By Thomas Van Nortwick
The change of scene in mid-verse (405), from the battlefield to the city walls, from Hector’s head being torn to Hecabe tearing at hers, is unusually abrupt. Hector’s death spreads quickly like a contagion, from his corpse, to his mother, to his father, and finally through the whole city.
By throwing off her veil, Hecabe gestures toward an inevitable consequence of Hector’s death. In Homeric poetry the veil is a symbol of modesty and/or chastity for women, and a prerequisite for any public appearance. Penelope always wears a veil in the presence of the suitors (e.g., Od.1.334 and 18.210); when Nausicaa throws her veil aside at the seashore she makes herself vulnerable to the advances of the mysterious naked stranger (Od.6.100–210); even Thetis must take up her veil when she leaves the cover of the sea and enters mortal society (Il. 24.93–94). The death of Hector will lead to the violation of Trojan women and, as Andromache’s response will soon affirm, to all of Troy. Homer’s fire simile rounds off this chain of misery by implicitly pointing to its agent, the character most consistently associated with fire in the poem, Achilles.
The remainder of Book Twenty-Two is given over to the pain and sorrow of those who loved Hector. Their actions reflect an understanding of the experience of grief and patterns of behavior found elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world and still present today. Achilles’ response to the death of Patroclus is the most powerful example in the poem. When Antilochus brings him the news, Achilles throws himself on the ground (as Priam does here) and covers himself with ashes (18.22–27); Thetis rises from the sea and, finding him stretched out on the ground, holds his head in her hands, a gesture often seen in artistic images of those mourning someone already dead (18.70–721); he later vows to abstain from food, sleep, bathing, and sex until Patroclus is avenged (19.205–214, 24.128–131). All these acts reflect the early stages of grief as it is usually portrayed in the Iliad and elsewhere. At first, those left behind resist letting go; life goes on, but they do not want to go with it. Instead, they may act in ways that mimic the one they have lost, turning toward the dead and letting go of the living. Both Achilles and Priam begin their journey through grief by falling to the ground and covering themselves with dirt, a symbolic burial. Hecabe’s self-mutilation shares the same meaning. Achilles’ behavior in the aftermath of Patroclus’s death, the funereal tableau created by Thetis holding his head, and his abstention from the usual tokens of participation in human life, suggest that when Patroclus dies, Achilles undergoes a symbolic death, as if to follow his friend out of life. When Achilles refuses to eat, Athena compensates by infusing him with nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods. Thetis uses the same substances to embalm the corpse of Patroclus, protecting it from corruption, another sign from the poet that when Patroclus dies, something in Achilles goes with him.
Eventually, those grieving must let go of the dead and return to the living. In early Greek poetry, those who hope to encourage this change offer a seat and a drink. If the person grieving accepts these tokens, he or she is ready to accept the loss of the dead person and return to full participation in human life. The return of Hector’s body to Priam begins when Thetis accepts consolation from Zeus and Athena for his coming death (24.96–140). Achilles and Priam console each other when the old man comes to beg Achilles to accept ransom in return for Hector’s body (24.476–642). When Achilles releases Hector’s body for burial, it is a sign that his grief is easing and he himself is ready to return to the normal rhythms of human life. In Book 24 he and Priam then share a meal, marking each man’s acceptance of loss. Hector’s funeral, which brings the Iliad to a close, extends the healing to other Trojans who loved him.
This portrayal of grief in the Iliad, though uniquely rich, is not peculiar to Homeric poetry. Vestiges can be found in the literature and culture of the ancient Mediterranean from 1800 to 600 BCE. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh puts on animal skins and roams the wilderness, mimicking his friend’s earlier life as a wild man who lived with animals. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed sometime in the Seventh Century BCE, the goddess Demeter mirrors the abduction of her daughter Persephone from Olympus to Hades by leaving Olympus and going to live with humans in Eleusis. When the royal family she has joined as a nurse attempt to console her for the loss of her daughter, they offer a seat and a drink. Though she accepts, her grieving is apparently not at an end. Only when a deal is struck between Zeus and Hades, allowing Persephone to leave the Underworld and be with her mother each spring, does Demeter allow the crops to grow again, a sign that she has accepted consolation for the yearly loss of her daughter.
In their helplessness and pain, the laments of Priam and Hecabe echo the opening scene of Book Twenty-Two at the walls of Troy, when they beg Hector not to stay and fight Achilles. This ring form is a common structural device in early Greek narrative, giving a sense of closure to the entire Book. At the same time, the end of Book Twenty-Two anticipates the poem’s final scenes in Book Twenty-Four: Priam immediately begins trying to set out for the Greek camp to supplicate Achilles, while the laments of Hecabe and Andromache rehearse their last eulogies when Hector’s body reaches Troy. Finally, as we have seen, Hector’s monologue as he awaits Achilles looks back to his poignant exchange with Andromache in Book Six. Much of the Iliad’s power to move us comes from repeated forms, words, phrases, and scenes, as the poet builds meaning by accretion, enriching the familiar forms by placing them in new contexts, training our ears to hear an increasingly complex harmony that reaches its crescendo when Hector finally returns to Troy.
Alexiou, M. 1974. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nagler, M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 44–63, 174–182. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Schein, S. 1984. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad, 150–151. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Whitman, C. 1958. Homer and The Heroic Tradition, 128–153. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.