Friday, July 15, 2011

The Grief of War: Special Homeric Poetics Edition

This blog is primarily devoted to new research and developments connected with the Homer Multitext project. Moved by a recent interview, however, I was inspired to revisit a poetic topic that, while not directly connected to the multiformity of the Iliad, is nevertheless a testament to why we continue to find Homeric poetry so fascinating. 
              In book 9 of the Iliad, Achilles uses a striking simile to describe his feelings about the situation in which he finds himself. Believing that he has been disrespected and stripped of honor by Agamemnon, he has withdrawn from battle. The Greeks, now losing without him, beg him to return. He says:

ὡς δ’ ὄρνις ἀπτῆσι νεοσσοῖσι προφέρῃσι
μάστακ' ἐπεί κε λάβῃσι, κακῶς δ’ ἄρα οἱ πέλει αὐτῇ,
ὣς καὶ ἐγὼ πολλὰς μὲν ἀΰπνους νύκτας ἴαυον,
ἤματα δ' αἱματόεντα διέπρησσον πολεμίζων
ἀνδράσι μαρνάμενος ὀάρων ἕνεκα σφετεράων.
(Iliad 9.323-327)

Like a bird that brings food to her fledgling young
in her bill, whenever she finds any, even if she herself fares poorly,
so I passed many sleepless nights,
and spent many bloody days in battle,
contending with men for the sake of their wives.

In a previously published book and article (Dué 2005 and 2006), I argued that here Achilles is drawing on the suffering of mothers in order to articulate his own sorrow, as he struggles against his mortality and the pleas of his comrades that he return to battle. By using a traditional theme of women’s lament traditions, that of the mother bird who has toiled to raise her young only to lose them, Achilles connects on a very visceral level with the women that he himself has widowed, deprived of children, and enslaved in war.
One of the many passages that bring together the imagery of mother birds with the grief of war (and especially the lamentation of a mother for her fallen son) in Greek literature comes from Euripides’ tragedy the Trojan Women. This play tells the story of the women of Troy after the Greek victory, and it is structured as a series of laments by the principal characters and the chorus. In Hecuba’s opening monody, she compares herself to a mother bird, screaming over her lost young (Trojan Women 138-150):

μοι, θάκους οἵους θάσσω,/σκηναῖς ἐφέδρους Ἀγαμεμνονίαις./δούλα δ' ἄγομαι/γραῦς ἐξ οἴκων πενθήρη/κρᾶτ' ἐκπορθηθεῖσ' οἰκτρῶς./ἀλλ' ὦ τῶν χαλκεγχέων Τρώων/ἄλοχοι μέλεαι,/καὶ κοῦραι ‹κοῦραι› δύσνυμφοι,/τύφεται Ἴλιον, αἰάζωμεν./μάτηρ δ' ὡσεί τις πτανοῖς/ὄρνισιν, ὅπως ἐξάρξω 'γὼ/κλαγγάν, μολπάν, οὐ τὰν αὐτὰν/οἵαν ποτὲ δὴ/σκήπτρῳ Πριάμου διερειδομένα/ποδὸς ἀρχεχόρου πληγαῖς Φρυγίους/εὐκόμποις ἐξῆρχον θεούς.

Alas what sort of seat is this that I have taken, I who am seated before the tents of Agamemnon? As a slave I am led away from my home, an old woman, my head shorn piteously in grief. Ah! wretched wives of the Trojans with their bronze spears and maidens, unfortunate brides, Ilium is smoldering, let us cry out! Like some mother-bird that over her fledglings screams, so I will lead off the shout, the song and dance; not the same as that I once conducted, as I leaned on Priam’s scepter and with loud-sounding beats led the dance for the Phrygian gods.

In large part because of passages like these, I have argued that Achilles’ comparison of his own feelings to those of a mother bird would have resonated with ancient audiences as a particular kind of grief, the grief of a mother who has lost her son in war. What I did not realize when I made those arguments initially is that the emotions conveyed by Achilles in that moment are shared by our soldiers fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
            Last night on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Stewart interviewed a medal of honor winner from Afghanistan named Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry. Stewart asked Petry how it was possible for him, after being wounded in both legs (and later after his hand was blown off by a grenade), to be able to maintain his leadership role and continue to protect the other men and also communicate back with his commanders. In his spontaneous response he almost choked up, saying that his fellow soldiers were like brothers to him, but that it was even more than that. He said that the way he felt about the other guys is like how a bird cares for its young.
Sgt. Petry’s experience is in many ways the opposite of the situation of Achilles in Iliad 9. Sgt. Petry did not retreat, whereas Achilles has, to the extreme detriment of his comrades. But I’m fascinated that Sgt. Petry would use the same metaphor to describe war. Moreover, as my friend and colleague Mary Ebbott points out to me, Jonathan Shay has described the relationship between combat soldiers in similar terms in his book Achilles in Vietnam (p.42): “While the kin relationship of brother seems to be the most frequent symbol of the relationship between combat soldiers who are closest comrades, in our culture the powerful territory of feeling and symbolism of mother often seems to apply just as well.” He also writes (p. 49): “The terror and privation of combat bonds men in a passion of care that the word brother only partly captures. Men become mothers to one another in combat. The grief and rage that they experience when the special comrade is killed appear virtually identical to that of a child suddenly orphaned, and they feel that the mother within them has died with the friend.”
These accounts have caused me to reexamine Achilles’ words. I think what Achilles is trying to say, in his own soldierly way, is that he has experienced the same intensity of war that Sgt Petry attempts to describe, but that he has not gotten anything for it. He has been dishonored even so—he has not been awarded a medal of honor. He wants out. He wants to go home and live a normal life. Looking at it this way, we understand even better what it means for Achilles to return to battle after Patroklos’ death later in the epic. Achilles withdrew from battle, and the person who did not get protected as a result was his closest companion in the world.
Carroll Moulton has noted that the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos is several times described in the Iliad by similes that involve the parent/children motif, and Achilles is usually in the role of the protector. (See Moulton 1977, 100-104 as well as Mills 2000.) I think especially of a passage in Iliad 16, where Patroklos begs to be allowed to impersonate Achilles and return to battle, if Achilles won’t go himself. Achilles compares Patroklos here to a child:

“Why ever do you cry, Patroklos? (You are) like a
silly girl, who running along with her mother begs to be picked up,
grabbing onto her robe, and she hinders her as she is trying to go,
and tearfully she looks at her, in order that she be picked up.’ 

This pattern makes it all the more significant that Achilles draws on traditional imagery from women’s laments for children to describe himself in Iliad 9, given the central importance of Patroklos’ death (and Achilles’ avenging of that death) in the Iliad. As so often happens in Homeric poetry, larger themes and events of the poem are articulated by a character who should not have the omniscience to foretell them. The truncated mother bird simile of Iliad 9 foreshadows future events for an audience that knows all too well what is to come. In this way the simile unites Achilles’ grief for Patroklos with the grief of the mothers he himself has put in mourning.
The toil of the mother bird is, traditionally speaking, only half the story, however. The simile of Iliad 9 comes to an end just where we would expect it to narrate the subsequent loss of the nestlings and the bird’s lamentation. By leaving out this crucial segment of the bird’s story, Achilles does not yet seem to threaten the vengeance that is very often associated with lament. And yet I have to wonder whether the vengeance theme (that I have traced in my 2005 article and 2006 book) is any way relevant to this much earlier passage from epic about the mother bird. I believe that it is, and if you are interested in this question, I invite you to read my book (see especially chapter 5). I mention the theme of revenge because it is the next stage of grief, not only for the Homeric warrior, or for the ancient Greek mother to whom he is likened, but also today's soldiers, and it is just one more way that the grief of war transcends time or place. I mention it because I’d like to close this post by noting an incredibly moving interview that aired on NPR last year with Tim Hetherington, the creator of the documentary Restrepo
In the interview, Hetherington describes what it was like to be an imbedded reporter in Afghanistan with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Hetherington starts sobbing when telling the story, and in fact the whole point of his documentary had been to see war through the soldiers' eyes. It became his experience too—even though, as he says, he felt protected in a way by the camera. So there was a barrier between him as a narrator and his story, but it was a permeable one—which of course makes me the think of the Homeric narrator as well.
When talking about last night’s Daily Show interview of Sgt. Petry with Mary Ebbott, she too recalled Restrepo (and she was the one who first made me aware of the NPR interview of Hetherington last year). Mary reminded me that the thing that made Hetherington cry in the NPR interview was when he began describing what it was like when one of their comrades was killed in an attack and the enemy tried to drag his body away. In fact, Hetherington said it was the one time any of the soldiers told him to turn the camera off. Mary wrote to me about the documentary:

You see how distraught one soldier becomes when he learns that his comrade has been killed, and the captain of the unit goes into a cold and quiet revenge mode (you see him saying, “kill them all”). In later interviews, they talk about how he was their “best” soldier. I have told students that it was “okay” for Greek heroes to cry and that we have to understand the cultural differences, but now that I have seen this, we instead have to realize that it is just a true reaction of soldiers facing the loss of their comrades.

When Patroklos gets killed in the Iliad, the Greeks immediately move in to protect his body. Amazingly, Menelaos is compared in this moment to a cow protecting her first-born calf (Iliad 17.4-5). In Iliad 9, Achilles has only begun to experience the grief of war. It is only when his “child” Patroklos gets killed by the Trojans that his need for vengeance takes over. He cries and mourns and then he returns to battle, full of cold fury.
            Sadly, Tim Hetherington, the narrator that became so indistinguishable from his “characters” that their grief became his, is united with the soldiers he chronicled in more ways than one. This past April he was killed covering the fighting in Libya.

Dué, C. “Achilles, Mother Bird: Similes and Traditionality in Homeric Poetry.” Classical Bulletin 81 (2005): 3-18.
–––. The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Mills, S. “Achilles, Patroclus and Parental Care in Some Homeric Similes.Greece and Rome 47 (2000): 3-18.

Moulton, C. Similes in the Homeric Poems. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977.

Shay, J. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Simon & Schuster, 1995.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a really nice quote from John Keegan about World War I (The First World War, New York, 2000, p. 426): "Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates, we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life."