By Thomas Van Nortwick
Hector reaches out for his son, but his helmet, with its menacing plume, frightens the infant, who shrinks back into the bosom of his nurse, a brief comic respite for his parents and for us. Yet even this fleeting moment of relief is shadowed by the unrelenting sadness of Hector’s isolation from those he loves. The helmet becomes, in this scene, a symbol of the war and its terrors, which Hector has brought with him into the city. When he takes it off, we understand that he is attempting to shed the persona of warrior for these few precious moments, to make contact with his wife and child, as he has not been able to do with Hecabe, Paris, or Helen. The helmet will sit on the ground, shining with latent menace, while Hector and Andromache try one last time to connect with each other.
Hector kisses and dandles his son, a relatively rare instance of physical affection in the poem, then prays to Zeus:
Zeus and you other gods, allow this my son to become
distinguished, as I am among the Trojans, strong
and brave, and to rule forcefully over Ilion.
Then let someone say, seeing him returning from battle,
“This man is much better than his father”; let him kill
his enemy and bring back bloody armor, delighting his mother’s heart.
As if to counterbalance the intimate contact with his son, Hector steps back into his heroic persona. In the midst of the pain that suffuses his last visit with his family, he envisions his son as he himself is in this moment, returning from battle, covered in gore. Even as Andromache stands next to him fighting back tears, he imagines that she too would be delighted to see her son following in his father’s footsteps, bringing home more blood, more pain.
Hector hands Astyanax back to Andromache, who is “smiling through her tears” (485). In another intimate gesture, he caresses her and offers reassurance: he will not die before his fated time; no one, cowardly or brave, has ever been able to escape that moment, which is assigned at birth. Not perhaps the most gentle way to put it, but as we have seen, Hector seems to be unable to step outside the tragic heroic perspective, even to comfort those he loves. His first word to her, δαιμονίη (486), gives him away. Andromache is “strange, uncanny,” to him, as he is to her (407). Try as they might, neither husband nor wife can break through the barrier between their intimate, shared space in Troy and the world of battle.
Resigned to his isolation, Hector now sends Andromache back to her proper sphere, to see to the household and her maidservants. The work of war, he says, belongs to the men of Troy, and especially to him. Andromache has tried to cross over into his world, offering strategic advice, but he now closes that door firmly, picking up his helmet.
We understand that by putting on his helmet again, Hector seals himself off from the life he had in Troy, turning back toward the death he and we know is coming for him. The symbolism is confirmed when Hector kills Patroclus in Book Seventeen, and the latter’s helmet—actually Achilles’ helmet—rolls in the dust:
The helmet clattered under the horses’ hooves,
four-horned and hollow-eyed, its plumes crusted
with blood and dust. Before this time it was not permitted
to defile the helmet, crested in horse hair;
rather, it covered the graceful head and brow
of a godlike man, Achilles. But then Zeus gave it
to Hector to wear, and death was near him, too.
Homer now invites us to watch Andromache as she makes her sorrowful way back home:
His dear wife set off toward home,
turning back again and again, weeping.
The participle, ἐντροπαλιζομένη, “turning around frequently,” appears only three other places in Homeric epic, twice of warriors under attack (11.546, 17.109), once in a mock battle between two goddesses (21.492). Its use here is a brilliant adaptation, capturing Andromache’s anguish, while perhaps carrying a little of the flavor of combat, as if Hector’s wife is herself besieged by the forces of war. Andromache arrives home and her maidservants, once they see her, break into mourning for Hector, “though he was still alive” (500). They do not expect him to return alive from battle. To his family and all the citizens of Troy, Hector is already dying.
Edwards, M. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 210–212. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 2001. “Like a Woman: Hector and the Boundaries of Masculinity.” Arethusa 34.2: 21–35.
______________2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 75-93. Praeger.