Introduction: The Gift of Life
By Thomas Van Nortwick
Achilles’ Heroic Journey | The Second-Self Motif | Hector, Patroclus, and the Arms of Achilles | Achilles’ Rampage and the Boundaries of Human Existence | Achilles’ Anger Redirected | The Hero’s Return and the Gift of Life | Conclusion | Further Reading
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο,
ἤτοι Δαρδανίδης Πρίαμος θαύμαζ᾽ Ἀχιλῆα
ὅσσος ἔην οἷός τε: θεοῖσι γὰρ ἄντα ἐῴκει:
αὐτὰρ ὃ Δαρδανίδην Πρίαμον θαύμαζεν Ἀχιλλεὺς
εἰσορόων ὄψίν τ᾽ ἀγαθὴν καὶ μῦθον ἀκούων.
But when they banished their desire for food and drink,
then Priam, son of Dardanus, gazed at Achilles in wonder,
his size and beauty, for he seemed like one of the gods.
But Achilles too was struck by Priam, son of Dardanus,
admiring his noble bearing and hearing him speak.
There are many sublime moments in the Iliad’s closing scenes, but none more important than this one. After all the anger and hatred, vaunting and insults, grief and exultation, the Iliad comes to rest in the wordless gaze of two exhausted men, united for the moment by loss. Each man in his own way embodies the poem’s vision of the tension between the desire for distinction and the need for human connection. Both have found a way to put aside for this moment the history of enmity they share, so as to achieve a fragile respite for themselves and their people. The portrait of Achilles’ rage forms the backbone of the poem’s plot, his withdrawal from battle and its terrible consequences, his return with its surprising conclusion. He yearns for a godlike self-sufficiency, and his mother’s indulgence keeps that possibility alive for a dangerously long time. Other mortals do not have that luxury. As the poem unfolds, characters from both sides of the conflict struggle to honor their commitments to others while yearning for the distinction that comes with victory. The enduring power of the Iliad in our collective imagination lies precisely in that struggle, the key to the poem’s rich meditation on the meaning of human existence.
Achilles’ Heroic Journey
Though he is absent from the action for nearly two-thirds of the poem, Achilles is the principal hero of the Iliad. The architecture of the poem rests on the foundation of his story: his violent quarrel with Agamemnon and subsequent withdrawal from battle and the company of his fellow warriors, with all of its terrible consequences for him and for them; his eventual return to action to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus; and, finally, the profound change in perspective that leads him to release the body of his enemy Hector, the act that brings the poem to its quiet resolution. The basic story pattern that informs these events is found in many heroic narratives, from Classical literature to “Star Trek;” The hero leaves, voluntarily or otherwise, from his or her customary position and or status, traveling literally or symbolically to some new and often dangerous place; in the hero’s absence, disorder and/or destruction may ensue; the hero eventually returns, usually bringing back some kind of significant knowledge unavailable to those s/he left behind.
The Odyssey, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh,1
and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, among many other stories, use this basic narrative dynamic in one form or another. The pattern offers storytellers a rich array of options. The hero’s displacement may occur for all kinds of reasons, trouble at home or abroad, character flaws in the hero or others, supernatural forces at work. Odysseus must leave Ithaka to fight in the Trojan War; Oedipus goes to Delphi to discover the truth about his birth, then flees his home and family in fear of fulfilling the oracle’s prophecies. The story may emphasize the chaos brought by the hero’s absence—as in the Odyssey, when the suitors of Penelope move in once he has left and live dissolutely in the royal palace—or focus instead on the hero’s adventures, like Gilgamesh’s perilous journey to the Land of Dilmun to discover the secret of life and death. The journey may be to new places on the earth or, as we will see, to new dimensions of the hero’s psyche. The knowledge the hero returns with will have a powerful impact on him and others.
The version of the hero’s separation and return that articulates Achilles’ journey in the Iliad is particularly elaborate. The pattern occurs three times, each withdrawal followed by destruction and then a return:
W1 Achilles storms out of the Greek camp. (Book 1)
D1 Many Greek warriors die as the result of his absence. (Books 4–15)
R1 Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor and returns to battle as a surrogate for him. (Book 16)
W2 Achilles himself refuses to return. (Book 16)
D2 Hector kills Patroclus. (Book 16)
R2 Achilles “returns” to the edge of the battlefield to drive the Trojans away from Patroclus’ corpse by shouting in a terrifying way. (Book 18)
W3 Achilles withdraws in various ways from contact with his humanity, crossing over significant boundaries that define human life. (Books 19–22)
D3 Achilles kills Hector. (Book 22)
R3 Achilles consoles Priam and returns the body of Hector for burial. (Book 24)
Each stage of the pattern raises the stakes for Achilles personally. He loses many friends as a result of his first withdrawal. Then his soulmate Patroclus dies when Achilles refuses to return to battle in Book 16. Finally, he loses touch with his own humanity during his drive for revenge against Hector. The implications of this pattern for the portrait of Achilles are powerful, as his story becomes a meditation on the cost of valuing individual distinction to the exclusion of the connections to others that help situate ordinary mortals in the larger order of the universe. In the third iteration of the pattern, Achilles acts in a symbolically expanded context, pulling away from ordinary humanity in various ways, descending into bestial savagery, ascending toward the divine part of himself. In doing so, he acts as a guide for us, lighting up the boundaries that define human existence and so addressing the question that lies behind all serious literature and art in ancient Greek culture: What does it mean to be human?
Perhaps the most frequent and widespread version of the separation and return pattern is the hero’s trip to the Underworld, or katabasis, “downward journey,” as the Greeks called it. Gilgamesh travels across the “Waters of Darkness” to the Land of Dilmun, to find the secret of immortality; Odysseus goes to Hades looking for information about how to get home to Ithaka; Virgil’s Aeneas enters the Underworld, guided by the Sibyl, to find out what his role is to be in the future of Rome. Having arrived, the hero confronts, directly or indirectly, the fact of his own mortality, the thing that defines what it is to be human. There may be other encounters of various sorts, with famous wrongdoers, lost loved ones, or, in the case of Aeneas, with his dead father. The deep knowledge that the hero gains comes in various forms, but is—at least by implication—always crucial for understanding himself and his place in the larger order of the cosmos. In any event, every hero who makes a round trip to the Underworld is extraordinary by nature, since he has looked death in the face and returned alive to tell about it.
The journey into darkness to obtain hidden knowledge has obvious potential as a metaphor for exploring the inner depths of a human being. Carl Jung in particular among modern thinkers was interested in the archetypal story of the hero’s journey as a metaphor for exploring the psyche, to uncover and bring to consciousness parts of oneself suppressed for one reason or another, as a way of achieving greater self-knowledge and emotional integrity.2
The analogue has particular relevance for the portrait of Achilles in the Iliad. At first glance, Achilles’ story would seem to have little connection to the hero’s trip to the Underworld. He does not have a physical katabasis, remaining in his hut by the seashore until he returns to the battlefield to avenge Patroclus’ death. But in response to that loss, Achilles himself undergoes a symbolic death, signaled by Homer in various ways in the portrait of his hero’s grief, and in his gory rampage in the last third of the poem he enters a private hell of his own making. Finally, during his extraordinary exchange with Priam, he assumes a transcendent status analogous to the god of death, receiving Priam, whose perilous night journey to ransom the body of Hector becomes itself a symbolic trip to the Underworld. In releasing his enemy’s body, Achilles displays the newfound wisdom won from his own katabasis.
The Second-Self Motif
The mix of universal and intensely personal that we see in the portrait of Achilles’ journey also appears in Homer’s3
use of another common narrative element, a second self or alter-ego figure, who embodies aspects of the hero that he has suppressed or lost touch with. This figure is not what we call a “double,” because he (or sometimes she, as in Virgil’s Dido) does not have the same traits as the hero. Rather, s/he is "complementary," filling out the parts of the hero that prevent him from achieving wholeness as the story understands it. By projecting onto a separate figure certain of the hero’s traits, ancient authors represented objectively what we now tend to understand as a subjective process that occurs within the psyche of a single person. While we may feel that this objectification oversimplifies a person’s inner life, the clear separation of character traits perhaps makes for a better understanding of their relationship to one another. Certain patterns recur in ancient stories that have this component. The first and second selves are not identical but complementary; the second self displays characteristics that the culture of the story sees as feminine, in contrast to the hero's masculinity; the second self always appears when the first self is most vulnerable to its influence; there is always an instant, strange, and inexplicable affinity between the two selves; whatever the feelings between the two, they are always intense; the encounter with the second self is always at least potentially therapeutic; in order for the hero to make contact with the parts of himself with which he has lost contact, reintegrating the lost qualities and thus becoming whole on the terms the story sets, the second self must die.
The second-self motif often appears when there seems to be some kind of problem with the hero. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk in Mesopotamia, has lost touch with the parts of himself that connect to nature, and by analogy, to the larger order of the universe. His imperious treatment of his subjects, sleeping with the new brides and defeating other men in wrestling matches, is a symptom of his excessive pride and arrogance. The gods are prompted to create a friend for him, to absorb his energies with adventuring. The friend, Enkidu, begins as a “wild man,” in tune with the rhythms of nature, running with the animals and drinking from their watering holes. He is said to have “long hair like a woman.” Lured into the city by a prostitute, he confronts Gilgamesh and the two wrestle to a draw. The hero’s restlessness then leads to a successful joint expedition with Enkidu to conquer Humbaba, the monster of the Cedar Forest. Flushed with success, Gilgamesh oversteps and insults a goddess, who causes Enkidu to sicken and die. Gilgamesh is undone by grief and the realization that he too will die one day. He roams the wilderness in animal skins, then travels across the Waters of Darkness to the Land of Dilmun, seeking the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim, the only mortal to have escaped death, gives Gilgamesh various tests to see if he is worthy of immortality, all of which he fails, and sends him back to Uruk, sobered by the knowledge that he must die like all mortals.
The relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu illustrates the second-self motif succinctly. Enkidu’s long hair and seamless connection to the rhythms of nature would have been understood by the story’s Mesopotamian audience as feminine, complementing Gilgamesh’s overbearing masculinity and obsession with glory, which can only be achieved within the context of human culture. Enkidu appears when Gilgamesh is looking for outlets for his energy and the two become instant companions, heading off into the Cedar Forest in search of adventure. Enkidu dies because Gilgamesh’s pride and arrogance lead him to insult Ishtar, the goddess of sexuality. Gilgamesh’s adventures after Enkidu’s death eventually bring him to accept the fact of his own mortality, a prerequisite for emotional maturity. The encounter with Enkidu helps to heal Gilgamesh of his overbearing masculinity and his inability to accept limits on his self-aggrandizement, the most crucial of those limits being mortality. Like Achilles, Gilgamesh has a divine mother, a circumstance that makes his character a useful vehicle for exploring the limits of humanity. As we will see, the story of Achilles’ journey has much in common with Gilgamesh’s, but reflects the second-self motif in a more complex form.
The obvious candidate for Achilles’ second self is Patroclus, his dear friend who stays by his side when he withdraws from the Greek army camp, then goes into battle as his surrogate, and is killed by Hector. Of all the prominent warriors in the Iliad, Patroclus is the only one who is motivated entirely by his attachment to others, a trait that the Greeks would have considered feminine. He never seeks glory for himself, is always preoccupied by his care for others. It is Patroclus who comes to Achilles in Book Sixteen with the news that the Greeks are losing badly and begs him to return to battle. When Achilles refuses, Patroclus asks to borrow his armor, in the hope that the Trojans will mistake him for his more powerful friend and fall back. His solicitude for his fellow Greek warriors contrasts strongly with Achilles’ selfish preoccupation with his own honor. Patroclus dies as a direct result of Achilles’ refusal to let go of his anger and help his fellow Greeks, a victim of his friend’s arrogance and pride. Achilles’ grief over the loss of Patroclus and obsessive desire to avenge himself on Hector are the motivation for his bloody rampage in Books Nineteen through Twenty-Two of the poem, and for his later attempts to desecrate his enemy’s corpse. When he receives Priam and releases Hector’s body, we witness a return of the compassion and desire for connection to others, qualities once embodied in Patroclus, with which Achilles had lost touch.
Hector, Patroclus, and the Arms of Achilles
Hector is the principal hero of the Trojans and thus Achilles’ main antagonist in the poem. The epitome of Trojan greatness, he carries a tremendous burden of responsibility for his fellow citizens and their splendid civilization. Unlike Achilles, he honors his commitments to others, often putting their welfare before his own safety, and so he becomes a poignant example in the poem of an ongoing struggle between the urge to separate, to distinguish oneself, to stand out, and the need to find connection, union, to be part of something bigger.
Not that Hector’s connections to others are without complications. He makes his debut in the poem at the beginning of Book Three, haranguing Paris for hanging back from battle. Paris is not simply another warrior, of course, he is Hector’s brother. Hector is the primary defender of Troy against the invasion sparked by his own brother’s abduction of another man’s wife. Paris has brought shame on all the Trojans, but especially his own family. At the same time, familial bonds prevent Hector from washing his hands of his younger brother entirely. Anyone who has siblings can appreciate Hector’s dilemma. The edgy relationship between the two siblings surfaces again during Hector’s melancholy return to Troy from battle in Book Six, where he has three exchanges with loved ones, his mother Hecuba, Paris again, and finally the wrenching encounter with his wife Andromache and infant son Astyanax. In all three cases, Hector fails to resolve entirely the differences that separate him from those he loves, and the meetings end in frustration and pain.
What we learn about Hector in Books Three and Six forms essential background for his fatal encounter with Achilles in Book 22. The intervening events in the story, particularly from Books Sixteen through Twenty-two, add layers of complexity to each character, freighting the final duel with enormous significance and pointing toward the poem’s thematic resolution. After inconclusive fighting in Books Eleven through Fifteen, the Trojans, led by Hector, are on the verge of swarming over the Greek ships. Book Sixteen opens with Patroclus’ unsuccessful attempt to convince Achilles to return, followed by his entry into battle in his friend’s armor. He succeeds at first, turning back the Trojan charge, even making Hector retreat for a time. One of the Trojans’ Lycian allies, Sarpedon, then steps forward to challenge Patroclus. After a lengthy duel, Patroclus dispatches Sarpedon. A furious battle over Sarpedon’s corpse ensues.
Sarpedon, from whom we have heard a stirring speech about the nature of heroism in Book Twelve (310–28), is a son of Zeus by a mortal woman. When Sarpedon first faces off against Patroclus, Zeus looks down on the battlefield, contemplating whether to let his son die, as he is fated to do, or rescue him. Hera expresses her disapproval at the prospect of Zeus changing fate by rescuing Sarpedon and suggests a different course after his death:
πέμπειν μιν θάνατόν τε φέρειν καὶ νήδυμον ὕπνον
εἰς ὅ κε δὴ Λυκίης εὐρείης δῆμον ἵκωνται,
ἔνθά ἑ ταρχύσουσι κασίγνητοί τε ἔται τε
τύμβῳ τε στήλῃ τε: τὸ γὰρ γέρας ἐστὶ θανόντων.
Send Death and painless Sleep to carry him
until they reach the territory of broad Lycia,
where his brothers and countrymen shall bury him
with a funeral mound and marker. This is the gift of honor for the dead.
By having us look through Zeus’s eyes and ponder the fate of Sarpedon, Homer slows down the action, fixing our attention on the quiet ending that Hera foresees for Zeus’s son. Zeus accedes to her suggestion, ordering Apollo to arrange for Sleep and Death to carry Sarpedon away after he dies at Patroclus’ hands. Sarpedon’s is the first in a string of significant deaths that will punctuate the poem’s progress from here on, interlinked in various ways, each one more momentous than the last, with increasing attention to the disposition of the fallen hero’s corpse. Through it all, the tranquil end of Sarpedon’s story will remain in our minds, tuning our ears for the poem’s hauntingly quiet close.
Homer’s careful attention to the physicality of death—the burial mound, the grace marker, the corpse—is matched by his brilliant thematic use of the physical paraphernalia of battle. When Patroclus dies at the hands of Hector, with assists from Apollo and a Trojan named Euphorbus,the god’s blow to Patroclus’ back renders him dazed and vulnerable, knocking his helmet off:
ἣ δὲ κυλινδομένη καναχὴν ἔχε ποσσὶν ὑφ᾽ ἵππων
αὐλῶπις τρυφάλεια, μιάνθησαν δὲ ἔθειραι
αἵματι καὶ κονίῃσι: πάρος γε μὲν οὐ θέμις ἦεν
ἱππόκομον πήληκα μιαίνεσθαι κονίῃσιν,
ἀλλ᾽ ἀνδρὸς θείοιο κάρη χαρίεν τε μέτωπον
ῥύετ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆος: τότε δὲ Ζεὺς Ἕκτορι δῶκεν
ᾗ κεφαλῇ φορέειν, σχεδόθεν δέ οἱ ἦεν ὄλεθρος.
The helmet clattered under the horses’ hooves,
four-horned and hollow-eyed, its plumes crusted
with blood and dust. Before this time it was not permitted
to defile the helmet, crested in horse hair;
rather, it covered the graceful head and brow
of a godlike man, Achilles. But then Zeus gave it
to Hector to wear, and death was near him, too.
Sarpedon’s death begins a fatal progression. As the warriors fight over his corpse, Zeus’s attention—and so ours—moves to the death of Patroclus (Il. 16.644–47). Once he finishes Patroclus, Hector is marked. By drawing our attention to Achilles’ helmet, once beautiful, now befouled in the dust, Homer establishes the armor as a harbinger of doom, linking these three deaths and pointing beyond the end of the poem to the death of Achilles.
Patroclus has already been cast in the role of Achilles’ second self, representing parts of the hero that he has lost touch with through his arrogance. Having Patroclus put on Achilles’ armor and attempt to impersonate his friend seems a natural extension of the motif. But the gambit fails and instead Patroclus is sacrificed on the altar of Achilles’ stubborn denial of parts of himself that Patroclus embodies. Homer has already signaled this outcome: when Patroclus puts on the armor (Il. 16.130–144), we are told pointedly that he may not use the spear that Achilles inherited from his father Peleus. No other of the Greeks may wield the weapon, only Achilles. On the one hand, the episode reinforces the connections between Achilles and Patroclus that have been marked in other ways. At the same time, its outcome suggests that finally, only Achilles can work out his destiny.
When Hector kills Patroclus and inherits the doomed armor, we wonder what role he in turn will play in the working out of Achilles’ fate. He has been Achilles’ staunch enemy. Is he now to carry in himself something of both Patroclus and Achilles? When his final moment comes in Book Twenty-two, as he faces the dreadful specter of Achilles bearing down on him across the plain of Troy, he is wearing the armor. Homer slows down the last moments of Hector’s life, inviting us to look through Achilles’ eyes as he measures up his prey:
εἰσορόων χρόα καλόν, ὅπῃ εἴξειε μάλιστα.
τοῦ δὲ καὶ ἄλλο τόσον μὲν ἔχε χρόα χάλκεα τεύχεα
καλά, τὰ Πατρόκλοιο βίην ἐνάριξε κατακτάς:
φαίνετο δ᾽ ᾗ κληῗδες ἀπ᾽ ὤμων αὐχέν᾽ ἔχουσι
λαυκανίην, ἵνα τε ψυχῆς ὤκιστος ὄλεθρος:
τῇ ῥ᾽ ἐπὶ οἷ μεμαῶτ᾽ ἔλασ᾽ ἔγχεϊ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς,
ἀντικρὺ δ᾽ ἁπαλοῖο δι᾽ αὐχένος ἤλυθ᾽ ἀκωκή:
He was looking at Hector’s beautiful body, where it would yield
most easily. But almost all of it was covered in armor,
lovely bronze, which Hector stripped from the dead Patroclus.
One spot appeared, where the collar bone held the neck from
the shoulders, the throat, where the soul’s death comes
most quickly. There bright Achilles drove the sword,
its point plunging through the soft neck.
That the fatal blow pierces Achilles’ own armor suggests that he dispatches not only his hated enemy, but also something of himself. Exactly what this gesture will mean in the context of his own tortured journey is best approached through another theme that runs through the final six books of the poem, the unburied corpse.
Achilles’ Rampage and the Boundaries of Human Existence
When Achilles rescues the corpse of Patroclus from the Trojans at the beginning of Book Eighteen, the issues of identity raised by the passing on of his armor take on a new dimension.
In his reaction to hearing the dreadful news of Patroclus’ death, we see the second-self motif surface yet again. Achilles falls to the ground, throwing dirt over himself, a kind of symbolic burial. When his mother rises from the sea to comfort him, she holds his head in her arms (as Achilles himself will do later for the corpse of Patroclus [Il. 23.136–37]), creating a tableau that mimics the common representation in Greek art of a funeral rite, the mourner holding the head of a person who has died. These gestures suggest that when Patroclus died, something of Achilles died with him. Given what Patroclus has embodied in the poem, we can infer that what is gone is Achilles’ compassion, his ability to see himself as joined to others through his mortality. If we are following the second-self motif, we might ask ourselves how or whether this part of Achilles can be recovered.
Achilles himself seems at this point to show no ambivalence about his own mortality. In reply to Thetis’s lament at his impending death, he says that he will accept his death whenever the gods and fate decree it. Later, when confronting Lycaon, a man he is about to kill, he says that he knows that the time of his death is not far off and urges his opponent to accept his own imminent demise (Il. 21.99–113). His words in both places would seem to reflect a man who has attained the wisdom that Gilgamesh found only after traveling across the Waters of Darkness and failing in his last efforts to resist his common humanity. But Achilles’ actions in Books Nineteen through Twenty-Two tell a different story. He will keep the dead body of his friend with him, refusing to bury it until he kills Hector. Meanwhile, fearing that the corpse will rot, he prompts Thetis to embalm it with nectar and ambrosia, thus holding back the natural forces that define human existence. Urged by his friends to keep up his strength by eating before they go into battle, he vows to forego food and drink until he has killed Hector. We learn elsewhere that he has also been denying himself three other activities that, along with sustenance, symbolize full participation in human life: bathing, sleep, and sex (bathing: Il. 23.43–7; sleep: Il. 24.3–18; sex: Il. 24.128–31). By holding on to the dead body of Patroclus, and abstaining from the things that signify his humanity, Achilles seems to be attempting to hold back the regular order of nature and, by implication, to be denying his own mortality. Even the gods seem to be complicit in his denial. Zeus fears that Achilles will be too weak to fight, so he prompts Athena to instill in him nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods, to strengthen him.
We have said that the third iteration of the withdrawal, destruction, and return pattern has Achilles withdrawing from all humanity in his ruthless quest for revenge against Hector. The withdrawal begins, as we have seen, with his symbolic death in response to the loss of Patroclus and his subsequent abstention from characteristic human activities. As his destructive rampage continues through Book Twenty and Twenty-One, it becomes increasingly difficult to define exactly who or what Achilles is. We note for instance that Athena’s feeding him with nectar and ambrosia confirms on the one hand his semi-divine status, sustained by immortal food. At the same time, the act reaffirms his kinship with the dead Patroclus, who has been embalmed with the same substances (Il. 19.38–39). Later, when slashing a gory path through the Trojans in search of Hector, he throws so many corpses into the river Scamander that the god of the river protests. The river retaliates by bursting over the banks and attempting to drown Achilles, who begs Zeus for help and is assisted by not one but four gods, Poseidon, Athena, Hera, and Hephaestus. Hephaestus ultimately saves him by starting a backfire that forces the river back into its channel. True to his ambiguous status, Achilles first assumes the role, common in Mediterranean myth, of the chaos demon, who blocks the regular flow of nature, then plays, with the help of Hephaestus, the part of the culture hero who defeats the chaos monster and restores order. As he draws ever closer to his climactic confrontation with Hector, his fluid persona will become yet more indeterminate and disturbing.
Achilles’ departure from ordinary human experience is also strongly marked by sub-human violence and bestial behavior. His bloody rampage in Book Twenty opens with an elaborate simile comparing him to a marauding lion. The book ends with another bleak tableau, as Achilles driving his chariot over mangled corpses evokes the image of the farmer driving oxen, crushing barley. His horses’ hooves are soaked with blood that reaches up to the railing of the chariot. The final verses of the book show him standing in his chariot, “his invincible hands spattered with bloody filth” (Il. 20.503). In between, he mows down many Trojans, splitting in half the heads of two men and beheading another (Il. 20.387. 475, 481–3). In Book 21, his slaughter of Trojans in the river reminds Homer of a voracious dolphin, gobbling up other fish (Il. 21.22–6). As he pursues Hector in Book 22, he is like a hawk hunting a dove, a dog snapping at the heels of a fawn (Il. 22.139,189). He contemptuously brushes aside Hector’s final plea, that Achilles return his body to the Trojans for burial. There can be, he says, no agreements between men and lions. And finally,
μή με κύον γούνων γουνάζεο μὴ δὲ τοκήων:
αἲ γάρ πως αὐτόν με μένος καὶ θυμὸς ἀνήη
ὤμ᾽ ἀποταμνόμενον κρέα ἔδμεναι, οἷα ἔοργας,
ὡς οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ὃς σῆς γε κύνας κεφαλῆς ἀπαλάλκοι,
οὐδ᾽ εἴ κεν δεκάκις τε καὶ εἰκοσινήριτ᾽ ἄποινα
στήσωσ᾽ ἐνθάδ᾽ ἄγοντες, ὑπόσχωνται δὲ καὶ ἄλλα,
οὐδ᾽ εἴ κέν σ᾽ αὐτὸν χρυσῷ ἐρύσασθαι ἀνώγοι
Δαρδανίδης Πρίαμος: οὐδ᾽ ὧς σέ γε πότνια μήτηρ
ἐνθεμένη λεχέεσσι γοήσεται ὃν τέκεν αὐτή,
ἀλλὰ κύνες τε καὶ οἰωνοὶ κατὰ πάντα δάσονται.
Do not beg me, you dog, by my knees or my parents.
If only my heart and strength would drive me
to hack off your flesh and eat it, for the things you’ve done;
now there is no way to keep the dogs from your head,
not even if they pledge ten or twenty times the ransom,
bringing it here and promising yet more,
nor if Priam, son of Dardanus, were to urge me
to weigh you out in gold. Not even then will your mother
who bore you lay you out on a bier and mourn;
instead the dogs and birds will tear you apart.
He cannot quite bring himself to eat Hector’s body, but contents himself with the thought that wild dogs and scavenger birds will do it for him.
The specter of cannibalism has arisen before in the poem, at the beginning of Book Four, when Zeus and Hera discuss, with chilling detachment, the future course of the war. The duel between Paris and Menelaus in Book Three has ended inconclusively. Now, says Zeus, what shall we do? Shall we reconcile the two sides and preserve Troy, or start the war up again? He prefers the first course, but Hera will not hear of it. How can all her efforts to rain down evil on Priam and the Trojans come to naught? To which Zeus replies somewhat bemusedly:
‘δαιμονίη τί νύ σε Πρίαμος Πριάμοιό τε παῖδες
τόσσα κακὰ ῥέζουσιν, ὅ τ᾽ ἀσπερχὲς μενεαίνεις
Ἰλίου ἐξαλαπάξαι ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον;
εἰ δὲ σύ γ᾽ εἰσελθοῦσα πύλας καὶ τείχεα μακρὰ
ὠμὸν βεβρώθοις Πρίαμον Πριάμοιό τε παῖδας
ἄλλους τε Τρῶας, τότε κεν χόλον ἐξακέσαιο.
Strange goddess, what evil have Priam and his children
done to you, so great that in your rage you would
make desolate the well-built city of Troy?
If entering the gates and high walls of the city,
you could devour the raw flesh of Priam and his children
and all the other Trojans, only then would you quench your fury.
This disturbing parallel between gods and carnivores, both animal and human, takes us by surprise. We might expect that when Achilles strives toward the parts of himself that are divine, he ascends to a higher level of morality than when his inner beast is in control. But in fact, Homer’s gods are not distinguished by any moral scruples. They differ from humans in that they are all-powerful, all-knowing, and most importantly, immortal. Though humans in the Iliad look to the blissful, carefree existence of the gods as the ultimate blessing one could achieve, none of these qualities prompts virtuous behavior. The gods want what they want, and do what they must do to get it. They have no need for virtue, since nothing they do can change their fundamental existence. Humans, on the other hand, are like other perishable living things in that their lives are finite. But they are special in that they live their lives knowing they are going to die one day. This is the crucial quality that sets human existence apart: only the knowledge of mortality creates the necessity for virtue. In this sense, humans are morally superior to the gods of the Iliad. Indeed, the story of Achilles turns on the difference between gods and humans. To be divine seems to be a perfected existence; nothing more is needed. But to strive for divinity when it is unattainable turns out to be disastrous. The worst condition of all is to be, like Achilles, semi-divine, to know something of the terrible power of the gods, but be finally subject to the death sentence that awaits all mortals.
An unburied corpse is by nature liminal, on the boundary between life and death, no longer alive but still visible, stilled but—as Homer’s Greeks believed— not at rest. By focusing our attention on the disposition after death of Sarpedon, then Patroclus, then Hector, Homer keeps our attention on the boundary between life and death, where so much of the poem is played out. As we witness someone crossing over into the undiscovered country of death, we ponder what is essential about human life, and this is where Homer wants us. The terrible death of Hector, whom we have come to admire, marks the apex of Achilles’ violent rage. Its immediate aftermath is one of the most revealing moments in the poem, and one of the most troubling to modern sensibilities. As Achilles and his fellow warriors stand over the corpse of Hector, still warm, a chilling scene unfolds:
τὸν καὶ τεθνηῶτα προσηύδα δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς:
‘τέθναθι: κῆρα δ᾽ ἐγὼ τότε δέξομαι ὁππότε κεν δὴ
Ζεὺς ἐθέλῃ τελέσαι ἠδ᾽ ἀθάνατοι θεοὶ ἄλλοι.’
ἦ ῥα, καὶ ἐκ νεκροῖο ἐρύσσατο χάλκεον ἔγχος,
καὶ τό γ᾽ ἄνευθεν ἔθηχ᾽, ὃ δ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ὤμων τεύχε᾽ ἐσύλα
αἱματόεντ᾽: ἄλλοι δὲ περίδραμον υἷες Ἀχαιῶν,
οἳ καὶ θηήσαντο φυὴν καὶ εἶδος ἀγητὸν
Ἕκτορος: οὐδ᾽ ἄρα οἵ τις ἀνουτητί γε παρέστη.
ὧδε δέ τις εἴπεσκεν ἰδὼν ἐς πλησίον ἄλλον:
‘ὢ πόποι, ἦ μάλα δὴ μαλακώτερος ἀμφαφάασθαι
Ἕκτωρ ἢ ὅτε νῆας ἐνέπρησεν πυρὶ κηλέῳ.’
ὣς ἄρα τις εἴπεσκε καὶ οὐτήσασκε παραστάς.
Brilliant Achilles spoke to the man, though he was dead:
“Die! And I will accept my death whenever Zeus
and the other immortals wish to accomplish it.”
He spoke, and pulled the bronze sword from the corpse,
setting it aside, then stripped from the body the armor,
blood-soaked, and all the other Achaeans gathered around.
They gazed at the form and outstanding beauty
of Hector. Nor did anyone stand near the body without stabbing it.
So a man looking to the one next to him would say,
“Oh my, Hector is much easier to handle
than when he set the ships aflame with blazing fire.”
So he would say and keep on stabbing.
Hector, so noble and vivid seconds before, has become a kind of grotesque tourist attraction. As we witness the mutilation beginning, questions arise. Who or what does Achilles think he is talking to? Is that thing on the ground still Hector? If not, why is Achilles talking to it? If so, on what terms, since the psyche, or spirit of life, has just flittered off to Hades? In what, we might ask, does the identity of “Hector” reside?
The existential issues that hover around the aftermath of Hector’s death reappear when Patroclus’ ghost (psyche) comes to Achilles at the beginning of Book Twenty-Three:
‘εὕδεις, αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο λελασμένος ἔπλευ Ἀχιλλεῦ.
οὐ μέν μευ ζώοντος ἀκήδεις, ἀλλὰ θανόντος:
θάπτέ με ὅττι τάχιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περήσω.
τῆλέ με εἴργουσι ψυχαὶ εἴδωλα καμόντων,
οὐδέ μέ πω μίσγεσθαι ὑπὲρ ποταμοῖο ἐῶσιν,
ἀλλ᾽ αὔτως ἀλάλημαι ἀν᾽ εὐρυπυλὲς Ἄϊδος δῶ.
You sleep, and have forgotten me, Achilles; but you were
not careless of me when I was alive, only in death.
Bury me as quickly as possible, that I may pass through the gates
of Hades’s house. The spirits of the dead keep me away,
and will not let me mingle with them across the river;
instead I wander, just as I am, around the wide-gated house of Hades.
Iliad 23. 69–74
Patroclus’ psyche cannot fully enter the realm of the dead until the body is buried. Instead, it flitters around in limbo, gone from this world, but not at rest. Achilles tries to embrace this wraith, but it has no substance, at which he exclaims in wonder:
‘ὢ πόποι ἦ ῥά τίς ἐστι καὶ εἰν Ἀΐδαο δόμοισι
ψυχὴ καὶ εἴδωλον, ἀτὰρ φρένες οὐκ ἔνι πάμπαν:
παννυχίη γάρ μοι Πατροκλῆος δειλοῖο
ψυχὴ ἐφεστήκει γοόωσά τε μυρομένη τε,
καί μοι ἕκαστ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν, ἔϊκτο δὲ θέσκελον αὐτῷ.’
Ah me, it seems there is something, even in Hades’s house,
a soul or an image, but with no life in it;
For all night long the ghost of poor Patroclus
stood weeping and grieving over me, wonderfully like him,
telling me everything I should do.
Everything about this scene draws our attention to the boundary between life and death. In the Homeric world the moral irresponsibility of the gods, the insubstantiality of the psyche, and the vulnerability of the corpse heighten the intense focus on the value and meaning of the brief, heroic human life. As we draw nearer to the final scenes of the poem, Homer focuses ever more closely on the role of death in the meaning of human life.
Achilles’ Anger Redirected
We wondered how Hector, after he killed Patroclus and put on the armor of Achilles, might eventually figure in the articulation of Achilles’ fate in the poem. Now that he has died at Achilles’ hands and Patroclus’ body has burned on the funeral pyre, the question resurfaces. Achilles refused to let go of his friend’s corpse until he killed Hector, which might suggest that one corpse would take the place of the other. How are we to understand this substitution? Achilles keeps his enemy’s dead body close by, denying it burial as he did for Patroclus’ corpse, but he does not treat the two corpses in the same way—one is the object of love, the other of hatred and desecration. Can Homer be suggesting that Hector is also a second self for Achilles? In what sense?
The key to answering this question lies in the nature of Achilles’ famous anger:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
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’s house,
but left their bodies as spoils for the dogs
and all the birds, while the plan of Zeus was being fulfilled,
from that time when they parted quarrelling,
the son of Atreus, lord of men, and brilliant Achilles.
Iliad 1. 1–7
The first word of an ancient Greek epic poem carries significant thematic weight. Mēnis is a special kind of rage, reserved elsewhere in the poem for the emotions of gods. It is, we suppose, resident in the divine part of Achilles that comes from his mother. Herein lies its importance for our understanding of Achilles and, given the importance of his story for the plot, the meaning of the poem. His rage is godlike. He is impatient with all limits on his self-aggrandizement, but his life, unlike that of a god, is bounded by the ultimate limit of mortality. In this sense, Achilles is angry because he cannot accept who he is, a man who must die like all other humans. Beneath his grievances lies a fundamentally existential problem, one that will not be fully addressed until the end of the poem. Meanwhile, many will suffer and die because he is unable to accept his essential nature.
The anger that was directed at Agamemnon in the first sixteen books of the poem finds a different target after Patroclus’ death. When Thetis comes to comfort Achilles after the death of Patroclus, he pours out his heart to her. The Greeks have suffered for not giving him what he wanted, but now it doesn’t matter, because he has lost his friend. He is determined to exact vengeance by killing Hector, making him pay for Patroclus’ death. Then, she says, she will lose him, since he is fated to die soon after Hector. So be it, he replies, since he was not beside his friend to protect him. Indeed, he has failed all of his friends, since he was sitting on the seashore when they died at Hector’s hands, “a useless weight on the earth” (Il. 18.79–104.). Later, when Agamemnon comes to apologize and offer gifts, Achilles brushes him off. The slight that earlier caused him to consign his friends to death is now forgotten. The rage has a new object: Hector. There is nothing surprising about this behavior—Hector did, after all, just kill Achilles’ soulmate.
The final book of the Iliad opens in futility and despair. Killing Hector has not quelled the wrath, it seems. Achilles’ benign persona from the funeral games in Book Twenty-Three is gone, replaced by grim obsession, his circular nocturnal dragging of Hector’s corpse a dark parody of the ritual that began Patroclus’ funeral:
λῦτο δ᾽ ἀγών, λαοὶ δὲ θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας ἕκαστοι
ἐσκίδναντ᾽ ἰέναι. τοὶ μὲν δόρποιο μέδοντο
ὕπνου τε γλυκεροῦ ταρπήμεναι: αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς
κλαῖε φίλου ἑτάρου μεμνημένος, οὐδέ μιν ὕπνος
ᾕρει πανδαμάτωρ, ἀλλ᾽ ἐστρέφετ᾽ ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα
Πατρόκλου ποθέων ἀνδροτῆτά τε καὶ μένος ἠΰ,
ἠδ᾽ ὁπόσα τολύπευσε σὺν αὐτῷ καὶ πάθεν ἄλγεα
ἀνδρῶν τε πτολέμους ἀλεγεινά τε κύματα πείρων:
τῶν μιμνησκόμενος θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυον εἶβεν,
ἄλλοτ᾽ ἐπὶ πλευρὰς κατακείμενος, ἄλλοτε δ᾽ αὖτε
ὕπτιος, ἄλλοτε δὲ πρηνής: τοτὲ δ᾽ ὀρθὸς ἀναστὰς
δινεύεσκ᾽ ἀλύων παρὰ θῖν᾽ ἁλός: οὐδέ μιν ἠὼς
φαινομένη λήθεσκεν ὑπεὶρ ἅλα τ᾽ ἠϊόνας τε.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐπεὶ ζεύξειεν ὑφ᾽ ἅρμασιν ὠκέας ἵππους,
Ἕκτορα δ᾽ ἕλκεσθαι δησάσκετο δίφρου ὄπισθεν,
τρὶς δ᾽ ἐρύσας περὶ σῆμα Μενοιτιάδαο θανόντος
αὖτις ἐνὶ κλισίῃ παυέσκετο, τὸν δέ τ᾽ ἔασκεν
ἐν κόνι ἐκτανύσας προπρηνέα: τοῖο δ᾽ Ἀπόλλων
πᾶσαν ἀεικείην ἄπεχε χροῒ φῶτ᾽ ἐλεαίρων
καὶ τεθνηότα περ: περὶ δ᾽ αἰγίδι πάντα κάλυπτε
χρυσείῃ, ἵνα μή μιν ἀποδρύφοι ἑλκυστάζων.
The games were dissolved and the army left,
scattering, each man to his own ship. They were planning
to enjoy food and sweet sleep. But Achilles
wept, remembering his dear companion, nor did
all-conquering sleep take him, but he tossed and turned,
longing for the manhood and strength of Patroclus,
for all he dared with him, the pains he suffered,
piercing the battle lines, crossing the seas.
Remembering these things he let fall swelling tears,
sometimes lying on his side, sometimes on his back,
and sometimes face down; then standing up
he would keep circling distractedly along the shore;
nor would dawn escape his notice, rising over the sea and beaches.
Then, when he had yoked the swift horses to the chariot,
he would tie Hector behind the chariot to drag him,
circling three times around the tomb of the dead son of Menoitios,
then stop in his hut and leave the body face down in the sand;
but Apollo, pitying the man, kept all disfigurement from his body,
though he was dead; he covered all of him with a golden
breastplate, so Achilles could not harm him with dragging.
Iliad 24. 1–21
Even after the apparent resolution provided by the funeral games, Achilles’ god-like anger expresses itself in bestial abuse of Hector’s corpse—which Apollo palliates by covering it in a golden breastplate. The intense rage that Achilles now feels derives, Homer says, from Achilles’ memory of the things he and Patroclus did and suffered together, and from longing for Patroclus’ strength and bravery.
The complication here is in the identification of Hector with Achilles symbolized by the passing on of the armor. As with the original wrath, so here something prior lies beneath this anger and obsession with revenge. Artistic function here finds its analogue in life. Anger is often a secondary emotion, prompted by some other unexpressed feeling. We may or may not recognize the displacement. In any case, we are usually unable to acknowledge it, unable to face the presence of the primary emotions in ourselves, because anger is more acceptable than, say, fear, shame, or guilt, which make us feel vulnerable. And anger can be a tool for self-motivation, propelling us past the barriers to action. How many people do we know who seem to use anger in these ways with such frequency that we think of them as “angry people,” who make anger a part of what defines them? Achilles fits this profile well. He is consistently angry, but the overt causes for his mood shift as the poem progresses. Mired in grief and guilty self-loathing after losing his friend, he propels himself into action by redirecting his wrath toward Hector, the agent of his pain. At the same time, by linking Achilles to Hector, Homer helps us to see that the rage is aimed in two directions, outward toward Hector and—as the second-self motif suggests—inward toward himself. During the funeral games, Achilles had grieved publicly for his friend.
ὣς ἔφαθ᾽, οἳ δ᾽ ᾤμωξαν ἀολλέες, ἦρχε δ᾽ Ἀχιλλεύς.
οἳ δὲ τρὶς περὶ νεκρὸν ἐΰτριχας ἤλασαν ἵππους
μυρόμενοι: μετὰ δέ σφι Θέτις γόου ἵμερον ὦρσε.
Achilles spoke, all the men assembled moaned, and he led them.
Three times around the body they drove their long-maned horses,
mourning. And Thetis stirred in them the desire to grieve.
Iliad 23. 12–14
Then, Achilles was surrounded by his friends. Now, he is alone, spiraling downward with each day that passes. The “destruction” phase of the pattern, which seemed to have disappeared during the festive games, is back, but with a significant difference. Before, when he was chasing Hector, his rage exploded outward, reaching even the gods. Now, it collapses inward, compressed into a terrible soul-sickness, manifested outwardly in the obsessive dragging of the corpse, around and around. This is the nadir of his katabasis, his own private hell.
A comparison to the more straightforward use of the second-self motif in the Epic of Gilgamesh is instructive. Gilgamesh exhibits both grief and sadness in response to Enkidu’s death, but not, as far as we can tell, guilt over his part in his friend’s demise or anger at the gods. The emotion that gets him moving is fear. If Enkidu can die, then so can he. He goes to the Land of Dilmun, the story’s version of a katabasis, to find a way to escape death. Failing in this mission, he returns to Uruk with a richer knowledge of his kinship with all mortals and an acceptance of his own limitations. The Iliad’s more complex version of the motif lets us look inside Achilles and see the tangled web of emotions that drives him inexorably toward Hector and then almost crushes him under its weight.
The Hero’s Return and the Gift of Life
If we have been following the various paradigms that have informed Achilles’ journey, the cycles of withdrawal and return, the katabasis, and the second-self motif, questions now arise: Can or will Achilles return to humanity from the cosmic and bestial journey he has traveled in his quest for vengeance? What form would such a return take? If he indeed returns from the Underworld, what wisdom does he bring back with him? Will he be able to reintegrate the qualities of the second self that he has pushed away?The poem’s luminous synthesis will answer all of these questions, then go beyond them to offer a new perspective on the meaning of human life.
It begins with the gods. Remembering all the sacrifices that Hector has dutifully performed, Zeus swings into action, sending his messenger Iris first to fetch Thetis, then to rouse Priam from his grief to travel to the Greek camp to ransom Hector’s corpse. Thetis arrives to find Zeus amid the other gods on Olympus. Athena gives up her seat next to Zeus and Hera offers a drink, both of which Thetis accepts. Zeus then delivers unambiguous news: The gods are angry with Achilles for his abuse of Hector’s corpse. He must release the body to Priam, whom Zeus will send to the Greek camp. Thetis obeys and goes to Achilles, who in turn tersely agrees: let him bring ransom and collect the body (Il. 24.65–140). These transactions are straightforward and we feel the story must be moving to its conclusion. But the hospitality shown Thetis on Olympus, insignificant as it may seem, merits further attention. In the stylistic tradition of ancient Greek poetry, offering a seat and a drink to someone who is mourning the loss of someone dear to them is a gesture of consolation. By accepting, the grieving person signals his or her acceptance of the loss and willingness to let go of the dead person. Here the pattern is proleptic, looking forward to an outcome as yet unrealized. Since she is immortal, Thetis has found it hard to accept that because he has a mortal father, her son must die. She is being consoled by her fellow immortals for the fact of Achilles’ mortality. Her acceptance of the tokens offered signals that she has acquiesced in her son’s true nature.
That the consolation comes just before Achilles agrees to release Hector’s body extends the import of these small actions. Achilles has kept the corpse, abused it, and refused to allow the Trojans to bury it. This holding action, like his earlier refusal to bury his friend and abstinence from the tokens that mark participation in human life, symbolizes a desire to halt the regular flow of nature, to step out of the flow of his own mortal existence. Now he agrees to release Hector’s body and, by implication, to cease holding back from taking part in human life, and this act follows directly from the reconfirming of his own mortality. We may go further. Achilles’ abuse of Hector’s corpse is an act of vengeance against the man who killed his friend, but also represents, as we have said, his attempt to expiate guilt, punish himself for his part in Patroclus’ death.
Now that his release of the corpse is tied to the confirmation of his own mortality, can we not see his abuse of the body also as a reflex of the deeper, existential problem driving his anger since the beginning of the story? That is, Hector’s earthly remains stand in for the part of Achilles that will die. By ending his abuse of the body, Achilles signals the end of his resistance to—hatred of?—his own true nature. It is characteristic of Homeric narrative that important events are rarely marked only once. Rather, there is usually a series of signals on various levels. Thetis’s consolation, and her son’s agreement to release the body of Hector, are the first signs that Achilles is beginning to return from his third and last withdrawal, from human life itself.
As Achilles is agreeing to release Hector’s body, Priam is preparing for his perilous night journey to retrieve it. When Iris finds him, he is sitting on the ground, smeared with dung, a gesture of mortification parallel to Achilles’ response to Patroclus’ death, suggesting that the old man too has suffered a symbolic death in response to loss. The messenger goddess delivers Zeus’s instructions: He must travel to the Greek camp accompanied only by an aged retainer, who will drive a wagon pulled by mules, laden with gifts for Achilles. He is not to be afraid, since Zeus will send Hermes to protect him and Achilles will not harm him. The two men set out at night and are met partway by Hermes, disguised as young follower of Achilles. They cross a river and pass a tomb (Il. 24.349–57). Homer has taken care to describe the journey as if it were itself a katabasis, led by Hermes, the traditional guide of souls to the Underworld, with Priam as the suppliant going to beg the resident deity to release his loved one. That latter figure is Achilles, the Death God in this tableau. One last time, as the poem moves toward the resolution of its various themes, Homer casts doubt on the status of his principal hero. Has Achilles returned to humanity, or is he permanently beyond mortal existence, already resident in the house of Hades? The poet declines to decide for us.
Aided by Hermes’s protection, Priam appears suddenly before Achilles in his lodgings, kneeling before him and grasping his knees as a suppliant. The gesture that follows is among the most poignant in all of Greek literature:
τοὺς δ᾽ ἔλαθ᾽ εἰσελθὼν Πρίαμος μέγας, ἄγχι δ᾽ ἄρα στὰς
χερσὶν Ἀχιλλῆος λάβε γούνατα καὶ κύσε χεῖρας
δεινὰς ἀνδροφόνους, αἵ οἱ πολέας κτάνον υἷας.
Eluding the guards, Priam went in, and drawing close
he grasped Achilles’ knees and kissed his hands,
dreadful, manslaughtering, that had killed so many of his sons.
Iliad 24. 477–79
As Achilles and his followers look on in astonishment, Priam makes his plea. He compares himself to Peleus, Achilles’ mortal father, conjuring a vision of the old man sitting disconsolate in faraway Thessaly. His neighbors crowd around and afflict him, with no one to there to ward them off. Yet even he can cling to the hope that he may see his son again alive. Not so Priam, who has, he says, lost most of his fifty sons, including Hector, the one reliable defender of Troy. He begs Achilles for pity. He has had to do what no one else has done, “to put my lips to the hands of the man who killed my children” (Il. 24.486–506).
By having Priam urge Achilles to see him as a father figure, Homer invokes a potent set of imperatives in ancient Mediterranean culture. To fully attain adult maturity, males must separate from the sheltering protection of their mother and come to terms with the hard wisdom of their father’s world. His mother Ninsun does not want Gilgamesh to go to the Land of Dilmun; Utnapishtim is the surrogate father who delivers the hard news that Gilgamesh must die. Jocasta tries to shield Oedipus from the true circumstances of his birth; the death of Laius brings to an end Oedipus’s dream of escaping his fate. Venus helps Aeneas win Dido and the chance to linger in Carthage; Anchises reveals his true fate, to soldier on and found the Roman Empire in Italy. Thetis has sheltered Achilles from the consequences of his arrogance and selfishness, calling in an old marker from Zeus to make the Greeks pay for not giving him what he wants, then acquiring divinely made armor to replace what Patroclus lost. But now, by accepting consolation on Olympus, Thetis has let go of her son and he is ripe for an encounter with his father’s world. Fittingly, it is the divine parent who must release her son, since the wisdom with which Achilles must come to terms is what defines the world of his father: like all other mortals, he must die.
Priam’s words have a powerful effect on both men, who fall to weeping, Priam for Hector, Achilles for Peleus and then Patroclus. This mutual grieving begins the process by which the two former enemies will be drawn together in their suffering, offering consolation to each other. Achilles then gently raises Priam to his feet and delivers the most important speech in the poem. He expresses sympathy and admiration for Priam, and urges him, at the beginning and end of the speech, to bear up, since nothing is to be gained from endless lamentation. He echoes Priam’s identification of himself with Peleus and, by implication, his assumption of the role of surrogate father for Achilles. The heart of the message comes in the form of mythical wisdom:
δοιοὶ γάρ τε πίθοι κατακείαται ἐν Διὸς οὔδει
δώρων οἷα δίδωσι κακῶν, ἕτερος δὲ ἑάων:
ᾧ μέν κ᾽ ἀμμίξας δώῃ Ζεὺς τερπικέραυνος,
ἄλλοτε μέν τε κακῷ ὅ γε κύρεται, ἄλλοτε δ᾽ ἐσθλῷ:
ᾧ δέ κε τῶν λυγρῶν δώῃ, λωβητὸν ἔθηκε,
καί ἑ κακὴ βούβρωστις ἐπὶ χθόνα δῖαν ἐλαύνει,
φοιτᾷ δ᾽ οὔτε θεοῖσι τετιμένος οὔτε βροτοῖσιν.
Two jars lie on the threshold of Zeus, of the sort
that he gives, one of evils, the other of blessings.
The man to whom Zeus who loves thunder gives a mixture
one time encounters evil, another time good fortune.
Him to whom he bestows from the jar of misfortunes he makes
a disgrace; woeful hunger drives him across the shining earth
and he wanders, honored by neither gods nor mortals.
This is an astonishing turnabout. Achilles, the principal proponent and example of the competitive, zero-sum view of the world that pervades the entire poem, where winning is everything and the measure of anyone’s worth is in the glory won from his or her victories, now suggests that all humans are all united in their powerlessness before the omnipotent gods. The quality of any person’s life, he says, is a gift from a power beyond human control, and is not the result of anyone’s success or failure. The best we can do is endure and—by implication at least—offer each other what comfort and support we can.
Achilles’ identification with Priam and compassion for his suffering are a radical break with his character up until now. If we ask where these qualities come from, the answer is clear. No one in the poem exemplifies them more purely than Patroclus. The second-self motif always has the potential for the hero to reintegrate the qualities embodied in the second self with which he has lost touch. Gilgamesh’s acceptance of his mortality may be seen as the return of the seamless integration with natural rhythms and forces that Enkidu exemplified. It is characteristic of grieving, in art as in life, that at first those still living be preoccupied with the physical absence of the one lost, pulled away from the world of the living and toward the dead. Life goes on, but we do not want to go with it. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh dresses in animal skins and roams the wilderness, mimicking the life that his friend led before they went adventuring. When Patroclus dies, Achilles throws dirt on himself in a symbolic burial rite. After a time, this desire fades and we return to the world of the living, making room for the presence of the dead person in our lives that did not die with his or her body. The compassion and humility Achilles shows in his exchange with Priam are those qualities that his arrogance and selfishness had pushed away. In that sense, Book Twenty-Four could be understood as not only the return of Achilles, but also the return of Patroclus.
But perhaps not quite yet. When Achilles finishes his speech of consolation, Priam urges him to accept the ransom and release Hector’s body to him right away, so that he may bring his son home to Troy. Achilles’ anger flares one final time. Priam must not stir him up, he warns. He knows that Priam could not have penetrated the Greek camp unnoticed without divine aid and he intends to release the body, as Zeus has commanded. Priam must take care lest Achilles’ pain cause him to disobey Zeus and lay hands on him, though he is a suppliant (Il. 24.560–70). We see the storyteller at work here, preserving for a little longer the edgy atmosphere in Achilles’ lodgings. Much of the dramatic power of this remarkable scene depends on our feeling that the old man is still extremely vulnerable here, that the famous anger could wipe away the hard-won truce in an instant.
Having asserted his dominance one last time, Achilles springs up and begins the final process of releasing the body, ordering servants to wash and anoint the corpse and wrap it in fine robes. But first they must move the body out of Priam’s sight, so that his anger at seeing his son might not stir Achilles’ anger in turn, and cause him to kill Priam. Once this is done, Achilles himself lifts the corpse onto the wagon. This final gesture is important, balancing his former abuse of the body with gentle attention and respect. The return of Patroclus to the spirit of Achilles has in turn made possible the return of Hector to those who loved him.
Now that the body is safely out of sight, Achilles gives his last major speech, drawing all the themes of the poem together. The form of the speech is much like his previous one, framed by a repeated exhortation, in this case an invitation to nourishment after the ordeal of the past few days, and centered on a mythical story, this time about Niobe, all of whose children were killed at once by Apollo and Artemis. Niobe had angered Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, by claiming she was greater than the goddess, having had twelve children as opposed to Leto, who had only two. The bodies lay in their own blood for nine days. No one could bury them, since the gods had turned the people to stone. Then on the tenth, the Olympian gods buried them. But even in the face of this horrendous loss, Niobe remembered to eat. Now somewhere in the lonely mountains, she herself, now made of stone, weeps continuously. So then, says Achilles, we too must eat (Il. 24.599–620).
In his first speech, Achilles challenged the competitive perspective that had dominated the poem from its beginning. Seen through his eyes, all of life became a gift, one that could not be refused. Now he continues that universalizing view, recasting his experience and Priam’s as mourners against the backdrop of myth. Niobe remembered to eat in the midst of her loss and so must they. His speech not only tells the story of Niobe, but, like so much of what happens in their encounter, recapitulates most of the central themes in the poem: the jealousy and terrible power of the gods, the dangers of human pride, the love of parents, sometimes destructive of their children, the suffering of the innocent, the horror of unburied corpses. As Achilles tells his story, he assumes the role of artist, taking raw experience and shaping it in such a way as to draw meaning from what might otherwise seem senseless. By having his hero retell the story in this highly compressed, symbolic form, Homer has him offer an entirely new view of what has happened. Compassion, not anger, gives life meaning.
We have returned to the place where we began. Finished with the meal that symbolizes for both a final end to grieving and a return to the world of the living, the two men fall into silent mutual admiration, as if finally, words would not be sufficient to capture the richness and intensity of what they have shared. In this numinous moment, they and we come to rest. They have created something miraculous and fragile together. The war will go on, but not in the world of the Iliad. Instead, after Achilles agrees to hold off his troops for twelve days before attacking again and then finally goes to bed, we follow Priam and his precious cargo on one last journey, ending in the communal grief of Hector’s burial, as the music we first heard as Sleep and Death carried Sarpedon home sounds once more:
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
τῆμος ἄρ᾽ ἀμφὶ πυρὴν κλυτοῦ Ἕκτορος ἔγρετο λαός.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ἤγερθεν ὁμηγερέες τ᾽ ἐγένοντο
πρῶτον μὲν κατὰ πυρκαϊὴν σβέσαν αἴθοπι οἴνῳ
πᾶσαν, ὁπόσσον ἐπέσχε πυρὸς μένος: αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
ὀστέα λευκὰ λέγοντο κασίγνητοί θ᾽ ἕταροί τε
μυρόμενοι, θαλερὸν δὲ κατείβετο δάκρυ παρειῶν.
καὶ τά γε χρυσείην ἐς λάρνακα θῆκαν ἑλόντες
πορφυρέοις πέπλοισι καλύψαντες μαλακοῖσιν.
αἶψα δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐς κοίλην κάπετον θέσαν, αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε
πυκνοῖσιν λάεσσι κατεστόρεσαν μεγάλοισι:
ῥίμφα δὲ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεαν, περὶ δὲ σκοποὶ ἥατο πάντῃ,
μὴ πρὶν ἐφορμηθεῖεν ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί.
χεύαντες δὲ τὸ σῆμα πάλιν κίον: αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
εὖ συναγειρόμενοι δαίνυντ᾽ ἐρικυδέα δαῖτα
δώμασιν ἐν Πριάμοιο διοτρεφέος βασιλῆος.’
ὣς οἵ γ᾽ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο.
When early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared,
then the people gathered around the pyre of famous Hector;
but when they were gathered in one place and all together,
first they quenched the fire’s embers with gleaming wine,
all of it, as much as the force of the fire held; but then
Hector’s brothers and companions gathered the white bones,
grieving, and warm tears flowed down their cheeks.
And lifting them they placed them in a golden urn,
covered all around with soft purple robes.
Swiftly they set the urn into a hollow grave,
and over it they piled huge, closely-packed stones;
quickly they poured a funeral barrow; around it guards sat
all night, lest the well-greaved Achaeans attack too soon.
They piled up the grave barrow and went away; but then
coming together they enjoyed a glorious meal
in the home of Priam, the king nourished by Zeus.
So they buried Hector, tamer of horses.
Iliad 24. 788–804
Homer’s Iliad is best known as western literature’s first “war poem.” But though battling is all around, the poem is not about war, at least in the sense that its primary focus is to describe and explain warfare. Rather, as we have seen, the poem is a rich and complex argument for a particular way of understanding human life and death. There runs through the whole wondrous artifice of the Iliad a struggle between the urge to separate, to distinguish, to stand out, and the need to find connection, union, to be part of something bigger. Through most of the poem the first seems to predominate, but finally the second perspective triumphs. The poem opens with the rage of Achilles, which separates men’s souls from their bodies and leaves the corpses to be fodder for dogs and birds. The anger stems from Achilles’ denial of his true nature, a willful blindness that costs him a part of himself, embodied in his friend Patroclus. The division within the hero ripples outward to destroy his friends and his enemies and inward, creating an inner desolation that Homer likens to the hero’s encounter with the Underworld. Before reemerging from this self-created hell, Achilles tries to exorcise his inner torment by punishing Hector, killing him and abusing his dead body. Prompted by the gods, he finally agrees to relinquish the body, an act that in the symbolic language of the poem represents a letting go on several levels, of his anger, his desire to transcend ordinary humanity, his toxic understanding of himself and his place in the larger order of the universe.
The mysterious union between Achilles and Priam that comes in the wake of this transformation is characterized by humility and compassion instead of anger and hatred. The desire to stand out, to win at all costs, gives way to a recognition of what connects all humans, the fact of their mortality. And fundamental to this radical re-envisioning of the meaning of human existence is the most conspicuous of all pieces of Greek wisdom: know thyself.
I want to suggest here a few books—out of the vast trove of Homeric scholarship—that might help users of this commentary pursue further their interest in the topics raised in the introduction. The best interpretive study of the poem is still E.T. Owen, The Story of the Iliad (Toronto, 1946). Though over seventy years old now, this brilliant reading remains the most lively, imaginative, and comprehensive account of the greatness of the Iliad. Mark Edwards, Homer: Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore, 1987) is an excellent introduction to the poem, which includes a clear explanation of Homeric style and composition, important topics that I have not addressed in the introduction, and insightful readings of some individual books. James Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad (Chicago, 1975) offers an anthropological approach to the poem, and is particularly illuminating on Hector as hero and on the role of the unburied corpse. Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford, 1980) is an intelligent and persuasive literary study, with excellent discussions of the Homeric gods and the central role of human mortality in the meaning of the Iliad, and Homer’s symbolic use of significant physical objects like armor. Michael Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley, 1974) is a brilliant and wide-ranging attempt to redefine formulaic composition in the Homeric epics. Though often highly technical, Nagler’s reading challenges traditional readings of the poem in exciting ways. His chapter on the withdrawal and return of the hero is excellent and his reading of the last book of the poem is insightful and thought-provoking. For readers interested in thinking more about the second self, my book, Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic (Oxford 1992) looks in depth at the motif in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Aeneid.
- 1Sumerian stories about Gilgamesh can be dated as early as 2100 BCE. The most complete narrative called The Epic of Gilgamesh, to which I refer here, is known as the “Standard Babylonian” version. It was composed in Akkadian sometime between 1600 and 1100 BCE. An excellent annotated English translation, by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, was published by Stanford University Press in 1989.
- 2Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, in Collected Works 9.2, 1902–1958. Princeton. See also, T. Van Nortwick, Somewhere I have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 36–37. Oxford 1992.
- 3For the purposes of this essay, I will treat the Iliad, as we now have it, as the product of a single mind, the poet I will call Homer.