Grief (Iliad Book XXII)

The fascinating moments in the Iliad are when somebody has to make a decision.

  • Achilles is a killing machine in Books XX and XXI; but back in Book I, enraged by his commanding officer, Achilles could nonetheless decide not to slay him.
  • At the end of Book XXI, Agenor was tempted to hide from Achilles, somewhere away from the walls of Troy; instead he served as a decoy to draw Achilles away from the city gates.
  • Now, in Book XXII, the other Trojans are running in through those gates like fawns. Hector is having trouble deciding whether to join them.

Wall assembled haphazardly of rubble, dressed stone, brick, and tile; weeds grow out here and there
Wednesday morning, April 12, 2023
Akarsu Sokağı (“Runningwater Street”)
Tarabya, Sarıyer, Istanbul

His mind runs through the options.

  • If he does go inside, Polydamas will be able to say, “I told you so.” That man suggested retreat last night, after Achilles had made his reappearance, as recounted in Book XVIII; but Hector would not listen.
  • Achilles may well be the loser, if Hector stays out to face him; otherwise, Hector will meet a glorious death.
  • Alternatively, Hector can lay down his arms and offer Achilles Helen, all of her treasure, and half the Trojans’ own treasure, along with an oath that they aren’t hiding any of it.

The notion of offering half a town’s wealth to a besieging army was somehow depicted on the shield of Achilles forged by Hephaestus in Book XVIII.

Agamemnon offered in Book IX, and made in Book XIX, an oath not to have touched Briseis; but when Zeus was laying out the rest of the Iliad in Book XV, I said that Agamemnon’s oath would be strictly pro forma. I suppose a Trojan oath concerning the wealth of their town would be the same. People are reluctant to give up their personal goods for the greater good. We shall see a sign of this, I suggest, later in Book XXII, when Andromache laments that her son Astyanax will not be respected, once he has lost his father.

Meanwhile, that father observes that Achilles would kill him like a woman if he set aside his arms to treat (lines 126–9):

In no wise may I now from oak-tree or from rock hold dalliance with him, even as youth and maiden—youth and maiden!—hold dalliance one with the other.

The proverbial oak tree and rock came up accidently when I was looking at Book III in Chapman’s translation in 2017. Now in Book XXII, in a footnote that Wyatt omits from his revision of the Loeb translation, Murray says,

the phrase appears to be a quotation from an old folk-tale dealing with the origin of mankind from trees or stones.

He cites Book XIX (lines 162–3) of the Odyssey, when Penelope asks Odysseus, who has not yet revealed his identity (though his wife must know it),

Yet even so tell me of thy stock from whence thou art; for thou art not sprung from an oak of ancient story, or from a stone.

In his note on this passage, Murray says,

The phrase appears to be a quotation from older folk-poetry. The meaning here is: “You have not a merely casual origin, as though you were sprung from an oak or a stone; you have human ancestors; tell me of them.” The phrase recurs in Il. xxii. 126; Hesiod, Theog. 35; and in Plato, Apol. 34 d, and Repub. 544 d.

I didn’t think Homer’s meaning was obscure. In any case, Murray has missed Phaedrus 275 b among the allusions to the old story.

Back in Book XXII of the Iliad, Hector resolves to face Achilles like a man. At least Hector’s mind does that; but when Achilles approaches, Hector’s body takes flight.

That’s what Socrates’s body wanted to do, as the time for drinking the hemlock approached. The philosopher told Cebes,

by the Dog, I fancy these bones and sinews of mine would have been in Megara or Boeotia long ago, carried thither by an opinion of what was best, if I did not think it was better and nobler to endure any penalty the city may inflict rather than to escape and run away.

This was in the Phaedo, in the longer passage that I quoted in “War and Talk.” The words of Socrates that interest me now are in Book X of the Republic (604 b–c), where Socrates tells Glaucon (in Shorey’s translation),

The law (ὁ νόμος), I suppose, declares that it is best to keep quiet as far as possible in calamity and not to chafe and repine, because we cannot know what is really good and evil in such things and it advantages us nothing to take them hard, and nothing in mortal life is worthy of great concern, and our grieving (τὸ λυπεῖσθαι) checks the very thing we need to come to our aid as quickly as possible in such case.

Glaucon asks what that thing is. Socrates answers:

To deliberate (τῷ βουλεύεσθαι) about what has happened to us, and, as it were in the fall of the dice, to determine the movements of our affairs with reference to the numbers that turn up, in the way that reason indicates would be the best, and, instead of stumbling like children, clapping one’s hands to the stricken spot and wasting the time in wailing, ever to accustom the soul to devote itself at once to the curing of the hurt and the raising up of what has fallen, banishing threnody by therapy (ἰατρικῇ θρηνῳδίαν ἀφανίζοντα).

There is a lot of wailing in Book XXII of the Iliad. Is it all so counterproductive as Socrates seems to think? The question is ambiguous: should it be asked with regard to the fictional characters who are doing the wailing, or ourselves who are imagining them?

I review the book some more. The review I made in 2019 is shorter.

I said Agenor had served as a decoy to draw Achilles away from Troy. At some point though, Apollo took his place. This was unsporting, because at no risk to the god himself. Indeed, when Apollo reveals himself, he tells Achilles (line 13),

Thou shalt never slay me, for lo, I am not one that is appointed to die.

That is a reason why the gods cannot sympathize with us. Perhaps this problem will be solved by Christianity. On the other hand, Zeus is going to display something like sympathy for Hector, whose death he will want to postpone.

Disappointed that he cannot avenge himself on Apollo for all of the Trojan lives he couldn’t take, Achilles heads on over to Troy, like a chariot with a prize-winning horse, but also (lines 26–9)

like to the star that cometh forth at harvest-time, and brightly do his rays shine amid the host of stars in the darkness of night, the star that men call by name the Dog of Orion.

What shines like Sirius is Achilles’s new armor. Priam sees it and calls down from the wall, begging his son to come home. I reviewed above how Hector thinks about whether to do this; however, his considerations do not include his parents. Nonetheless, Homer tells us about both of them. Priam makes a remark about Achilles that seems incongruous, because jocular (lines 41–2):

I would that he were loved by the gods even as by me!

As we might say today, Priam loves Achilles by a negative amount. Edmund Landau has such a remark in his Elementary Number Theory (New York: Chelsea, 1927; Chapter III, § 1, “Lagrange’s Theorem,” page 143):

The shortening of the proof referred to above—a very modest one—goes as follows … The reader will object that the proof has been shortened by a negative amount; he is correct; but as far as I am concerned, it serves a purpose …

Priam cannot see Lycaon and Polydorus, his sons by Laothoe, who for him is “a princess among women” (line 48), although she is not the wife of his who will presently speak. Laothoe came from her father Altes with a large dowry, which can now be used to ransom her two sons, if they be alive. We know they are not, from Books XXI and XX respectively.

“Have thou compassion on me that yet can feel” (line 59), Priam begs Hector. How does it happen that such a pathetic figure can have amassed enough wealth and power to support fifty sons and twelve daughters, along with their spouses, by Homer’s account in Book VI (which I did not actually mention at the time)? I imagine that Troy was so well established, as Constantinople would be, that the king himself did not need to be a great warrior.

The king of Troy worries that his own dogs are going to feast on his dead body. What bothers him most is the thought of his nakedness; at least when a young man falls in battle, “dead though he be, all is honourable whatsoever be seen” (πάντα δὲ καλὰ θανόντι περ ὅττι φανήῃ, line 73).

Personally, while I may worry about dying, I don’t care about being dead. The disposition of my body (or of anybody else’s for that matter) is of no concern to me. For the people of the Iliad, it is.

For her own part, Hecabe tries to draw Hector in by showing him the breast that he once sucked on. Since Priam has just referred to his aged body, should we imagine what his wife’s looks like now? “Think thereon, dear child,” she tells her son, “and ward off yon foemen from within the wall” (lines 84–5). I can just hear a mother making such a ridiculous suggestion.

That’s humanity, unable to face up to what must be done. Hector will display that humanity, as I said, after deliberating on what to do; his fortitude will abandon him, and he will run.

Myself, I may lack such an instinct for self-preservation. Not that I have been in a position to test it much; but once when I was a young adolescent, an older boy came running at me with a sword, and I just stood and watched (and wet my pants; Bruce thought wrongly that my friend and I had been doing something to his car; I may not have known it at the time, but Bruce’s father had hanged himself, and Bruce found the body).

Achilles chases Hector around the city, past the two springs that run hot and cold. Reminding us again of what war takes away, Homer notes that the springs are supplied with basins, where the women do the laundry during peacetime. He tells us too:

  • the men are running for more than some such prize as might be awarded in peacetime;
  • they circle the city three times, as if they were doing something so useless as running in a race.

Now is when Zeus asks the other gods whether they should save Hector. Perhaps this is not really out of sympathy. The point is that Hector has been good with his sacrifices.

Athena gets angry, as if in fact Zeus could change fate if he wanted.

Calling her Tritogeneia, Zeus tells her he was only joking, and she may do what is needed.

Before she does it, we hear more about the race down on earth. The gap between the runners does not change. Hector cannot escape his pursuer, any more than a fawn can escape the persistent hound. And yet, as if in a dream—and I wonder what this says about Homer’s dreams—, Achilles cannot actually catch Hector.

Still, Achilles does not allow Hector to reach the gates and seek help. Neither does he allow any Myrmidons to help him catch Hector; he wants the glory to be all his.

Zeus lifts the scales of fate, as he did in Book VIII; this time, the Trojan side weighs heavier. Apollo abandons Hector (though I think it was not clear that he was with him). Athena tells Achilles to catch his breath while she arranges for Hector to fight him. She does this by pretending to be Hector’s brother.

Finally, Hector thinks of his parents; for he shares both of them with Deiphobus. I don’t know if we should understand Hector to be hallucinating. The presence of his sibling gives him the nerve to tell Achilles that, whoever the victor of their imminent duel may be, he should return the victim’s stripped body to its people.

Hector might as well expect peace between lions and men, or wolves and lambs, Achilles says.

Hector ducks Achilles’s spear, and he does not see how Athena then returns it to its owner. Still, he boasts that he will not make his back a target for that spear. His own spear bounces off Achilles’s shield, and when he turns to Deiphobus for another, he finds himself alone.

He does not lose nerve, but he draws his sword.

Achilles needs to find an opening in his old armor. He does, at Hector’s throat. He pierces it, conveniently sparing the windpipe, so that Hector can now beg not to be fed to dogs.

Achilles only wishes to feed on Hector himself.

Hector warns him to fear the wrath of the gods, when Paris and Apollo kill him by the Scaean Gates. I wonder how Hector knows his foe’s fate. Achilles says he accepts that fate; but meanwhile, Hector dies.

Now the other Achaeans feel free to come up and test their weapons against the softness of Hector’s body.

Achilles proposes to go test the other Trojans: will they come out to fight?

Then he remembers that the body of Patroclus is yet unburied. He gets ready to drag the body of Hector behind his chariot. This is being watched from the walls:

  • Priam wants to go out and beg for his son’s body.
  • Hecabe leads the women in threnody.
  • Andromache calls for a hot bath to be ready for her husband when he gets home. She has not yet learned that he is never coming home.

Homer does not actually name Hector’s widow. When she hears the crying, out in the city, and she learns the reason for it, she faints. When she comes to, she observes (lines 477–81),

to one fate (αἶσα), it seemeth, were we born, both of us twain, thou in Troy in the house of Priam, and I in Thebe beneath wooded Placus in the house of Eetion, who reared me when I was a babe, hapless father of a cruel-fated child; would God he had never begotten me.

Andromache goes on to worry, not about herself or Hector, but about their son, who will have a hard time in life, because (line 490),

ἦμαρ δ᾽ ὀρφανικὸν παναφήλικα παῖδα τίθησι:

The day of orphanhood cutteth a child off from the friends of his youth.

It look as if this word παναφῆλιξ appears only here, not only in the Iliad, but in all of Greek literature. It is compounded of παν + ἀπο + ἥλιξ. That last word is not ἕλιξ, the origin of English “helix”; but ἧλιξ is itself supposed to be compounded of two Indo-European roots, meaning “like” and “age.”

The Odyssey is all about what happens to a boy who hasn’t got his father around. People take advantage of him. Maybe they think he deserves it, because he is unlucky; or that is their excuse. I recall the words of Ved Mehta, who had the luck of being blind. He did have a father, and:

My father always said that Christians, who believed in personal salvation, had compassion in a way that Hindus, who were fatalists, did not.

I talked about this in writing about Plato and Christianity. The Trojans and Achaeans are fatalists too.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By History (Iliad Book XXIII) « Polytropy on May 4, 2023 at 9:05 pm

    […] « Grief (Iliad Book XXII) […]

  2. By Dawn (Iliad Book XXIV) « Polytropy on May 12, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    […] —But, for Homer’s sake, said I, I hesitate to say that it is positively impious to affirm such things of Achilles and to believe them when told by others; or again to believe that he said to Apollo [in Book XXII] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: