Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Achilles: Mummy's Boy

Discuss Mother-Son Relationships in the Iliad.

The mother-son relationships in the Iliad which I have chosen to examine are those between Achilles and Thetis, Andromache and Astynax and Hector and Hecuba. These relationships reveal a great deal about the values concerning motherhood in the world of Homeric epic. The aspects of this on which I have chosen to focus are those concerning maternal duty, the mother’s attitude towards her son, the mother’s identity and the desired behaviour of a son towards his mother.

The Iliad was one of the major pieces of literature to come out of its era and so would have been greatly influential on later Classical societies. Its values would often have been adopted because, in many ways, Homeric heroes and their female relatives served as role models, something to which men and women could aspire. Silk goes as far as to say that Homeric heroes were “not men like us” but were “remote from ordinary humanity” and “mightier.”[1] They were largely a product of Homer’s contemporaries’ belief in the decline of mankind, and their looking back to a so-called “golden age.” A “golden age” is naturally something that one would want to retrieve and so it is likely that the values of the Iliad would have been upheld and the behaviour of its noble characters ideally imitated.

The first aspect of maternal duty in the Iliad which would have been seen as so desirable is the mother’s sympathising with the son in his distress. Women in the Iliad are frequently seen as sorrowful characters, powerless victims of war and sharers in their sons’ troubles. Thetis is a prime example. She is seen weeping[2] and lamenting her son’s ill-fated life[3] in the first book; in the eighteenth she weeps because he will die soon.[4] She does not tell him of Patroclus’ death[5], despite telling him her prophecy about his own:[6] it is almost as if she cannot bear to do so. As Achilles mourns for Patroclus, we see Thetis in her cave mourning for Achilles’ grief.[7] Her words are particularly poignant: “he has / sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.”[8] This tenderness is also evident as, when Achilles is distressed and angry over losing Briseis to Agamemnon, Thetis “came and sat beside him as he wept and stroked him / with her hand.”[9]

Andromache shows a similar sympathy with her son’s plight. When Hector dies, she says: “and the boy is only a baby / who was born to you and me, the unfortunate.”[10] She goes on to enter imaginatively into Astynax’s future sufferings, picturing him having to work hard, begging, with his inherited lands taken away. She is unable to bear the contrast between this unhappy, inglorious existence and his privileged position when his father was alive.[11] She sorrowfully imagines Astynax’s future again at Hector’s funeral: she doubts that he will live to come of age, and pictures him in slavery at the mercy of the Greeks, who will not be inclined to show mercy after his father’s part in the Trojan War.[12]

Maternal duty in the Iliad requires that the mother does not merely passively sympathise with her son’s troubles but seeks to actively help him if she can. Andromache, like Hecuba, is unable to do anything for her son, but Thetis has the advantage of being a goddess and thus having influence over the other gods. Even Thetis is unable to alter her son’s final destiny, but she is tireless in her mission to help him wherever she can. It is she who suggests that she go to Zeus to plead Achilles’ cause,[13] and her eagerness to do so is reflected by her going “early / in the morning.”[14] She also gets armour for Achilles from Hephaestus.[15]

Behaviour of sons towards mothers in the Iliad is, however, more varied. Achilles tends to run to Thetis at the first sign of trouble and cry on her shoulder. After losing Briseis, the first thing he does is go to the beach and “many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother.”[16] He then complains to her of what has happened[17] and provides a highly detailed, personalised account of events.[18] Later it is to her that he confides his pain at Patroclus’ death.[19] Achilles’ and Thetis’ intimacy is emphasised throughout the poem, but it comes with a sense that Achilles is a little spoilt. He is quick to grow impatient with his mother: “since you know why must I tell you all this?”[20]

Hector’s relationship with Hecuba, though her grief demonstrates that it was deeply loving, seems somehow more formal. He refuses the drink she offers politely, addressing her as “my honoured mother” and excusing himself on religious grounds.[21] This respect is clearly mutual, as she obeys when he tells her to go and make sacrifice to Athene.[22] Obedience between mothers and sons is a complex issue in the Iliad. Hecuba demonstrates that mothers are to obey their adult sons, and yet it is Achilles who obeys Thetis when she tells him to hand over Hector’s body.[23] Thetis, of course, has added authority because she’s a goddess and is acting on Zeus’ command. Thetis’ divinity makes her relationship with Achilles in many ways a special case.

The Iliad also provides models for the ideal mother’s attitudes towards her son. One of the chief characteristics of this is the mother’s putting the son before herself. Thetis is more than willing to humble herself in supplication[24] to Zeus for Achilles’ sake. Andromache’s putting Astynax first is reflected in the structure of her sentences when pleading with Hector. She says: “You have no pity / on your little son, nor on me,”[25] and begs him: “Stay here on the rampart, / that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow.”[26] In both instances, she refers to Astynax before herself. Another characteristic of the mother’s attitude towards the son in the Iliad is her sense of maternal pride. Thetis’ expressions of this are particularly moving: “the bitterness in this best of child-bearing, / since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful… and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.”[27] This maternal pride is tragic rather than joyful, since the mothers in the Iliad all see their sons killed or left fatherless by the Trojan War.

Finally, I would like to discuss the way in which a woman’s identity in the Iliad is largely based upon her male relatives, including sons. For this reason, a mother is dependent upon her son, even after he has grown up and ceased to be dependent upon her. In a sense, Astynax is so important to Andromache because, after Hector’s death, he is all the family she has. Hecuba describes Hector as “my glory in the town:”[28] the son determines the mother’s social identity, her status, and thus affects her interactions with everyone in her life. Crotty goes so far as to say that the Homeric woman is merely “a part of the warrior’s tragic conception of himself.”[29]

In conclusion, then, sons are an enormously significant part of the lives of the mothers of the Iliad. The sons’ appearance and behaviour affect the mother’s identity and how she is perceived by others. Mothers wholly share in their sons’ difficulties and sorrows, and help practically whenever they can. They have a strong sense of maternal pride and frequently put their sons before themselves. Sons, in return, treat their mothers with affection and respect. This state of affairs in the world of the Iliad gives us an idea of what may have been expected or encouraged in mothers and sons in Classical Greece and Rome, since the Iliad was so fundamental in their canon of literature.

Word Count: 1304


Crotty, K. (1994) The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lattimore, R. (trans.) (1951) The Iliad of Homer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Silk, M. (2004) Homer: The Iliad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilcock, M. (1976) A Companion to the Iliad, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[2] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 68. (1.413 )
[3] Ibid. (1.413-8 )
[4] Ibid, p. 377 (18.94-6 )
[5] Ibid, p. 365 (17.409)
[6] Ibid, p.209 (9.410-6)
[7] Ibid, p.376 (18.34-7)
[8] Ibid. (18.61-2 )
[9] Ibid, p. 68 (1.360-1 )
[10] Ibid, p. 448 (22..484-5 )
[11] Ibid. (22.486-507 )
[12] Ibid, p. 494 (24..726-39 )
[13] Ibid, p. 68 (1.419-27 )
[14] Ibid. (1.496-7)
[15] Ibid, p. 378-9 (18.136-44 )
[16] Ibid, p. 68 (1.351 )
[17] Ibid, (1.352-6)
[18] Ibid, p. 69-70 (1.366-412)
[19] Ibid, p. 377 (18.78-93)
[20] Ibid, p. 68 (1.365)
[21] Ibid, p. 160 (6.264-8)
[22] Ibid, p. 160-1 (6.269-312)
[23] Ibid, p. 478-9 (24.137-40)
[24] Ibid, p. 72 (1.500-10 )
[25] Ibid, p. 164 (6.407-8 )
[26] Ibid, p. 164 (6.431-2 )
[27] Ibid, p. 376 (18.54-7 )
[28] Ibid, p. 446 (22.433 )
[29] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.

1 comment:

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