The Iliad and the Wisdom of Mourning

The Iliad and the Wisdom of Mourning

Ostensibly, the Iliad presents a tale of rage. It sings of conflict, violence, and death, developing seemingly endless variations on the theme of warriors expiring at the end of a spear. But, at a deeper level, I believe that the Iliad illustrates how to live in a world of collapsing values. Specifically, I contend that the Iliad instructs us in the wisdom of mourning.

The very first lines of the epic associate rage with disordered values. The poem begins:

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished since that time when first there stood division of conflict between Atreus’s son the Lord of men and brilliant Achilleus” (I. 1-7, trans. Lattimore).[1]

Homer here presents a world inverted in several respects. First, he announces that Achilles, a Greek, will, through his rage, annihilate his fellow Greeks. This will not be the tale of a warrior slaying his enemies, but a man bringing ruin to his comrades. Second, Achilles’ wrath not only hurls the souls of his comrades to the underworld, but also denies their bodies funerary rites, causing them to be eaten by dogs and birds. This is a sacrilegious act, since souls cannot enter the afterlife if the bodies are not disposed of ritually. Third, Zeus who should be the upholder of order, is presented as the instigator of this conflict. And finally, Homer presents this conflict as emerging between Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, and Achilles, their best warrior. These two should be working together towards the same end, but they instead stand opposed.

The Initial Conflict

This conflict commences nine years into the trojan war. Agamemnon has taken Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo, Chryses, as a war prize. The priest brings a sizable ransom for his daughter, “carrying gifts beyond count” (I.13). But Agamemnon, defying the will of the rest of the Achaeans (I.22), spurns his request, dishonoring Chryses, despite the fact that he comes as a representative of the divine, “holding in his hands wound on a staff of gold the ribbons of Apollo who strikes from afar” (I.14-15). In response to this affront, Apollo unleashes a plague upon the Greeks, and many soldiers perish as a result. “The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning” (I.52).

After nine days of raging plague, Achilles finally reaches his breaking point and calls the men to assembly. He asks for a prophet to inquire into which god they have offended, but, given what we have already been told, the Achaeans already know that Apollo is responsible and the reasons for his anger. Achilles is trying to confront Agamemnon indirectly about his impiety. This is further attested by the fact that the seer Kalchas will speak only on condition that Achilles promise to protect him from Agamemnon (I.74-83). After Achilles does so, Kalchas states the obvious: Apollo is angry because Agamemnon dishonored his priest Chryses by failing to accept the ransom for Chryseis. Agamemnon is eventually pressured to return the priest’s daughter, but says that he will take Achilles’ own war prize, his concubine Briseis, as a demonstration of Agamemnon’s authority over the Achaeans.

This enrages Achilles when he thinks through the reality of his situation:

“O wrapped in shamelessness, with your mind forever on profit, how shall anyone of the Achaeans readily obey you either to go on a journey or to fight men strongly in battle? I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing. Never yet have they driven away my cattle or my horses, never in Phthia where the soil is rich and men grow great did they spoil my harvest, since indeed there is much that lies between us, the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea; but for your sake, o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you a favour,  you with the dog’s eyes, to win your honour and Menelaos’  from the Trojans. You forget all this or else you care nothing. And now my prize you threaten in person to strip from me, for whom I labored much, the gift of the sons of the Achaians. Never, when the Achaians sack some well-founded citadel of the Trojans, do I have a prize that is equal to your prize. Always the greater part of the painful fighting is the work of my hands; but when the time comes to distribute the booty yours is far the greater reward, and I with some small thing yet dear to me go back to my ships when I am weary with fighting.  Now I am returning to Phthia, since it is much better to go home again with my curved ships, and I am minded no longer to stay here dishonored and pile up your wealth and luxury” (I. 148-171).

Here we see that Achilles’ rage is grounded in his appraisal of his situation and his awareness of the fact that the supposed values he had been striving for have proven to be valueless. He does not fight the Trojans because they are his enemies, but for the honor of Agamemnon and Menelaos, but this honor is not reciprocal. Agamemnon’s actions have proven he cares nothing for the lives of those fighting on his behalf. Furthermore, Achilles also loses the motivation to fight for war prizes and the honor attendant upon them, since, i) he does not receive prizes commensurate to his accomplishments, and ii) given Agamemnon’s character, the prizes he does earn could be capriciously stripped from him at any time. The honor gained on the battlefield is thus insubstantial.

Achilles continues to reflect on the illusory nature of his previous values and takes a more philosophical tone later in the book when contemplating the grim certainty of death. For, in the face of death, heroic values lose their luster. Achilles observes:

“Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings. A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much. Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle. For as to her unwinged young ones the mother bird brings back morsels, wherever she can find them, but as for herself it is suffering, such was I, as I lay through all the many nights unsleeping, such as I wore through the bloody days of the fighting, striving with warriors for the sake of these men’s women…. why must the Argives fight with the Trojans? And why was it the son of Atreus assembled and led here these people? (IX.318-339).

Given the fact that hero and coward alike die, why bother fighting?

The Fall of Three Homeric Value Classes

It is this collapse of values that motivates Achilles’ rage. There are three broad classes of value in the Homeric world, and the Iliad portrays them all to be illusory. Let’s examine them each in turn.

1. Martial Virtue.

In the Homeric world, a hero manifests his virtue or excellence (ἀρετή) on the battlefield. By crushing his enemies and conquering their lands, a warrior wins honor (τιμή) and renown (κλέος), earning war prizes (γέρα) commensurate with them. But these values are called into question throughout the Iliad. For, while Achilles is without question the most excellent of the Achaean warriors, his bride Briseis, his γέρας, is nonetheless stripped from him at the whims of Agamemnon, proving the connection between these values to be tenuous. One can achieve excellence on the battlefield, but still lose one’s war prizes, and as a result one’s honor and renown. Furthermore, at a more profound level, the looming possibility of death serves to undermine these values. What is the point of earning renown and honor if one will die anyway? We see this point raised indirectly in the fact that Hector, a Trojan warrior of great ἀρετή dies while his brother, Paris, a man without ἀρετή, lives. Indeed, in Hector’s dying prophecy, he even notes that Paris will slay Achilles, the most excellent of the Greek warriors. “Be careful now; for I might be made into the gods’ curse upon you, on that day when Paris and Phoibos Apollo destroy you in the Skaian gates, for all your valour.” (Iliad 22.358-360). Life and death on the battlefield is thus not determined by one’s excellence. Achilles further elaborates his criticism of the warrior value system in the Odyssey, when, as a shade, after Odysseus praises him for the honor he achieved in life and the authority he holds among the dead, he announces:

“O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying. I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be a king over all the perished dead” (XI. 488-491).

The martial virtues and their rewards lose their value once one contemplates the reality of death and one’s fate as a shade in the underworld.

2. Political authority.

Even if the martial virtues collapse in the Iliad, perhaps one could fall back on the value of kingship and the hierarchy that it establishes. A king, for Homer, is the shepherd of his people. A king should rule over the people for their own good, and the people, in turn, should obey their king. We see this viewpoint presented by Nestor when he scolds Achilles:

“Nor, son of Peleus, think to match your strength with the king, since never equal with the rest is the portion of honour (τιμή) of the sceptered king to whom Zeus gives magnificence (κῦδος). Even though you are the stronger man, and the mother who bore you was immortal, yet is this man greater who is lord over more than you rule (ὅ γε φέρτερός ἐστιν ἐπεὶ πλεόνεσσιν ἀνάσσει.).” (I. 277-282).

Here Nestor seems to indicate that political authority, and the order it imposes, stands above martial virtues.

This viewpoint is further bolstered by Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’s rebuke of Thersites.  Odysseus attempts to persuade the Greeks to stay and fight, after Agamemnon has convinced them to go home in an ill-conceived “test” of their loyalty. Odysseus adopts a twofold strategy: With kings he will reason, but commoners he will beat and deride. Homer recounts the episode as follows:

“Whenever he [Odysseus] encountered some king, or man of influence, he would stand beside him and with soft words try to restrain him: ‘Excellency! It does not become you to be frightened like any coward. Rather hold fast and check the rest of the people….

[But] when he saw some man of the people who was shouting, he would strike at him with his staff, and reprove him also: ‘Excellency! Sit still and listen to what others tell you, to those who are better men than you, you skulker and coward and thing of no account whatever in battle or council. Surely not all of us Achaians can be as kings here. Lordship for many is no good thing. Let there be one ruler, one king, to whom the son of devious-devising Kronos gives the scepter and right of judgement, to watch over his people. [οὐκ ἀγαθὸν πολυκοιρανίη: εἷς κοίρανος ἔστω, εἷς βασιλεύς, ᾧ δῶκε Κρόνου πάϊς ἀγκυλομήτεω σκῆπτρόν τ᾽ ἠδὲ θέμιστας, ἵνά σφισι βουλεύῃσι.]” (II. 188-206).

Eventually, Odysseus comes to the scoffer Thersites, a man Homer describes as the ugliest of the Achaians yet one who also calls attention to the same set of facts previously pointed out by Achilles. To Thersites Odysseus responds, “scowling” and laying “a harsh word upon him” (II. 244):

“ ‘Fluent orator though you be, Thersites, your words are ill-considered. Stop, nor stand up alone against princes. Out of all those who came beneath Ilion with Atreides I assert there is no worse man than you are. Therefore you shall not lift up your mouth to argue with princes, cast reproaches into their teeth, nor sustain the homegoing…. You argue nothing but scandal. And this also I will tell you, and it will be a thing accomplished. If once more I find you playing the fool, as you are now, nevermore let the head of Odysseus sit on his shoulders, let me nevermore be called Telemachos’ father, if I do not take you and strip away your personal clothing, your mantle and your tunic that cover over your nakedness, and send you thus bare and howling back to the fast ships, whipping you out of the assembly place with the strokes of indignity.’ So he spoke and dashed the scepter against his back and shoulders, and he doubled over, and a round tear dropped from him, and a bloody welt stood up between his shoulders under the golden scepter’s stroke, and he sat down again, frightened, in pain, and looking helplessly about wiped off the tear-drops.” (II.246-269).

Here, Odysseus acts according to a value system in which kings ought to be obeyed and subjects kept in line by force. Subordinates should not question their betters (even when the concerns raised are valid). This evaluation is heartily endorsed by the rest of the troops. Homer recounts:

“Sorry though the men were they laughed over him happily, and thus they would speak to each other, each looking at the man next to him: ‘Come now: Odysseus has done excellent things by thousands, bringing forward good counsels and ordering armed encounters; but now this is far the best thing he ever has accomplished among the Argives, to keep this thrower of words, this braggart out of the assembly. Never again will his proud heart stir him up, to wrangle with princes in words of revilement.’ ” (II. 270-277).

So it seems that we have a clear endorsement of a political value system. Yet, upon closer examination, this value system also undermines itself in the Iliad. This can be seen in Homer’s depiction of the two great warring kings: Agamemnon, lord of the Greeks, and Priam, ruler of the Trojans.

Agamemnon: the self-centered braggart

We have already seen ample evidence of Agamemnon’s failure as a ruler in the fact that he precipitated a plague by dishonoring Apollo, then, after others were forced to intervene to save the people, went on to dishonor his best fighter, who, being half divine, once more brought the wrath of the gods against the Greeks. It is also seen in Agamemnon’s ridiculous strategy of “testing” his troops by telling them to sail home, an order they are all too ready to carry out (II.73-74). Once more, others, such as Odysseus, must intervene to mitigate the effects of Agamemnon’s recklessness. Likewise, his narcissistic concerns remain evident to Achilles even after Agamemnon tries to entice him back to battle by promising a substantial reward. Achilles, aware of Agamemnon’s nature, refuses his offer. Even after seeing how vital Achilles is for the survival of his men and promising to reward him with further war prizes in compensation for his dishonor, Agamemnon nonetheless concludes his speech by saying “and let him yield place to me, inasmuch as I am the kinglier (βασιλεύτερος) and inasmuch as I can call myself born the elder (προγενέστερος).” (IX.160-161). Achilles, knowing Agamemnon’s intent (even though this part of his speech was craftily omitted by Odysseus), rejects the proposal, claiming, “now that he has deceived me and taken from my hands my prize of honour, let him try me no more. I know him well. He will not persuade me.” (IX. 343-345). [νῦν δ᾽ ἐπεὶ ἐκ χειρῶν γέρας εἵλετο καί μ᾽ ἀπάτησε μή μευ πειράτω εὖ εἰδότος: οὐδέ με πείσει.]. And, when Achilles finally does return to battle enraged by the killing of Patroclus, Agamemnon avoids responsibility by blaming his actions on the gods. “This is the word the Achaians have spoken often against me and found fault with me in it, yet I am not responsible but Zeus is, and Destiny, and Erinys the mist-walking who in assembly caught my heart in the savage delusion on that day I myself stripped from him the prize of Achilleus. Yet what could I do? It is the god who accomplishes all things. Delusion is the elder daughter of Zeus, the accursed who deludes all; her feet are delicate and they step not on the firm earth, but she walks the air above men’s heads and leads them astray. She has entangled others before me…. But since I was deluded and Zeus took my wits away from me, I am willing to make all good and give back gifts in abundance” (XIX. 85-138).

Given Homer’s actual depiction of kingly rule in the character of Agamemnon, the purported value of obedience to one’s superiors loses its justification. Agamemnon is no shepherd of his people, and they do not fair better under his rule.

Priam: the senile and self-absorbed leader who fails to lead

A similar case can be made for Priam, king of the Trojans. Though, unlike Agamemnon, he is not a raging narcissist, he is nonetheless portrayed as an incompetent leader who fails to act for the best interests of his people. Note first how when the Achaian men gather for battle and the people of Troy are endangered, the gods send Iris the messenger to Hector, not to Priam. “Now to the Trojans came as messenger wind-footed Iris, in her speed, with the dark message from Zeus of the aegis. These were holding assembly in front of the doors of Priam gathered together in one place, the elders and the young men. Standing close at hand swift-running Iris spoke to them [disguised as a Trojan sentinel]…. ‘Old sir, dear to you forever are words beyond number as once, when there was peace; but stintless war has arisen. In my time I have gone into many battles among men, yet never have I seen a host like this, not one so numerous. These look terribly like leaves, or the sands of the sea-shore, as they advance across the plain to fight by the city. Hektor, on you beyond all I urge this, to do as I tell you: all about the great city of Priam are many companions, but multitudinous is the speech of the scattered nations: let each man who is their leader give orders to these men, and let each set his citizens in order, and lead them.” (II. 786-805). When danger threatens, it is thus Hector, not Priam who must take charge and protect the city.

When we do see Priam, he is portrayed as watching the battle from atop the gates of Troy, chatting with Helen, the proximate cause of his city’s downfall. While the other elders prudently judge “let her go away in the ships, lest she be left behind, a grief to us and our children” (III.159-160), Priam instead calls her to sit with him, blaming the gods alone for the conflict (and in so doing, like Agamemnon, absolving himself from all responsibility). “Priam aloud called out to Helen: ‘come over where I am, dear child, and sit down beside me, to look at your husband of past time, your friends and your people. I am not blaming you: to me the gods are blameworthy who drove upon me this sorrowful war against the Achaians” (III. 161-165). Worse yet, he relies on her to tell him who each of the Greek captains are. The war has been waging for nine years at this point, yet Homer portrays Priam as being ignorant of the leaders of the forces arrayed against his city, e.g., Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Aias (III. 166-242). Priam is thus presented as an ignorant and incompetent leader, rather than a shepherd of the people.

            Moreover, later on, Priam does nothing after Paris breaks an oath to settle the war through one on one combat after being swept up by Aphrodite and carried back to his bedroom (III. 380-382). And when Antenor devises a plan for peace by returning Helen and the possessions Paris stole from Menelaus, Paris flatly refuses, and Priam does nothing. Homer depicts the scene as follows:

“Now there was an assembly of Trojans high on the city of Ilion fiercely shaken to tumult before the doors of Priam, and among these Antenor the thoughtful began to address them: ‘Trojans and Dardanians and companions in arms: hear me while I speak forth what the heart within my breast urges. Come then: let us give back Helen of Argos and all her possessions to the sons of Atreus to take away, seeing now we fight with our true pledges made into lies; and I see no good thing’s accomplishment for us in the end, unless we do this.

            He spoke thus and sat down again, and among them rose up brilliant Alexandros, the lord of lovely-haired Helen, who spoke to him in answer and addressed them in winged words: ‘Antenor, these things that you argue please me no longer. Your mind knows how to contrive a saying better than this one. But if in all seriousness this is your true argument; then it is the very gods who ruined the brain within you. I will speak out before the Trojans, breakers of horses. I refuse, straight out. I will not give back the woman. But of the possessions I carried away to our house from Argos I am willing to give all back, and to add to these my own goods.” (VII. 345-364).

            “He spoke thus and sat down again, and among them rose up Priam, son of Dardanos, equal of gods in counsel, who in kind intention toward all stood forth and addressed them: ‘Trojans and Dardanians and companions in arms: hear me while I speak forth what the heart within my breast urges. Take now your supper about the city, as you did before this, and remember your duty to watch, and be each man wakeful; and at dawn let Idaios go to the hollow ships, and speak with the sons of Atreus, Menelaos and Agamemnon, giving the word of Alexandros, for whose sake this strife has arisen, and to add this solid message, and ask them if they are willing to stop the sorrowful fighting until we can burn the bodies of our dead. We shall fight again until the divinity chooses between us, and gives victory to one or the other.” (VII. 345-378).

Rather than standing up to his oath breaking son and saving his people, Priam chooses to let his city perish. So Priam, like Agamemnon proves to be a failed leader. As a result, the value of kingship and hierarchy falls apart in the world of the Iliad.

3. Divine Authority

If the human order of authority collapses, one might attempt to take refuge in divine authority. Perhaps the gods act according to principle and are the true shepherds of the people, guiding humanity towards justice. While human rulers might pursue their own petty self-interested agendas, the gods might ensure that justice reigns in the cosmos. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the Homeric world. For the Iliad reveals the gods to be just as narcissistic and capricious as earthly kings, if not even more so. Far from establishing a heavenly realm of order, the Iliad portrays the gods as engaging in petty, almost comic, squabbles with one another.

For example, when Homer introduces us to the Olympian realm at the beginning of the poem, he presents us with a ridiculous scene. The gods have just returned to Olympus, and Zeus sits alone on its highest peak. Thetis, Achilles’ mother, approaches him and entreats him to support the Trojans so that the Greeks will be forced to recognize how vital her son is to their campaign and give him honor. In so doing she calls in a favor she is owed for previously rescuing Zeus from the machinations of the other gods (I.396-406). Zeus, sitting atop his high peak, responds that though he will grant her request, she must leave, because he does not want to get in trouble with his wife Hera.  “This is a disastrous matter when you set me in conflict with Hera, and she troubles me with recriminations. Since even as things are, forever among the immortals she is at me and speaks of how I help the Trojans in battle. Even so, go back again now, go away, for fear she see us” (I. 518-523).

Moreover, when Zeus does act, he acts unscrupulously. He does not hesitate to use duplicitous means to achieve his ends. For example, he instigates the battle by sending a false message to Agamemnon, commanding him to rouse his men for war and assuring him that the Greeks have divine favor and that victory it at hand. Zeus declares:

“ ‘Go forth, evil Dream, beside the swift ships of the Achaians. Make your way to the shelter of Atreus’ son Agamemnon; speak to him in words exactly as I command you. Bid him arm the flowing-haired Achaians for battle in all haste; since now he might take the wide-wayed city of the Trojans. For no longer are the gods who live on Olympos arguing the matter, since Hera forced them all over by her supplication, and evil as are in store for the Trojans” (II.8-15).

Zeus is thus not only persuaded to bring down the Greeks at Thetis’ request, but finds it fitting to do so by lying in his own name. This hardly seems like the actions of one interested in upholding a transcendent order of piety.

Moreover, at the end of the book, even after Achilles has been desecrating corpse of Hector for twelve days, refusing it burial and dragging it around the funeral pyre of Patroclus, the gods fail to act univocally. In fact, Hera, Poseidon, and Athena are in favor of leaving the body with Achilles to be defiled. “So Achilleus in his standing fury outraged great Hektor. The blessed gods as they looked upon him were filled with compassion and kept urging clear-sighted Argeïphontes to steal the body. There this was pleasing to the others, but never to Hera nor Poseidon, nor the girl of the grey eyes, who kept still their hatred for sacred Ilion as in the beginning, and for Priam and his people, because the delusion of Paris who insulted the goddesses when they came to him in his courtyard and favored her who supplied the lust that led to disaster” (XXIV. 22-30).

The gods have failed to intervene up to this point despite the fact that, as Apollo points out, Hector was never remis in sacrifice. Apollo declares:

“You are hard, you gods, and destructive. Now did not Hektor burn thigh pieces of oxen and unblemished goats in your honour? Now you cannot bring yourselves to save him, though he is only a corpse, for his wife to look upon, his child and his mother and Priam his father, and his people, who presently thereafter would burn his body in the fire and give him his rites of burial.” (XXIV. 33-38).

And Zeus too observes,

“Hektor also was loved by the gods, best of all the mortals in Ilion. I loved him too. He never failed of gifts to my liking. Never yet has my altar gone without fair sacrifice, the smoke and savour of it, since that is our portion of honour.” (XXIV. 66-70).

If there were really a divine order of justice, one would expect for there to be a unanimous assent among the gods that burial rites should be respected, especially in the case of a man found to be so pious. But this is not the case, since, a plan to recover Hector’s body is agreed upon only after undertaking petty negotiations.

The Twilight of the Gods and the Wisdom of Mourning

The Iliad thus presents us with a world in which every purported value collapses under its own weight. It is thus akin to the world described by the preacher of Ecclesiastes, a “vanity of vanities” in which “all is vanity.” How, then, does Homer suggest that we should carry ourselves through such a world. The first, and, most obvious, stance Homer depicts is one of rage. Achilles, for example, is prepared to kill Agamemnon at the very start of the Iliad and is persuaded to relent only by a direct intervention by Athena (I.187-218). Or again, we see it in Homer’s depiction of Achilles’ primal scream on the battlefield as the Trojan’s are about to capture the body of his friend Patroclus:

“Achilleus, the beloved of Zeus, rose up, and Athene swept about his powerful shoulders the fluttering aegis; and she, the divine among goddesses, about his head circled a golden cloud, and kindled from it a flame far-shining. As when a flare goes up into the high air from a city from an island far away, with enemies fighting about it who all day long are in the hateful division of Ares fighting from their own city, but as the sun goes down signal fires blaze out as one after another, so that the glare goes pulsing high for men of the neighboring islands to see it, in case they might come over in ships to beat off the enemy; so from the head of Achillleus the blaze shot into the bright air. He went from the wall and stood by the ditch…There he stood, and shouted, and from her place Pallas Athene gave cry, and drove an endless terror upon the Trojans. As loud as comes the voice that is screamed out by a trumpet by murderous attackers who beleaguer a city, so then high and clear went up the voice of Aikides. But the Trojans, when they heard the brazen voice of Aiakides, the heart was shaken in all, and the very floating-maned horses turned their chariots about, since their hearts saw the coming afflictions. The charioteers were dumbfounded as they saw the unwearied dangerous fire that played above the head of great-hearted Peleion blazing, and kindled by the goddess grey-eyed Athene. Three times across the ditch brilliant Achilleus gave his great cry, and three times the Trojans and their renowned companions were routed. There at that time twelve of the best men among them perished upon their own chariots and spears.” (XVIII.203-231).

Here Achilles rage is transfigured to a supernatural fury. The goddess Athena covers him with her aegis and blends her cry with his own. The Trojans fall back from this terrifying force, and some even fall on their own swords.

            Ultimately, we see Achilles rage in its purest form when he denies Hector proper funerary rites and desecrates his corpse. Hector, defeated, asks that his body be returned to his people. To this Achilles responds:

“No more entreating of me, you dog, by knees or parents. I wish only that my spirit of fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that you have done to me. So there is no one who can hold the dogs off from your head, not if they bring here and set before me ten times and twenty times the ransom, and promise more in addition, not if Priam son of Dardanos should offer to weigh out your bulk in gold; not even so shall the lady your mother who herself bore you lay you on the death-bed and mourn you: no, but the dogs and birds will have you all for their feasting.” (XXII.345-354).

Achilles’ rage is here so extreme that it would even lead him to feast on the raw flesh of his enemy.

            Because of his abiding rage, Achilles will not eat, sleep, or seek comfort in Briseis, his mistress who has been returned to him.  It is only at the end of the Iliad that we are given a glimpse of a different response to the collapsing of values: mourning. When the gods finally intervene to secure Hector’s corpse and Hermes escorts Priam to the tent of Achilles, Achilles undergoes a transformation, and his rage turns to mourning. He sees Priam and is reminded of his own father, grasping how they share a similarly wretched fate. Homer recounts Priam’s plea as follows:

“But now Priam spoke to him in the words of a suppliant: ‘Achilleus like the gods, remember your father, one who is of years like mine, and on the door-sill of sorrowful old age. And they who dwell nearby encompass him and afflict him, nor is there any to defend him against the wrath, the destruction. Yet surely he, when he hears of you and that you are still living, is gladdened within his heart and all his days he is hopeful that he will see his beloved son come home from the Troad. But for me, my destiny was evil. I have had the noblest of the sons of Troy, but I say not one of them is left to me. Fifty were my sons, when the sons of the Achaians came here. Nineteen were born to me from the womb of a single mother, and other women bore the rest in my palace; and of these violent Ares broke the strength in the knees of most of them, but one was left me who guarded my city and people, that one you killed a few days since as he fought in defense of his country, Hektor; for whose sake I come now to the ships of the Achaians to win him back from you, and I bring you gifts beyond number. Honour then the gods, Achilleus, and take pity upon me remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful; I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children” (XXIV. 485-505).

And Homer describes Achilles’ reaction as follows:

“So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor and Achileus wept now for his own father, now again for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved the house. Then when great Achilleus had taken full satisfaction in sorrow and the passion for it had gone from his mind and body, thereafter he rose from his chair and took the old man by the hand, and set him on his feet again, in pity for the grey head and the grey beard, and spoke to him and addressed him in winged words: ‘Ah, unlucky, surely you have had much evil to endure in your spirit. How could you dare to come alone to the ships of the Achaians, and before my eyes, when I am one who have killed in such numbers such brave sons of yours? The heart in you is iron. Come, then, sit down upon this chair, and you and I will let our sorrows lie still in the heart for all our grieving. There is not any advantage to be won from grim lamentation. Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows. There are two urns that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings. If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them on a man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune. But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals. Such were the shining gifts given by the gods to Peleus from his birth, who outshone all men beside for his riches and pride of possession, and was lord over Myrmidons. Thereto the gods bestowed an immortal wife on him, who was mortal. But even on him the god piled evil also. There was not any generation of strong sons born to him in his great house but a single all-untimely child he had, and I give him no care as he grows old, since far from the land of my fathers I sit here in Troy, and bring nothing but sorrow to you and your children. And you, old sir, we are told you prospered once; for as much as Lesbos, Makar’s hold, confines to the north above it and Phrygia from the north confines, and enormous Hellespont, of these, old sir you were lord once in your wealth and your children. But now the Uranian gods brought us, an affliction upon you, forever there is fighting about your city, and men killed. But bear up, nor mourn endlessly in your heart, for there is not anything to be gained from grief for your son; you will never bring him back; sooner you must go through yet another sorrow” (XXIV. 507-552).

Only after he weeps and grieves for his father and his pitiable situation, is Achilles able to once more live out the remainder of his mortal days. He eats, sleeps, and embraces his mistress. Homer presents the process of grieving as somehow allowing him to accept his fate and abide his allotted time in a world of lost illusions. And Homer extends this sacrament of lamentation from the confines of Achilles’ tent to the entirety of the city of Troy, as its citizens together mourn the death of Hector. Thus, the Iliad, I contend, can best be understood as a tale of suffering one’s way to wisdom. When the gods go under and values collapse, we need not, perhaps, attempt to replace them right away. Rather, we might simply allow ourselves to rage at the injustice of it all, and, ultimately, to let our rage turn to sorrow. For, as Homer suggests, perhaps grief is man’s only solace, and tears the wellspring of mortal wisdom’s fount.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Image used in blogpost is “The Embassy to Achilles” and is in the public domain. It can be found here

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