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.

II.2. The Specificity of Women

Is it possible to bring to light the specifics of feminine nature in the Iliad? Beyond the apparent oppositions that posit femininity as the simple, if not simplistic, negative of masculinity, does Homeric epic paint a feminine world in and of itself? I will attempt to respond to this question by choosing to consider the physical appearance of women (their bodies, their beauty) and their speech.

Is it necessary to outline that such an approach will stumble, from the outset, upon the problem of formulaic epithets, which have their own distinctive character? That this particular character is encoded within a complex set of values that change, at the discretion of the narrative structure, the scope of a particular epithet within the epic tradition? That sometimes an epithet is used in a line for purely metrical reasons, its proper meaning relatively diminished, which allows for another adjective to be just as easily substituted? [1]

In fact, nothing is more full of meaning in a psychological inquiry than those things that, because they belong to a collective consciousness, seem to have no meaning. It is, therefore, in the repertoire of formulas and epithets representing the most prominent portion of this common stock that we have some chance of finding epic femininity.

The Female Body

The face


Arms, legs, and body

Here again, it is rather difficult to formulate a conception of the “femininity” of the body in the epic tradition.

Symbols of maternity: The breasts and womb

And when Priam evokes Hecuba’s womb before Achilles, it is to say that nineteen of his sons were born “from a single womb” (Iliad 24.496). In other passages, the word gastēr refers to women’s abdomens, but always in a strict relationship with childbearing.

Each instance where the female body is mentioned specifically—and they are rare—refers then to the reproductive and maternal function of women.

The eclipsing of the female body, then, is one of the remarkable features of the Iliad, one of its grand paradoxes. The Trojan War takes place because of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Yet this woman is never specifically described; her beauty is only asserted, never detailed. She always appears beneath long veils. Is this not a deeply rooted sign of a masculine ideology that only bestows excellence on men’s abilities and bodies and that only considers men worthy of mention? A body must be used to wage war; yet women have no access to battle. Is it appropriate to advance the idea that, since women do not make war, they are not entitled to a complete body, but are limited to a womb?

Feminine beauty

One of the conventions of the epic is to describe and praise the power of heroes and their beauty in exceedingly laudatory terms: each great hero, during his aristeia (the series of feats he accomplishes), is always the greatest of all. This literary convention also applies to descriptions of feminine beauty.

Is there a symmetry between the exploits of the warrior, sung by the poet, and the exceptional beauty of a woman (a kind of accomplishment), also celebrated by the poet? Any symmetry would be limited, since for women there is no aristeia.

Women’s attire

The women that appear outside of their homes all wrap themselves in veils. Helen, to go to the ramparts, “threw a white mantle over her head” (Iliad 3.141); similarly, when admonished by Aphrodite and seized with fear, “she wrapped her mantle about her and went in silence, following the superhuman force and unnoticed by the Trojan women” (3.419–420).

Athena, like a warrior preparing for combat, recalls her “ardent valor” (Iliad 5.718) and arms herself to assist the Greeks (5.733–744):

Meanwhile Athena, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, flung her pattern-woven peplos, made with her own hands, on to her father’s threshold, and donned the khiton of Zeus, arming herself for battle. She threw her tasseled aegis about her shoulders, wreathed round with Rout as with a fringe, and on it were Strife, and Strength, and Panic whose blood runs cold; moreover there was the head of the dread monster Gorgon, grim and terrifying to behold, portent of aegis-bearing Zeus. On her head she set her helmet of gold, with four plumes, and coming to a peak both in front and behind decked with the emblems of a hundred cities.

This long citation makes clear that for combat with men it is not the peplos ‘dress’ but the cuirass that is required—khiton, aegis, and helmet, not ribbon and diadem. Here, Athena, brilliant in her armor, is located entirely within the masculine sphere of war.


Here, again, it seems the radiance of feminine beauty and attire corresponds to the radiance of the bodies and weapons of warriors.

Cosmetics and perfume

Colors, scents, and softness are closely associated to suggest erotic union, charm, and beauty, spheres in which the woman occupies a prominent place.

The Voices and Words of Women

The Iliad depicts very few women and, of those mentioned, even fewer speak. Among the women of the epic, who speaks, when, and in what way?

Which women speak? When?

The very first woman to speak in the Iliad is Helen, and the words she pronounces are not insignificant. Responding to Priam’s questions on the ramparts, Helen tells stories of the Achaeans’ feats and bravery. Her “poetic word” informs Priam and the Trojans; it is the truth. At the moment when she mentions Odysseus, Antenor—one of the elders seated on the wall who had offered his hospitality to Odysseus—interrupts her to say: “Madam, you have spoken truly” (3.204).

The proximity of Helen and the bard is already underlined in her first appearance in the poem. She does not yet speak, but Homer depicts her as occupied with the weaving of “the struggles between Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaeans” (Iliad 3.126–127). Her weaving is like a foreshadowing of the words she will pronounce on the ramparts. In both cases, she is joining in the affairs of men, of heroes.

Helen speaks on four occasions in the Iliad. On each occasion, she speaks in her name, in an autonomous manner. She responds once to the questions of a man, becoming herself the poet of Troy, and three times she takes the initiative to speak.

She shouts at Paris and reprimands him for his cowardice (Iliad 3.428–434):

“So you are come from the fight,” said she; “would that you had fallen rather by the hand of that brave man who was my husband. You used to brag that you were a better man with might and spear than warlike Menelaus. Go, then, and challenge him again—but I should advise you not to do so.”

Later, when Hector is in the city, it is she who first addresses him, expressing regret over both the suffering she is causing for the Trojans and her husband’s cowardice. Once again, the comparison between the valiant warrior and the hesitant coward is explicit in Helen’s words; Hector is the one she would have preferred to have as a husband in Troy (Iliad 6.350–353):

But, since the gods have devised these evils, would, at any rate, that I had been wife to a better man—to one who could smart under dishonor and men’s evil speeches. This man was never yet to be depended upon, nor never will be, and he will surely reap what he has sown.

And finally, she is the third woman to weep over Hector’s body and the last woman whose words are heard in the Iliad (24.760–775).

The feminine voice oscillates between two poles: powerlessness, with its share of cries and moans of painful awareness, but also clairvoyance, truth, and poetry.

How do women speak?

From muddled whispers to repellent barking, a wide register of feminine voices is identifiable in epic.

But a woman’s voice can also be prophetic, as in the case of Cassandra: while Priam is gone to Achilles’ tent, “she went about the city saying” that Priam was on his way back to Troy with Hector’s body. She is the only one who sees Priam and his attendant from the walls (Iliad 24.697–699):

No one neither man nor woman saw them, till Cassandra, fair as golden Aphrodite standing on Pergamon, caught sight of her dear father.

In the Odyssey, two women make prophecies: first Helen, who predicts (manteusomai, 4.172) the return of Odysseus, then a servant in the palace in Ithaca, who renews this prediction before the contest of the bow: “a miller-woman from hard by in the mill room lifted up her voice” (20.105). Her words are a “sign to her master” (sēma anakti, 20.111).

Helen seems to be the only woman whose speech is acceptable for men: she does not moan or try to hold them back from combat; she does not deceive them or destroy them through seduction; she speaks without shouting or crying. She is situated at the fringe of masculine “discourse” and the feminine “voice.”

Through this examination, we have seen that the radiance of feminine beauty corresponds with the radiance of masculine achievements and that—aside from Helen—confused and subordinate feminine voices correspond to the organized discourse of men. Is there a specific feminine nature here? It may lie in a sort of absence. In the Iliad, the feminine appears fantasized in a way that prevents it from being truly evoked.


[ back ] 1. See Parry 1928a:146–181 (“L’épithète fixe peut-elle avoir un sens particularisé?”).

[ back ] 2. See Part 1, Chapter 2 above.

[ back ] 3. Bespaloff 1943:37–38: “Homère se garde bien de décrire la beauté, comme s’il y avait là une anticipation interdite de la béatitude. Nous ignorons la nuance des yeux d’Hélène, la couleur des tresses de Thétis, la courbe de l’épaule d’Andromaque. Aucune particularité, aucune singularité ne nous est révélée, et pourtant nous voyons ces créatures, nous les reconnaîtrions, nous ne pourrions les confondre.”

[ back ] 4. Fourteen occurrences: Iliad 1.143, 184, 310, 323, 346, 369; 6.298, 302; 9.665; 11.224; 15.87; 19.246; 24.607, 676. Women’s cheeks are described specifically during scenes of mourning: while crying, a woman will “tear her cheeks.”

[ back ] 5. There are a total of thirty uses of epithets referring to hair.

[ back ] 6. See Bussolino 1962:217.

[ back ] 7. For example, Andromache: Iliad 6.371, 377; 24.723; Helen: 3.121.

[ back ] 8. Chantraine 1968–1977:558 s.v. κóλπος, and Nawratil 1959.

[ back ] 9. Iliad 22.80–83; see pp. 45–46 above on this passage.

[ back ] 10. Cf. p. 124 below.

[ back ] 11. For example, “Laodice, the fairest of Priam’s daughters,” Iliad 3.124; 6.252. The same goes for Alcestis (2.715) and the Lesbians offered by Agamemnon to Achilles are “all of surpassing beauty,” 9.130, etc.

[ back ] 12. See Lorimer 1950:377–390. Only a few objects worn by women are mentioned: golden clasps (Iliad 5.425; 14.180), belts (for example, 14.181), earrings and jewels (14.182–183; 18.400–402), a headband for tying up hair (22.469).

[ back ] 13. Identical vocabulary: “fitted” armor or clothing (for example, harmozō: 3.332–333 and Hesiod Works and Days 76); cf. pp. 21–22 above.

[ back ] 14. See the detailed analysis of this passage in Nagler 1974:55–59.

[ back ] 15. On the doubling of the belt, masculine and feminine, see Schmitt 1977.

[ back ] 16. See p. 42–43 above. Aphrodite wounded at Iliad 5.337–340.

[ back ] 17. Nagler 1974:23n31.

[ back ] 18. For example, Helen’s “white” veil (Iliad 3.141 and 419); Aphrodite’s “fair garment” (5.315); the veil Hecuba offered to Athena that “glittered like a star” (6.295), etc. All these descriptions recall the brilliant white robe and veil of Pandora, Hesiod Theogony 574–575.

[ back ] 19. The veil of Thetis at the end of the poem is dark blue—kuanos (Iliad 24.94); on the meaning of this epithet, see Rowe 1972:346–353.

[ back ] 20. See, principally, Moreux 1967 passim.

[ back ] 21. Grillet 1975:90–91.

[ back ] 22. See Bounoure 1983:17–18.

[ back ] 23. Iliad 3.173–175; 6.345–348; 24.764; it is her union with Paris, cause of so many deaths, that she regrets. At 3.173–175, there is suggestive wavering between thanatos/thalamos: “‘Sir [Priam],’ answered Helen, shining among women, ‘father of my husband, dear and reverend in my eyes, would that I had chosen death [thanatos kakos] rather than to have come here with your son, far from my bridal chamber [thalamon].’”

[ back ] 24. At Iliad 22.477, Andromache, seeing her husband dead in front of the gates, calls him “Hector.” When his corpse is inside Troy, she addresses him as anēr (24.725), asserting once again her dependence on a man.

[ back ] 25. Is this because she is the mother of the main Trojan hero or rather because she is the wife of the Trojan king? She speaks with Hector: Iliad 6.254 and following; begs him to return to the city: 22.82 and following; weeps: 22.431 and 24.77; prays to Athena: 6.305–310; and advises Priam: 24.201–208 and following.

[ back ] 26. Cf. Anticlea, who dies of sorrow from waiting for Odysseus’ return: Odyssey 11.202–203.

[ back ] 27. Iliad 19.295–299. These words are analogous to Andromache’s (6.410 and following). In tears, both moan over their destiny; see Beye 1974:87–88; Farron 1979:29–30.

[ back ] 28. This theme is developed in Hesiod Theogony (205–206): the privileges of Aphrodite are “the amorous converse of maidens, their smiles and wiles, their sweet delights, their love, and blandishment”; see Detienne 1973:64n91.

[ back ] 29. See pp. 105–106 below.

[ back ] 30. One might consider another type of ritual, feminine chant—the ololugē of women—by examining Eurycleia who, seeing the suitors’ dead bodies, prepares to let out the you-you of victory. On this point, see Gernet 1983:250–253 and Rudhardt 1958:178 and following.

[ back ] 31. Circe: Odyssey 10.136, 221; 11.8. Calypso: Odyssey 5.56–57, 61; 12.449. Scylla: Odyssey 12.85–86. Sirens: 12.44, 183, 187, 192, etc.; cf. Kahn 1980:123–124.

[ back ] 32. Detienne 1973:66 “En tant qu’elle est Peithō ou Apaté, la parole est dans la pensée mythique une puissance double, positive et négative, qui, sur ce plan, est parfaitement analogue à d’autres puissances ambiguës. Il y a en quelque sorte une équivalence entre elles: la parole ambivalente est une femme, elle est le dieu Protée, elle est un tissu bariolé.”