The Immortal Sceptre Within the Iliad Homer portrays through association and symbolism the sceptre as a representation of divine power. Agamemnon is the nominal owner of this sceptre, on which much emphasis is placed in the early stages of the poem. This relic, a sceptre once owned by Zeus, has a kingly and divine past and, as a result, is a symbol of authority, power, and recognition within the kingdom of Greece. Homer’s discussion of the sceptre in Books I and II serves to elucidate these characteristics of the sceptre.
In the earlier stages of book II, Homer establishes the godly and noble history of the sceptre. Through a slight digression in the story line, Homer gives the reader a brief overview of its former owners: ‘Hephaistus gave it to Zeus the king, the son of Kronos, and Zeus in turn gave it to the courier Argeiphontes, and lord Hermes gave it to Pelops, driver of horses, and Pelops again gave it to Atreus, the shepherd of the people. Atreus dying left it Thyestes of the rich flocks, and Thyestes left it in turn to Agamemnon to carry and to be lord of many islands over all Argos. (II, 102-109) ‘In naming Hephaistus, Zeus, Hermes, and the kings of Mycenae, Homer describes a legacy that enhances the sceptre’s image as a token of influence and power. Moreover, it is important to note that the sceptre was not conceived by a mortal, but rather by Hephaistus. Using the wood from a living tree in the mountains, he constructed an immortal device for Zeus.
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Hephaistus’ creation of the sceptre both bolsters the notion of the sceptre’s divinity, and strengthens its image as a symbol of influence and recognition. In Book I of the poem, Achilles takes oath upon the sceptre. In his oath, Achilles states his intent to withdraw from the army and swears that the Achaeans will one day regret their irreverence. However, before anything is sworn, Homer has Achilles describe the sceptre by stating that it ‘never again will bear leaf nor branch, now that it has left behind the cut stump in the mountains, nor shall it ever blossom again, since the bronze blade stripped bark and leafage’ (I, 233-237).
Achilles emphasizes the sceptre’s imperishability and endurance as a symbol. Lacking life and therefore lacking the prospect of death, the sceptre is, in a sense, immortal, giving reason for its divine connotations.
In addition, Achilles uses his description of the sceptre to emphasize the gravity of his promise. As the sceptre will never again change in form or function, Achilles’ oath will remain forever immutable. Later in the poem, Homer characterizes the sceptre as ‘forever immortal’ (II, 186), reinforcing the notion that it possesses godly attributes. In the first two books, only the three greatest kings of Greece: Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus, are shown holding the sceptre. This is done, not to say that the privilege of the sceptre is limited to these three men, but rather to emphasize the kingly status associated with it. Each of these three takes the sceptre in hand before making any serious statements or requests in council.
Hence, it serves as a gavel denoting distinction, status, and authority. Homer has given the reader a symbol for god-like power in the hands of a mortal man.