III.5. The Weeping Body of Achilles

Achilles embodies all of the main heroic qualities that are accorded singly to other heroes. [1] He is beauty, strength, and excellence all at the same time. If, in a certain way, the Iliad exalts human energy during times of misfortune, [2] it is not surprising that Achilles embodies, by himself, almost all of the suffering in the poem. “Achilles is among the Homeric figures who experiences the most pain. And it is important to make clear that the ‘eternally striving youth’, with the radiance of his power and beauty, is also for us, on the threshold of Western culture, the figure who felt the most pain, a figure who is capable of great suffering,” writes Walter Schadewaldt. [3] And while the Iliad is indeed the story of Achilles’ anger, it is also the song of his sorrow.
Iliad 16.162 marks the close of a sequence: Achilles puts an end to his anger [4] and authorizes Patroclus to go into battle with his armor. His fate from then on is upended, and the last third of the poem especially paints the image of his grief. The fiction of an Achilles adakrutos ‘without tears’, which Thetis dreams for an instant, is impossible. “Would indeed that you had lived your span free from all sorrow at your ships,” [5] says his mother. It is precisely because he is the “best of the … Achaeans” [6] that he cannot be “without tears”; the lot of the heroic Achilles is necessarily bound to tears. His destiny is misfortune and the adjective apēmōn ‘he who knows no pain’ [7] reinforces adakrutos.
In leaving his anger behind, Achilles finds grief. Before examining the expression of his suffering in the Iliad, note the degree to which the death of Patroclus and the pain of Achilles are inextricably interwoven, if not equivalent.
A certain number of paradoxes and permutations warrant attention as well. In a gesture identical to the one Patroclus makes before convincing the son of Peleus to let him fight—that is to say, let him die—Achilles “struck his two thighs” (Iliad 16.125 and, for Patroclus, 15.397); this gesture always comes just before the death of the person who makes it. [8] Then, when he sobs upon the announcement of Patroclus’ death, it is he who, in a sense, occupies the place of the corpse. The real Patroclus is still on the battlefield, surrounded by the Trojans, and yet the gesture that Thetis makes toward Achilles is one reserved for the deceased: “She laid her hand upon his head and forced out a shrill cry, saying …” (18.71–72). She weeps for her living son with the gestures and words of funerary lamentation (18.54–60). [9]
One final note on a last analogy between the dead Patroclus and the suffering Achilles: the corpse of Patroclus is protected by Thetis, who instills nectar and ambrosia into his nostrils (Iliad 19.38–39); it is also nectar and ambrosia, poured by Athena into Achilles’ chest, that preserve his strength and energy (Iliad 19.347–348, 353–354).

The Body and Tears

As in our approach to courage, we will consider the question of the expression of heroic suffering from the standpoint of the warrior’s body, [10] focusing on the case of Achilles, since in the Iliad Achilles embodies the perfect warrior. In sobbing as well the hero’s body is enhanced, and qualities similar to those that are exalted in the practice of combat are used to describe the crying warrior.
The correspondences, however, are not so simple. Suffering in the epic is situated at the intersection of different categories of thought: biological necessities like food, rest, or sleep, psychological notions like erotic desire or courage, and aesthetic and moral values like the ideal of a beautiful heroic death are tightly interwoven by the poet when he presents heroes in the throes of pain. An attentive reading will determine the operational similarities between these different themes, but also—and more interestingly—the moments of interference where these different symbolic planes collide, as if the activity of weeping were a specific form of life, an autonomous physical and psychological condition, sufficient unto itself, that temporarily fuses together the different moments in the life of the epic hero.

Similarities in methods of intervention

Recalling the observations on the limbs of warriors, the knee, in particular, is a key component of the hero’s body. The joint of bravery, the knee—depending on whether it is stiff or flexible, firm or loose—expresses several of the warrior’s states of being.
When a goddess wants to give renewed warlike vigor to a hero, “she [makes] his limbs supple and [quickens] his hands and his feet” (Iliad 5.122), she puts strength into his knees (18.569).
Erotic desire buckles the knees of the suitors who contemplate Penelope’s beauty: “the suitors were so overpowered and became so desperately enamored of her their knees buckled” (Odyssey 18.212)
Hunger takes hold of the knees: it makes limbs heavy and hobbles knees (Iliad 19.165–166).
Sleep takes possession of the hero by relaxing the limbs: “While Odysseus was thus yielding himself to a very deep slumber that eased the burden of his body and his sorrows” (Odyssey 20.56–57; 23.342–343).
The formula for when a warrior dies is “have his knees loosened” (Iliad 4.469; 5.176, etc.).
And finally, sorrow also causes the knees to falter (Iliad 18. 31; 22.448); Achilles, lying in the dust, mourns for Patroclus (18.27).

The fusion of tears with the major stages of life

Living with tears
Grief manifests as a slowing down of physical and social life. [11] When Achilles is grieving, he no longer participates in meals: he is separated from the social life of the banquet. He does not eat until he kills Hector, refusing meals each time they are offered by the Achaeans (Iliad 19.205, 209–210, 304, 306–307, 319–321, 346). Once he is in possession of his new armor, his only concern is to rush to the battlefield (19.206–210):
Let the sons of the Achaeans, say I, fight fasting and without food, till we have avenged them; afterwards at the going down of the sun let them eat their fill. As for me, Patroclus is lying dead in my tent, all hacked and hewn, with his feet to the door, and his comrades are mourning round him.
Achilles does not need to be comforted with meals; he burns with a desire for revenge and a suffering stronger than hunger: “if any comrade will hear me, bid me neither eat nor drink, for I am in great heaviness, and will stay fasting even to the going down of the sun” (19.306–307). In his particular condition, food—the poet says explicitly—is incompatible with his tears and the battle that somehow takes the place of meals. Achilles’ suffering isolates him from the rest of the army and makes him lose his common sense, but Odysseus takes it upon himself to offer his wisdom (19.160–163):
… bid them first take food both bread and wine by the ships, for in this there is strength and stay. No man can do battle the livelong day to the going down of the sun if he is without food.
Food provides not only strength for the body, but also courage, menos and alkē. [12] For Achilles, sobbing may be equivalent to having a meal; while the Greeks dine, he cries (Iliad 23.3–4, 124–125). In his grief, he oscillates between two extreme attitudes toward food: on the one hand, he falls into an animal-like state when, at the height of his rage, he imagines shredding Hector to pieces and devouring him raw (22.347); on the other hand, he tends toward the divine, as the nectar and ambrosia he receives are not human foods (19.353–354).
The hero who suffers then is in a sort of vegetative state, nourishing himself on pain alone, “eating” his heart and not bread: “My son, how long will you keep on thus grieving and making moan? You are gnawing at your own heart” (Iliad 14.128–129). [13] It is in this setting that the active grief of Achilles comes to an end. In fact, after the intervention of Thetis, once the idea of returning Hector’s body has been approved, Achilles accepts the second phase of his destiny, and his actions become normalized. Consuming food marks a transitional stage, followed by a reinstatement of the norm.
When Priam arrives at the camp of the Myrmidons, he finds Achilles who “had but just done eating and drinking, and the table was still there” (Iliad 24.475–76). The refusal or the need to eat provides then a tempo for his periods of weeping. Through a beautiful reversal, it is Achilles who invites Priam to share his meal. Like Achilles, Priam fasts at the peak of his heartache; once the ransom for Hector’s body is accepted, he can think of eating. Achilles offers consolation [14] and reconciliation to Priam, and this reconciliation passes by way of commensality. [15]
As he remembers the meal, Achilles puts an end to his grief; it is an identical recollection that he offers to Priam when urging him to share his table. The example he selects to convince the old king is worth lingering over (Iliad 24.601–604, 610–620):
“… for the present let us prepare our supper. Even lovely Niobe of the lovely tresses had to think about eating, though her twelve children—six daughters and six lusty sons—had been all slain in her house … Nine days did they lie weltering, and there was none to bury them, for the son of Cronus turned the people into stone; but on the tenth day the gods in heaven themselves buried them, and Niobe then took food, being worn out with weeping. They say that somewhere among the rocks on the mountain pastures of Sipylus, where the nymphs live that haunt the river Achelous, there, they say, she lives in stone and still nurses the sorrows sent upon her by the hand of heaven. Therefore, noble sir, let us two now take food; you can weep for your dear son hereafter as you are bearing him back to Ilion—and many a tear will he cost you.”
In this complex sequence, the last major speech by Achilles, it is possible to identify several layers of meaning. [16] First, there is the parallel between the stories of Niobe and Priam. The anger of Apollo is the root cause of the death of Niobe’s children, just as Achilles’ anger causes Hector’s death. If the gods prevent the funerals of the Niobids, whose bloody bodies lie dead, Achilles for his part refuses to return Hector’s body and grows more obstinate every day. Niobe weeps nine days for her children before they are buried by the gods themselves; Priam asks Achilles for a truce for Hector’s funeral preparations—nine days to weep for him and one day to bury him—and Achilles himself places the body on the bier (Iliad 24.589). And finally, Niobe ruminates on her sorrow (kēdea pessei), and Priam does the same (kēdea muria pessō, 24.639). Grief has the properties of a food: it is cooked and digested (pessō). [17]
Niobe’s story condenses three principal, inextricably linked themes: maternity, memory, [18] and “self-satiating” grief. Niobe wanted to rival Leto, through the proxy of her offspring. Niobe’s “achievement” as the mother of many children diminished the prestige of Leto, who only had two herself. Punished for wanting to compare herself to a goddess, [19] she becomes a symbol of maternal suffering. Her fasting and her rigid inflexibility may be poetic ways of saying that a mother dies a little when her children are gone; thus Niobe is a kind of monument to eternal pain. [20] She is like a funeral stele, preserving the memory of her dead children; the image of a stele also characterizes Achilles’ horses when they cry hot tears for Patroclus (Iliad 17.434–44). [21] The rigidity of stone, like the continuous flow of tears resembling a spring, [22] suggests the permanence of remembrance, the eternity of memory. Niobe is the symbol of maternal suffering and, in this sense, the ultimate reference for all pain; it is this example that Achilles chooses to urge Priam to end his crying and feed himself.
Achilles eats after avenging and burying Patroclus, Niobe after the funeral for her children, Priam after accomplishing his mission to Achilles (24.641–642):
Now, moreover, I have eaten bread and drunk wine; hitherto I have tasted nothing.
Just as Achilles does not eat, he does not sleep during his suffering: he cries for Patroclus every night “and sleep, before whom all things bow, could take no hold upon him” (Iliad 24.4–5). True solace does not come until after the reconciliation with Priam. In fact, Achilles only falls asleep for two—very brief—moments, and each time he is awakened quickly, once by the shadow of Patroclus and once by the Achaeans. [23] His futile attempt to embrace Patroclus’ shadow wakes him with a jolt (23.101). After the cremation of the body, he once again spends the night weeping. At dawn, exhausted, he falls asleep (23.232) at the same moment when the Achaeans are noisily gathering around him. His sleep only lasts a few moments (23.235). In both cases, this interrupted sleep seems to indicate a need to go further into the rituals of mourning: he must burn Patroclus’ body and build a monument before returning to sleep. However, Achilles will not return to the normal cycle of his life until he shares a meal with Priam, “reconciles” with him, and recovers both his ability to sleep and, at the same time, his love of Briseïs.
Just as Achilles goes without sleep until the end of the funeral ceremony for Patroclus, Priam is unable to eat or sleep until he recovers Hector’s body: “Never once have my eyes been closed from the day your hands took the life of my son,” he says to Achilles (Iliad 24.637–638). [24]
In the end, Achilles will be cleansed of the blood that covers him only after he lays Patroclus on the pyre and cuts his own hair (Iliad 23.44–46).
There are three phases then that clearly establish the end of Achilles’ grief and his reintegration into the community of the Achaeans: 1) having killed Hector, he can once again take part in meals; 2) having led the funeral rites, he cuts his hair and is purified (Iliad 23.141); 3) he then regains his ability to sleep, and Briseïs sleeps by his side (Iliad 24.675–676).
The pleasure of sobbing
When he cries, the hero is entirely within his pain, as if isolated temporarily from the rest of life. He must go all the way through to the end of his aching in order to break free from it. Wholly consumed by his desire to cry, he will be sated by his tears, as the poet’s own words show. This vocabulary of sobbing is the same as that used to describe pleasure [25] —pleasure of sleep, of love, of eating, of the song of the bard. Achilles experiences a pleasure in playing the lyre (Iliad 9.186), just as he does when he is “sated with grief” (24.513).
The desire for tears can be set off by an external event (“Thetis stirred within them a still deeper desire for sobbing,” Iliad 23.14), by words (the lament of Achilles makes the Myrmidons cry, 23.108), by a gesture (Achilles leaving a lock of his hair on the body of Patroclus, 23.153); it can be provoked by seeing a loved one (the shade of Patroclus, 23.98; and of Anticlea, Odyssey 11.212), or the memory of someone who is absent (Peleus, 24.507).
More significantly, this desire is like hunger: it can be satiated. The formulaic verse αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύός ἕντο (“as soon as they had had enough to eat and drink,” Iliad 1.469; 2.432; 7.323, etc.), [26] which so often describes a meal in Homer, finds an echo in the contexts of weeping. Before leaving for the Greek camp, Priam speaks of the moment when he will “have taken my son in my arms and satiated my desire for sobbing” (24.227).
This is the pleasure of consuming tears: one might say that heroes are sated on sobs, as they are, at other moments, on meat and wine. This is the meaning of the verbs korennumi and ‘to be satisfied, gorged, or disgusted by’, which are frequently used to depict sobbing. In the Iliad, a warrior can “gorge” himself on tears, just as he gorges himself on meat, combat, and war. [27]
But sometimes, when mortally wounded, he will in turn satisfy Ares with his blood and the dogs and birds with his flesh. His parents, in their grief, will then hope to gorge themselves on tears. The death of Hector provokes the following reaction in Priam: “Would that he had died in my arms, for so both his ill-starred mother who bore him, and myself, should have had the comfort of gorging ourselves on tears and mourning over him” (Iliad 22.427–428). [28]
A man who cries surrenders to the shuddering of his sobs, is satiated by them, and finally, once he has cried enough, he is liberated from them: the desire for tears, which enters into the body through pain, escapes when the pleasure-suffering has been satisfied (Iliad 24.513–515):
But when Achilles was now sated with grief and had unburdened the bitterness of his sorrow, he left his seat and raised the old man by the hand.
Achilles, seated, and Priam, crouched at his feet, cry at length, the one for Patroclus and Peleus, the other for Hector. Once Achilles has worn out his sorrow, the desire for tears leaves, at the same time, his heart and his body. The fading of the desire to cry sets the body in motion: right away (autika, 24.515) the hero passes from a prostrate to a standing position. Though verse 514 may well have been athetized by Aristarchus, this does not seem to pose a problem. We have seen, in effect, that flash, that fatigue, that anger seep into the body of the warrior; [29] on the contrary, the fact that sobbing is incorporated deep inside the hero’s limbs confirms our hypothesis. For the warrior, to live out suffering in and through the body is one of the signs of his heroic character. It is this coinciding of emotional pain and its physical expression that controls the gestures of tears.
In the Iliad, the explosion of emotions is expressed in terms of physical transformation. Observe Achilles at the moment of the announcement of Patroclus’ death (Iliad 18.22–27):
A dark cloud of grief fell upon Achilles as he listened. He filled both hands with dust from off the ground, and poured it over his head, disfiguring his comely face, and letting the refuse settle over his khiton so fair and new. He flung himself down all huge and hugely at full length, and tore his hair with his hands. [30]
In a sense, Achilles merges with the corpse of Patroclus: he is in the same position, he disfigures himself (with dust); he tears out his hair, a symbol of his youth—and therefore a symbol of life [31] —as if he were participating momentarily in a state of death.
During most of his grief, Achilles remains lying down. Stretched out on the ground he weeps for his friend (Iliad 18.26–27, 170, 178 [keiso]); lying like him in the dust, Achilles holds Patroclus in his arms (19.4); he turns in all directions, moaning (24.5, 10–11); he paces and crawls around Patroclus’ funeral pyre (23.225).
Thus, in moments of suffering, foregoing food and sleep, lying down, and temporarily disfiguring the body are ways of mimicking death. This travesty of death in combat—“he now lies in repose stretched on earth in the bitterness of his spirit” Thetis says to Hephaestus, exactly as she would say if Achilles were dead (Iliad 18.461; cf. 18.20)—as well as the analogous black cloud of grief that envelopes Achilles (18.22), further tightens the connection between tears and war. Furthermore, the extraordinary violence of Achilles’ gestures and the terrible moaning sound as he cries out (smerdaleon d’ōimōxen, 18.35) [32] are also reminders of the immense force inside his warrior’s body. In his tears, mingled with anger and grief, Achilles is, once again, “like a lion” (Iliad 18.318, 323).


[ back ] 1. Benardete 1963:1
[ back ] 2. Thus Bespaloff 1943:47–48; see also the more decidedly clear-cut opinion of Weil 1953:28, who asserts that the warriors in the Iliad only have one single future: the death affixed to them by their “profession.”
[ back ] 3. “Achilleus ist unter den Gestalten Homers die schmerzensreichste. Und es ist bedeutungsvoll, sich klarzumachen, dass in dem ‘ewig strebenden Jüngling’, auf dem der Glanz der Kraft und der Schönheit ruht, uns an der frühen Schwelle des Abendlandes auch die Gestalt des dem Leiden Überantworteten, zum grossen Leid Befähigten begegnet” (Schadewaldt 1965:336). On the other hand, Méautis 1930:11, presents Achilles as no more than a “romantic hero.”
[ back ] 4. Watkins 1977:187–199 demonstrated the gruesome and dangerous character of mēnis ‘anger’ and detailed the linguistic taboo that surrounds the word in Homer.
[ back ] 5. 1.415–416. I’m grateful to Nicole Loraux for pointing out this important passage.
[ back ] 6. Evoked three verses earlier (ariston Achaiōn, 1.412).
[ back ] 7. Cf. Mawet 1979:140–141. I would point out that at 3.160 Helen is described as a pēma ‘a plague or a misfortune’.
[ back ] 8. Lowenstam 1981:31–38 sees this gesture as one of the signs in a “typological sequence.”
[ back ] 9. Compare this passage to Iliad 22.431–436, where Hecuba addresses Hector after his death.
[ back ] 10. See Part 1, Chapter 2 above.
[ back ] 11. See Granet 1922:104 for similarities between ancient Greece and China’s classical age.
[ back ] 12. See the remarks in Böhme 1929:31–35.
[ back ] 13. See also the similar image at Odyssey 10.379 (Circe speaking to Odysseus): “why do you sit like that as though you were dumb, gnawing at your own heart, and refusing both meat and drink?” See Anastassiou 1973:77–78 and Nagler 1974:178–179.
[ back ] 14. On the structuring of consolatio (commiseration, example, an offer of food and/or drink, exhorting to be courageous), see Nagler 1974:174–198.
[ back ] 15. Griffin 1980:14–20.
[ back ] 16. The helpful observations of Kakridis 1930:113–122 and Nagler 1974:193–195 have guided me here.
[ back ] 17. Echoing the metaphors describing weapons that devour (see p. 23 above), I would point out that the wound caused by an arrow can be “digested”: Iliad 8.513.
[ back ] 18. The entire sequence is framed by the doubled theme of memory: for Achilles and Priam: Iliad 24.601, 618; for Niobe: 602, 613.
[ back ] 19. See Saïd 1978:289.
[ back ] 20. Pucci 1980:195n33.
[ back ] 21. See p. 117 above.
[ back ] 22. Patroclus’ tears are compared to a spring falling out of a rock: Iliad 16.3–4, see p. 117 above.
[ back ] 23. See Nagler 1974:170–178
[ back ] 24. Eating clearly marks the return to normal life. Priam, like Achilles, wore himself out sobbing; after having eaten, he asks for someone to prepare him a bed “immediately” (tachista), Iliad 24.635.
[ back ] 25. Terpō (Iliad 23.10, 98; 24.513; Odyssey 4.107, 194; 11.212; 19.213, 251); himeros (23.14, 108, 153; 24.507, 514; Odyssey 4.113, 183; 16.215; 19.249; 22.500; 23.231); erōs (Iliad 24.227).
[ back ] 26. See Chantraine 1964.
[ back ] 27. Meat and wine: Iliad 19.167, 307; combat: 13.639, 746; 22.218.
[ back ] 28. The same idea is at Iliad 24.717. In the Odyssey (20.59), Penelope “relieved herself by weeping.” Menelaus, after having sobbed and rolled in the sand, wears out his suffering (Odyssey 4.541).
[ back ] 29. See pp. 20–24 above.
[ back ] 30. On this passage, see now the remarks in Schein 1984:129ff.
[ back ] 31. See Vernant and Gnoli 1982:62
[ back ] 32. Note the parallel to the Cyclops who, when wounded by Odysseus, lets out an identical cry of pain, Odyssey 9.395.