By Thomas Van Nortwick
Achilles’ bloody armor, stripped off the dead body of yet another warrior, lies to one side, and the Myrmidons crowd around, desultorily stabbing Hector’s corpse. His voice is still in our ears, but now Hector is something like a grotesque tourist attraction, pathetically “softer to handle” (373). The contrast between the great man, vividly present just seconds before, and the inert thing on the ground, is stark and unsettling. An uneasy atmosphere pervades the immediate aftermath of Hector’s death, as the presence of the body seems to prompt Achilles—and so us—to ruminate about life and death and the eerie places in between.
After the stabbing ends, Achilles wonders what the Trojans will do now, “since Hector no longer exists” (Ἕκτορος οὐκέτ᾽ ἐόντος, 384). In context this genitive absolute seems to raise some questions: If Hector is gone, what is that thing on the ground, and why is Achilles talking to it? Achilles is not the only warrior to talk to the corpse of his victim, nor is this the only time he does so (cf. 16.830–42 and 21.122–135). The speech might be aimed in part at the others standing around the body: a vaunt to affirm Achilles’ superior strength, to them and to himself. But in this passage, where our attention will be insistently focused on the connection between the living and the dead, we might well wonder if Achilles is not yet finished with Hector, that a part of him yearns for his enemy to remain present, in more than a lifeless body, to be the object of his hatred and abuse. He has been keeping Patroclus’s corpse with him, unburied, while he hunts down Hector. Now that he has the corpse of his enemy, he will soon bury his friend, as if one body could take the place of the other.
The motives for holding the two bodies seem markedly different. Achilles’ postpones burial for Patroclus out of love. Keeping the body with him delays the moment when he must acknowledge that his friend is gone. This is one reason we have funerals, so we can help each other let go of the person who has died and move on with life. Refusing burial to Hector, by contrast, seems an act of pure hatred toward all the Trojans (who would thus not be able to say goodbye to their hero) and especially toward Hector himself. We learn in Book Twenty-Three, when Patroclus’s psyche comes to Achilles, that the souls of dead warriors cannot find rest until their bodies are buried (23.69–74). So, while the Trojans yearn to honor Hector, his soul will be condemned to eternal wandering outside the gates of Hades.
The second-self motif suggests yet another motive for keeping Hector’s body available for abuse. As we have said, Hector comes to embody for Achilles his own mortal nature, which he and Thetis both seek to deny. From this perspective, Achilles’ savage treatment of Hector’s corpse is on one level an act of self-loathing, reflecting his impatience with the limits that define human existence, the most important of those being mortality. And here the connection between his clinging to the two bodies becomes clear. It is no accident that Achilles’ acceptance of his own mortality (24.139–140) is the prelude to his releasing of Hector’s corpse to Priam. His love for Patroclus can only reach its fullest expression when he is able to accept who he really is, an acknowledgement signaled by his release of Hector’s body. His own tortured soul can only find rest when Hector’s does.
The existential nature of the questions raised by the abuse of Hector’s corpse by the Myrmidons (369–371) and then by Achilles himself continue to surface in the verses that follow. Hector’s unburied body leads Achilles to think of Patroclus, who lies “unwept, unburied” (386), which leads in turn to the assertion that he, Achilles, will not forget his companion as long as he is alive, that though the dead forget the dead in Hades, “even there” he will not forget Patroclus (390). Typically for him, Achilles assumes that he will not be confined by the limits of ordinary human life. But his claim prompts further questions: What does it mean to be dead? Is there consciousness in Hades?
After glorying in his victory and vowing to bury Patroclus with honor, Achilles turns back to the body on the ground:
He pierced the back of both feet behind the tendons,
between the ankle and the heel, and pulled ox-hide thongs through,
then tied them to the back of the chariot, and let the head drag;
climbing up, he lifted the famous armor inside,
and whipped the horses to go; and they flew forward willingly.
A cloud of dust rose as Hector’s head was dragged, and the dark hair
was spread out on the ground; his whole head, before so handsome,
lay in the dust; then Zeus gave him to his enemies
to disfigure in his own fatherland.
The clinical detail, entirely characteristic of Homer’s style, is devastating here. Hector, “before so handsome,” is now just a piece of meat to be flayed in the dust. The brutally swift transition from warm blood to cold flesh, from courageous warrior to dead weight, again fixes our attention on the boundary that defines human life, the site for much of the poem’s meditation on the limits and costs of heroic aggression. We are a long way from the Achilles who spared Andromache’s father (6.414–420).
The death of Hector is the dramatic climax not only of Book Twenty-Two, but of the entire Iliad. The rhythm of both, a dramatic climax some distance from the end, followed by a falling of tension while the implications of the climax are explored, is found in many works of archaic Greek literature. After Odysseus returns home from Troy, kills the suitors and reunites with Penelope, we then see the impact of his return on his family and household in the last Books of the epic. In Sophocles’ Oedipus The King we witness Oedipus learning the terrible truth of his identity, and then what that knowledge does to his city and loved ones. Now that Hector is dead, we will see what his loss means to those who hated him and those who loved him.
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Van Nortwick, T. 2006. “Achilles at Work.” North Dakota Quarterly. 73.3, 8–20.