By Thomas Van Nortwick
The rest of Book Six will be Homer’s full-length portrait of Hector, building on material from Book Three. It is also, we discover, the hero’s farewell to his people. We might wonder why these scenes appear where they do, why in particular Homer put the poignant exchange between Hector and Andromache here and not closer to the final duel with Achilles. The answer is that all of this pain must be in our minds as we see Hector make his way toward death. The theme of the entire episode is the doom of Troy. Hector is the heart of what is good and noble about the city, and the three encounters bring out his essential nature. When he finally waits for Achilles in front of the walls of Troy in Book Twenty-Two, he will revisit in his own mind much of what happens here, as he struggles to accept what his life has finally come to.
The crushing burden he bears is immediately obvious when he arrives at the city gates, where he is besieged by the families of soldiers, eager for news. Giving what comfort he can, he rushes on to the palace of Priam, the centerpiece of Troy’s rich and sophisticated civilization. Homer pauses to describe the buildings in some detail, the gleaming halls and adjoining bedrooms, sixty-two of them, that shelter Priam’s children and their families. The entire scene exudes abundance, of material wealth, regal virility, and spectacular beauty. As Hector begins his final visit to his city and its people, we are reminded what is at stake out on the battlefield. In the symbolic economy of the poem, Troy stands for human civilization at its most evolved, magnificent and fragile, about to be crushed by the forces of war.
The wealth and fecundity displayed in the palace reflect Priam’s power, the legacy that Hector would inherit and must live up to. Now Hector meets his mother, the source of a different kind of power and a different set of obligations. The hero’s bond to his mother is a potent and sometimes ambiguous force in Greek and Roman literature and myth. Her role is to offer unquestioning support and nurture, even when her attentions seem to work against her son’s best interests. In the typical hero story, a son who fails to separate from his mother’s nurture and come to terms with the hard wisdom of his father’s world cannot reach maturity as a man (see Oedipus). As a particularly powerful mother, Thetis presents a serious obstacle to Achilles growing up, intervening with Zeus to ensure that the Greeks will be punished for not giving her son what he wants, then securing armor made by Hephaestus, so that he can pursue his self-destructive vendetta against Hector. Only at the very end of the poem, under orders from Zeus, does she step back.
Hector’s role in the poem does not reflect the same story patterns associated with life cycle issues for males in hero stories that Achilles’ does. Indeed, he is the most conspicuous example of a mature, responsible man in the Iliad. He suffers precisely because he takes his responsibility to others so seriously and is consequently torn between his role as leader of the Trojan army and his love for his family. That particular tension animates everything he does during his visit to Troy, beginning with this encounter with his mother.
Hecabe is surprised to see him in Troy and not out on the battlefield. Surely those cursed Greeks must be wearing him out with fighting around the city. She speculates that his heart must have urged him to come to the city and pray to Zeus. If he will wait, she can bring him some sweet wine for the libation and he can himself be refreshed and regain his strength. We look at the two forces pulling at Hector through a mother’s eyes here, protecting the city through sacrifice, but also pleasing his mother by taking care of himself.
The epithet used of Hecabe, ἠπιόδωρος, “kindly giving,” appears only here in the Iliad. Andromache, the other powerful woman in Hector’s life, is described twice as πολύδωρος, “rich in gifts” (6.393; 22.88), the only two uses of that epithet in the poem. Though loving generosity pervades all of Hector’s encounters with these two women, their largess is not without complications for him. Precisely because they love him, each woman embodies a challenge to the masculine imperative to fight in the forefront of battle and win glory, one of the qualities that define him as a man. In his lonely monologue before the walls of Troy in Book 22 (99–130), as Achilles races toward him across the plain, we see him still struggling to satisfy the competing forces tugging at him.
Gifts from the gods and the obligations they carry are a crucial part of the Iliad’s meditation on the meaning of human life. When mortals offer gifts, they may be refused. Not so divine gifts, which must be accepted, no matter the consequences. Indeed, as we have seen, the necessity to take what the gods give and do what we can in response is the heart of Achilles’ great speech of consolation to Priam in Book Twenty-Four. In his mythical paradigm, the quality of any life reflects the amount of good and evil that Zeus has allotted at birth, a gift that may not be refused. The implications of this view are profound, directly challenging the heroic ethic of individual achievement as a measure of human worth.
Both Hecabe and Andromache offer gifts to Hector, perishable and precious. That he can and sometimes does refuse them makes his choices all the more poignant, his suffering the more intensely human.
Graziosi, B. and Haubold, J. ed. 2010. Homer: Iliad, Book VI, 5–6; 40–41.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 61–63. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.
Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 109–10. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 7–8. Praeger.