Homer’s Iliad: Book VI

Questions for Book VI:

  • The epic is supposed to be about the wrath of Achilles, but flip ahead to the last line of the entire work. Why is Hector given this moment — why is Hector the subject of the last line of the Iliad? Material in this book (VI) may offer some perspective on this peculiarity.
  • Helen says some surprising things about herself. How do you explain her character?
  • What is Hector’s attitude about returning to the battle despite the pleas of his kin?

The war continues, as does Diomedes’ killing spree. We read names not worth mention, since they all die quickly; and yet they are given brief bios. One Trojan asks for mercy from Menelaus, but Agamemnon intervenes.

“So soft, dear brother, why?
Why such concern for enemies? I suppose you got
such tender loving care at home from the Trojans.
Ah would to god not one of them could escape
his sudden plunging death beneath our hands!
No baby boy still in his mother’s belly,
not even he escape — all Ilium blotted out,
no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves!” (6.63-70).

“What Agamemnon has done is to cut the connections between men and their fathers, men and their brothers, men and their wives, even men and their horses” (Nicholson 112). It’s a particular kind of inhumanity, evidenced in his having killed — uh, sacrificed — his own daughter before the war in order to get some wind for their sails. He will pay: family is not his strong suit.

Nestor recommends efficient time-management with slaughter over plunder: “Now’s the time for killing! Later, at leisure, / strip the corpses up and down the plain!” (6.82-83). Good advice and a nice way to unwind this afternoon.

A Trojan seer, Helenus, recommends that they promise sacrifice to Athena to stop Diomedes, who seems a veritable Achilles today, “a maniac run amok” (6.118). Meanwhile, Diomedes encounters “Glaucus, whose name means ‘the gleaming one,’ a word used by Homer to describe both the sea and the eyes of the wisdom goddess Athene.” Diomedes taunts him with his insignificance: “Who are you, my fine friend? — another born to die? / I never noticed you on the lines where we win glory” (6.142-143). So, about my birth, starts Glaucus…. Unrealistically for a battlefield encounter, he tells at great length his royal lineage, with name-dropping of ancestors Sisyphus and Bellerophon (who killed the Chimera, among other feats). “It is a traditional conversation, important for a hero, as his own self-esteem is bound up with the knowledge that his victims are themselves of good lineage” (Nicholson 100). Diomedes remembers that his own grandfather hosted Bellerophon. The report and encounter end in mutual respect, Diomedes noting that there are “plenty of [other] Trojans there for me to kill” (6.272).

The scene shifts to Hector in a portion of the epic often anthologized:

“when Hector reached the Scaean Gates and the greak oak
the wives and daughters of Troy came rushing up around him,
asking about their sons, brothers, friends and husbands.
But Hector told them only, ‘Pray to the gods’ –” (6.283-286).

For our first real glimpse of this hero, the response seems harsh. Can we justify Hector here somehow? In his brief encounter with his mother, he turns down wine (!), instructs her to carry out the ritual that Helenus suggested, and, perhaps even more shockingly, expresses his wish that Paris his brother were dead (6.331-337). Again, first glimpses of Hector are disturbing … until you think a bit about them. The advised prayer to Athena is carried out, but futilely. Hector encounters his brother Paris in the bedroom “polishing, fondling his splendid battle-gear” (6.378):

“What on earth are you doing? Oh how wrong it is,
this anger you keep smoldering in your heart!” (6.384-385).

Paris, like Achilles, seems actually to be sulking rather than angry when Hector greets him with insults. How does Hector detect anger? Is sulking a form of rage too? [Consider Dante’s Inferno, Circle Five, the Wrathful and the Slothful? or the Wrathful and the Sullen?]

Hector has a moment with Helen, who is really an odd one:

“My dear brother,
dear to me, bitch that I am, vicious, scheming —
horror to freeze the heart!” (6.407-409).

Helen claims to wish she had never been born, and somewhat habitually self-lacerates: “slut that I am” (6.422). How does one explain this attitude on her part? But she gets this part right: “Oh the two of us! / Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, / so even for generations still unborn / we will live in song” (6.423-426).

Hector excuses himself from this scene of wallowing. At first he cannot find his wife Andromache, because she has gone to sob and grieve at the gate-tower, worried about the Trojans. Andromache, whose family has been wiped out almost entirely by Achilles, expresses her fears for Hector, since he is her entire family now, along with their kid, Scamandrius (named after the river Skamander), a.k.a. Astyanax. (After the war is all over, this kid will be thrown to his death from the wall of Troy.) Hector himself does not respond with any sugar-coated optimism: he listens to more pleas for him to forgo battle, but he says something interesting….

“All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.
But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward”

And then the key line: “Nor does the spirit urge me on that way” (6.526).

In other words, aside from all the heroic code material involved in one’s rep in a warrior culture, and aside from some more platitudes about all of us dying sooner or later, Hector in this one line acknowledges being in touch with whatever inner force it is that assures him that it’s the right thing to do at this time. He is in touch with and trusts his own inclinations and instincts. After a moment when the boy recoils and screams at the sight of Hector in his war-gear (6.557ff), and the parents have a laugh, there’s more from Hector, even better:

dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you–
it’s born with us the day that we are born”

The ancient Greek notion of Fate can come across as very oppressive, but Hector’s attitude here shows the rarely expressed flip side. Some days you just are at the top of your game and you know you’re not going to die, that you’re not fated to croak today. You just know this. What a paradoxically freeing notion!

The book ends with a reconciliation between Paris, who is now energized for battle, and Hector, who assures him he is a good soldier and that contemptuous comments about Paris are upsetting.

Iliad: Book VII
Iliad Index