Homer’s Iliad: Book XXIII

Questions for Book XXIII:

  • What’s wrong with Achilles, and how do we know?
  • What is the mythological logic of having games or sports in honor of a warrior’s death?
  • How is the tie between Odysseus and Ajax appropriate? (You need to know about later events, after the Iliad.)

Achilles continues dragging Hector’s corpse around Troy as his self-imposed daily chore, seeming to think it’s serving the memory of Patroclus somehow.

“I’ve dragged Hector here for the dogs to rip him raw —
and here in front of your flaming pyre I’ll cut the throats
of a dozen sons of Troy in all their shining glory,
venting my rage on them for your destruction!”

He ascetically continues fasting and refusing to bathe, so emotionally he’s still stagnating, despite the ghost of Patroclus appearing to him and requesting the funeral rites. The image of circling Troy endlessly, dragging the dead Hector behind, symbolizes this state of getting nowhere. The corpse is even preserved by the gods from decay: Aphrodite keeps the dogs off it and anoints Hector’s body (23.213f) — so the picture of stasis is complete.

The Greeks, in honor of Patroclus, conduct a day of games after the funeral, and the gods meddle in these too: chariot races [note the equine sexism (23.456f)], boxing, wrestling, foot-racing, fencing, shot-putting, archery, and javelin-throwing. In the foot-race, Athena trips up Ajax, and he falls.

“Athena tripped him up —
right where the dung lay slick from bellowing cattle
the swift runner Achilles slew in Patroclus’ honor.
Dung stuffed his mouth, his nostils dripped muck
as shining long-enduring Odysseus flashed past him”

So he lands in dung (and probably says something synonymous). This pitting of Odysseus against Ajax, with Ajax’ dishonor, prefigures a future famous event — their debate over the armor of Achilles. But that’s another story.

There’s even a cheesy public roast over this race with Antilochus as a proto-game-show-host:

“I’ll tell you something you’ve always known, my friends —
down to this very day the gods prefer old-timers.
Look at Ajax now, with only a few years on me.
But Odysseus — why, he’s out of the dark ages,
one of the old relics –”

And then there’s an honorary, automatic awarding of the prize for javelins to Agamemnon. What’s that all about?

There may be a certain wisdom in this kind of ritualistic competition among the warriors on the same side in the war. If nothing else, it’s diversionary without being a completely different enterprise.

Iliad: Book XXIV
Iliad Index