By Thomas Van Nortwick
The sound of wailing from the city walls reaches Andromache in her bedroom, as she prepares for Hector’s return from battle:
She called to her well-coifed maids in the house
to set up a tripod over the fire, so there would be
a warm bath for Hector, when he returned from battle.
The poignant double meaning of Andromache’s preparations, which could describe preparations for the washing of a corpse, is one of many in the verses that follow. The poet uses language often found in battle scenes to describe the brutal impact of Hector’s death on his wife. This kind of metaphor surfaces in her characterization first in Book Six, when Homer uses the participle ἐντροπαλιζομένη, “turning around again and again,” otherwise reserved for retreating warriors or hunted animals, to describe Andromache as she reluctantly leaves Hector at the city gates (6.496). Many echoes of that wrenching exchange color the closing verses of Book Twenty-Two.
The battle metaphors begin here with the adjective νηπίη (“childish, ignorant, without foresight,” 445), which is often used elsewhere of overconfident warriors about to suffer a setback (e.g. 2.873 and 4.406). Andromache, the good wife attending to her work, is about to learn that her whole world is doomed. When she hears the wailing, foreboding strikes:
τῆς δ᾽ ἐλελίχθη γυῖα, χαμαὶ δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε κερκίς
Her knees shook, and the shuttle fell to the ground.
The verb used for “shook,” ἐλελίζω, also means “whirl around,” and is regularly used in the plural of troops turning around in formation (e.g., 5.497 and 11.214). The basic meaning is of violent, often twisting motion. The word is also used of a spear quivering in the ground (13.558) and Olympus shaking (1.530, 8.199). The second half of the line just quoted echoes a clause found several times in battle scenes, of something shaken from a man’s hand and falling:
τόξον δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε χειρός.
And the bow fell from his hand.
Iliad 8.329 = 15.465
The nouns νεκρός “corpse” (4.493) and δαλός, “torch” (15.421) also appear in the place of τόξον. Here the poet modifies what looks like a formulaic phrase, as κερκίς becomes the subject, replacing χειρός metrically, with the adverb χαμαί in the place of the original subject. The effect of these echoes is to implicitly compare Andromache being struck with fear to a warrior suffering a violent blow on the battlefield.
The battle metaphors continue in Andromache’s first words to her maids after she hears the mourners, when she says her heart leaps from her chest and “beats” (πάλλεται 452), in her mouth and her knees “go stiff” (πήγνυται, 453). Homer uses both verbs in battle scenes, the first of throwing a spear (e.g. 5.495, 6.104 ) or a stone (5.304, 12.449, 20.287), the second of a spear fixed in a shield or the earth (e.g. 5.40, 8.258, 22.276, 22.283). A few verses later, he extends the meaning of πάλλεται in an unusual phrase, παλλομένη κραδίην, “shaken in her heart” (461). Finally, when Andromache sees Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, the full measure of horror falls on her, prompting one of Homer’s terse three-clause descriptions:
τὴν δὲ κατ᾽ ὀφθαλμῶν ἐρεβεννὴ νὺξ ἐκάλυψεν,
ἤριπε δ᾽ ἐξοπίσω, ἀπὸ δὲ ψυχὴν ἐκάπυσσε.
Black night covered over her eyes;
she fell backward, and breathed out her soul.
The words of line 466 are used twice (with a change of gender in the pronoun) to describe a warrior’s death in battle (5.659, 13.580). The first half of line 467 echoes ἤριπε δ’ ἐξ ὀχέων, the phrase used elsewhere to describe a warrior falling out of his chariot (5.47, 5.294, 8.260).
Homer’s metaphor of Andromache as a fallen warrior is rich in its implications. Her response, as the poet describes it, is typical of grieving figures, mimicking Hector’s death in battle, drawing her closer to her lost husband. When he dies, something in her dies, too. But her intense identification with Hector in this scene is also part of Homer’s portrait of the extraordinary intimacy between the two that stretches back to their meeting in Book Six. There, Andromache tells Hector that he is her father, mother, brother, and husband (6.429–430), that she would rather be dead and buried than live without him, a sentiment he echoes soon after (6.410–411, 6.464-465). Their bond also suffuses Hector’s monologue in Book Twenty-Two, in the phrases echoing their last meeting in Book Six and the wistful fantasy of a boy and girl chatting. When she gives voice to her fears after hearing the wailing from the walls, a persistent theme surfaces once more:
How I wish that sound were far from my ears! But bitterly
I fear that bright Achilles has cut off my bold Hector
away from the city, and chases him across the plain,
and might put an end to that painful courage,
which held him always, since he would not stay in the crowd of men,
but would always run to the front, giving way to no one.
The essence of a tragic hero in Greek literature is his/her defiance of the limits that usually constrain mortals, no matter the harm to themselves or, in most cases, to others who may love and depend on them. Homer has created in Hector a particularly intimate and therefore painful example: He always runs to the front of battle, in part because he can only understand himself as a man if he is always there (cf. 22.441–446). But unlike most other heroes, self-regard is not his primary motive. He fights in the forefront because he believes that being there is the best way to protect those he loves. Since the poet lets us see into his heart we also witness the pain caused by his separation from them.
Like Hecuba, Andromache throws off her veil when she sees Hector. But instead of καλύπτρα the poet uses the word κρήδεμνον, “head binder,” as he does elsewhere for the veils of Thetis, Penelope, and Nausicaa. By doing so he makes the wider implications of the gesture more explicit. The word in Homer and the Homeric Hymns for the battlements of a city is the plural of κρήδεμνον, the “head binder” for the city, (Il. 16.100; Od. 13.388; Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 2; Homeric Hymn to Demeter 151). As he does with the simile of the burning city that follows Hecuba’s gesture (405–411), the poet puts before us once more the full import of Hector’s death, but now distilled into one potent metaphor: Violation is coming not just for Andromache but for all of Troy.
In the portrait of Andromache’s grief, the poet shows the depth of her connection with Hector. Her grief hits her like the blows that killed him. They are intertwined, body and soul, an intimacy between husband and wife that is rare in a culture as patriarchal as the Iliad’s, perhaps rivaled only by the bond between Odysseus and Penelope, though in an entirely different kind of story.
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