Monday, February 7, 2011

Grieving: Vengeance, then Tears

After the death of Patroclus, Achilles reenters the battles of the Trojan War.  Before Patroclus was killed, Achilles was sitting out the war in his tent, angry with his commander about a breach of honor.  But now everything has changed.  Achilles no longer fights because of the expectations of fate nor because of the system of honor and shame in ancient Greece.  The grief he experiences after his beloved friend's death spurs our Greek hero to pick up his sword and seek revenge against the Trojans.  His main target: Hector of the shining helmet, son of King Priam, killer of Patroclus--and family man

Hector recognizes that Achilles is a hero of enormous strength and skill, as he says here in the Lombardo translation:

   I know you're really good, a lot better than me,
   But is it up to the gods to decide whether I,
   A lesser man, will rob you of life without my spear.
   It's been proven to have an edge before.

Achilles is furious.  He charges "with a terrifying yell, his whole being inspired to kill."  He is "a man with no gentleness in him, a man with one purpose."  So he enters the battlefield and begins to swing his sword almost indiscriminantly, killing many Trojans in his path.  (The horror of war in this scene is presented in amazing detail.  Those of you who are squeamish may prefer to skip this next quote.)

   In supplication, Achilles shoved his sword
   Down into his liver.  The liver slid out
   Into Tros' lap with a clot of black blood
   And the world went dark as he expired.
   Achilles was already upon Mulius,
   Putting his bronze javelin through one ear
   And all the way out the other....
   Deucalion was next...  Achilles closed in
   And sliced into his neck, sending the head,
   Helmet and all, flying through the air.
   Marrow spurted up through his spinal cord,
   And then the corpse was lengthwise on the ground.
   ...The son of Peleus pressed on to glory,
   His invincible hands spattered with gore.

Eventually, Achilles comes to Hector--and Homer's language turns from gore to symbolic poetry: "How could Hector have ever escaped death's black birds?"

As Achilles and Hector face each other for what they both know will be a battle to death, Hector wants them each to promise that the victor will not dishonor the corpse of the defeated.  Achilles laughs in his face, saying:

   Do lions make peace treaties with men?
   Do wolves and lambs agree to get along?
   No, they hate each other to the core,
   And that's how it is between you and me.

Even after Achilles has struck the blow that will kill Hector, Achilles taunts him with threats that, instead of giving his body back to family, he intends to let the "dogs and birds...eat every last scrap."  He tells him he would eat it himself if his stomach would let him.

*  *  *

Once Hector and the other Trojans have been slaughtered, Achilles can finally allow himself to let go of some of his vengeful fury.  He is now ready to relinguish the dead body of Patroclus.  Achilles burns the corpse on a pyre, then the Greeks hold funeral games that last for several days.

By the end of the games, Achilles's rage seems to be transforming into a deep, weary sadness.  He lies in bed, unable to sleep, night after night.

   Tears wet his face as he remembered his friend.
   He tossed and turned, yearning for Patroclus,
   For his manhood and his noble heart....
   Thinking of all [their adventures together], he would weep softly,
   Lying now on his side, now on his back,
   And now face down.  Then he would rise
   To his feet and wander in a daze along the shore.

After the sun rises each morning, Achilles hitches Hector's dead body to the back of his chariot and circles around Patroclus' tomb--morning after morning, for twelve days.  Now Achilles is not acting with the animal intensity that drove him to kill Hector in the first place.  Instead, he seems stuck in this ritual--one born of rage but continued in a time of just exhaustion and tears.

*  *  *

Tomorrow, I'll post about how his grief eventually allows Achilles to reenter the human community.  Although there is much left to say about this book, I promise that my next post will be my last discussing Homer's text.

One of the things I haven't mentioned at all is the central role of the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon.  Luckily, there are folks who have.  Don't miss the terrific discussion of the Iliad over at Read the Book for a discussion of that and other themes.

2 comments:

  1. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderFebruary 07, 2011

    A freind's mother died this morning after a long struggle with cancer. I've been thinking of death and loss a lot today. Your post captures some of the univeral (or perhaps Western) emotions of grief. I find it moving that the first two classics on your list - Gilgamesh and the Illiad - both include such powerful images of warriors wrung dry with grief. Thanks.

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  2. Such a hard thing. Even when death comes after a long struggle, the loss can be so deep. Gilgamesh and Achilles respond in different ways but, as you say, both are wrung dry with grief. Their grief comes from their love, just as our friends are experiencing.

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