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.

I.2. Physical Evidence of the Hero

To specify certain masculine values, I will endeavor in this chapter to provide an account of the bodily information that the poet provides about his heroes. This examination will not be a question of prescribing “Homeric medicine,” but of the image of the warrior’s body as it is represented in the Iliad. This approach is somewhat complex; in fact, to speak of the warrior’s body—and herein lies the problem—is above all to consider the aesthetic criteria of Homeric thought. By staying close to the text, we will perhaps prevent the temptation to interpret Homeric aesthetics and poetry in an arbitrary fashion.

Fear, warlike rage, suffering, joy, erotic desire, and so many emotions in Homer are inseparable from their physical manifestation—are, one might say, constituted by those physical manifestations. With this phenomenon as the point of departure, we will consider the question of heroism from the perspective of the warrior’s “body language,” and in so doing will make an attempt to extract from this corporeal screen an understanding of epic values.

In the Homeric world, all qualities are thought of in concrete terms; for reasons inextricably tied to the epic genre and the archaic phase of thought from which it grew, Homeric poetry brings to life the strength and deeds of its heroes through the use of images. The concrete reality of the warriors who confront each other outside of Troy is evoked at length throughout the poem. Attempting to read the “physical text” is a means of exploring the question of masculinity in the epic, as the hero’s body is without a doubt “the place” where the primary signifiers of epic thought are condensed.

Beauty and the Skills of the Warrior

It is not surprising then that, from the beginning of the poem, the preeminence of Achilles is asserted in this manner: “it is my hands that do the better part of the fighting” (Iliad 1.165–166).

At first glance, the warrior can gauge his opponent; he can estimate the value of his brilliance, his size, or the shape of his physical appearance, even before seeing him in action. This is because, at the moment of confrontation, the warrior’s body radiates power, as if having undergone a metamorphosis.

The Body Transformed by Courage

The Body Transformed by Fear

Armor: An Extension of the Body

And this body is also, inherently, a desirable body.


[ back ] 1. From the immense bibliography on the question, I have consulted: Magnien 1927, Böhme 1929, Larock 1930, Snell 1948 (English translation 1953), Onians 1954, Dodds 1965 (especially Chap. 1), Russo and Simon 1968 (reprinted in Wright 1978). More recent studies include Ireland and Steel 1975 and Redfield 1975:171–182.

[ back ] 2. Russo and Simon 1978:42

[ back ] 3. Explicitly at Iliad 2.673–674 (kallistos), 21.108, 24.629–630.

[ back ] 4. We saw above how Paris subverted the norm, pp. 8–10.

[ back ] 5. Iliad 2.212–277; cf. von der Mühll 1952:42, and see also Finley 1983:136–139; Chantraine 1963:passim; Dumézil 1982:197–200, and especially Nagy 1979:259–264 (“The Worst of the Achaeans”).

[ back ] 6. Chantraine 1963:21–22 shows that Homer is playing on the name Thersites—‘the audacious, the brave’—to define his character negatively in relation to Achilles and Odysseus: “Thersite l’intrépide: oui, mais en paroles seulement” (“Thersites the intrepid: yes, but only in words”).

[ back ] 7. On height, cf. for example: Achilles (Iliad 21.108; 24.629–630), Ajax (3.226–227; 9.169), Hector (6.263, 440; 7.233, 287). On width of shoulders: Patroclus (16.791), Hector (16.360).

[ back ] 8. In the Odyssey also, the width of Odysseus’ shoulders is explicitly evoked, notably at the moment of his combat with Irus: throwing of his rags, he uncovers the beauty and power of his thighs, the width of his torso, and the muscles in his upper arms, Odyssey 18.67–69.

[ back ] 9. The poet also evokes the palm of the right hand that grips the sword, the “strong” hand, and the “brawny” hand: Iliad 3.376; 7.264, etc.

[ back ] 10. For example, Ajax: Iliad 7.212–213; Hector: 15.306–307.

[ back ] 11. Proverbial speed of Achilles—for example, Iliad 13.325—whom we see “speeding right onwards,” at 21.302.

[ back ] 12. Iliad 13.281.

[ back ] 13. “Hector, standing firm with his legs apart,” Iliad 12.458.

[ back ] 14. Flexibility and speed: see, for example, Hector who skillfully moves his feet and knees: “Hector rapidly moving his feet and calves,” Iliad 15.269, or Odysseus who wins the foot-race, after having his hands and feet made light by Athena (23.772); see Snell 1948:6–9; Vivante 1955:40–41; Daraki 1980:15–16.

[ back ] 15. Knee and vital fluid, creation: see Deonna 1939:228–231 and Onians 1954:174–186.

[ back ] 16. See Snell 1948:6–9. To the extent that we are trying here to read the body of the warrior (“lire le corps du guerrier”), by proposing as a postulate that the poet projects a certain number of the values of the heroic universe in him and on him, we can not adopt Snell’s overly reductive point of view that basically sees nothing more in the Homeric hero than a sort of puppet manipulated by the gods and characterized by the plurality of his articulated limbs.

[ back ] 17. For example, Odyssey 18.133: “As long as the gods grant him excellence and his knees are steady” (= he is still alive).

[ back ] 18. Equivalence: having your limbs and knees split (e.g., Iliad 4.469; 7.12, 16; 11.579; 21.114, etc.) or your menos broken (5.296; 6.27; 8.123, etc.).

[ back ] 19. Iliad 5.811. Pain (achos, Odyssey 18.348), anger (cholos, Iliad 9.553), and rage (lussa) sink into and penetrate the warrior in like fashion (the verb is duō). The same idea is present when Odysseus tells of how Circe literally took “the tiredness and stiffness out of my limbs” (Odyssey 10.363).

[ back ] 20. See, in particular, Iliad 2.839; 4.230; 5.797; 7.6; 13.711; 16.106; 19.166; 21.32, 270.

[ back ] 21. Literal meaning of the verb teirō; see Iliad 5.796–797; 17.745; 19.51–52. In these three examples dealing with three of the greatest heroes—Diomedes, Ajax, Achilles—sweat and fatigue are paired together to exhaust the warrior; see Onians 1954:191–193. On the heaviness brought on by fatigue, cf. 19.165–166: “… and his limbs will grow heavy under him.”

[ back ] 22. For all things related to the esthetic conception of heroism, I refer here to the courses (Collège de France 1976–1977) and writings of Jean-Pierre Vernant, which have provided so much inspiration for my work: Vernant 1979b, 1980 (reprinted in Gnoli and Vernant 1982), and 1981b.

[ back ] 23. On menos as a vital impulse, warlike ardor, and spiritual energy, see Böhme 1929:22, as well as Dodds 1965:20–22; Redfield 1975:171–174; Daraki 1980; and especially Dumézil 1983:184–190.

[ back ] 24. Iliad 17.210–212. I would point out the force of this image. The warlike spirit sinks deep into the warrior, just as lussa, another synonym for Ares, does. This spirit fills his limbs from the inside.

[ back ] 25. See also Iliad 21.571–572, for Agenor whose heart races and bounds at the thought of fighting Achilles; at 23.370–371, during the chariot race, the drivers’ hearts pound.

[ back ] 26. Occurrences of maimaō ‘spring with desire’ are frequent: Iliad 15.604, 742; 20.284, 468; 22.243, etc.; see Onians 1954:21–22.

[ back ] 27. Achilles who “gnashed his teeth,” Iliad 19.365; see on this point Vernant 1981a:142–144.

[ back ] 28. Hector furious: “he foamed at the mouth,” Iliad 15. 607.

[ back ] 29. Iliad 7.164; 8.262. Valor is like an article of clothing that covers the body of the warrior (epiennumi); a metaphor that, by itself, could support my argument. A similar image at 20.381, where Achilles “clothed in valor as with a garment,” springs upon the Trojans, and at 9.231 during the embassy scene, Odysseus, using the verb duō, asks Achilles to “clothe himself in bravery.” Inversely, Agamemnon, in certain passages, wears his insolence on his face: Iliad 1.149; 9.372.

[ back ] 30. Fire in Hector’s eyes: Iliad 12.466; in Achilles eyes 19.16–17, 365–366, etc. On eyes containing and projecting fire, see Mugler 1960:60–62; and, in general, on the light associated with force, see Vernant and Gnoli 1982:59–60 and Vernant 1981a:142–143 (on the demonic power of the warrior’s gaze).

[ back ] 31. For example, Hector: Iliad 12.463–464; Achilles: 19.379–381; 20.46, etc.

[ back ] 32. Hector entering the house of Paris is preceded by the glow of his spear: Iliad 6.319–320; the glow of Achilles’ shield rising into the sky: 19.375–376.

[ back ] 33. Loraux 1982a:119: “Il n’est pas de héros qui un jour ne frissonne”; see also, from a more philological perspective, Harkemanne 1967.

[ back ] 34. Vernant 1981a:143: “la puissance de mort qui irradie de la personne du combattant recouvert de ses armes et prêt à manifester l’extraordinaire vigueur au combat, la fortitude (alk ē), dont il est habité.”

[ back ] 35. On the names of fear in the Iliad, deos ‘logical fear’ and phobos ‘sudden terror, panic’—see Loraux 1982a:passim. Tromos, generic expression of fear: Iliad 3.34; 7.215; 8.452; 10.90, etc.

[ back ] 36. Iliad 11.544. Note the use of the verb ornumi that also characterizes menos.

[ back ] 37. Odyssey 6.140 (Nausicaa, frightened by the sight Odysseus); see p. 18, n. 19 above.

[ back ] 38. The heart “beat quickly”: Iliad 7.216; 13.282; it is as if courage is “sucked out” of the warrior by the effect of fear: the Greeks, facing Hector, were frightened and “their hearts fell down into their feet,” 15.280.

[ back ] 39. See Harkemanne 1967:77.

[ back ] 40. Cf. Vernant 1974, particularly 25–26.

[ back ] 41. Principal verbs used for the preparation of arms, in the general sense, according to Trümpy 1950:74–89: thōrēssō (Iliad 8.530; 19.352: 22.369), hoplizō (8.55), korussō (2.273; 4.274; 7.206; 19.397), etc.

[ back ] 42. Iliad 14. 383; 19.233; 6.340; 11.16; 16.64.

[ back ] 43. Iliad 12.464; 13.241; 17.210; 22.322; see Trümpy 1950:77–78, who emphasizes the meaning of the word chrōs ‘skin’. In the same vein, I’d point out the image of “cheek-pierced” (chalkoparēios) helmets: 12.183; 17.294; 20.397.

[ back ] 44. Arariskō: Iliad 4.134; 11.18; 13.188; 18.611; 19.370; harmozō: 3.333; 17.210.

[ back ] 45. Iliad 16.132 and 139. I would point out, by contrast, that in the duel in Book 3, Paris had borrowed his cuirass from Lykaon and had to adjust it to fit his chest (332–333).

[ back ] 46. Iliad 17.210. Note the equivalent image in Hesiod, which is used to describe Pandora’s jewels. “Pallas Athena placed on her skin every manner of ornament” (Works and Days 76; trans. Nagy).

[ back ] 47. Whitman 1958:201. In his chapter dedicated to Achilles (181–220), Whitman shows in detail how Achilles and Patroclus form a homologous pair, and more generally, how the hero and his armor do the same. When Patroclus’ helmet is knocked off of his head by Apollo and its plumes are covered with blood and dust (16.793–796), it is clear what is to come; the mortal wound will not be long behind. Patroclus, like his helmet, will fall, and the poet, at this same moment, has also foreshadowed the death of Achilles.

[ back ] 48. See also 5.790 (spear of Achilles).

[ back ] 49. See the remarks in Stanford 1936:138–139; Marg 1942:168–169; and Griffin 1980:34–36.

[ back ] 50. See, for example, the valorous shield: Iliad 11.32.

[ back ] 51. Iliad 5.661: the “spear … tore furiously through the flesh”; 4.126; 8.111; 16.74–75; 20.339, etc.

[ back ] 52. “The bands that bear your shields sweat upon your shoulders,” 2.388.

[ back ] 53. Iliad 11.573–574; 13.830–831; 15.316–317; 21.70, 168; cf. Marg 1942:169

[ back ] 54. As soon as he puts on his armor, Hector is transformed: “he was entered by Ares the terrifying” (Iliad 17.210–213). The reactions of Achilles are even more violent: fits of rage, flaming eyes, gnashing teeth, etc. (Iliad 19.16–19, 365–391); cf. Griffin 1980:36–37.

[ back ] 55. Finley 1983:147.

[ back ] 56. Vermeule 1979:97; see also 98–101 and 234n13.

[ back ] 57. For example: Iliad 14.465–468, 496–499; 16.345–350; 17.617–618; 20.478–483.

[ back ] 58. Vernant and Gnoli 1982:66: “taille, beauté, jeunesse, forme singulière, éclat, chevelure sont des aspects du corps dans lesquels s’incarnent les valeurs à la fois esthétiques, religieuses, sociales, personnelles, qui définissent, aux yeux du groupe, le statut d’un individu singulier.”