III.4. The Language of Tears

His cheeks were soon wet with tears, as his feelings suddenly broke loose; he would have wept himself away in the distance, that no trace of his existence might remain. Amid his deep-drawn sighs he seemed to recover; the soft, serene air penetrated him. The world was again present to his senses, and thoughts of other times began to speak to him consolation.
Novalis, Henri d’Ofterdingen
If the Iliad is a story of anger and tears, told by an eminent poet and master wordsmith, the range of representations of sorrow, its extent and its intersections with other registers, merits mapping out. The vocabulary of grief, the symbolism of tears, the gestures of a suffering body: these are the approaches that I have chosen to address the question of suffering in the epic.

Comparisons. Images. Vocabulary.

For men, the Iliad provides essentially one comparison that describes the tears of two heroes, Agamemnon (9.13–15) and Patroclus (16.2–4):
Agamemnon shed tears as it were a dark-running stream or cataract on the side of some sheer cliff . [1]
Black and other dark colors have connotations of death and danger. The theme of a dark spring with black waters recalls the strange comparison in Iliad 16 that presents the Myrmidons as carnivorous wolves who “go in a pack to lap the black water bubbling from a dark spring with their long thin tongues” (160–162). [2] Agamemnon weeps intensely at the spectacle of the Achaeans’ defeat. The Trojans fail, in this instance, to definitively defeat the Greeks, though only night halts their momentum. “Their princes were all of them in despair” (Iliad 9.3), and Agamemnon convenes the assembly where the decision is made to go and ask for Achilles’ relief.
In the Iliad, black is the color of Agamemnon’s wrath (1.103), black the mental anguish of Hector upon seeing a companion struck down (17.83), black the blood of corpses (10.298). Black is very clearly associated with death and pain, more through the fear and revulsion that they provoke than through a reference to the color of blood. “Death is as frightening as ‘black’ or the night, death is black, death is night,” writes Bernard Moreux; [3] and, indeed, adjectives meaning black or dark abound in the Iliad, where death is waiting around every turn. The tears of Agamemnon, compared to the water from a black spring, become part of the evidence in the context of the disastrous war; the tears of the Achaeans’ chief are dark like the black death he comes into contact with on the battlefield. [4]
The second notable comparison is one applied in the Odyssey to Odysseus and Telemachus, in tears at the moment of their reunion (16.216–219):
They were both so much moved that they cried aloud like eagles or vultures with crooked talons that have been robbed of their half fledged young by peasants. Thus piteously did they weep …
The poet here operates on a different level: it is not, as in the comparison in the Iliad, a sinister context that causes Odysseus to sob, but the memory of his suffering and the emotion that comes over him upon finally reuniting with his son. The comparison evokes relatively powerful and feared birds—at least, in the case of the vulture—predators whose status oscillates between two poles: they can represent a terrible aspect of divinity (Athena and Apollo at Iliad 7.59), or, when they are scavenging on the battlefield, the horror of death without burial. The magnitude and the violence of these acute tears (ligeōs) is more intense (with the force of the comparative adinōteron) than the cries of birds robbed of their young. [5]
For women there is more of an emphasis on passivity, the “liquidity” of feminine nature, as if the inadequacy of the maternal body for war and the art of combat is due, in part, to its ability to melt and soften. Consequently, Penelope is presented in the following manner when speaking with the disguised Odysseus (Odyssey 19.204–209):
Penelope wept as she listened, for her heart was melted. As the snow wastes upon the mountain tops when the winds from South, East, and West have breathed upon it and thawed it till the rivers run bank full with water, even so did her cheeks overflow with tears for the husband who was all the time sitting by her side. [6]
The triple occurrence of the verb tēkesthai and the double occurrence of the compound katatēkesthai clearly convey the idea of liquefaction, melting, and dissolving. Penelope is consumed by sorrow; [7] as a result of crying, her skin withers, and, somehow, her incessant tears wear the life out of her, dissolve her strength. This is evident in another passage when Odysseus encourages her to stop crying: “No longer waste your beautiful skin nor cry your heart out in weeping” (Odyssey 19.262–263).
Sobs have the power to ravage the beauty and the lives of women. Consumed by tears, they waste away; their cheeks wither, and their beauty spoils. The poet, by using a partially overlapping vocabulary, indicates that tears have effects on women similar to those that war has on men. To describe warriors who are dying, Homer uses the verbs phthinuthō and enairō, among others (Iliad 17.364; 24.244); he uses these same terms to express the grief of women, as if tears were the double, however distorted, of wounds on the battlefield.
Is this capacity to empty one’s energy in a flood of tears strictly a feminine characteristic? It is not entirely certain. However, one can see in this comparison the poet’s intention to distinguish between the way men and women cry. The tears of Agamemnon are dark; those of Penelope alter her beauty as they slide down her cheeks, like the flow of melting snow.
A digression on vocabulary is necessary here. To express suffering, the Homeric lexicon possesses a considerable number of terms, the exact meanings of which are sometimes difficult to gauge with certainty. Quite often, the semantic fields involved are contiguous, and it is often impossible to determine the precise meaning of a given term. Furthermore, as Francine Mawet has judiciously written, “the major difficulty we encounter is the danger of purely and simply transposing into ancient Greek the categories and the structure of the vocabulary of ‘douleur [pain]’ from another language—in this case French—which inevitably occurs if we retain indiscriminately all the words that might be translated as ‘douleur’ in French.” [8]
In this survey, I am only including words that mean cry or shed tears and have chosen to study them in order of prominence. [9]
Klaiō is the verb used most frequently (thirty-eight occurrences): it often describes the sorrow of grief, and most of the time its meaning is intensified by the assertion of tears shed. The verb is almost always preceded or followed by dakru ‘tear’ (Iliad 1.360, 362; 3.148, 176; 7.426, 427, etc.).
Goaō is the verb for sobbing; it often introduces or concludes an expression of grief or a lamentation formulated by the protagonist (Iliad 6.500; 18.315, etc.). It is almost always used to describe the suffering of a person in mourning. The noun goos, qualified by adjectives like aliastos ‘incessant’ (24.760), adinos ‘abundant’ (24.747), and krueros ‘frozen’ (24.524), is the word for lamentation (twenty-four occurrences). During mourning rituals, the verb used to say “lead them in their lament” is exarchein or archein (18.51, 316; 23.12, 17; 24.721, 723, 747, 761). [10]
Dakruō denotes the appearance of tears in the eyes. The verb is less common than the noun dakru, [11] which is always accompanied by verbs that clearly indicate the image of visible, flowing tears. The most common phrasing is dakrua cheein or kata dakrua cheein (Iliad 1.413; 3.142; 6.405, etc.). Homer also says dakrua leibein or eibein (13.88; 18.32, etc.). Less commonly used are verbs like rheein (Iliad 18.427; Odyssey 24.318), hēkein (Odyssey 23.33), and ekpiptein (Iliad 2. 266; Odyssey 16.16). With the verb ballein ‘fall’ the locations where the flow of tears begins and ends are often specified: tears fall from eyelids, apo blepharōn, and onto the ground, chamai (Odyssey 17.490) or chamadis (Odyssey 2.114). A very rare but highly significant use describing the violence of sobbing occurs in the expression dakru’ anaprēsas (Iliad 9. 433 and Odyssey 2.81—the only two instances of anaprēthō in the epic): tears well up to the point of bursting in the eyes of Phoenix and Telemachus.
A second set of verbs remains to be considered: verbs that refer more to the sound, the noise, of sobbing. Between moans, wails, cries of pain, and tears, there is certainly overlap, but it seems that the group oduromai, olophuromai, muromai, kōkuō, oimōzō, stenachō, stenachizō, and stenō denotes the sound of wailing more than the flow of tears. Kōkuō is an interesting verb because it is applicable only to women: [12] it clearly indicates the idea of a piercing cry or shriek. The expression baru stenachōn [13] —’heavily moaning’—might be an equivalent, in the masculine sphere, for the cries of suffering women. Here again, adjectives and adverbs that refer to the register of sound are used to provide details about wailing—sobs of men that are ‘heavy’ (baru, barea), ‘intense’ (adina), etc.

A Biology of Tears

How tears arise

For the warrior, the first signs of a crying episode are shuddering and trembling. It is as if the anxiety mounting in the heart of the afflicted hero corresponds physically to a spasm, an emotional thrust that causes a flow of tears (Iliad 10.9–10):
… even so did Agamemnon heave many a heavy sigh, feeling his sobs mount from deep in his heart, for his spirit trembled within him and his entrails were shaking.
The tremor that characterizes the physical state just before one bursts into tears is similar in nature to the corporeal manifestation of fear. [14] When the warrior wants to cry or when he succumbs to fear, his eyelids and knees tremble. In both cases, the specific sign for this type of emotion is the trembling of a body part. [15] Nothing like this happens for women; on the contrary, as we have seen, they cry passively, they dissolve almost peacefully. This inversion is still more precise if we recall how Penelope is consumed by tears and melts like snow in the sun, [16] while Agamemnon’s grief in the passage cited above is compared to a flood of hail and snow (Iliad 10.6–7). [17]
Stinging in the nostrils is another sign. When Odysseus finds his father, old, miserable, shaken, “his nostrils quivered as he looked upon [him]” (Odyssey 24.318–319). Odysseus’ vitality, his biting menos, [18] floods into his nostrils with a forceful surge (protuptō). Again in this image, the signs of impending tears belong to the register of masculine energy.
The third notable physiological manifestation is aphasia, or more precisely aphonia. Sometimes, when emotion and grief are too intense, the hero weeps in silence, as Antilochus does, for example, when he learns of the death of Patroclus: “For a long time he was speechless; his eyes filled with tears and he could find no utterance” (Iliad 17.694–696). [19]
Before crying, it is as if the Homeric hero is paralyzed: his entrails contract in a muscular spasm that results in the secretion of tears; his vocal cords are occasionally blocked for a time. Tears are a visible, exterior extension of a wave that invades the body of a man in the throes of suffering.

The fertility of tears

Few epithets are applied to tears: thermon, teren, thaleron. Tears are warm, tender, delicate, or still flourishing.
Of the eight uses of thermos in the Iliad, five are for descriptions of tears; three concern baths and the blood of a wound. [20] The five occurrences of the expression dakrua therma cheontes ‘while shedding burning tears’, apply to two particularly dramatic contexts: the funerals that take place during the truce in Book 7 (as the Trojans prepare their dead for burial, 426) and the episode of Patroclus’ death.
That sequence begins at Iliad 16.30, when Patroclus cries over his inability to come to the aid of the Greeks. [21] Begging Achilles to let him leave, he approaches “with burning tears welling from his eyes, as from some dark spring whose black stream falls over the ledges of a high precipice” (16.3–4). This same comparison [22] was examined above characterizing Agamemnon, though that passage did not mention burning tears. Later, when Patroclus has died, Antilochus brings Achilles the painful message of his death while “weeping burning tears” (18.17). The final echo of this theme is found later in Book 18 (235), when Achilles cries in the same way for his friend. The recurrence of the expression dakrua therma cheontes underlines the dramatic intensity of the passage. Another element accentuates the pathos of the episode: when Patroclus dies, Achilles’ horses, who, like his weapons, accompany him on the battlefield, shed tears (17.434–440):
… they stood with their chariot stock still, as a pillar set over the tomb of some dead man or woman, and bowed their heads to the ground. Hot tears fell from their eyes as they mourned the loss of their charioteer, and their noble manes drooped all wet from under the yokestraps on either side the yoke.
The pillar of stone, the hot tears, the “flourishing” mane: beyond the beauty of the image, the interweaving of themes makes use of the vocabulary of suffering—stone/fountain of tears, [23] heat/tears, fertility/tears. The symbolic elements of tears are condensed in the sorrow of Achilles’ horses.
The Odyssey presents a distribution that is more or less identical: of eight occurrences of thermos, three describe tears. The others describe food, blood, and baths. [24] Burning tears in the Odyssey are shed on occasions where the emotional and dramatic dimensions are strongly emphasized: Agamemnon crying upon returning to his homeland before dying (4.523), the tears of Eurycleia in the moments before she recognizes Odysseus (19.362), the sobs of the Achaeans during the funeral of Achilles (24.46).
Apart from poetic conventions and metrical requirements, it seems that the “heat” of tears adds a particular quality to the suffering thus determined. With one exception (the group of Trojans celebrating the funeral for their warriors), it is always the Greek heroes, and the most revered among them, who cry in this manner.
A tear can also be delicate and tender, teren (Iliad 3.142; 16.11; 19.323; Odyssey 16.332). In the epic, leaves, tears, the skin of young people, “the flower of youth” are tender, fragile. [25] Between the delicate young sprout and the tender skin of youth—for young girls and warriors—the analogy is obvious. Should the use of teren in the description of tears perhaps be considered an allusion to the “life” of tears, to their vitality?
In this respect, the expression thaleron kata dakru cheontes warrants close attention. The adjective thaleros is used sixteen times in the Odyssey and eighteen in the Iliad.
Pierre Chantraine indicates that thallō means ‘to sprout’ or ‘to be in bloom’ and that the original meaning of the verb was related to vegetation; [26] metaphorically, it means to be abundant or prosperous. In Homeric poetry, the distribution of the use of the adjective ‘flourishing’ falls into four groups: tears, meals, youth and fertility, and plant life.
Tears are described by this adjective in four types of formulas:
  • θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέοντες [Iliad 6.496; Odyssey 4.556; 10.201, 409, 570; 11.5, 466; 12.12; 22.447]
  • θαλερὸν δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε δάκρυ [Iliad 2.266; Odyssey 16.16]
  • θαλερὸν κατα δάκρυον εἶβεν [Iliad 24.9; Odyssey 11.391]
  • θαλερὸν δὲ κατείβετο δάκρυ παρειῶν [Iliad 24.794]
‘Flourishing’ tears occur more often in the Odyssey than in the Iliad. Of the sixteen occurrences of the adjective, ten are specifically related to tears and one, connected to goos, is implicitly associated (Odyssey 10.457). In the Iliad, thaleros is most frequently used in its literal sense: it describes fruitful unions, husbands or “flourishing” wives, and men in the prime of their lives (3.53; 6.430; 8.156; 3.26; 4.474; 10.259; 11.414, etc.).
However, as Steven Lowenstam has shown, [27] there is a relationship between thaleros and tears that, while indirect, is nevertheless remarkable. In fact, in three of the crying scenes, the epithet is applied not to tears, but rather to thighs, a mane, and a voice. When Ares laments over his dead son, he strikes “his two sturdy thighs with the flat of his hands” (Iliad 15.113–114) as a sign of grief. There is a displacement of thaleros—usually used as an epithet for dakru ‘tear’—onto mēros ‘thigh’. When Antilochus learns of the death of Patroclus, “his eyes filled with tears and he could find no utterance” (Iliad 17.695–696). [28] Finally, when the time comes for Achilles’ horses to cry for their charioteer, the tears flow and soil their abundant manes (17.437–439). The context of weeping thus induces the transfer of the epithet thaleros onto another part of the body, a part that is also involved in the pain: the throat, the thighs, the mane. By association, the flourishing character of tears is communicated to another part of the person who is crying.
The majority of commentators [29] interpret this adjective to mean simply ‘abundant’ or ‘humid’ when applied to tears, which would correspond to the French expression “pleurer à chaudes larmes” [literally, “to cry hot tears”)]. [30] However, Greek traditions following epic have extensively made use of the theme of the fertility of tears. Whether they are shed by gods, men, or trees, tears give birth to a variety of substances and plants; [31] the most famous example is the amber born of the tears of the sisters of Phaethon: “… in grief for Phaethon, [they] drop the amber radiance of their tears” (Euripides Hippolytus 740–741, trans. Kovacs) [32] Furthermore, the eye was often considered to be one of the areas of generation. As Aristotle explains, “the region about the eyes is, of all the head, that most nearly connected with the generative secretions” (On the Generation of Animals 747a13, trans. Platt). Undoubtedly, there is considerable difference between Homer’s poetic metaphor, the mythical tradition of the creative eye, and Aristotle’s theory of bodily fluids. Yet among these elements, each belonging to a different epoch and level of thought, there seem to be points of contact, which do not arise by chance, and which must at least be pointed out.
The association of the ideas of heat, growth, and fertility is thus in the background of the biological conception of tears: tears are alive, “flourishing” even, as the young warriors are. From the adjective thaleros, which belongs fully to the vocabulary of plant life, this hypothesis can be further clarified: just as the existence of men is commonly associated with plant growth—and in the specific case of war, the death of a warrior is like the death of a tree or a flower [33] —tears of heroes can be viewed as a vital secretion, like the sap of plants. [34] A dead tree dries up, a dead body stiffens; death is total desiccation, as the poet says of a warrior who has just died. [35] The body of a living man differs from that of a dead man in that it continues to be irrigated by vital fluid, which is composed of several different liquids: marrow, spinal fluid, synovial fluid, sperm, etc. Is it not appropriate to include sweat and tears here, as R. B. Onians does [36] in his interpretation of verses that present the sweat that overtakes the knees of a hero or the tears that consume Odysseus’ life? When he cries on Calypso’s island, Odysseus pours out and loses a little of this vital fluid, known as aiōn in Homer (Odyssey 5.151–153):
… his eyes ever filled with tears, his sweet life [glukus aiōn] wasting away as he wept for his homecoming. [37]
For Odysseus, tears “exhaust his will to live”; [38] vitality flows from him in his tears. In Homer, aiōn can mean lifespan, vital force, and source of vitality all at the same time, and it is difficult to dismiss, in the example of Odysseus, the idea that his life’s essence is escaping from his eyes. This is indeed the conclusion of Émile Benveniste concerning the Homeric conception of aiōn: “It is indeed because αἰών is the source of all vigor, and not only the duration of life, that one would say of a youth killed in his prime: ἀπ᾽ αίῶνος νέος ὤλεο (Ω 725), or even μινυνθάδιος δέ οἱ αἰὼν ἔπλετο (Δ 478 = Ρ 302), referring to Simoeisius flourishing in his youth (ἠίθεον θαλερὸν Σιμοείσιον [Δ 473]).” [39]
In his prime, Simoeisius loses his aiōn; still intact, Odysseus weeps fertile tears and lets his aiōn flow out of him. Could there be, in this echoed image of flourishing tears, a transfer of the warrior’s vigor, which is being expressed at the same time that it is escaping? Sweating, having a knee joint that dries out, and crying would all then be synonymous ways for Homer to express a loss of vigor. Tears, just like sperm and marrow, would thus participate in a liquid principle of life, a rather indistinct formulation. [40]
Should this be the perspective from which to understand the epithet thaleros? Before proposing responses, other qualifiers applied to tears and other ways of crying should be noted in order to verify whether tears are inscribed in the semantic field of fertility.
Adinon, or adina, is one of the adverbs most frequently used to describe the act of crying. Of the twelve uses in the Iliad, all are related to lamentation; in the Odyssey, five of the nine total uses describe tears. Adinon usually accompanies the verbs stenachō and stenachizō; it also modifies the verb goaō or, in the adjective form adinos, the noun goos. [41] Does it only mean, as Paul Mazon’s translation suggests, at length? Its meaning seems richer, considering that other occurrences of the signifier adinos describe compact swarms of bees or flies, the strong and muscular heart of a warrior, the oppressed heart of Penelope, or even the vast and wondrous voice of the sirens. [42] In the epic, adinos has a sense of depth, darkness, and, at the same time, strength and tightness. The groans of Achilles are resounding, deep, intense, and menacing at the same time; this is the manner in which to understand the expression adina stenachizōn, which alludes to both the contraction and dilation that characterize sobbing and the pauses, the moments of respite, that create the rhythm of weeping. [43]
The adverb puknon is less common than adinon, though it belongs to the same register. When Achilles sobs for Patroclus, his wailing lasts a long time: “groaning again and again” (Iliad 18.318); [44] this expression also refers to the dense, “thick” quality of the sobs. [45] The poet employs puknos when he wants to stress the thick, heavy, dangerous quality of an object or an attitude: “closely serried battalions” (Iliad 4.281; 13.145), a dense forest inhabited by a lion (18.320), [46] a “rain of arrows” that follow one after the other without interruption (11.576). [47] The use of this term is not without significance to the register of grief; on the contrary, it specifies and amplifies the idea of suffering.
The volume of sound also indicates the intensity of weeping: it is in this sense that we should understand the expression baru stenachōn, which so often describes the wailing hero. [48] If sobs are heavy in their intensity, they are in the severity of their sound as well. Only men cry so deeply. While oxus ‘sharp, piercing’ often refers to the cries of the warrior, and especially the clamor that rises during an attack (Iliad 12.125; 15.313; 17.88–89, etc.), the sharp lamentation can only come from a woman or a goddess. Achilles cries for Patroclus “sobbing heavily”; Thetis rushes to him “shrieking in sharp cries” (18.70–71). [49] The baru (masculine) / oxu (feminine) binary is clear.
The hand of a warrior is powerful (Iliad 1.219; 11.235; 13.410); his weapon can be cumbersome (5.664) in a dangerous sense; a wound causes a limb to swell and become heavy (11.584; 16.519; 20.480); error (2.111; 9.18), disaster, strife, conflict (20.55), and death (“cruel hands of death,” 21.548) are unbearable burdens; all of these are ways of expressing the force of a danger or of masculine suffering.
Finally, adjectives used less often to describe men’s sobbing, such as ligus ‘shrill’ and krueros ‘chilling’, render simultaneously the dimension of the sound of crying and the idea of the impact of the jolts of pain or emotion. When a man weeps and lets out piercing cries, the context is always extremely dramatic: Achilles near the corpse of Patroclus (Iliad 19.5), the anguish of Agamemnon in the Underworld (Odyssey 11.395), the horror of Odysseus’ shipmates at the memory of the cannibalistic Cyclops (10.391). Ligus, though, is also frequently used for the lamentation of women (Iliad 19.284; Odyssey 4.259; 8.527; 21.56, etc.).
In the same vein, as if in response to these sharp cries, the statement that lamentation freezes the heart—krueros goos—is repeated several times, perhaps with a dual meaning: it causes shudders of pain for the one crying and provokes shivers of horror for those who hear the dreadful moans (Iliad 24.524; Odyssey 4.103; 11.212). It should also be noted that the adjective krueros, in its other uses, characterizes the pursuit represented on the aegis of Athena (Iliad 5.740) and a rout during a battle (9.2; 13.48); in any case, death is in the background. [50]
The distribution of connotations attributed to tears is thus complex, almost contradictory: tears exhaust the warrior and drive away his vital force, but they also constitute a privileged sign of the energy that he manifests elsewhere, in combat. It is of note that when the poet describes a character consumed by tears, he is referring to either a woman or to Odysseus, whose situation in the Odyssey is no longer that of a warrior.
In the Iliad, the hot and flourishing tears of heroes are obvious expressions of their vitality. Through the volume of their sound, their staccato character, and their “living” quality, the sobs of men are a manifestation of their masculine nature. [51] It is as if the hero who cries is divided: his energy and his force are externalized in his tears; the pain of the men in the Iliad is active, powerful.

The Sites and Gestures of Grief

The spaces associated with tears differ depending on whether the lamentations are masculine or feminine. Men normally cry outside: Menelaus weeps on the seashore when he is with Proteus (Odyssey 4.539); Achilles and his companions wet the sands and their weapons with their sobs (Iliad 23.15–16); Odysseus sits at the tip of Calypso’s island and soaks his clothing with his tears (Odyssey 7.260); the sons of Priam, seated in the courtyard of the palace, do the same after the death of Hector (Iliad 24.161–162).
On the other hand, Penelope, the archetypal crying woman in the epic, always sobs inside the palace, and more specifically on her bed, inside her nuptial chamber:
I will therefore go upstairs and recline upon that bed which I have never ceased to flood with my tears …
Odyssey 19.594–596 (see also 16.449–450; 17.101–103; 20.58)
The permanent reminder of her bed, the privileged site of tears, demonstrates the perfect bond that unites a woman with her husband; [52] in the bed in Ithaca, Penelope’s tears are like a substitute for Odysseus.
A warrior can cry outside, on his weapons, a wife inside the palace, [53] on the marriage bed; once again, the distribution of masculine and feminine spaces is clearly distinguished.

The gestures of tears

The warrior in the epic cries just as he fights: in both cases, it is his body that is emphasized. Men sob intensely, actively, vigorously. By expressing grief through his gestures and cries, the Homeric hero reduces the weight of his suffering. Grief always follows an event that has taken place outside of the one who suffers. It is the interior reaction to the perception of this tragic exterior event. [54] This suffering is expressed first and foremost through gestures.
When he sees Hector dragged through the dust, Priam cannot contain himself: with frenzied gestures he expresses his pain, his need to go out and implore Achilles to return his son to him (Iliad 22.412–414):
Hardly could the people hold Priam back in his hot haste to rush without the gates of the city. He groveled in the mire and besought them … [55]
When misfortune strikes, the grief that invades the heart as well as the body is expressed in a series of self-directed gestures, immediate and violent, upon the man who is suffering: raising hands, striking the face (Iliad 22.33–34: Priam), pacing (Odyssey 13.220: Odysseus), rolling on the ground in the sand (Odyssey 4.539: Menelaus) or the mud (Iliad 22.414), and pulling out hair (Iliad 10.15: Agamemnon; 22.77–78: Priam; 24.711: Hecuba and Andromache); all are reactions dictated by suffering.
On one level, there is nothing apparent that distinguishes feminine gestures of grief. Women also rip out their hair and beat their chests (Iliad 18.30–31, 50-51; 24.710–711). However, they claw “their beautiful cheeks” (11.393; 19.284–285), a gesture that belongs to them alone. The male equivalent of this defacement takes on various forms: ash, dust, mud, manure; nothing is too dirty for destroying the radiance of a young body or the majesty of an older man.
One thing is clear: for women, the register for expressing emotion is more limited than for men. This restriction makes sense when we realize that women’s grief is always expressed as part of a ritual, in the strict sense: lamentations take place in certain circumstances according to a specific code, which leaves them no room to maneuver. [56]
Without a doubt, the expression of men’s grief is also determined on two levels: by the gestural code belonging to Homeric society and by the poetic conventions specific to the epic. But a convention is not necessarily a ritual.
Compared to the feminine expression of suffering, which is fixed by a hyper-ritualized code, the grief of men fits into a broader register. Feminine grief, restricted only to ritual, is set in opposition to the suffering of men, who are free to express themselves using the entire gestural language of epic society.


[ back ] 1. On black water and the epithet dnopheros used with melas for water, see Moreux 1967:257–261. We are reminded also of the black and destructive water of the Styx: Pausanias Description of Greece 8.17.6 and 8.18; Iliad 8.369.
[ back ] 2. The comparison is remarkable for the elements of savagery and brutality in the description of the Myrmidons arming themselves for battle; see Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:51–52.
[ back ] 3. “La mort fait aussi peur que le ‘noir’ ou la nuit, la mort est noire, la mort est nuit” (Moreux 1967:239). See also Mawet 1979:46–47 on the affective value of melas ‘black’ in the context of pain.
[ back ] 4. We can account for the tears of Patroclus in the same way: Patroclus is also distraught at the moment when the Greeks have just suffered a terrible assault, during which the principal commanders are wounded (cf. Iliad 16.21–29) and after which it seems that victory is no longer possible.
[ back ] 5. Stanford (1948, ad loc.) points out that this comparison was borrowed by Aeschylus in the Agamemnon (lines 48 and following) who writes of “that wail, / Sharp-piercing bird-shriek” (56–57; trans. Browning 1889). Perhaps we should also read this image of vultures with crooked talons as an allusion to the suitors who, every day, are pillaging the goods of Odysseus (Odyssey 1.91–92).
[ back ] 6. This comparison responds to the metaphor at Odyssey 19.136 (also in relation to Penelope): “But sorrow over Odysseus melts my heart.”
[ back ] 7. She “melts”; in Hesiod’s Theogony (862), the earth melted when struck by Zeus’ lightning bolt. Tēkō is also used in the vocabulary of love, the other “weakness” of women: thus, in Sophocles’ Trachiniae (462–463), Iole is “impregnated” and “melts” with passion for Heracles; see also Euripides Hippolytus 525; Plato Phaedrus 251B, etc. And see the remarks in Onians 1954:201–203 and Komornicka 1981:62–63.
[ back ] 8. “La principale difficulté à laquelle on se heurte est le danger de transposer purement et simplement, en grec ancien, les catégories et la structure du vocabulaire de la ‘douleur’ d’une autre langue—en l’espèce le français—, ce qui se produit inévitablement si l’on retient indistinctement tous les mots susceptibles d’être traduits par ‘douleur’ en français” (Mawet 1979:18). Mawet’s work and especially her long introduction have been of great utility to me.
[ back ] 9. For details, refer to the compilation in Scarcella 1958:799–834, which provides a meticulous accounting of the vocabulary of tears in Homer. Even though it does not offer any interpretation, this “catalogue” remains useful.
[ back ] 10. See Martino 1977:195–197; Alexiou 1974:11–13, 131 and following.
[ back ] 11. There are five occurrences of dakruō in the Iliad (1.349; 10.377; 16.7; 19.229; 22.491) compared to forty-three for dakru.
[ back ] 12. Iliad: Thetis (18.37); Brisēis (19.284); Hecuba (22.407; 24.200); Cassandra (24.703). Odyssey: Eurycleia (2.361); a group of women (4.259; 8.537); Penelope (19.541; 24.295).
[ back ] 13. See pp. 121–122 below.
[ back ] 14. See p. 21 above.
[ back ] 15. On this double association (trembling/fear and trembling/tears), see p. 94 above.
[ back ] 16. See p. 113 above.
[ back ] 17. Is the opposition between masculine and feminine operative even in the choice of climatic comparisons? Are the sobs of Agamemnon, like a winter snowstorm, diametrically opposed to the stream of Penelope’s tears, which are compared to the melting snow of spring?
[ back ] 18. See Mawet 1979:42 who points out that the adjective drimus ‘acrid, piercing’ describes battles (Iliad 15.696), the rage of a lion (18.322), and the menos of Odysseus; to varying degrees, we are dealing here with a term that has connotations of masculinity.
[ back ] 19. Other examples: Eumelus (Iliad 22.396–397), Eurylochus (Odyssey 10.244–299).
[ back ] 20. Tears: Iliad 7.426; 16.3; 17.437–438; 18.17, 235. The hot blood of Agamemnon’s wound: Iliad 11.266; hot baths: 15.6 and 22.444.
[ back ] 21. See Segal 1971b:25–26.
[ back ] 22. See p. 111 above.
[ back ] 23. See pp. 129–130 below on Niobe.
[ back ] 24. Food: Odyssey 14.77; the bloody eye of the Cyclops: 9.388; hot baths: 8.429, 451; 19.388.
[ back ] 25. Foliage: Iliad 13.380; Odyssey 12.357; flowers: Odyssey 9.449; skin: Iliad 4.237; 13.553; 14.406; Hesiod Works and Days 522.
[ back ] 26. Chantraine 1968–1977, s. v. θάλλω.
[ back ] 27. Lowenstam 1979:125–135.
[ back ] 28. An identical expression (thalerē … phōnē) at Iliad 23.396–397; Odyssey 4.704–705; 19.471–472.
[ back ] 29. From Eustathius (ad Iliad. 2.206) to Leaf 1900, Stanford 1948, and Willcock 1970 (ad loc .)
[ back ] 30. Translator’s note: In French, “pleurer à chaudes larmes” is a common idiomatic expression that corresponds roughly to the English “to cry ones eyes out.” The French retains the nuances of heat in a way that is lost in similar expressions for intense crying in English.
[ back ] 31. Tears of the dawn = dew (Ovid Metamorphoses 13.621–622); tears of Helen = helenium (see p. 104 above); tears of the lotus = gum (Herodotus 2.96); tears of trees = propolis (Aristotle History of Animals 533b28, etc); see Deonna 1965:148–153.
[ back ] 32. See also Lucian De astrologia 19; De saltatione 35.
[ back ] 33. Glaucus states this explicitly to Diomedes (Iliad 6.146): “Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees.”
[ back ] 34. The death of a warrior = a falling tree or flower: Iliad 4.482–487; 8.306–308; 13.178–180, 389–401, 437; 16.482–484; 17.53–56.
[ back ] 35. Iliad 4.487 (Simoeisius lies like a felled and drying poplar).
[ back ] 36. Onians 1954:191–192, 202 and following. Sweat is associated with the knee at Iliad 13.711; 17,385–386. Passages where life is being wasted away in tears: Odyssey 5.152–153, 160–161; 18.204.
[ back ] 37. Jaccottet does not translate νόστον, Bérard gives: “Perdant la douce vie à pleurer le retour” (“wasting his sweet life crying over his return”).
[ back ] 38. Benveniste 1937: “épuisent le vouloir-vivre” (108); see also Degani 1961:17–28.
[ back ] 39. “C’est bien parce que αἰών est la source de toute vigueur, et non pas seulement la durée de l’existence, qu’on dira d’un être jeune, tué en pleine force: ἀπ᾽ αίῶνος νέος ὤλεο (Ω 725), ou encore μινυνθάδιος δέ οἱ αἰὼν ἔπλετο (Δ 478 = Ρ 302) au sujet de Simoeisios florissant de jeunesse (ἠίθεον θαλερὸν Σιμοείσιον [Δ 473])” (Benveniste 1937:108).
[ back ] 40. This is the general idea of Onians’s 1954 interpretation, which remains thought provoking, although it is sometimes overly systematic. Words in Homer do not have only one meaning, and their meanings, at any rate, are not necessarily concrete.
[ back ] 41. With stenachō: Iliad 18.124; 23.225; 24.123; Odyssey 7.274. goaō-goos: 18.316; 22.430; 23.17; 24.510, 747; Odyssey 4.721; 16.216.
[ back ] 42. Bees: Iliad 2.87; flies: 2.469; the “dense, muscular” heart of Sarpedon: 16.421 (and why not “dark,” since death is already upon him?); the “tormented” heart of Penelope: Odyssey 19.516–517; Sirens: Odyssey 23.326 (Stanford 1948).
[ back ] 43. See Stanford 1936:54.
[ back ] 44. See also Odyssey 4.153; 19.516.
[ back ] 45. On puknos ‘compact’ as opposed to hugros ‘liquid’—that is, the ‘compactness’ of men opposed to the liquidity of women—see Demont 1978:373–374.
[ back ] 46. The “clenched” groans of Peleus are echoed, two verses later, by the image of this dense forest.
[ back ] 47. Ajax is literally overpowered by the compact rain of arrows.
[ back ] 48. Out of thirty-two uses of barus in the Iliad, twelve describe the groans of men: 1.364; 4.153; 8.334; 9.15, etc. (in the Odyssey: there are twelve occurrences).
[ back ] 49. Oxu intensifies kōkusasa, a verb that is only used for the cries of women; see p. 115 above.
[ back ] 50. We could compare this ‘dreadful moan’ to the character Helen, who makes men “shiver in fear” (Iliad 19.325), like war (5.351) or battle (17.175).
[ back ] 51. See the section on gestures below in this chapter.
[ back ] 52. On lechos ‘bed’, as a symbol of marriage, see Vernant 1979a:81.
[ back ] 53. While the sons of Priam are weeping for Hector in the hall, his daughters are wailing “about the house” (Iliad 24.166).
[ back ] 54. Anastassiou 1973:220.
[ back ] 55. Cf. Schadewaldt 1965:327.
[ back ] 56. See Reiner 1938:42 and following; Neumann 1965:85–89; Anastassiou 1973:22.