Women as Victims of War in Homer’s Oral Poetics
It is above all through the perspectives of women that the poet exposes the brutality of war.Barbara Graziosi, Johannes Haubold
… αἱ κάλλει ἐνίκων φῦλα γυναικῶν
who surpassed other women in their beauty.
ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγ’ ἐκώκυε, χερσὶ δ’ἄμυσσεστήθεά τ’ἠδ’ ἁπαλὴν δειρὴν ἰδὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα.εἶπε δ’ἄρα κλαίουσα γυνὴ ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσι
she flung her arms around him and gave out a shrill shriek, then she tore with her nailsher breasts, her soft neck and her lovely face.Wailing, this goddess-like woman said …
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’ ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκεςΠάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ’αὐτῶν κήδε’ ἑκάστη.
That’s what she said while weeping and the women moanedover Patroclus, and each of them had her own cause for distress.
XXIV 745Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’ ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκεςSo she said weeping and the women added their groans
XXIV 760Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσα, γόον δ’ἀλίαστον ὄρινεSo she said weeping, and unceasing lament [goos] was stirred up
XXIV 776Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἐπὶ δ’ἔστενε δῆμος ἀπείρων.So she said weeping, and the innumerable crowd join in the moaning
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίων, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γέροντεςμνησάμενοι τὰ ἕκαστος ἐνὶ μεγάροισι ἔλειπον
He said so weeping, and the old men moanedEach mentioning something that he had left in his palace
οἳ δʼ ἐπεὶ εἰσάγαγον κλυτὰ δώματα, τὸν μὲν ἔπειτατρητοῖς ἐν λεχέεσσι θέσαν, παρὰ δʼ εἶσαν ἀοιδοὺςθρήνων ἐξάρχους, οἱ δὲ στενόεσσαν ἀοιδὴνοἳ μὲν ἄρʼ ἐθρήνεον· ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες.τῇσιν δʼ Ἀνδρομάχη λευκώλενος ἦρχε γόοιοἝκτορος ἀνδροφόνοιο· κάρη μετὰ χερσὶν ἔχουσα
they [Priam and Idaios], when they had brought him to the glorious house, laid himon a corded bedstead,35 and by his side set singers, aoidoi,“leaders” of the dirge, and [the men] started the song of lamentation36—they [aoidoi and men] chanted the dirge, and the women moaned.And among these [women] white-skinned Andromache started the wailing [goos],holding in her hands the head37 [of Hector? Her head?]
ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα,ὅς τε ἑῇς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν,ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύμων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ·ἡ μὲν τὸν θνῄσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσαἀμφʼ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τʼ ὄπισθεκόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμουεἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τʼ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀϊζύν·τῆς δʼ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί·ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπʼ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν.
When a woman laments, embracing the body of her husbandwho fell defending his city and people,The immaculate [man] died on the merciless day for his city and children,and she, seeing him dying in convulsions,embraces him, and wails with piercing cries, but [the victorious men] from behindbeating her back and shoulders with their spearsescort 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 eyelid.
ὡς δʼ ὅτʼ ἂν ἄνδρʼ ἄτη πυκινὴ λάβῃ, ὅς τʼ ἐνὶ πάτρῃφῶτα κατακτείνας ἄλλων ἐξίκετο δῆμονἀνδρὸς ἐς ἀφνειοῦ, θάμβος δʼ ἔχει εἰσορόωντας,ὣς Ἀχιλεὺς θάμβησεν ἰδὼν Πρίαμον θεοειδέα·θάμβησαν δὲ καὶ ἄλλοι, ἐς ἀλλήλους δὲ ἴδοντο.
As when a man is gripped by dense blindness, and in his native countrykills a man, and seeks refuge in a foreign countryin a wealthy lord’s house, and amazement overwhelms those looking at him,so Achilles was astounded when he saw god-like Priamand the others were astounded as well and looked around at each other.
Conflicts of Interest
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According to Kim (2000, pp. 57–58), Agamemnon represents a traditional attitude, that is, showing no mercy to enemies, which is judged positively in the Iliad. Hence, as Kim suggests, Menelaus receives a well-deserved admonishment from his brother. Blaming the Trojans for the entire war may be a justification for Agamemnon’s atrocities (as the anonymous reviewer rightly pointed out). The Trojans’ blame (collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of Paris) is undoubtedly a traditional element, i.e., present in all the songs whose subject was the Trojan War. In particular songs, however, this element could have been introduced and explained in different ways. In the Iliad, the collective blame of the Trojans is depicted as a violation of the truce. It seems, therefore, that there is no reason why the Iliad’s listeners should not have accepted Agamemnon’s words with approval. The themes of cruelty and mercy are, however, much more subtly woven into the entire song. Achilles’s excessive cruelty comes under criticism in the Iliad. The mercy shown to Priam is a breakthrough in his life, but it is also a return to the behaviors which preceded his conflict with Agamemnon, where he showed mercy to the Achaeans (by assisting them) and often to the defeated enemies. The Iliad presents this matter somewhat paradoxically: Achilles, by killing his enemies and saving his community from extermination, fulfils the traditional role of a hero, but this does not bring him the expected glory, because he loses himself in the cruelty towards the enemy. Agamemnon’s cruelty, which is also excessive, and just like his other behaviors, only seemingly legitimate and justified by the common good, is an implicit object of rebuke of the Iliad’s author (Zieliński 2014, pp. 474–78).
This issue is exaggerated, in my opinion, by Gottschall (2008), who makes women the main subject of disputes leading to manifestations of aggression (wars are supposedly fought as a result of a certain shortage of women). This is not how we should explain especially the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad, which, contrary to appearances, is not about women, but about prestige and rivalry for the title of “the best from Achaeans,” and the deeper, i.e., not explicitly disclosed, roots of the dispute go back to the blame for the incurring of extermination (Apollo’s wrath) upon the Achaeans.
Diomedes and Glaucus recognize that their grandfathers had established a relationship of hospitality, so they intend to abstain from fighting and avoid each other on the battlefield in the future. This relationship of friendship which prohibits hostility is renewed by exchanging gifts (VI 215–236).
I agree with the anonymous reviewer that this meal is depicted by Homer as “exceptional and difficult” (it is not clear if the characters are going to withstand their pain in contact with each other and if everything is going to happen as expected), which helps his audience to accept the non-conventional behavior of Achilles and “to allay any ‘resentment’ from them.” It would probably be difficult to accomplish the acceptance of a hero’s controversial behavior or belief by surprise given to the audience. Homer guides his listeners slowly, in a manner typical for oral narration, while building tension like a sinusoid of alternating horror and relief. The horror is extinguished every now and again and reconstructed anew. Thanks to this, the listeners’ attention is permanently maintained.
It is then not taken into account that in the oral reception, all these elements interact in a different way, stimulating the listener’s imagination and involvement.
The link between the Homeric poems and the oral tradition is primarily explored in the works of Gregory Nagy (Nagy 1996, 2010) and John M. Foley (Foley 1991, 1999). Their point of view differs from mine in many significant respects. Probably the main problem is the question of the allusions in Homer’s epics. Foley’s concept of traditional referentiality allows only for the understanding of individual elements of the composition thanks to their embedment in the tradition, i.e., thanks to their presence in similar contexts in other songs. The similarities between individual scenes in the Trojan cycle result, according to the classical understanding of orality, from the variation of using certain patterns. This theory has its supporters and opponents. Cairns (2011, p. 113, n. 26) sees “no evidence for the view that audiences always activate knowledge of the totality of a multiform tradition, but much evidence for their activation (or suppression) of their knowledge of specific tales and episodes”. In his opinion traditional referentiality makes unsustainable claims about cultural differences in cognitive capacity (See also Cairns 2001). He is right, I think, because we should not fall into the trap of L. Lévy-Bruhl’s error. However, there are many specificity in orally presented narrations, the story is presented in a different way than when the text is being created in written. First of all, we should think about the every performance in oral tradition as an adjustment of traditional patterns to the given situation. The system of allusions present in Homeric poems does not mean a departure from the oral tradition, but it constitutes, in my view, a typical element of this tradition. The author of the Iliad, however, does not refer to other songs, as suggested by neoanalysts, but to images perpetually functioning within the tradition: perpetually—despite the multiple variants of their use. One could say in a nutshell that the Iliad is one of the ways of recounting the myth about the Trojan war (Zieliński 2014).
What seems to have an analogous function in the epic about the Argonauts’ expedition is the golden fleece, while in the epic about the Theban war, it is the necklace given to Eriphyle by Polyneikes. There are more magical items of this importance, see (Zieliński 2014, pp. 234–41).
The spoils were common property of the group and were distributed among all men in accordance with hierarchy of rank and merit. It should be noted that choosing something from the spoils is a special privilege, which in The Iliad is confirmed to have been reserved for Agamemnon and Achilles.
These are not the only captive women owned by Achilles. When the hero refuses to take part in the fight and sends away the ambassadors sent to him, he beds down with Diomede, also captured from Lesbos, and Patroclus with Iphis, captured from Skyros (IX 663–668). However, it seems that Homer does not mention them in the context of funeral laments.
Tyrtaeus fr 7 testifies that in Sparta, the Helots (the people conquered and subjugated by the Dorians), were expected to attend the funeral lamentations in honor of their oppressors. Similarly, Hippias from Erythrai says the analogous was true for the inhabitants of Erythrai (Athenaios 259e). Alexiou (2002, p. 10) notes that alongside the family, strangers, often hired or forced to perform lamentation and other behaviors, participated in funeral ceremonies throughout antiquity. This is how she evaluates the use of the women captives to mourn Patroclus. Alexiou, however, does not seem to notice the problem of substitution which is visible in the Iliad, and which must have been the basis of the habits of using strangers in funeral rituals.
However sincere the comforting assurances by Patroclus were, Achilles’s next statement shows that the hopes for their coming true were vain. Achilles knew he could not return home and must die at Troy, so the future marriage to Briseis turns out to be an illusion created for the sake of the girl, an illusion which Achilles did not really believe in. However, we cannot accuse him of insincerity because it was his friend that had beguiled her with false hope.
Alexiou (2002, p. 41) emphasizes the commitment and even the genuinity of the lamentation of rented mourners in modern Greece. He gives an example of one of them (Sophia Lala), who confesses that when wailing for the dead, she expresses his pain after the loss of her relatives. This means that the behavior of the women captives in the Iliad, who express pain over the body of Patroclus, should be considered typical. They do their duty, on the one hand, by stimulating the despair of relatives, and on the other, by absorbing the misery experienced by the family of the dead, which releases their own pain resulting from their own ordeals.
There are many indications that the spectacular funeral of Patroclus corresponds to the traditional image of the funeral of Achilles, to which the Iliad refers allusively and which the Odyssey mentions. The mention of Oedipus’s funeral (XXIII 679–680) seems to testify to the traditional nature of the motif of the spectacular burial of the hero in the Greek epic tradition.
This may be suggested by listing in one verse the names of Nestor and Phoinix, who appear in the plot of The Iliad as old, together with Idomeneus, who is described with the epithet γέρων “old” (XIX 311). Also Aias, son of Oileus (XXIII 476) points out euphemistically that Idomeneus is not of the youngest age (XXIII 476).
Most probably other men, probably younger than them, members of Priam’s family had to undertake this.
I would venture such a translation of this excerpt because of the placement of the “men” and “de” particles which is confusing when you think of the traditional interpretation of this fragment (cf. Richardson 1993, p. 351). In the traditional reading, the pronoun “hoi” from verse 721, is interpreted as dat.sg., which would mean: “the aoidoi were singing to him as a dirge [or in the form of a dirge] (ethrēneon) a mourning song.” These particles, however, signify a contradiction, so you could interpret this pronoun as nom.pl. (adding accent), so it would refer to the men who carried Hector’s body, so you can expect them to be family members.
It is commonly understood that Andromache holds Hector’s head, which would express her great love and attachment to her husband (see N. Richardson, op cit., 352). Alexiou (2002, p. 6) assesses that the gesture of placing one’s hands on the deceased is part of the funeral ritual: “Andromache leads off the dirge at Hector’s próthesis by laying her hands around his head, and Achilles laments by laying his hand on Patroklos’ breast” (XXIV 724; XVIII 317). The gesture of a woman holding dead man’s head during a lament performed over the dead is confirmed by iconographic sources, Boardman (1955, pp. 56–57). However, the text is not so unambiguous. This formula follows the formula that describes Andromache’s husband, and this, first of all, suggests the link with this image. In the vase paintings of the geometric period depicting a prothesis (laying out a dead body on a bed), women either ritually raise their hands above their heads or hold their heads in a similar ritual gesture (see geometric vase, Karlsruhe, Badisches Landesmuseum 2674). A few lines above, Hecuba and Andromache embrace Hector’s body when it is still in front of the gates of Troy, holding their heads. However, a different verb is used: ἁπτόμεναι κεφαλῆς, which means holding your head, and it is also sometimes suggested that it denotes tearing hair out. It is possible that in both cases we are dealing with the same gesture. In Alexiou’s opinion, op.cit., p. 8: “Perhaps the more ecstatic attitude of the mourner at the tomb can be explained by the nature of the ritual. The próthesis was a formal affair, with a large number of people grouped round the bier in more or less set positions. Lamentation at the tomb on the other hand was at once more restricted and more personal, involving the direct communication between the relatives and the dead.” The iconography on which this opinion is based, however, dates back to the period when public display of emotions at funerals was subject to far-reaching restrictions. The Homeric description refers to the clan structure, where displaying the feeling of despair and influencing others in this way is perceived as still beneficial and appropriate. Hence, no matter how we interpret Andromache’s gesture, we should assume the naturalness of showing and stimulating the emotions aroused in the participants of the ceremony at all its stages.
Dué (2007, p. 235) accentuates the separateness of the performances of women’s and men’s songs. The joining in the gooi by the people of Troy after Helena’s “performance” (“not with antiphonal wailing of the women”) is explained by the fact that she is perceived as the cause of the war. Indeed, women can be hostile to Helena (it seems that no Trojan woman addresses her during the whole epic), but I do not think this matter is important here where common weeping unites everyone as a kind of collective hysteria (note the gradation of mood present in the quoted verses XXIV 745, 760, 776).
Perhaps the sympathy of the audience can be evoked easier thanks to the fact that they treat the captive girls as their country people. Dué (2002) shows that the character of Briseis was characterized in the Iliad as clearly ‘Aeolian’. If we accept G. Nagy’s concept of the Homeric poems being shaped within the Aeolian, Ionic and Athenian traditions, and determine the first of them to be the oldest one, we get a picture in which the Aeolian hero, Achilles conquers the Lesbos island which, at the time when the epic tradition of the Trojan War was being shaped, was already inhabited by the Aeolians. The Aeolians who colonize the depopulated Troy from the eighth century BC, feel themselves to be the guardians of the Trojan tradition and the heirs of the legacy of the epic poem that they had most likely shaped. Nagy notices how individual elements fit the Aeolian tradition, including the reference to the ritual of the beauty contest of women organized in Lesbos, confirmed by other sources (Nagy 2010, pp. 241–250). Dué (2006), however, extensively shows that in classical Athens, the Trojan War was presented not so much as a victory over strangers, but as a horror of war, very often from the perspective of the defeated Trojans.
However, he showed respect for them: he buried the father with his armor (VI 416–419) and then he bought the mother out of captivity (VI 425–428).
Andromache’s speech has the characteristics of a funeral lament (Tsagalis 2004a, p. 119; Stoevesandt 2016, p. 168). Murnaghan (1999, p. 209) points out that the majority of women’s statements in the Iliad are structurally or thematically related to lamentation. Andromache does not act as a concerned wife, but as a wife already lamenting over her dead husband. The situation corresponds to Thetis and Nereid mourning Achilles as being dead, although he is still alive in the Iliad’s narrative.
On the links between this scene and the cycle see Anderson (1997, p. 193). Nagy (2010, pp. 203–11, 321–25) assesses the version of the Iliad, in which Astyanax—Scamandrius is the only son of Hector and Andromache, whom inevitable death awaits after the Achaean conquest of the city, as an Attic version—intentionally breaking with the Ionic and with the Aeolian version. This circumstance has a significant impact on the tragic undertone of this scene.
However, this subject was present in the Greek epic tradition in the motif of change this the rape of Ajax, son of Oileus, raping (not on) on Kassandra. Seaford (1994) indicates that Homer deliberately avoids eliciting the graphic images of atrocities present in the tradition, such as incest or matricide. Nagler (1974, pp. 43–63) interprets Achilles’s metaphorical definition of the capture of the walls of Troy as a tearing of the krēdemna, or the face veil used by married women (xixi 100), as suggesting a picture of rape. The image of the ornaments worn by married women—including the krēdemna (XXII 468–472)—being cast off the head of Andromache as she faints at the sight of the death of her husband is also a symbolic sentence.
Ford (1997, pp. 413–14) discerns impropriety in his behavior, because a poet’s song is supposed to bring joy, pleasure and is so perceived by the gathered Phaeacians. Odysseus’s reaction is due to the fact that it is a story about his life, and so he is touched by the mere mentioning of the experienced events. All of them contributed to his current regrettable situation (the reaction of Odysseus has an analogy in the reaction of Penelope to Phemius’s song on the Return of Achaeans). In turn, Segal (1994, p. 130ff.) notes that the purpose of the tale in the Odyssey is to provoke tears: listeners feel sorry for everyone who talks about their misfortunes, identifying in them the common fate of all mortals (an example is Odysseus’s story in Eumaeus’s hut). Greene (1999) assesses that inducing tears is a kind of mystical communion of the described past and present for the listeners.
See (Nagy 1999, pp. 100–1).
Let us note that verse VIII 527 contains the phrasing which appears in the aforementioned verse XIX 284, that is when the despair of Briseis over the body of Patroclus is described. Gaca (2008) suggests that Achilles’s comparison of Patroclus to a little girl (XVI 7–11) refers to the situation of conquering a city in which the fleeing mother abandons her child. However, it is difficult for me to agree with this interpretation; it seems to me to distort the meaning of Achilles’s speech.
We can find the same juxtaposition in the above mentioned statement of Hector, in which he anticipates the dire fate of Andromache in captivity—VI 455–463: it will be particularly painful for her, according to Hector, when she is called the ex-wife of Hector, the bravest of the Trojans.
This technique is characteristic for the author of the Iliad and the author of the Odyssey. Perhaps it means that also other authors used this method, and although the technique is extraordinary, it could also be considered as belonging to the tradition.
Foley (1984) interprets the reverse similes present in the Odyssey, in which the reversal of gender roles is shown: men are compared to women and women to men, as an image of the breakdown of social order on Ithaca, which will be restored by Odysseus reintroducing order into his home (p. 60: “these similes can be interpreted as the most important part of the larger disruption and restoration in the epic”). Foley notices that compared to the fairy-tale worlds visited by Odysseus, it is only in Ithaca that the social roles are properly assigned to both sexes. Thus, the typical mission of the hero, which is to restore the cosmic order, is carried out in the Odyssey in the form of restoring order within the oikos and dēmos, where this situation is being presented as complicated and multifaceted, largely by means of the unique ‘reverse similes’.
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Zieliński, K. Women as Victims of War in Homer’s Oral Poetics. Humanities 2019, 8, 141. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8030141
Zieliński K. Women as Victims of War in Homer’s Oral Poetics. Humanities. 2019; 8(3):141. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8030141Chicago/Turabian Style
Zieliński, Karol. 2019. "Women as Victims of War in Homer’s Oral Poetics" Humanities 8, no. 3: 141. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8030141