Friday, June 26, 2015

Achilles and the captive woman's lament in Iliad 19

This year at the Homer Multitext Summer Seminar the student-faculty teams are creating an edition of book 19 of the Iliad in the Venetus A, as well exploring the poetics of this particular book, which happens to feature a lament by Achilles' concubine Briseis, the only words she speaks in the poem. In one of our sessions Mary Ebbott and I spoke with the students about lament as a traditional genre of song, primarily performed in Ancient Greece by women, that has been incorporated into and infuses the epic poetry of the Iliad. We wanted to show the students how oral traditional poetry not only works differently, but also is received differently by its audience. We began by exploring two passages. The first comes immediately after the third song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8, in which Demodokos sings about Odysseus raging through the streets like Ares during the sack of Troy:

ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
τήκετο, δάκρυ δ’ ἔδευεν ὑπὸ βλεφάροισι παρειάς.
ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,
ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,
ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·
ἡ μὲν τὸν θνῄσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφ' αὐτᾠ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ’ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους
εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ’ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀϊζύν·
τῆς δ’ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ' ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν.

The renowned singer sang these things. But Odysseus
melted, and wet the cheeks below his eyelids with a tear.
As when a woman laments, falling over the body of her dear husband
who fell before his city and people,
attempting to ward off the pitiless day for his city and children,
and she, seeing him dying and gasping,
falling around him wails with piercing cries, but men from behind
beating her back and shoulders with their spears
force her to be a slave and have toil and misery,
and with the most pitiful grief her cheeks waste away,
So Odysseus shed a pitiful tear beneath his brows. (Odyssey 8.521-531)

The simile is so striking because the generic woman of the simile, who has fallen over the body of her husband slain in battle, and who will soon be captive slave, could easily be one of Odysseus’ own victims in the Trojan War. Although the woman does not actually speak, the formulaic language of the simile has powerful associations with the lamentation of captive women elsewhere in epic, with the result that the listener can easily conjure her song.

In the second passage, Achilles makes the connection between heroic kleos and the grief of women explicit:

νῦν δὲ κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἀροίμην,
καί τινα Τρωϊάδων καὶ Δαρδανίδων βαθυκόλπων
ἀμφοτέρῃσιν χερσὶ παρειάων ἁπαλάων
δάκρυ’ ὀμορξαμένην ἁδινὸν στοναχῆσαι ἐφείην,
γνοῖεν δ’ ὡς δὴ δηρὸν ἐγὼ πολέμοιο πέπαυμαι·

But now may I win good kleos,
and may I cause some one of the deep-girdled Trojan and Dardanian women
to wipe the tears from their delicate cheeks with both hands
and lament unceasingly.
And they may know that too long I have held back from battle. (Iliad 18.121-125)

Some of the most beautiful passages of the Iliad are not generic, however, but feature the first person laments of such figures as Andromache, Hecuba, Helen, and Briseis. John Foley has shown, for example, that Andromache's speech to Hektor in Iliad 6 conforms in every way to the structure and content of women's laments for the dead in the Greek tradition (Foley 1999: 188–98; see Dué 2002, chapter 4 and my earlier blog post).  Briseis' lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19 echoes many of the same structure and themes and even particular phrases that we find in Andromache's speech:

Βρισηῒς δ' ἄρ' ἔπειτ' ἰκέλη χρυσέῃ Ἀφροδίτῃ
ὡς ἴδε Πάτροκλον δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκᾠ,
ἀμφ' αὐτᾠ χυμένη λίγ' ἐκώκυε, χερσὶ δ' ἄμυσσε
στήθεά τ' ἠδ' ἁπαλὴν δειρὴν ἰδὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα.
εἶπε δ' ἄρα κλαίουσα γυνὴ ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσι·

(I) Πάτροκλέ μοι δειλῇ πλεῖστον κεχαρισμένε θυμᾠ
ζωὸν μέν σε ἔλειπον ἐγὼ κλισίηθεν ἰοῦσα,
νῦν δέ σε τεθνηῶτα κιχάνομαι ὄρχαμε λαῶν
ἂψ ἀνιοῦσ'· 

(II) ὥς μοι δέχεται κακὸν ἐκ κακοῦ αἰεί.
ἄνδρα μὲν ᾧ ἔδοσάν με πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ
εἶδον πρὸ πτόλιος δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκᾠ,
τρεῖς τε κασιγνήτους, τούς μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ,
κηδείους, οἳ πάντες ὀλέθριον ἦμαρ ἐπέσπον.
οὐδὲ μὲν οὐδέ μ' ἔασκες, ὅτ' ἄνδρ' ἐμὸν ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεὺς
ἔκτεινεν, πέρσεν δὲ πόλιν θείοιο Μύνητος,
κλαίειν, ἀλλά μ' ἔφασκες Ἀχιλλῆος θείοιο
κουριδίην ἄλοχον θήσειν, ἄξειν τ' ἐνὶ νηυσὶν
ἐς Φθίην, δαίσειν δὲ γάμον μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσι.

(III) τώ σ' ἄμοτον κλαίω τεθνηότα μείλιχον αἰεί.

ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ', ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες
Πάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ' αὐτῶν κήδε' ἑκάστη. 

Then Briseis like golden Aphrodite,
when she saw Patroklos torn by the sharp bronze,
wailed with piercing cries, falling around him. And with her hands she struck
her breast and tender neck and beautiful face.
And then lamenting she spoke, a woman like the goddesses:

(I) “Patroklos, most pleasing to my wretched heart,
I left you alive when I went from the hut.
But now returning home I find you dead, O leader of the people.

(II) So evil begets evil for me forever.
The husband to whom my father and mistress mother gave me
I saw torn by the sharp bronze before the city,
and my three brothers, whom one mother bore together with me,
beloved ones, all of whom met their day of destruction.
Nor did you allow me, when swift Achilles killed my husband,
and sacked the city of god-like Mynes,
to weep, but you claimed that you would make me the
wedded wife of god-like Achilles and that you would bring me in 
the ships 
to Phthia, and give me a wedding feast among the Myrmidons.

(III) Therefore I weep for you now that you are dead ceaselessly, 
you who were kind always.”

(Refrain) So she spoke lamenting, and the women wailed in response,
with Patroklos as their pretext, but each woman for her own cares. (Iliad 19. 282-302)

In terms of narrative, Briseis’ widowed and captive status is quite personal. Lament is a powerful form of speech in which women can narrate their own life experiences, and this is the only place in the Iliad where we learn about Briseis’ life prior to her capture. But her lament gains a great deal of power from the fact that Briseis’ grief foreshadows the grief of every Trojan wife. When Briseis throws herself down on the body of Patroklos, she is already a captive woman—something that Andromache only imagines herself to be in Iliad 6.

Such resonances and interconnections are made possible by the traditional diction and formulaic language in which the Iliad and Odyssey have been composed. The audience's familiarity with such language likewise allows them to receive these passages on a deeper level than would an audience hearing this passage for the first time. When Briseis falls over the body of Patroklos and and begins lamenting with piercing cries, a traditional audience can not only think of the generic husband of Odyssey 8, but also Briseis' first husband, whom she has already lamented, and look ahead to the death of her current would be husband, Achilles, whom she mourns here just as much as she does Patroklos. (See again my earlier blog post for Briseis' lament for Achilles in the Posthomerica of Quintus of Smyrna as well as the Introduction to Dué 2002.)

We concluded this exploration of the poetics that underlie Iliad 19 by looking at the opening lines of the book, in which Thetis brings Achilles his new set of armor to wear into battle, where she and he know he will soon die. She finds him like this (Iliad 19.4-6):

εὗρε δὲ Πατρόκλῳ περικείμενον ὃν φίλον υἱὸν
κλαίοντα λιγέως: πολέες δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτὸν ἑταῖροι

She found her dear son fallen about [the body] of Patroklos,
lamenting with piercing cries. And his many companions around him
were weeping

We asked the students to consider how they might understand the passage differently in light of the poetics of the captive woman's lament that we had been exploring. In Odyssey 8, Odysseus' tears and grief are compared to those of a captive woman. Here in Iliad 19 Achilles physically embodies the actions, tears, and lamentation of such a woman while mourning his comrade. And just as the women antiphonally respond to Briseis as she concludes her lament (cf. the women of Andromache's household in Iliad 6.499 and the women of Troy at Iliad 22.515 and 24.746), so too do Achilles' comrades respond to him. In fact the A scholia on these lines gloss μύροντο (19.6) as ἐθρήνουν. When viewed in this way, the grief of Achilles reverberates with the grief of the many women whose husbands he has killed (and the husband he has yet to kill, Hektor), and we realize that Achilles' kleos comes at the cost of not only the unceasing lamentation of the women of Troy, but also his own never ending sorrow. 

Nikolai Ge, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1855)

Works Cited

Dué, C. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, MD, 2002.
Foley, J. M. Homer’s Traditional Art. University Park, 1999.

For more on the poetics of lament that underlie the Iliad and Odyssey and the unnamed woman of Odyssey 8 see G. Nagy, "An unnamed woman’s lament as a signal of epic sorrow."

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