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.4. The Feminine and the Warrior

As a poem of war, the Iliad places at the foreground an intense focus on friendship between companions, as well as between combatants. Yet it is also true that, while women are considered “others,” conjugal love is often evoked in the Homeric epic. Before attempting to locate the imprint of femininity on the heroic figure, we must first consider the ties that normally unite the warrior with the feminine world.

When Masculine and Feminine Meet

The Masculine within the Feminine

Negative inversions


In the Iliad a series of insults uttered by the warriors themselves compare fighters to—or explicitly call them—women. The most significant of these is used by Thersites (Iliad 2.235), then Menelaus (7.96), to shame the Greeks in order to reawaken their courage; each speaker shifts from the masculine to the feminine form of the word “Achaeans”:

“Weakling cowards, Achaean women rather than Achaeans [Achaiïdes, ouket’ Achaioi]”

“vain braggarts, Achaean women, not Achaeans [Achaiïdes, ouket’ Achaioi]”

The inversion could not be clearer.

All of these references to feminine attitudes are the exact antithesis of the masculine conduct celebrated and valued by heroic ethic. In this context, femininity is negative, fundamentally inadequate to the world of a warrior; it would do well to be removed from the battlefield.

Comparisons to female animals

Women and the feminine in general characterize the inadequate warrior. Therefore, the most degrading comparisons to animals are those that include the female dog, the doe, the ewe, or the dove.

Even beyond the heroic comparison par excellence—that of the lion—it is the comparison to the male animal, the stud, that glorifies the warrior (Iliad 2.480–483, referring to Agamemnon):

As some great bull that lords it over the herds upon the plain, even so did Zeus make the son of Atreus stand peerless among the multitude of heroes.

Overly sophisticated armor

There are few references to men leaving for war with the wrong equipment. A hero’s armor might be more or less beautiful or prestigious (his father’s weapons, weapons made by a divine hand), but it is usually essentially the same.

One passage from the Iliad, however, mentions a warrior whose armor is not fit for use in battle. His armor is like a woman’s dress. Too sophisticated, more decorative than functional, it is as useless, when facing the bronze of Achilles, as jewels for stopping a bronze spear (2.872–875):

[Amphimachus] came into the fight with gold about him, like a girl; fool that he was, his gold was of no avail to save him, for he fell in the river by the hand of the fleet descendant of Aeacus, and Achilles bore away his gold.

Amphimachus’ excess, linked with the delicate and refined nature of a woman’s adornments, is presented as explicitly feminine. The “weapons” of women are ineffective and inadequate in the context of war. In Aphrodite’s misadventure in Book 5, the brilliantly adorned goddess is immediately driven off by Diomedes. Is there, in Amphimachus, a pale reflection of the eminently feminine figure Aphrodite? One thing is for sure; when Amphimachus dies at the hand of Achilles, the gold in his armor is restored to the normal channels of war: the victor will claim the armor of his adversary. When armor takes on the literal qualities of women’s finery, the man who wears it can no longer remain a part of the community of warriors.

Positive comparisons

Positive comparisons to women are, of course, less common. The heroic ethic, closely centered upon the notion of masculinity, clearly shies away from favorably comparing men to women.

The other undeniably positive aspect of women—their maternal nature—provides a second level of comparison that valorizes the warrior.

Hector’s mother is a mortal. The possibilities for Hecuba to intervene are therefore limited: she can only encourage Hector to seek shelter and rest inside the walls of Troy or beg him to renounce his battle with Achilles.

The same is true for Aeneas, although the context that allows him to meet with his mother is different: Aphrodite is not there to console Aeneas, but rather to save him after he is wounded by Diomedes. Aphrodite’s intervention warrants a close examination (Iliad 5.311–316):

And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Zeus’ daughter Aphrodite, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.

First, note Aphrodite’s attentiveness as she watches over her son. To protect him, she performs a series of maternal actions: taking him into her arms, holding him against her bosom and navel. The arms of a mother are like a city wall: Aphrodite literally puts herself between Aeneas and the Greeks. She shields him with her arms. Additionally, the fold (ptugma, Iliad 5.315) in the garment where she hides Aeneas reinforces the idea of the depth in which she enfolds her son. This depth is like the symbolic security of a child near a mother’s womb. Aeneas is transformed back into a young child, incorporated within his mother’s body, hidden and cradled in her arms. When Aphrodite is, in turn, injured in the arm by Diomedes, she can no longer carry her son; she opens her arms and drops him (5.343).

The initial closeness of mother and son is itself the subtext for the conversations that certain heroes have with their mothers. In this respect, Hecuba and Hector are significant. When she meets him in front of the palace, Hecuba rushes and “[takes] his hand within her own,” she forcefully attaches herself to him (Iliad 6.254). Later, she will try to dissuade Hector from challenging Achilles by reminding him, through both word and gesture, of the maternal bonds that connect them (Iliad 22.80–83):

… she bared her bosom and pointed to the breast which had suckled him. “Hector,” she cried, weeping bitterly the while, “Hector, my son, spurn not this breast, but have pity upon me too: if I have ever given you comfort from my own bosom …

Hecuba’s gesture is solemn: by showing her breast, a symbol of maternity, and by making reference to its nourishment and protection, she reminds Hector, just before his death, that he was once a young child, and that even the bravest warrior remains, in a certain sense, a child for his mother.

Thus, at the height of the war, the hero is curiously sometimes found in the situation of a child being protected by his mother. His masculinity, however, does not seem to be challenged in this scenario. Rather, a few splashes of femininity upon the heroic figure serve to bring the contours of his masculinity into sharper focus.

Elsewhere, Menelaus is compared to a mother, an animal here, protecting her young (Iliad 17.4–6):

As a cow stands lowing over her first calf, even so did yellow-haired Menelaus bestride Patroclus.

In this comparison, the poet clearly develops the theme of maternity: Menelaus is a mother, Patroclus a new-born calf. Is this a poetic way to emphasize Menelaus’ concern and the fragility of Patroclus? Or is it simply a way to say that Patroclus has just been cut down at the height of his youth? Patroclus is the only warrior who drifts a little from the purely warlike model of masculinity, without, however, transgressing its limits; Patroclus’ gentleness is mentioned both by a woman (Briseïs, Iliad 19.300) and his companions in battle (Menelaus, 17.671–672). [
37] Without going so far as to claim that Patroclus occupies the place of a woman with Achilles, [38] there are certain peculiar aspects of his character worth pointing out. It is Achilles who calls him a “little girl” (kourē nēpiē, 16.7–8) [39] when he sees him lamenting the Achaeans’ misfortunes. During the embassy scene in Book 9, Patroclus prepares the libations and instruments of sacrifice, while Achilles cuts the meat (9.201–220). Patroclus also treats Eurypylus’ wounds. When the doctors Podalirius and Machaon are absent, Patroclus replaces them, using helpful pharmaka ‘drugs’ (11.844–848). In both the Trojan and Greek camps, women are never shown tending to the wounded. War is strictly the business of men, and in this sense Patroclus, the gentlest of the Greeks, represents the “positive” side of feminine virtues: food preparation, healing, tenderness.

If Patroclus is the less brutally masculine and more tender of the Achaean heroes, he is not likened to a woman (recall his aristeia ‘accomplishments’ in Book 16). Instead, he represents a positive tenderness and cannot at any point be considered a parallel to Paris.

As one final intersection of maternity and war, a mother’s suffering serves as a model to describe the endurance of a warrior. There is an intensely feminine suffering for a woman in labor or a mother who loses her children. The physical and mental pains of women appear in the Iliad as the extreme limits of suffering and, in this respect, can qualify the resistance of the warrior as positive.

In the same way, Achilles chooses to speak of feminine suffering to Priam to encourage him to stay alive. By reminding him that even the inconsolable mother and symbol of maternal suffering Niobe “had to think about eating” (Iliad 24.602), Achilles asserts that there is no greater pain than a mother’s suffering and presents Niobe as a valid model for men as well. We will return to this point at greater length in the third part of this volume.

The foregoing mapping of heroism allows us to propose three levels of interpretation.

First, on the surface level of the text, there is a maximum separation between the world of warriors and the world of women, a distance clearly illustrated by even the geography of the Iliad: the open plain of Troy and the city of Ilion enclosed inside its walls. The young warrior within the ramparts loses his status as a hero if he is unable to maintain an established distance between his original sphere and that of Aphrodite.

Second, if we consider only the battlefield, we see that the feminine, far from being absent, is on the contrary clearly recognizable in more than one passage. On a primary level, femininity obviously serves as a foil: the most significant insults are those that compare the warrior to a woman or female animal, obvious symbols of weakness. On a secondary level, the feminine also emerges as a model in the surprising figure of the maternal warrior, the hero who endures pain like a woman giving birth.

Narrowing the field of observation still further to the heroic site par excellence, the body of the warrior, we find a more deeply complex relationship between his masculine nature and what would seem to be its absolute opposite: the world of women and love. There is a permanent slippage between the level of beauty that provokes fear and the level of beauty that awakens desire; the warrior’s body does not only emit warlike signals. At the most intense moments of war, the heroic and the erotic are joined in the hero’s body. It is at these moments that, by appropriating portions of positive femininity while maintaining a distance, the wholly masculine ideology of the Iliad constructs its heroic specificity.


[ back ] 1. On philotēs in general, see Benveniste 1969 1:341–346. On the difficulties of defining this concept in Homeric thought, see Finley 1983:156–162, though it is also useful to nuance the dichotomy—which I think is too clear-cut—that Finley sets up between feelings men have for each other (feelings that are primary and valorized in the eyes of the poet) and feelings men have for women (which are secondary, or even “lukewarm”).

[ back ] 2. References to love between men and women are common in the Iliad. For example: Agamemnon and his female captives, Iliad 2.232; Helen and Menelaus, 3.139–140; Helen and Paris, 3.441–446; Achilles and Patroclus with their female captives, 9.664–669; the father of Phoenix and his mistress, 9.449–451; Achilles and Briseïs, 24.675–676. In the Odyssey, we see Odysseus going to bed with Circe, 10.333–335; with Calypso, 5.226–227; and with Penelope, 23.295–296. We also see Menelaus going to bed with Helen, 4.304–305.

[ back ] 3. The idea is restated by Odysseus at Iliad 9.275–276.

[ back ] 4. On the question of philotēs as a public and solemn pact or oath in marriage and a private one between two lovers, see Taillardat 1982:11–13.

[ back ] 5. On the use and meaning of alochos ‘wife’, the term applied to Briseïs here, see Chantraine 1946–1947:223.

[ back ] 6. See Stanford 1968:53.

[ back ] 7. In addition, the entire goodbye scene between Hector and Andromache in Book 6 evokes with intensity the tenderness involved in fatherhood and motherhood (6.399–493).

[ back ] 8. Chantraine 1946–1947:226: “Il exprime la tendresse et l’amour d’Andromaque pour Hector.” Akoitēs: Iliad 15.91; Odyssey 5.120, and 21.88. Parakoitēs: Iliad 8.156.

[ back ] 9. On Odysseus’ popularity with women, see the remarks in Stanford 1968:64–65.

[ back ] 10. See Foley 1978:20–21.

[ back ] 11. Benardete 1963:1.

[ back ] 12. The emphasis is clearly women’s characteristic ignorance in matters of war. In this passage, Hector, who is insulting Ajax, presents himself in contrast as one who is knowledgeable.

[ back ] 13. Thus Hector insults Diomedes. The use of the verb antiteuchō ‘to make in opposition to’, which appears only here, is significant: it echoes antianeirai (both ‘equal to males’ and ‘enemy of males’), which is used to describe the Amazons; on this point, see Carlier 1980–1981:11. The following line, where Hector calls Diomedes a “miserable doll” before he leaves the battlefield, only reinforces Hector’s ironic transformation of Diomedes.

[ back ] 14. “I care no more than if a girl … had hit me,” Diomedes responds to Paris. Here, the archer is explicitly associated with a woman; on this passage, see pp. 9–10 above.

[ back ] 15. This is Achilles’ reproach of Patroclus, when he sees him desolate and crying over the losses of the Greeks. It seems appropriate, however, to see these words more as encouragement to remain strong, rather than as an actual insult.

[ back ] 16. “Like women who when they fall foul of one another go out and wrangle in the streets” (Aeneas addresses Achilles before their single combat). Here again, masculine conduct is clearly defined: on the battlefield, it is the clash of bronze not words that counts (Iliad 20.256–258).

[ back ] 17. See Redfield 1975:158, who draws a parallel between this passage, where Hector, terrified by the dazzling site of Achilles and his weapons, feels as vulnerable as a woman, and the earlier episode where Hector himself frightens his son with his helmet (6.467–469).

[ back ] 18. Iliad 20.244–245: “And now let there be no more of this prating in mid-battle as though we were children”; Achilles’ words to Aeneas echo lines 20.200–201.

[ back ] 19. Helenus advises Aeneas to rally his companions before “they … fling themselves into the arms of their wives” (Iliad 6.81–82).

[ back ] 20. See Chapter 1, pp. 9–10 above.

[ back ] 21. Masculinity and war are in opposition throughout with femininity and nurturing maternity. For the Greeks, the vocabulary of war is predominant; for the Trojans, however, the clamoring and vulnerable nature of the female animals is emphasized.

[ back ] 22. The same idea is apparent in the simile of the cranes (Iliad 3.1–5), well known for the sound of their cries.

[ back ] 23. The use of thēlus in this passage is significant and refers to a functional aspect of the female animal: thēlus = ‘milk bearing’; Benveniste 1969:1.22–23, 33.

[ back ] 24. The Cyclops and Eumaeus keep female animals inside with their young; males are left outside: Odyssey 9.237–239 and 14.13–16.

[ back ] 25. In Homer, mētēr can refer to a woman or a goddess with children or a female animal with offspring (for example, Iliad 2.313). Cf. Chantraine 1946–1947:238. Patēr is not used to refer to animals. This detail was underlined by Redfield 1975:119: the father is the “social” and “cultural” parent. His role only exists among humans. The mother has a much greater role in the natural realm.

[ back ] 26. See Guiraud 1978:105.

[ back ] 27. Detienne 1973:39n57: “Si l’ouvrière de l’Iliade est qualifiée d’alēthēs, c’est très vraisemblablement parce qu’elle tient une balance, symbole et instrument de justice. C’est un témoignage supplémentaire de la complémentarité étroite et fondamentale de la balance et de la ‘vérité’.”

[ back ] 28. Cf. p. 72 below.

[ back ] 29. Detienne (1973:39n57) notes the relationship between the epithet alēthēs and the participle isazousa.

[ back ] 30. Hector: inside the city of Troy (6.251–285); beneath the ramparts (22.78–79). Aeneas: on the battlefield (5.311–343).

[ back ] 31. See the remarks in Dumézil 1982:114–117.

[ back ] 32. The only example of a young infant in the arms of his mother is Astyanax. The poet, however, does not particularly emphasize Andromache’s maternal gestures. The child is also carried by a nurse; after cuddling him, Hector himself hands him to Andromache (Iliad 6.399–403, 466–474, 482–483).

[ back ] 33. Here, Thetis makes the initial gesture of the female lamentation ritual (Iliad 24.212; Alexiou 1974:10). This anticipatory gesture reinforces the weight of Achilles’ statement several verses later asserting that his own fate is attached to Patroclus’ death; Achilles is presented as Thetis’ future dead child (Iliad 18.89).

[ back ] 34. Mētēr: Iliad 1.351–352, 357; 18.35, 70, etc.; pais: 18.71, 89, etc.; teknon: 1.362, 414; 18.73, etc.

[ back ] 35. The comparison, however, is not without ambiguity: Teucer is the bastard brother of Ajax; he is an archer who fights from a hiding place. While the comparison of Ajax to a mother does not diminish his virtue, it is not certain that the same goes for Teucer.

[ back ] 36. Loraux 1981b:48n60.

[ back ] 37. See Romilly 1979:19–20.

[ back ] 38. As Beye 1974:88 argues, claiming that Patroclus does for Achilles what women do for others. But can we conclude from this that Patroclus is acting as a woman?

[ back ] 39. See n. 15 above in this chapter.

[ back ] 40. Loraux 1981b:54–57.

[ back ] 41. On this point, see the detailed remarks in Mawet 1979:37–51.

[ back ] 42. Loraux 1981b:56: “l’univers masculin des combattants achéens … attribue les souffrances d’une accouchée à celui qui, parmi les héros, est le roi le plus roi.” While Agamemnon is the only one described by such a comparison, he is also the only one who pushes his cruelty to the point of envisioning the death of Trojans still in their mother’s womb: “Let us not spare a single one of them—not even the child unborn and in its mother’s womb” (Iliad 6.57–58); see Segal 1971b:11.