Andromache’s Lament

“‘Husband, you are dead, gone from life too young, leaving me a
widow in our halls! Our son, whom you and I, ill-fated parents,
gave life to, is still but an infant, and I do not think he will
reach manhood. Before that happens this city will be sacked
from top to bottom, because you, its guardian, are dead, you who
always protected it and kept its devoted wives and little children
safe; but they will very soon be carried off in hollow ships, and
I among them, and you, my child, will either accompany me
to a place where you will work at tasks that bring shame on
you, laboring for a pitiless master, or else some Achaean
will seize and hurl you from the walls to a cruel death,
angry because Hector may have killed his brother or his
father or even his son, for great numbers of Achaeans
have fastened their teeth on the base earth at Hector’s hands;
your father was never gentle in the savage warfare, and
that is why the people lament him throughout the city.
Hector, you have brought cursed wailing and grief to your
parents, but for me especially there will be left cruel anguish;
you did not hold out your arms to me from our bed as you died,
or speak a memorable word to me, something that I could
Remember through the nights and days as I weep tears for you.’

So she spoke, weeping, and the women answered her with their moans.”

—Iliad 24.725-746

It’s both striking and fitting that the Iliad begins with Achilles’ rage and ends with the funeral of his victim, Hector. The first voices we hear in the poem are the angry, offended ones of Apollo, Chryses, and Achilles, each keen to exact revenge or, as they might call it, justice. The final voices we hear are Andromache’s, Helen’s, and Hecuba’s, raised in lament. Who or what are they lamenting?

In Andromache’s last of three laments in the poem, quoted above, she mourns not just the death of Hector but what it signifies: the destruction of their family and the suffering that she anticipates for herself and their son. She seems to be lamenting as much for herself and her son as for Hector, and a choral element is implied by “the women [who] answered her with their moans.” Similarly, earlier in the poem, Briseis’ lament for Patroclus is followed by, “So she spoke, weeping, and the women lamented with her, outwardly for Patroclus, but each for her own sorrows” (19.301-302). Grief is simultaneously communal and private, for the man who is formally being lamented as well as for whatever personal griefs community members carry inside themselves.

It’s interesting to put the Iliad’s laments (placed throughout the poem) next to a feminist criticism I hear repeated often that women do not have a voice in “Greek mythology,” of which epic is a part, that the only time they are allowed to be sad or angry is when they are doing so on behalf of the men to whom they “belong.” Speaking only of Homeric epic, I believe this is a tragic misunderstanding, tragic in that it creates the reality that it assumes. The assumptions that seem to cultivate this view of Homeric epic:

1) the assumption that historical people at that time saw themselves as self-contained units existing independent of the communities in which they lived vs. as codependent units existing as part of a larger whole of which they were an integral part and to which they belonged.

Evidence suggests that, generally speaking, ancient Greeks saw themselves more as the latter rather than as the former. One compelling piece of evidence is the recurring view that the worst fate that could befall you in life is to be a wandering laborer, disconnected, without your own people. This doesn’t mean that every single human being who lived at that time felt that way, but it seems to have been a potent cultural value expressed repeatedly in a variety of forms.

2) the assumption that the poem was composed by a man or group of men.

I’ve lost count of how many myth retellings advertise themselves as “giving voice to the forgotten women of ancient Greek myth.” Who forgot them, though? And what are you talking about when you say “Greek myth”? Do you mean the epics, the Athenian tragedies, the Hellenistic poets, the Romans? Each gives us very different, at times conflicting, versions of so-called “Greek myth.” The term itself is a bit of a misnomer, since the stories that are typically collected under this banner offer Romanized versions that come to us via Ovid. Ovid was a historical person (probably) who wrote these stories before his exile at a distant outpost of the Roman Empire. We cannot be sure of as much personal information about the pre-Hellenistic names attached to poetry and plays, least of all of “Homer,” about whom nothing at all can be said with confidence.

Even if one believes that a single poet called Homer existed—and there are scholars who emphatically do and scholars who emphatically do not—it’s generally agreed that the Homeric epics that have come down to us brought narrative unity and coherence to a set of stories that were transmitted orally for perhaps hundreds of years before they were written down. Women’s voices are heard in both of the Homeric epics. Women were composing poetry during the period when the Homeric poems were, shall we say, coming together. At some points, the poems or stories that were woven into the poems were performed, perhaps with song, dance, choral, and/or relay elements. Why do authors and publishers assume that women were not part of the earliest composition and/or performance processes as well, or that, for example, the laments in the Iliad were not composed by women and integrated into the whole that eventually became the Iliad?

This is a genuine question. Is there scholarship on this topic that I have not yet come across that anyone can point me to?

3 thoughts on “Andromache’s Lament

  1. We just read A Song of Achilles in our book club so it’s especially relevant to come across your post now! I’ve never read Homer but especially after reading that book I want to read the inspiration behind it and I always appreciate hearing your thoughts on the myths and their composition

    1. Thank you, Sam! It’s so exciting to hear that Miller’s book sparked your interest to read the Iliad! If you do, I highly recommend Anthony Verity’s verse or E. V. Rieu’s prose translations. Robert Fagles and Richard Lattimore are also both amazing, but I think not quite as accessible for contemporary readers as the other two. And I’m a huge admirer of the scholarship of Barbara Graziosi, who did the notes and introduction for Verity’s translation.

Leave a Reply