Woundedness, Narrative, and Community in the Iliad
Woundedness, Narrative, and Community in the Iliad
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the descriptions of wounding in Homer’s Iliad for their insights into vulnerability and its meaning. Homer presents wounds and their signifying of mortality as central to the possibility of a meaningful, teleological narrative about human life. In contrast to the wounds suffered by the gods, human wounds increase the bonds of relationships within the community. While neither pain nor death are desirable in themselves, their anticipation and the narrative accounts offered in light of their existence contribute to political goods. Achilles initially resists the vulnerability of both himself and the other Greeks, but eventually accepts his vulnerability and enters more deeply into the universality of human suffering.
Traditionally, the Iliadic hero is a man of courage, strength, and self-control who gains glory as a result of his individual actions. Both Achilles and Hektor are men who understand their participation and valour in battle as necessary for achieving κλεός (glory) in light of the inevitability of death. At the same time, Homer is concerned not only with the individual Greek man of virtue, but also with his relation to the larger community. This chapter argues that the Iliad presents vulnerability as central to the possibility of a strong socio-political bond, especially insofar as the acknowledgement of human mortality is necessary for the thriving of both individuals and communities.1 In particular, Homer’s presentation of the wounds of warriors shows the centrality of vulnerability to the possibility of a teleological narrative of human existence, offering meaning in the face of mortality. (p.2) Achilles especially must come to terms with the ‘forward motion’ of human life, and his inability to remain in the past, as part of human experience. His virtue requires not only his willingness to die an honourable death for his fellow Greeks, but also his ability to accept the loss of Patroklos and to face the inevitable forward motion of human existence. This temporal character of experience is painful, but also allows for the possibility of meaning for Achilles and for his deepening of connection to other Greeks. Achilles’ encounter with Priam even allows Achilles to extend his sense of community beyond that of other Greeks to the wider human community. The two men are tied to one another through their shared encounter with vulnerability and grief. In their meeting, words themselves fall short, and narrative is momentarily replaced with the sharing of a meal and the gaze of mutual recognition.
In a broad sense, the Iliad is a political work.2 Although the epic was written before the development of the πόλις, and so in a strict sense is ‘pre-political’, nonetheless, the Iliad actively concerns itself with questions as to how the community is formed, its strengths and weaknesses, and the nature of the root of the bonds between human beings, both at the personal level and that of the larger community. The focal crisis of the book occurs when Achilles removes himself from the body politic, that is, from the community of Greeks who have agreed to work together for a common purpose in defeating the Trojans. Questions of authority, such as whether Agamemnon had the authority to claim Achilles’ slave girl for himself, and whether Achilles has a moral, social, or political obligation to fight alongside the other Greeks, are central questions of the epic. The Iliad raises social and political questions for reflection by its audience.
(p.3) Among these questions is how death and mortality figure into human community. Conceptually, ‘death’ and ‘mortality’ are distinct. We can separate death, the facticity of life’s end, from mortality, or the conscious awareness of ourselves as beings who will die. Homer presents not death per se, but rather the human awareness of our capacity to be wounded and to die, as a central constitutive part of the human social bond. War both strengthens this bond and presents the community with a host of problems as a result of it. Amongst the difficulties, most obviously, is the fact that war itself is a break in the social and political bond between the warring parties. Paris has violated the guest–host relationship in stealing away Helen, and his violation reverberates through the entire Greek political community. Yet, Homer treats the Trojans rather sympathetically, as equal human partners in the drama of war; not always simply as enemies deserving of death, but quite often as human beings caught in a larger series of interactions between the gods, men, and the passions of both. War is a fundamental threat to the political bond between societies and within the individual societies and families affected by war.
In addition, the death of any individual is a permanent and deep break in the social bond. The dead cannot participate actively in community, and those who lose the dead also lose significant social relationships and political status, as well as their connection to the beloved. Consider, for example, Andromache’s poignant plea to Hektor not to go directly into battle, since, as she says, ‘Hektor, thus you are father to me, and my honoured mother, you are my brother, and you it is who are my young husband’ (VI. 429–30).3 Andromache’s status within the Trojan community, and indeed her life’s larger meaning, depend upon her relationship to her husband. Her pleas are returned by his own explanation that he is obliged to fight, lest his wife become enslaved to another: ‘But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive’ (VI. 464–5). To her argument that her family relationship must be preserved and that his vulnerability threatens it, Hektor replies that it is precisely these relationships that the Trojans seek to defend in refusing to surrender, and in Hektor’s refusal to hide while others fight. War both potentially threatens and protects the social relationships in which the warring parties exist, often producing (p.4) considerable internal struggle in those who fight. In raising the socio-political difficulties that the human vulnerability to death presents, Homer does not shy away from death’s grimness, nor from the losses of the dead and those with whom they were in relationship.
Awareness of one’s own mortality presents specific challenges to the community, but also strengthens the bond between its members. Contrasting the reactions of mortals and gods as they are wounded in the Iliad provides a ready set of distinctions between the political communities of human beings who are vulnerable to mortality, and the divine community whose members are not. Golden has argued that the divine framework of the Iliad serves in part to increase our awareness of the fragility of human life and the challenge of prospering in such a world. Divine indifference to human beings reminds us of the increased importance of cultivating authentically human values in the midst of suffering and death.4 Contrasting the wounds of gods and of mortals similarly opens up the meaning of wounding and death for human beings.
That the gods are vulnerable, in the most literal sense of being capable of being wounded, may come as a surprise. In the light of Plato and the later Neoplatonic tradition that claimed that god by nature is wholly good and perfect, and therefore cannot change from a better state to a worse, our own cultural tendency is to think of the notion of immortal as commensurate with being invulnerable. In contrast, Homer portrays the gods as capable of injury, even at human hands. Hephaistos is mocked early on in the Iliad for his lameness, even as he serves the gods nectar in their goblets (I. 600). Both Aphrodite and Ares are wounded in battle by mortals, and complain fiercely of their pain. However, as one contrasts the gods’ experience of their vulnerability with the experience of wounded or dying mortals, Homer reveals deep differences in the meaning and political significance of woundedness for the two.
Aphrodite is wounded by Diomedes’ bronze spear. Her reaction is presented as that of a beautiful, but sensitive, woman whose beauty has been marred, and who complains primarily of the pain:
… the spear tore the skin driven clean on through the immortal robe (ἀμβροσίου διὰ πέπλου) that the very Graces had woven for her carefully (p.5) over the palm’s base; and blood immortal (ἄμβροτον ἅιμα) flowed from the goddess, ichor, that which runs in the veins of the blessed divinities; since these eat no food, nor do they drink of the shining wine, and therefore they have no blood and are called immortal. She gave a great shriek and let fall her son she was carrying … (V. 336–43)
The poet makes clear here that while she ‘bleeds’, that is, has the appearance of bleeding human blood, her veins are neither sustained by the same food and drink upon which human life depends, nor does its loss affect her life’s length. Aphrodite easily loses control of herself and becomes self-concerned immediately upon injury. She drops her son, Aineias, without any hesitation, and while Apollo steps in to catch him, Aphrodite turns her attention entirely toward herself once injured. Returning to heaven with the assistance of her brother, she complains to Zeus that she has been wounded, on the grounds that (a) her wound hurts; (b) she has taken offence at its cause being a mortal; and (c) the mortals in question who wounded her are Danaans, whom she opposes in the war. Aphrodite uses her wound as an occasion to further her own cause, namely, opposition to the Greeks in the war.
Homer’s presentation is not likely to produce much sympathy for Aphrodite on the part of his audience. Zeus checks Aphrodite’s overly active participation on the battlefield. Other goddesses later mock Aphrodite for her excessive sensitivity and her lack of shame in favouring Paris, joking that she perhaps cut her hand on a pin on an Achaian woman’s dress, after begging a new woman to fall in love with another favoured Trojan, as did Helen with Paris (V. 420–5). They laugh at her for her lack of control of her passion in loving mortals, as well as her inability to respond courageously to an act of war as Athena, or another god strong in battle, might have done. Neither is Homer’s audience likely to be deeply moved by her injury, an effect that he accomplishes by constant juxtaposition of her immortal state with her injuries: her blood, we are reminded, is not real blood, but ichor, and it stains an immortal robe. Homer juxtaposes the imagery of the wound with the immortality of the wounded one, who is harmed but not capable of being destroyed by the wound. Aphrodite cares for Aineias’ life, but she is just as quick to drop him as to pick him up once she is endangered. Her attitude towards her son seems fickle, a theme that much later Virgil will expand upon in his own Aeneid. Moreover, Aphrodite’s main response to her injury is (p.6) to appeal to her father, in part to complain of her own feelings, but also to further her political ends (and even those political goals are primarily informed by her personal, whimsical favouritism toward particular mortal men). She suggests that the Greeks, in particular, are liable to break proper boundaries and attack the gods, and so ought not to be supported in the war.
Contrast Aphrodite’s injury to that of Menelaos when Pandaros hits him in a surprise attack. The colour of Menelaos’ blood is described extensively, as a ‘cloud of dark blood’ gushes from his wound. Homer compares the blood to the dark red coloured ivory cheek piece for a horse, reserved for a king on account of its art. Menelaos’ blood drips down his thighs, legs, to his ankles. Menelaos’ ankles and thighs are described as shapely and beautiful, emphasizing his nobility even at the moment of injury.5 Instead of the merely identifying description of Aphrodite’s ‘blood’ as ichor, here Homer gives us extensive imagery that allows us to engage imaginatively with Menelaos’ experience. As Holmes has argued, blood is strongly associated with the vital energy of the hero, and its loss with the liminal status of a wounded man; continued bleeding is also used to communicate the pain of the victim to others.6 The difference between mortal and immortal wounding also communicates the difficulty of enduring bodily pain and so the heroism of human endurance of suffering.7
Agamemnon’s response to his brother’s wound also displays the relational and interpersonal element of suffering between mortal men. While only moments ago, Agamemnon was presented as a haughty, difficult leader who alienated Achilles for the sake of preserving his own pride, he is now deeply moved by his brother’s injury: ‘Agamemnon the lord of men was taken with shuddering fear (ῥίγησεν) as he saw how from the cut (ὠτειλῆς) the dark blood trickled downward, and Menelaos the warlike himself shuddered in terror (ῥίγησεν); but when he saw the binding strings and the hooked barbs outside the wound, his spirit was gathered again back into him’ (IV. 148–52).
Here, Homer juxtaposes the authority, strength, and courage of these two men with their fear. Menelaos rather quickly realizes his (p.7) wound is not fatal, and so is able to gather himself together again. But his initial reaction to his wound is not primarily its pain or any lack of honour incurred: the first response of both brothers is to see it as a sign of impending death. Agamemnon immediately questions his own role in bringing his brother to the point of injury: ‘Dear brother, it was your death I sealed in the oaths of friendship, setting you alone before the Achaians to fight with the Trojans’ (IV. 155–6). Agamemnon promises that his brother’s death will not be in vain, and that he shall be successful in the war, but then adds poignantly, ‘But I shall suffer a terrible grief (ἄχος) for you, Menelaos, if you die and fill out the destiny of your lifetime’ (IV. 169–70).
Homer’s parallel structure in the line translated above (‘Agamemnon the lord … ’) especially communicates the way in which Menelaos’ wound is also a kind of wound for his brother:
- ῥ ίγησεν δ´ἄρἔπειτα ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων
- ώς εῖδεν μέλαν αἷμα καταρρέον ἐξ ὠτειλῆς;
- ῥ ίγησεν δὲ και αὐτὸς ἀρηίφιλος Μενέλαος. (IV. 148–50)
His use of ῥίγησεν in parallel lines, first with respect to Agamemnon’s fear and then Menelaos’ own, suggests a sympathetic response of brother to brother. In striking contrast to Aphrodite, whose woundedness leads her to abandon her son, Menelaos responds to his brother’s sensitivity with care. He reassures him that the wound is not mortal as the war belt turned it aside from a more vulnerable spot; he has sympathy for his brother’s fears and seeks to quell them. Agamemnon says he hopes Menelaos’ assessment is right, and implores the doctor Machaon to come and assist. Each thinks of the well-being of the other first: Agamemnon of his brother’s health, and Menelaos of assuaging his brother’s fear. In this case, Menelaos’ wound is an occasion for strengthening the bonds between Agamemnon and Menelaos, deepening their commitment both to the success of the war and to one another.8
(p.8) Here, Homer deepens our understanding of human vulnerability as profoundly interpersonal. Vulnerability to suffering and death are not simply individual experiences as is the immediate experience of pain. Rather, the possibility of loss reverberates from Menelaos to Agamemnon and back again, in their communication about his wound’s meaning. Menelaos’ wound becomes the occasion for Agamemnon’s own suffering and fear for his brother and the Greek cause. In turn, Agamemnon’s words lead to Menelaos’ own reassurances, as the wounded one also sympathizes with his brother’s experience of fear. Their mirroring of one another’s suffering is simultaneously familial and political, as their interpersonal care is intimately linked to the question of whether Menelaos’ wounds will also result in the loss of the war’s moral significance.
Menelaos’ wound is not simply an experience of individual suffering. Of course, Menelaos feels pain, but his interpretation of that pain, the meaning that he gives to it, is to understand his wound in terms of a larger narrative, a narrative with a social and political significance. Agamemnon understands Menelaos’ injury as part of an open question of whether his injury and possible death will have a positive meaning. He insists, if Menelaos dies, that he must be successful in returning a powerful blow against the Trojans, otherwise ‘at once the Achaians will remember the land of their fathers; and thus we would leave to Priam and to the Trojans Helen of Argos, to glory over, while the bones of you rot in the ploughland as you lie dead in Troy, on a venture that went unaccomplished’ (IV. 171–5). Menelaos’ injury thus is not only about his own pain, or even that of his family, but fits into a larger narrative about the Achaians and especially whether they will be able to restore honour after Helen’s betrayal and the sacrifice of many men’s lives. In particular, since Menelaos is Helen’s proper husband, his death might mean the end of the Greek army’s desire to fight for her return; as a result, Agamemnon fears, the Greeks might wish to return home. Menelaos’ life’s narrative will then not be one of a man who sought the return of his wife and his homeland’s honour, but one of a man betrayed by his wife and later killed in a lengthy, unsuccessful war to return her to him. From Agamemnon’s perspective, the time and manner of Menelaos’ death is significant in terms of how that death gives shape and meaning to both his own life, and that of the others involved in it. His attitude towards Menelaos here is not only that of brother to brother, but also of king to king, both engaged in a war that has serious (p.9) consequences for those who might sacrifice their lives for the sake of Menelaos and the return of Helen—a war grounded in an oath that various Greek leaders made to one another on behalf of the king and his marriage and also for the sake of Greek peace and stability.
The possibility of death has political significance for Agamemnon. It is not only a cause of grief. In light of the possibility of death, the sacrifice that the Greeks are willing to make for Menelaos and for one another possesses real significance. Thus, Homer presents vulnerability to mortality as the occasion for reflection upon the political and moral significance of the war; while Agamemnon is not a particularly reflective man by character, his brother’s wound forces him to encounter questions of meaning about the war, his brother’s participation in it, and his own sense of civic responsibility.
One might argue that Aphrodite also sees her wound as politically significant. After all, she attempts to use her injury as a means to harm the Greeks, when she suggests to Zeus that the Danaans—not simply mortals in general!—are now willing to injure the gods. However, Zeus is unswayed by Aphrodite’s pleas to punish the Greeks precisely because her wound cannot result in her death. Zeus’ narrative account of her injury locates it in a string of indignities that must occasionally be borne by the gods. He speaks: ‘Have patience, my child, and endure it, though you be saddened. For many of us who have our homes on Olympos endure things from men, when ourselves we inflict hard pain on each other’ (V. 382–3). Zeus offers Ares, Hera, and Hades as examples of gods who have had to endure pain and even the risk of a diminishment of power; but because they are immortal, their wound lacks the permanent significance of the ‘end of a story’. The narratives of the gods are always open-ended; as a consequence, individual episodes of suffering and wounds are simply experiences of pain, not the possibility of a closure for a good or bad human life.
To put it somewhat differently, because their wounds cannot result in death, the gods’ existences also lack the teleology present in the lives of many of the mortals of the Iliad. Divine lives lack an ‘end’ in two senses: first, the sense of a termination point, such that the significance of any single action is diminished; and second, their lives lack the significance of an ‘end’ in the sense of a τέλος, a reason for existence that gives shape to the overall story and narrative of their own lives. Human beings have such a τέλος, but not one that is given to human beings by the gods; neither does Homer present a strong (p.10) sense of natural teleology, as will later thinkers such as Aristotle. However, Homer does tell the stories of human lives in the Iliad in terms of a constant forward movement in which each person seeks purpose and meaning in life in the face of the inevitability of death and the shape that death offers to a human narrative. Particular individual moments in a human life take on deepened meaning in their place in a story to which death offers definition. Paradoxically, the inevitability of life’s termination is part of what grants purpose and meaning to the lives of those who live and die in the stories that will be told about them. Narrative accounts link the meaning of individual lives and deaths to a larger set of patterns and meanings within the Greek story.
Ares is also injured in battle, this time by Athena, who has ‘put on the helm of Death’ (V. 845). She leans in on Diomedes’ spear so that it penetrates into Ares’ stomach, and then wrenches it out again for maximum effect. Ares ‘the brazen bellowed with a sound as great as nine thousand men make, or ten thousand, when they cry as they carry into fighting the fury of the war god’ (V. 859–61). He, too, goes to Zeus, this time complaining of why the gods themselves fight among one another, aware that Athena is behind his injury. He complains that Zeus allows Athena to behave badly since ‘yourself you begot this child of perdition (αὐτός ἐγείναω παῖδ´ αἰδηλον:)’ (V. 879–80).9 Zeus is far harsher with Ares than he was with Aphrodite, accusing Ares of being a whiner and a liar who enjoys quarrelling by nature (V. 889). Zeus does not attribute Ares’ difficulty to his pain brought on by wounds, but to his warlike nature. Zeus lacks any fondness for Ares, but reluctantly heals him since Hera is his mother and Ares is his child (at least in the Homeric account). Ares is quickly healed and, wearing new clothes, sits down beside Zeus to observe the war.
Here Homer presents the wounding of the gods as an occasion for personal pain and suffering, but because death is not a possible outcome, one god has little, if any, care for the pain suffered by other gods. For Zeus, the wounds of others in his family are an occasion for reminding them of the relatively short-term consequences of injury; he also seeks to diminish tensions between them. (p.11) Both Aphrodite and Ares, once healed, return to their positions in heaven—they return to a point of stasis. Their injuries have a relatively limited place in the narrative they construct about their own existences, at least as Zeus describes it: their wounds must simply be ‘endured’ since other gods have also had to suffer, and because this is the way that life proceeds, for better or for worse. However, such wounds cannot result in death, or a deeply determining moment in a divine narrative. Moreover, the gods do not experience much sympathy for one another. Their injuries are not means of strengthening the bonds between the gods; if anything, we see greater division when Aphrodite and Ares make their complaints, which Zeus takes to be indications of weakness. But injury and death for the human beings in the Iliad have greater consequence and cannot be understood as idle complaints.
It is not simply the facticity of death that differentiates the mortal wounds of those who die in the Iliad. Homer presents the deaths of the innumerable men who fall as significant in ordering and defining the lives of the men. That is, the fact that the human being will die gives a definition and boundary to the story of a life. The possibility of telling a story about a human life with a beginning, middle, and end provides for the possibility of a teleology of meaning for each mortal being and for how his life fits in relation to the larger political community. As Homer presents these deaths, we find that a completely meaningful account of these men’s lives does not fully come into being until their deaths. How each man is wounded, suffers, and responds to his suffering inflects and informs the community’s understanding of his life’s significance.
The sheer number of deaths in the Iliad is striking, but Homer takes care to name the wounds and deaths of those who suffer in battle. The poet does not present the deaths of the soldiers in quantifiable terms, but rather presents death as personal. Nearly every major character of the Iliad sustains a wound, with the exception of Ajax, and how each one responds to such physical wounding is part of how he shows his character and whether he is worthy of κλέος. As Tamara Neal has argued, injury becomes a mark of heroic identity. The injured body becomes a site of differentiation of one person and allows us to distinguish his character from among those who fight. How a character is injured, how he experiences the physical pain, the treatment he undergoes, and whether he receives divine favour are among some of the means by which the poet communicates the (p.12) hero’s heroism or lack thereof.10 Whether a blow penetrates the armour of an opponent or results in death communicates the warrior’s strength. The ability to endure suffering or to exhibit self-control while undergoing the treatment of a wound also shows his moral excellence. These actions and responses often showcase the strength, self-restraint, and physical prowess of the hero. For example, the juxtaposition of numerous examples of Trojans who faint from wounding alongside examples of Achaians who maintain consciousness in similar circumstances communicates the greater strength of character of the Greeks.11
However, mortal wounding does not only display a warrior’s virtues or strengths. Just as significantly, the Homeric narrative shows sensitivity to the warrior’s weakness and finitude as a mortal being. Often the genuine loss involved in death is the most arresting part of Homer’s narrative. Homer gives power to the sense of the loss through contrasting the moment of death with the relationships and the set of possibilities that had characterized a warrior’s life before his death. That is, we often find a common (though not exclusive) pattern of a warrior’s life as: (1) introduced in terms of those who have loved him, in childhood, marriage, or other intimate relationships; (2) followed immediately by a description of an injury; and (3) finally a proclamation of death. The immediacy of death that typifies Homeric accounts adds to its starkness.
Consider the death of Simoeis, a Trojan, in Book IV:
There Telemonian Aias struck down the son of Anthemion Simoeis in his stripling’s beauty, whom once his mother descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis when she had followed her father and mother to tend the sheepflocks. Therefore they called him Simoeis; but he could not render again the care (θρέπτρα) of his dear parents; he was short-lived, beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias, who struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple of the right breast, and bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder. (IV. 473–82)
Homer primarily describes the death of Simoeis through natural similes, the effect of which is to remind the audience that human beings, while they strive for glory and honour, remain bound to the end of all natural beings, which exist in an ongoing cycle of life and death, in which impermanence of state is fundamental to human (p.13) nature. Simoeis is not the only one deprived as a result of his death; his parents’ deprivation, both of their child and of the θρέπτρα (care given to a parent in old age), is palpable. Thus, wounding and death are significant not only for how they communicate the warrior’s good character and endurance, but also for how they reveal the reality of his mortal weakness and its meaning for the community, including unalterable loss. Homer’s inclusion of Simoeis’ death into a larger Greek narrative, however, makes his death part of an interpersonal and public story. Narration does not grant permanence to his life, but does move events that might otherwise have seemed to be contingent into the realm of the necessary, as if Simoeis’ death has meaning through its being linked meaningfully to other events in the Greek story of war. In other words, even as Homer preserves the contingent and accidental nature of battlefield deaths, their narration also brings each person’s life into relief through relation to a larger story endowed with meaning and purpose.
Achilles’ shield also communicates this idea of the juxtaposition of human impermanence and flux with respect to particular persons or even communities (XVIII. 474ff.). The activities described on the shield, of course, are perennial human activities. Human agriculture, marriage, war, birth, and death all will continue. However, particularly in the context of a defeated Troy, where the Trojans will no longer continue to participate in these activities as a unified community, the permanence of these activities as human activities is not necessarily reason for consolation.12 Indeed, if anything, the shield that the immortal Hephaistos crafts for Achilles, who knows he is destined to die when he kills Hektor, while bearing this shield, only underscores the poignancy of Achilles’ mortality.13 This shield, while it exhibits in its artistry the beauty of human life in all its variety, ultimately cannot protect Achilles from his fated death.
Homer continues to describe Simoeis:
He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some black poplar, which in the land low-lying above a great marsh grows smooth trimmed yet with branches growing at the uttermost tree-top; one whom a man, a maker of chariots fells with the shining iron, to bend it into a wheel for a fine-wrought chariot, and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river. (IV. 483–7)
(p.14) Similar passages occur with relative frequency in the Iliad, for example, when Alkathoos is introduced as beloved by the most beautiful and gifted wife at home, just before he is struck down and killed by a spear that penetrates the middle of his chest (XIII. 427–44). Euphorbos, too, is described as akin to a flower that briefly blooms, then is torn out of the ground and knocked down by the wind (XVII. 52–60).
The emotional resonance of such passages for the poet’s audience arises in part from the skilful contrast between the particular care bestowed on an individual life, and the starkness of the abrupt transition from life to death. The details of Simoeis as treasured by his particular mother in his individual being contrast with the description of his death and the possibility that in war his life was simply used and then set aside once its utility had passed. Just as a chariot maker might use part of a tree, and literally see ‘in’ the tree the form of the not-yet-constructed wheel, Homer sets forth the possibility that Simoeis is part of an army where his life has been used more narrowly for a brief military purpose, the way that a tree is merely one small part of a chariot. The tree, once used for the chariot, is discarded and left abandoned beside the river. Similarly, the poet suggests, Simoeis is used for the war and then forgotten.
As Weil has argued, the epic reveals how the force of war converts a man from a person to a thing. She suggests two senses in which war makes a thing out of a person: ‘Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.’14 In a second, but equally poignant sense, force has the potential to make warriors consider the enemy as a thing, an object rather than a being deserving of dignity and respect. In addition, the possibility of being set aside and forgotten after death is never fully overcome in the Iliad.
While Weil captures the dehumanizing elements of war, other elements of the epic seek to preserve the possibility of a respectful response to the dead. The possibility of mere utility of soldiers is tempered by two other, interrelated concepts that weave their way through the Iliad: memory and narrative. Being remembered takes place primarily through narrative and through the high respect (p.15) offered to the dead at funeral rites. The importance and significance of caring for the body and mourning the dead in public is something that Greeks and Trojans alike consider significantly worthy of respect. Both when Patroklos dies and when Hektor is finally to be buried, the significance of burial of the dead necessitates a break in the usual structures of war and division of people into ally and enemy. The rules of engagement include a space for the suspension of hostility so that people may mourn.
The tradition of burying the dead and the significance of ensuring that each man is found and remembered lies on an even higher plane of customary law for the two warring parties than does the outcome of individual battles. When Hektor offers to fight one on one with a Greek in order to settle the war so that both sides can move on, he is careful to set the condition that the winning side return the body of the dead man so that the man’s life might be properly mourned:
If with the thin edge of the bronze he takes my life, then let him strip my armor and carry it back to the hollow ships, but give my body to be taken home again, so that the Trojans and the wives of the Trojans may give me in death the rite of burning. But if I take his life, and Apollo grants me the glory, I will strip his armor and carry it to sacred Ilion and hang it in front of the temple of far-striking Apollo, but his corpse I will give back among the strong-benched vessels so that the flowing-haired Achaians may give him due burial and heap up a mound upon him beside the broad passage of Helle. (VII. 76–86)
Here Hektor recognizes the need for each side to give proper respect to the dead, an ethical demand that will be violated later in Achilles’ harsh refusal to return Hektor’s body. The rituals and obligations surrounding care of the dead require that even in the midst of war, civilization cannot be set aside entirely.
Homer’s descriptions of human wounds, especially when set in strong contrast to divine wounds, display several important features of vulnerability. First, they highlight the interpersonal and political nature of wounds suffered in battle. Menelaos and Agamemnon’s mirroring of one another’s pain reflects the intertwining of the interpersonal and political significance of wounding. Menelaos’ pain becomes Agamemnon’s suffering, albeit in a mediated form. Their glances and words about the wound’s significance deepen the bonds between them. Second, human wounds become the occasion for virtue in enduring suffering. While not all wounds result in death, (p.16) that wounds are capable of resulting in death makes each wounding an occasion for the display of personal virtue. However, Homer also uses wounding as a reminder of human finitude and the real losses of war, as well as virtue. Third, wounds serve as reminders of death’s inevitable limit on every life. This ‘end’ or point of finitude provides for the possibility of teleology. A story with a beginning, middle, and end creates narrative meaning for human communities in a way that divine wounds cannot. Vulnerability to wounding and death both deepens interpersonal and political bonds and creates the possibility of a meaningful narrative for those communities.
Homer’s link between the inevitability of mortality and the meaning given by storytelling shapes even the larger structural elements of the Iliad. Schein usefully provides a framework of two complementary structural principles that guide the shape of the Iliad.15 First, he suggests that the Iliad possesses a symmetrical style that grants it a unity both within its individual passages and as a whole. As a whole, the epic possesses a symmetry in which the events of the first three books are mirrored in the events of the last three, as in how Book I’s Agamemnon refuses to accept the supplication of Chryses and refuses to release his daughter for ransom, whereas in Book XXIV, Achilles accepts Priam’s supplication and releases Hektor’s body. Similarly, Book III features the duel of Menelaos and Paris, a theme reiterated in Book XXII when Achilles and Hektor battle one on one.16 Many individual passages also possess a static, circular, or parallel structure such as a ‘ring’ structure that gives each passage coherence and closure.
At the same time, Schein argues that much of the overall movement of the Iliad is an inevitable, unstoppable movement toward death and destruction, a movement seen in three distinct stages to the structure of the Iliad. We might see the Iliad as divisible into three sections, each of which features the virtues of the characters of Diomedes, Patroklos, and Achilles, respectively. Whereas Diomedes (p.17) is a traditional warrior with respect for the gods and his own mortal limits, the character of Patroklos includes an element of dislocation and loss of identity, as Patroklos puts on Achilles’ armour, is confused with him by others, and seems immersed in the characteristically aggressive manner of Achilles to press on even when the gods oppose him. This movement toward death culminates as Achilles fights against the river god, Skamander, proclaims that he would fight even against Apollo, were he able (XXII. 15), and eventually chooses death and honour over life and dishonour.17 This movement is a one-way movement, for death is not a state from which one can recover or return.
One might extend Schein’s idea further and suggest that this dual structure of symmetrical and one-way movement characterizes something significant about the inherent structure of human vulnerability itself. On the one hand, we are all (like Achilles) bound for eventual death. The end of the story for each human being is essentially the same in that the narratives of our individual lives each come to an end. Endings are often abrupt and unexpected, and have profound consequences for families and communities. The temporal movement of life forward, to one’s own death and through experiences of others’ deaths, is unavoidable. On the other hand, Achilles’ fundamental decision is to make key choices that influence how his life’s story will be told. It is in the narrative meaning that is imposed on a life—especially, but not only, after the fact—that order and some degree of closure can come into being. He must decide whether he wishes to live a long, domestic, uneventful life, or a short but heroic one, and in choosing his short life but heroic death, both his life and his manner of death are tied to glory for Troy, and to his passionate, loyal friendship for Patroklos. His choice is explicitly one that is made in the light of what will be said about him, the meaning his life will take on within a narrative context. That life, though abruptly ended in one sense, is also given a structure and symmetry that his manner of death imposes on the shape of the larger story. In fact, the narrative of his life and death is not only what gives order to his own life; his story is also the centre of the story of the Iliad itself, a story which provides an entire community with a set of narrative meanings that ground its social and political identity as Greek. This, too, seems to be a point capable of extension to characterizing human vulnerability. While (p.18) individual events in a life may seem meaningless or not to fit into a larger order at the moment, the narrative shaping and interconnection of events after they have passed, and especially after an individual’s death, lends an order to events not always discovered as they are occurring. Particular events are connected to other events and persons in a narrative structure that becomes meaningful for the larger community that tells and hears the story.
Achilles’ vulnerability is the central condition not only of the possibility of his own life’s meaning, but is also interwoven with the meaningfulness of the community of the Greeks. Nagy’s well-known portrayal of Achilles’ heroism, as located in his achievement of honour in killing Hektor at the price of his own life, is an insightful understanding of Achilles.18 But Homer tempers Achilles’ love of honour with a portrayal of an Achilles who struggles with, and finally reconciles, his sense of his own vulnerability and is able to connect his acceptance of vulnerability to that of others. Vulnerability, too, is part of Achilles’ virtue.19 Part of Achilles’ glory (and the glory of the Greeks) lies in how Achilles comes to terms with his own finitude. Golden argues that Achilles must learn to overcome a kind of ‘narcissistic rage’ at suffering harm from Agamemnon; his generosity toward Agamemnon in Book XXIII reflects the slow culmination of spiritual and psychological development over the course of the Iliad.20
Indeed, Achilles’ internal growth is a central part of the epic’s insight into vulnerability. I argue that Achilles must also come to accept his powerlessness to prevent time from moving forward. Long ago, Zielinski argued that even simultaneous time is represented sequentially in the Iliad.21 The sequential nature of narrative description (p.19) has the poetic effect of keeping the audience’s sense of time as unremitting. The plot moves forward relentlessly as action follows upon action, even in Achilles’ absence from the battlefield and field of politics. Achilles not only feels his pride damaged; he also initially resists the forward movement of time and remains in his anger about the past. For a while, he even behaves as if time has been suspended in his political and psychological removal from the Greeks, while physically being present in their midst. Only when he accepts the necessity of the one-way directionality of time and embraces his own temporal nature, can Achilles return to action.22
Nagy and Palmer have argued that Achilles’ name is etymologically related to the concept of one who suffers pain or grief (ἄκος), both over the loss of his honour in the conflict with Agamemnon and over the death of Patroklos.23 If they are correct, then what implications might Achilles’ name hold for understanding vulnerability in the Iliad? I suggest that Achilles is emblematic of an individual who struggles with pain and grief, at times responding to that grief through withdrawal, at times with rage. His excellence is not found in his achievements alone, nor only in his κλέος. Instead, his virtue lies in part in his responses to his vulnerability, and his eventual acceptance of the inevitability of death and the loss of honour and of friends as part of living well.24 His story gains significance as Homer’s audience sees the man struggle with dishonour, grief, and his own mortality, finally successfully resolving that struggle by epic’s end. Achilles’ final integration of his own pain in a virtuous manner takes place not primarily in his victory in battle, but rather in the meal (p.20) he shares with Priam after his rage is exhausted. Honour and victory in battle remain important elements of the Homeric man of virtue, but Homer also presents the need for a greater sense of vulnerability on Achilles’ part as constitutive of ethical life. Achilles’ own sense of vulnerability changes significantly through the course of the epic, and it is only at the epic’s end that Achilles willingly embraces the fullness of his own vulnerable condition, and so also accepts that condition in others.
When Achilles is still unwilling to go into battle, even after Agamemnon has promised him many gifts as recompense, his former tutor and guardian, Phoenix, appeals to his own human weakness and suffering as part of what binds Achilles to him, and what ought also to bind Achilles to the other Argives who now suffer (IX. 438–95). Phoenix retells the story of his own life’s events and how they resulted in his care for Achilles: he himself had to flee his own family and country after sleeping with his father’s mistress as a result of his mother’s pleading (IX. 446–56). While he loses a connection to his own father, he describes Peleus as having received him as a father does. In turn, Phoenix cared for Achilles as if he were his own son, a bond that is strengthened by Phoenix’s inability to have children of his own. Phoenix is clear that the suffering he experienced from his childlessness is exactly what made the link to Achilles so strong, who he says was meant to ‘keep hard affliction from me’ (IX. 492–5). Images of Phoenix cutting up Achilles’ meat into little edible chunks, and wiping up spit-up wine from his own shirt further emphasize Achilles’ childhood dependence on Phoenix. This reminder of his dependence and weakness is clearly intended to soften Achilles’ heart. He ends his story with a plea: ‘Then Achilles, beat down your anger. It is not yours to have a pitiless heart’ (IX. 496–7).
In other words, Phoenix connects Achilles’ capacity to have pity for the Achaians, who are now suffering in battle with the Trojans, to Achilles’ own capacity for weakness, and memory of his own dependence on others. Achilles needed others in order to survive, and the clear message here is that others now depend upon him. But his military strength and physical power are a less significant reminder of his military obligation than is his universally shared human dependence on others, just as Phoenix’s deep bond of care for Achilles itself stemmed from the loss of a father and the loss of being a father to another.
(p.21) Phoenix’s description of his temptation to parricide there also supports the larger theme of struggle with loss and suffering, although lines IX. 458–61 are most likely not Homer’s own. While Plutarch includes them in Mor. 26, these lines are absent from the larger tradition of manuscripts and scholia.25 Nonetheless, even as later interpolations, these lines only deepen the nuances of Phoenix’s sympathy for Achilles’ internal struggles. There, Phoenix recalls his desire to kill his own father in order to defend his mother, a decision he was only prevented from carrying out by other relatives and their pleadings. There, Phoenix is presented as sympathetic to human weakness to anger in particular, and its limiting effects on rational, moral action. It is precisely because of his shared experience of dishonour and anger that Phoenix can speak to the same condition in Achilles, both able to sympathize with him and also to recommend a different course of action in the light of his past experience.
However ineffective Phoenix’s pleas are with Achilles, they are bound to resonate with Homer’s audience. Among the charges levelled at Achilles when he refuses to rejoin the Achaian community and fight against the Trojans is that he lacks care and pity (ἔλεος). For example, Nestor remarks, when Patroklos comes to visit the wounded who are resting on the ships, that Achilles is pitiless (XI. 664). His lack of care for his friends is directly paired with his lack of pity in Nestor’s comments. The meaning of ἔλεος in Homer is notably controversial. Konstan, for example, offers a more cognitive approach to pity, citing Aristotle’s requirement that one be capable of understanding one’s own vulnerability as a condition of its practice (Rhetoric 2. 8). Burkert, in contrast, argues that pity in Homer means acting in a particular way, rather than experiencing a particular emotion; in his view, expressions of pity are intended to communicate acting mercifully toward others.26 Both the expression of actions of mercy and feelings of pain for others seem to be facets of ἔλεος over time.
(p.22) As Homer offers no explicitly philosophical account of pity, its meaning is inevitably more diffuse than in Aristotle’s careful and nuanced account (which is taken up extensively in Chapter 3 in relation to the Philoctetes). For example, even the gods, who cannot fully sympathize with the situation of a dying man, take pity on human beings. At the start of Book XV, Zeus observes the wounded Hektor, struggling for breath and vomiting blood, and takes pity (ἐλέησε) on him (XV. 9–12). His pity is quickly followed with his realization that Hera has deceived him, in seducing him and inducing sleep so that Hektor might be wounded away from Zeus’ sight, and he becomes angry with her. While he threatens to use his anger against Hera, in the end, his sense of pity for Hektor has a higher priority than his anger in action: Hektor is given a second wind and allowed to achieve greater glory before his destined end. Zeus’ pity cannot arise from the possibility of imagining himself in Hektor’s situation; yet, that he struggles with the conflicting demands of anger and pity suggests an emotional component to pity here.
Zeus’ resolution of his own anger in favour of pity is particularly striking since Achilles must manage essentially the same sort of internal conflict. His continued anger at Agamemnon and feelings of betrayal initially overcome his sense of pity and friendship for his fellow Achaians, as Nestor’s comment cited above makes clear. However, Achilles does not resolve his own conflict as rapidly as does Zeus. As Achilles slowly acknowledges and accepts his own vulnerability and that of others—particularly in the loss of Patroklos—his capacity to feel pity is actualized. To this extent, Achilles seems to act in accordance with the general Aristotelian point that awareness of one’s own vulnerability to suffering is a necessary condition for experiencing pity for others, in human (though not divine) experience.
Schein has argued that Achilles’ return to fight among the Greeks and become part of the social community again begins in part when in Book XI he observes the wounded being carried away.27 In particular, the wounding of the healer Machaon arouses Achilles’ (p.23) interest, and so he sends Patroklos to go to Nestor to find out the identity of the unknown wounded man. Machaon’s identity as a healer seems to have a special bearing on Patroklos’ interest as well. Only a few minutes earlier, the narrator declares that Machaon’s injury is particularly hard to bear because he is the one who heals others: ‘A healer is a man worth many men in his knowledge of cutting out arrows and putting kindly medicine on wounds’ (XI. 514–15). Patroklos, too, seems to be deeply affected by the prospect of a wounded healer. For Machaon’s wounds open up the possibility that the wounds of others no longer will be healed if he dies. His vulnerability has a direct effect on the vulnerability of others. Patroklos is responsive to the demands of the immediate situation as he recognizes that time is essential, and heals those whom Machaon cannot attend.
In contrast, Achilles has acted as though he has all the time in the world to decide whether and when he might return to fight with the Achaians, as if time were somehow suspended, or the war remained at the same point in his absence. One such display of his utter removal is the scene of Achilles idly singing and playing the lyre while the war continues on (IX. 185). While Achilles is singing of heroes, the specific content of Achilles’ song is absent from the narrative. One effect of its absence from the narration communicates that no content can compare with the sound of the war surrounding him.
Only when Achilles confronts and acknowledges that time continues and the effects of war continue, regardless of his own removal, does Achilles rejoin the battle. While his return only takes place after Patroklos’ death, his witnessing of Machaon’s wounding and enquiry into the identity of the wounded suggest a start of his awareness of the forward motion of the war. Achilles must learn to accept the sense in which human life moves always forward, and cannot return to the past. While the immortals can step aside, return to Mount Olympus, and play music while the wars continue, for Achilles to remove himself does not cease the war itself. Sending Patroklos in his stead to find out the identity of the wounded man initially serves as a half-hearted substitute for his own engagement, until Patroklos finally dies in his place, wearing his armour, and Achilles can avoid the war’s forward movement no longer.
Vulnerability and temporality are here interlinked. The wounding and deaths of others are powerful reminders that time moves forward and that temporality cannot be escaped, as Patroklos recognizes but (p.24) Achilles seemingly cannot. Achilles’ singing away from the other Greeks while the war rages on is not simply a sign of his anger; it is also a refusal to acknowledge the movement forward of his own community’s situation, as the war continues and deaths mount whether he participates or not. Achilles refuses to acknowledge a kind of vulnerability to time itself; such avoidance has profoundly negative political consequences. Saxonhouse has argued that part of what Achilles must learn is that the inequitable distribution of goods and honours is part of ordinary human life and must be accepted as an inevitable limit.28 Achilles refuses to accept ordinary limit in his demand for justice for the slight against him; this avoidance of limit extends even into an avoidance of the temporal itself.
In contrast, after Patroklos discovers Machaon’s identity, he engages with the wounded before him. Patroklos takes on his work in tending to the wounded Eurypylus. Patroklos is an interesting figure at this juncture in the poem, as in turn he takes on two different and even diametrically opposed identities: first, that of the gentle healer, when he takes the place of Machaon, then that of wrathful warrior, when he puts on Achilles’ armour and fights. As Briseis remarks later over Patroklos’ corpse, Patroklos was an exceptionally gentle man by nature. But we also see his capacity for fury in battle as he kills many Trojans with fierceness reminiscent of that of Achilles before meeting his death. Twice Patroklos takes on the social role of another member of the community in their absence: in the healer Machaon and the warrior Achilles.
Perhaps surprisingly, these warrior and healing roles are connected not only in Patroklos, but also potentially in Achilles. Patroklos possesses the technical ability to tend to Eurypylus’ wound because of his link to Achilles. Eurypylus says that Patroklos can help him since Achilles knows which medicines to place on the wound once it has been cleaned because the centaur Cheiron told him of these medicines (XI. 830–1). Patroklos’ own knowledge of healing comes from Achilles. Patroklos remarks that while he is en route to deliver a message to Achilles, he will delay his return in order to tend to Eurypylus. He remarks, ‘I will not leave you in your affliction,’ before proceeding to remove the arrow, clean the wound, and apply a root (p.25) that makes pain disappear. Patroklos tends not merely to the healing of the wound, but also to Eurypylus’ need for attention and the relief of pain. He ‘entertains him with words’ and rests in his tent, despite Achilles’ expectation that Patroklos will return with news from the front (XV. 393–5). He only leaves Eurypylus in order to go to persuade Achilles to re-enter the war, in the hope that ‘the persuasion of a friend’ might induce Achilles to do so (XV. 404). Thus, he shows his ability to be responsive to time and to act as is appropriate to the present moment, displaying a kind of moral kairos that Achilles seems to lack.
Although much has been said about how Patroklos’ death foreshadows the death of Achilles,29 much less has been said about the link between Patroklos and Achilles and those with knowledge of healing, no doubt because Achilles has seemingly abandoned an interest in participating in the activity of healing others. To this extent, Patroklos integrates his role as healer and as warrior in a way that Achilles seemingly cannot, realizing the interconnectedness of wounds and healing and their mutual centrality to human experience. Achilles, while possessing the formal knowledge of some medicine, lacks a strong sense of care that Patroklos possesses. He ceases to act on his knowledge of healing, denying the reality of others’ vulnerability until Patroklos’ death. At the same time, his continued anger at his mistreatment by Agamemnon also paralyses his participation in the battle as a warrior, in a way that is not true for Patroklos. Only when Patroklos dies—exhibiting his vulnerability and the impossibility of delaying time and the war’s forward motion—does Achilles return to being a man of action.
Patroklos exhibits a kind of care for community that is linked to a sense of his own vulnerability that Achilles lacks, immediately before he dons Achilles’ armour and fights on behalf of his friend. Patroklos recognizes that there is something inhuman about Achilles even in his pleas that Achilles return to battle. He challenges Achilles: ‘Pitiless: the rider Peleus was never your father nor Thetis was your mother but it was the grey sea that bore you and the towering rocks, so sheer the heart in you is turned from us’ (XVI. 33–5). Here, Patroklos questions whether Achilles is really human, or as unmoving as a stone or water, which endure far longer than human life, but which lack any sense of (p.26) connection to others. That is, the image of towering rocks makes an appeal to Achilles to remember that he is not as invulnerable as stone, and that it is exactly his sense of his own humanity and connection to others that ought to lead him to feel pity again.
Patroklos pleads with Achilles at least to allow him to borrow his armour and enter the battle as if he were Achilles, not out of a desire for his own glory, but to be a ‘light’ to the other warriors. He sees Achilles as a potential symbol of hope and rejuvenation, even as Achilles continues to mull over his wounded honour. Achilles agrees to the plan so that he might gain glory and honour, but even those only become means of somehow gaining more gifts and more recognition from others in the community of the terrible wrong done to him by Agamemnon. Achilles is literally lost in this past slight, and seemingly cannot move forward from this event, until he feels that it is rectified. His λόγος about his own life is shaped entirely by his immediate πάθος, and that πάθος keeps Achilles oriented to the past.30 Achilles demands that Patroklos only make an appearance rather than fight the Trojans, presumably partly out of a sense of protection for Patroklos, but also out of a strange fantasy that all the other Greeks might die, so that he and Patroklos alone might defeat Troy (XVI. 97–100). Thus his disengagement with the present also results in an unrealistic understanding of his own and his community’s future.
Patroklos’ role in the Iliad partly functions to highlight a similar division within Achilles, one that he is unable to bridge within himself in an integrated way. For much of the Iliad, Achilles is unable to make sense of his vulnerability and mortality in a way that gives ordered meaning to his life. He realizes that honour in battle, and glory, while goods, do not diminish the finality of life, nor do they replace the evil that is the loss of life. While Achilles’ view of honour is tested when Agamemnon unjustly takes away the spoils of war from him, this difficulty with the fickleness of honour is linked to Achilles’ sense of his mortality and displacement from the community. Achilles is correct that honour and glory are not lasting, and are capable of (p.27) being lost as easily as they are gained. This poses a real dilemma for Achilles, for he is neither respected for his leadership by Agamemnon, nor as a leader is he obliged to obey some higher authority, for example, as Achilles’ own soldiers must dutifully obey him. Achilles’ source of meaning in honour and social bond has been violated. He refuses to pay the price or make the sacrifice of risking his life for an unknown or at least unstable reward. Achilles’ absence from the battle to some extent staves off, but does not solve, his difficulty in resolving meaning in life in the light of the limitedness of glory and honour.31 Patroklos’ death, however, forces Achilles to encounter his difficulty, rather than remaining in a place where it can be perpetually avoided. As Hammer phrases it, when confronted with the body of Patroklos, Achilles finds that he can no longer act as one who is self-sufficient, but ‘now places his life in a relational context’.32 But his return to the war does not resolve, but at first only exacerbates, his dilemma, as Achilles moves from complacency to rage.
Even in mourning Patroklos, Achilles denies his ability to be affected by his mortality. After Patroklos’ death, he responds to Odysseus’ encouragement to eat with the claim that they ought all—not only he, Achilles, but all the Achaians!—to go forth into battle without eating until Patroklos’ death has been paid for (XIX. 205–14). Odysseus kindly reminds him that men cannot fight ably when hungry: no matter how ready their hearts may be for battle, their limbs will grow weary if not well fed. But he also adds, somewhat more starkly, ‘we must harden our hearts and bury the man who dies, when we have wept over him on the day, and all those who are left about from the hateful work of war must remember food and drink’ (XIX. 228–31).
In other words, acceptance of a fallen friend’s death is necessary for continuing on in life. The dead body before the completion of a funeral is in a liminal condition, between life and the finality of death, from the point of view of the mourners. In being present to the body, the mourners are also in this liminal space.33 But the liminal (p.28) nature of mourning in a ritualized time and space has a purpose, which is eventually to allow forward movement. The mourning, sacrifice, and even meals that the mourners eat serve in part to memorialize and to honour the dead. However, these same activities also allow for a bounded space for grief for the living so that mourners can eventually move to other activities and relationships, integrating past relationships and events into a new reality. Achilles continues to resist this forward movement. He refuses to eat, and eventually Athena feeds him ambrosia in his sleep, so that he will have the strength to fight.
To this extent, Achilles acts as though he is not an embodied being. His foreknowledge of his own death, that it will follow swiftly upon Hektor’s death, allows him to escape Odysseus’ difficult, but realistic, claim that part of the task of living is to mourn and then move forward with life in part through leaving behind (at least to some extent) the dead. Later, when Achilles does begin to move forward, he allows the fullness of rage to consume him in battle; the poet’s voice describes him as ‘more than human’. For example, in Book XX, as the poet describes Achilles’ swift killing of one Trojan after another, he adds, ‘As inhuman fire sweeps on in fury through the deep angles of a drywood mountain and sets ablaze the depth of the timber and the blustering wind lashes the flame along, so Achilleus swept everywhere with his spear like something more than a mortal (δαίμονι) harrying them as they died, and the black earth ran blood’ (XX. 490–4). Homer’s description of Achilles as like a δαίμον implies that Achilles behaves as though he is something other than human, a δαίμον or spirit, a part of the supernatural world. Yet, the truth of his existence is his mortality; he is not a δαίμον, as he will soon find out in the encounter with the true river δαίμον, Skamander. Although Achilles is descended from the goddess Thetis, her immortality does not protect him here. Still, Achilles rages after the Trojans, demanding that their deaths pay for his friend Patroklos’ death, but his words indicate that he knows no payment will suffice to rectify the loss. When Lykaon, a former slave who had once before been captured and sold by Achilles, meets him again, Achilles is merciless to the suppliant man. But his speech is strangely tinged with the claim that they are still friends, even at the moment that he kills him:
Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the (p.29) children of Priam. So friend (φίλος), you die also. Why all this clamour about it? Patroklos is also dead, who was better by far than you are, and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal? Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also either with a spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring. (XXI. 103–13)
Achilles addresses Lykaon as a friend, a φίλος. What kind of ‘friendship’ is this, between a man twice captured by Achilles in war, now sent to his death to pay a ransom for the death of Patroklos? Achilles’ chilling words suggest that he sees all human beings as sharing a common friendship in violent death. Just as Patroklos shall die, so shall Lykaon, and eventually Achilles, too. Achilles defines his and others’ lives’ meanings in terms of their inexorable movement to death, not only death generally, but the violent death that characterizes much of male life in this time of war. Achilles is not angry specifically at Lykaon, so much as determined to ‘resolve’ the conflict between finding life meaningful and accepting human death, by participating as much as possible in the futile, angry violence, as if by embracing its futility more fully and more passionately, he might somehow defeat its power. He understands meaning to be found in brute power, as when he remarks to a descendant of the river god after slaughtering him that, as a descendant of Zeus, he surely would win, since Zeus is more powerful than a river god, and so he as his descendant must also win over any descendant of the river.
That Achilles battles with a river god, Skamander, is not surprising, as a river embodies constant change. Each time that Achilles tries to fight against the river, he finds himself defeated precisely by the river’s ability to change shape, to produce a wave above him, to crest where he does not expect a wave to crest, or to wear out his knees with its constant flow (XXI. 233–72). Achilles eventually feels as though he were reduced to being only a boy by the river’s power, and indeed, there is a good deal of truth in his proclamation that he is childlike and helpless against the torrent of the river. The torrent, not only of the river, but of many events outside of his control—beginning with his loss of Briseis and social place, through his close friend’s death, and his own powerlessness over his destiny to die once he kills Hektor—all overwhelm Achilles, who now can no longer believe that his power to kill can rescue him from his true powerlessness in the face of death. His strength serves him no more, and it is only the (p.30) reassurances and actions of Poseidon, Athena, Hera, and Hephaistos that stop Skamander.
Achilles, of course, is brutal with Hektor as well, refusing Hektor’s civilized offer to promise one another to return one another’s bodies. Achilles refuses, promising him that he will not return the body, and when he begins the fight, it is to Ares—the god of irrational, raging war—and not Athena, that he appeals. When Hektor dies, Achilles drags his vanquished opponent’s body around Troy, in full view of everyone. The seriousness of Hektor’s lack of a funeral is emphasized in Andromache’s fainting and mourning the unperformed rites for his body, a description that occurs immediately before Patroklos’ funeral rites, as if to emphasize the inhuman nature of Achilles’ treatment of the corpse.
It is only when Patroklos appears to Achilles as a ghost, and asks specifically to be buried, so that his soul might pass over to Hades, that Achilles begins to resolve his inner conflict about mortality. Patroklos’ account of his need to cross over, and to be buried, is also indicative of Achilles’ need to allow Patroklos to move from the realm of life into a death from which he will not return. Achilles finds this experience of an apparition, or dream, sufficient to allow him finally to bury Patroklos, and accept the reality of his friend’s death. His acceptance of loss and the inability to withstand the forward movement of time allows Achilles to sympathize with Priam and finally to return Hektor’s body.
The decision to return Hektor’s body and to host Priam is key to Achilles’ resolution of his difficulty with vulnerability. Homer dramatically gives force to the meal as the pinnacle of Achilles’ resolution of his internal strife.34 Just as Achilles allows himself to eat for the first time at Patroklos’ funerary rites, we see Achilles eat with his enemy. (p.31) When Priam comes to retrieve Hektor’s body, Achilles acknowledges a need for food and the continuance of life, not only for himself, but also for his vanquished opponent.35 This moment of offering food to Priam is the moment in which Achilles in deed acknowledges his shared mortality with his enemy, and so also acknowledges it to himself. It is at precisely this moment that Achilles is able to be humane, and also able to be more fully human.
Eating is an acknowledgement of mortal dependence on what changes in the world of the Iliad. Homer is explicit about the relation between the food of human beings and human mortality when the gods remark that they ought not to be too deeply invested in mortal beings’ affairs. Apollo cautions Poseidon:
Shaker of the earth, you would have me be as one without prudence if I am to fight even you for the sake of insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again fade away and are dead. Therefore let us with all speed give up this quarrel and let the mortals fight their own battles. (XI. 462–7)
Apollo sees human mortality as linked to the mortality of plant and animal life. The food that they eat is one living thing that dies in order to sustain the life of another, who himself is also destined to die.36 To eat, then, is to acknowledge one’s dependence on the body, and one’s link to other mortal beings. To share a meal with another also connotes intimacy with another who is mortal, like oneself. While earlier Achilles had spoken of his κλέος as that which will be unfailing (literally ἀφθίτος, or ‘unwilting’),37 Achilles’ virtue also includes acknowledgement of the value of that which does wilt, die, wither. In the final scene, the temporary and mortal meaning of food intersects with the cultural and lasting ritualizations of hospitality and a shared meal. Only in the sharing of conversation and eating with Priam do we finally see Achilles come to terms with his mortality, and return to a life of a mortal, social, political being.
(p.32) Priam comes to Achilles in supplication for his son’s body, which Achilles has agreed to give up after his mother Thetis sends word that Zeus demands it. Priam compares himself to Achilles’ own father: ‘Honour then the gods, Achilleus, and take pity (ἐλέησον) upon me remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful (ἐλεεινότερός); 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. 503–6).
The effect on Achilles is to grieve for his own father, the poet tells us. Achilles finally experiences pity. His pity arises primarily not from an intellectual or moral claim that Priam ought to have his son’s body back. Instead, Achilles experiences pity when he willingly encounters his own and his father’s pain and can relate that pain back to Priam’s pain as a father. Achilles makes a double move of identifying not only with his own father’s sorrow that will result from his own death, but also with Priam as akin to Achilles’ father.38 In other words, Achilles feels pain on behalf of his father in anticipation of his own death. This anticipatory grief opens up a space that allows Achilles also to feel pain for Priam and so to experience pity.39 His act of engaging in sympathetic grief is an essentially social move that allows Achilles to engage with the meaning of his own death—and life—from the point of view of being his father’s beloved son. Achilles can see his own life’s worth not simply in terms of its termination, that is, not simply in terms of his death. His understanding of himself as the son of Peleus is also his acceptance of his identity as a mortal man. Notably, he does not mourn for Thetis, his immortal mother, and her impending loss, but for Peleus, his mortal father. His grief for himself as a mortal man is intertwined with his grief for Patroklos (see XXIV. 508–12).40
What is moving and surprising is that Priam effectively stands in for Achilles’ father in his absence. Priam becomes, in the eyes of Achilles, akin to his own father mourning his death, while Priam mourns the loss of Hektor in the presence of his son’s killer, who is also destined soon to die. Priam and Achilles thus stand in a sort of (p.33) mournful imitation of a father–son relationship.41 Homer remarks, ‘The sound of their mourning moved in the house’ (XXIV. 512), further underscoring the imagery of Priam and Achilles sharing a house together, through a kind of unity that is reached only in the acknowledgement of each of their losses. Such unity arises only through a shared experience of pain and acceptance of suffering as the plight of all mortals.42
Notably, Achilles, whom Homer had referred to time and time again as pitiless, is said to take ‘the old man by the hand, and set him on his feet again, in pity for the grey hair and the grey beard’ (XXIV. 516).43 He arranges for Hektor’s body to be returned, and then invites Priam to eat with him, though he himself had refused to eat after Patroklos’ death before. He states the demand that they eat in the first person plural: ‘Come then, we also, aged magnificent sir, must remember to eat, and afterwards you may take your beloved son back to Ilion, and mourn for him; and he will be much lamented’ (XXIV. 617–20). This same Achilles, who had refused to eat in grief for Patroklos, now eats a meal with another who has suffered a similar loss, and encourages Priam to do the same.44 Achilles displays what Zanker helpfully terms ‘magnanimity’.45 He offers the example of Niobe, the mourning mother turned to stone by Zeus because she refused to stop mourning, and so remained forever in her unchanged state.46 Like Niobe, Achilles and Priam alike will soon come to an end; (p.34) but they also must eat, and continue to participate in the activity of human life and the communion of other persons, lest they become no more than stones.
As they eat, they gaze upon one another, focusing not upon one another’s grief, but upon the other’s beauty: Priam sees Achilles as possessing looks akin to a god, and Achilles in turn sees the brave look in Priam’s face.47 In gazing at one another, each participant sees not only the other, but also the other’s apprehension of himself. Achilles can see not only that Priam suffers, but also that Priam is appreciative of Achilles’ own suffering. Priam recognizes his own courage through observing its apprehension in Achilles’ expression. This mutual gaze allows each to see in the other a being with worth and value, even in the midst of great suffering; to some extent, we might say that the mutuality of the gaze, which both must have recognized, also confirms each man’s own worth when his enemy thus looks upon him in wonder. Here Homer’s poetic voice moves away from formal, ritual elements of hospitality to a description of this interpersonal encounter between two particular individuals. Indeed, words themselves seem to have limited value for Achilles and Priam, and are replaced with the simple actions of eating and looking at one another. The value of the mutual gaze emphasizes more than a cultural practice; Homer presents the mutual vulnerability of two human beings to one another. Bespaloff suggests that the beauty of Achilles itself is a moment of redemption, insofar as his beauty touches something of the eternal in the midst of the temporal and fleeting.48 And it is in this affective sympathy for one another that the possibility of a rational resolution of the proper disposal of Hektor’s body becomes a reality; the emotional interactions of the two quiet Achilles’ rage, and make possible dialogue with Priam.49 Such an interaction between the gods and human beings, or even between gods, seems almost unimaginable, for the gods are untouched by the depth of suffering experienced here, since any moment of pain remains only a moment in eternity.
(p.35) Achilles gives Priam a place to sleep, and guarantees a space of twelve days in which to mourn Hektor, before which he will not allow the Achaians to disturb the Trojans. As we know, the Iliad ends not with the sacking of Troy, although the audience knows this will inevitably occur, but rather with the ongoing practice of human life in the midst of death. While Homer points to the defeat of Troy and the death of Achilles, the resolution of the epic ends with a shared meal between enemies and the remembrance of Hektor. Like the art of Achilles’ shield, and its engagement with human life in its joys and sorrows, Homer’s poetic art allows life to continue on for the living. The vulnerability of human life, while acknowledged to contain much suffering and pain, is also affirmed as the locus of social life not only in the funeral rites, but also in these simple social acts of eating and conversation that require an affirmation of life even in the midst of loss and destruction. (p.36)
(1) While many commentators emphasize the role of virtue and honour in the Iliad, only a few have focused on the place of vulnerability and weakness. Among notable exceptions are Michael Lynn-George, ‘Aspects of the Epic Vocabulary of Vulnerability’, Colby Quarterly 29 (3) (1996), 197–221; Graham Zanker, The Heart of Achilles: Characterization and Personal Ethics in the Iliad (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996); Brooke Holmes, ‘The Iliad’s Economy of Pain’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 137 (1) (Spring 2007); Arlene Saxonhouse, ‘Thumos, Justice, and Moderation of Anger in the Story of Achilles’, in Catherine Zuckert (ed.), Understanding the Political Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); and Simone Weil’s ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’, in S. Weil and R. Bespaloff (eds.), War and the Iliad (New York: New York Review Books, 2005), 3. See also K. Lynn-George, ‘Structures of Care in the Iliad’, Classical Quarterly 46 (1) (1996), 1–26 for an in-depth discussion of the vocabulary of care and Louise Pratt, ‘The Parental Ethos of the Iliad’, Hesperia Supplements 41 (2007), 25–40. My own focus here on the contrast between divine and mortal wounds, temporality, narrative, and food adds new material to the picture of vulnerability in the Iliad that these authors have begun to develop.
(2) See Dean Hammer, The Iliad as Politics (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), which argues that ‘political’ notions such as questions of authority and communal organization and proper rule are part of the Iliad, although no specific sense of πόλις as city-state (‘political’ in a narrower sense) had yet developed. See also Robin Osborne, ‘Homer’s Society’, in R. Fowler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 211–16.
(3) All translations in this chapter are from Homer, The Iliad, trans. Stanley Lombardo (Cambridge, Mass.: Hackett Press, 1997).
(4) Leon Golden, Understanding the Iliad (Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005), 1–15.
(5) Tamara Neal, The Wounded Hero: Non-Fatal Injury in Homer’s Iliad (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), 46–8.
(6) See Holmes, ‘Iliad’s Economy of Pain’.
(7) Holmes, ‘Iliad’s Economy of Pain’, 151–84.
(8) Here I disagree with Zanker’s reading of this passage as revealing an egocentric Agamemnon overly concerned with his own glory. Agamemnon is concerned with the glory of the Greeks, but the familial and political are interconnected for Agamemnon: the well-being of his brother is genuinely and rightly connected to a desire to see glory for the Greeks, since the war was fought over Menelaos’ bride. For Zanker’s argument, see his contrast between Agamemnon and Achilles in grief, chapter 1 in Zanker, Heart of Achilles, 1–46.
(9) Thus, Ares ignores the role of Metis and attributes to Zeus a possessive privileging of Athena as his child.
(10) Neal, Wounded Hero, 14–16.
(11) Neal, Wounded Hero, 84–8.
(12) Hammer, Iliad as Politics, 111–12.
(13) Seth Schein, The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 142.
(14) Simone Weil, ‘Iliad, or the Poem of Force’, 3. See also an excellent account of Weil on the political force of words and listening in Dean Hammer and Michael Kicey, ‘Simone Weil’s Iliad: The Power of Words’, Review of Politics 72 (2010), 79–96.
(15) Schein, Mortal Hero, 30–6.
(16) Schein, Mortal Hero, 31–2.
(17) Schein, Mortal Hero, 34–6.
(18) Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); see also Michael Clarke, ‘Manhood and Heroism’, in R. Fowler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 74–80.
(19) Here I use the terms ‘hero’ and ‘heroism’ in conversation with Nagy’s use of the term, that is, in an ethical sense and not in order to offer a historical analysis of literary character.
(20) Golden, Understanding the Iliad, 72–120.
(21) Originally in Thaddaeus Zielinski, Die Behandlung Gleichzeitiger Ereignisse, im Antiken Epos (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1901). Zielinski’s emphasis was on the ‘flattening out’ of simultaneous events, as he posited that Homer was incapable of describing events simultaneously. However, my contention here is that the constant forward movement of action in sequential fashion poetically emphasizes the shortness of time and its forward movement.
(22) A fascinating account of the links between time and spatiality in Homer is to be found in Clay’s analysis, which disputes Zielinkski’s prioritization of the temporal in Homeric narrative. Using contemporary cognitive psychology as well as textual analysis, Clay argues that the ‘space of the battlefield’ has a priority over narrative time. See Jenny Strauss Clay, Homer’s Trojan Theater: Space, Vision, and Memory in the Iliad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). See also Alex Purves, Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
(23) Palmer first suggests that Achilles might have been a later combination of Akhi-laos, or ‘he whose host of fighting men has grief’. See L. R. Palmer, The Interpretation of Mycenean Greek Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963). Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, chapter 5, lays out the etymological evidence with clarity and makes connections with the larger text of the Iliad.
(24) Hence Weil writes, ‘Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.’ Weil, ‘Iliad, or the Poem of Force’, 35.
(25) My argument does not depend upon the inclusion of lines 458–61, but as some authors, such as M. L. West’s Teubner edition, do include them, it is worth noting their effect on the larger arc of Phoenix’s claims regarding how his past suffering and anger informed his later care for Peleus and Achilles. For a more extensive argument on the difficulties surrounding IX. 458–61, see Bryan Hainsworth (ed.), The Iliad: A Commentary, Vol. III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 123. See also Jasper Griffin, Iliad, Book Nine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
(26) David Konstan, Pity Transformed (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2001) and David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Greek Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); W. Burkert, ‘Zum altgriechischen Mitleidsbegriff’ (Erlangen: Inaugural-Dissertation, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, 1955), 69–72, citing Il. V. 561, 610; XVII. 346, 352; Burkert cited in Elizabeth Belfiore, ‘Review of David Konstan, Pity Transformed’, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 14 April 2002, accessed online at 〈http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2002/2002-04-14.html〉, 21 August 2010.
(27) Schein, Mortal Hero, 117.
(28) Arlene Saxonhouse, ‘Thumos, Justice, and Moderation of Anger in the Story of Achilles’, in Catherine Zuckert (ed.), Understanding the Political Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
(29) For example, see Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 33.
(30) See P. Christopher Smith, ‘Nietzsche and Gadamer: From Strife to Understanding, Achilles/Agamemnon to Achilles/Priam’, Continental Philosophy Review 35 (2002), 379–96. Smith demonstrates how Achilles’ argument with Agamemnon is grounded entirely in πάθος. I would suggest that Phoenix recognizes that πάθος is at the root of his ideas, so makes an appeal to πάθος, not reason alone, in attempting to persuade Achilles.
(31) Note, for example, how Achilles fails to respond to Odysseus’ entreaties to pity him, which Hammer suggests is due to Achilles’ belief that suffering for others no longer holds moral worth, now that his honour is not respected by others. See Hammer, Iliad as Politics, chapter 4.
(32) Hammer, Iliad as Politics, 178.
(33) James Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 181–2.
(34) For an excellent account of the development of relationship between Achilles and Priam, see Marjolein Oele, ‘Suffering, Pity and Friendship: An Aristotelian Reading of Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad’, Electronic Antiquity 14 (1) (November 2010), 52–65. I am deeply indebted to many of her insights, which have been influential for my own thinking on the passage. See also Rachel Bespaloff’s ‘Priam and Achilles Break Bread’, in Weil and Bespaloff, War and the Iliad, 79–85.
(35) Redfield suggests that the warrior in the Iliad has left culture and entered into nature; in this scene, Achilles returns to civilization and its rituals. See Redfield, Nature and Culture, 218–23.
(36) See Neal, Wounded Hero, 156–7.
(37) Nagy connects Homer’s use of ἀφθίτος to a direct opposition of what is φθι— i.e., a root of terms used to denote the decay of plant life, for example, Pindar’s usage of the wilting of crops in the Paen 9. 14. See Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 176 and 183–6.
(38) Oele, ‘Suffering, Pity’, 9.
(39) Kevin Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 70–88.
(40) As Zanker argues, once Patroklos dies, Achilles exhibits more than any other character a desire for κλέος that is grounded in affective bonds to others, and not merely glory that is centred around himself. See Zanker, Heart of Achilles, chapter 3.
(41) Interestingly, Hermes also likens Priam to a beloved father in Book XXIV (XXIV. 371). See Pratt, ‘Parental Ethos’, 39 for her insightful analysis of the ethos of parent–child relationships in the Iliad.
(42) See also Jinyo Kim, The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the Iliad (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 146–51.
(43) Oele notes the beautiful combination of intimacy and distance in Achilles’ taking of Priam’s hand, and his later pushing him away. As she argues, their relationship moves in the direction of almost a sort of friendship through their intimate sharing of suffering here. See Oele, ‘Suffering, Pity’, especially 61–3. Hammer also emphasizes the sense in which mutual grief opens up for Achilles the possibility of imagining his father Peleus’ grief. He thus becomes vulnerable also to his own father’s suffering. See Hammer, Iliad as Politics, 182–7.
(44) Here eating itself functions as an act of union. See Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 16.
(45) See Zanker, Heart of Achilles, 127.
(46) Malcolm Wilcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 272–3. As Wilcock explains, Homer is inventive here in his tale of Niobe, as the ordinary story would not allow for her to eat or dry her tears, since Zeus turned her to stone. Such a retelling only underscores the Homeric point that eating requires a kind of engagement with temporality.
(47) As Pratt notes, the narrator here also emphasizes how god-like Priam is. Pratt, ‘Parental Ethos’, 40. Oele, ‘Suffering, Pity’, 62–3.
(48) Bespaloff, ‘Priam and Achilles Break Bread’, 83.
(49) Here I think Smith is entirely correct in suggesting that Achilles’ struggle over whether to return the body to Priam is not about intellectual assent to beliefs or propositions, but an internal struggle of emotions. See Smith, ‘Nietzsche and Gadamer’, 391–3.