Iliad VI 263-296 essay

Iliad 6.263-296

By Thomas Van Nortwick

Hector declines his mother’s offer of wine. He does not agree that drinking it would give him strength, but rather, he says, it would strip him of his μένος, “strength,” “force,” and make him forget his ἀλκή, “defensive prowess.” Nor can he offer a libation, as he is afraid to make an offering to the gods with unwashed hands, stained as he is by “blood and filth.” Instead, she should gather women around her and go to the temple with a gift for Athena, hoping that the goddess will protect Troy from Diomedes and the Greeks.

These objections might not seem insurmountable. Why not wash his hands? And wouldn’t resting in Troy make up for the debilitating effects of wine? But Homer is also working on a symbolic level here. What we see are the first signs of Hector’s alienation from the people he loves, for whom he will soon give his life. The blood of battle makes him ritually unclean, but also symbolizes his status as a warrior, whose strength is always problematic for his city. He can be a source of protection, but might also bring deadly violence to the fragile civilization he defends. This dilemma continued to preoccupy Greek poets down through the Classical period, reflected in figures like Sophocles’ Ajax or Euripides’ Heracles. Hector’s separation from his loved ones will be symbolized in various ways throughout his visit to Troy, despite his efforts, and theirs, to overcome it.

By offering Hector a drink, Hecabe initiates a traditional narrative sequence, which will be completed later when Helen invites him to sit down in her bedroom. In the traditional art language that Homer uses, the offer of a seat and a drink are part of the effort to console someone who has lost someone dear to him or her. By accepting the tokens, the grieving person signals that he or she is ready to accept the loss of a loved one and move on with life. The pattern appears in two other places in the Iliad, when Zeus summons Thetis to Olympus at the beginning of Book Twenty-Four (24.100–119) and then later in the encounter of Priam and Achilles in the Greek camp (24.512–627). (The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 191–211, probably composed about a century after the Homeric epics, also features a consolation, suggesting that the form is part of the traditional style that Homer uses, and not peculiar to his poems.) In both of these instances, the person grieving eventually accepts the tokens. Zeus wants Thetis to tell Achilles to release the body of Hector to Priam. That order might well have been simply reported by the poet or delivered to Thetis via messenger. Instead, Zeus sends Iris to bring Thetis to Olympus, where she finds the gods happily at their ease:

ἣ δ᾽ ἄρα πὰρ Διὶ πατρὶ καθέζετο, εἶξε δ᾽ Ἀθήνη.
Ἥρη δὲ χρύσεον καλὸν δέπας ἐν χερὶ θῆκε
καί ῥ᾽ εὔφρην᾽ ἐπέεσσι: Θέτις δ᾽ ὤρεξε πιοῦσα.

She sat next to her father Zeus and Athena made room for her.
Hera put a lovely golden cup in her hand
and greeted her kindly; Thetis took the cup and drank.

                                               Iliad 24.100–102

The particular form of this welcome would alert an audience familiar with Homeric style that the gods were consoling Thetis for the loss of a loved one, and that she was accepting their gestures. We think immediately of Achilles, but he is conspicuously alive at this point, so why the consolation?

The answer takes us to events central to the thematic resolution of the Iliad. First of all, the consolation is proleptic. That is, it looks ahead to something that has not yet happened, namely the death of Achilles, which has been decreed by fate to occur soon after Hector’s death (18.95–96). But more immediately, the message to Thetis is that she must accept the very fact of Achilles’ mortality. As she has said earlier in the poem, she is bitter at the thought that her son will have a short life (1.413–18). From her actions on his behalf throughout the poem, we might go further. Why can he not have whatever he wants? Why, indeed, since she is divine, must he die at all? By acceding to Zeus’s command and urging the release of Hector’s body, Thetis lets go of her son and resigns herself to the fact that he, like all mortals, must die (see Introduction: The Hero’s Return and the Gift of Life).

The exchange between Achilles and Priam is informed by the same narrative pattern. After Achilles’ first speech of consolation to Priam (24.517–51), he urges the old man to sit down and rest. Priam’s reply is telling:

τὸν δ᾽ ἠμείβετ᾽ ἔπειτα γέρων Πρίαμος θεοειδής:
‘μή πω μ᾽ ἐς θρόνον ἵζε διοτρεφὲς ὄφρά κεν Ἕκτωρ
κεῖται ἐνὶ κλισίῃσιν ἀκηδής, ἀλλὰ τάχιστα
λῦσον ἵν᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδω;

Then the godlike old man Priam answered him:
“Do not, beloved of Zeus, make me sit in a chair while Hector
lies uncared for in your dwelling, but as soon as may be
release him, that I may see him with my own eyes.
                                               Iliad 24.552–554

Priam is not ready to end his grieving. After a brief flare of anger, Achilles goes to the next room where the body lies and helps prepare the body for the journey home, lifting it onto the wagon himself, then delivers his second speech of consolation (617–42) to Priam. Finally, the two men eat a meal together, signifying their mutual consolation, Achilles for Patroclus, Priam for Hector.

Viewed in the light of the traditional narrative pattern, Hector’s refusal of wine in the present passage takes on yet another dimension. Though the full import of this gesture will not be realized until the next scene with Paris and Helen, we might wonder how the theme of consolation applies to Hector. Why does he need to be consoled?

Hecabe and the Trojan matrons make their way to the temple, bearing the beautiful robe that the queen has brought from the storeroom. The description of the robe is in Homer’s characteristically full style, inviting us to imagine its splendor and including its history (289–95). Paris, it seems, brought several from Sidonia, as he made his way back from Sparta with Helen, a detail that fits seamlessly with the narrative’s characteristic fullness, while subtly reminding us of the act that brought all this suffering in the first place.

The final verses of this section add further shading to the portrait of Hector. He sends Hecabe off to offer a lavish gift to Athena. Meanwhile,

ἐγὼ δὲ Πάριν μετελεύσομαι ὄφρα καλέσσω
αἴ κ᾽ ἐθέλῃσ᾽ εἰπόντος ἀκουέμεν: ὥς κέ οἱ αὖθι
γαῖα χάνοι: μέγα γάρ μιν Ὀλύμπιος ἔτρεφε πῆμα
Τρωσί τε καὶ Πριάμῳ μεγαλήτορι τοῖό τε παισίν.
εἰ κεῖνόν γε ἴδοιμι κατελθόντ᾽ Ἄϊδος εἴσω
φαίην κε φρέν᾽ ἀτέρπου ὀϊζύος ἐκλελαθέσθαι.
I will go to find Paris, so that I might speak to him,
if he will listen to anything I say. Oh that the earth
would open beneath him, for the Olympian god has brought
great pain to the Trojans and great-hearted Priam and his children.
If I could see that man going down into Hades’ house,
then I could say that my heart had forgotten this joyless misery.
                                               Iliad 6.280–285

These words are startling, coming from the man we are accustomed to seeing as a paragon of selflessness, thinking only of others. We have seen Hector irritated with his feckless brother, frustrated that Paris will not step up and take responsibility for his actions, but this dark wish reveals a new level of deeply personal resentment and anger, which he, as “the good son,” feels keenly. As Homer’s portrait evolves, we will see that Hector is anything but a cardboard hero. His humanity is precisely what allows us to feel close to him as we never can with Achilles. The image of being swallowed up by the earth will recur twice more in Book Six, in the moments of deepest intimacy between Hector and Andromache, as each envisions losing the other. In those visions, as here, oblivion beckons as a way of escape from the misery to come.

Further Reading

Nagler, M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 174–77. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 79–88. New York: Oxford University Press.

______________. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 74–77, 91–92. Praeger.

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Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick, "Iliad 6.263-296," in Thomas Van Nortwick and Geoffrey Steadman, Homer: Iliad 6 and 22. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-947822-11-5.