by Adi Gandhi
“So he spoke, nor did swift Iris with feet like the wind disobey…”
“Iris, who is messenger for gods and men…”
“Then so speaking, Iris of the swift feet departed…”
Iris is here and then she is there. With hardly any lines of her own, the goddess’s role in the Iliad is to appear when summoned, listen attentively to what she is told, and not disobey. Goddess of the rainbow, she is the link between deities and humanity, sky and sea. Her epithet, Iris “of the swift feet,” describes her in terms of how fast she can travel—in other words, how effective she is as messenger. She heads out to deliver her message, and then, as soon as Homer says she has departed, disappears from the narrative. Where she goes or what she does in the interludes between her appearances is not mentioned. (I read on Wikipedia that Iris sometimes would use water from the ocean to water the clouds.) I used to think that her time was always spent taking messages from person to person, heeding the call of whoever says her name, but in the Iliad the only messages she delivers are those of Zeus (and, just once, that of Hera); Zeus’s voice essentially subsumes Iris’s own. Homer never explains why everyone else is able to speak directly with others, but Zeus alone requires Iris to carry his word.
I began to wonder what differentiates Iris from Hermes. I looked it up, and it turns out she vanishes entirely in the Odyssey, her function fully taken up by Hermes. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse this way—if I’m saddened by her departure, or if I’m glad she doesn’t have to keep delivering messages.
There are many gaps which any counter-narrative I write could not hope to fill in. What did Iris herself want? What would she say if given the chance? Rather than try to fully answer these questions for my project, I decided to focus on what the Iliad would look like without Iris carrying messages. What if, just for a day, she didn’t listen?
Book 15, lines 157–167:
Against Zeus’s wishes, Poseidon has begun to intervene in the war by helping the Achaeans. He requests Iris’s help.
And to Iris first he addressed his winged words: “Go now, swift Iris, and to lord Poseidon bear this message in its entirety, nor be false messenger. Order him to desist from war and battle and to go among the tribe of gods, or into the bright salt sea. And if he does not obey my words, but ignores them, let him then consider in his mind and in his very heart, that, mighty though he be, he might not have the fortitude to withstand me coming against him, since I think I am more powerful by far than him in strength and am in birth the elder, yet he it is whose heart does not shrink from deeming himself my equal—I whom even the other gods dread.
Iris’s day off:
Iris, goddess of the rainbow, heard Zeus call for her with words that were not winged
so much as disruptive, frightening the birds and causing her to nearly drop her pail
of ocean water which she needed to tend to her garden of clouds. The sun was bright,
and Iris’s swift feet were tired. Far, far below her, she could see the men fighting,
and she could see that Poseidon had joined to help one side,
but she could not tell which one and it didn’t really matter to her.
Zeus called her name again. Iris did not very much feel like repeating his words
to someone else, and besides, Mount Ida wasn’t that far from Troy
for the son of Cronus. At last, Zeus seemed to sigh—she could tell
by the way the clouds slightly thundered—and he rose from Ida.
She could see him now: rather than approaching Troy,
where the Earth Shaker still laid waste to mortal men,
the son of Cronus was ascending higher. He wasn’t heading to Troy after all,
Iris realized, and she thought that something had happened to make him angry
with one of the other gods, and that he was on his way to Olympus.
She returned to watering the clouds, wondering what drama
the gods had incited amongst themselves this time. They always found something to argue about,
and then Zeus would rely on Iris to carry his anger to the target of his wrath.
Then she heard a sound, so faint that at first she ignored it,
but which steadily became louder until the birds had fled and the clouds
shrank into themselves. Iris recognized that the sound of Zeus’s footsteps,
and she thought to herself how funny it was that the first time
took it upon himself to deliver his own message, the message was intended for her.
Not wanting to deal with the anger of the son of Cronus,
Iris assumed the form of a rainbow. When the son of Cronus barged into Iris’s abode,
he found nothing but glimmering light reflected, refracted, and dispersed
through water droplets. “Iris,” he began to roar, but he was cut short
when he realized that he could not grab her in his fists. Iris and the husband of Hera
both understood that she was perfectly safe where she was.
“Iris,” Zeus began again, and this time his anger was quiet,
“I will talk to you later. For now, I must deal with Poseidon the Earth Shaker,
before he leads the Achaeans to graceless victory.” And so speaking, Zeus departed.
Iris returned to her normal form, nor was she fearful of the son of Cronus,
whom she knew could do nothing to harm a rainbow. Far below,
the conflict at Troy erupted. Poseidon moved the Earth and seas,
while Zeus brought the sky down upon him. The mortal men
had ceased to fight, it seemed, for they were watching Poseidon and Zeus
destroy each other. And peaceful, content Iris watched from above,
and she was home among clouds, birds, and wind, and light and mist.