By Thomas Van Nortwick
Achilles takes a rest and Athena goes to work. Disguising herself as Deiphobus, Hector’s favorite brother, she offers to stand with him against Achilles. Hector gratefully accepts, exclaiming over how brave she is to venture out of the city alone. Athena plays along: Priam and Hecabe begged her to remain inside the walls, she says; they were afraid, but her heart ached to think of him all alone. She ends with a stout exhortation to stand and fight.
If we haven’t started to sympathize with Hector yet, this exchange should do the trick. Playing expertly on both his loyalty to family and his selfless sense of duty, Athena sets him up for betrayal. Inspired by her fake support he faces off against Achilles, no longer afraid as he was at first, ready to fight to the death. He offers to forego despoiling Achilles’ corpse if he wins and asks for the same consideration from his enemy. Even in his last moments his belief in the civilizing norms that sometimes inform heroic warfare persists. In his reply (260–272) Achilles himself assumes the persona of wild animal, first lion to Hector’s human, then wolf to Hector’s lamb, confirmation that this battle will be fought well outside the constraints that Hector vainly imagines might govern the encounter. Hector ducks Achilles’ first spear cast, but unbeknownst to him Athena promptly returns the weapon to Achilles. Still unaware of the transcendent forces arrayed against him Hector makes his last stand. He will not run this time. Achilles will have to kill him face-to-face.
It would be painful enough to witness the death of such an honorable figure without the divine machinery engaged here. As it is, what Homer shows us is a frightening world where honor and decency are not only ineffective, but irrelevant. Achilles embodies in this encounter the two poles of his departure from humanity, bestial savagery and divine transcendence. Both represent the triumph of pure force, unchecked by any moral or ethical concerns. This is the place where Achilles’ selfish pride and arrogance have taken the poem, a trip to a hell of his own making.
The katabasis or “downward journey to the underworld” is one of the most common realizations of the “separation and return” pattern that informs Achilles’ story and those of many other heroes from the ancient Mediterranean: Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Orpheus, Heracles, Aeneas. To look death in the face and return to tell about it is the ultimate proof of the hero’s extraordinary stature. On another level the katabasis can represent a journey into the dark places inside us to find certain truths—usually about ourselves—hidden from us in our conscious life. Gilgamesh travels across the Waters of Darkness to the Land of Dilmun, where he confronts and eventually accepts the fact of his own mortality; Aeneas goes to the Underworld where he meets his father, who tells him his role in the future of Rome. Homer’s version here presents the journey into darkness as an internalized drama. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles foreswears the tokens of ordinary participation in human life: food, bathing, sleep, and sex (19.205–214; 23.37–53; 24.4–5, 24.124–131). He travels away from humanity and into the darkness of his own heart. According to the logic of the katabasis paradigm as it appears elsewhere, Achilles should confront some deep truth about himself in this “underworld.” Usually, but not always, that encounter is with the fact of his own mortality in some form. What truth can Achilles be learning here? And how can he confront his mortality when he seems to be moving progressively further from his own humanity? Answering these questions will take us some distance toward understanding how this powerful scene fits into the poem’s overall meaning.
The deaths of Sarpedon, Patroclus, and Hector are thematically linked in various ways, leading to the climactic death scene we are about to witness (see Introduction, “Hector, Patroclus, and the Arms of Achilles”). Each death focuses our attention on the disposition of the fallen warrior’s corpse. Will it be despoiled by the enemy, or saved for a proper burial? At the same time we have noted that the passing of armor from Achilles to Patroclus to Hector raises questions of identity. If Patroclus is wearing Achilles’ armor does he inherit any of his friend’s fighting strength? When Hector strips the armor from Patroclus and puts it on does this act imply any connection between himself and Achilles beyond their implacable enmity? And what will it mean that Achilles will deliver the fatal blow through his own armor?
All these questions are relevant to the “second-self” motif, as it appears in the Iliad (see Introduction, “The Second-Self Motif”), the use of a second character who is complementary to the hero, embodying qualities that he has forsaken, or with which he has lost contact in some way. Enkidu, the wild man the gods created to be a companion to Gilgamesh, plays this role in The Epic of Gilgamesh, as do both Dido and Turnus in the Aeneid. There is always the potential for the appearance of a second self in the hero’s life to be therapeutic, to prompt the healing of the wound inside the hero that caused him to lose track of the qualities displaced onto the second self. But for healing to begin the second self must die, usually driving the hero into grief, and eventually prompting a new understanding of himself and his place in the world.
Both Patroclus and Hector play this role in the poem, one after the other. Patroclus is the repository for the compassion and ability to connect with others that Achilles’ anger and pride cause him to forsake. It is Patroclus who comes to Achilles in Book Sixteen to beg him to have pity on his fellow Greeks, who are losing the battle against the Trojans. By finally releasing Hector’s corpse to Priam in Book Twenty-Four, so that the hero may be buried at Troy, Achilles makes contact again with the qualities that Patroclus had embodied. He seems to be restored, however briefly before his own death, to wholeness on the poem’s terms.
If Patroclus carries Achilles’ compassion, Hector becomes the repository of his mortal nature. Homer’s intimate portrait of the Trojan hero in Books Six and Twenty-Two, with all his strengths and all his frailty, becomes a foil for Achilles’ frightening departure from ordinary human experience. Though his words sometimes seem to reflect an awareness and acceptance of his own mortality, his actions do not. He is in his own eyes a lion, a wolf to Hector’s lamb, abandoning all pretense to civilized behavior, yearning, as we will see, to eat Hector’s flesh raw, something that both animals and the gods of the Iliad (see 4.34–36) can contemplate, but not humans. Achilles’ titanic rage has finally driven him and us into this darkness. The nadir of the journey comes next.
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