Friday, September 10, 2010

Women in the Iliad

Professor Armstrong spoke on Friday about the Iliad as a poem of war, which of course it is.  And it’s a poem of war that at times questions and critiques war, even while acknowledging its inevitability and necessity. Homer offers this critique, in part, through the voices of the women in the poem.  With the warriors, we see the honor that fighting can bring to individual men; but with the women, we come to know the devastating consequences of that fighting on their families and communities.

If warriors risk a brutal death and shame (and in a culture centered on honor, this is no small thing), women and children and the elderly suffer palpably and pitifully.  They are made slaves to enemies and carted off to distant lands, children separated from parents, wives from husbands.  They bear the vicious loss of loved ones.  Or they themselves are slaughtered.  In that moving scene between Hector and Andromache and Astyanax, Andromache shows us what is at stake for her in this war, and what she has already endured during the destruction of her home city of Thebes years before.  Then, she lost her father and her seven brothers to Achilles.  Her mother was taken prisoner with all of her possessions, then ransomed for a fortune.  Now, Andromache and Hector both acknowledge that when Hector dies, fighting to defend his father’s honor and his own, she, too, will be led away in tears to work another woman’s loom in far-off Greece.  And, as Andromache laments later when she hears that Hector, too, has been killed by Achilles, their son will be left an orphan, shunned, that is, assuming he lives through “this unbearable war.” 

Here’s another poem, this time a contemporary one, that speaks to this critique of war offered through the women who are sheared down by it.

—Kim Meyer

The Last Hours of Laódikê, Sister of Hektor

                                                            Nicholas Christopher

Cold missiles and a rain
of embers accompany the men
who slide like shadows into the city
faces mud-smeared
stones for teeth no eyes

who slit the throats of everyone
they encounter until breaking down
my door they drag me into the darkness
that floods the corridor
and lock me in an icy chamber

where a torch of thorns sputters
and a man more bone than flesh
is playing music old
as time itself on a flute
and a girl clutching her knees

burns with fever before I apply
a square of moonlight to her brow
before she whispers her name
my name
both of us falling now

the room falling too and the city
and no one to hear our cries
just the dead waiting in a bottomless canyon
and the sound relentless
of the gods grinding this world to dust

1 comment:

  1. I believe that often times in the Iliad the women of the Iliad are there to remind the reader of the horrors and atrocities of war. Often times the men will talk of the glory, honor, and battle lust that overwhelms and drives them on into the fray and after the next suit of armor. The men of the Iliad, at least those who fight, seem to be completely fixated on glory, honor, and at times retribution. The primary method of substantially increasing honor that is by murdering the opposition; taking his armor and keeping it as a spoil of war. Charging head long against the enemy’s ranks and killing as many of their men as possible.
    The women make it obvious that they loathe war. Their aversion to war is easily understandable with what is at stake for them. Helen, Andromache, and Hecuba all detest the war and speak on how they wish it would end. At one point Andromache, Hector's wife, tries to talk some tactical sense into Hector. She essentially tells him to keep behind the walls of the city with the army and defend from within is protective confines. Hector of course swats that plan down and explains that he must seek honor and glory and meet his death head on like any true warrior would. After Andromache appeals to his tactical sense she tries to appeal to him emotionally by telling Hector what an incredible killing machine Achilles is. Achilles has slayed all of the men in Andromache's family. Still Hector, completely fixated, has to rush out to meet fate head on.
    For the most part it seems that the women and the men of the Iliad tend to differ strongly in their opinions of war. Men think that it is totally necessary and requisite on all accounts and the women hate it. When the men die they want to die in battle with full battle glory. After they die a seemingly senseless death they are supposed to be burned on a funeral pyre with all of the necessary offerings. In a way this seems like the highest honor any one man can achieve. The women on the other hand are sold into slavery, or sold as wives with no recourse. They may be killed or they may be forced to be a servant for a king of a foreign country. This is the most absolutely disgraceful thing that can happen to the women. It is then much easier to see why the men and women of the Iliad have such vastly differing opinions of war.