By Thomas Van Nortwick
Hecabe’s plea follows Priam’s and is just as intimate in its own way. Holding out her naked breast, she conjures the image of Hector as a nursing infant. Mothers in the epic tradition are associated with nurture, with unquestioning love and support for their children. Masculine heroes in ancient Mediterranean myth must separate themselves from this nurture to enter adulthood by reaching an accommodation with their father’s world. Hector’s life as we see it does not dramatize that struggle as, for instance, Achilles’ does. He is a fully-formed adult male when we meet him. His deafness to his mother’s pleas here is an extension of his gentle disengagement from her in Book Six. He has already entered his father’s world and struggles to carry its burdens.
The exchanges between Hector, Priam, and Hecabe are part of the overarching theme of parents and children that informs the entire Iliad, beginning with the priest Chryses’ struggle to ransom his daughter in Book One, which sparks the conflict animating the poem’s central plot, and ending with Priam’s journey to retrieve Hector’s corpse for burial in Book Twenty-Four. In between, we see a constant stream of parents grieving their lost children, from the otherwise obscure mothers and fathers of the battle scenes, waiting back home, to Zeus himself, weighing whether to bend the cosmic order to save Sarpedon (16.433–438), or Thetis, mournfully releasing Achilles to his death (24.100–119). Unlike the later stories in Athenian tragic drama, where intergenerational conflict is a source of energy for the plot, the relation between parents and children in the Iliad is consistently benign and affectionate.
While reaffirming Hector’s maturity, the scene with Priam and Hecabe also prepares us for his poignant monologue. Physical vulnerability, signified by their aged, naked bodies, makes their emotional vulnerability to the fear of losing everything and everybody they love yet more vivid. Achilles is coming not only for Hector but for them too, and all the Trojans who will soon be defenseless before his fury. Later, in the final moments before his death, Hector imagines himself naked “like a woman” before Achilles, hoping to somehow bargain with the implacable killer. For a fleeting instant, this fantasy seems to offer some escape from the unrelenting pressure always to be in the forefront of battle, never to bend, never to run.
Hector does not respond to his parents’ pleas, but waits for Achilles, who is πελώριον ἆσσον ἰόντα, “coming closer, gigantic” (92). Πελώριος is cognate with πέλωρ, the noun used of Polyphemus and Scylla in the Odyssey (9.428; 12.87). To Hector, Achilles looks not just huge, but unnatural. Homer continues to manipulate our perspective, beginning with his own omniscient view, then letting us look through Priam’s eyes, and now through Hector’s. The shifting focus allows the poet to characterize both Achilles and those who see him coming across the plain. To the poet he is extraordinarily bold, arrogant in the face of divine power; to Priam, something beyond all ordinary creatures, animal or human, a vengeful cosmic force; to Hector, a monster.
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