks the launching of a journey and creates anticipation for fresh adventures after a night's sleep,102 restarts Achilles on an identical path day after day. His insomnia has the same unproductive effects as his angry withdrawal from the war in Book 1, which was similarly characterized by a setting on the seashore (349–50), by longing and by a description rich in frequentative verbs: ‘He would not go (πωλέσκετο) to the assembly or to war, which brings men fame, but would wither (φθινύθεσκε) his heart […] and long (ποθέεσκε) for war and the war cry’ (490–2). The insomniac Achilles, though, brings not only himself but also the plot of the Iliad to an impasse.103

Wakeful plotters: Hermes

The impasse is solved entirely from Olympus.104 Hermes, who is in charge of the mediation, enters the stage as the master of sleep and waking (‘He took his wand, with which he charms the eyes of the men as he wills, and others he wakes out of slumber’, 24. 343–4), and activates this double power of his in the present mission by putting the Greek guards to sleep towards the end of Priam's outward journey (24. 445–6) and by rousing him to start his return journey before dawn (24. 683–4). Hermes' call is the result of wakeful thinking: ‘The other gods and chariot-marshalling men were sleeping all night, overcome by soft slumber, but sleep did not seize Hermes the helper, who was pondering in his heart how to send king Priam back from the ships, unseen by the trusty sentinels’ (24. 677–81). We are reminded of Zeus' sleeplessness in Book 2 by the identical background, the divinity of the wakeful character, the mortality of his slumbering target and the call. Like Zeus' unsleeping thinking, Hermes' gives the plot the decisive thrust, but in the opposite direction, towards its close.105

Hermes' sleeplessness, however, reverses the meaning of Zeus' not just in narrative function but also in moral purport, insofar as it demonstrates the god's sympathy for the human whose predicament keeps him awake. Zeus is ‘pondering in his heart how to honour Achilles and destroy many by the Greek ships’. The concern that prevents him from resting is political rather than ethical, and his thinking is specifically aimed against the human with whose sleep he interferes. In contrast, to keep Hermes from sleeping is his concern for the safety of the human whom he awakens to help.

The god's caring behaviour brings this episode closer to the thought world of the Odyssey. For in that epic, it often happens that a deity intervenes in the sleep patterns of mortals to protect them, restore their strength or assuage their sorrows,106 while in the Iliad gods generally do not provide any such help. Both sleepless humans and exhausted ones are left to their own devices. Zeus does manipulate Agamemnon's slumber, probably by causing it and certainly by ending it; but the god's goal is to harm him. Conversely, Hermes applies his wand to protect his mortal charge, first by casting sleep over the sentinels so as to help him reach Achilles' dwelling unseen, then by rousing him so as to help him leave the enemy camp unseen. The worry underlying Hermes' call is akin to Athena's concern for Odysseus at the beginning of Odyssey 6, when, in spite of his desire to keep on slumbering, she causes him to awaken in order to activate her rescuing plan.

In his role as helper, Hermes speaks truthful words to Priam when he rouses him. Likewise, Zeus' message to him, via Iris, is truthful.107 Her words, ‘[Zeus] greatly cares for and pities you’, are identical to those in Agamemnon's dream (24. 174=2. 27), but they are honest rather than, as in the earlier scene, chillingly ironic. Homer confirms the veracity of Iris' message, relating that ‘He [Zeus] saw and pitied the old man’ and sent Hermes down (24. 332–3). Hermes' sleeplessness fits the new ‘plan of Zeus’ that initiates the action of Book 24: a plan in which his compassion prevails over personal interests and attachments or Olympian aloofness.108

Wakefulness and the end of the Iliad

When Hermes rouses him, Priam has yielded to sleep for the first time since Hector's death (24. 637–40). His need to rest conjures up Odysseus' at the end of the storm in Odyssey 5. Priam has completed a journey that shares features not only with Odysseus' nightly reconnaissance in Iliad 10,109 but also with two of his more superhuman journeys: his descent to Hades110 and his navigation from Ogygia to Scheria. The latter journey starts off with Zeus sending Hermes, just as Priam's begins with Zeus dispatching Hermes; both travellers reach their destinations thanks to significant divine guidance and both think of sleep at the end of the journey. Priam rather unceremoniously asks Achilles for a bed:

Now, quickly, fosterling of Zeus, give me a place to lie down, so that we may now delight in sweet slumber (ὕπνῳ ὕπο γλυκερῷ ταρπώμεθα) and rest. For my eyes have not been shut under my eyelids since my son lost his life at your hands, but I keep groaning and brooding over countless sorrows, rolling in the dung in the feeding place of the courtyard.

(24. 635–40)

To the ears of an attentive audience, the words ὕπνῳ ὕπο γλυκερῷ ταρπώμεθα hark back to ὕπνου γλυκεροῦ ταρπήμεναι (‘to delight in sweet slumber’), which appeared earlier in the book (24. 3) to describe what Achilles could not do. The repetition draws attention to the extent of the appeasement reached by the two men at the end of their evening together.111 Priam is ready to resume the daily routine of civilized life, to replace sleeplessness in the dirt with sleep in a bed, and exhorts Achilles to join him, suggesting that the two can spend a restful night in the same spirit and even close to each other.

Achilles in turn is ready. His memory of Patroclus is no longer solitary, but he has joined Priam as he remembers Hector (τὼ δὲ μνησαμένω, 24. 509). Their identification has drawn Achilles out of his paralysing isolation and back to the simple needs and comforts of life, to eating and sleeping in his tent instead of roaming sleeplessly under the stars. He gives instructions for the beds to be prepared, prompting the most elaborate description of a bed-making ritual in the Iliad:

And Achilles ordered his comrades and the maids to put beds under the portico and throw on them beautiful purple blankets and spread rugs on top and add fleecy cloaks on top for them to wear. And the maids left the hall holding a torch in their hands and quickly and busily they spread two beds.

(24. 643–8)

The scene echoes and amplifies the leisurely retiring scene at the end of Book 9 by emphasizing further the rich bedding and the caring and thorough manner in which the beds are made. The detailed description again evokes retiring scenes in the Odyssey, far from the arena of war. And so does the distribution of the sleepers: ‘And they slept there under the portico of the house, the herald and Priam, whose minds had wise thoughts, while Achilles slept in the innermost part of his solidly built hut. And next to him Briseis of the beautiful cheeks lay’ (24. 673–6). This arrangement calls to mind two episodes in the Odyssey in which Telemachus' host and hostess retire inside the palace while he and his friend rest under the portico or in the entryway (3. 396–403; 4. 296–305). Priam impersonates the guest sleeping outside with his travelling companion, while Achilles, cast in the role of the host, slumbers, as in Book 9, in ‘the innermost part’ of his dwelling, but this time next to the woman whose loss had caused his anger.112

Achilles' reply to Priam's request for a bed, however, points up the danger he is in: ‘Lie outside, lest one of the Achaean leaders see you and report to Agamemnon’ (24. 650–5, summarized). Though it is the norm for Homeric guests to spend the night in the outer parts of the house,113 the retiring scene in Iliad 24 is the only one in both epics in which the guest must do so because he is told that he would not be safe inside. Here, sleeping outside connotes a state of emergency and prepares for Hermes' call, which sets Priam on the road suddenly and before dawn. Contrary to the parallel retiring scenes in the Odyssey, this one is marked by asymmetry: only the host takes his fill of slumber, while the guest is warned that his fatigue must not overcome his fear (24. 689).

The permanence of this state of anxiety or, narratologically, the openness of the Iliad's ending114 is also reflected in the absence of a scene of sleep or nightfall at the conclusion of the epic, after the return of Hector's body, his funeral and the feast that ends it.115 Though wrapping up the narrative at an indeterminate time of day is a common feature in epic poetry, geared to allow continuation,116 there is more at stake than just generic patterns in Homer's choice to skip over the coming of night in the account of Hector's funeral and at its conclusion. For night is evoked towards the end of the epic; but rather than being described as setting in, it is used to underscore the urgency with which the ritual of Hector's burial must get underway:

And all day until sundown they would have mourned Hector in tears, before the gates, if the old man had not spoken from his chariot to the folks: ‘let me go through with my mules! You will have your fill of wailing, when I have taken him to the house’.

(24. 713–6)

After the body reaches the house, the sun does not set – though dawn has already risen once, when Priam has made it back (24. 695), and rises two more times: to mark the beginning of the tenth day, when Hector's body is burnt (24. 785), and of the eleventh (24. 788), when the fire is quenched, the bones are collected and put in an urn, and a grave marker is heaped. The repeated mention of dawn captures the swiftness with which time passes for the Trojans, who watch the sunrise day after day because they know that they have only so many days to bury Hector before the resumption of the hostilities. The recurrence of dawn also conveys the energetic pace with which the ritual is prepared and performed, the anxious, ceaseless activity dictated by the approaching end of the truce. The last gestures in honour of the dead are indeed hurried (24. 797: αἶψα; 799: ρίμφα).

The final lines of the epic combine details that suggest appeasement with others that imply ongoing tension. The feast after the burial belongs to the former category, the soldiers on guard duty to the latter: ‘Quickly they heaped the grave marker, and watchers were sent everywhere around lest the well-greaved Achaeans should attack before the time’ (24. 799–800). Sentinels keep watch because the truce might be broken, as the Trojans know firsthand, having themselves betrayed their oaths in Book 4. More important, the lookouts are embodied projections of what is to come: a forward-looking reference to the imminent resumption of war, offering ‘a subliminal glimpse of the unfolding future’.117 They are a reminder that the night watches are not over, that sweet slumber will again have to be resisted. The Trojans and the audience know for certain that the war will resume the next day118 and will continue until the expansive plan of Zeus is fulfilled.119 A final note on Priam taking his fill of sleep at last, or even on night falling and bringing rest from toil and sorrow, would clash with that tragic certainty. Instead, the lookouts remind the audience that Troy will fall on a night in which no sentinel will look out for the enemy, but everyone will sleep: unto death.

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