“Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right,
Remember your own father! I deserve more pity…
I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—
I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Book XXIV, lines 588 – 591 (translation by Robert Fagles)
The final four books of The Iliad covers some of the most famous sections of the work. As usual, I’ll only touch on some of the major (OK, and minor as well) themes and motifs.
The association between Achilles and fire (and thus a natural force) continues, most directly in Book XXI. Achilles kills so many Trojans, discarding them in the river Scamander and choking it up with bodies and chariots, that the river god complains and fights Achilles. Interestingly enough, this is the only time Achilles is in danger of being overwhelmed in battle—water fighting fire. Hephaestus joins the battle so that the water stands down to both a fire god and hero.
The superhuman Achilles from the previous section continues his path of death and destruction. From the time he reenters the battle, every death shown comes from his hands. Another example of Achilles operating outside the norms happens when he refuses Lycaon’s supplication. Every request for suplication in The Iliad is denied, but for Achilles mercy was not considered in either of his cases—he has become a death-dealing god. He makes good on his promise to burn twelve Trojans alive during Petroclus’ funeral. Petroclus’ ghost has to beg Achilles for his own burial. Revenge for Petroclus’ death was the initial reason for Achilles’ rage, transferred to desecrating Hector’s corpse when killing Hector did nothing to satisfy his anger. Yet Achilles makes it clear he wants glory too—Athena and Poseidon promise him glory given certain restrictions, Achilles stops to strip the armor of some of his victims, and the poet describes Achilles’ heart as seeking glory. Knowing that death awaits his chosen course of action he seeks the only immortality available to him, choosing his own death while unable to accept the death of his friend.
The structure of The Iliad allows the reader/listener to hear of similar events or characters in order to compare and contrast what happened, the differences highlighting the poet’s point. The most obvious comparison is between Achilles and Hector. Hector is human in every sense of the word. We see him as a soldier, prince, husband, father, son, brother, brother-in-law. He would rather have peace but accepts his role as prince and defender of the city. He doesn’t always listen to good advice. Hector embraces life and humanity while still knowing that death is a possible outcome in what he does. He is uncertain as to what the future holds for him and his family. In addition to the city belonging to him, he belongs to the community. Achilles represents the polar opposite in almost every case. He has cut himself off from the community of soldiers in addition to being far from family and home. We hear of his father and son but we never see them. We do see his mother but she is a goddess, his half-god status lending him additional difference from those around him. He is aware of his choice of fates. After Petroclus’ death, he moves further outside humanity, not just in his killing rage but in his refusal to perform basic human acts (sleep, eat, bathe, etc.).
The final conflict between Hector and Achilles highlights the differences between them. Hector asks for basic courtesies if he is killed, something Achilles is unable to do. Achilles cites what Hector has done to him as the reason he will grant no mercy, yet it is Achilles that has killed most of Hector’s family and actively seeks to destroy his town. Hector, acting human, panics at one point and runs from Achilles. It is interesting that he decides to stand and fight when he believes he has a comrade nearby. He has panicked and fled previously, but that was caused by a god. Here he panicked when alone, cut off from his city and comrades. He decides to stand and fight when he believes he has a comrade nearby, one of many tricks played on him by the gods. Achilles promises defilement of Hector’s corpse, denying Hector the chance to enter Hades (which, ironically, is similar to Achilles’ denying Petroclus the same courtesy). While Hector is the more sympathetic character between the two, I found him more human in this second reading of The Iliad, which includes frustration with him at times as well as sympathizing with his plight. (As an aside, if you have wondered how the word “hector” came to mean ‘to bully’ (as in “Hector hectored Paris”), see the explanation on this page.)
The opposition of Achilles and Hector also highlights what has been at play during all of The Iliad. So many things have been put into opposition with each other, most of all the human condition. As symbolized on Achilles' shield, the two cities, one at war while the other is peaceful. War and peace are both part of the human condition, the tension composing our very being. Also, Achilles' anger at man's mortality drives him to kill, completing an act he does not accept. The action continually highlights the differences between gods and mortals, and the sometimes blurring of both beings as embodied by Achilles himself.
The interaction of the gods, both between themselves and with the humans, becomes a crucial part of the story. When given the green light by Zeus to enter the battle, the gods lustily fight with each other. They help or disrupt participants in the funeral games. The humans’ offerings are considered by the gods. In two moving speeches, the relationship and/or difference between humans and gods are highlighted, the first by Apollo upset with the way Achilles is treating Hector’s corpse and what that means to the gods:
“You gods are cruel and vindictive.
Did Hector never sacrifice to you,
burning thighs of perfect bulls and goats?
And can’t you now rouse yourself to save him,
though he’s a corpse, for his wife, his mother,
and his child to look at, and for Priam, too,
his father, and the people, who’d burn him
with all speed and give him burial rites?
No, you want to help ruthless Achilles,
whose heart has no restraint. In that chest
his mind cannot be changed. Like some lion,
he thinks savage thoughts, a beast which follows
only its own power, its own proud heart,
as it goes out against men’s flocks, seeking
a feast of cattle—that’s how Achilles
destroys compassion. And in his heart
there’s no sense of shame, which can help a man
or harm him. No doubt, a man can suffer loss
of someone even closer than a friend—
a brother born from the same mother
or even a son. He pays his tribute
with his tears and his laments—then stops.
For Fates have put in men resilient hearts.
But this man here, once he took Hector’s life,
ties him behind his chariot, then drags him
around his dear companion’s burial mound.
He’s done nothing to help or honour him.
He should take care he doesn’t anger us.
Though he’s a fine man, in this rage of his
he’s harming senseless dust.”
(Book XXIV, lines 36 – 65, translation by Ian Johnston)
Engraving by Johann Balthasar Probst
Man is given a “resilient heart” in order to accept the death of loved ones. The resilient heart is needed for man's two possible situations available, neither of which is ideal. Achilles sums it up for Priam:
That’s the way the gods have spun the threads
for wretched mortal men, so they live in pain,
though gods themselves live on without a care.
On Zeus’ floor stand two jars which hold his gifts—
one has disastrous things, the other blessings.
When thunder-loving Zeus hands out a mixture,
that man will, at some point, meet with evil,
then, some other time, with good. When Zeus’ gift
comes only from the jar containing evil,
he makes the man despised. A wicked frenzy
drives him all over sacred earth—he wanders
without honour from the gods or mortal men.
(Book XXIV, lines 647 – 658, translation by Ian Johnston)
The moving scene between Priam and Achilles is one of my favorite in the story. It is easy to forget the anger or rage that is still burning just beneath the surface for Achilles, or that these two have been fighting each other for over nine years. The assistance of Hermes is crucial in order for Priam to make Achilles’ camp, a fact that does not escape Achilles. The tension surfaces a few times, once when Priam asks for Hector’s body before Achilles is ready to relinquish it and again when Achilles orders Hector’s body bathed and wrapped in order to avoid possible conflict with Priam. Also mentioned several times is the concern for the other Achaeans, especially Agamemnon, who may see the Trojan king in Achilles’ camp. Under these circumstances, Priam is still able to plead for his son’s body from the man responsible for his death. Achilles has been unable to act humanely or stop grieving until he sees the grief of his adversary. Having ignored his comrades and the gods’ suggestions for so long, Achilles comforts Priam with the same advice repeatedly offered to him. While he has chosen the path that will lead to his death, Achilles is finally able to accept the death of his friend.
Foreshadowing future events occurs on several levels in this final section, providing pathos and irony. Ajax’s futility in the funeral games would be humorous if this didn’t prefigure his suicide upon not receiving Achilles’ armor. Priam and his family are a particularly painful example of the reader knowing their fate, Achilles’ refusal of mercy foreshadowing the complete lack of humanity upon the fall of Troy. Andromache, fainting upon the sight of Achilles dragging her husband’s body around Troy, provides a poignant reminder of what will soon happen. As she faints she loses her wedding headdress, a symbol of both marriage and fidelity. Having it fall away calls to mind what will happen to the city and the women once Troy falls. I will not claim to be an expert on the ancient Greek language, but with Andromache’s headdress Homer provides an interesting play on words: in addition to headdress, krêdemnon can also mean the battlements of a city. Homer’s audience would understand the wordplay as the headdress falls and what was in store for Troy. (See this page for more on the word)
In the end, Achilles accepts the human condition by realizing the grief of Priam, the futility of war, and the sorrows we all must face. He (and we) know he will soon die. Fittingly enough, Helen, the cause of this war, has the last words spoken in the epic just before they bury Hector. My first time through the work I felt the ending a little stilted, stopping in medias res just as it began. This time the work feels more complete as I paid more attention to the structure of the work and the closure that Hector’s burial provides. The forces will face each other again soon, but for now the very human hero Hector has been laid to rest while Achilles, soon to die, has embraced the human condition.
Homer gives the ultimate last word to Achilles, however, in The Odyssey. Odysseus, praising Achilles for the glory he achieved, gets a subdued lecture from an unappeased Achilles on which choice is to be preferred:
But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
we Argives did, and here your power is royal
among the dead men’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus:
you need not be so pained by death.”
he answered swiftly:
“Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils,
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
For some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”
The Odyssey, Book XI, lines 569 – 581 (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
Engraving by Johann Balthasar Probst