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.5. The Weeping Body of Achilles

In leaving his anger behind, Achilles finds grief. Before examining the expression of his suffering in the Iliad, note the degree to which the death of Patroclus and the pain of Achilles are inextricably interwoven, if not equivalent.

One final note on a last analogy between the dead Patroclus and the suffering Achilles: the corpse of Patroclus is protected by Thetis, who instills nectar and ambrosia into his nostrils (Iliad 19.38–39); it is also nectar and ambrosia, poured by Athena into Achilles’ chest, that preserve his strength and energy (Iliad 19.347–348, 353–354).

The Body and Tears

The correspondences, however, are not so simple. Suffering in the epic is situated at the intersection of different categories of thought: biological necessities like food, rest, or sleep, psychological notions like erotic desire or courage, and aesthetic and moral values like the ideal of a beautiful heroic death are tightly interwoven by the poet when he presents heroes in the throes of pain. An attentive reading will determine the operational similarities between these different themes, but also—and more interestingly—the moments of interference where these different symbolic planes collide, as if the activity of weeping were a specific form of life, an autonomous physical and psychological condition, sufficient unto itself, that temporarily fuses together the different moments in the life of the epic hero.

Similarities in methods of intervention

Recalling the observations on the limbs of warriors, the knee, in particular, is a key component of the hero’s body. The joint of bravery, the knee—depending on whether it is stiff or flexible, firm or loose—expresses several of the warrior’s states of being.

When a goddess wants to give renewed warlike vigor to a hero, “she [makes] his limbs supple and [quickens] his hands and his feet” (Iliad 5.122), she puts strength into his knees (18.569).

Erotic desire buckles the knees of the suitors who contemplate Penelope’s beauty: “the suitors were so overpowered and became so desperately enamored of her their knees buckled” (Odyssey 18.212)

Hunger takes hold of the knees: it makes limbs heavy and hobbles knees (Iliad 19.165–166).

Sleep takes possession of the hero by relaxing the limbs: “While Odysseus was thus yielding himself to a very deep slumber that eased the burden of his body and his sorrows” (Odyssey 20.56–57; 23.342–343).

The formula for when a warrior dies is “have his knees loosened” (Iliad 4.469; 5.176, etc.).

And finally, sorrow also causes the knees to falter (Iliad 18. 31; 22.448); Achilles, lying in the dust, mourns for Patroclus (18.27).

The fusion of tears with the major stages of life

Living with tears

Achilles does not need to be comforted with meals; he burns with a desire for revenge and a suffering stronger than hunger: “if any comrade will hear me, bid me neither eat nor drink, for I am in great heaviness, and will stay fasting even to the going down of the sun” (19.306–307). In his particular condition, food—the poet says explicitly—is incompatible with his tears and the battle that somehow takes the place of meals. Achilles’ suffering isolates him from the rest of the army and makes him lose his common sense, but Odysseus takes it upon himself to offer his wisdom (19.160–163):

… bid them first take food both bread and wine by the ships, for in this there is strength and stay. No man can do battle the livelong day to the going down of the sun if he is without food.

As he remembers the meal, Achilles puts an end to his grief; it is an identical recollection that he offers to Priam when urging him to share his table. The example he selects to convince the old king is worth lingering over (Iliad 24.601–604, 610–620):

“… for the present let us prepare our supper. Even lovely Niobe of the lovely tresses had to think about eating, though her twelve children—six daughters and six lusty sons—had been all slain in her house … Nine days did they lie weltering, and there was none to bury them, for the son of Cronus turned the people into stone; but on the tenth day the gods in heaven themselves buried them, and Niobe then took food, being worn out with weeping. They say that somewhere among the rocks on the mountain pastures of Sipylus, where the nymphs live that haunt the river Achelous, there, they say, she lives in stone and still nurses the sorrows sent upon her by the hand of heaven. Therefore, noble sir, let us two now take food; you can weep for your dear son hereafter as you are bearing him back to Ilion—and many a tear will he cost you.”

In this complex sequence, the last major speech by Achilles, it is possible to identify several layers of meaning. [
16] First, there is the parallel between the stories of Niobe and Priam. The anger of Apollo is the root cause of the death of Niobe’s children, just as Achilles’ anger causes Hector’s death. If the gods prevent the funerals of the Niobids, whose bloody bodies lie dead, Achilles for his part refuses to return Hector’s body and grows more obstinate every day. Niobe weeps nine days for her children before they are buried by the gods themselves; Priam asks Achilles for a truce for Hector’s funeral preparations—nine days to weep for him and one day to bury him—and Achilles himself places the body on the bier (Iliad 24.589). And finally, Niobe ruminates on her sorrow (kēdea pessei), and Priam does the same (kēdea muria pessō, 24.639). Grief has the properties of a food: it is cooked and digested (pessō). [17]

Achilles eats after avenging and burying Patroclus, Niobe after the funeral for her children, Priam after accomplishing his mission to Achilles (24.641–642):

Now, moreover, I have eaten bread and drunk wine; hitherto I have tasted nothing.

In the end, Achilles will be cleansed of the blood that covers him only after he lays Patroclus on the pyre and cuts his own hair (Iliad 23.44–46).

There are three phases then that clearly establish the end of Achilles’ grief and his reintegration into the community of the Achaeans: 1) having killed Hector, he can once again take part in meals; 2) having led the funeral rites, he cuts his hair and is purified (Iliad 23.141); 3) he then regains his ability to sleep, and Briseïs sleeps by his side (Iliad 24.675–676).

The pleasure of sobbing

The desire for tears can be set off by an external event (“Thetis stirred within them a still deeper desire for sobbing,” Iliad 23.14), by words (the lament of Achilles makes the Myrmidons cry, 23.108), by a gesture (Achilles leaving a lock of his hair on the body of Patroclus, 23.153); it can be provoked by seeing a loved one (the shade of Patroclus, 23.98; and of Anticlea, Odyssey 11.212), or the memory of someone who is absent (Peleus, 24.507).

During most of his grief, Achilles remains lying down. Stretched out on the ground he weeps for his friend (Iliad 18.26–27, 170, 178 [keiso]); lying like him in the dust, Achilles holds Patroclus in his arms (19.4); he turns in all directions, moaning (24.5, 10–11); he paces and crawls around Patroclus’ funeral pyre (23.225).


[ back ] 1. Benardete 1963:1

[ back ] 2. Thus Bespaloff 1943:47–48; see also the more decidedly clear-cut opinion of Weil 1953:28, who asserts that the warriors in the Iliad only have one single future: the death affixed to them by their “profession.”

[ back ] 3. “Achilleus ist unter den Gestalten Homers die schmerzensreichste. Und es ist bedeutungsvoll, sich klarzumachen, dass in dem ‘ewig strebenden Jüngling’, auf dem der Glanz der Kraft und der Schönheit ruht, uns an der frühen Schwelle des Abendlandes auch die Gestalt des dem Leiden Überantworteten, zum grossen Leid Befähigten begegnet” (Schadewaldt 1965:336). On the other hand, Méautis 1930:11, presents Achilles as no more than a “romantic hero.”

[ back ] 4. Watkins 1977:187–199 demonstrated the gruesome and dangerous character of mēnis ‘anger’ and detailed the linguistic taboo that surrounds the word in Homer.

[ back ] 5. 1.415–416. I’m grateful to Nicole Loraux for pointing out this important passage.

[ back ] 6. Evoked three verses earlier (ariston Achaiōn, 1.412).

[ back ] 7. Cf. Mawet 1979:140–141. I would point out that at 3.160 Helen is described as a pēma ‘a plague or a misfortune’.

[ back ] 8. Lowenstam 1981:31–38 sees this gesture as one of the signs in a “typological sequence.”

[ back ] 9. Compare this passage to Iliad 22.431–436, where Hecuba addresses Hector after his death.

[ back ] 10. See Part 1, Chapter 2 above.

[ back ] 11. See Granet 1922:104 for similarities between ancient Greece and China’s classical age.

[ back ] 12. See the remarks in Böhme 1929:31–35.

[ back ] 13. See also the similar image at Odyssey 10.379 (Circe speaking to Odysseus): “why do you sit like that as though you were dumb, gnawing at your own heart, and refusing both meat and drink?” See Anastassiou 1973:77–78 and Nagler 1974:178–179.

[ back ] 14. On the structuring of consolatio (commiseration, example, an offer of food and/or drink, exhorting to be courageous), see Nagler 1974:174–198.

[ back ] 15. Griffin 1980:14–20.

[ back ] 16. The helpful observations of Kakridis 1930:113–122 and Nagler 1974:193–195 have guided me here.

[ back ] 17. Echoing the metaphors describing weapons that devour (see p. 23 above), I would point out that the wound caused by an arrow can be “digested”: Iliad 8.513.

[ back ] 18. The entire sequence is framed by the doubled theme of memory: for Achilles and Priam: Iliad 24.601, 618; for Niobe: 602, 613.

[ back ] 19. See Saïd 1978:289.

[ back ] 20. Pucci 1980:195n33.

[ back ] 21. See p. 117 above.

[ back ] 22. Patroclus’ tears are compared to a spring falling out of a rock: Iliad 16.3–4, see p. 117 above.

[ back ] 23. See Nagler 1974:170–178

[ back ] 24. Eating clearly marks the return to normal life. Priam, like Achilles, wore himself out sobbing; after having eaten, he asks for someone to prepare him a bed “immediately” (tachista), Iliad 24.635.

[ back ] 25. Terpō (Iliad 23.10, 98; 24.513; Odyssey 4.107, 194; 11.212; 19.213, 251); himeros (23.14, 108, 153; 24.507, 514; Odyssey 4.113, 183; 16.215; 19.249; 22.500; 23.231); erōs (Iliad 24.227).

[ back ] 26. See Chantraine 1964.

[ back ] 27. Meat and wine: Iliad 19.167, 307; combat: 13.639, 746; 22.218.

[ back ] 28. The same idea is at Iliad 24.717. In the Odyssey (20.59), Penelope “relieved herself by weeping.” Menelaus, after having sobbed and rolled in the sand, wears out his suffering (Odyssey 4.541).

[ back ] 29. See pp. 20–24 above.

[ back ] 30. On this passage, see now the remarks in Schein 1984:129ff.

[ back ] 31. See Vernant and Gnoli 1982:62

[ back ] 32. Note the parallel to the Cyclops who, when wounded by Odysseus, lets out an identical cry of pain, Odyssey 9.395.