Grieving Achilles

Brandeis University
[This work was originally published in Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry, eds. Franco Montanari, Antonios Rengakos, Christos Tsagalis, pp.197-220. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2012.]
My point of departure is the scholarly work of my late friend and colleague, Steven Lowenstam. His book, As Witnessed by Images: The Trojan War Tradition in Greek and Etruscan Art, which was published posthumously by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009, builds on several articles that preceded his death in 2003. [1] It addresses the way in which vase paintings of Epic scenes so often seem to veer away from the stories that we know from the Homeric poems. His effort was to make it plausible to consider the depiction of what we see as epic scenes painted on vases from the seventh, sixth, and even into the fifth centuries BCE, as based on a corpus of multiforms – in other words, a set of myths in all their typical variability rather than of a putative fixed, original “text.” This means that vase paintings are not illustrations of epic poetry, or ad hoc inventions, or mistakes that intentionally or unintentionally disregard or misrepresent the putatively uniform Homeric versions of epic tales that served as their supposed models. Instead, the vase painter, just like a singer of tales, is engaged in a traditional, creative effort to select among myths that are by nature multiform, to use Albert Lord’s term. [2] The multiforms accessible to vase painters are part of an evolving, internally interacting song culture that encompasses all representations, verbal and visual, irrespective of genre, to include lyric and drama as well as epic per se. Another key concept for Lowenstam’s work is that by the end of the sixth and into the fifth century BCE, what we know as the Homeric versions of epic tales had not yet attained the canonical status that they would later achieve. In support of this view, his book includes extended analysis of 4th century South Italian vases depicting epic subjects side-by-side with analyses of earlier vases in order to demonstrate the difference — not a simple difference, but a tangible one — that the achievement by then, by the 4th Century, of canonical status for Homeric multiforms made for the work of vase painters.
Specifically, I wish to exhibit and demonstrate the legitimacy, traditionality, and interest for interpretation of an early 5th Century multiform representation of Achilles, and I also wish to show how the Homeric Iliad actually acknowledges the existence of that multiform as such, though without adopting it. In other words, I wish to demonstrate the fruitfulness, especially, and somewhat paradoxically, for Homeric research, of Lowenstam’s conception of the way in which vase painters worked with an extended corpus of multiforms by an application of it to a specific, problematic instance.
The images in question were, to my knowledge, first gathered and studied as a group by a French scholar, Marcel Laurent, in 1898, though others had previously looked at subsets of them from other points of view. A series that now includes about twenty paintings on a wide range of differently shaped pots represent Achilles (who is explicitly named as such in several of them) as a seated figure who covers his body and, to varying degrees, his face and head, with a copious himation. Achilles is repeatedly so depicted 1) when the embassy of heroes come to effect his return to battle, 2) at the taking of Briseis, and 3) when his mother, Thetis, and the Nereids arrive to present him with the new armor that he requires after the death of Patroclus. Art historians have dated the first images of the embassy, the earlier members of the group, to the 490’s, and the others over the twenty years that followed. There follows a list of a selection of these paintings, in roughly chronological order, images of which appear at the end of this paper:

  1. Athenian red-figure aryballos, Berlin Antikensammlung F2326/LIMC 443 (s.v. Achilleus) Embassy to Achilles — Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax, Phoinix, Diomedes (here Plate 1)
  2. Boeotian black-figure pelike (miniature, 7 cm in height), Berlin Antikensammlung F2121/LIMC 455 (Plate 2)
  3. Athenian red-figure hydria, Staatliche Antikensammlung, München 8770/LIMC 445Phoinix, Odysseus, Achilles, youth, attributed to Kleophrades Painter (Plate 3)
  4. Athenian red-figure cup, British Museum E56/LIMC 444, Achilles and Odysseus, attributed to Douris or the Oedipus Painter (Plate 4)
  5. Athenian red-figure cup, British Museum E76/LIMC 1=14 (s.v. Briseis), Achilles in shelter, Briseis being led away, eponymous vase of the Briseis Painter (Plate 5)
  6. Athenian red-figure volute crater Louvre G482/LIMC 521, Achilles and Thetis with armor, attributed to Geneva Painter (Plate 6)
  7. Athenian red-figure pelike, British Museum E363/LIMC 515, Achilles, Thetis, Nereids with armor, attributed by Beazley to Early Mannerist (Plate 7).

Modern scholarship has not produced a consensus on these representations of Achilles. There are two inextricably related points at issue: 1) what does the seated, more or less covered image of Achilles in these images signify? and 2) what is the origin of this way of representing the hero? Rather than resume the whole history of the responses to these questions, I will discuss a few representative recent views on these points in order to expose the difficulties that answering them entails and to propose a new set of answers to them.

In general, the representation of Achilles seated, with his face and body covered by his cloak, is an obvious problem for those who wish to conceive of these images as representations of Homeric epic, for the simple reason that at no point in our Iliad is Achilles described as striking that pose, and especially not in the scenes in which he is depicted as doing so on the vases. When the embassy comes to persuade him to return to the fight, he is singing to the lyre of Eetion, with Patroclus facing him, and he jumps up to greet the friends, the philoi, who appear in order to persuade him to return to battle. Far from sitting still and refusing to meet their eyes, as in these vase paintings, he engages intensely with them about everything that Odysseus, Phoinix, and Ajax say to him. In the earlier scene, when Briseis is led away by Agamemnon’s heralds, the Homeric Achilles’ response is to go to the seashore, to weep and invoke his mother, who appears and consoles him; he is not sitting inside his shelter nor is he covering his head. And, finally, when Thetis comes to bring Achilles his new armor in Book 19, Achilles is lying with his arms around Patroclus’s corpse, weeping, surrounded by grieving Myrmidons.
So one strategy to account for the vases has been to discover an alternative literary model, not Homeric epic but Athenian tragedy, as the source for this image, and an apparently good one was found already in the 19th Century. The following lines are the key to this approach:

Πρώτιστα μὲν γὰρ ἕνα τιν’ ἂν καθῖσεν ἐγκαλύψας,
Ἀχιλλέα τιν’ ἢ Νιόβην, τὸ πρόσωπον οὐχὶ δεικνύς,
πρόσχημα τῆς τραγῳδίας, γρύζοντας οὐδὲ τουτί.

Aristophanes, Frogs 911-913

First he’d sit someone down all covered up,
an Achilles or a Niobe, not showing their face/mask,
a cover-up of a tragedy, without them uttering even so much as ‘this.’

It is Euripides speaking, in the agon of the Frogs, satirizing Aeschylus’ dramatic technique. The Aristophanic scholia tell us that Euripides is alluding, in the case of Achilles, to Aeschylus’ Phrygians, also known as the Ransom of Hector, with one of the scholia recentiora suggesting that it may also refer to the Myrmidons, but since the 19th Century, scholars have made the case that it is in fact the Myrmidons that Aristophanes had in mind; Myrmidons is a play mentioned elsewhere in the Frogs. That view was strongly argued by Bernhard Döhle in 1967 and Oliver Taplin in 1972 on the basis of the fragments and the vase paintings in the case of Döhle and on the basis of still more fragments of the play in the case of Taplin, who leaves the evidence of the vases to Döhle. [3] Although there is evidence that Achilles, like Niobe, appeared on stage for long periods as a silent, seated figure in both plays, the Phrygians seems to have actually begun with a scene in which the grieving Achilles spoke to Hermes to give his assent to the ransom of Hector, which would contradict the πρώτιστα in line 911 of the Aristophanic Euripides’s words. And there are also other details that match Myrmidons better than Phrygians, according to Taplin.

If Döhle is correct in supposing that the vase paintings are modeled on the silent, seated Achilles in Aeschylus’ Myrmidons, which would then have been performed in the 490’s, this would be the earliest example of paintings influenced by the visual aspect of an Athenian drama. If that dating of the play is correct, it is interesting or perhaps amusing that in 405 Aristophanes can have Euripides refer to the staging of the Myrmidons so vividly if it had only been performed once 85 years earlier, long before his own birth— a consideration that has made Döhle and others suggest the possibility of a more recent re-performance, under what circumstances it would be difficult to say. [4]
This approach provides something of an answer to the question of the source of the way that these vases have of visualizing Achilles, but what of its import? Döhle cites the remarks on the veiled Achilles in the comprehensive dissertation of Gerhard Neumann on gestures in Greek art: „ein ungebrochener Ausdruck des trotzigen und unversöhnlichen Grollens, welches die von jedem äußerem Bezug sich abschließende Gestalt verzehrt“ – “an unbowed expression of obstinate and intransigent resentment that consumes a figure cut off from any external contact.” [5] That highly detailed description suits Achilles in the Myrmidons, where apparently he stubbornly refused in scene after scene to speak a word in response to the pleas for help from his hard-pressed comrades-in-arms, and it also reflects the apparent lack of eye contact between the seated Achilles and the figure of Odysseus in the embassy vase paintings. It does not match the portrayal of Achilles in the same posture when Thetis brings him his new armor, however, since there he is grieving for the death of his beloved companion. So the use of the image in those vases, which are dated later than the embassy vases but not by much, must be considered by Döhle as mistaken, secondary derivatives. But it is all too clear that Neumann’s interpretation of the veiled Achilles’ gesture is not based on the history of these representations within the tradition of gestures in vase paintings, but on explicit ideas about the response of Achilles to the embassy in the Iliad and about the nature of Achilles’ mēnis, and he even speaks of the influence of tragedy in his discussion of it. He does, however, point to one (and only one) other example of a figure in a similar, albeit standing, pose: in a vase by Douris depicting the hoplōn krisis, Ajax has his head partly covered and is turned away from watching the vote, while Odysseus looks on, perhaps with an expression of surprise or pleasure at the pebbles accumulating on his side. [6]
The date of the first performance of the Myrmidons is otherwise unknown, and it has in fact only been set to the 490’s on the basis of these vase paintings, as has been pointed out recently by Luca Guiliani. [7] So the argument that the scenes of the seated, covered Achilles are based upon the performance of that play is in fact a petitio principii, and also, clearly, dependent on the principle that poetic texts are primary and that vases merely illustrate them. The former flaw is the point of departure for a recent review of the embassy paintings by Giuliani in his 2003 book, Bild und Mythos — one of a host of books published in the last ten years on the relationship between narrative myths and their visual representations. Giuliani believes that the interpretation of this image of Achilles “must be developed from the inherent possibilities of the iconographic system,” not imposed from without. In fact he hypothesizes that the way that Achilles is portrayed in Aeschylus was derived from the vase paintings rather than the reverse (a countervailing position that we may consider as misleading as its opposite). But he traces the image of Achilles seated with his head more or less covered in his cloak and his hand holding a corner of its fabric or his head to 6th Century Attic black-figure vases that depict mourning women or the old man in the Leiden hydria who has pulled his cloak over his head. [8] I want to explore this question for a moment before returning to Guiliani’s argument, because it is an important one that has also been explored in a recent dissertation by Ingeborg Huber. [9] She has found long-term patterns of recurring and also organically evolving gestures that go back to mourning scenes on geometric vases; she believes that the gestures are originally proper to women and are regularly assumed from them by men. Included in her patterns are the representations of Achilles on these vases; I note here Achilles’ representation resembles the others closely in the gesture of his hand to his head, in holding the edge of the garment covering his head (see especially Plate 2 in this regard, where the satiric aspects of the image have perhaps made this typically feminine gesture even more apparent), but he clearly differs from other women and men who are depicted as mourning in Huber’s pattern by the cloak that covers all or part of his head. That difference may be deceiving, however. The women on the pinax of Exekias and the man with the cloak over his head precede the portrayal of Achilles, and covering the head and body with a cloak is common in Athenian white lekythoi, funerary vases that commonly depict men and women standing (not seated, as Achilles is) with their heads so covered, but these objects are dated to the second half of the 5th Century, after the vases we are looking at. [10] In short, the place of this relatively unique image in the history of Athenian vase painting is a complex issue that needs to be addressed.
To return to Giuliani’s argument, he hypothesizes that Achilles presented a problem for vase painters, namely, to depict someone doing something negative, refusing to respond, and doing so with an anger that is not physically aggressive, that is passive. The vase painters’ solution, he claims, was to portray him as deeply mourning, actually strengthening the grieving motif by having Achilles’ head covered, and therefore projecting him as emotionally inaccessible to others. The contrastive images of Achilles and Odysseus make the point clear: while Odysseus’s stance is open and lightly clothed, Achilles is bent over, closed in upon himself in his grief and anger. So Giuliani ultimately thinks that this depiction of the embassy is in fact a faithful representation of the Homeric scene, not in detail but in its essential features and their significance.
There is merit to this approach, but one obvious problem with considering the vases as depicting the essential features of the Homeric embassy is that Achilles is not emotionally disconnected from the philoi who come to see him in Iliad 9, since he does interact with them, both verbally and otherwise. That seems to fly in the face of portraying him as someone disconnected from his society by overwhelming grief and anger. However, unbeknownst to him, strong support for Giuliani’s explanation of the significance of the veiled, seated figure appears to have been provided in 2001 by D. L. Cairns, the author of a well-known book on aidōs. [11] In an article entitled “Anger and the Veil in Ancient Greek Culture,” Cairns sets out to show that the gesture of veiling is a direct expression of anger in itself. [12] He offers a range of examples from Homer to the fifth century, but in every example but one, there are actually two emotions that accompany the act of veiling, the first being denoted by a word like akhos ‘grief, woe’, penthos ‘grief, suffering, mourning’, or algos ‘pain, suffering’; then and only then do the texts ascribe kholos ‘anger’ or kotos ‘grudge anger, enduring anger’ or mēnis ‘wrath’ to the veiled person. This sequence is a known one in epic, and Cairns knows it as well. He cites an example from Iliad 1.188-193, where Achilles feels akhos at Agamemnon’s decision to take Briseis from him, but the akhos is immediately transformed into kholos which he must decide either to exercise or restrain.

Ὣς φάτο· Πηλεΐωνι δ’ ἄχος γένετ’, ἐν δέ οἱ ἦτορ
στήθεσσιν λασίοισι διάνδιχα μερμήριξεν,
ἢ ὅ γε φάσγανον ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ
τοὺς μὲν ἀναστήσειεν, ὃ δ’ Ἀτρεΐδην ἐναρίζοι,
ἦε χόλον παύσειεν ἐρητύσειέ τε θυμόν.

Iliad 1.188-193

So he spoke. Anguish [akhos] came over the son Peleus, and his heart within
his hairy chest was divided
whether he should draw his sharp sword from alongside his thigh,
make the rest scatter, and slay the son of Atreus,
or whether he should check his fury [kholos] and restrain his heart [thumos].

Here is another example, not cited by Cairns:

πύκνα μάλα στενάχων, ὥς τε λὶς ἠυγένειος,
ᾧ ῥά θ᾿ ὑπὸ σκύμνους ἐλαφηβόλος ἁρπάσῃ ἀνὴρ
ὕλης ἐκ πυκινῆς· ὁ δέ τ᾿ ἄχνυται ὕστερος ἐλθών,
πολλὰ δέ τ᾿ ἄγκε᾿ ἐπῆλθε μετ᾿ ἀνέρος ἴχνι᾿ ἐρευνῶν,
εἴ ποθεν ἐξεύροι· μάλα γὰρ δριμὺς χόλος αἱρεῖ·
ὣς ὁ βαρὺ στενάχων μετεφώνεε Μυρμιδόνεσσιν·

Iliad 18.318-323

groaning really intensely, like a lion with a great mane
whose cubs a deerhunter steals out from under his protection,
from a dense wood; and the lion grieves when he returns later,
and he ranges over many mountain dells, tracking the man’s traces,
in the hope that he may find him somewhere, for really bitter anger seizes him;
groaning deeply like him, he spoke among the Myrmidons:

The subject of this simile is Achilles himself, and he is grieving for Patroclus. My point for the moment is that akhos and kholos are separate emotions, not overlapping ones, as Cairns would have it. The lion’s grief at the loss of his cubs leads to his determined search for the hunter who seized them, which is motivated by his anger. But the grief does not go away, and the poet uses the comparison as a parallel between those in grief, not anger, though the anger will come later. Although they often constitute a sequence, akhos can remain as is. That is why Paris can explain to Hector what motivated his withdrawal with these words:

οὔ τοι ἐγὼ Τρώων τόσσον χόλῳ οὐδὲ νεμέσσι
ἥμην ἐν θαλάμῳ, ἔθελον δ᾿ ἄχεϊ προτραπέσθαι.

Iliad 6.335-336

Not so much with anger at the Trojans or even with indignation
was I sitting in the bedroom, but I wanted to give myself up to akhos.

He makes clear that his akhos has not become kholos. To say that the regularity of this sequence implies an overlap in meaning between the two, as Cairns does, is to confuse the syntax of these emotions with their semantics. It is appropriate to say that akhos can bring on kholos, but not appropriate to say that akhos actually is kholos. So also with the gesture of veiling. I would suggest that it marks the grief or pain of the person, male or female, who is veiled, and that grief can modulate into anger or remain as grief. So Demeter, who is actually called Ἀχαιά in the context of her akhos over the descent into the underworld of Kore, and who takes on a black veil, also has mēnis in the Homeric Hymn. [13] The veil itself does not betoken the anger, but rather the grief at the loss of her daughter to the lord of the underworld, a grief that entails the possibility of consequent anger. We can see this same set of steps in the one example that Cairns has found in which there is no explicit grief before the anger, in the messenger speech from Euripides’ Medea 1144-1155:

δέσποινα δ’ ἣν νῦν ἀντὶ σοῦ θαυμάζομεν,
πρὶν μὲν τέκνων σῶν εἰσιδεῖν ξυνωρίδα,
πρόθυμον εἶχ’ ὀφθαλμὸν εἰς Ἰάσονα
ἔπειτα μέντοι προυκαλύψατ’ ὄμματα
λευκήν τ’ ἀπέστρεψ’ ἔμπαλιν παρηίδα,
παίδων μυσαχθεῖσ’ εἰσόδους. πόσις δὲ σὸς
ὀργάς τ’ ἀφῄρει καὶ χόλον νεάνιδος,
λέγων τάδ’· Οὐ μὴ δυσμενὴς ἔσῃ φίλοις,
παύσηι δὲ θυμοῦ καὶ πάλιν στρέψεις κάρα,
φίλους νομίζουσ’ οὕσπερ ἂν πόσις σέθεν,
δέξῃ δὲ δῶρα καὶ παραιτήσῃ πατρὸς
φυγὰς ἀφεῖναι παισὶ τοῖσδ’ ἐμὴν χάριν;
The mistress whom we respect now instead of you,
before she looked upon your two children
was training an eager eye upon Jason,
but then she veiled her eyes
and turned back away her white cheek
in disgust when the children entered. And your husband
tried to pluck out the pique and anger from the young woman
with these words: You will not be hostile to those who are dear,
and will you cease from anger and turn back your head,
thinking dear those whom your husband thinks dear,
and will you accept the gifts and request of your father
to let up on exile for these children, for my sake?

I note that Glauke actually makes two gestures — she veils her eyes and then turns away her white cheek in disgust at Jason’s children. So when Jason speaks to her in order to remove her kholos, he tells her ‘you will cease from anger and turn back your head.’ I conclude that the veiling, albeit inexplicitly, marks her immediate distress and grief, but the sideways movement of her cheek, her anger. There is no justification in this passage either for considering the veiling in itself to be a gesture of anger.

We can see from these instances of the relationship between grief and anger that there is a traditional association between the two, but that that the grief is primary and the anger is optional. We can say, then, that a representation of Achilles as grieving to an extreme degree is appropriate to all three contexts in which it appears on the vases, namely, after the taking of Briseis, in interaction with the embassy, and at the moment when Thetis brings Achilles his armor after the death of Patroclus. But we must come to terms with the fact that these images are essentially and overtly expressions of grief, and of anger by implication only. A grieving person can be inconsolably cut off from his or her peers as easily as an angry one; the example of Paris makes that completely clear.
We have just seen Paris disengage his akhos from kholos. There are many other examples of akhos remaining as akhos, but the images of Achilles on these vases surely bring to mind at least one famous Homeric passage, not an Iliadic scene, but in the Odyssey, when Odysseus weeps in Phaeacia as he listens to Demodocus sing his songs. Here is the passage that describes the way he wept to the first song, the one that sang of a quarrel between himself and Achilles, and also the subsequent songs, removing the cloak from his head when the bard stopped singing, but putting it on again and lamenting (góos) whenever he began again:

ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
πορφύρεον μέγα φᾶρος ἑλὼν χερσὶ στιβαρῇσι
κὰκ κεφαλῆς εἴρυσσε, κάλυψε δὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα·
αἴδετο γὰρ Φαίηκας ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δάκρυα λείβων.
ἦ τοι ὅτε λήξειεν ἀείδων θεῖος ἀοιδός,
δάκρυ’ ὀμορξάμενος κεφαλῆς ἄπο φᾶρος ἕλεσκε
καὶ δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον ἑλὼν σπείσασκε θεοῖσιν·
αὐτὰρ ὅτ’ ἂψ ἄρχοιτο καὶ ὀτρύνειαν ἀείδειν
Φαιήκων οἱ ἄριστοι, ἐπεὶ τέρποντ’ ἐπέεσσιν,
ἂψ Ὀδυσεὺς κατὰ κρᾶτα καλυψάμενος γοάασκεν.
ἔνθ’ ἄλλους μὲν πάντας ἐλάνθανε δάκρυα λείβων,
Ἀλκίνοος δέ μιν οἶος ἐπεφράσατ’ ἠδ’ ἐνόησεν
ἥμενος ἄγχ’ αὐτοῦ, βαρὺ δὲ στενάχοντος ἄκουσεν.

Odyssey 8.83-92

These things, then, the famous bard was singing; as for Odysseus,
he took his great purple cloak in his mighty hands
and drew it down over his head, and he covered his fair face:
for he was ashamed to be shedding a tear from his eyes before the Phaeaecians.
Indeed, whenever the divine bard stopped singing,
wiping away the tears he took his cloak off his head
and taking a two-handled cup he started pouring a libation to the gods;
And whenever he would begin again and they would urge him to sing,
the best of the Phaeacians, since they were delighting in his epea ,
covering over his head again Odysseus kept on singing a góos .
Then all the others did not notice him shedding a tear,
but Alkinoos alone noticed and perceived it
sitting near him, and he heard him groaning deeply.

Finally, after the last song, which narrated the fall of Troy and Odysseus’ part in it, we get an extended simile about his response to the performance, ending with a reprise of the first description of Odysseus veiling himself:

ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
τήκετο, δάκρυ δ’ ἔδευεν ὑπὸ βλεφάροισι παρειάς.
ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,
ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,
ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·
ἡ μὲν τὸν θνῄσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ’ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους
εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ’ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀϊζύν·
τῆς δ’ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν.
ἔνθ’ ἄλλους μὲν πάντας ἐλάνθανε δάκρυα λείβων,
Ἀλκίνοος δέ μιν οἶος ἐπεφράσατ’ ἠδ’ ἐνόησεν
ἥμενος ἄγχ’ αὐτοῦ, βαρὺ δὲ στενάχοντος ἄκουσεν.

Odyssey 8.521-534

These things, then the famous singer was singing; as for Odysseus,
he was melting away, and a tear was drenching the cheeks below his eyelids.
As a woman laments, throwing herself upon her beloved husband
who falls before his city and his people,
trying to ward off the day without pity for his city and his children;
She watches him dying and breathing hard,
and embracing him she shrieks and shrieks; but behind her
butting her back and shoulders with their spears
they lead her off into slavery, to toil and misery;
her cheeks are wasting away with the most pitiful akhos .
So Odysseus was shedding a pitiful tear.
Then all the others did not notice him shedding a tear,
but Alkinoos alone noticed and perceived it
sitting near him, and he heard him groaning deeply.

What is being illustrated here, and what Odysseus himself is expressing in his lamenting, is the same akhos as the captive woman whose city has fallen along with her husband, and I believe that concept, akhos, is the key to the representation of Achilles on the vases as well. The passage in Phaeacia is in fact a reprise of an earlier moment in the Odyssey, before Telemachus has been formally identified to his hosts in Sparta and before Helen has put nepenthe in their wine. Menelaos recounts his own grief, the ἄχος ἄλαστον ‘unforgettable grief’ as he calls it at 4.109, that he feels above all for Odysseus and that Laertes, Penelope, and Telemachus, whom he left behind as a new-born in his home, must share, at which point the narrator continues:

ὣς φάτο, τῷ δ’ ἄρα πατρὸς ὑφ’ ἵμερον ὦρσε γόοιο·
δάκρυ δ’ ἀπὸ βλεφάρων χαμάδις βάλε πατρὸς ἀκούσας,
χλαῖναν πορφυρέην ἄντ’ ὀφθαλμοῖιν ἀνασχὼν
ἀμφοτέρῃσιν χερσί. νόησε δέ μιν Μενέλαος…

Odyssey 4.113-116

So he spoke, and he (Menelaos) stirred up in him (Telemachus) a longing for góos of his father;
a tear fell to the ground from his eyes when he heard of his father,
as he held up his purple cloak before his eyes
with both of his hands. But Menelaos noticed him…

So we have here almost the same scenario, in which someone speaks of the involvement of a third person who is actually present and cannot keep from weeping — the term is in both cases góos— at words or stories that touch him deeply. This is the veiling of a heroic male that expresses the vain attempt to conceal profound, uncontrollable grief. In fact, as Casey Dué reminds me, this scene is itself a reprise of an even earlier scene at the end of Odyssey 1 in which Penelope appears, veiled and weeping, to speak of her πένθος ἄλαστον — compare the ἄχος ἄλαστον of Menelaos in Odyssey 4.109 — at the song of the bard Phemios about the nostoi of the heroes who went to Troy. She is deeply involved in that subject, but Telemachus, who is as yet disconnected from his father, is dismissive of her grief.

So I would suggest that it was not Aeschylus or the vase painters who “invented” the visualization of Achilles as wrapped in his cloak and grieving, but that this is a traditional gesture. In addition, I am in no way the first person to assert a primary association of the word akhos, now to include this visualization of it, with the figure of Achilles. In 1963, in his Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts, Leonard Palmer suggested that this word was in fact the first constituent of the hero’s name, the second being the word λαός. [14] Τhe name *Ἀχι-λαϝος would be parallel to a hypothetical *Πενθι-λαϝος, a name attested in the shortened form Πένθιλος, and for the relation between *Πενθι- λαϝος and Πένθιλος, Palmer compared the attested names Χαρίλαος and Χάριλλος, the latter showing the expressive doubling that is common in shortened names. Nagy later provided another: Σθενέλαος (XVI 586) vs. Σθένελος (V 111, etc.). [15] Both *Ἀχι-λαϝος and *Πενθι- λαϝος exhibit the Caland’s Law change in compounds of s-stems to an iota suffix that we can see in other names like Κυδιάνειρα from κῦδος, Οἰδιπόδης from οἶδος, etc. Finally, Palmer pointed to shortened names in Mycenaean and later Greek with an –ευς suffix to account for that feature of Achilles’ name.
In a festschrift article for Palmer published in 1976, Gregory Nagy tested this etymology in terms of the diction and themes associated with Achilles in epic. Nagy’s work marshaled evidence to show, in his words, “a pervasive nexus between the words [akhos and Ἀχιλ(λ)εύς] in the Iliad…a nexus…integrated into the inherited formulaic system and hence deeply rooted in the epic tradition ” (p. 216). I refer the reader to his extensive and effective arguments, but produce here excerpts from a passage that he cites which essentially sums up the story of Achilles in terms of the word akhos. Thetis, Achilles’ grieving mother, is explaining to Hephaistos why she has come to see him, and what has happened to Achilles:

ὄφρα δέ μοι ζώει καὶ ὁρᾷ φάος ἠελίοιο
ἄχνυται, οὐδέ τί οἱ δύναμαι χραισμῆσαι ἰοῦσα.
κούρην ἣν ἄρα οἱ γέρας ἔξελον υἷες Ἀχαιῶν,
τὴν ἂψ ἐκ χειρῶν ἕλετο κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων.
ἤτοι ὃ τῆς ἀχέων φρένας ἔφθιεν· αὐτὰρ Ἀχαιοὺς
Τρῶες ἐπὶ πρύμνῃσιν ἐείλεον, οὐδὲ θύραζε
εἴων ἐξιέναι· τὸν δὲ λίσσοντο γέροντες
Ἀργείων, καὶ πολλὰ περικλυτὰ δῶρ’ ὀνόμαζον.
ἔνθ’ αὐτὸς μὲν ἔπειτ’ ἠναίνετο λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι,
αὐτὰρ ὃ Πάτροκλον περὶ μὲν τὰ ἃ τεύχεα ἕσσε,
πέμπε δέ μιν πόλεμον δέ, πολὺν δ’ ἅμα λαὸν ὄπασσε.
πᾶν δ’ ἦμαρ μάρναντο περὶ Σκαιῇσι πύλῃσι·
καί νύ κεν αὐτῆμαρ πόλιν ἔπραθον, εἰ μὴ Ἀπόλλων
πολλὰ κακὰ ῥέξαντα Μενοιτίου ἄλκιμον υἱὸν
ἔκταν’ ἐνὶ προμάχοισι καὶ Ἕκτορι κῦδος ἔδωκε.
τοὔνεκα νῦν τὰ σὰ γούναθ’ ἱκάνομαι, αἴ κ’ ἐθέλῃσθα
υἱεῖ ἐμῷ ὠκυμόρῳ δόμεν ἀσπίδα καὶ τρυφάλειαν
καὶ καλὰς κνημῖδας ἐπισφυρίοις ἀραρυίας
καὶ θώρηχ’· ὃ γὰρ ἦν οἱ ἀπώλεσε πιστὸς ἑταῖρος
Τρωσὶ δαμείς· ὃ δὲ κεῖται ἐπὶ χθονὶ θυμὸν ἀχεύων.
As long as my boy lives and sees the light of the sun
He grieves (ἄχνυται), nor am I able in any way to come and be a defense for him.
The young woman whom the sons of the Akhaioi actually chose for him as his prize of honor,
her great Agamemnon took back for himself from his hands.
In fact, he [Achilles] was withering his mind grieving (ἀχέων) for her; yet the Akhaioi,
the Trojans cornered them around the sterns of their ships, and no way out
were they allowing them; but they beseeched him [Achilles], did the old men
among the Argives, and they counted out many very famous gifts for him.
Then at that point he himself refused to ward off destruction,
but he put his own armor on Patroklos,
and he sent him into battle and gave him a great host to go with him.
All day long they fought around the Left Gates.
And on that very day they would even have sacked the city, except Apollo
acting out many bad things to the stalwart son of Menoitios
killed him in the front ranks and gave the kudos to Hector.
That’s why I come now to your knees [Hephaistos’ knees], if you are willing
to give to my swift-destined son a shield and a helmet
and lovely greaves for his knees fitted with anklets
and a breastplate; for the one that he had, his trusted companion lost it,
overwhelmed he was by the Trojans; and he [Achilles] lies on the ground, grieving [ἀχέων] in his heart.

I note that Thetis can resume Achilles’ story without even a single mention of anger on his part, as against three mentions of him grieving, all with forms derived from the root noun akhos. What I am suggesting is that there was a multiform of the Iliad that highlighted, not the mēnis and kholos of Achilles, as ours does, but rather his akhos, though not to the exclusion of his anger. That tradition has survived for us in the name of Achilles, in passages like Thetis’s speech, where her own akhos on behalf of her son has focused her narrative on his akhos, and also in the vase paintings that portray him as a man of constant sorrow at the key points of his story. Nagy shows that the word akhos consistently implies one’s own suffering or personal involvement in someone else’s suffering, [16] as we saw it did for Odysseus in Phaeacia and Telemachus in Sparta, and that aspect of its meaning, he argues, may also account for the name Ἀχαιοί, a word that designates the λαός which is personally involved in Achilles’ suffering, and whose formation from a word like akhos has parallels in pairs κράτος/κραταιός and ἄλθος/Ἀλθαίη.

To conclude my discussion of this putative multiform of the portrayal of the hero of the Iliad, I believe that there is a place in our text of the poem that attests to a fork in the tradition between the grieving Achilles and the one whose grief modulates into supervening anger. The two parallel passages in question both occur in the Catalogue of Ships, the first in the catalog entry that lists the ships from Pelasgic Argos:

Μυρμιδόνες δὲ καλεῦντο καὶ Ἕλληνες καὶ Ἀχαιοί,
τῶν αὖ πεντήκοντα νεῶν ἦν ἀρχὸς Ἀχιλλεύς.
ἀλλ’ οἵ γ’ οὐ πολέμοιο δυσηχέος ἐμνώοντο·
οὐ γὰρ ἔην ὅς τίς σφιν ἐπὶ στίχας ἡγήσαιτο·
κεῖτο γὰρ ἐν νήεσσι ποδάρκης δῖος Ἀχιλλεὺς
κούρης χωόμενος Βρισηΐδος ἠϋκόμοιο,
τὴν ἐκ Λυρνησσοῦ ἐξείλετο πολλὰ μογήσας
Λυρνησσὸν διαπορθήσας καὶ τείχεα Θήβης,
κὰδ δὲ Μύνητ’ ἔβαλεν καὶ Ἐπίστροφον ἐγχεσιμώρους,
υἱέας Εὐηνοῖο Σεληπιάδαο ἄνακτος·
τῆς ὅ γε κεῖτ’ ἀχέων, τάχα δ’ ἀνστήσεσθαι ἔμελλεν.

Iliad II.684-694

They were called Myrmidons and Hellenes and Achaeans,
Of whose fifty ships Achilles was captain.
But they were not mindful of ill-sounding war,
since there was no one who would lead them into the ranks,
because swift-footed radiant Achilles lay idle among the ships
angry because of the girl, fair-haired Briseis,
whom he took from Lyrnessos, after much toil,
sacking Lyrnessos and the walls of Thebe,
and he overthrew Munes and Epistrophos, mad spearmen both,
the sons of King Euenos the son of Selepos;
he lay there grieving for her, but soon he was about to rise up.

I note that this passage, which cannot keep from speaking of Achilles’ absence at the moment when the whole army is being called up, dwells at length on Briseis as the cause of Achilles anger, and ends up stressing his grief. A little later, at line 762, the end of the Catalog of the Achaeans’ ships, the narrator asks the Muse who was the best of the men and of the horses who accompanied the sons of Atreus. The answers are provided chiastically: the best horses were Eumelus’ mares, and the best warrior was Ajax; but then the narrative does an about-face:

ὄφρ’ Ἀχιλεὺς μήνιεν· ὃ γὰρ πολὺ φέρτατος ἦεν,
ἵπποι θ’ οἳ φορέεσκον ἀμύμονα Πηλεΐωνα.
ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήεσσι κορωνίσι ποντοπόροισι
κεῖτ’ ἀπομηνίσας Ἀγαμέμνονι ποιμένι λαῶν
Ἀτρεΐδῃ· λαοὶ δὲ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης
δίσκοισιν τέρποντο καὶ αἰγανέῃσιν ἱέντες
τόξοισίν θ’· ἵπποι δὲ παρ’ ἅρμασιν οἷσιν ἕκαστος
λωτὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι ἐλεόθρεπτόν τε σέλινον
ἕστασαν· ἅρματα δ’ εὖ πεπυκασμένα κεῖτο ἀνάκτων
ἐν κλισίῃς· οἳ δ’ ἀρχὸν ἀρηΐφιλον ποθέοντες
φοίτων ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα κατὰ στρατὸν οὐδὲ μάχοντο.

Iliad II.769-779

[the best warrior was Ajax/] while Achilles had mēnis; since he was by far the best,
and so were the horses that were carrying the blameless son of Peleus.
But he at least beside the curved sea-traversing ships
lay there, enraged at Agamemon, shepherd of the hosts,
the son of Atreus; and his warriors at the sea’s edge
were enjoying throwing the discus and spears
and bows and arrows, and their horses, each beside his own chariot,
munching lotus and marsh-grown celery
stood there; the well-joined chariots of the lords lay
in their shelters, while they, longing for their leader, dear to Ares,
walked here and there amid the army, and they were not fighting.

By contrast with the earlier passage, this one does not mention Briseis or the hero’s grief. Instead, it speaks twice of his mēnis, ascribing it to Agamemnon, and dwelling on the consequences for his idle men and idle horses in the larger camp. So these passages are complementary, but also they reflect precisely the contrast in the presentations of Achilles that I have been speaking of. Small wonder, then, that according to the A scholia, Zenodotus athetized the first passage, not the second.

In short, the two passages seem to support the idea with which I began, that the vase paintings of the grieving Achilles derive from a traditional multiform of the representation of the hero. Its import was to portray the akhos of Achilles caused by the seizing of Briseis and then again by the death of Patroclus with the gesture of veiling the head, a gesture that we do not see at all in our Iliad but that does occur in the Odyssey for Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus himself in a set of interlocking scenes. The gesture in itself can but does not necessarily imply the kholos and the mēnis that become central to the Homeric Achilles. Our awareness of this multiform can help us to better understand the choices that were made on various levels to constitute the Homeric text as we have it. But there is no way and no need to prove that the multiform that we see so well-represented on the vase paintings originated with Epic or Drama or the vase painters themselves. It is consistent with all three genres, to varying degrees and in different ways, and it makes most sense to assume that it existed as part of the song culture independent of any specific medium for its instantiation. Each conventional system chose its multiform and implemented it in the terms proper to itself. [17]


Biles, Zachary P. 2006-7. “Aeschylus’ Afterlife: Reperformance by Decree in 5th Century Athens?” Illinois Classical Studies 31-32: 206-42.
Cairns, Douglas L. 1993. Aidōs : the psychology and ethics of honour and shame in ancient Greek literature. Oxford and New York.
———. 2001. “Anger and the Veil in Ancient Greek Culture,” Greece and Rome (Second Series) 48: 18-32.
Döhle, Bernhard. 1967. “Die ‘Achilleis’ des Aischylos in ihrere Auswirkung auf die attische Vasenmaleri des 5. Jahrhunderts,” Klio 49: 63-149.
Dué, Casey. 2002. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham and
Ferrari, Gloria. 1990. “Figures of Speech: The Picture of Aidōs,” Mêtis 5: 185-200.
Friis Johansen, Knud. 1967. The Iliad in Early Greek Art. Copenhagen.
Huber, Ingeborg. 2001. Die Ikonographie der Trauer in der griechischen Kunst. Mannheim.
Giuliani, Luca. 2003. Bild und Mythos: Geschichte der Bilderzählung in der Griechischen Kunst. Munich, 231-43.
Laurent, Marcel. 1898. “L’Achille voilé dans les peintures de vases grecs,” Revue archéologique 3ème Série 33: 153-86.
Lord, Albert. 2000. The Singer of Tales. Second edition, S. Mitchell and G. Nagy, eds. Cambridge and London.
Lowenstam, Steven. 1992. “The Uses of Vase Depictions in Homeric Studies,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122: 165-98.
———. 1993. “The Arming of Achilles on Early Greek Vases,” Classical Antiquity 12: 199-218.
———. 1997. “Talking Vases: The Relationship between the Homeric Poems and Archaic Representations of Epic Myth,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 127: 21-76.
———. 2009. As Witnessed by Images: The Trojan War Tradition in Greek and Etruscan Art. Baltimore.
Michelakis, Pantelis. 1991. Achilles in Greek Tragedy. Cambridge [UK].
Mommsen, Heide. 1997. Exekias I: Die Grabtafeln. Kerameus: Forschungen zur Antiken Keramik. II Reihe. Mainz/Rhein.
Montiglio, Silvia. 2000. Silence in the Land of Logos. Princeton.
Nagy, Gregory. 1976. “The Name of Achilles: etymology and epic,” in A. M. Davies and W. Meid, (eds.), Studies in Greek, Italic, and Indo-European Linguistics, Innsbruck, 209-37.
Neumann, Gerhard. 1965. Gesten und Gebärden in der griechischen Kunst. Berlin.
Palmer, Leonard. 1963. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. Oxford.
Robert, C. 1881. “Die Gesandschaft an Achilleus,” Archäologischer Zeitung, XXXIX, II: 138-54.
Shapiro, H. Alan. 1991. “The Iconography of Mourning in Athenian Art,” American Journal of Archaeology 95: 629-656.
Taplin, Oliver. 1972. “Aeschylean Silences and Silences in Aeschylus,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 76: 57-97


Plate 1: Embassy to Achilles — Odysseus (here labeled Olunteus), Achilles, Ajax veiled, Phoinix, Diomedes. Line drawing of Athenian red-figure aryballos, Berlin Antikensammlung F2326. Line drawing Robert (1881), pl. 8.
Plate 2: Embassy to Achilles — Odysseus on right, in petasos, Achilles veiled. Line drawing of Boeotian black-figure miniature pelike, Berlin Antikensammlung F2121. Line drawing Laurent (1898), fig. 8.
Plate 3: Embassy to Achilles — Phoinix, Odysseus, Achilles veiled, and unnamed youth. Athenian red-figure hydria, Staatliche Antikensammlung, München 8770. Photo Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Plate 4: Embassy to Achilles — Achilles veiled and Odysseus. Athenian red-figure cup, British Museum E56. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum
Plate 5: Briseis being led away, Achilles veiled in shelter. Athenian red-figure cup, British Museum E76. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum
Plate 6: Achilles veiled, Thetis, Nereids, with new armor. Athenian red-figure pelike, British Museum E363. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum
Plate 7: Achilles veiled and Thetis, with new armor. Athenian red-figure volute krater, Louvre G482. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


[ back ] 1. Lowenstam (1992), (1993), and (1997).
[ back ] 2. Lord (2000) 100, “We find it difficult to grasp something that is multiform. It seems to us necessary to construct an ideal text or an original, and we remain dissatisfied with an ever-changing phenomenon…From one point of view each performance is an original. From another point of view it is impossible to retrace the work of generations of singers to that moment when some singer first sang a particular song.”
[ back ] 3. Döhle (1967), Taplin (1972); see also Michelakis (1991), whose views on the images of Achilles are not significantly different from Döhle’s, and Montiglio (2000) 176-180 for a comprehensive, sensitive analysis of veiled and silent figures in Athenian drama as a whole. Her position on the vase paintings of Achilles also agrees with Döhle’s.
[ back ] 4. For a comprehensive review of the evidence for 5th Century reperformance of Aeschylus’ plays with a profoundly skeptical result, see Biles (2006-7).
[ back ] 5. Neumann (1965) 141.
[ back ] 6. Neumann (1965) 98, Abb. 44: a cup from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, inv. #3695.
[ back ] 7. Giuliani (2003) 235-6.
[ back ] 8. He sites a black-figure pinax of Exekias from the Berlin Antikensammlung, F1813 (as in Mommsen [1997]) for veiled mourning women, and the Leiden Hydria for its depiction of a grieving old man with his head partly covered. However, Alan Shapiro has pointed out to me viva voce, that Gloria Ferrari showed (in Ferrari [1990]) that the woman with her head bowed and partially covered who stands at the left end of the scene is expressing not grief, but aidōs; the seated old man with a partially covered head facing her on the right side of the image is not expressing grief either, but that he is just a seated old man.
[ back ] 9. Huber (2001), in her appendices.
[ back ] 10. On the history of the Athenian iconography of mourning, see Shapiro (1991), who views the iconography of the lekythoi as having “its own internal development from the mid- to late fifth century.” It would be a methodological error to assume continuity between the conventions of these vases and red-figure painting, but I note that he connects the veiled mourners on white lekythoi to the scene discussed below of Odysseus at the banquet of the Phaeacians (Shapiro [1991] 652). His focus is on genre scenes and expressly avoids vases that have mythological subjects.
[ back ] 11. Cairns (1993).
[ back ] 12. Cairns (2001).
[ back ] 13. Nagy (1976) 219-20 discovered the concurrence of Demeter’s akhos, her veil, and her epithet.
[ back ] 14. Palmer (1963) 79.
[ back ] 15. Nagy (1976) 209 n.4.
[ back ] 16. Nagy (1976) passim.
[ back ] 17. My gratitude to the following people for corrections and encouragement: Casey Dué, Douglas Frame, Claudia Filos, Silvia Montiglio, Gregory Nagy, H. Alan Shapiro, and Dimitrios Yatromanolakis.