By Thomas Van Nortwick
Having failed again to penetrate the barrier of his brother’s narcissism, Hector hurries off toward his own house to find Andromache. Not finding her at home, he questions her maid and hears that she has not gone to visit relatives or to the temple with Hecabe and the other Trojan matrons. She has heard bad news from the battlefield and has rushed off, μαινομένῃ ἐϊκυῖα, “like a madwoman” (389) toward the city walls with their son and his nurse. Even before she meets Hector, we see the destructive power of the war he brings with him into to the city engulfing Andromache, separating her from her family and neighbors, driving her mad.
He goes after her, along the wide streets, past impressive buildings, through the great city to the Skaian Gates. Homer has been leading Hector and us toward the meeting with Andromache since the beginning of Book Six, and he makes the most of it:
When he went through the great city and came to the gates,
the Skaian gates, right where he was about to go back out to the plain,
there his richly-giving wife came running to meet him,
When Hector and Andromache meet, at the last possible moment, builds up the tension in what we already know will be a highly-charged meeting; where they meet is just as important, right on the boundary between the beautiful, civilized spaces of Troy and the grinding chaos of the battlefield. We have seen Hector lingering near the threshold before, when he goes to see Paris and when he looks for Andromache, as if he were reluctant to give himself over to the comforts of the palace. Drinking the wine his mother offers, putting down the long spear and sitting down in Paris’s bedroom, entering his own house to wash off the filth: all this would sap him of his will to fight. We have said that the consolation motif seems to portend the loss of everyone he loves. We may go further: by giving in and fully inhabiting the city, he would, in his mind at least, be giving in to the unavoidable, ultimate necessity, his own death.
During his increasingly poignant visit to Troy, Hector has become a “liminal” figure, from the Latin, līmes, “boundary.” Suspended between two worlds, he cannot fully give himself over to either. Isolated and increasingly alienated from the people and places he loves, he and his family keep reaching across boundaries, but cannot connect. Hecabe is “sweetly giving” (251), Andromache is “richly giving,” (394), but finally Hector cannot receive comfort from either of them. From the poet’s perspective, such a figure is a potent resource for storytelling. By drawing our attention to fundamental boundaries that define our existence as humans, heroes remind us where those boundaries are, and prompt further thought about the nature of reality. In the last six books of the poem, Achilles will continually push against the limits of human existence, upward toward the gods, and downward toward the savagery of wild animals. But whereas Achilles’ excesses make him a repellent if fascinating character, Hector is pulled apart by his own decency and deep sense of responsibility, sacrificed to the relentless masculine imperative to define himself through action, which inevitably separates him from those he would protect.
As husband and wife reunite, Homer deepens the pathos by inviting us to contemplate the very beginning of their life together, when Eëtion, Andromache’s father, gave her to Hector in marriage. That happy day in turn gives way in the poet’s vision to their child, Astyanax, whose name leads us to the most important of his father’s qualities, his role as protector of Troy. Here we arrive at what is most dear to Hector, the two people he must protect. The rest of the encounter shows us how brutally difficult that assignment will be.
Andromache gets to the heart of her husband’s dilemma immediately: δαιμόνιε φθίσει σε τὸ σὸν μένος, “strange man, your own strength will destroy you” (407). His mother has asked him to rest, but he has refused, because wine will rob him of his μένος (265). Now the other of the two most important women in his life tells him that very strength will be his undoing. Her use of δαιμόνιε highlights his continued alienation, from her, from his mother, from Paris. He is mysterious to his own wife, made strange by his need to be out on the battlefield. She would have him protect his family from close by and now she turns up the pressure yet further: does he not pity his infant son? Looking into a bleak future, she sees herself widowed as the Greeks swarm over his dead body. Better for her to “go under the earth” (411) than to lose him, since there will be no comfort for her once he is gone, only pain. Her parents are gone and she, like Hector, will be utterly alone.
It is the nature of heroes in Greek literature to be a mixed blessing to their city, their family, their friends. Because Achilles is such a brutally effective fighter, he is of great value to his fellow Greek warriors. But his outsized appetites and excessive self-regard eventually make him an agent of death and destruction to the army. Sophocles’ Oedipus comes to Thebes and defeats the Sphinx, saving the citizens and becoming their king. But his ignorance about his true identity and arrogant dependence on his own flawed judgment bring sickness and death to his subjects. For all his great-hearted solicitude and virtue, Hector too becomes just such an ambivalent force in his own city and family.
Edwards, M. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 208–210. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Graziosi, B. and Haubold, J. ed. 2010. Homer: Iliad, Book VI, 5–6; 41–44.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 65–67. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.
Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 122–127. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.