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.3. The Tears of Women

Women do not have it in their nature to compete with the virtue and the greatness of men. On this point, Greek epic does not contradict a universally recognized tradition. Contrary to men, who, through their courage and great deeds, pass from an “ordinary” to a heroic state, women belong, once and for all, to a species that definitively carries within it its own limitations: those of the “race of women.” [1]

The tears of Helen

Unlike the other women who cry over the loss of a husband or a son, Helen cries for herself, over the pain that her passion has provoked. She bemoans not her condition but her error and its consequences. Helen, like the heroes, sobs over the struggles, the aethloi, that she has set in motion. She cries over the human experience of the Trojan War. This makes her the only feminine character in the epic to have such autonomy of emotion: these psychological categories—remorse, guilt—are reserved in the epic for masculine figures.

The sobs of women

The Iliad resonates with the crying and sobbing of Trojan women; the Odyssey is made wholly from the tears of Penelope, as if all of femininity were summarized by her crying. In this world of war, each woman cries for a father, brother, or son fallen in combat. As both at stake to be defended and prey to be attained, women can only cry once their defenders have fallen. The death of Hector, protector of Troy, will set off a flow of tears from Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, and the Trojan women as a whole.

Andromache weeps from her first appearance in the poem to her last. [11] The theme of tears underpins her entire story. By studying the play of formulas (variations or modifications, certain particular meanings) and the uses of non-formulary language, Charles Segal has shown that the motif of Andromache’s grief runs throughout the Iliad. [12] Her tears, mentioned while she is on the ramparts, intensify when she returns to the palace. Later, at the moment of Hector’s death, she begins a sort of preliminary lament: “she started to sing a lament in the midst of the Trojan women” (22.476). Finally, the scene of great mourning in Iliad 24 shows her leading the public lamentation at Hector’s funeral. In other words, Andromache is preparing, from her first appearance in the poem, for the final scene of lamentation. In Iliad 6, her tears are a sign of things to come: the death of Hector. Her famous “laughing amidst tears” (dakruoen gelasasa, 6.484) [13] represents the ultimate commingling of happiness and grief, her final moment of joy shared with Hector. She laughs for the last time, and already her tears irreparably shroud her destiny. Back home, accompanied by her maids, she laments for the living Hector—who is already virtually dead—in a scene that foreshadows the great lamentation at the end of the Iliad (6.499–502):

[she] … bade them all [the servants] join in her lament; so they mourned Hector slayer of men in his own house though he was yet alive, for they thought that they should never see him return safe from battle, and from the furious hands of the Achaeans.

Penelope cries without ceasing, as if from the departure of Odysseus her tears are the only way to resist forgetting, the only way to preserve a memory of her husband and, through this memory, to preserve her status as Odysseus’s wife. This is her way of refusing to allow, in a word, Odysseus to be replaced.

By her endless tears, it is as if Penelope is “out of bounds”; she abstracts herself in a certain sense from the reality of Ithaca to live, via her sobbing, near her absent husband. Her tears are like a screen that preserves the personal, private memory she has of Odysseus, while, at the same time, preventing the public celebration of his heroic memory. Indeed, she, refuses to hear the bard when he sings “the homecoming of the Achaeans” (Odyssey 1.326) to the suitors (1.337–344):

Phemius, you know many another thing that charms mortals, all about the deeds of men and gods, to which singers give glory. Sing for them some one of those songs of glory, and let them in silence drink their wine. But you stop this sad song, this disastrous song, which again and again affects my very own heart in my breast, wearing it down, since an unforgettable grief comes over me, more than ever. I feel this way because that is the kind of person I long for, recalling his memory again and again, the memory of a man whose glory extends far and wide throughout Hellas and midmost Argos.

During Hector’s funeral, the lamentations of the women are of primary importance, and furthermore, the poet conveys only their words to us. The lamentations of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen restate in a way the principal themes of the Iliad.

Andromache speaks of the suffering of war, the pain of the Trojan people, the impending fall of the city, and its consequence, the enslavement of the Trojan women (Iliad 24.728–730):

[Before Astyanax reaches manhood] our city will be razed and overthrown, for you who watched over it are no more—you who were its savior the guardian of our wives and children.

Hecuba makes ample room for the gods in her lamentation, remembering that Hector has always been well loved by them, who, even in death, protect him from affronts by preserving and enhancing his beauty (Iliad 24.749–750):

So long as you were alive the gods loved you well, and even in death they have not been utterly unmindful of you.

Finally, Helen recalls the qualities of Hector’s heart, the aristocratic conceptions of courage and strength, saving room for his gentleness (Iliad 24.774–775):

… for there is no one else in Troy who is kind to me.

These three lamentations correspond to the three conversations Hector has while in Troy. In Iliad 6, Hector feared the enslavement of Astyanax and Andromache: here, the realization of that threat is approaching and Andromache herself takes up the theme (Iliad 6.454–463; 24.731–735). Hecuba had suggested that Hector offer a libation to Zeus, and now, before his deathbed, she recalls the favor the gods showed him (6.258–260; 24.749–750). In her bedchamber in Troy, Helen had “tried to soothe” Hector (6.343) and suggested that he sit and forget the troubles she had caused; in Iliad 24 she reaffirms this same idea (6.344–356; 24.762–775). And finally, the servants who had cried for him when he was alive lament in this moment his mortal remains (6.499–500; 24.746).

The lamentations of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen elicit, to varying degrees, the reaction of the participants to the funeral. Each lamentation ends with hōs ephato klaiousa—“bitterly did she weep the while”—and the second half of the verse introduces an increase in the intensity of the wailing. Andromache moves the women, who respond to her by sobbing as well (Iliad 24.746). The long lament of Hecuba (adinos goos, 24.750) causes endless moans from the participants (24.760). And finally, after the third lamentation, that of Helen, the entire crowd sobs (24.776).

The energetic tears of heroes, who, after their sobs, can go on fighting, counter the pitiful powerlessness and moral torpor of the wailing women. In short, the tears of women are not, strictly speaking, identical in value to those of men.


[ back ] 1. See Loraux 1978 passim and pp. 56–60 above.

[ back ] 2. In order to be exhaustive, this examination would need to take into account two episodes in the Iliad where the poet presents goddesses in tears: Aphrodite wounded by Diomedes in Book 5, and especially Artemis beaten by Hera during the theomachy in Book 21. I will limit myself to pointing out J.-P. Vernant’s conclusions on Artemis. Vernant examined this question at length during his 1980–1981 course at the Collège de France: an ambiguous figure, Artemis can be a terrible goddess within her legitimate sphere—the agros and wild animals, the world and the affairs of women, and more specifically child birth—and at the same time, she is a fragile and weeping virgin when she ventures out onto the battlefield. In this sense, the tears of Artemis in the Iliad are a sign of regression back into childhood; rescued by her mother and consoled affectionately by her father, she cries like a little girl (21.493–513). On the meaning one can ascribe to the “error” Aphrodite makes when she goes outside her domain, see Saïd 1978:287–289.

[ back ] 3. See pp. 80–81 above.

[ back ] 4. Iliad 3.142, 176; 24.773. From the top of the ramparts, surprised not to see her brothers among the Achaeans, she blames their absence on herself: she tells Priam they have not come because of “the shame and disgrace that I have brought upon them” (3.242).

[ back ] 5. Iliad 3.173–175; 6.345–348; 24.764; in these three instances, it is the consequences of her shameful love of Paris that provokes this feeling in her.

[ back ] 6. Moved by the idea that she might see him on the plains of Troy (which does not happen), she came out of her room “weeping as she went” (Iliad 3.142).

[ back ] 7. Clader 1976:11.

[ back ] 8. Some commentators think this is opium, since it comes from Egypt; see Stanford 1948 and Hainsworth and Privitera 1982 ad loc.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Vellay 1957:105–107, who cites Theophrastus History of Plants 2.1.3, etc., and Pliny Natural History 21.33 and 91.

[ back ] 10. See p. 81 above.

[ back ] 11. Whether her tears are “real” or envisioned: Iliad 6.373, 405, 455, 459, 484, 496, 499; 22.87, 476; 24.723, 745–746.

[ back ] 12. Segal 1971a; see pp. 78–80 above.

[ back ] 13. On the tradition of this theme in Western literature, see Antin 1961.

[ back ] 14. Odyssey 1.336, 363; 2.376; 4.110, 705, 719, 721, 749, 758, 800–801, 805–806, 819, 828; 11.183; 13.338; 14.129–130; 16.39, 332, 450; 17.8, 33, 38, 40, 102–103; 18.172–173; 19.204–213, 249, 251, 264, 268, 513, 517, 541, 543, 596, 603; 20.58–59, 84–92; 21.56–57, 357; 23.33, 207, 351–352; 24.295.

[ back ] 15. Thus M.-M. Mactoux 1975:21–23.

[ back ] 16. See also Odyssey 19.541–543. On Penelope’s sleeping, see Segal 1967:327–329.

[ back ] 17. “C’est seulement dans la ‘version de Phémios’, telle que nous pouvons la reconstruire, que le héros meurt avant d’avoir regagné son île” (Svenbro 1976:20).

[ back ] 18. See pp. 45–46 above, and Griffin 1980:25.

[ back ] 19. This scene can be compared to Iliad 22.347 (Achilles threatening Hector). On the “avenging cannibalism” of mothers, see Hirvonen 1968:28.

[ back ] 20. This is the only passage in the Iliad where ōmēstès is used to describe a human being; see Segal 1971b:61–62 and 68, and Schein 1970:74–75.

[ back ] 21. See also Odyssey 14.129–130; 24.294–296.

[ back ] 22. See Redfield 1975:180

[ back ] 23. On lamentation, see Reiner 1938:2–59 and Alexiou 1974.

[ back ] 24. See p. 114 below.

[ back ] 25. On the meaning of laos in the Iliad, see Jeanmaire 1939:54–58 and 88–89.

[ back ] 26. “… dans la déploration, la différence de perspective suivant qu’il s’agit du mort vu par le cercle étroit de ses proches, spécialement les femmes, et le mort vu par le groupe plus large de ses compagnons d’armes. Dans le premier cas, le mort est évoqué en fonction de ce qu’à ses intimes sa fin coûte de larmes, de douleur, de deuil. Dans le second, on rappelle ce qu’il a coûté à l’ennemi comme pertes et souffrances, en sa qualité de héros guerrier” (Vernant 1977:434).