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.


Richard P. Martin, Stanford University

Warrior, hero, super-male—Achilles should not cry. Not, that is, in the contemporary understanding of the categories he seems to personify, categories that (one might at first assume) have always dominated the imagination of our cultural forefathers, from the earliest epics, through John Wayne westerns, to the latest Star Wars film, the protagonist of which, Luke Skywalker, was scornfully dubbed by some moviegoers “Luke Crywalker” for displaying an unacceptable sensitivity.

Of cultural foremothers, Western tradition has transmitted much less. What we do have—for instance, fragments of poetry attributed to Sappho (late seventh/early sixth century BCE)—tends to undercut easy assumptions that early Greek society was totally in the grip of patriarchal machismo. In contrast to the “finest” things that others praise on earth—an army of foot soldiers or horsemen, a fleet of ships—the poetess of Lesbos opts for “that which one loves” (fr. 16.1-4). Of course, one could argue that Sappho’s bold preference for the erotic over the martial was a minority view, a “veiled sentiment” confined to women’s quarters, safely marginalized, never a threat to glorious male ambitions. But we should remember that it was primarily men in their elite drinking parties who re-performed and disseminated Sapphic songs and sentiments, men who seemed to need deeply this mirror of the Other, to order and express their own moods and yearnings. The figure of Sappho, like Socrates’ female instructor Diotima two centuries later (topic of another elite male symposium), possesses a deeply experienced form of wisdom not ordinarily accessible to men. So does the realm most associated with women in Greek thought: grief and mourning.

Hélène Monsacré’s path-blazing study demonstrates how this same psychic dynamic is at work already in our earliest preserved Greek poetry, the epics attributed to Homer. Heroes weep. Not only do warriors break down and cry under the weight of battle, amid the slaughter of companions. The most heroic—Achilles, “best of the Achaeans”—cries most. We see him in tears in the very first book of the poem (Iliad 1.347–363):

          He led forth from the hut Briseis of the fair cheeks and gave her
          to be taken away; and they walked back beside the ships of the Achaians,
          and the woman all unwilling went with them still. But Achilleus
          weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions
350    beside the beach of the gray sea looking out on the infinite water.
          Many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother:
          “Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,
          therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me
          honor at least. But now he has given me not even a little.
355    Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon,
          has dishonored me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.”
          So he spoke in tears and the lady his mother heard him
          as she sat in the depths of the sea at the side of her aged father,
          and lightly she emerged like a mist from the gray water.
360    She came and sat beside him as he wept, and stroked him
          with her hand and called him by name and spoke to him: “Why then,
          child, do you lament? What sorrow has come to your heart now?
          Tell me, do not hide it in your mind, and thus we shall both know.”

(trans. Richmond Lattimore)

Why does the Iliad (and in a slightly different manner, the Odyssey) represent its protagonists as prone to tears? How, especially in light of later tradition, could weeping be conceived as a signal, rather than betrayal, of manhood? Hélène Monsacré’s meticulous explanation gets to the heart of Greek conceptions, not just of heroism, but of society, divinity, and gender. One of the most striking conclusions of her analysis is that the later ideal of stoically inexpressive manhood runs contrary to the poetic vision of the Iliad and Odyssey. The epic protagonists, instead, are larger-than-life figures who transcend simple gender stereotypes. That is why they are precisely the men most likely to weep. In order to articulate this counter-intuitive position, the paradox of the tearful fighter, Monsacré expands her view to take into account all aspects of relations between men and women in the Homeric imaginary. The resultant new horizon blooms into a meditation on the nature of emotion and its depiction. Into such unfamiliar interpretive territory we are led by a guide who grounds in lucidly argued explication her deeply-felt intuitions. Les larmes d’Achille is thus more than a display of exegetical skill; it is a compelling message for anyone touched—like Achilles—by a world of grief.

To appreciate fully the achievement of the book, it is important to develop a sense of its full scope, lest we mistakenly pigeonhole it in too narrow a critical slot. In construction, it is a triptych, with three major sections devoted, respectively, to men; to women; and to interactions between the genders. In movement, it is more circular than linear, avoiding some easy Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis, because it respects the complexities and essential asymmetries in the poetic materials. Running through the book, as through the poem, is a constant fascination with the body, with its movements and gestures, tactility and expressivity—far beyond the shedding of tears.

Somewhat surprisingly, Monsacré begins with eroticized bodies: in particular, the Trojan warrior Paris, more lover than fighter, whose marked affiliation with Aphrodite (and because of her, with Helen) sparked the entire conflict. His depiction in the Iliad demarcates one side of the broad field of heroic action. Hector, his brother, holds the middle ground, resistant to his wife’s plea that he keep away from the midst of battle, placing the winning of immortal fame (kleos) before family relations, but all the while acutely conscious of the claims of non-combatants. At the other extreme from Paris is the Greek warrior Diomedes, a killing-machine with the help of Athena, untouched by eros and—appropriately—the only hero who does not cry in war (his only tears coming at his defeat in a chariot race: Iliad 23.385). While the body of the Homeric fighter functions in all its parts as a burnished mirror for male heroism, it also excites the desire to gaze. Epic poetry can feminize it, highlighting the tenderness of skin, making war look like an amorous encounter, an intimate battle-dance. Through poetic imagery and fictional devices, even death is eroticized. Cities are seized in the way that women are taken, both having “veils” that are ripped away. Dead, the fortunate fighter turns into aesthetic object, frozen in la belle mort. But there is also the chilling parallel between women who care for men—dead and alive—and vultures who just crave the warrior’s corpse.

The final chapter of Part One, in which Monsacré carefully observes the role of mothers and images of the maternal in the Iliad, forms a bridge to Part Two, a richly detailed section devoted to women in epic. Eschewing the simplifications of positivist historians, Monsacré quickly moves beyond the obvious (that women occupy domestic spaces, for example) to focus on the interesting liminal scenes, where the sphere of women impinges on that of men—for example, the walls of Troy, from which wives become spectators of their doomed husbands and Helen is led away by Aphrodite to confront Paris in their bed-chamber. This initial overview, which stresses female mobility within the spaces of epic, then carries us into a fine-grained analysis of the poetic techniques whereby women are represented as individuals—or, as happens most often, are described within the system of conventional epithets that frames the world view shared by audience and poets. “Beautiful in face”; “with fine hair” (or, “lovely cheeks” or “white arms” or “slender ankles”)—at first, we might think that the Homeric “occultation du corps” underwrites a suspect and essentializing commodification. But as Monsacré notes, Homeric men reside within a similar system of expectation. It is not that diction is destiny; rather, both the poetic semiotic system and the cultural codes of the heroic age (at least, as the age is imagined in epic) align. Paradoxically, there are definite horizons for male and female ambition, but these can only come into clearest view when there is a character (an Achilles or Helen) who threatens to transgress the bounds. What is more, the deployment of epithets and type-scenes makes explicit some striking parallels between the gendered worlds, as women’s veils echo men’s armor, in a shared appearance of brilliance and luster.

Like a skilled veteran ethnographer, Monsacré finds no detail of this representational system to be without interest. She is sensitive to all the senses, colors, appearances. And, like the self-aware cultural anthropologist, she pays attention as well to the contingent, fluid nature of her material. The Iliad and Odyssey are not historical accounts of static “cold” societies but warmly imagined, teleologically directed narratives. A critical account of the epics, therefore, will best resemble more a series of snapshots, candid as well as posed, than a continuous film. At heart, it is this modern anthropological attitude that guides Monsacré. She writes in a series of swift and incisive critical perceptions, thematically linked, rather than under the weight of some ponderous thesis that would have required propping up in the implausible parts. (It is worth noting in this regard that native-speaker reviewers of the original French volume praised the clarity and appeal of her prose style: e.g. Bouvier 1985.)

In their mastery of speech, as well, women can rival or outperform men, though more often by using speech-genres that are traditionally their own domain (such as lament). Goddesses and nymphs—Aphrodite, Calypso, Circe—may be more likely to speak out against male discourse (as when Calypso complains about being commanded to release Odysseus in Book 5), but the epics also feature powerful voices belonging to mortal females, like Hecuba, who gets the most lines of speech by women in the Iliad. Monsacré’s point, that the most acceptable female speech interactions with men (in the sense that they neither deceive nor berate them) are those by Helen, corresponds with the findings of other scholars regarding the close proximity of the poetic narrator to this figure, as if Helen speaks to an audience beyond the immediate interlocutors, the generations to come for whom, as she self consciously asserts, she will be a subject of song (Iliad 3.125–130). Once more, the role of Homeric women cannot be disentangled from the fates of men. The final chapter of the book’s second movement illuminates the episodes in which we see women operating from a superior authoritative status: queen Arete taking charge of the Phaeacians, Andromache advising Hector, Cleopatra successfully supplicating her husband Meleager or—most memorably—Penelope, who can be compared to a king whose fine reputation has spread far and wide (Odyssey 19.108). That such women are depicted in poetic terms also appropriate to warriors is not the result of some proto-feminist attempt to promote gender equality. Instead, the epics embody a deeper realization of the ways in which roles intersect and the genders interact—not unlike the complex play of forces that alternately unites and separates Homeric mortals and the gods.

In the book’s third and final movement, Monsacré returns to the “tears” of her title, scrupulously comparing the moments and manners in which heroes and women weep, while contrasting these behaviors in the Iliad and Odyssey. In the former poem, weeping marks the deaths of beloved companions—most dramatically, but not exclusively, the death of Achilles’ alter ego, Patroclus. In the Odyssey, it is the memory of war and home that haunt the hero, prompting his sighs and silent lament. Odysseus, meanwhile, displays the essence of his character as polutlas ‘much-enduring’ by his attempts to suppress and control weeping. The subcurrent of tears that flows through the poem eventually touches most figures in it, from Peisistratus, the son of Nestor recalling his dead brother killed at Troy, to Laertes, the aged father of the homecoming hero, crying at the mention of his son’s name by Odysseus, hiding to the last his true identity (Odyssey 24.280). Odysseus’ tears, unlike those of the Iliad, are never simple, but, like the poem’s plot, occur among divagations and disguises.

If the epics diverge in the emotional coloration of their respective tears, they are united in another way. Andromache and Penelope both weep out of a sense of helplessness in the face of war and its consequences. Unlike the male heroes who can react to overpowering sadness, whether through devices of cunning or manic revenge, the leading female figures possess only their tears as a response—but these, coupled with expressive verbal lament have their own powerful communicative weight. Monsacré merges an analysis of the language constituted by tears with the poetic language about tears, the vivid comparisons of weeping to black-watered springs, or melting snow, and of cries to the sounds of predatory birds. Her meticulous observation of the fine points of Homeric diction surrounding grief uncovers startling cross-overs and parallels: tears (warm, flowing, tender) metonymically resemble the warriors who shed them (regularly described by the poetry in terms of plants, leaves, or trees bound to wither and dry up).

One warrior in particular embodies in all his parts this world of tears: Achilles, whose very name, as a compound, has been linked to achos ‘grief’ for the fighting group (laos)—grief felt passively as well as grief actively caused. It is striking, but appropriate, that the hero’s final consolation for Priam, his slaughtered enemy’s father (itself a surreal reversal) hinges on overwhelming grief, the story of the legendary Niobe, a mother endlessly weeping for her slaughtered children, even when she is turned to stone, like a spring in a mountain landscape. Monsacré sees in this ethical exemplum recalled by Achilles a confluence of themes—memory, maternity, nourishment—that have run throughout the Iliad. This association spells out a reading of the epic that counterpoints its brutality and suffering with another vision, an extremely slender shaft of light at the ultimate edge of the bleak picture. As in later Aeschylean tragedy—but, in Homeric poetry, with more restraint and less didactic dramatization—suffering brings knowledge. It offers the consolation that, for mortals while alive, grief can be, if not ended, at least diminished and contained. In the terms of the Iliad, the means for channeling the flood of emotion into a stream of tears are two: ritual and poetry, which is to say funeral rites and epic itself. In this way, Achilles becomes more than just a metonymy for the tragic situation of the Iliad. His deep comprehension of the aetiology of grief is summed up in the realization that one can find satiety even in tears, the sort of satisfaction provided by having eaten and drunk enough. Monsacré names this relief through sorrow la jouissance-souffrance. It is fair to say that exactly this effect is what epic song aims to achieve.

This rapid overview of the book’s sonata-like structure provides only a brief glimpse of the illuminating, at times brilliant, interpretations that will reward slow, careful reading. Since even the most brilliant critical analyses, however, emerge from a specific intellectual context, it is worth mentioning two important approaches to literature and culture with which Monsacré’s writing engages. Neither is specific to Homeric studies, but in various ways, both have affected them in recent decades. Their adroit intertwining contributes to the overall impact of this volume.

First, the book has a close relationship with “structuralist” interpretation. Although now on the ebb, this theoretical approach to language, literature, and culture was at its height for roughly a quarter-century, from 1955 to 1980. “Structuralism” was never a monolithic approach. It drew from, and influenced in turn, work in linguistics, anthropology, and the broader study of sign-systems (“semiotics”). Among its leading proponents was the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), whose work with Nikolai Trubetzkoy, a fellow member of the informal Linguistic Circle of Prague, laid the foundation for an approach to language as a system in which basic elements, like phonemes, possess meaning only through a systematic and contrastive relationship to other elements. During the Second World War, Jakobson taught at the New School in New York City. There, another émigré scholar, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 –2009) attended his lectures on structural phonology, and with Jakobson’s encouragement began work on what would become his landmark 1949 study The Elementary Structures of Kinship. This, and such later work as Structural Anthropology, developed the notion that all human cultures are patterned on underlying, often unconscious structures of thought, built around fundamental binary oppositions (like those evident in the structure of language). For Lévi-Strauss, such oppositions included hot vs. cold, raw vs. cooked, culture vs. nature, and male vs. female. Clearly, Monsacré’s analysis relies on and extends the anthropological thinking about this lattermost category. Lévi-Strauss himself was more interested in complicating his identification of binary oppositions by investigating the role of mediating categories or figures, in which seemingly irreconcilable poles were brought together or transformed into other, more malleable sets of oppositions (as in his famous study of the myth of Oedipus). In the same way, Monsacré shows much more interest in the unexpected cross-over, the short-circuiting of seemingly stable oppositions, the brouillage (‘blurring’ or ‘scrambling’) that brings together joy and grief, real and fabulous worlds, and most of all, that plays with any and all oppositions of gender.

It is noteworthy, however, that the name of Lévi-Strauss comes up only once in the book, and then only in a footnote concerning the low regard in which the Greeks held archery in war, citing the 1979 piece “Lévi-Strauss en Brocéliande,” a tour de force structuralist analysis of a twelfth-century French chivalric romance, written by the medievalist Jacques Le Goff (1924–2014) together with the historian of ancient Greece, Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930–2006). Le Goff, a foundational figure of the Annales school of anthropologically-inflected historical studies, headed the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in the mid-1970s. Vidal-Naquet, who began teaching at EHESS in 1969, directed Monsacré’s doctoral thesis, on which her book is based.

It is the application of Levi-Straussian structuralism to literature and history by the group of scholars sometimes known as the “Paris School” that has most immediately shaped Monsacré’s work. Along with Vidal-Naquet, the Hellenists Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Nicole Loraux, with a number of other colleagues and students from several subdisciplines (historical psychology, study of law and institutions, philosophy), produced highly influential studies from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, a body of work that fundamentally changed modern studies of ancient Greek culture. What ties together their diverse works is the shared tendency to balance broad structural analyses with the telling particularities of detail, often drawing on neglected myths, cults, legends, and lore. Sustained interpretation of a single text was not the preferred method of this group, although its members often made use of textual analysis as they articulated larger mindsets and structures within Greek culture. In Monsacré’s book, the constant reference to macroscopic oppositional sets (men and women, gods and mortals) is consistently balanced by micro-level readings of individual episodes, lines, and words. In sum, hers is a solid structuralism, but one refracted through poetry, at a slant to the elucidation of binaries, explored with nuance and a light touch.

The second influential approach, also subtly deployed in the book rather than blazoned across it, is the systematic study of the techniques of oral-traditional heroic song initiated by Milman Parry (1902–1935) and developed by his collaborator Albert B. Lord (1912–1991). This approach, like structuralism, combines American and Parisian lines of development. Parry, a native of Oakland, California, began his doctorate at the Sorbonne soon after obtaining his MA from Berkeley with a thesis on the diction of early Greek epic poetry, directed by George Calhoun. In Paris, Parry engaged on a comprehensive analysis of the formulas in Homeric poetry, with a focus on recurrent combinations of proper nouns and attached epithets. He attempted to account for why, for example, at certain moments Achilles is “swift-footed” and Odysseus “of much cunning” but in other lines the same heroes are described, respectively, as “shining” or “of many devices.” His major thesis, published in 1928 as L’épithète traditionnelle dans Homère, demonstrated for the first time that formulaic phrases provided, for each major character throughout the epics, one and (with very few exceptions) only one adjective to accompany any given proper noun, varying with the standard metrical segments of the epic hexameter line. Such an economical and extensive system, Parry concluded, could only have arisen over generations of poetic production, developed by epic poets who passed down their art within a continuing tradition.

The discovery of the metrically-sensitive and systematic nature of the Homeric “art-language” (Kunstsprache) had previously been noticed at the level of individual word-endings or pronoun usage: for example, the existence of five different forms of the genitive case for the word ego (“I”) had been explained by earlier scholars as the reflex of necessity imposed by the hexameter (each form having a different metrical shape). That the epics consisted almost entirely of formulas—lines and phrases re-used in whole or part, involving all kinds of words, not just proper nouns—had been proposed but not demonstrated in 1923 by Antoine Meillet (1866–1936) in Les origines indo-européennes des mètres grecs. Parry’s path-breaking work eventually brought the analysis of Homer to a new level. Briefly (since to recount the whole story would mean describing in detail Homeric studies of the last ninety years), the demonstration of the traditional nature of the formula enabled interpreters to claim access to deeper structures of thought and shared cultural knowledge (thus, in effect, connecting with the later project of structuralism). If the diction of Homeric epic results from multiple generations of transmission, we can hypothesize that it preserves concepts and meanings of deep and enduring importance to the audiences for epic. In short, the epics are not the one-time artististic inventions of a single person whose relationship to any broader culture is impossible to determine. Homeric poetry is the broader culture.

By the time that Monsacré began her thesis, a half-century after Parry, further refinements of the approach had largely overcome earlier objections that by acknowledging the formulaic nature of Homeric verse we obliterate any traces of individual genius, or deny intentional artistry. On one hand, the formula was now considered a highly flexible, adaptive, and creative device (as demonstrated by such scholars as J. B. Hainsworth, Mark Edwards, Michael Nagler and Arie Hoekstra). On the other, its deep-rootedness in Greek tradition, extending back even to the era around 3000 BCE when the language had not yet separated from the larger Indo-European family, had been re-affirmed and articulated. Here, the work of Gregory Nagy, in particular, was essential for showing that the central themes of the Iliad and Odyssey—the nature of the hero, the importance of “unwithering fame” (kleos aphthiton)—were foregrounded and thematized precisely by means of the traditional formulaic language of the poems. Although even now there are a few scholars who insist that “Homer” must have been a literate and “literary” artist like Vergil or Milton, a specific time-bound individual who innovated upon, resisted, or even tried to break out of his tradition, it is more fruitful to treat Homeric verse (as also Hesiodic and the so-called “Cyclic” poems) as a systematic narrative expression of larger cultural concerns.

Monsacré in her introduction acknowledges the key findings of Parry, but, as her concern is not primarily with the formula and its meanings, she does not devote extended sections to exploring formally the mechanics of traditional poetics. Yet her programmatic statement at the beginning of Part 2, Chapter 2 recognizes that it is “le répertoire des formules et des épithètes” which best represents communally shared ideas concerning women in epic. Furthermore, her sensitive appreciation of the aesthetics of Homeric diction, the way in which precise fixed expressions embody the poems’ major themes, stands out in every chapter. Among numerous examples one should notice her discussion of the words for “withering” and “melting” in speaking of the “language of tears” and Penelope; the distinctions she draws among words for crying and lamenting (e.g. the verbs klaio and kokuo, the noun goos); her analysis of the rich semantics of the epithet thaleron ‘blooming, fertile’ in relation to the word for “tear” (with which it is formulaically bound); and her extended remarks on the expressions for groaning in pain or sorrow—the formulaic variations involving the verb sten­akhizo and several different adverbs. The texture of every discussion is enriched by this attention to dictional detail; in addition, it is exactly the evidence of diction—for instance, the complex semantics of thaleron—that grounds a number of Monsacré’s more striking explications. Through these closely-argued investigations of the text, she has demonstrated the basic correctness of the work begun by Parry and its essential utility for literary interpretation of Homer.

One necessary final note on this approach, and one resultant question. In his 1928 dissertation, Parry had proven the traditional nature of Homeric diction but had not yet formulated the idea with which popular accounts usually credit him, the discovery that Homeric poetry must have been the product of oral composition-in-performance. It was only in a second phase that he discovered through fieldwork, while making live recordings in the Bosnian-Muslim region of Novi Pazar in the early 1930s, that similar extensive and convenient dictional systems were employed by demonstrably illiterate performers of traditional South Slavic heroic poetry. Albert Lord, who had accompanied him on his second expedition, continued after the tragic early death of Parry in 1935 to work along similar lines in the Balkans, eventually publishing in 1960 the landmark presentation of their work, in his Harvard dissertation-book, The Singer of Tales. That volume makes the first sustained case for the proposition that Homeric poetry was oral poetry, composed anew every time that a singer performed, through the creative use of formulas at the level of verse as well as larger passages and episodes. Thousands of books and articles inspired by the work of Parry and Lord have now expanded the impact of their fieldwork-based demonstration, applying it to hundreds of oral poetic traditions in scores of languages.

It is interesting to see, from a century’s distance, how these two important streams in Monsacré’s intellectual history—Parry’s study of Homeric diction and the Paris School version of structuralism—flow, ultimately, from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, the brilliant linguist whose lectures in Geneva were posthumously reconstructed from student notes and published in 1916. As noted above, it was from Saussure that Roman Jakobson and the Prague school drew key concepts for linguistics, which then spread widely to other fields. Saussure was also the most influential teacher of Antoine Meillet, who had taken courses from him in Paris during the period 1885–1889. From him, Meillet clearly learned the value of studying the living, synchronic state of a language. When Parry defended his Sorbonne theses, it was Meillet, as chairman of the jury, who invited to the soutenance of May 31, 1928 Matija Murko (1861–1952), a linguistics professor at the University of Prague, then visiting Paris to deliver a series of lectures on his specialty, the folk poetry of Yugoslavia. With Meillet’s urging, Parry later absorbed Murko’s works, and soon decided to carry out his own fieldwork, during leave from his position in the Harvard Department of Classics. (In another pleasing coincidence, the ubiquitous Roman Jakobson, who had come to know Murko in Prague in the 1920s and made use of his early field recordings, served on the committee for Lord’s Harvard dissertation defense in 1949.)

The key role that we now know performance plays in the creation of oral-traditional heroic song raises one question for Monsacré’s study that goes beyond her assiduous investigation of the relevant formulaic diction. What sorts of living interactions do we imagine between poets who compose in performance, and their audiences, and—even more to the point—how might these have affected Homeric audiences hearing such emotional moments as those that this book explicates? To judge by the account of Ion, in the Platonic dialogue named for him, the professional reciter of Homeric poetry (rhapsōidos) regularly plunged into emotional involvement with the characters whose stories he recounted. As Ion tells Socrates (Ion 535c), “when I relate a tale of woe, my eyes are filled with tears; and when it is of fear or awe, my hair stands on end with terror, and my heart leaps.” He proceeds to agree with Socrates that similar effects are transmitted by the Homeric reciter to a crowd of spectators (here perhaps exaggerated at 20,000 people), “for I look down upon them from the platform and see them at such moments crying and turning awestruck eyes upon me and yielding to the amazement of my tale. For I have to pay the closest attention to them; since, if I set them crying, I shall laugh myself because of the money I take, but if they laugh, I myself shall cry because of the money I lose” (Ion 535e, trans. W. R. M. Lamb). Conditions for the dramatic, competitive recitation of Homer in Athens during the late fifth century BCE may not have matched oral-poetic performances of a century before. Did the poet weep, along with the audience and his fictional figures? Was the emotional outpouring framed by actual practices of lament, linked to rituals within the city-state? Were such practices in fact at the root of the creation and spread of oral-traditional heroic poetry in Greek lands, starting perhaps in the second millennium BCE? While such questions remain outside Monsacré’s purview, her clear appreciation of the findings of Parry, Lord, and others in the area of poetic diction might logically push the exploration even further, into an account of emotions-in-performance.

Rather than a re-orientation of the book’s path, however, a conclusion demands at least the briefest mention of how it fit into the landscape of Homeric studies when first published in 1984, and where it might stand now. Thirty years ago, feminist studies of the Classics were in their initial phase, inspired to a large extent by the new French feminism of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva. In the United States, the work of Marylin Arthur, Ann Bergren, Laura Slatkin, Charles Segal, and Froma Zeitlin was au courant with the latest structuralist interpretations emanating from Paris as well. Still, of the 178 items listed in L’année philologique as having been published on Homer in 1984, covering archaeology, studies of individual figures, similes, the formula, narrative technique, social structure, and themes like recognition and supplication, only one, besides Monsacré’s, could be identified as feminist in orientation (Anna Di Lello-Finuoli, “Donne e matrimonio nella Grecia arcaica,” SMEA 25:275–302). Nor, apart from Nagy’s 1979 work The Best of the Achaeans, were there books at the time that attempted to provide an overarching study of the Iliad and Odyssey in relation to specific cultural categories. James Redfield’s work with a structuralist title invoking “nature and culture” was actually more of a close reading of the figure of Hector, and confined itself to the Iliad, as did Seth Schein’s The Mortal Hero, while The Wrath of Athena by J. S. Clay was centered more on theodicy than gender, and mainly on the Odyssey. (All three are cited by Monsacré.) Given the great amount of intensive work on Homeric epic subsequent to 1984, especially on gender, intertextuality, reception, and cultural institutions, it is worth recalling how Monsacré brought a unique voice and point-of-view to the center. Despite the wave of more recent work, it must be said that Les larmes d’Achille remains unsurpassed in the treatment of its fascinating and crucially important subject. This new translation will bring her much needed perspective on the poetics of gender and emotion to a new generation of readers and scholars.

References and further reading

These notes are intended to fill out the above introduction with bibliographic details, following the order in which topics are mentioned, while providing pointers toward related studies. They make no claim to be exhaustive.

On Homeric themes and the poetry of Sappho, see Rissman 1983; on the sympotic transmission of Sapphic poetry: Nagy 2004. On “veiled sentiments” in women’s song traditions, see Abu-Lughod 1999 and on Diotima: Halperin 1990, with further bibliography.

For formulaic analysis of the notion of krêdemnon, relating women to cities: Nagler 1975; on erotics and martial encounters: Maronitis 2004; on la belle mort in Greek epic: Vernant 1979 and 1982. Monographs on Helen by Clader 1976 and on Aphrodite by Boedeker 1974 remain valuable in particular for their dictional analysis.

Regarding women’s speech in epic, see Beck 2012; on Helen’s speech habits: Martin 2003 (reprinted in Suter 2008), Pantelia 2002. On the Odyssey scenes mentioned by Monsacré, see now Vlahos 2011, Murnaghan 2011, Peradotto 1990, and Levaniouk 2011. On weeping by Odysseus, see Peponi 2012.

On women’s lament, see especially Loraux 1998, Alexiou 2002, Derderian 2001, Dué 2002, Tsagalis 2004, and the essays in Suter (ed.) 2008.

On the name of Achilles: Nagy 1994, and the original formulation in Nagy 1999 [1979]. On Achilles, Priam and the denouement of the Iliad: Mackie 1996, Crotty 1994. For groundbreaking re-analysis of the origins and poetics of the Homeric poems, see Frame 2009.

Among the many introductions to structuralism, Leach 1989 and Culler 2002 stand out as reliable guides to the anthropological and literary applications, respectively. For views on the Paris School and samples of their work, from different perspectives and eras, see Pucci 1971, Gordon (ed.) 1981, Zeitlin’s introduction to Vernant 1991, Loraux et al. 2001, and Slatkin 2011 (especially Chapter 7). Central to the study of gender in relation to Greek myth and culture is Loraux 1995.

Most important for the understanding of Milman Parry’s work are his collected papers (Parry, ed., 1971), to be read in conjunction with a necessary corrective to its prefatory material by de Lamberterie 1997; and Lord 2000. Foley 1988 provides a broader overview. On Parry’s anthropological interests: Garcia 2001; on Murko’s relation to Jakobson: Fischerová 2014; on the role of performance in oral-traditional song-culture: Nagy 1996 and 2002; Martin 1989; on rhapsodic art: González 2015. On lament and epic performance, see Seaford 1995 and Bertolín Cebrián 2006. For the stylized expression of emotion within Greek verbal art, see Visvardi 2015.

Among the books on Homer that intersect with Monsacré’s concerns or build on her insights, special mention should be made of Felson-Rubin 1994, Doherty 1995, Katz 1991, Clayton 2004, Tatum 2004, and Papadopoulou-Belmehdi 1994.


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Alexiou, M. 2002. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. 2nd ed. Ed. D. Yatromanolakis and P. Roilos. Lanham, MD.

Beck, D. 2012. Speech Presentation in Homeric Epic. Austin.

Bertolin Cebrian, R. 2006. Singing the Dead. A Model for Epic Evolution. Frankfurt.

Boedeker, D. D. 1974. Aphrodite’s Entry into Greek Epic. Leiden.

Bouvier, D. 1985. “H. Monsacré. Les larmes d’Achille. Le héros, la femme et la souffrance dans la poésie d’Homère, préface de P. Vidal-Naquet.” In Revue de l’histoire des religions 202:439–440.

Clader, L. L. 1976. Helen: The Evolution from Divine to Heroic in Greek Epic Tradition. Leiden.

Clay, J. S. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey. Princeton.

Clayton, B. 2004. A Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homers Odyssey. Lanham, MD.

Crotty, K. 1994. The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Ithaca, NY.

Culler, J. D. 2002. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. New York.

de Lamberterie, C. 1997. “Milman Parry et Antoine Meillet.” In Létoublon 1997:9–22.

Derderian, K. 2001. Leaving Words to Remember: Greek Mourning and the Advent of Literacy. Leiden.

Doherty, L. E. 1995. Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey. Ann Arbor.

Dué, C. 2002. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, MD.

Edwards, M. W.1986. “Homer and Oral Tradition: The Formula, Part I.” Oral Tradition 1:171–230.

———. 1988. “Homer and Oral Tradition: The Formula, Part II.” Oral Tradition 3:11–60.

Felson-Rubin, N. 1994. Regarding Penelope: From Character to Poetics. Princeton.

Fischerová, S. 2014.“Habent sua fata inventiones: The Role of Czechoslovakian Slavistics in the Forming of the Parry-Lord Oral-Formulaic Theory.” In Roman O. Jakobson: A Work in Progress, eds. T. Kubíček and A. Lass, 77–102. Olomouc.

Foley, J. M. 1988. The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology. Bloomington.

Frame, D. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies 37. Washington, DC.

García, J. F. 2001. “Milman Parry and A. F. Kroeber: Americanist Anthropology and the Oral Homer.” Oral Tradition 16:58–84.

González, J. M. 2015. The Epic Rhapsode and his Craft: Homeric Performance in a Diachronic Perspective. Hellenic Studies 47. Washington, DC.

Gordon, R. L., ed. 1981. Myth, Religion, and Society: Structuralist Essays. Cambridge.

Hainsworth, J. B. 1968. The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula. Oxford.

Halperin, D. M. 1990. “Why is Diotima a Woman?” In One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love, 113–151. New York.

Hoekstra, A. 1965. Homeric Modifications of Formulaic Prototypes: Studies in the Development of Greek Epic Diction. Amsterdam.

Katz, M. A. 1991. Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in Homer’s Odyssey. Princeton.

Leach, E. 1989. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Chicago.

Létoublon, F., ed. 1997. Hommage à Milman Parry. Le style formulaire de l’épopée homérique et la théorie de l’oralité poétique. Amsterdam.

Levaniouk, O. 2011. Eve of the Festival: Making Myth in Odyssey 19. Hellenic Studies 46. Washington, DC.

Loraux, N. 1995. The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man. Trans. P. Wissing. Princeton.

———. 1998. Mothers in Mourning. Trans. C. Pache. Ithaca, NY.

Loraux, N., G. Nagy, and L. Slatkin, eds. 2001. Antiquities. Vol. 3, Postwar French Thought. Ed. R. Naddaff. New York.

Lord, A. B. 2000. The Singer of Tales. 2nd ed. Ed. S. A Mitchell and G. Nagy. Cambridge, MA.

Mackie, H. S. 1996. Talking Trojan: Speech and Community in the Iliad. Lanham, MD.

Maronitis, D. N. 2004. Homeric Megathemes: War-Homilia-Homecoming. Trans. D. Connolly. Lanham, MD.

Martin, R. P. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca, NY.

———. 2003. “Keens from the Absent Chorus: Troy to Ulster.” Western Folklore 62:119–142.

Murko, M. 1929. La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siecle. Paris.

Murnaghan, S. 2011. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD.

Nagler, M. N. 1975. Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer. Berkeley.

Nagy, G. 1994. “The Name of Achilles: Questions of Etymology and ‘Folk-Etymology’.” Illinois Classical Studies 19:3–9.

———. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge.

———. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek poetry. Rev. ed. Baltimore. Orig. pub. 1979.

———. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Hellenic Studies 1. Washington, DC.

———. 2004. “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria.” Critical Inquiry 31:26–48.

Pantelia, M. C. 2002. “Helen and the Last Song for Hector.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 132:21–27.

Papadopoulou-Belmehdi, I. 1994. Le chant de Pénélope: poétique du tissage féminin dans l’Odyssée. Paris.

Parry, M. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Ed. A. Parry. Oxford.

Peponi, A.-E. 2012. Frontiers of Pleasure: Models of Aesthetic Response in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought. Oxford.

Peradotto, J. 1990. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey. Princeton.

Pucci, P. 1971. “Levi-Strauss and Classical Culture.” Arethusa 4:103–117.

Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector. Chicago.

Rissman, L. 1983. Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho. Königstein.

Schein, S. L. 1985. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad. Berkeley.

Seaford, R. 1995. Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State. Oxford.

Slatkin, L. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies 16. Washington, DC.

Suter, A., ed. 2008. Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. Oxford.

Tatum, J. 2004. The Mourner’s Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam. Chicago.

Tsagalis, C. 2004. Epic Grief: Personal Laments in Homer’s Iliad. Berlin.

Vernant, J. P. 1979. “Panta Kala d’Homère à Simonide.” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Classe di Lettere e Filosofia 9:1365–1374. Translation in Vernant 1991:84–92.

———. 1982. “La belle mort et le cadavre outragé.” In La mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes, ed. G. Gnoli and J.-P. Vernant, 45–76. Cambridge. Translation in Vernant 1991:50–74.

———. 1991. Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays. Ed. F. Zeitlin. Princeton.

Visvardi, E. 2015. Emotion in Action: Thucydides and the Tragic Chorus. Leiden.

Vlahos, J. B. 2011. “Homer’s Odyssey: Penelope and the Case for Early Recognition.” College Literature 38:1–75.