Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hektor’s Variation on a Lament by Briseis

One of the topics that I am most interested in on this blog and in connection with the Homer Multitext more generally is the concept of multiformity. A primary research question addressed by the Homer Multitext is the extent to which the variation and multiformity that once characterized the performance and composition of the Homeric poems are still evident in the historical documents that transmit the text of these poems to us. As Albert Lord showed (see especially Lord 1960), in an oral epic song tradition like that in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed, no song was ever sung the exact same way twice. The song was created anew each time, using the traditional building blocks of formula and theme, employed in varying degrees of expansion and compression. Every formula is traditional, but every formula carries with it many layers of accumulated meaning, meaning that resonates through time and even across geographical distances. What is “good” about such traditional poetry is not “newness,” but, as Milman Parry put it, putting tradition “to the best use” (Parry 1932, 12-14 [= Parry 1971, 334-35]).

Richard Martin built on the work of Parry and Lord to show how patterns and structures associated with different genres of poetry and speech outside of epic (such as boasting, lament, love song, etc) came to be incorporated into epic, and so formed building blocks with powerful resonance of their own (see especially Martin 1989). One of these genres that I have explored in my own research is that of the traditional lament for the dead, especially as performed by the captive (and soon-to-be captive) women of the Iliad, such as Briseis and Andromache. Laments have a traditional structure and have traditional content, themes, and imagery, but they are dynamic forms of song. They have particular relevance to the life of the woman singing the song and narrate her own personal experiences while at the same time drawing on universal patterns and the experiences of sorrow and grief within the community of mourners. In other words, every lament is a multiform of a notional or archetypal lament, but no two laments are ever the same.

This week I happened to be reminded of the laments for Achilles in the epic of Quintus of Smyrna, whose Posthomerica (which might be translated as “epic events after Homer”) narrates the death of Achilles and the sack of Troy. In that epic, Achilles’ prize of war Briseis gives the following lament (3.551-576):
πασάων δ’ ἔκπαγλον ἀκηχεμένη κέαρ ἔνδον
Βρισηὶς παράκοιτις ἐυπτολέμου Ἀχιλῆος
ἀμφὶ νέκυν στρωφᾶτο καὶ ἀμφοτέρῃς παλάμῃσι
δρυπτομένη χρόα καλὸν ἀύτεεν· ἐκ δ’ ἁπαλοῖο
στήθεος αἱματόεσσαι ἀνὰ σμώδιγγες ἄερθεν
θεινομένης· φαίης κεν ἐπὶ γλάγος αἷμα χέασθαι
φοίνιον. Ἀγλαΐη δὲ καὶ ἀχνυμένης ἀλεγεινῶς
ἱμερόεν μάρμαιρε, χάρις δέ οἱ ἄμπεχεν εἶδος.
τοῖον δ’ ἔκφατο μῦθον ὀιζυρὸν γοόωσα·
ὤ μοι ἐγὼ πάντων περιώσιον αἰνὰ παθοῦσα·
οὐ γάρ μοι τόσσον περ ἐπήλυθεν ἄλλό τι πῆμα,
οὔτε κασιγνήτων οὔτ’ εὐρυχόρου περὶ πάτρης,
ὅσσον σεῖο θανόντος· ἐπεὶ σύ μοι ἱερὸν ἦμαρ
καὶ φάος ἠελίοιο πέλες καὶ μείλιχος αἰὼν
ἐλπωρή τ’ ἀγαθοῖο καὶ ἄσπετον ἄλκαρ ἀνίης
πάσης τ’ ἀγλαΐης πολὺ φέρτερος ἠδὲ τοκήων
ἔπλεο· πάντα γὰρ οἶος ἔης δμωῇ περ ἐούσῃ,
καί ῥά με θῆκας ἄκοιτιν ἑλὼν ἄπο δούλια ἔργα.
νῦν δέ τις ἐν νήεσσιν Ἀχαιῶν ἄξεται ἄλλος
Σπάρτην εἰς ἐρίβωλον ἢ ἐς πολυδίψιον Ἄργος·
καί νύ κεν ἀμφιπολεῦσα κακὰς ὑποτλήσομ’ ἀνίας
σεῦ ἀπονοσφισθεῖσα δυσάμμορος. Ὡς ὄφελόν με
γαῖα χυτὴ ἐκάλυψε πάρος σέο πότμον ἰδέσθαι.
ὣς ἣ μὲν δμηθέντ’ ὀλοφύρετο Πηλείωνα
δμωῇς σὺν μογερῇσι καὶ ἀχνυμένοισιν Ἀχαιοῖς
μυρομένη καὶ ἄνακτα καὶ ἀνέρα·

(For a translation, see
In my 2002 book, Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis, I argued that this lament in Quintus of Smyrna may well reflect (however dimly) an archaic epic lament by Briseis for Achilles that has not survived. Instead, we have an echo of that lament in her lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19.282-302, a lament which seems to be in many ways a lament for Achilles himself. An ancient audience would have been able to connect the deaths of the two comrades, and so her lament for Patroklos would have resonated on multiple levels. (See Dué 2002: 1-16 and 74-76.) The traditional formulaic language of oral poetry (and indeed lament) would have evoked all at the same time the deaths of Briseis’ first husband, Patroklos, Achilles, and indeed all husbands who die in battle—including Hektor.

Many scholars, including myself, have noted that Briseis’ lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19 shares many features with the speech of Andromache to Hektor in Iliad 6 (405-432), in which Andromache attempts to persuade Hektor not to return to battle. And in fact, as John Foley has shown (1999:188-198), Andromache’s speech is a lament in every way, even though it is not explicitly called a goos or thrēnos. (Please see chapter four of Homeric Variations for a full analysis.) She first addresses Hektor in the second person directly, then narrates the deaths of her family members in the sack of her city, and then concludes by addressing Hektor once again. The content of Andromache’s speech in Iliad 6 likewise resonates with other traditional laments in the Iliad. For example, the reproach that has been noted as characteristic of laments often takes the form of an accusation of abandonment. Andromache does not reproach Hektor directly in this speech, but she does warn him not to leave her a widow and their son an orphan. Hektor admits he would rather die than see Andromache led off into captivity (6.464-465). Andromache herself expresses a wish to die if she loses Hektor (6.410-411), and this wish too is a common feature of laments. The accusation of abandonment in both ancient and modern Greek laments is typically accompanied by a description of the lamenting woman’s endangered position in the community. Andromache relates how she has lost the protection of all of her family members, and sets up Hektor as her last resource. Many of the traditional lament themes that are featured in Andromache’s speech recur when she learns of the death of Hektor in Iliad 22 and in her lament at Hektor’s funeral in Iliad 24. She relates how Hektor has left her a widow and their son an orphan. She describes the life of servitude that will be hers, and speculates that Astyanax will likewise be a slave or else hurled to his death from the walls (24.727-728, 732-735).

Andromache’s and Briseis’ laments are representative of the way that wives and women in general comment on their status in the community once the man whom they are mourning is dead. Michael Herzfeld has shown in his study of a modern Cretan funeral how women may actually manipulate their status by evoking the sympathy of their audience and warding off potential reproach. Mary Ebbott, following up on the work of Herzfeld, has analyzed Helen’s language of self-blame in the Iliad in order to show how Helen uses the language of lament in even non-lament contexts to voice a view of herself that other characters in the Iliad never express. We can see in Andromache’s speech a similar kind of positioning through lament language even before Hektor’s death.

Likewise, Briseis’ lament for Patroklos deals more with defining her relationship to Achilles than it does with Patroklos. Like Andromache, Briseis uses the medium of lament to narrate the pains of her life and manipulate her status within her community. Briseis sets up first Patroklos and then Achilles as her primary resource after the deaths of her brothers and husband. She mentions the kindness of Patroklos (19.300) in order to comment on her own vulnerability. When she notes that Patroklos always promised to make her Achilles’ “wedded wife” (kouridiê alokhos) she seeks to legitimize her position through lament. She creates a status for herself that might protect her in some way when Achilles himself dies.

With the laments of Book 24 that conclude the Iliad comes an awareness that Andromache, Hecuba, and every Trojan wife will soon be captive women. And just as Achilles’ death is constantly foreshadowed, but does not occur in the Iliad, so the capture of Andromache by Greek warriors, an event that is foretold in Books 6, 18, and 24, does not take place within the confines of the Iliad itself. Her capture is instead realized in the figure of Briseis, the “wife” of Achilles. Just as Patroklos and then Hektor are substitutes in death for Achilles within the poem, so Briseis can be a substitute for Andromache. And as the funeral of Hektor foreshadows that of Achilles, Andromache’s fears for herself in turn reverberate back to Briseis, whose story, upon the death of Achilles, will come full circle, and she will be a widow and a captive once more.

As you can see, I am fascinated by the way that the traditional diction of Homeric poetry creates meaning and interconnection between different characters and different parts of the poem. For me, the repetitiveness of the poetry allows for more meaning not less. The patterns and structures of lament that I have been discussing here would have been very familiar to an ancient audience, who would have grasped them on an unconscious level. When Andromache begins using what I have called the “language of lament,” the emotional power of that speech would have connected with an ancient audience in a particular and powerful way, just as it does, within the poem, with Hektor.

This brings me back to the lament of Briseis in the Posthomerica, and, in an interesting way, Hektor. Indeed the bulk of Briseis’ lament in the Posthomerica evokes her lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19, with her narration of the loss of her homeland, parents, and brothers, and her “wife”-like (ἄκοιτιν) status with Achilles. But the last part of her lament, in which she tells of her soon-to-be captive (once again) status to a master in Greece, and her longing for death before seeing him dead, recall above all the fears that Hektor expresses for Andromache, as he explains to her why he must return to battle. In a justifiably much admired passage (the first part of which is itself a repetition of Agamemnon’s words at Iliad 4.163-165) he says (6.447-465):
εὖ γὰρ ἐγὼ τόδε οἶδα κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν:
ἔσσεται ἦμαρ ὅτ᾽ ἄν ποτ᾽ ὀλώλῃ Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς ἐϋμμελίω Πριάμοιο.
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ μοι Τρώων τόσσον μέλει ἄλγος ὀπίσσω,
οὔτ᾽ αὐτῆς Ἑκάβης οὔτε Πριάμοιο ἄνακτος
οὔτε κασιγνήτων, οἵ κεν πολέες τε καὶ ἐσθλοὶ
ἐν κονίῃσι πέσοιεν ὑπ᾽ ἀνδράσι δυσμενέεσσιν,
ὅσσον σεῦ, ὅτε κέν τις Ἀχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων
δακρυόεσσαν ἄγηται ἐλεύθερον ἦμαρ ἀπούρας:
καί κεν ἐν Ἄργει ἐοῦσα πρὸς ἄλλης ἱστὸν ὑφαίνοις,
καί κεν ὕδωρ φορέοις Μεσσηΐδος ἢ Ὑπερείης
πόλλ᾽ ἀεκαζομένη, κρατερὴ δ᾽ ἐπικείσετ᾽ ἀνάγκη...
ἀλλά με τεθνηῶτα χυτὴ κατὰ γαῖα καλύπτοι
πρίν γέ τι σῆς τε βοῆς σοῦ θ᾽ ἑλκηθμοῖο πυθέσθαι.

For I know this well in my heart and soul,
a day will come when holy Ilium will be destroyed,
and Priam and the people of Priam of the good spear.
But the pain of the Trojans in the future is not so much a concern for me
nor that of Hecuba herself nor of Lord Priam,
nor that of my brothers, who many and noble
have fallen in the dust at the hands of enemy men,
as much as your pain, when some one of the Achaeans with their bronze khitons
leads you away weeping, having deprived you of your day of freedom.
And then being in Argos you will weave at the loom for another woman,
and carry water from the Middle Spring and Upper Spring,
treated very shamefully, and powerful necessity will lie upon you...
May the heaped up earth of my tomb cover me dead
before I learn of your shout and your being dragged away.
What Hektor fears for Andromache, as we all know, will indeed come true, and in the Posthomerica, for Briseis, it has come true once again. Rereading the lament of Briseis in the Posthomerica I now see that in the Iliad Hektor, like Andromache, draws on the powerful language of lament to make his case. We have in essence, dueling proleptic laments from these two characters, which dramatically adds to the emotional effect of this scene.

Although anthropological research has shown that women were the traditional performers of lament in antiquity, the male heroes of epic do sometimes lament. Achilles in particular has been shown to be versed in both women’s and men’s song-making traditions. (See especially Monsacré 1984.) Here we see that Hektor has heard Andomache’s lamentation, and responded with a traditional lament of his own. This is particularly striking to me in part because ancient laments seems to have been antiphonal, with the mourner and audience responding to one another. (On the antiphonal nature of Greek laments, already represented in the laments of the Iliad, see Alexiou 1974: 131-60 and Dué 2006: 12-14.) This kind of responsion between the doomed couple makes their words even more evocative of an actual funeral.

Hektor’s variation on the captive woman’s lament is powerful precisely because it is a multiform of a pattern of speech deeply imprinted on the audience. It is powerful because it repeats, because it draws on formulas that have evolved over centuries to express precisely this kind of otherwise inexpressible sorrow. And so we see that the laments of Briseis and Andromache and Hektor are all multiforms of one another, and yet each perfectly communicates the very individual pain of each one.

(The image at the top of this post is of a painting by Zoie Lafis, Threnouses [2005], based on an ancient Greek vase.)

Works Cited
Alexiou, M. 1974. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Cambridge.

Carlisle, M., and O. Levaniouk, eds. 1999. Nine Essays on Homer. Lanham, Md.

Dué, C. 2002. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, Md.

Dué, C. 2006. The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy. Austin.

Ebbott, M. “The Wrath of Helen: Self-Blame and Nemesis in the Iliad.” In Carlisle and Levaniouk 1999: 3-20.

Foley, J. M. 1999. Homer’s Traditional Art. University Park.

Herzfeld, M. 1993. “In Defiance of Destiny: The Management of Time and Gender at a Cretan Funeral.” American Ethnologist 20.2: 241-55.

Lord, A. B. 1960/2000. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA. 2nd rev. edition, 2000.

Martin, R. P. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca, N.Y.

Monsacré, H. 1984. Les larmes d'Achille: le héros, la femme et la souffrance dans la poésie d'Homère. Paris.

Parry, A., ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford.

Parry, M. 1932. “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Versemaking. II. The Homeric Language as the Language of Oral Poetry.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 43 (1932): 1-50 [repr. in A. Parry 1971: 325-64].