By Thomas Van Nortwick
The moment towards which Homer has been drawing us since at least Book Fifteen has now arrived. Hector’s death is the dramatic climax of the poem and, true to his practice, the poet holds the moment and marks its importance with similes. Hector, buoyed by Athena’s lies and Achilles’ miss, throws his weapon, hits his mark, and watches the spear bounce harmlessly off the divine armor. He calls to Deiphobus for help, and the trap closes:
But he was not nearby.
Hector knew in his heart and spoke:
“Ah, now surely the gods have called me to my death.”
Though we have known for some time that the Trojan hero and his city are doomed, the directness of this statement rings ominously. At key turning points in the story, Homer often foregoes his usual expansive style in favor of concision, letting the meaning hit home unadorned. Some examples: Antilochus breaks the news of Patroclus’s death to Achilles in three terse clauses:
Patroclus lies dead; they are fighting over his naked
corpse; Hector of the shining helmet has his arms.
Zeus’s golden scales render a verdict, sending Hector to his death:
Hector’s day of death sank;
it moved toward Hades’ house; and Phoebus Apollo left him.
Achilles agrees to return Hector’s body, opening the way for Hector’s funeral:
So be it. Let him bring ransom and take the corpse,
if the Olympian himself earnestly urges it.
Perhaps only now, with his own simple realization and admission, do we feel the full weight of the desolation that settles over Hector. He has led an exemplary life, devoted to others, and his reward is to die abandoned, utterly alone.
Although—or maybe because—he knows the issue has been decided, Hector makes one last charge, and the poet gives him a valedictory simile: he swoops like an eagle swoops at a tender lamb or a cowering hare. Since we know the imminent result, the simile only adds to the pathos in Hector’s bravado.
With this one final nod to the Trojan hero’s gallantry, Homer shifts the focus to Achilles, whose armor glitters with the uncanny menace we first saw when Athena delivered it from Olympus in Book Eighteen: the beautiful figured shield, the gleaming four-horned helmet with golden tassels, the spear point that shines,
As a star moves among the other stars in the murk of night,
the evening star, the most beautiful one in the heavens…
The simile echoes Priam’s earlier nightmare vision of Achilles as the Dog Star, racing across the plain toward Hector (22.26–31). The emphasis there was on the star’s baneful power, bleaching the strength from men’s limbs. Here it is the beauty of the star—which might seem slightly incongruous given Achilles’ savage behavior—that captures the poet’s attention. But despite their differences, the two similes share the quality of transcendence, which may finally be more important for the poet’s purposes. However revolting Achilles’ actions may be, Homer can never let the bestial aspect of his hero entirely overwhelm our sense of awe at his semi-divine nature. The character only works if part of him remains frightening but also mysterious, removed. The Greek word for this quality is δεινός, “awe-inspiring,” which covers a wide range of meaning, from dreadful, terrible, to mighty, even venerable. The twang of Apollo’s bow, the Gorgon’s head on Athena’s shield, the force of the fire snorted out by the Chimaera, all are δεινός. Even as he closes in for the kill, ready to savage his enemy’s corpse, Achilles must inspire not only revulsion but also a horrified fascination. The full force of the poem’s luminous resolution in the last book depends on it.
Achilles closes in for the kill, selecting the most efficient place for the deathblow as our vision narrows with his down to the target: the small triangle of soft tissue at the base of the throat. As he did in Priam’s horrific vision of his own genitals being eaten by dogs (22.66–71), the poet draws us slowly closer to the vulnerable flesh. In the taunting speech that follows, Achilles keeps Priam’s nightmare in our minds, vowing that Patroclus will get an honorable funeral, while Hector’s corpse will be torn apart by dogs and birds. It seems the wrath of Achilles will finally come to fruition:
Sing the wrath, goddess, of Achilles, son of Peleus,
destructive, which sent countless pains upon the Achaeans,
and threw forth many strong souls of heroes to Hades’ house,
but left their bodies as spoils for the dogs
and all the birds…
Homer tells us that when Achilles’ spear rips through Hector’s throat it somehow misses the windpipe. He is pinned to the ground like a butterfly on the collector’s page, an inert body, whispering his last words. The gruesomely detailed description of Hector’s body has already begun to change him from valiant hero to lifeless corpse.
Goldhill, S. 1991. The Poet’s Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature, 96–166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, J. 1980. Homer on Life and Death, 115–116. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 31–35. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Schein, S. 1984. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad, 151–152. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 70–73. New York: Oxford University Press.