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.

III.2. Tears in a Different World: The Odyssey

The “world of Odysseus” presents us with the disorder in Ithaca, a kingdom without a king, ruled in the interim by a woman, and the strange universe of the journey where “from the Lotus-eaters to Calypso, passing by way of the Cyclops and the Underworld, Odysseus does not encounter a single human being, technically speaking.” [1]

In this radically different context from the Iliad, the act of crying seems to be situated, through a shift in meaning, to another plane. Nowhere in the Iliad is it ever stated that tears must be contained or controlled; things are different in the Odyssey. Tears are at times forbidden and at times allowed. What are the criteria for making this distinction? Focusing on the character of Odysseus, I will try to clarify the discrepancy between the Odyssey and the Iliad.

When and Why Does Odysseus Hold Back Tears?

This self-mastery in the Odyssey is indeed the mark of a superior quality, of a valorous essence. The poet on two other occasions reprises this image of a man able to contain his emotion and handle the fury in his heart. These deal with the sons of the two principal heroes of Homeric epic.

As he endures the spectacle of his father’s mistreatment by the suitors, Telemachus is able to contain his emotion: “No tear fell from him, he shook his head in silence and brooded on his revenge” (Odyssey 17.490–491).

When Tears are Uncontrollable

Just as Achilles’ grief appears throughout the Iliad from beginning to end, the suffering, hardship, and sorrow of Odysseus are central motifs of the Odyssey. The situations Odysseus confronts push him time and again to the limits of human suffering. His unwavering resistance and active resignation (“Heart, be still,” Odyssey 20.18; also 10.153) make him a model of endurance, the polutlas, who has suffered greatly. During all his wanderings, his primary, inescapable adversary is death, against which he struggles desperately. One cannot fail to note that, when Odysseus falls prey to his tears, he is among non-humans, where the values of human society are not operative. The moral of the Iliad—die in combat or return victorious—is no longer in place in the supernatural worlds that Odysseus traverses. While he is, indeed, one of the victorious heroes of Troy, the terms of his return are clouded. And it is no small paradox in the poem to see this model of bravery, this champion of virility, become the prisoner of women in worlds where a warrior’s values are no longer strictly relevant.

The Iliad constantly evokes the hard necessities of the feminine condition during times of war: the woman, more often with her children, is taken prisoner by the man who has overcome her husband. She becomes his slave. This is a bit like what happens to Odysseus; unable to return to his native land, he is the captive of Circe, then Calypso. His life has been suspended, and it is precisely his weeping and sobbing that preserve him from the hand of death, that are the mark of his humanity. [16] When his return to Ithaca is finally set by the gods, Calypso requests that he put an end to his tears (Odyssey 5.151–158):

Certain details further specify the strangeness of Odysseus’ situation. Calypso and Circe are described in specific gold and silver clothing that they put on at sunrise (Odyssey 5.230–232 = 10.543–545). The bright clothing, the breaking of the day, and the love of the two goddesses are themes that recall the affairs of Aphrodite and Eos with their mortal lovers. [
18] Odysseus, in his own way, is also a victim of abduction, as Orion and Tithonus are. He is virtually the prisoner of Calypso. For purely erotic reasons, the brave warrior Odysseus is in turn the prisoner of a nymph and of a magician. The reversal is total: the reasons for and conditions of his detention with Circe and Calypso are the antithesis of the ideal warrior. Thus, as a complete “anomaly,” the prisoner of a goddess in a supernatural land, Odysseus can no longer avoid being invaded by extreme suffering; no longer having masculine recourse, he can only abandon himself to tears.

Throughout his travels, Odysseus is, in the end, only facing a single adversary: death, whether it be peaceful (the inhuman love of Circe or Calypso, forgetting in the land of the Lotus-eaters), violent and wild (the Laestrygonians, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis), or dramatically immediate (the Nekyia). The sobs of Odysseus are a sign of the superposition of fabulous but terrible worlds, a “muddling” in which mortal man has neither place nor possible response.

The raging seas, cannibalistic monsters, and overly loving goddesses are not the only sources of tears that Odysseus experiences. His stay with the Phaeacians, the final stage in nonhuman lands, also brings its share of sorrow.

It is significant that during his time in Scheria Odysseus plunges back into a context that reminds him more of the world of war than of peaceful times suitable to the bonds of hospitality. With Alcinous, Odysseus reconnects completely with his past and his warrior’s nature. The restoration of his hero status becomes possible only because a bard, Demodocus, sings the epic of Troy.

Mediation by the Bard: The Tears of Odysseus, Hero of Troy

After the first banquet given in honor of Odysseus, the bard thus rises (Odyssey 8.73–75):

… the Muse inspired Demodocus to sing the glories of heroes. In particular it was something that had a kleos that reached all the way to the sky in its full breadth. It was the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles.

While this story delights the Phaeacians, it immediately provokes tears in Odysseus (Odyssey 8.86, 92): it is his identity as the hero of Troy that he retrieves here, because he remembers. The song of the bard places him, in a sense, back in heroic circumstances: after all of the strange adventures that he has known in supernatural lands, he relives at this moment the siege of Troy and the suffering of war. His tears are as much a sign of his current plunge back into the world of warrior’s exploits as of his setting aside this heroic world of men, specifically because it fails to return the victor to his homeland.

In the same way, when he hears Demodocus celebrating the ruse of the Trojan Horse, he can no longer hold back his tears:

So these were the things that the singer most famed was singing. As for Odysseus, he dissolved into tears. He made wet his cheeks with the tears flowing from his eyelids, just as a woman cries, falling down and embracing her dear husband, who fell in front of the city and people he was defending, trying to ward off the pitiless day of doom that is hanging over the city and its children. She sees him dying, gasping for his last breath, and she pours herself all over him as she wails with a piercing cry. But there are men behind her, prodding her with their spears, hurting her back and shoulders, and they bring for her a life of bondage, which will give her pain and sorrow. Her cheeks are wasting away with a sorrow that is most pitiful. So also did Odysseus pour out a piteous tear from beneath his brows.

As Pietro Pucci has correctly observed, the song of heroic exploits “brings forth irresistible tears,” [
23] and it is at this point that the actual metamorphosis of Odysseus takes place. Through his tears, Odysseus regains his past; the song of the bard pulls him again toward the realm of war, of the Iliad. What Gérard Genette calls the “oblique relationship” between the Odyssey and the Iliad [24] can be clearly observed in this passage. In memory of Ilion, Odysseus sheds the tears of a hero, tears significant on two levels: first, it is when the bard sings of Odysseus’ victory over Deiphobus (nikēsai, Odyssey 8.520) that his crying interrupts the story. On this first level, Odysseus is the “ransacker of cities,” the ptoliporthos [25] hero. On a second level, the tears of Odysseus and the comparison that they cause bring about the end of the interrupted story. [26] The mention of the hero who fell outside the walls of the city while defending his people and the widow taken off into slavery clearly refer to the story of Hector and Andromache. The female Trojan prisoners, implicitly evoked in Demodocus’ song (“He sang how the steep citadel was destroyed by different men [the Greeks] in different places,” 8.516), [27] can be found in the comparison to the anonymous woman sobbing over her husband.

Odysseus the Bard

The song of the bard restores a trajectory of possible return for Odysseus. But the ties that the hero maintains with poetry are much more profound and essential. He is one of the Achaeans most celebrated by the bards (Odyssey 8.74–75), and at the same time, once his identity has been revealed, he occupies the place of the bard himself, telling his stories in the hall of Alcinous (9.19–20 and 37–38):

I am Odysseus son of Laertes, renowned among humankind for all manner of subtlety, so that my kleos ascends to the sky … I will tell you of the many hazardous adventures which by Zeus’ will I met with on my return from Troy.

In this other world—the city of Scheria—which is not one of war, Odysseus regains access to his heroic path thanks to poetic song; his tears are those of a hero who remembers. It is as if, among the Phaeacians, his tears are another way for him to recall the valor in his limbs, a means to rediscover his identity. The art of the bard—first hearing it and then practicing it himself—is an obligatory transition from the complete, non-heroic anonymity to which he had been reduced in his wanderings to the all-powerful state he embodies at the end of the Odyssey, when he lands in Ithaca as much conqueror of Troy as king.

For Menelaus, another veteran of Troy, even when filled with all the prosperity of his kingdom, does he not cry? Specifically over his memories of Troy and his comrades in arms? “I often grieve, as I sit here in my house, for one and all of them. At times I cry aloud for sorrow” (Odyssey 4.100–101), he says to Telemachus.

Heroes, then, through their ability to remember, or more immediately through the powers of epos ‘poetry’, reunite with the essence of their heroic nature by way of their tears. In times of peace, the ability to cry while under the influence of poetic song acts, for the hero, like an extension of his ability to fight during times of war.

The Tears of Odysseus, King of Ithaca


[ back ] 1. Vidal-Naquet 1981:47: “des Lotophages à Calypso, en passant par la Cyclopie et le pays des morts, Ulysse ne rencontre pas un seul être humain à proprement parler.”

[ back ] 2. Vernant 1982a:17: “sur la rive de cette île où il n’aurait qu’un mot à dire pour devenir immortel, assis sur un rocher, face à la mer, Ulysse tout le jour se lamente et sanglote.”

[ back ] 3. For his tears, see Odyssey 5.82–84, 151–153, 156–158. Like Achilles, he goes off alone to express his despair; see J. B. Hainsworth’s commentary ad loc. in Hainsworth and Privitera 1982.

[ back ] 4. The same image is applied to Telemachus who, hearing Menelaus tell the story of his father’s exploits, hides behind his purple mantle to cry, Odyssey 4.115–116.

[ back ] 5. See Odyssey 8.532. We see the same idea, but from another perspective, when he hides his tears (lathōn) from Eumaeus after seeing his old dog Argos, 17.304–305. At other moments in the plot, an extensive field of associations with the hidden and the invisible is constructed around the character of Odysseus, a specialist in the art of dissimulation: He is disguised in rags as an unrecognizable beggar (in Troy, 4.245 and following; in Ithaca, 13.429 and following); hidden inside a wooden horse (8.502 and following), etc.

[ back ] 6. The expression nōlemes aiei ‘obstinately, without respite’ shows the extent to which Odysseus held back his emotion before the revelation of his identity.

[ back ] 7. The man who is “heavy” (19.122) with wine and whose moistened eyes “swim with tears” (dakruplōein).

[ back ] 8. Amory 1966:43–47.

[ back ] 9. See the detailed remarks on the possible meaning of this line in Onians 1954:242–243.

[ back ] 10. As P. Mazon’s French translation suggests: “homme fier de sa mèche” (“the man who takes pride in his locks”).

[ back ] 11. Amory 1966:56; see also Onians 1954:238–244.

[ back ] 12. Aeschylus, in his Seven against Thebes (50–53), summarizes this remarkably. If the seven leaders cry when thinking of their families “no piteous wailing escaped their lips. For their iron-hearted spirit heaved, blazing with courage, as of lions with war in their eyes” (trans. Smyth 1926).

[ back ] 13. See pp. 91–92 above.

[ back ] 14. “Quaking” is cowardly and not masculine. On the tresas, see Loraux 1977:108–114.

[ back ] 15. Remember, for example, Odysseus’ companions who spend their time crying; it is very often Odysseus who puts an end to their sobbing. See the comparison that presents him as a “mother” for his companions in tears, Odyssey 10.410–414.

[ back ] 16. On Odysseus’ predisposition to tears, which was condemned by the Stoics, see Stanford 1968:121–122 and 265–266n9.

[ back ] 17. On the aiōn being shed along with his tears, cf. p. 119 below.

[ back ] 18. For an overview of the question, see Boedeker 1974:64–84.

[ back ] 19. “Le point extrême de cette exploration où Ulysse rencontre différents degrés d’inhumanité, c’est précisément l’au-delà qu’est la mort, l’envers du monde des vivants sous la lumière du soleil” (Frontisi-Ducroux 1976:544).

[ back ] 20. Vidal-Naquet 1981:60 and following.

[ back ] 21. Odyssey 8.248: “We are extremely fond of good dinners, music, and dancing,” Alcinous says to Odysseus. In his commentary on the Odyssey, J. B. Hainsworth (Hainsworth and Privitera 1982) shows that this verse is modeled, though in inverted form, on Iliad 1.177 and 5.891, verses addressed to Achilles and Ares.

[ back ] 22. On the meaning of tēkō ‘dissolve’, see p. 113 below.

[ back ] 23. Pucci 1979:126.

[ back ] 24. Genette 1982:200.

[ back ] 25. See the remarks in Clay 1983:103–104.

[ back ] 26. Nagy (1979:101–102) has demonstrated this in detail.

[ back ] 27. See Hainsworth and Privitera 1982: ad loc.

[ back ] 28. Genette 1982:201: “comme tournoyante.”

[ back ] 29. Foley 1978:7; see also Schadewaldt 1965:382–383.

[ back ] 30. For an inversion of this scene, we could compare it to Odyssey 8.90–92 (Odysseus weeps, while the Phaeacians are delighted by Demodocus’ verses); cf. Diano 1963:418–419; Burkert 1960:136.

[ back ] 31. The kleos of the Achaeans sung by the bards is, especially, the tale of their painful trials; Odysseus states this explicitly to Demodocus (Odyssey 8.489–490): “ … in such good order do you sing the fate of the Achaeans with all their sufferings and adventures.”

[ back ] 32. On this point, see Pucci 1979.

[ back ] 33. See Segal 1983.

[ back ] 34. Segal 1983:24 points out that Odyssey 9.20 is the only passage in Homer where melō, often used in the third person, is used in the first person.

[ back ] 35. On the lyre and the bow, see Ramnoux 1962:102; Carlier 1981.

[ back ] 36. See also Odyssey 18.518–521 where Eumaeus tells of how Odysseus entranced him with his stories in the manner of a bard.

[ back ] 37. Frontisi-Ducroux 1976:543: “L’exploit suprême, c’est donc la maîtrise du langage, le don de la poésie … le seul vrai héros est celui qui sait dire.” See also, from a more strictly philological perspective, Di Donato 1969:270–271.

[ back ] 38. With one exception: when he sees Telemachus at Odyssey 16.216–217; see p. 92 above.

[ back ] 39. Note the contrast between this passage and Odyssey 19.209–211 (cited above, p. 93) Odysseus cannot cry when disguised.

[ back ] 40. When thinking of Peleus, Achilles also cries, Iliad 24.511.

[ back ] 41. Segal 1962:51.

[ back ] 42. On the alternation of joy and sorrow while under the effect of epic song, see Segal 1983 passim.