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.3. Erotic Images of War

Erotic images of war in the Iliad could, by themselves, justify a study of considerable proportion. It is a vast question, this relationship between eroticism and war … I will attempt in this chapter simply to underline a series of associations found in the vocabularies of both war and love. Examining the main scenes linking eroticism and combat, I will seek to specify the categories of masculine and feminine in the epic.

While the limits of this examination may be arbitrary, I will focus on three aspects of the question: war as an erotic activity, erotic metaphors of combat, and finally the eroticization of death.

Erotic Representation of Combat

There is no need to emphasize the parallel that exists between a duel of two heroes and “erotic combat”: both cases deal with an encounter of two bodies. Pierre Guiraud has studied this analogy in depth in works from the medieval and modern eras. [1] “The military metaphor,” he writes, “is so coherent, so relevant, that all the modes, means, and phases of combat and all the phrases describing them contain a powerful sexual image.” [2] This is also the case in the Homeric epic.

During hand-to-hand fighting, certain physical characteristics of femininity are attributed to the warrior. His skin (chrōs) is beautiful (kalos, Iliad 5.858; 22.321), tender (terēn, Iliad 4.237; 13.553; 14.406) like that of a young girl (parthenikēs … terena chora; Hesiod Works and Days 519 and 522) or the Heliconian muses (Hesiod Theogony 5), or like the flowers in a meadow (teren’ anthea poiēs, Odyssey 9.449). It is fair and white like a lily (leirioeis, Iliad 13.830), luminous like the voices of the Muses (Hesiod Theogony 41) or the cicada (Iliad 3.152).

The neck is fragile, delicate (hapalos, Iliad 3.371; 17.49; 23.327; Odyssey 22.16) like the cheeks of Achilles’ female captives (23.123) or the fair skin of a “virgin” (parthenos, Hesiod Works and Days 519).

The discourse of war appears in a series of associations where a sexual connotation is evident: the dance of young people contrasted with the dance of Ares, veils of a woman and walls of a city, and marriage both between men and women and in combat.

Erotic Metaphors

The dance of Ares

The veils of a city

The same image appears in the Odyssey, where it recalls the Greek victory over the Trojans. Odysseus remembers the sack of Troy as “the day when we loosed Troy’s fair diadem from her brow” (Odyssey 13.388). The metaphor that equates the city with a woman is doubly significant if we remember that, in the world of the Iliad, pillaging goods and the abduction of women go hand in hand. “Many a bloody battle have I waged by day,” says Achilles, “against those who were fighting for their women” (Iliad 9.327).

This correspondence is even found on the level of plot: at the fateful moment for Troy, the moment when Hector dies, the two most important women of Troy remove their veils. Hecuba lamented and “flung her veil from her” (Iliad 22.406–407) and Andromache

threw far from her head the splendid adornments that bound her hair, her frontlet, her snood, her plaited headband and, to top it all, the headdress that had been given to her by golden Aphrodite on that day when Hector, the one with the waving plume on his helmet, took her by the hand and led her out from the palace of Eëtion, and he gave countless courtship presents.

Iliad 22.468–472

The removal of these two veils prefigures and, at the same time, attests to the fall of Troy; the gesture serves as an illustration of the metaphor.

Marriage in battle

On the battlefield, marriage is mentioned explicitly several times. In each instance, marriage marks a separation between what is playing out in battle and what happens between men and women in times of peace. At the precise moment when warriors are slain, Homer evokes the recent or coming marriage of two Trojans, thus highlighting the relentless threat that hovers over the warriors in hand-to-hand fighting.

Iphidamas, expiring from the blows of Agamemnon, is presented as a young groom. The theme of marriage frames his appearance in the poem: he leaves the bridal chamber (Iliad 11.227) for the plains of Troy, where we find him “sleeping a sleep as it were of bronze, killed in the defense of his comrades, far from his wedded wife, of whom he had had no joy” (11.241–243). The connection between the themes of marriage and war is clearly established here, and the differences are made all the more significant.

Similarly, Othryoneus is killed by Idomeneus as a result of pursuing a marriage with one of Priam’s daughters. In place of the hedna ‘gifts offered by a suitor to the parents of a young woman’ that he could not offer for the daughter’s hand, he promises great feats that will drive away the Greeks. Idomeneus defeats him and proposes his own version of a marriage without the customary gifts (Iliad 13.381–382):

So come along with me, that we may make a covenant at the ships about the marriage, and we will not be hard upon you about gifts of wooing.

Transforming the battlefield and the enemy into a scene of marriage negotiations is again a paradoxical way for the poet to refocus the audience’s attention on the relevant space of combat. On the plain of Troy where they confront each other, warriors can obtain glory or death, but not a bride. Homer plays with the mix of two different spheres—combat and marriage—to further emphasize the only type of “exchange” possible during times of war.

A final intersection that I will consider is the inversion on the battlefield that allows women to exchange roles with vultures. Twice, in fact, the poet establishes a parallel between the birds and women:

[The Trojans] who were lying on the plain, more useful now to vultures than to their wives.

Iliad 11.161–162

War at the Heart of the Opposition between Eros and Thanatos

At the moment of their confrontation, Achilles says to Hector, “Therefore there can be no love between you and me” (Iliad 22.265). The power of Eros does, however, intervene at points in this aggressive encounter. Without delving here into an in-depth examination of the relationship between Eros and Thanatos—an examination that would reach well beyond the scope of my work—I will consider only Hector, whose death is the climax of the poem. Hector is, in fact, never so beautiful or so desirable as he is at the moment of his death.

Passing from the plain of Troy by way of Achilles’ camp to the funeral bed prepared inside the walls of the city, Hector’s body is subjected to a wide range of punishment, but neither its beauty nor its integrity is damaged. Achilles relentlessly defiles the body, which he drags daily across the ground, but he is unable to deface or mutilate it. A series of interventions by the gods, which play on the overlapping registers of dissimulation and manipulation (anointment with supernatural substances), effectively preserve the corpse (Iliad 23.184–191):

The dogs came not about the body of Hector, for Zeus’ daughter Aphrodite kept them off him night and day, and anointed him with ambrosial oil of roses that his flesh might not be torn when Achilles was dragging him about. Phoebus Apollo moreover sent a dark cloud from heaven to earth, which gave shade to the whole place where Hector lay, that the heat of the sun might not parch his body.

Aphrodite and Apollo combine their efforts to keep Hector’s body supple and intact by removing the risks of dismemberment and decay. [
32] This theme of freshness opposed to dryness underpins the entire story of Hector’s body in death. The preserving intervention of Apollo is, in fact, mentioned in two other passages of the poem. The god covers the body with his golden aegis (Iliad 24.20–21) to protect it from corruption. Even in death, Hector retains the brilliance and freshness of youth (24.419–421):

You should come yourself and see how he lies fresh as dew, with the blood all washed away, and his wounds every one of them closed though many pierced him with their spears.

The reference to vegetation, oion eersēeis ‘fresh as dew’ or, more precisely, ‘as if covered by dew’, is not without significance. Indeed, the theme of dew, and more generally the theme of freshness and botanical growth, is in the background of the narrative of Hector throughout the final three books of the Iliad, from the moment his mother cries out to him from the Scaean gates until she laments over his funeral bed. Hecuba attempts to dissuade Hector from the certain death awaiting him in a confrontation with Achilles by speaking to him of the life she gave and the branch she had grown (22.87). During the exchange, she bares her breast, which “wipes away memories of sorrow” (lathikēdēs, 22.83).

Hector’s body passes from being an object hidden and protected by the gods to an object prepared and displayed by his loved ones in the city of Troy. From Iliad 22.361 to 24.759, it is as if nothing has happened: we find Hector lying down, this time on “a bed” (24.720), beautiful in death, just as Paris, when lying in bed, was beautiful in love (3.382, 391–392, 447-448).


[ back ] 1. Guiraud 1978; particularly chaps. 4 and 5: “Les symboles de la libido” and “La rhétorique de l’érotisme.”

[ back ] 2. Guiraud 1978:120: “La métaphore militaire est si cohérente, si pertinente que tous les modes, moyens et phases du combat et toutes les phrases qui les expriment contiennent, en puissance, une image sexuelle.”

[ back ] 3. See p. 19 and following, above.

[ back ] 4. In the same way, the Greeks desire Achilles who has separated himself from them: 14.368. On pothos, desire mixed with regret that is focused on someone who is absent, far away, or dead, see Vermeule 1979:154–155, and Vernant 1977:430–441.

[ back ] 5. Vermeule 1979:99–105.

[ back ] 6. Iliad 3.121; 6.371, 377. To enhance the beauty of Penelope, Athena makes her “whiter than sawn ivory” (Odyssey 18.196, etc.).

[ back ] 7. An idea evoked explicitly by Hector himself when he confronts Achilles: gumnon eonta / autōs hōs te gunaika, Iliad 22.124–125. On the force of the insult in such a comparison, see p. 40 below.

[ back ] 8. Iliad 13.291 and 17.228. The same image with the verb oarizein is used during the “Achilles-Hector rendezvous,” 22.127–128. The other occurrence of this verb is in the exchange between Hector and Andromache, 6.516. For interpretations of these passages, see Segal 1971b:35–36; Vermeule 1979:103, 157, 235n24.

[ back ] 9. See Benveniste 1969 1:307.

[ back ] 10. On the meaning of damazō, damnēmi, see Vernant and Detienne 1974:85–87.

[ back ] 11. Vermeule 1979:101–102 cites, among other passages, Hesiod Theogony 120–122, “Eros that relaxes the limbs, and in the breasts of all gods and all men, subdues their reason and prudent counsel” (trans. Nagy and Banks). See also J. Svenbro 1984 who, in a symmetric but inverse perspective, shows that Sappho uses the model warrior from the Iliad to define the philotas ‘love’ of women.

[ back ] 12. Cf. the Phaeacians in the Odyssey (warm baths, banquets, dance): Odyssey 8.248–249; Paris Iliad 3.54–55, etc.

[ back ] 13. See Boedeker 1974:43–57 on the relationship between dance and Aphrodite.

[ back ] 14. Note, too, the five-fold repetition of oida within five lines (Iliad 7.237–241); the poet summarizes through Hector’s voice the primary actions a warrior must know how to perform in order to be effective in the field; the repetition of the verb creates a rhythm connecting each enunciation.

[ back ] 15. On the “dance of the dogs,” see Vermeule 1979:103–105, 235n24; on scavenging dogs, see Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:165–169.

[ back ] 16. MacLeod 1982:111 compares this verse to Iliad 3.106 where the sons of Priam are called “high-handed and ill to trust” and points out the play on the word aristoi: they excel at dance, not combat.

[ back ] 17. Mazon 1937–1947, 3:103: “Achille compare Troie, la cité inviolée jusqu’à ce jour, à une captive à qui, vainqueur, il arrachera de force son voile.”

[ back ] 18. Nagler 1974:44–63.

[ back ] 19. On this notion of intact/pure, see Redfield 1975:161.

[ back ] 20. Hector himself mentioned this threat during their conversation on the ramparts: violence and slavery await Andromache if Troy falls: “… some Achaean man, one of those men who wear khitons of bronze, takes hold of you as you weep and leads you away as his prize, depriving you of your days of freedom from slavery” (Iliad 6.454–455).

[ back ] 21. See Nagler 1974:50.

[ back ] 22. A mourning woman will “tear her cheeks for grief” (Iliad 11.393).

[ back ] 23. See Vermeule 1979:169 and Chap. 5, “On the Wings of the Morning: the Pornography of Death”; also Kahn 1980.

[ back ] 24. Vermeule 1979:103.

[ back ] 25. On vultures, see Detienne 1972:47–57.

[ back ] 26. See Mylonas 1962:478 and Alexiou 1974:10–11.

[ back ] 27. My primary reference here, as in this chapter as a whole, is J.-P. Vernant’s 1981–1982 seminar at the Collège de France (Vernant 1982b).

[ back ] 28. On the meaning of eisoraō ‘to look upon with admiration, contemplate’, see Iliad 12.312. Sarpedon says to Glaucus that the Lycians “look up to us as though we were gods”; similarly for ‘to look upon with respect’, see Eumaeus to Odysseus at Odyssey 20.166: “Stranger, are the suitors treating you with more respect?”

[ back ] 29. On hapalos, see p. 26 above and Plato Symposium 195D–196B.

[ back ] 30. See the remarks on this passage in Vernant and Gnoli 1982:59–60.

[ back ] 31. The notion of handling or touching something conveyed by the verb amphaphaō becomes even clearer if we consider the other uses of the verb in the Odyssey: 8.215 (Odysseus and his bow); 15.462 (a necklace); 19.475 (Eurycleia when she recognizes Odysseus by the scar on his thigh).

[ back ] 32. In her work focused on Aphrodite, Deborah Boedeker (1974:23–42) clearly shows that whenever the goddess is called Dios thugatēr by the poet, it is always her protective attribute that is being underlined; she is the divine agent who rescues. On the other hand, whenever she is philommeidēs Aphroditē, it is her function as the goddess of seduction and sexual union that is being referenced.

[ back ] 33. See Segal 1971b:70, as well as the remarks in Onians 1954:254.

[ back ] 34. See Segal 1971b:70.

[ back ] 35. See Vernant and Gnoli 1982:45–76

[ back ] 36. See pp. 11–12 above.

[ back ] 37. This line warrants comparison with the words of Andromache at 24.739, “for your father’s hand in battle was not tender.”

[ back ] 38. See, in particular, Vermeule 1979:145–177.

[ back ] 39. Eros: Iliad 3.442; 14.294; Thanatos: 5.68; 16.350, etc.

[ back ] 40. Cf. pp. 25–27 above. I would point out again the double meaning of the verb lilaiomai ‘strongly desire’ that applies sometimes to erotic desire (Odyssey 1.15; 9.30, 32; 23.334: Calypso and Circe’s desire for Odysseus; Iliad 14.331: Zeus’ desire for Hera) and sometimes to the rage of battle (Iliad 3.133), or the “desire” of spears to feed on human flesh (11.573–574; 15.316–317; 21.168).