Homer’s Iliad: Book XXIV
Questions for Book XXIV:
- How do we know Achilles has matured in this last book?
- Why is Hector’s death more important, as evidenced by the last line?
“The games were over now. The gathered armies scattered,
each man to his fast ship, and fighters turned their minds
to thoughts of food and the sweet warm grip of sleep”
But not Achilles, who tosses and turns and weeps in anguish. The insomniacal Achilles all along has been stewing, crying to his mother, recognizing that he could have other women, but repeatedly deciding he’s still ticked off. He has been living out bizarre extremes, fighting ferociously, sitting on his butt intensely, engaged in over-the-top and sometimes passive-aggressive behavior, or outwardly going to extremes in rending his hair in grief, starving himself, smearing himself with feces, essentially holding his breath until he turns blue, and screaming that he wants to hack the meat off Hector and eat it. Very dramatic, but mature? It’s all rather self-absorbed, a lot of style diverting him from real substance. He is woefully confused and out of touch with himself.
Dragging Hector’s corpse around tied to the back of his chariot (24.17ff) is a grim, babyish goofiness (possibly his “god” side coming out since they act like this, in extremes). After the circular stasis of the non-corrupting body being dragged for a dozen days now, even the gods say that enough is enough — Achilles is too much an animal. He has absorbed himself in his own image instead of in the war. Gods want to have Hermes retrieve the body, but Hera, Athena, and Poseidon, enemies of Troy, stand against this. Apollo pities Hector and protects his corpse from destruction, then addresses the gods:
“Hard-hearted you are, you gods, you live for cruelty!
Did Hector never burn in your honor thighs of oxen
and flawless, full-grown goats? Now you cannot
bring yourselves to save him — even his corpse —
so his wife can see him, his mother and his child,
his father Priam and Priam’s people: how they’d rush
to burn his body on the pyre and give him royal rites!
But murderous Achilles — you gods, you choose to help Achilles.
That man without a shred of decency in his heart . . .
his temper can never bend and change — like some lion
going his own barbaric way, giving in to his power,
his brute force and wild pride, as down he swoops
on the flocks of men to seize his savage feast.
Achilles has lost all pity! No shame in the man,
shame that does great harm or drives men on to good.
No doubt some mortal has suffered a dearer loss than this,
a brother born in the same womb, or even a son . . .
he grieves, he weeps, but then his tears are through.
The Fates have given mortals hearts that can endure.
But this Achilles — first he slaughters Hector,
he rips away the noble prince’s life
then lashes him to his chariot, drags him round
his beloved comrade’s tomb. But why, I ask you?
What good will it do him? What honor will he gain?
Let that man beware, or great and glorious as he is,
we mighty gods will wheel on him in anger — look,
he outrages the senseless clay in all his fury!”
Hera tries raging back, but Zeus checks her; he decides Achilles must accept a ransom from Priam for Hector’s body back. Achilles mother, Thetis, must deliver the word. As some delicious mutton for breakfast is being prepared, she does:
“My child —
how long will you eat your heart out here in tears and torment?
All wiped from your mind, all thought of food and bed?
It’s a welcome thing to make love with a woman . . . [Ew! Mom…!]
You don’t have long to live now, well I know:
already I see them looming up beside you — death
and the strong force of fate”
Achilles immediately caves: “So be it. / The man who brings the ransom can take away the body” (24.168-169). He just seems weary.
Cut to Priam, who has been smearing himself with dung “that he scraped up in his own hands, groveling in the filth” (24.198). Everyone is wailing. Zeus’ messenger, Iris, tells Priam he must visit Achilles, with Hermes as guide. Priam asks his wife, Hecuba, what she thinks. She thinks he’s crazy: Achilles has killed so many of their sons. “Oh would to god / that I could sink my teeth in his liver, eat him raw!” (24.252-253). I see, well, he’s going anyway. He gathers gifts for the ransom.
“Crowds of Trojans were mobbing his colonnades —
he gave them
‘Get out — you good-for-nothings, public disgraces!
Haven’t you got enough to wail about at home
without coming here to add to all my griefs?
You think it nothing, the pain that Zeus has sent me? —
he’s destroyed my best son! You’ll learn too, in tears —
easier game you’ll be for Argive troops to slaughter,
now my Hector’s dead. But before I have to see
my city annihilated, laid waste before my eyes —
oh let me go down to the House of Death!’
He herded them off with his staff — they fled outside
before the old man’s fury. So he lashed out at his sons,
cursing the sight of [them]” (24.282-295).
It’s yet another kind of anger, the kind that emerges from the grief that breaks your heart. Priam’s grief is “majestic” but human, and manifested in the touchingly tragic wrath of a mourner when he lashes out at these Trojan sons who had good intentions.
A wagon is loaded with the ransom gifts. Hecuba begs that at least Priam should wait for a sign from Zeus assuring that he will be safe, a sign that comes in the form of an eagle: “All looked up, overjoyed — the people’s spirit lifted” (24.381). Old Priam climbs into his chariot, accompanied by Hermes. He impressively sets out for the Greek camp. A herald, one of Achilles’ Myrmidons, questions him but reassures him, “I would never hurt you — and what’s more, / I’d beat off any man who’d do you harm: / you remind me of my dear father, to the life” (24.437-439). The herald reports that for twelve days Hector’s body has not decayed and that Achilles is unable to mutilate the corpse. Hermes escorts Priam the rest of the way, almost, and departs: the last trick is all Priam’s. When he gets there, he’s alone, and obviously vulnerable.
“The majestic king of Troy slipped past the rest
and kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees
and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands
that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle”
The we get an epic simile that lends us a pause for the tableau to sink in. Notice the importance of the silent moments in this book: “so Achilles marveled, beholding majestic Priam” (24.567). Beholding = holding in one’s eyes and mind. Priam appeals to Achilles’ thoughts for his own father and to the horror of losing so many dozens of sons. Achilles is moved by Priam’s demeanor and appeal to him. In the unspoken moments, Achilles really sees Priam. Somewhere in here, Achilles turns inward to adjust himself, or it happens organically. Both men have a good cry, and Achilles compliments Priam: “You have a heart of iron” (24.608). Achilles then waxes philosophical, then surprises us further by giving good advice that he himself ought to have been taking.
- Achilles tries to dissuade Priam from grieving and lamenting (24.610f)!
- Achilles promotes eating despite grief (24.707f)! The story of Niobe, which originally does not highlight the point about food, if it includes it at all (which actually would make no sense), functions as a myth within a myth — a story alluded to in order to provide needed wisdom in a crisis time.
- Achilles advises sleep!
Achilles still fears his potential for rage (24.656f, 684f), but he has the capacity now truly to look at and listen to the old man:
“Achilles gazed and marveled at Dardan Priam,
beholding his noble looks, listening to his words”
Achilles advises sleep and arranges so that no one stopping by will know that Priam is there: otherwise we’ll have another problem from Agamemnon. Achilles asks how much time Priam would like for funeral rites, promising to arrange a truce for that long. What has happened to Achilles? How do we explain the change? (Consider the chakra system! Maybe he has shifted in a rise in consciousness.)
The return of Hector’s body and a twelve-day truce are the peaceful result. We follow Priam back to a grief-stricken Troy, with Cassandra the first to witness the return. Andromache and Hecuba mourn the most, Andromache anticipating the worst to come. Even Helen eulogizes about Hector having been her only friend in town. A pyre, interment of the bones, and a funeral feast follow: “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses” (24.944).
It is Hector, therefore, who earns the last line of the epic. Why is the final line a lament about Hector despite the invocation’s identification of the theme?
- Hector has real relationships with people and connects.
- Hector is driven up the wall by his brother Paris the cheese-weenie, but he continues to have hope for him.
- Hector is less guilty of blaming the gods, realizing he should have taken the advice of the seer. He has every reason and opportunity to blame the gods, but he doesn’t do so; instead, he refers to “my recklessness.”
- Hector represents “civilized responsibility and restraint” (Introduction 56).
So Hector’s experience is far more human and accepting. His death is a greater loss to us, as he was a better example for us as human beings. “Homer is haunted by the threat of transience, by the way memory fails and meanings drift in the face of time. That slide into insignificance summons his tenderest and most lyrical moments” (Nicholson 100).
“for Homer, impermanence is life’s central sorrow and the source of its most lasting pain” (Nicholson 101). “It is also what the poem itself is intended to cure. In scene after scene, Homer quietly shows its listeners that it knows more and remembers more than men usually know or are able to bring to mind…. The world forgets, but the poem remembers” (101).
“Though human memory last only three generations at best, the poem becomes an act of memorialization, fixing the past into an everlasting song” (Nicholson 102).