III.3. The Tears of Women

Women do not have it in their nature to compete with the virtue and the greatness of men. On this point, Greek epic does not contradict a universally recognized tradition. Contrary to men, who, through their courage and great deeds, pass from an “ordinary” to a heroic state, women belong, once and for all, to a species that definitively carries within it its own limitations: those of the “race of women.” [1]
Therefore, it is no wonder that an examination of the tears of women in one epic poem leads to the other without any difference in perspective. With the exception of a few nuances, the reasons women shed tears are all more or less identical. [2]

The tears of Helen

The figure of Helen, both in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is situated in the margins of conventional femininity. We have seen that through a number of her characteristics she goes beyond the traditional limits applied to women. [3]
Her tears are not those of ordinary women; they are the manifestation of a more individualized, more personal sentiment, due less to distress and helplessness than to feelings of guilt and shame. [4] In this respect, the fact that each time she speaks in the Iliad she wishes for her own death is worthy of note. [5]
Helen cries both while thinking of Menelaus [6] and over the body of Hector, her only friend in Troy whom she has now lost. She also plays an important role in the lamentation at the end of the poem. One may ask [7] why it is Helen, and not a sister—Cassandra, for example—who closes out the lamentations of the women around Hector and the wailing of the people gathered there (Iliad 24.776). She is the last of the women to lament, the last woman to speak, and, in a certain sense, the Iliad ends with her words: “all shrink and shudder as they go by me” (24.775). The moment she loses Hector, who died for—because of—her, she ceases to be a character in the story and becomes the figure of “Helen, cause of the Trojan War.”
Unlike the other women who cry over the loss of a husband or a son, Helen cries for herself, over the pain that her passion has provoked. She bemoans not her condition but her error and its consequences. Helen, like the heroes, sobs over the struggles, the aethloi, that she has set in motion. She cries over the human experience of the Trojan War. This makes her the only feminine character in the epic to have such autonomy of emotion: these psychological categories—remorse, guilt—are reserved in the epic for masculine figures.
Conversely, in the Odyssey, Helen has the power to stop tears that she has ultimately caused. When Telemachus is the guest of Menelaus in Sparta and the latter evokes memories of Odysseus, everyone begins to cry (Odyssey 4.184–186). Using the drug nē-penthes, she puts an end to their tears:
She put a drug into the wine from which they drank. It [= the drug] was against penthos [nē-penthes] and against anger [a-kholon]. It made one forget all bad things. Whoever swallowed it, once it was mixed with the wine into the mixing bowl, could not shed a tear from his cheeks for that day.
Odyssey 4.220–223 [8]
A much later tradition attributes to Helen the origin of a plant with properties similar to nē-penthes—those of dissipating melancholy and sorrow: this plant, helenium, is said to be born from her tears. [9] Here again, her duality appears: Helen has the power to both cause and remedy suffering. [10]

The sobs of women

The Iliad resonates with the crying and sobbing of Trojan women; the Odyssey is made wholly from the tears of Penelope, as if all of femininity were summarized by her crying. In this world of war, each woman cries for a father, brother, or son fallen in combat. As both at stake to be defended and prey to be attained, women can only cry once their defenders have fallen. The death of Hector, protector of Troy, will set off a flow of tears from Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, and the Trojan women as a whole.
Andromache weeps from her first appearance in the poem to her last. [11] The theme of tears underpins her entire story. By studying the play of formulas (variations or modifications, certain particular meanings) and the uses of non-formulary language, Charles Segal has shown that the motif of Andromache’s grief runs throughout the Iliad. [12] Her tears, mentioned while she is on the ramparts, intensify when she returns to the palace. Later, at the moment of Hector’s death, she begins a sort of preliminary lament: “she started to sing a lament in the midst of the Trojan women” (22.476). Finally, the scene of great mourning in Iliad 24 shows her leading the public lamentation at Hector’s funeral. In other words, Andromache is preparing, from her first appearance in the poem, for the final scene of lamentation. In Iliad 6, her tears are a sign of things to come: the death of Hector. Her famous “laughing amidst tears” (dakruoen gelasasa, 6.484) [13] represents the ultimate commingling of happiness and grief, her final moment of joy shared with Hector. She laughs for the last time, and already her tears irreparably shroud her destiny. Back home, accompanied by her maids, she laments for the living Hector—who is already virtually dead—in a scene that foreshadows the great lamentation at the end of the Iliad (6.499–502):
[she] … bade them all [the servants] join in her lament; so they mourned Hector slayer of men in his own house though he was yet alive, for they thought that they should never see him return safe from battle, and from the furious hands of the Achaeans.
The absence of Odysseus and the departure of Telemachus explain why Penelope always appears with tears in her eyes in the Odyssey. [14] Like Andromache, she is consumed by the tears of grief for a husband whose death has not been confirmed. Sobbing and wailing are second nature to her. [15] Even in her sleep, she is tormented by sorrow. The vision of her sister, sent by Athena, says this explicitly:
You are asleep, Penelope: the gods who live at ease will not suffer you to weep and be so sad.
Odyssey 4.803–805 [16]
Penelope cries without ceasing, as if from the departure of Odysseus her tears are the only way to resist forgetting, the only way to preserve a memory of her husband and, through this memory, to preserve her status as Odysseus’s wife. This is her way of refusing to allow, in a word, Odysseus to be replaced.
By her endless tears, it is as if Penelope is “out of bounds”; she abstracts herself in a certain sense from the reality of Ithaca to live, via her sobbing, near her absent husband. Her tears are like a screen that preserves the personal, private memory she has of Odysseus, while, at the same time, preventing the public celebration of his heroic memory. Indeed, she, refuses to hear the bard when he sings “the homecoming of the Achaeans” (Odyssey 1.326) to the suitors (1.337–344):
Phemius, you know many another thing that charms mortals, all about the deeds of men and gods, to which singers give glory. Sing for them some one of those songs of glory, and let them in silence drink their wine. But you stop this sad song, this disastrous song, which again and again affects my very own heart in my breast, wearing it down, since an unforgettable grief comes over me, more than ever. I feel this way because that is the kind of person I long for, recalling his memory again and again, the memory of a man whose glory extends far and wide throughout Hellas and midmost Argos.
Jesper Svenbro has shown that, while the theme of Phemius’ song is “return,” the song is original in relation to the tradition of Nostoi: “It is only in the ‘Phemios version,’ as we are able to reconstruct it, that the hero dies before making it back to his island.” [17] Obviously, the disappearance of Odysseus serves the interests of the suitors; by prohibiting the singing of this “disastrous song,” Penelope is refusing the death of Odysseus.
In the Iliad, few scenes are as pitiable as the one in which Hecuba, while weeping and baring her breast, begs Hector not to fight Achilles outside the city walls (22.79–85). [18] Having lost her son, in her motherly grief she refers to Achilles as “that terrible man on whose liver I would fain fasten and devour it” to avenge Hector (Iliad 24.212–213). [19] Because she has just seen her son die before her eyes, she is momentarily capable of rising to the same level of savagery as Achilles, the “carnivore” (ōmēstès, 24.207) whom she so despises. [20] No longer is it possible for her to take part in the reconciliation scene of Iliad 24; as a mother, she cannot forgive her son’s murderer.
During Hector’s funeral, the lamentations of the women are of primary importance, and furthermore, the poet conveys only their words to us. The lamentations of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen restate in a way the principal themes of the Iliad.
Andromache speaks of the suffering of war, the pain of the Trojan people, the impending fall of the city, and its consequence, the enslavement of the Trojan women (Iliad 24.728–730):
[Before Astyanax reaches manhood] our city will be razed and overthrown, for you who watched over it are no more—you who were its savior the guardian of our wives and children.
Hecuba makes ample room for the gods in her lamentation, remembering that Hector has always been well loved by them, who, even in death, protect him from affronts by preserving and enhancing his beauty (Iliad 24.749–750):
So long as you were alive the gods loved you well, and even in death they have not been utterly unmindful of you.
Finally, Helen recalls the qualities of Hector’s heart, the aristocratic conceptions of courage and strength, saving room for his gentleness (Iliad 24.774–775):
… for there is no one else in Troy who is kind to me.
These three lamentations correspond to the three conversations Hector has while in Troy. In Iliad 6, Hector feared the enslavement of Astyanax and Andromache: here, the realization of that threat is approaching and Andromache herself takes up the theme (Iliad 6.454–463; 24.731–735). Hecuba had suggested that Hector offer a libation to Zeus, and now, before his deathbed, she recalls the favor the gods showed him (6.258–260; 24.749–750). In her bedchamber in Troy, Helen had “tried to soothe” Hector (6.343) and suggested that he sit and forget the troubles she had caused; in Iliad 24 she reaffirms this same idea (6.344–356; 24.762–775). And finally, the servants who had cried for him when he was alive lament in this moment his mortal remains (6.499–500; 24.746).
Funerary ritual required the relatives of the dead, particularly the women, to assemble around the bed to contemplate the dead during the prosthesis ‘laying out of the body’. For a warrior who saw himself as lost, not having his mother and wife near his deathbed was a major fear (Lycaon: 21.123–124; Hector: 22.352–353). For these women, it would be a great source of regret, as Hecuba says from the top of the ramparts to Hector:
Should the wretch kill you, neither I nor your richly dowered wife shall ever weep, dear offshoot of myself, over the bed on which you lie.
Iliad 22.86–88 [21]
In each instance, the participation of women (mothers, wives) is stressed; their presence is essential during the private, familial, first days of the funeral proceedings. Women mourn for the dead as well for their own misfortune; without Hector, the Trojan women are now lost. In the three lamentations just described, there is only the question of grief and regret. These mournful wailings of women, these gooi, evoke less the glory of the hero who has just died than the changes—disastrous in nature—that his absence entails. [22] It is certainly significant that this type of resigned and pained discourse comes from women. There are, in fact, two groups surrounding Hector’s body: the professional singers who intone the dirges in honor of Hector and the women who respond with tears to each of the lamentations (goos) of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen. [23] The threnody is sung by the bards, while the goos, a wailing moan, is cried out by the mourning women. [24]
The lamentations of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen elicit, to varying degrees, the reaction of the participants to the funeral. Each lamentation ends with hōs ephato klaiousa—“bitterly did she weep the while”—and the second half of the verse introduces an increase in the intensity of the wailing. Andromache moves the women, who respond to her by sobbing as well (Iliad 24.746). The long lament of Hecuba (adinos goos, 24.750) causes endless moans from the participants (24.760). And finally, after the third lamentation, that of Helen, the entire crowd sobs (24.776).
The preparation of the pyre, the cremation of the body, the removal of the bones, and the construction of Hector’s sēma ‘tomb’ are tasks carried out by the Trojans, the laos ‘people assembled’ (Iliad 24.790–791). [25] The ceremony ends with the funeral banquet attended by Hector’s family members and his companions in arms. The official funeral services for Hector, celebrated by his companions, help to permanently fix his hero status.
Since their meaning is completely emotional—because they are feminine—the tears of women belong to a limited register (the private sphere) that cannot extend into the praise of the dead, which is a masculine concern. Thus, the distinction of masculine and feminine values is, once again, clearly marked: in the epic, a woman does not cry like a man. Her helpless tears attest to the constant potentiality of her enslavement. Deprived of the man who protects her, she is reduced to nothing. Her tears can only be succeeded by destitution without remedy. At funerals, as well, her attitude differs from that of a man, as Jean-Pierre Vernant has explained, stressing that “in mourning there is a different perspective depending on whether the deceased is seen by a close circle of family, particularly women, or seen by a larger group of his battle companions. In the first case, the deceased is evoked in terms of what his passing will cost those close to him in tears, pain, and grief. In the second, mourners recall the costs he inflicted on the enemy in losses and suffering through his skills as a warrior hero.” [26]
The energetic tears of heroes, who, after their sobs, can go on fighting, counter the pitiful powerlessness and moral torpor of the wailing women. In short, the tears of women are not, strictly speaking, identical in value to those of men.


[ back ] 1. See Loraux 1978 passim and pp. 56–60 above.
[ back ] 2. In order to be exhaustive, this examination would need to take into account two episodes in the Iliad where the poet presents goddesses in tears: Aphrodite wounded by Diomedes in Book 5, and especially Artemis beaten by Hera during the theomachy in Book 21. I will limit myself to pointing out J.-P. Vernant’s conclusions on Artemis. Vernant examined this question at length during his 1980–1981 course at the Collège de France: an ambiguous figure, Artemis can be a terrible goddess within her legitimate sphere—the agros and wild animals, the world and the affairs of women, and more specifically child birth—and at the same time, she is a fragile and weeping virgin when she ventures out onto the battlefield. In this sense, the tears of Artemis in the Iliad are a sign of regression back into childhood; rescued by her mother and consoled affectionately by her father, she cries like a little girl (21.493–513). On the meaning one can ascribe to the “error” Aphrodite makes when she goes outside her domain, see Saïd 1978:287–289.
[ back ] 3. See pp. 80–81 above.
[ back ] 4. Iliad 3.142, 176; 24.773. From the top of the ramparts, surprised not to see her brothers among the Achaeans, she blames their absence on herself: she tells Priam they have not come because of “the shame and disgrace that I have brought upon them” (3.242).
[ back ] 5. Iliad 3.173–175; 6.345–348; 24.764; in these three instances, it is the consequences of her shameful love of Paris that provokes this feeling in her.
[ back ] 6. Moved by the idea that she might see him on the plains of Troy (which does not happen), she came out of her room “weeping as she went” (Iliad 3.142).
[ back ] 7. Clader 1976:11.
[ back ] 8. Some commentators think this is opium, since it comes from Egypt; see Stanford 1948 and Hainsworth and Privitera 1982 ad loc.
[ back ] 9. Cf. Vellay 1957:105–107, who cites Theophrastus History of Plants 2.1.3, etc., and Pliny Natural History 21.33 and 91.
[ back ] 10. See p. 81 above.
[ back ] 11. Whether her tears are “real” or envisioned: Iliad 6.373, 405, 455, 459, 484, 496, 499; 22.87, 476; 24.723, 745–746.
[ back ] 12. Segal 1971a; see pp. 78–80 above.
[ back ] 13. On the tradition of this theme in Western literature, see Antin 1961.
[ back ] 14. Odyssey 1.336, 363; 2.376; 4.110, 705, 719, 721, 749, 758, 800–801, 805–806, 819, 828; 11.183; 13.338; 14.129–130; 16.39, 332, 450; 17.8, 33, 38, 40, 102–103; 18.172–173; 19.204–213, 249, 251, 264, 268, 513, 517, 541, 543, 596, 603; 20.58–59, 84–92; 21.56–57, 357; 23.33, 207, 351–352; 24.295.
[ back ] 15. Thus M.-M. Mactoux 1975:21–23.
[ back ] 16. See also Odyssey 19.541–543. On Penelope’s sleeping, see Segal 1967:327–329.
[ back ] 17. “C’est seulement dans la ‘version de Phémios’, telle que nous pouvons la reconstruire, que le héros meurt avant d’avoir regagné son île” (Svenbro 1976:20).
[ back ] 18. See pp. 45–46 above, and Griffin 1980:25.
[ back ] 19. This scene can be compared to Iliad 22.347 (Achilles threatening Hector). On the “avenging cannibalism” of mothers, see Hirvonen 1968:28.
[ back ] 20. This is the only passage in the Iliad where ōmēstès is used to describe a human being; see Segal 1971b:61–62 and 68, and Schein 1970:74–75.
[ back ] 21. See also Odyssey 14.129–130; 24.294–296.
[ back ] 22. See Redfield 1975:180
[ back ] 23. On lamentation, see Reiner 1938:2–59 and Alexiou 1974.
[ back ] 24. See p. 114 below.
[ back ] 25. On the meaning of laos in the Iliad, see Jeanmaire 1939:54–58 and 88–89.
[ back ] 26. “… dans la déploration, la différence de perspective suivant qu’il s’agit du mort vu par le cercle étroit de ses proches, spécialement les femmes, et le mort vu par le groupe plus large de ses compagnons d’armes. Dans le premier cas, le mort est évoqué en fonction de ce qu’à ses intimes sa fin coûte de larmes, de douleur, de deuil. Dans le second, on rappelle ce qu’il a coûté à l’ennemi comme pertes et souffrances, en sa qualité de héros guerrier” (Vernant 1977:434).