By Thomas Van Nortwick
Hector is essentially a disembodied voice now. As he lies helpless on the ground the dark fantasy from his monologue before the walls becomes real. Vulnerable and exposed, “like a woman” (22.124–125), he begs Achilles not to leave his corpse to be shredded by dogs and birds, but to accept ransom from Priam so he may be buried by the Trojans. Achilles’ reply is withering. Hector is reduced to a “dog” (345), whose flesh Achilles wishes he could bring himself to slice off and eat raw, joining the other scavengers he predicts will shred his enemy’s body while Patroclus receives a proper burial.
Even before he takes his last breath, Hector has begun to pass over the boundary between human life and death, as he attempts to negotiate on behalf of his soon-to-be-dead self. The image of Hector’s body as he slips slowly toward death is disturbing, even grotesque, but the poet has his reasons for keeping our attention focused on this transition. The entire Iliad is in one sense played out around the boundary between life and death, where we are invited to reflect on the fundamental question of what it means to be human, what it means to be a creature that knows it must die. Hector has become, over the course of the poem, Homer’s most conspicuous example of humanity, with all his virtues and all his flaws. As he passes over into the undiscovered country of death, his body will continue to claim our attention, traveling through the last phases of Achilles’ katabasis, finally coming to rest again in Troy.
Hector whispers his last words, a grim recognition of his opponent’s implacable fury and a warning that his killing might become a μήνιμα, a source of divine anger, on the day when Apollo and Paris kill him by the Skaian Gates. We are not meant to worry, I think, about the fact that Hector, like Achilles’ horse (19.416–417), has suddenly acquired the art of prophecy. Rather, we might hear echoes of Patroclus, seconds before his death:
Boast loudly now, Hector. Zeus, son of Kronos,
and Apollo have given you victory, for they struck me down
easily and stripped the arms from my shoulders.
If twenty men like you had faced me in battle,
they would have died right there, killed by my spear.
But evil destiny and the son of Leto have killed me,
and of men, Euphorbos. You were only my third slayer.
But I will say another thing, and you store it in your heart:
Surely you will not live much longer, but already
death and strong destiny crowd around you,
soon to die at the hands of Aeacus’s strong son, Achilles.
The echoes of Patroclus’ death in Hector’s continue as Hector’s soul (psyche) flies off to Hades:
As he spoke, the end of death covered him over;
his soul flew out of his body and went to Hades’ house,
lamenting its fate, leaving behind manhood and strength.
Iliad 22.362–363 = 16.856–857
As if unmoved by the prophecy of his own death, Achilles certifies the end of his opponent bluntly: τέθναθι, “be dead” (365). But then Thetis’s prophecy in Book Eighteen, that Achilles would die soon after Hector, seems to surface in his mind again, as his next words repeat what he said to her there:
I will accept my death whenever
Zeus and the other immortals wish to accomplish it.
Iliad 22.365–366 = 18.115–116
As Hector passes from warm, living intelligence to lifeless flesh, the process is described in language that recalls the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroclus, confirming the linkage that the passage of Achilles’ armor extends beyond the end of the poem to Achilles’ own death.
As the story progresses from one death to the next, the treatment of each warrior’s corpse becomes a yet more prominent issue. As Patroclus closes in on Sarpedon, Zeus ponders whether to intervene, rescuing his son from his fated end. Hera convinces him to be content with arranging for the gods of Sleep and Death to carry him back to Lycia for a proper burial (16.433–461 and 16.666–683). Patroclus’s death prompts a fight over his corpse that lasts for all of Book Seventeen and much of Book Eighteen. Achilles then keeps the body of his friend with him, refusing to bury it until he kills Hector, so Thetis must intervene to preserve the corpse with nectar and ambrosia. Once he has his enemy’s corpse, Achilles not only refuses to bury it, but relentlessly drags it around the pyre of Patroclus for days, until Zeus intervenes to stop the abuse. When Achilles releases Hector’s body (which has been protected from harm by Apollo) to Priam, the way is clear for the poem to proceed to its thematic resolution with Hector’s funeral.
The theme of the unburied corpse has been present since the poem’s prologue, with its image of warriors’ dead bodies left as carrion on the battlefield, a specter that hovers over all the battles in the Iliad. In its broadest sense, the unburied corpse signifies an interruption in the process by which communities try to reclaim what they can of any human life through funeral rites, gathering the person into their collective memory. That process begins for Hector with the laments that conclude Book Twenty-Two. But first, we must witness the beginning of Achilles’ vengeful abuse of Hector’s corpse.
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Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 179–186. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Segal, C. 1973. The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad. Mnemosyne Supplements vol. 17.