The tears of Homeric heroes

We all – in a more or less emphatic mode – have been raised in accordance with the common acceptation that is not considered manly to weep, especially in public, and only sometimes – under a very restricted range of circumstances – men are allowed to cry, albeit they are expected to conceal their tears. Furthermore according to our culture, if this occurrence is not deemed appropriate for ordinary men, it becomes rather unacceptable for heroes: it would be in fact unconceivable this behaviour for a middle age knight or 18th century patriot, and perhaps also for a modern soldier. Nevertheless all the Homeric heroes do cry and do weep often, and their tears are not masked but showed publicly with emphasis: they tear out their own hair, they sob, they weep aloud with convulsive gasping.

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Even Achilles, a tremendous hero – solitary and ready to die anytime for its own glory – weeps the loss of Patroclus:

Now from the finish’d games the Grecian band
Seek their black ships, and clear the crowded strand
All stretch’d at ease the genial banquet share,
And pleasing slumbers quiet all their care.
Not so Achilles: he, to grief resign’d,
His friend’s dear image present to his mind,
Takes his sad couch, more unobserved to weep;
Nor tastes the gifts of all-composing sleep.
Restless he roll’d around his weary bed,
And all his soul on his Patroclus fed:
The form so pleasing, and the heart so kind,
That youthful vigour, and that manly mind,
What toils they shared, what martial works they wrought,
What seas they measured, and what fields they fought;

And Agamemnon, the supreme general of the Achaean expedition, after the last day’s defeat, proposes to the Greeks to quit the siege, and return to their country.

Such various passions urged the troubled host,
Great Agamemnon grieved above the rest;
Superior sorrows swell’d his royal breast;
Himself his orders to the heralds bears,
To bid to council all the Grecian peers,
But bid in whispers: these surround their chief,
In solemn sadness and majestic grief.
The king amidst the mournful circle rose:
Down his wan cheek a briny torrent flows.
So silent fountains, from a rock’s tall head,
In sable streams soft-trickling waters shed.
With more than vulgar grief he stood oppress’d;
Words, mix’d with sighs, thus bursting from his breast.

Odysseus, the shrewd and at the same time courageous hero, while guest of Alcinous weeps when he listens to Demodocus narrating of Troy:

So from the sluices of Ulysses’ eyes
Fast fell the tears, and sighs succeeded sighs.

And again Odysseus, during his detention in the Island of Ogygia cries when thinking to his homeland:

But sad Ulysses, by himself apart,
Pour’d the big sorrows of his swelling heard;
All on the lonely shore he sate to weep,
And roll’d his eyes around the restless deep:
Toward his loved coast he roll’d his eyes in vain,
Till, dimm’d with rising grief, they stream’d again.

Sometimes the tears are of sorrow and grief, but often they are also tears of rage:

Full of the god that urged their burning breast,
The heroes thus their mutual warmth express’d.
Neptune meanwhile the routed Greeks inspired;
Who, breathless, pale, with length of labours tired,
Pant in the ships; while Troy to conquest calls,
And swarms victorious o’er their yielding walls:
Trembling before the impending storm they lie,
While tears of rage stand burning in their eye.
Greece sunk they thought, and this their fatal hour;
But breathe new courage as they feel the power.
Teucer and Leitus first his words excite;
Then stern Peneleus rises to the fight;
Thoas, Deipyrus, in arms renown’d,
And Merion next, the impulsive fury found;
Last Nestor’s son the same bold ardour takes,
While thus the god the martial fire awakes.

It has been for a long while that rage was – especially for renaissance and pre-romanticism commentators and scholars – the only justification of this unmanly behaviour. Tears were acceptable and in fact accepted, if inspired by uncontrollable rage being thus a sign of power and courage and not as a womanly demonstration of weakness and subjection. However this interpretation has been more recently enriched and revised especially under an anthropological perspective.

Weeping for Homeric heroes was a simple way to express them; no shame was associated to their sorrows. The only tears we are not supposed to find in Epic are those connected to what was judged a weakness itself – such as compassion, pity and sympathy. Homeric heroes were different, they were even diverse compared to the classic period heroes (Themistocles, Leonidas, Epaminondas, Pelopidas, Alcibiades, Agesilaus…). Their foremost aspiration was to gain eternal fame through a celebrated life and glorious death. There was still no extent and therefore no trace of the future spirit of πολις, the aggregative power of citizenship and the comradeship consequent to the hoplite phalanx – they fought principally for their own glory, not purely for their country. The Homeric heroes were natural born protagonists and each of their feelings, every attitude and expression was naturally meant to be magnified, provided this was not going to diminish but augment their stature.

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One comment on “The tears of Homeric heroes

  1. anarobla says:

    ¿Quién podría pensar en las lágrimas como signo de debilidad? Las lágrimas sólo son palabras: palabras nacidas desde el corazón, palabras nacidas desde una inteligencia sencilla y sensible. Las lágrimas son la sangre del alma, decía San Agustín, y según Platón cada lágrima enseña a los mortales una verdad. Palabras, sangre y verdad: cuánta fuerza en un pequeño mar…

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