It is above all through the perspectives of women that the poet exposes the brutality of war.
Barbara Graziosi, Johannes Haubold
In the world portrayed by Homer, women are special victims of war because they survive the downfall of the city.1
At that point, their status changes and they become subjected to various sufferings, but they stay alive. Men do not. Nor do children. Full of wrath and hatred of the enemy, Agamemnon reprimands his brother Menelaus for showing mercy to his enemies.2
In his opinion, they must not save anyone, not even fetuses in the wombs of mothers (VI 55–60). This means that women may also die in the conquest of the city, but it happens in a particular situation when they can carry male descendants in their wombs. The historical reality of this time was probably much more complex. It might have looked just like Homer depicts it or it may have been otherwise, that is, it might have been both less cruel and more cruel (Joshua captures Jericho sparing neither men nor women, nor children, nor older people, nor farm animals, Joshua 6:21). The decision to keep women alive is based on the perception of their measurable value.3
They become part of the loot—like objects or animals—and, as in the case of objects and animals, they can be used later and they serve as status symbols.4
Research most often focuses on the historical and the sociological aspects of how the women of defeated enemies were treated. However, the question of what this issue meant to Homer, i.e., whether he acknowledged such treatment of women as expected behavior, necessitates an attempt to reconstruct the mental world of the people of that time. The poet addresses his audience with the expectation that they will accept his point of view, even when he relates to them tales of behavior deviating from the social norm.5
The most recognizable indication of this is Achilles’s invitation to share a meal, extended to his enemy, the father of the detested Hector, whose corpse he continuously mangled, unable to satisfy his vengeance. For the Greeks, this behavior absolutely violates all the rules, because by breaking bread together, people establish a friendship so permanent that it should last through succeeding generations6
(the diners become philoi
to each other, which means “their own kind” so “not strangers or enemies”). Hence, one does not dine with the enemy. Homer, however, expects his audience not to resent such behavior, but rather to understand fully or even to appreciate it.7
Identifying the author’s intentions relies on the consideration on the nature of Homer’s discourse. As is well known, Homeric poems are a product of oral culture; therefore, without understanding the circumstances of performance and the compositional techniques of this tradition, we are unable to judge them adequately. In the first decades of the research on the oral tradition, the focus was on the structure of the message and on its repetitive nature. This led to a particular perception of both the performers of traditional songs and of the works they performed. The repetition of the message served to preserve knowledge about the world and past events. Accordingly, this involved the development of tools for remembering and passing on this knowledge, in the form of stories, catalogs, proverbs, etc.8
The result, however, was a perception of the oral performer as being limited by a series of restrictions that forced him to replicate what he heard from others, and not to express his point of view or personality. Albert Lord emphasized that a writer of an epic composes his song during the performance;9
yet this may be perceived as a weakness of the performer for not remembering the story exactly as he heard it. The poor evaluation of the capabilities of the creators of oral culture was also due to the difficulties in its reception in the modern world and to different expectations from the text that emerged from the literary culture of the scholars’ background. The contemporary reader simply becomes weary of the monotony of repetitive formulas, of lengthy, detailed descriptions of typical scenes and of standardized story-patterns.10
It is no wonder that some researchers in the Homeric studies community have challenged the attribution of works that had laid the foundations of European culture to an oral artist. In one way or another it was asserted that the artistry of Homeric poems and the multitude of refined details must result from the possibility of using writing to shape these poems.11
The problem, however, is that there is no basis for denying the creativity of a creator of oral art. In his research, anthropologist Jack Goody emphasizes the endless changeability of the oral tradition.12
The oral tradition is not only about transmitting the story: the story itself is not as valuable as it is in literary culture. The epic singer tells the story not only as he remembers it, but, above all, as he understands it and how he wants it to be understood by his listeners. The listeners themselves, in turn, influence the shape of the story through their behavior and eagerness to listen. The story is produced through the interaction between the singer and his listeners.13
The singer, in every way possible, tries to focus his attention on his story, taking into account their knowledge of tradition and their mentality and emotionality. The artistry of the Homeric poems developed in such dialogue with the recipients.14
I mention this because in the oral tradition, the use of standard techniques (e.g., repetitious formulas) can bear the characteristics of an individual artistic choice. On the other hand, the techniques that we tend to regard as innovations are still part of the oral tradition. New solutions constitute variant processing of the existing material. Thanks to this, the oral composer, Homer as well, not only recreates the world represented in the stories, but he also, by invoking it, constantly reinterprets it.
Repeatability does not exclude creativity and innovation, but from the perspective of tradition itself, these are, in a sense, indiscernible. Each performance occasions a modality of solutions, and the version of myth, stories, songs, etc. represented in the performance is the basis for the oral message’s functioning in the consciousness of its recipients. The singer (sometimes in competition with other singers) endeavors to present the tradition familiar to him in a manner attractive to the audience, while employing narrative expansions or compressions of the story.15
As a result, he constructs his own vision of the presented events. Therefore, when deciding to analyse Homer’s legacy, we must determine his dialogue with tradition, unceasingly and from different vantage points. This is a difficult task because this oral tradition has virtually been lost.16
Even when presenting a new episode, which the Iliad
may well be, and when expanding it to monumental dimensions, the singer remains a part of this tradition and applies the tools that are characteristic of it.
Let us start with drawing the situation of captive women in the Iliad. The way they see their position and the way they behave may seem strange to the modern reader. Depriving Achilles of Briseis triggered off his anger, so she may seem to be important to him. But how close was she to him and who was he for her? Is the behavior of the both sides understandable to us?
In Homer Briseis is not a virgin. Perhaps some affection for Achilles comes into play (IX 335–343), but this does not matter in the dispute between him and Agamemnon. Briseis is given a voice by Homer only when she sees Patroclus’s corpse. She grieves for him because she lost a loved one, who was especially close to her. Achilles killed her three brothers and her husband, whom she had just wedded: Patroclus promised that Achilles would become her husband.17
How could a modern viewer become convinced that a woman so wronged could cherish hope for a marriage with the murderer of her loved ones? At best, she would be accused of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
It is, therefore, necessary to look at how Briseis is represented in the Iliad
and what role she plays in the text. We could proclaim with horror that she is being objectified: she is a victim of a war that took her family, she is a captive and the victim of quarrels among her oppressors, transferred from hand to hand like a commodity, passed around between Achilles and Agamemnon. It must be stated, however, that treating a girl as a commodity is not something that was only true for slaves. Girls were married in exchange for property measured in heads of cattle handed over to their families.18
The maidens who danced during the holidays were identified with the epithet ἀλφεσίβοιαι “those who supply oxen” (XVIII 593). In this cultural context, they may be rather proud of such a term, because it suggests girls that are beautiful and happy,19
and not humiliated in any way. They can, therefore, joyfully take on the cultural role that is imposed on them.
The subjection of women in this world is symbolized, in some way, by Helena. Her circumstance exemplifies two methods of winning a wife: buying her or kidnapping her. In both cases, she legally becomes a wife. In the mythical version, the contract between the father and the groom (and often the family of the groom) materializes in the setting of a competition20
in which the winner gets the girl’s hand as a prize (even then, it is difficult to call it her choice). Kidnapping, in turn, is nothing reprehensible: it is a widespread custom for obtaining a wife in many cultures. Paris is disapprovingly portrayed by Homer not because he acquired his wife through kidnapping, but because he violated the law of hospitality: he acted as an enemy against someone who offered him friendship. That is why it makes sense to have the fight between Menelaus and Paris happen at the beginning of the war: the winner takes Helena and the treasures because he deserves them as the stronger opponent. After the death of Paris, Helena is inevitably promised to one of his brothers, Deiphobus. By taking Helena as a wife, he takes command of the Trojans. It can thus be inferred that Helena fulfills the function of a magical talisman in the epic of the Trojan tradition: whoever possesses her has the power.21
Briseis is brought back to the tent of Achilles, along with the seven girls from Lesbos, who Agamemnon had previously offered to Achilles as part of a canny game between them. Their magnificence is beyond doubt, as Agamemnon comments, stating that he chose them himself,22
because they were those (IX 130)
… αἱ κάλλει ἐνίκων φῦλα γυναικῶν
who surpassed other women in their beauty.
Gregory Nagy suggests that the word φῦλα, not translated above, means not so much a group of women as such, but a group of girls taking part in the singing and dancing agons on Lesbos, where the inhabitants, the Aeolians, gathered.23
In Nagy’s interpretation, these are girls who had won the competition against others, so they were the most eligible maidens, but the war thwarted their youthful plans: Achilles conquered the island and their fate changed completely; they became slaves, intended for sexual bondage and housework. To some extent, one can assume, their aristocratic status was, nevertheless, preserved, because usually the epic poem and the Attic tragedy mention only spinning and weaving as the chores awaiting those aristocratic female captives.24
It is difficult to say whether and to what extent this reflects the historical reality and whether, in this case, the ability to weave is not synonymous in an epic poem with women’s work in general. In any event, in the Homeric world, women are always portrayed at work. Men can rest while sitting and feasting. In the Odyssey
, Helena, despite the ongoing wedding reception of her daughter, only leaves the women’s rooms for a moment to talk to her husband and Telemachus, and even then she spools the thread, so as not to waste time.
In front of Achilles’s tent, Briseis discerns the body of Patroclus and laments over it. The lament has a ritual character (XIX 284–286):
ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγ’ ἐκώκυε, χερσὶ δ’ἄμυσσε
στήθεά 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 nails
her breasts, her soft neck and her lovely face.
Wailing, this goddess-like woman said …
Women’s lamentation is mandatory in the Greek funeral ritual. The loud wailing and crying are accompanied by ritual gestures. The entire assortment of these gestures is never listed. The economy which is characteristic for the Homeric technique manifests itself in the mere mention of only some behaviors adapted to the situational context.25
Richard Seaford explains women’s self-mutilation gestures as a message directed to other men. The laceration of the breasts, neck and face disfigures women, so their sexual attraction becomes compromised. The death of a man in a family, especially a sudden and violent one, is a threat to women: by overstating their mourning, they demonstrate that they have been deprived of a defender. Consequently, with their crying, women prompt other men of their family to take revenge on the killer.26
The explosion of feelings manifested by women causes the men to share rapidly these feelings. In the Iliad
, this situation is better visible in the scene of the lamentation of women in Troy over the body of Hector. There are no warriors’ families in the Achaean camp. The role of the women related by blood is played by the captives, who are Agamemnon’s compensation for the harm done to Achilles. Their presence, then, signals a restoration of the hero’s reputation, but they actually appear there only to perform rituals over the body of Achilles’s friend.27
When Briseis finished the mourning speech for Patroclus, the other women joined her, XIX 301–302:
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’ ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες
Πάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ’αὐτῶν κήδε’ ἑκάστη.
That’s what she said while weeping and the women moaned
over Patroclus, and each of them had her own cause for distress.
It is typical for the choral song developed within the Greek oral culture to be performed by one person, while others repeat the ritual patterns and quasi-choruses after him or her. The antiphonal character of the song is typical of primitive cultures28
and we can assume that this form of expression in the song has been present in human culture from its very beginnings. The song, i.e., rhythmical and often melodized speech, is primarily a way of conveying emotions to the other members of the group. C.M. Bowra noticed that in primitive cultures, virtually every powerful emotion is directly articulated in a song, be it in a public or a private situation.29
In my opinion, the group’s response to the expression of emotions by the person who performs the song is the token of an emotional contagion spreading to others. It involves the gradual “infection” with feelings of the people to whom the expression is addressed. These people gradually fall into a trance that allows them to share the feelings articulated by the “coryphaeus,” whether plunging with him into grief or sinking into exaltation caused by joy. A choral song of a ritual nature, both a funeral and a wedding song, will, therefore, have the same sense. This is also true for a song which constitutes a dramatic re-enactment of a myth, in which the protagonist embodies a mythical character experiencing what happened to the hero in a time of the beginning; and the group does not look at this as spectators, but becomes the community of their ancestors accompanying the protagonist in his actions. Just as he talks about what happens to him, they respond by giving him emotional support or commenting on his behavior.
Similarly, the women gathered over the corpse of Hector, taking turns to praise the deceased (using a Greek word, they “start’ gr. arkhein
): Andromache, his wife, Hecuba, his mother, and Helena, his sister-in-law, while the other Trojans respond with laments (XXIV 721–775). The groaning and wailing of the Trojan women are also heard after each relative speaks about the dead man:
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’ ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες
So she said weeping and the women added their groans
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσα, γόον δ’ἀλίαστον ὄρινε
So she said weeping, and unceasing lament [goos] was stirred up
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἐπὶ δ’ἔστενε δῆμος ἀπείρων.
So she said weeping, and the innumerable crowd join in the moaning
In the case of lamentation over Patroclus, Homer allows himself to remark that each of the women had her own reason to express despair. Their lament cannot be spontaneous, because they are not related to the dead through kinship, so they are somehow forced to play the role of the mourners, even though such coercion was not expressed expressis verbis
Briseis is not a relative either, so she justifies her wailing with the fact that Patroclus had always been good to her, even the best of all because he gave her hope for a better life.31
The laments are honest, because each of the women remembers her misfortune: instead of a wonderful marriage and family they now have bondage and the sight of the death of their loved ones in front of their eyes.32
Let us note, then, that women perform a ritual function here, that is, they express what constitutes an indispensable element of the tradition: a fallen warrior, a hero must be properly mourned. The author of the Iliad
can, however, grasp the circumstances of their fate and indicates that their gesture is, on the one hand, a formality, and on the other hand, the evocation of feelings alone inspires the experiencing of the feelings and linking them with one’s own motives. We could say that Homer, when evoking the traditional image of a warrior’s funeral,33
capitalizes on the opportunity to emphasize the particular nature of the situation in which the characters, including background characters, find themselves. He is also able to empathize not only with the situation of the heroes, but also the victims of their wars and disputes.
It would be premature to treat this remark as a typical expression of the author’s individual style. In the further part of this scene, only the most important Achaean chiefs (Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Nestor, Phoinix and Idomeneus), stay with Achilles at the body of Patroclus and do their utmost to comfort him (XIX 312–313). Their efforts are ineffective, because only bloody revenge can heal Achilles’s wound. Now, in turn, Achilles expresses his grief with weeping and a speech (XIX 315–337), and the lament of the chiefs accompanying him joins in:
Ὣς ἔφατο κλαίων, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γέροντες
μνησάμενοι τὰ ἕκαστος ἐνὶ μεγάροισι ἔλειπον
He said so weeping, and the old men moaned
Each mentioning something that he had left in his palace
Achilles, when mourning the death of Patroclus, recalls his family home, juxtaposing the present loss with hypothetical news about the death of his father, whom he left at home, or the death of his son Neoptolemus, whom Patroclus was supposed to bring to his homeland after the war (he knew about his death at Troy, but did not predict the death of his friend). The chiefs, companions for the expedition, were called γέροντες, i.e., “elders” here. Usually, this term refers to their rank as members of the council (their high command, so to speak), but in this instance it can also take on the meaning of the hypothetical members of the family who are grieving.34
Achaean chiefs have far more reasons to mourn for Patroclus than the captives from Lesbos do, and yet they also employ the same lamentation formula: that each of them had, in fact, his own private sorrows and reasons for the manifestation of grief. Thus, Homer’s innovation which exhibits the traits of an individual style still remains an element of the conventional construction of the oral narrative. The “performance” of a woman “starting her song” among other women has its counterpart in the “performance” of a man “starting to sing” among other men. Their moans are divided by gender, reflected in the order of speeches. Reality may not have been so clear, and this division may reveal an epic tendency to separate the masculine world of heroes, who embark on warfare, from the female world, associated with the situation of peace, because they belong to families left at home. This female world is represented here by the women captives—prizes of war. It seems that, mourning over the body of Hector, brought to the palace of Priam, depicts a situation closer to reality, in which the moans of both sexes are not so separated, XXIV 719–724:
οἳ δʼ ἐπεὶ εἰσάγαγον κλυτὰ δώματα, τὸν μὲν ἔπειτα
τρητοῖς ἐν λεχέεσσι θέσαν, παρὰ δʼ εἶσαν ἀοιδοὺς
θρήνων ἐξάρχους, οἱ δὲ στενόεσσαν ἀοιδὴν
οἳ μὲν ἄρʼ ἐθρήνεον· ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες.
τῇσιν δʼ Ἀνδρομάχη λευκώλενος ἦρχε γόοιο
Ἕκτορος ἀνδροφόνοιο· κάρη μετὰ χερσὶν ἔχουσα
they [Priam and Idaios], when they had brought him to the glorious house, laid him
on 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?]
Men join in the singers who “lead” the singing of the dirges (thrênoi
) and women join in Andromache who “leads” the lament (goos
However, as evidenced by subsequent (already quoted) reactions to Hecuba and Helena’s (XXIV 760 and 776) lamentations/dirges, lament is contagious and overcomes all participants of the funeral.39
Thus, it can be seen that the author of the Iliad is able to use conventional narrative structures to describe unusual situations, whose individual shape results from the specificity of this particular plot. This individuality is noticeable; nevertheless, it is not entirely innovative. Applying this to the topic of our discussion: recognizing the suffering of the victims of war—the captive women enslaved by the Achaeans—is a function of compliance with the conventions found in the oral tradition and of the possibility of adapting those patterns to the current needs of the narrative. Adapting a repetitive message to a particular situation is the guiding principle of the functioning of communication in oral culture, regardless of what form of poetic and non-poetic speech we might consider. The conventionality and the schematicism allow the singer to move his story forward, but when making choices within the matter of the epic tradition, variable by nature as it is, he takes into account the effects of plot denouements as they are applied at a given moment.
So we come to the question of on what grounds we can make judgments about Homer’s humanitarianism. The author of the Iliad
undoubtedly tells the recipient to take into account the miserable fate of the captive women, but this results from the adaptation of the oral techniques to the needs of the narrative. Listeners probably regarded sanctioning the honesty of the laments of the women captives and the Achaean “old men” through their own sufferings as natural, but this does not change the fact that realizing the existence of an analogous source of evoked despair in “their own kin” and “strangers” means forcing the recipients to ponder on the suffering of strangers in the same terms as they think about the suffering of their own kin.40
The issue of the fate of women who are held captive is raised several times in Homer’s poems. The most extensive description, of course, can be found in the speech of Andromache addressed to her husband Hector (VI 407–439). Her situation is analogous to Briseis’s situation: Achilles had previously killed her father and seven brothers.41
Andromache makes her husband aware of what will happen to her and their child when he dies and the city is captured. She says this to stop Hector from heading to the battlefield, but in the narrative strategy this speech performs the function of anticipating events that will inevitably follow and which will not be presented in the song. This is a special strategy of the oral poet, who refers to the audience’s knowledge of tradition. Although in the plot structure of the song there will be a place for Andromache lamenting over the dead body of her husband, this speech becomes her lamentation over herself and her child. Hector accounts for this possibility and foresees the defeat of the Trojans. He spends a moment unfolding a vision of her fate in captivity, and the thought of this is more distressing for him than that of the fate of his parents and brothers who will have to perish (VI 450–465). He firmly rejects his wife’s pleas to continue fighting behind the walls of Troy. The audience of the epic does not get the impression that they are dealing with a hysterical woman42
when listening to how assuredly Andromache speaks of the inevitable destiny of herself, her husband and son. The consciousness of the listeners that such a fortune really awaits them invites them to perceive her lament as real.43
The singer motivates the audience to remember the facts that are known to them from tradition and that go beyond the knowledge of the heroes of the song.44
What is missing in Andromache’s complaints is the fear of rape. This matter is not mentioned in either Homeric poem, although it is always a nightmare experienced by women during the conquest of the city.45
The fate of Andromache is surprisingly similar to the fate of the woman who is mentioned in a simile evoked in the Odyssey
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 ἰδοῦσα
ἀμφʼ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τʼ ὄπισθε
κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμου
εἴρερον 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 husband
who 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 behind
beating her back and shoulders with their spears
escort 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.
Odysseus listening in the palace of Alcinous, one of kings of the Phaeacians, to the singer Demodocus, is compared to a woman suffering a painful loss of her husband, a widow whose future is cruel captivity. The singer is singing about the capture of Troy, emphasizing Odysseus’s outstanding merits in this war. This song is, therefore, a song of praise for Odysseus. Instead of the hero’s pride of his own achievements (the song about the Wooden Horse is performed at the request of Odysseus), Odysseus responds by secretly bursting into tears. He also weeps clandestinely when, in his first song, Demodocus conjures up another Trojan incident involving the protagonist. Homer’s text assumes two different perspectives for the reception of it: an emotionally involved perspective, where the listener strongly identifies with the suffering of the heroes and a more relaxed perspective, where the viewer is intrigued only by the course of events.47
The story is not presented as an audacious adventure, but as a series of misfortunes, which, in the case of Odysseus, hinder his return home.
What is surprising, however, is not only the reaction of Odysseus, but, above all, the simile itself. At the moment in which a reference is made to the heroic deeds of the hero, the narrator develops an analogy between the hero and the victims of his actions.48
Of all the victims of the capture of the city, Homer chooses the situation of a woman (which is understandable, since men were usually murdered), who is the wife of the most important defender. In the tradition of the Trojan War entwined around the Iliad
, this role is played by Andromache, not mentioned elsewhere in the Odyssey
. Whether this, however, is an allusion to her specific fate, is not certain, because contrary to what one might expect, there are very few indications that the author of the Odyssey
knew the story of the Iliad
familiar to us. In the plots of the songs from the Trojan cycle other than the Iliad
, the role of the main defender of the Trojans—Priam’s son—is ascribed to other heroes. The most important of them, Paris/Alexander, seems to be presented in an unfavorable light in the Iliad
. He is, however, Helena’s husband, and her fate after the fall of Troy differs from the fate of Andromache. Demodocus’s song about the siege of Troy mentions the scene which is crucial in Odysseus’s praise, a scene in which the hero, together with Menelaus, defeats the son of Priam, Deiphobus, who had been Helena’s husband since the death of Paris. Therefore, it would be quite embarrassing to refer to the character of Andromache at this point. The simile rather presents a hypothetical situation, which could have appeared many times in the broadly understood oral tradition.49
For the author of the Odyssey
, the widow of the hero, the city’s defender seems to be the most worthy of pity. The image which is evoked in the simile is intended to arouse the listeners’ compassion for the unfortunate woman. The extent of her sorrow is revealed by emphasizing the magnitude of her husband’s heroism, in whom, just like their children and the entire community, she had lost her support and rescue. Such a hyperbolization of the value of a departed man is typical of women’s funeral lamentations. This compassion, however, is also aimed at attaining the compassion of the listeners for the hero to whom the simile refers. One could say that in order to obtain the right emotion for his listeners, the author of the Odyssey
alludes to the most typical compassion-arousing image in this culture.50
However, using such a simile for this purpose may seem drastic, and even shocking. It is surprising that such a clear reversal of roles should occur: a man is compared to a woman, a victor to a victim, and a war hero to a war captive. In Homer’s poems, however, we find another example of similarly extreme reversals of meanings within similes. This may, therefore, point to a characteristic feature of Homeric technique,51
that is, reaching for such surprising combinations at crucial moments in order to evoke intense emotions in the recipients. Here is one of the most important scenes of the Iliad
, when the old king Priam arrives to Achilles to beg him to release the body of his dead son. His behavior is illustrated by means of an astounding simile, XXIV 480–484:
ὡς δʼ ὅτʼ ἂν ἄνδρʼ ἄτη πυκινὴ λάβῃ, ὅς τʼ ἐνὶ πάτρῃ
φῶτα κατακτείνας ἄλλων ἐξίκετο δῆμον
ἀνδρὸς 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 country
kills a man, and seeks refuge in a foreign country
in a wealthy lord’s house, and amazement overwhelms those looking at him,
so Achilles was astounded when he saw god-like Priam
and the others were astounded as well and looked around at each other.
Priam appears in Achilles’s hut suddenly. The simile actually refers only to the surprise which his unexpected arrival engenders among the men present. Meanwhile, it acquires more significance due to the message behind the whole scene. Moments later, Priam humiliates himself in front of Achilles (according to the king of Troy, like no one before him in history), begging for the mercy of his most terrible enemy and kissing the hands of the murderer of his sons. In the image constructed in the simile, the roles are reversed: it is Priam who is represented as a murderer, but one seeking help. The situation of such a man is desperate: he drew down upon himself the vengeance of a family, whose blood he shed, that is why he must leave his country; this deprives him of all protection and dooms him to the fate of an outcast. An outcast is a man of no value: no one respects his judgement (social respect is a measurable indicator of human value), and the lack of family bonds which would protect him expose him to the greatest danger everywhere. So he is forced to plead for protection, completely relying on someone’s favor. The then recipient of Homer understood the gravity of the situation in which such a beggar found himself, and the comparison with Priam’s lot must have led him to discover how pitiful the position of the Trojan ruler was at the moment and how threatened his life was. Priam’s status in Achilles’s hut is considerably different from the status he enjoyed when he was leaving the palace. To show us this change in Priam’s situation, Homer resorted to portraying the reversal of the roles of both protagonists of this scene: the victim is compared to the murderer, submitting himself to the mercy of the one who is defined as the murderer of his children.
However we are limited to Homeric examples, employing a reversal of meanings in similes seems to be part of tradition.52
To some extent, one can speak of the automatic and instrumental use of these comparisons by the poet-singer. They occur in the strategic moments of the plot, as perceived from the perspective of the task of the singer, which is to represent the hero’s glory. There is no doubt that this is true in the case of Achilles’s meeting with Priam in the Iliad
, but perhaps this is less obvious when it comes to the situation described in the Odyssey
: after all, Odysseus is safe on the island of the Phaeacians, treated like a guest of honor. The aim, however, of each epic is to present the glory of the hero, which he gains by performing a heroic act. Demodocus’s song about the Wooden Horse shows the fullness of the glory of the hero, which he deserved, by contributing the most to the capture of Troy. But this is an act whose glory will not survive in human memory, if Odysseus does not return to Ithaca and does not perform a new heroic deed, that is, free his home from the suitors. Demodocus’s song reminds him of that glory, but the simile used to describe Odysseus’s reaction nullifies it. It rather exposes all the misfortunate circumstances of the hero, simultaneously paving the way for the glory that the hero partakes in this song about Odysseus and which is expressed directly in the apology of Odysseus that follows, and then in his deeds on Ithaca.
However, the above-presented broader analysis of the significance of the comparison of Priam with a murderer does not lead to the conclusion that the poet employs it only in order to describe the surprise of Achilles and his companions, thus acting almost mechanically. The comparison of Priam to a murderer was also shocking for Homer’s audience, but it enabled them to appreciate the scale of the king’s humiliation. Priam is the king of Troy, so an enemy; therefore there is no reason for the recipients of the Iliad
to identify with him. This unexpected comparison, however, serves as a catalyst for arousing pity for the king in the listeners. As we have seen, the same role of the catalyst for arousing pity for the hero was played by the comparison of Odysseus to an unfortunate victim of war. The presented comparisons affect the emotional reception of songs in the listeners. And this is not a coincidence. The feeling of pity is the ideological dominance of the Iliad
, as well as the Odyssey
The evaluation of the attitude towards women enslaved by war in Homeric poems depends on the understanding of what the epic oral tradition is. Homer uses many unique techniques, which are very precisely adapted to the context, and researchers often conclude that these techniques constitute the innovations of the poet who comes beyond the tradition from which he originated. I would like to emphasize that I do not share this way of reasoning. Yet the oral tradition does not mean mechanically reproduced material. Even repetitive elements are subject to constant redistribution and selection. By telling the story, the singer chooses one of the options he follows for a time, which does not mean that he cancels others. In the oral tradition, all elements have an equal meaning, and often co-exist side by side. The constant adaptation of the variety of elements found in the tradition to the context proves the creativity of the oral artist, who repeats what is known, but in a way that he considers to be suitable. Thus, particular songs can acquire individual features associated in the tradition with the name of a particular singer. There is not enough room here, nevertheless, for an in-depth consideration of this issue.
Each time, particular formulas or scenes assume such shape which the author of the Iliad or Odyssey deems appropriate for expressing his thoughts. It is not true or it is only partially true that the singer cannot omit these repeatable elements and must always evoke them. By conjuring them up at selected moments, he emphasizes what he would like his audience to see. He also tries to gain acceptance of the audience even if this concerns a matter that is not obvious for them, like a familiar, common belief. One example of such unobvious reactions stimulated in the audience is recognizing one’s own reasons for grieving by the victims forced to mourn for a fallen hero with whom the audience identifies. Similarly, the comparison of a hero with a widow led into captivity is not an obvious angle to take. A sense of pity is aroused in the listeners for strangers suffering from misfortune, while the enslaved woman plays an almost symbolic role. However, Homer’s goal does not seem to be to present the universal truth about human fate. The hardship of the strangers, especially the calamity of the enslaved and family-deprived women, ultimately serves to depict the scale of the adversity of a hero (likewise in the case of Patroclus, Achilles and Odysseus). The fate of the hero is always the essence of the epic story.
In the world of Homer, the woman captive is treated as a commodity or, phrasing this in terms closer to Homeric axiology, as a measurable expression of respect within the community of conquerors–warriors. In any case, their fate is irrelevant in the context of disputes and wars in which the heroes engage. Nevertheless, appealing to the unfortunate fate of the female victims of war in order to incite the desired sense of pity shows that the poet-singer and his audience shared a sensitivity to the wrongs experienced also by others: not only by men, but also by women. When Homer gives voice to women, they mourn their fate, pointing to the loss brought about by the deaths of the men who used to look after them. The same way of expressing their misfortune is present in women’s funeral lamentations. The power of this means of expression, called goos
in the Greek tradition, is immense. This is due, in my opinion, to the scale of their impact on others, not only women, but even and above all on men, achieved through communicating the most intense emotions of despair and grief. I believe that this explains the persistence of women’s lamentations, which—as Alexiou points out54
—survived up to modern times despite the change of religion to Christianity. The striking or even overwhelming effectiveness of women’s lamentations is also a reason why there were the constant attempts to limit this form of feminine expression since antiquity to the present. For as the song should, in my opinion, be regarded as the most effective way of conveying emotions, then measured by the yardstick of effectiveness, the feminine funeral dirge should be considered the most effective of all because it arouses the strongest feeling of despair leading to uncontrolled outbursts of manhood aggression that take the form of revenge. So, in this primordial way men are defenseless against women’s crying.