The Tears of Achilles

  Monsacré, Hélène. 2018. The Tears of Achilles. Trans. Nicholas J. Snead. Introduction by Richard P. Martin. Hellenic Studies Series 75. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


As we arrive at the end of this examination, it appears that heroism is, in essence, an ambiguous concept. At first glance, it seems that masculinity is at the core of heroism, and, further, that the limits of heroism coincide with those of masculinity. Without a doubt, a feminine element is not absent, but it acts as a foil. “Weakling cowards, Achaean women rather than Achaeans,” exclaims the military commander to revive his troops’ ardor. On this level, femininity appears to be the opposite of heroism.

However, the relationship between masculinity and femininity is not one of simple opposition. At the heart of heroism and hyper-virility, fragments have been taken from the feminine sphere. It is precisely this feminine portion, which enters necessarily into the makeup of the hero, that completes the figure. In effect, it is through first assuming and then surpassing the feminine element carried inside himself that the hero acquires his true dimension. This proximity and separation are best manifested in the body of the warrior: the characteristics borrowed from feminine beauty serve to emphasize and to valorize the hyper-virility of the hero.

Another level of overlap must be retained: that of maternity and war. If a hero acts in a “maternal” fashion, he does so on the battlefield. Here again, there is a simultaneous proximity and separation. It is the tension between these binary oppositions that confers upon the hero his true weight and substance.

For women, it is impossible to play as well on both registers. Their masculine side appears essentially temporarily, as a superimposition. They do not incorporate any share of masculinity itself; rather, it is their close proximity to their husbands that permits them to borrow these provisional, but non-constituent, qualities. Penelope, the “king” of Ithaca, plays a role that external events have imposed upon her, which they then withdraw; Achilles never plays any role other than his own.

It is perhaps in this impossibility of truly integrating a share of the masculine that the profound alterity of women resides. Femininity is not the counterpart to the masculinity of the hero. The hero’s excellence is indeed dependent on his beauty and on his virtue; and yet, because beauty is revealed in heroic deeds, the beauty of women, though frequently evoked, is never fully manifested. Furthermore, the virtue of women is relative and not absolute: there are no great feminine figures in the epic—apart from Helen—except through relationships with men.

In the Iliad, all the great heroes cry. The expression of pain belongs to men and women in common, and it is this very commonality that has made it compelling to study the interplay of similarities and differences. By studying the language of grief, we have shown that, while appropriating the model of feminine pain (childbirth and the story of Niobe), the masculine ideology of the Iliad is radically different, and it creates its own mode for expressing sorrow.

The storms of masculine pain contrast with the slow material loss that consumes the lives of weeping women; the variable register of masculine gestures contrasts with the rigid code of feminine body language strictly circumscribed by the ritual of lamentation. But what is more important: the moans of women lead to nothing; their tears only express a radical powerlessness.

If tears characterize first and foremost the great heroic figures, it is because their suffering is active, energetic, and virile. Suffering is inscribed on their bodies in the same manner that warlike ardor is inscribed. Through this valorization of force—in combat as in sobbing—the masculine ideology of the Iliad anchors suffering at the very heart of heroism; by creating its own mode for expressing grief, it establishes a system of values where masculine suffering attains a dimension denied to the tears of women.

Far from being an unimportant accessory to the epic warrior, the gift of tears is, on the contrary, one of the elements that constitute his heroic nature. “Valiant men are always inclined toward tears,” as one of the scholiasts of the Iliad says (ἀεὶ δὲ ἀριδάκρυες ἀνέρες ἐσθλοί, ad Iliad. 19.5). If epic heroes cry, it is first of all because they can—masculine tears are not a sign of weakness—but it is also because they must: their pain is a conspicuous sign of strength and vitality.

If the break is so clean at the classical period, where masculine figures no longer cry, it is perhaps because, once they ceased to think along the lines of heroism, men bestowed upon women the gift of tears …