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.4. The Language of Tears

His cheeks were soon wet with tears, as his feelings suddenly broke loose; he would have wept himself away in the distance, that no trace of his existence might remain. Amid his deep-drawn sighs he seemed to recover; the soft, serene air penetrated him. The world was again present to his senses, and thoughts of other times began to speak to him consolation.

Novalis, Henri d’Ofterdingen

If the Iliad is a story of anger and tears, told by an eminent poet and master wordsmith, the range of representations of sorrow, its extent and its intersections with other registers, merits mapping out. The vocabulary of grief, the symbolism of tears, the gestures of a suffering body: these are the approaches that I have chosen to address the question of suffering in the epic.

Comparisons. Images. Vocabulary.

For men, the Iliad provides essentially one comparison that describes the tears of two heroes, Agamemnon (9.13–15) and Patroclus (16.2–4):

Agamemnon shed tears as it were a dark-running stream or cataract on the side of some sheer cliff . [1]

The second notable comparison is one applied in the Odyssey to Odysseus and Telemachus, in tears at the moment of their reunion (16.216–219):

They were both so much moved that they cried aloud like eagles or vultures with crooked talons that have been robbed of their half fledged young by peasants. Thus piteously did they weep …

Sobs have the power to ravage the beauty and the lives of women. Consumed by tears, they waste away; their cheeks wither, and their beauty spoils. The poet, by using a partially overlapping vocabulary, indicates that tears have effects on women similar to those that war has on men. To describe warriors who are dying, Homer uses the verbs phthinuthō and enairō, among others (Iliad 17.364; 24.244); he uses these same terms to express the grief of women, as if tears were the double, however distorted, of wounds on the battlefield.

Is this capacity to empty one’s energy in a flood of tears strictly a feminine characteristic? It is not entirely certain. However, one can see in this comparison the poet’s intention to distinguish between the way men and women cry. The tears of Agamemnon are dark; those of Penelope alter her beauty as they slide down her cheeks, like the flow of melting snow.

In this survey, I am only including words that mean cry or shed tears and have chosen to study them in order of prominence. [9]

Klaiō is the verb used most frequently (thirty-eight occurrences): it often describes the sorrow of grief, and most of the time its meaning is intensified by the assertion of tears shed. The verb is almost always preceded or followed by dakru ‘tear’ (Iliad 1.360, 362; 3.148, 176; 7.426, 427, etc.).

A Biology of Tears

How tears arise

Before crying, it is as if the Homeric hero is paralyzed: his entrails contract in a muscular spasm that results in the secretion of tears; his vocal cords are occasionally blocked for a time. Tears are a visible, exterior extension of a wave that invades the body of a man in the throes of suffering.

The fertility of tears

Few epithets are applied to tears: thermon, teren, thaleron. Tears are warm, tender, delicate, or still flourishing.

Apart from poetic conventions and metrical requirements, it seems that the “heat” of tears adds a particular quality to the suffering thus determined. With one exception (the group of Trojans celebrating the funeral for their warriors), it is always the Greek heroes, and the most revered among them, who cry in this manner.

In this respect, the expression thaleron kata dakru cheontes warrants close attention. The adjective thaleros is used sixteen times in the Odyssey and eighteen in the Iliad.

Tears are described by this adjective in four types of formulas:

  • θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέοντες [Iliad 6.496; Odyssey 4.556; 10.201, 409, 570; 11.5, 466; 12.12; 22.447]
  • θαλερὸν δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε δάκρυ [Iliad 2.266; Odyssey 16.16]
  • θαλερὸν κατα δάκρυον εἶβεν [Iliad 24.9; Odyssey 11.391]
  • θαλερὸν δὲ κατείβετο δάκρυ παρειῶν [Iliad 24.794]

‘Flourishing’ tears occur more often in the Odyssey than in the Iliad. Of the sixteen occurrences of the adjective, ten are specifically related to tears and one, connected to goos, is implicitly associated (Odyssey 10.457). In the Iliad, thaleros is most frequently used in its literal sense: it describes fruitful unions, husbands or “flourishing” wives, and men in the prime of their lives (3.53; 6.430; 8.156; 3.26; 4.474; 10.259; 11.414, etc.).

Should this be the perspective from which to understand the epithet thaleros? Before proposing responses, other qualifiers applied to tears and other ways of crying should be noted in order to verify whether tears are inscribed in the semantic field of fertility.

The hand of a warrior is powerful (Iliad 1.219; 11.235; 13.410); his weapon can be cumbersome (5.664) in a dangerous sense; a wound causes a limb to swell and become heavy (11.584; 16.519; 20.480); error (2.111; 9.18), disaster, strife, conflict (20.55), and death (“cruel hands of death,” 21.548) are unbearable burdens; all of these are ways of expressing the force of a danger or of masculine suffering.

Finally, adjectives used less often to describe men’s sobbing, such as ligus ‘shrill’ and krueros ‘chilling’, render simultaneously the dimension of the sound of crying and the idea of the impact of the jolts of pain or emotion. When a man weeps and lets out piercing cries, the context is always extremely dramatic: Achilles near the corpse of Patroclus (Iliad 19.5), the anguish of Agamemnon in the Underworld (Odyssey 11.395), the horror of Odysseus’ shipmates at the memory of the cannibalistic Cyclops (10.391). Ligus, though, is also frequently used for the lamentation of women (Iliad 19.284; Odyssey 4.259; 8.527; 21.56, etc.).

The distribution of connotations attributed to tears is thus complex, almost contradictory: tears exhaust the warrior and drive away his vital force, but they also constitute a privileged sign of the energy that he manifests elsewhere, in combat. It is of note that when the poet describes a character consumed by tears, he is referring to either a woman or to Odysseus, whose situation in the Odyssey is no longer that of a warrior.

The Sites and Gestures of Grief

The spaces associated with tears differ depending on whether the lamentations are masculine or feminine. Men normally cry outside: Menelaus weeps on the seashore when he is with Proteus (Odyssey 4.539); Achilles and his companions wet the sands and their weapons with their sobs (Iliad 23.15–16); Odysseus sits at the tip of Calypso’s island and soaks his clothing with his tears (Odyssey 7.260); the sons of Priam, seated in the courtyard of the palace, do the same after the death of Hector (Iliad 24.161–162).

The gestures of tears

When misfortune strikes, the grief that invades the heart as well as the body is expressed in a series of self-directed gestures, immediate and violent, upon the man who is suffering: raising hands, striking the face (Iliad 22.33–34: Priam), pacing (Odyssey 13.220: Odysseus), rolling on the ground in the sand (Odyssey 4.539: Menelaus) or the mud (Iliad 22.414), and pulling out hair (Iliad 10.15: Agamemnon; 22.77–78: Priam; 24.711: Hecuba and Andromache); all are reactions dictated by suffering.

On one level, there is nothing apparent that distinguishes feminine gestures of grief. Women also rip out their hair and beat their chests (Iliad 18.30–31, 50-51; 24.710–711). However, they claw “their beautiful cheeks” (11.393; 19.284–285), a gesture that belongs to them alone. The male equivalent of this defacement takes on various forms: ash, dust, mud, manure; nothing is too dirty for destroying the radiance of a young body or the majesty of an older man.

Without a doubt, the expression of men’s grief is also determined on two levels: by the gestural code belonging to Homeric society and by the poetic conventions specific to the epic. But a convention is not necessarily a ritual.

Compared to the feminine expression of suffering, which is fixed by a hyper-ritualized code, the grief of men fits into a broader register. Feminine grief, restricted only to ritual, is set in opposition to the suffering of men, who are free to express themselves using the entire gestural language of epic society.


[ back ] 1. On black water and the epithet dnopheros used with melas for water, see Moreux 1967:257–261. We are reminded also of the black and destructive water of the Styx: Pausanias Description of Greece 8.17.6 and 8.18; Iliad 8.369.

[ back ] 2. The comparison is remarkable for the elements of savagery and brutality in the description of the Myrmidons arming themselves for battle; see Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:51–52.

[ back ] 3. “La mort fait aussi peur que le ‘noir’ ou la nuit, la mort est noire, la mort est nuit” (Moreux 1967:239). See also Mawet 1979:46–47 on the affective value of melas ‘black’ in the context of pain.

[ back ] 4. We can account for the tears of Patroclus in the same way: Patroclus is also distraught at the moment when the Greeks have just suffered a terrible assault, during which the principal commanders are wounded (cf. Iliad 16.21–29) and after which it seems that victory is no longer possible.

[ back ] 5. Stanford (1948, ad loc.) points out that this comparison was borrowed by Aeschylus in the Agamemnon (lines 48 and following) who writes of “that wail, / Sharp-piercing bird-shriek” (56–57; trans. Browning 1889). Perhaps we should also read this image of vultures with crooked talons as an allusion to the suitors who, every day, are pillaging the goods of Odysseus (Odyssey 1.91–92).

[ back ] 6. This comparison responds to the metaphor at Odyssey 19.136 (also in relation to Penelope): “But sorrow over Odysseus melts my heart.”

[ back ] 7. She “melts”; in Hesiod’s Theogony (862), the earth melted when struck by Zeus’ lightning bolt. Tēkō is also used in the vocabulary of love, the other “weakness” of women: thus, in Sophocles’ Trachiniae (462–463), Iole is “impregnated” and “melts” with passion for Heracles; see also Euripides Hippolytus 525; Plato Phaedrus 251B, etc. And see the remarks in Onians 1954:201–203 and Komornicka 1981:62–63.

[ back ] 8. “La principale difficulté à laquelle on se heurte est le danger de transposer purement et simplement, en grec ancien, les catégories et la structure du vocabulaire de la ‘douleur’ d’une autre langue—en l’espèce le français—, ce qui se produit inévitablement si l’on retient indistinctement tous les mots susceptibles d’être traduits par ‘douleur’ en français” (Mawet 1979:18). Mawet’s work and especially her long introduction have been of great utility to me.

[ back ] 9. For details, refer to the compilation in Scarcella 1958:799–834, which provides a meticulous accounting of the vocabulary of tears in Homer. Even though it does not offer any interpretation, this “catalogue” remains useful.

[ back ] 10. See Martino 1977:195–197; Alexiou 1974:11–13, 131 and following.

[ back ] 11. There are five occurrences of dakruō in the Iliad (1.349; 10.377; 16.7; 19.229; 22.491) compared to forty-three for dakru.

[ back ] 12. Iliad: Thetis (18.37); Brisēis (19.284); Hecuba (22.407; 24.200); Cassandra (24.703). Odyssey: Eurycleia (2.361); a group of women (4.259; 8.537); Penelope (19.541; 24.295).

[ back ] 13. See pp. 121–122 below.

[ back ] 14. See p. 21 above.

[ back ] 15. On this double association (trembling/fear and trembling/tears), see p. 94 above.

[ back ] 16. See p. 113 above.

[ back ] 17. Is the opposition between masculine and feminine operative even in the choice of climatic comparisons? Are the sobs of Agamemnon, like a winter snowstorm, diametrically opposed to the stream of Penelope’s tears, which are compared to the melting snow of spring?

[ back ] 18. See Mawet 1979:42 who points out that the adjective drimus ‘acrid, piercing’ describes battles (Iliad 15.696), the rage of a lion (18.322), and the menos of Odysseus; to varying degrees, we are dealing here with a term that has connotations of masculinity.

[ back ] 19. Other examples: Eumelus (Iliad 22.396–397), Eurylochus (Odyssey 10.244–299).

[ back ] 20. Tears: Iliad 7.426; 16.3; 17.437–438; 18.17, 235. The hot blood of Agamemnon’s wound: Iliad 11.266; hot baths: 15.6 and 22.444.

[ back ] 21. See Segal 1971b:25–26.

[ back ] 22. See p. 111 above.

[ back ] 23. See pp. 129–130 below on Niobe.

[ back ] 24. Food: Odyssey 14.77; the bloody eye of the Cyclops: 9.388; hot baths: 8.429, 451; 19.388.

[ back ] 25. Foliage: Iliad 13.380; Odyssey 12.357; flowers: Odyssey 9.449; skin: Iliad 4.237; 13.553; 14.406; Hesiod Works and Days 522.

[ back ] 26. Chantraine 1968–1977, s. v. θάλλω.

[ back ] 27. Lowenstam 1979:125–135.

[ back ] 28. An identical expression (thalerē … phōnē) at Iliad 23.396–397; Odyssey 4.704–705; 19.471–472.

[ back ] 29. From Eustathius (ad Iliad. 2.206) to Leaf 1900, Stanford 1948, and Willcock 1970 (ad loc .)

[ back ] 30. Translator’s note: In French, “pleurer à chaudes larmes” is a common idiomatic expression that corresponds roughly to the English “to cry ones eyes out.” The French retains the nuances of heat in a way that is lost in similar expressions for intense crying in English.

[ back ] 31. Tears of the dawn = dew (Ovid Metamorphoses 13.621–622); tears of Helen = helenium (see p. 104 above); tears of the lotus = gum (Herodotus 2.96); tears of trees = propolis (Aristotle History of Animals 533b28, etc); see Deonna 1965:148–153.

[ back ] 32. See also Lucian De astrologia 19; De saltatione 35.

[ back ] 33. Glaucus states this explicitly to Diomedes (Iliad 6.146): “Men come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees.”

[ back ] 34. The death of a warrior = a falling tree or flower: Iliad 4.482–487; 8.306–308; 13.178–180, 389–401, 437; 16.482–484; 17.53–56.

[ back ] 35. Iliad 4.487 (Simoeisius lies like a felled and drying poplar).

[ back ] 36. Onians 1954:191–192, 202 and following. Sweat is associated with the knee at Iliad 13.711; 17,385–386. Passages where life is being wasted away in tears: Odyssey 5.152–153, 160–161; 18.204.

[ back ] 37. Jaccottet does not translate νόστον, Bérard gives: “Perdant la douce vie à pleurer le retour” (“wasting his sweet life crying over his return”).

[ back ] 38. Benveniste 1937: “épuisent le vouloir-vivre” (108); see also Degani 1961:17–28.

[ back ] 39. “C’est bien parce que αἰών est la source de toute vigueur, et non pas seulement la durée de l’existence, qu’on dira d’un être jeune, tué en pleine force: ἀπ᾽ αίῶνος νέος ὤλεο (Ω 725), ou encore μινυνθάδιος δέ οἱ αἰὼν ἔπλετο (Δ 478 = Ρ 302) au sujet de Simoeisios florissant de jeunesse (ἠίθεον θαλερὸν Σιμοείσιον [Δ 473])” (Benveniste 1937:108).

[ back ] 40. This is the general idea of Onians’s 1954 interpretation, which remains thought provoking, although it is sometimes overly systematic. Words in Homer do not have only one meaning, and their meanings, at any rate, are not necessarily concrete.

[ back ] 41. With stenachō: Iliad 18.124; 23.225; 24.123; Odyssey 7.274. goaō-goos: 18.316; 22.430; 23.17; 24.510, 747; Odyssey 4.721; 16.216.

[ back ] 42. Bees: Iliad 2.87; flies: 2.469; the “dense, muscular” heart of Sarpedon: 16.421 (and why not “dark,” since death is already upon him?); the “tormented” heart of Penelope: Odyssey 19.516–517; Sirens: Odyssey 23.326 (Stanford 1948).

[ back ] 43. See Stanford 1936:54.

[ back ] 44. See also Odyssey 4.153; 19.516.

[ back ] 45. On puknos ‘compact’ as opposed to hugros ‘liquid’—that is, the ‘compactness’ of men opposed to the liquidity of women—see Demont 1978:373–374.

[ back ] 46. The “clenched” groans of Peleus are echoed, two verses later, by the image of this dense forest.

[ back ] 47. Ajax is literally overpowered by the compact rain of arrows.

[ back ] 48. Out of thirty-two uses of barus in the Iliad, twelve describe the groans of men: 1.364; 4.153; 8.334; 9.15, etc. (in the Odyssey: there are twelve occurrences).

[ back ] 49. Oxu intensifies kōkusasa, a verb that is only used for the cries of women; see p. 115 above.

[ back ] 50. We could compare this ‘dreadful moan’ to the character Helen, who makes men “shiver in fear” (Iliad 19.325), like war (5.351) or battle (17.175).

[ back ] 51. See the section on gestures below in this chapter.

[ back ] 52. On lechos ‘bed’, as a symbol of marriage, see Vernant 1979a:81.

[ back ] 53. While the sons of Priam are weeping for Hector in the hall, his daughters are wailing “about the house” (Iliad 24.166).

[ back ] 54. Anastassiou 1973:220.

[ back ] 55. Cf. Schadewaldt 1965:327.

[ back ] 56. See Reiner 1938:42 and following; Neumann 1965:85–89; Anastassiou 1973:22.