See what the marker said!

Book 22: The Death of Hector

Madeleine Brodie, Dickson College, 2009
Homer’s Book 22 of The Iliad explores the characterisation of Hector, Achilles and the gods in respect to glory, war and fate. Language, especially the characteristic style and structure of Homeric composition, exemplifies the themes, plot and character development. The Death of Hector typifies the attitudes of Mycenaean Greek culture as this book explores the heroic nature of this society, especially when the archetypal heroes are involved in one-on-one warfare, as demonstrated by Achilles killing Hector. Throughout the epic, Homer explored many themes, including the glory of war, military values over family and longevity, and the role of gods in the lives of men. This particular extract is significant in the overall context of the epic as it gives an insight into Mycenaean society, their customs and their way of life. The death of Hector is not merely the death of one hero, it is Homer exploring aspects of ancient Greek society, through his use of the following factors: plot movement, character development, themes and writing style and structure.

Book 22 explores and exemplifies the glory and importance of war in ancient Greek society. This theme is strengthened and created successfully through the use of language, the plot itself and the development of the characters through the epic. In The Iliad, both Hector and Achilles have been developed into archetypal heroes, both consisting of prideful, heroic attributes. Hector, however, is not consumed by his pride, wrath of Achilles’ tendency to be blinded by grief and, in turn, bloodlust. These characteristics of Hector and Achilles are evident in this extract as Hector is willing to sacrifice himself for Troy and Achilles is blinded by his grief over Patroclus’ death and it will not stop until he has avenged his lost friend’s life. It is these slight differences in the characterisation of Hector and Achilles that fuel the plot as well as interestingly explore this idea of the glory in war. As explored in previous books, a warriors’ worth in battle (and in ancient Greek culture) is based on competence and bravery, the men are built up as heroes. This is where Homeric style and the use of language is necessary. Homer used a combination of similes, fixed epithets and ring composition, as The Iliad was originally composed orally, and it is this structure that reinforces the importance and glorious nature of Hector and Achilles. As Hector stands outside the Trojan gates for Achilles, Homer describes the approaching Achilles as “like Engalist, the warrior god of battle with the shining helmet…” [1]

In this one sentence, Homer has manipulated the language to utilise simile - Achilles is compared to a mighty god and is depicted as godlike. Importantly, the use of language focuses strength, swiftness and godlike qualities of the warriors; they are not merely men, Hector and Achilles are depicted as heroes and embody the characteristics of the gods.

Both men are compared to animals in this book, Hector “just as a mountain snake waits for some man right by its lair…dauntless heart will not retreat”[2] and Achilles as a “mountain falcon, the fastest creature of all the ones that fly.”[3] It is this use of vivid imagery and the development of the individual simile that reinforces the heroic nature of Greek society as well as informs the audience of the outcome of the epic. In these two descriptions, Homer interestingly compares the two men to strong animals, however, based on animal instinct and animal hierarchy it is clear the falcon can and will easily kill the snake, just as Achilles will do to Hector. This demonstrates the incredible complexity and the structure of Homer’s poetry as the phrases themselves are fixed, a combination of a detailed description and expressing the characteristic nature of the two warriors. It is the use of language, especially focusing on the use of similes and fixed epithets (such as “swift footed Achilles[4] to demonstrates his likeness to a falcon) that develops the glory and the importance of war in ancient Greek culture.

Throughout The Iliad, Homer has explored the glory of war as aforementioned and with this theme comes the celebration of war and the fact that military values often overwhelm the importance of family. In the Death of Hector, Priam tries to get Hector to retreat for his family and to save his life. However, as explored previously, it is neither in the nature of Hector’s character nor an aspect of ancient Mycenaean culture for a warrior to retreat from glory, even if it means sacrificing his youth and family to Achilles. Priam is blinded by his fatherly tendencies and is short-sighted metaphysically, as he would rather have his sons around him than save the city (also in his decision to support Helen and Paris). His role in this book foreshadows his role in book 24 when he begs Achilles for the body of his son to be returned. Homer uses the characteristic fixed epithet of “old”[5] to refer to Priam, expressing his nature and to appeal to the man who has lost a son. Just as death is related to glory and the fate of Hector, Priam tries to persuade Hector into retreating as it will spare the life of his dearest son and insure that the Trojan army keeps is inspirational leader:

Don’t give that man,the son of Peleus, great glory. He’ll take
your own dear life. Have pity on me, too.[6]

However, Hector as emphasised in the previous books, is the embodiment of a hero and is responsible for his duty to Troy, even if it will result in his death. Throughout the epic, Hector has been quite controlled over his attitude to his fate, his death at the hands of Achilles, facing it calmly and heroically. However, even the hero that was Hector could not face his fate without regreats and fear:

At that moment…Hector began to shake with fear.
His courage, gone, he could no longer stand there.[7]

This ties in with the constant tension between being a father, husband, warrior and prince, for Hector is all of these roles. However, these responsibilities clash and cause issues. In the end it is the heroic values rather than life and family that controls the “fate” of Hector. Indeed, it is not the gods that ultimately control humanity, as represented by Hector himself; customs and social mores control your fate.

As explored in previous books in the Iliad, the role of gods in ancient Greek culture was extremely important and their influence controlled the lives of men. Although the death of Hector is mainly the depiction of the wrath of Achilles, the gods, as they have influenced the war so far, are important characters. The role of the gods in The Iliad, gives and extremely close insight into the structure of Mycenaean Greek culture and also gives an explanation for causation. It is evident that ancient Greek culture was polytheistic. In the Death of Hector, Athena and Zeus both still play a role in the fate of Hector and the subsequent glory attained by Achilles. Just as the human characters develop as the epic progresses, so do the gods and their tendency to favour different sides of this antagonistic clash between Troy and the Greeks. The gods themselves are anthropomorphic and therefore are susceptible to experiencing human emotion and this directly influences the outcome and the direction of the plot. In the death of Hector, Zeus himself is tempted by his tendency to favour Hector and is willing to rescue him from death:

How my heart pities Hector,who’s often sacrificed to me…
come you gods, think hard and offer your advice –
do we wish to rescue him from death,
or kill him now…[8]

However, just as Zeus is affected by his connection to the mortal world, the other gods are just as easily swayed by flattery, or in the case of Athena on the side of the Achaeans, jealousy and rage. It is interesting as Athena herself is clouded by her hatred of the Trojans due to he hatred of Paris in choosing Aphrodite and her (and Hera) in a beauty contest, however, she argues on the side of fate. It seems as though the gods themselves cannot control fate, nor do they wish to, however, as explored through the entire epic and especially in this book, it is their anthropomorphic nature and their tendency to be overcome with human emotion that controls their actions. The role of the gods is closely related to fate and morality. Although the gods and create supremacy for individual warriors, such as Achilles, they still remain mortal, and it is their fate to die. Athena explores this idea of fate and the imminent nature of death, Hector’s death foreshadowing the downfall of the great Achilles himself:

How can you want, to snatch the man backfrom his wretched death.
He is mortal – his fate doomed him long ago.[9]

The role of the gods is extremely important in the overall outcome of The Iliad as their relations and interactions with each other and with humanity dictate the outcomes on earth. To a certain extent the feeble bickering between the gods and their feeble nature is a direct mirroring of the troubles on earth. Homer explored the motivation behind the gods’ control of causation as representation of human emotion and tendencies. Just as humanity inevitably responds to arguments and disagreements with conflict, the gods themselves are merely an immoral projection. This in itself is an interesting statement for Homer to make on ancient Greek customs, structure of society and religion. However, overall the role of the gods in this particular extract, as depicted through the entire epic is symbolic of a particular period in history controlled by extremely different mores and this idea of a changeable fate.

Book 22 exemplifies the themes, characterisations and the Homeric style and structure to explore the glory in war, the military values overriding family and the role of the gods. Although this book depicts the death of Hector, overall there are no significant aspects of the epics in this excerpt that are new. Homer composed an epic orally, and with that came discrepancies and the influence of different periods. The original Trojan War was in approximately 1200BC and the composition of the epic by Homer in about 800 BC, and the codification about 600 BC. It is evident in the overarching themes that the customs, culture and attitudes to religion were incorporated into the Iliad and in turn represent a huge period of ancient Greek culture. This particular extract explores the heroic nature of Achilles and Hector, the superficial and anthropomorphic nature of the gods and the idea of fate. Although The Iliad may seem like an artificial conglomeration, elements belonging to different societies in ancient Greece, overall The Iliad and especially in the book, Homer focuses on the importance of tradition, glory and the role of the gods in the lives of men.

Bibliography

Homer, Book 22, The Iliad (translated by Samuel Butler), The Internet Classics Archive.

References


  1. ^ Homer, Book 22, The Iliad (translated by Samuel Butler), The Internet Classics Archive.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Ibid.