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.3. Virile Women … or Heroines?

If there were an attempt to perform an analysis of women parallel to the one offered above for men, an admission would have to be made that there are no masculine traits that become derogatory when applied to women. Quite the contrary, in fact. Two levels of masculine conduct in women can be identified: first, when women engage, more or less confusedly, in the affairs of men; second, when comparisons of masculinity directly describe the three main feminine characters in the epic—Penelope, Andromache, and Helen.

Traces of Masculinity in Women

Several times, Hector mentions the importance of the Trojan women. Their judgments matter in his eyes; whether they are related to the way he wages war (Iliad 6.441–443):

Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward?

or to the consequences of failure (Iliad 22.104–105):

Now that my folly has destroyed the army, I dare not look Trojan men and Trojan women in the face.

Trojan women are always associated with their spouses (see again, Iliad 7.297–298); Hector’s leadership affects them as much as the men. And the council that Priam and the elders of Troy form has its feminine counterpart: the group of women gathered around Hecuba (6.270, 287, 296). This is the group of women in whom Hector entrusts the mission of imploring Athena’s mercy (6.269–270). In their sphere also, women have a form of proper authority, and their requests have an individualized character: the prayers addressed to Athena are related, strictly speaking, to the world of women—wives and young mothers. They pray that Athena “will have pity upon the town, with the wives and little ones of the Trojans” (6.276, 310). There is then a recognized domain reserved for women: relations with the goddess. But it is scant indeed.

In the story of Meleager, who refuses to defend his city and withdraws from combat, there is a certain form of feminine power, or more precisely that of a wife: a persuasion that will make even the most obstinate yield. Whereas the leading authorities of the city (the elders of Aetolia and the most important priests), the representatives of familial authority (first his father, then his mother), and even his dearest battle companions fail (Iliad 9.574–587), his wife alone succeeds in convincing him to go fight: “His heart was stirred when he heard what bad things will happen. He got up and went off” (9.595–596).

In the Odyssey, the political authority of Arete, who reigns with king Alcinous over the Phaeacians, is clearly emphasized. She is the first to address Odysseus—as if he must, first and foremost, be accepted by the queen. It is she who ultimately decides to welcome Odysseus (Odyssey 6.304–305, 312–315), a point that is underlined by Moses I. Finley, who notes “her strange unwomanly claims to power and authority.” [1] We will not dwell on the obvious fact that in the Odyssey the three queens, Penelope, Helen, and Arete, maintain privileged relationships with royal power. Penelope in Ithaca, Helen in Sparta, and Arete in Scheria embody authority just as their husbands do.

Penelope: A Heroic King for Ithaca?

A certain number of descriptions depict the figure of Penelope with masculine, always prestigious, traits. These refer to the world of combat, but with a discrepancy that distinguishes the Odyssey from the Iliad.

Another of Penelope’s distinguishing features is that she is, with Athena, the only female character in the epic to be characterized by her “strong hand” (cheiri pacheiēi, Odyssey 21.6; of Athene at Iliad 21.403, 424). The epithet applied here to Penelope, which has intrigued commentators, is that granted to a warrior clutching a spear with his broad hand (Iliad 7.264; 8.221, etc.). It is significant that this feature is accorded to both the most warlike of the goddesses and the heroine of the Odyssey.

To interpret this “strong hand” as a symbol of Penelope’s power inside the home, it must, of course, be placed in context: Odysseus is about to take up the royal bow, and only his hand will be strong enough to string it. This is not the only case where twinning between Odysseus and Penelope occurs.

In another passage, Odysseus says of Penelope (Odyssey 19.108–110):

For truly your glory reaches the wide firmament of the sky itself—like the glory of some faultless king who, godlike as he is, and ruling over a population that is multitudinous and vigorous, upholds acts of good dikē.

The references to glory (kleos), justice (eudikias), and royalty (basilēos) establish a network of values closely linked to masculinity. This kind of aristeia for Penelope does not acquire its full meaning unless we stop to examine the circumstances that provoke this praise. Odysseus, who had proclaimed his own glory in similar terms (Odyssey 10.19–20) while with the Phaeacians (here again confirming the twinning of Odysseus and Penelope), is now in a completely reversed situation: “do not seek to know my lineage and family” (19.116), he responds to his wife, who has not yet recognized him. The king, like the male lion, falls into the category of masculine heroism. It is because she is an exceptionally wise and faithful wife that she can—in the absence of a man—convey royalty and assume for a while the role of the kingdom’s regent.

Andromache: A double of the warrior Hector?

Three times Andromache encroaches into a domain reserved for men, and particularly into that of war. She tends to Hector’s horses and feeds them; she would have received the prestigious armor of Achilles from Hector, had he been victorious; and, finally, she makes a more marked incursion into the world of men when she takes it upon herself to give Hector tactical advice (Iliad 6.433–434):

As for the army of warriors, place them near the fig-tree, where the city can be best scaled, and the wall is weakest.

Of note is, first of all, that the advice is defensive; it is about the best way to protect the city, that is to say, the women and children. The strangeness of this initiative is underscored by Hector, who sends Andromache back to her loom (Iliad 6.490–492).

His analysis will allow for an examination of the physical manifestations of Andromache’s pain at the moment of Hector’s death (Iliad 22.447–448 and 451–453):

With a prescient sense of her coming misfortune, Andromache’s body is struck like that of an injured warrior: her limbs vibrate and the shuttle slips out of her hands like the weapon of a man who is collapsing (Iliad 8.329; 15.465). Her heart shakes violently like the spear brandished in the hand of a combatant (3.19; 16.142); her knees stick in the ground like a spear in a helmet (4.460). A black night spreads over her, a synonym of the warrior’s death in combat (5.659; 13.580); and immediately afterward, she collapses. Catching her breath, as a hero does during an effort to fight (5.697; 11.359, etc.), she comes to (apo de psuchēn ekapusse, 22.467: literally “she breathes out her life’s breath”). Her pain is analogous, in every detail, to that of an injured or slain warrior, and this extraordinary scene confers upon her suffering a particular character.

Helen: A Double of Achilles?

Her “bitchiness,” which is underlined several times, calls to mind the scavenging dogs that roam the battlefield: “Poor brother! I am nothing more than a dog and a malicious frozen heart,” she says to Hector (Iliad 6.344; see also 3.180, 6.356; Odyssey 4.145). In this single verse, three descriptive elements contribute to the concentration of the threats of war and violent death around her character: the carnivorous dog, the battle or grievance that freezes the heart (Iliad 9.464, 24.524; Odyssey 11.212, etc.), and the horror of fighting (Iliad 9.257). She is also stugerē ‘detestable’, like death (8.368). And, finally, she has the power to make men shiver (24.775) from fear or horror (19.325), like the lion (11.383). These many qualities, while they might bring her into the world of men and war, do not erase her eminently feminine nature.

If Helen is associated with death, she is also, in a certain manner, the one who bestows immortality. This works in two ways: by the war she has provoked, where men will distinguish themselves as heroes; and in her capacity as a bard, again like Achilles. Sitting at her loom, she works on “a great web of purple wool, on which she was pattern-weaving the struggles (aethlous) between Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaeans, that Ares had made them fight for her sake” (Iliad 3.125-128),

If in the Iliad Achilles is the champion of masculine values, Helen embodies the essence of femininity. But, again, the symmetry between the two figures is complex. It is not a coincidence that these two characters, who occupy the primary roles in the epic, are also the ones that best succeed at integrating elements typical of the opposite sex without altering their masculinity/femininity in the least. Despite having his mother nearby and always accessible, even on the battlefield, Achilles remains the greatest among the warriors. Helen, who intervenes in the affairs of men to distribute death and immortality, is not rendered any less feminine for doing so. Helen’s beauty is the cause of the Trojan War, and the war reveals the beauty of Achilles.

While it is fair to suggest that the close relationship and consubstantial status of Andromache and Penelope with their husbands allow for a certain circulation of masculine values, Helen is the only heroine who does not owe her renown to her husband. In the Iliad, Helen is situated beyond the conjugal relationship, and this is, perhaps, what makes her a heroic figure.


[ back ] 1. Finley 1978b:132.

[ back ] 2. See Loraux 1981c:76–79.

[ back ] 3. Foley 1978:10 does not take into consideration the fear of the lion, but retains the image of the besieged warrior, an image directly likened to Penelope; for a more nuanced interpretation, see Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:61–62.

[ back ] 4. Like Odysseus, Penelope speaks of her kleos in the first person, cf. p. 99 below.

[ back ] 5. Odyssey 24.196–198: “Thus the glory will never perish for him, the glory that comes from his merit, and a song will be created for earth-bound humans by the immortals—a song that brings beautiful and pleasurable recompense for sensible Penelope.”

[ back ] 6. Pomeroy 1975 makes this claim, without providing any proof.

[ back ] 7. Segal 1971a.

[ back ] 8. See also pp. 29–30 above.

[ back ] 9. See pp. 107–108 below.

[ back ] 10. On the “resemblance” of Achilles and Helen, see Reckford 1964:18–20.

[ back ] 11. See the detailed remarks in Clader 1976:16–23.

[ back ] 12. See Moreux 1967:263–268 (on porphureos).

[ back ] 13. See below, pp. 104–105.