Editor femina facti: What happens when women edit the Iliad?

I wasn’t supposed to learn Greek. Growing up in Louisiana, French had always been my thing. I was a girl who enjoyed earning gold stars and the approval of my teachers, so even though I very much liked the unit on Greek mythology we had in 6th grade, when I had the opportunity to take Latin starting in 7th grade, I don’t think it even occurred to me to make the switch.

That year, for reasons that were unfathomable to me at the time, we were administered the SAT at my school. It turned out that I scored just high enough on the verbal section to be invited to go to a summer program at Duke University I’d never heard of, where recent 7th graders get to take a college class and live in the dorms like college students. It sounded like Heaven, and I signed up. But when it came time to fill out the forms, there were four slots for the choice of class—your top choice and then three ranked alternates. I signed up for French of course, but what to put for the other choices? By the time I got to #4 I was racking my brain. That year in school we had moved on from Greek mythology to reading the Odyssey, and I had certainly enjoyed that. How about Ancient Greek? It didn’t matter anyway, I was going to take French. But I didn’t get in to French, or choice #2 or #3, and the rest is history.

Interesting from a psychological point of view is the fact that I did not succeed in that Ancient Greek class by any stretch of the imagination. We covered all of Hansen and Quinn in three weeks and read selections from the Medea. On one of my tests, the TA actually wrote “heinous.” I had to look it up in the dictionary. The other students in the class had all taken Latin and were for the most part several years older. In my memory there was only one other girl, and we became great friends for the duration of the session (we even had similar names, Jaycee and Casey), but in the way of things before Facebook (this was loooooong before Facebook) we lost touch afterwards. Despite my difficulties with the subject I loved the class, I loved the professor (Peter Burian), I loved even the mean TA (a super smarty pants young man fresh out of Harvard), and when I got back home, I signed up for Latin. My Latin teacher was a young man named Karl Frerichs who had recently earned an M.A. from the University of Texas. He learned of my interest in Greek, and the next year we got a small class going, with just me and two older boys who, I suspect, were in it mostly because of fraternity aspirations. They graduated, but I kept going, and I eventually wrote a high school honors thesis under the direction of Mr. Frerichs on the Medea, examining the concept of kleos for women in tragedy. I’m still kind of proud of it.

Fast forward to the present. I am a Classics professor, and I now teach Greek and the Odyssey and Greek tragedy most every semester. I write about Homeric epic and tragedy, and I am especially drawn to the women of epic and tragedy. This past year in 2018, Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey generated a tremendous amount of excitement within the field of Classics and received a great deal of attention in the press for many reasons, but not least because it was made by a woman. The evaluation of one of my own former professors, Richard Thomas, is included on the inside cover of the hardback: “A staggeringly superior translation—true, poetic, lively and readable, and always closely engaged with the original Greek—that brings to life the fascinating variety of voices in Homer’s great epic.” It is clear what he means by “the fascinating variety of voices.” She has paid attention to the women of the Odyssey in nuanced ways that perhaps had never been done before in a translation.1

In late 2017 and 2018 we were all in the first flush of the #metoo era, and while I am certain Professor Wilson spent years if not decades crafting her rendition of the Odyssey, it felt like it had been created for that particular moment. In fact, a woman had published a translation of the Iliad not long before (Caroline Alexander’s Iliad in 2015; note also the Aeneid translated by Sarah Ruden 2008), but Wilson made it clear when asked that she was bringing a woman’s understanding of the poem to bear in her choices, and it was Wilson’s Odyssey that got the feminist buzz. Translation is a complex and nuanced act that requires many different kinds of choices on the part of the part of the translator, and this is especially true of ancient Greek epic poetry. There are fundamental questions about meter and rhythm, the formulaic diction in which the poems were composed, and the use of words whose meaning we are now unsure of. Compromises must be made at every turn in order to produce an effective translation. Surely the gender of the translator plays some role in determining the outcome of those choices, even if it is difficult to say precisely how. At the very least we can say that Professor Wilson has paid attention to women. Like Alkinoos in Odyssey 8, who notices Odysseus’ tears while the rest of the Phaeacians remain oblivious, she has noticed things about the text that previous translators have not.

My own interest in translation has to do with a different set of choices than those I’ve already mentioned, however. What should we make of the fact that the text of these poems that is being translated is by no means monolithic? The Homeric epics evolved out of an oral epic tradition that was in its earliest phases quite multiform, to use the term of Albert Lord, and that tradition was still to some degree in flux in the Hellenistic era. Editors of the ancient Greek text of the Iliad and Odyssey must wrestle with a transmission of the text that includes ancient quotations and papyrus texts—our oldest witnesses—that often vary substantially from the hundreds of medievally transmitted manuscripts on which modern editions are typically based. In order to create a printed text of the Iliad or Odyssey, an editor must choose between many different, often conflicting readings in every single verse of the poem. Throughout the long history of Homeric scholarship, those choices have been made by men. And the translators, men and women, have followed in the footsteps of those choices.

The attention received by Wilson’s Odyssey has caused me to reflect for the first time on my own work as an editor of the Homeric texts. For more than twenty years my co-editor Mary Ebbott and I have been making an edition of the Iliad that differs in dramatic ways from all that have come before. Our edition is called the Homer Multitext. Rather than construct an artificial text of the Iliad that never existed in any one time or place, we have chosen to publish many different historical instantiations of the text that can be explored in comparison with one another. We began rather hubristically with the Venetus A, a tenth century manuscript of the Iliad that includes in its margins copious excerpts from the Homeric scholarship of the Hellenist and Roman eras, scholarship that is itself witness to countless earlier instantiations of the text. After twenty years of theorizing and experimenting and failing and editing with teams of undergraduates and affiliated faculty, we have finally produced a complete edition of the Venetus A. In other words, we are only just beginning.

Our project differs from prior editions of the Iliad in that we are not seeking to reconstruct an “original” text of the Iliad. Informed as we are by the fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord and the scholars who have built on their work, we do not believe there is an original to reconstruct. By returning to the historical witnesses that transmit the Iliad to us, we are in many ways “unediting” the Iliad, stripping it of the emendations and artificial assembling of disparate sources that were the work of previous editors. We do not provide a traditional apparatus criticus (itself an elitist archaism—only the most specialized consulters of an apparatus criticus can decode what the apparatus is attempting to convey with its cryptic and abbreviated Latin, and even they will be often at a loss). Instead, we trust that the many different types of searching, text analysis, and topic modeling that are already in common use by humanists are sufficient aids for scholarship. To some, this lack of apparatus seems like madness. But we the editors of the Homer Multitext have concluded that making the evidence of the historical sources available to every individual reader, thereby allowing them the tools and access to make editorial judgements for themselves, outweighs the practical advantages of an apparatus criticus, as useful as it may have been for scholars of earlier eras. The fact is, print editions will continue to exist in physical libraries for those desiring to do an older kind of philology. But Mary Ebbott and I have never desired to replicate or facilitate nineteenth or even twentieth century philology with our project. Rather, we feel that it is time, and now possible, to ask new questions.

Our project is also fundamentally different from editions that came before because it is freely available on-line. The implications are many, and I will touch on only a few here. Not only can any user, regardless of academic status, access our data through a website, they can access and download the raw data in archival formats, and they can reuse it for any non-commercial purpose they like. If a user wants to do something with the texts or images we have published that our current infrastructure does not support, they are welcome to build something themselves that will achieve their goals. We do not charge fees for access and we allow for unlimited downloading, but we are unlimited in other ways as well. We are not restricted by the confines of the printed page, we do not need to make editorial decisions based on the cost of paper or printing, nor do we need to present the text in a particular format. We can allow the user to decide what she wants to see or not see, what text to use as a default, what features of a manuscript she is interested in, or what texts within a manuscript are interesting or worthy of study. We do not need to make those decisions for her. We need not assume that our expertise exceeds that of our project’s users and assert our own vision for the text of Homer over that of everyone else. Our choice to make a Homer Multitext was informed by certain assumptions, grounded in fieldwork and scholarship, about the composition and transmission of the Iliad (see especially Dué and Ebbott 2010 and Dué 2018/2019), but in fact our assumptions need not be any individual user’s assumptions. By “un-editing” the Iliad in this way, we have freed it from the assumptions and paradigms of the past and opened it up for new approaches, whatever those may be, and future generations of scholars.

Our edition of the Iliad is likewise unlike most others in that it is collaborative. Although Mary Ebbott and I are the co-editors, the Homer Multitext has been built from the beginning by an intergenerational team of scholars, including our two Information Architects, Christopher Blackwell and Neel Smith, our two Project Managers, Stephanie Lindeborg and Bryan Clark, our Associate Editors, Douglas Frame, Leonard Muellner, and Gregory Nagy, and many teams of undergraduate students working with faculty in teams at various institutions around the United States and in the Netherlands. (The number of editors who have contributed to the project is now well into the hundreds.)

And finally, unlike most digital projects at least, our project is slow. I began thinking about how to represent the multiformity of the Homeric epics in the late 1990s, when I was a graduate student working with Greg Nagy, who outlined an evolutionary model for the creation of the Homeric epics in his 1996 book, Poetry as Performance, stating “the ultimate purpose in drawing up this scheme is to lay the groundwork for an eventual multitext edition of Homer, one that would be expected not only to report variant readings but also relate them wherever possible to different periods in the history of textual transmission.” The Homer Multitext project officially began, however, in the summer of 2000, when a group of us, upon paging through Domenico Comparetti’s 1901 facsimile edition of the Venetus A at the Center for Hellenic Studies, thought that that particular manuscript would make a good starting place for a multitextual edition of the Iliad. We received early encouragement and support from two people who profoundly influenced the project in very different ways: Greg Nagy himself, whose lifetime of work on Homer and whose initial call for a multitext edition of the Homeric texts have inspired us throughout, and Ross Scaife, a pioneer in digital humanism (long before the term “Digital Humanities” was coined), who died far too young in 2008. As I write in the preface to my recent book about the project, Achilles Unbound, little did we know how much trial and error and international travel would be involved in actually accomplishing our edition of the Venetus A. It has now been almost 20 years, and like I say, in many ways we are really just beginning to undertake the work of interpreting the texts multitextually.

Does the fact that Mary Ebbott and I are women explain our choices these past twenty years in any way? Possibly it can, though once again it is difficult to articulate exactly how. The collaborative spirit of the project (the antithesis of the lone genius model of scholarship, which produces the learned monograph, so prized in our discipline), its slowness, its tolerance for ambiguity and multiplicity where in the past textual criticism has proclaimed scientific precision and clarity, with its language of disease and corruption, correction and restoration—all of these are arguably more likely in a project directed by women, though of course I do not claim these qualities to be the exclusive purview of women. Projects exhibiting similar characteristics (with women in prominent, editorial roles) include the Digital Athenaeus project (www.digitalathenaeus.org), Sharing Ancient Wisdoms (www.ancientwisdoms.ac.uk), and the Digital Edition of the Fragments of Demetrios of Skepsis.

I learned the techniques of textual criticism from men, two in particular. As an undergraduate at Brown University I had the fortune to study with Charles Fornara. Although he would be known to scholars as a historian, at Brown he taught me courses in Horace and Juvenal, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Sophoclean tragedy, among others. He was gracious and kind to students but an extremely rigorous teacher. In the Sophocles class, we read all seven surviving plays in an edition edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones together with Lloyd-Jones’s book about his edition, Sophoclea, which had very recently been published. Each week we discussed approximately one half of a play and debated Lloyd-Jones’s choices. As far as Homer goes, Fornara proclaimed himself a Neo-Analyst, not in the contemporary usage of that term by such scholars as Ioannis Kakridis, Wolfgang Kullman, or Jonathan Burgess, but in the sense that he was a throwback to such figures as Karl Lachmann (1793–1851) or Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931), whom he greatly admired. The commentary we used while reading the Iliad was that of Walter Leaf (1900-1902), and nothing more recent than that. When after four years under Fornara’s tutelage I arrived at Harvard for my graduate school interview, I had the vague notion that the department’s resident Homerist Greg Nagy must be some sort of Unitarian.

But something else had happened during my college years. I took a comparative literature course about epic poetry in which we read Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales, which builds on Lord’s decades of fieldwork in describing the way an oral poetic tradition works, and we had a guest lecture by Olga Davidson on the Persian Shaname. Suddenly I was able to conceive of a different way of understanding the Iliad, one of which Wilamowitz almost certainly would not have approved. I was starting to grasp what the “Homeric Question” was all about, and I wanted to know more. So when I got to graduate school (and took courses with the supposed Unitarian, Greg Nagy), I almost simultaneously read the collected writings of Albert Lord’s teacher, Milman Parry, in The Making of Homeric Verse and Martin West’s Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique. Even while I was coming to understand the Iliad, with the help of Parry and Nagy, as a traditional poem composed again and again in performance, I was absorbing everything I could about the traditional practice of textual criticism, not even realizing how much in conflict the two paradigms were. Martin West was a kind of hero to me, even in my undergraduate days. I aspired to his seemingly all encompassing knowledge of Greek verse and his ability to create scholarly editions for students like me to read and study. Despite the fact that my rent at that time consumed 80% of my student stipend, I probably bought every edition West ever made.

Already then, however, I could not reconcile my admiration for West and my interest in textual criticism with my new understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey as the products of an oral traditional system, and it was not long before I began to appreciate Nagy’s call for a “multitext” edition of Homer. I could see that West’s application of the techniques of textual criticism to poetry composed by countless poets over the course of hundreds of years in performance was fundamentally flawed. What I probably could not see or understand is that my education up to that point (like West’s) had been in a very masculine framework, that I had been mentored primarily by men to work within a particular field within our discipline that had been almost exclusively the domain of men for hundreds of years. Who was I to think I could make a contribution to it? I’m not sure I ever once thought about Textual Criticism as a man’s form of scholarship. I am not ashamed to admit of my naiveté. I was young, and though Brown was a very liberal institution, I took nearly every single undergraduate class in the Classics department (with limited forays into comparative literature and archaeology). I was not particularly “woke.” On the plus side, it did not occur to me to be insecure about being a girl, which has been a useful thing throughout my career. (And in fact, because my name is not gender specific, I have many times been mistaken for a man by those who have not met me in person. In secondary scholarship I am sometimes referred to as “he.”)

I do recall one moment in during my graduate school years at Harvard that made an impression on me even then. I was taking a seminar on palaeography, learning to read the handwriting in Medieval manuscripts, something I now do many days a week. Depending on the manuscript and the era in which it was produced, it can be quite challenging to decipher even the handwritten Greek letters, and still more so the abbreviations and ligatures. I was once again the only woman in a class of about six, and the professor (a man) had a habit of reaching out to me in particular to see if I was understanding what we were reading. That was simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating, but I shrugged it off. What really bothered me was this. One day Hugh Lloyd-Jones came to campus to give a talk based on his book, Sophoclea. The lecture was scheduled for the same day and time as our paleography seminar. I asked if we might spend the first hour of the seminar at the lecture, since it was on a closely related topic, textual criticism and palaeography going hand in hand. The professor agreed, and when we reconvened, he asked one of the men in the class to give an overview of Lloyd-Jone’s presentation.

But one day during another one of my graduate seminars, I was struggling to find clarity around a paper topic. I wanted to write about a speech in Sallust’s Jugurtha that I felt resembled the words of Euripides’ Medea in her great “desperation speech.” A classmate I did not know well at the time, Mary Ebbott, suggested that I think about the speech not as a direct allusion to the Medea, but as being inspired more generally by women’s laments in Greek tragedy. It was another turning point in my life. I went on to study the laments of the captive women of the Iliad for my dissertation (which became Dué 2002) and for a book on Greek tragedy (Dué 2006a). I began to see the way that Homeric epic and Greek tragedy could incorporate into their male oriented discourse genres of speech and song that were primarily associated with women in the ancient world, and especially the genre of lament. As I delved more and more into what I like to call the language of lament, I found that this language is used for dramatic and emotional purposes in a variety of contexts in ancient literature, and if we are sensitive to it, we can appreciate the poetry on a more nuanced level. To cite just one well known example, when Andromache begs Hektor not to return to battle in Iliad 6, her speech takes the form of a traditional lament, one of the few forms of sanctioned public speech for women in the ancient world. By lamenting in this way, she hopes to influence Hektor on an emotional level. She is unsuccessful within the narrative—Hektor returns to battle, and dies there—but we the audience are deeply moved, knowing what is to come.

Epic poetry is infused with the imagery, themes, and language of lament, so much so that a number of scholars have speculated that women’s lament traditions played a crucial role in the development of epic. Epic poetry narrates the glory of men, the klea andrōn, but it also laments their untimely deaths and the suffering they cause. Once one has become familiar with the surviving examples of lament in Greek literature, and studied the anthropological research on the laments of Mediterranean women in modern times, it is easy to detect the language of lament within the text of Homer. But that is precisely where previous male editors, notably Martin West, have fallen short. I do not claim to rival West’s knowledge of Greek verse—I have not produced editions of the fragments of Greek lyric or the notoriously difficult text of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus—but I do claim knowledge of the Greek lament tradition. I did not study directly with Margaret Alexiou, author of the pathfinding book The Ritual Lament in the Greek Tradition, while I was at Harvard (we just barely overlapped in my time there), but I learned from her pioneering work on lament, and from those who have followed in her footsteps, and I wrote my first two books on the subject, Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis (2002) and The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy (2006a).

West’s 1998-2000 edition of the Iliad is the current gold standard edition of that poem, that once in a generation kind of edition on which current scholarship and recent translations depend. In the conclusion to my 2018/2019 book, Achilles Unbound, I briefly explore several passages that West puts brackets around in his edition of the Iliad (that is, that he deems not “Homeric”), passages which are very much in keeping with the language of lament, even if they do not fit West’s conception of Homer. In one such passage in Iliad 19, Achilles himself fulfills the role of the lamenting woman left behind by the hero (in this case, the fallen Patroklos). Achilles’ grief and lamentation have of course been addressed by a number of scholars working from a variety of different perspectives, but an examination of Achilles’ grief from the perspective of women’s laments, and especially the laments of captive women, enhances our understanding of just how the Iliad conceptualizes Achilles’ mourning in relation to that of the women who lament alongside him. Before we make any decisions about what does and does not belong in our text of Iliad 19, it is worth exploring, even at some length, the poetics of Achilles’ lament and the larger lament tradition on which the Iliad depends.

Is Achilles’ lament a man’s song or a woman’s song? My argument in a nutshell is this: the Iliad does indeed portray Achilles as lamenting like Briseis or one of the captive women of Troy. I submit it does so not because a) lament is not gendered or b) that lament is actually manly or c) that Achilles is being effeminized or d) because Achilles and Patroklos are being portrayed here as lovers or e) because the text has been interpolated (West’s view), but rather because the women of Troy (especially Andromache and Hecuba) are the iconic figures of grief and wartime suffering for ancient Greek audiences. By comparing Achilles’ grief to theirs, he is being characterized not only as having greatest kleos (that is, glory in song) of all, but also the most profound akhos or sorrow (and the two, in fact, go hand in hand).

As I have already noted, we might think of epic poetry as being a genre of “men’s song,” composed by and for men, but it is a form of song that incorporates within its overarching poetics many other forms of song, including forms of song that we might call “women’s songs,” such as lament. What Alexiou and many other scholars of the Greek tradition have found is that Greek women’s laments persisted for thousands of years and into modern times as a continuous tradition of song-making, one that is both independent of and parallel to the stylized versions that have been preserved in epic, drama, and later Greek literature. Moreover, there is a great deal of comparative evidence from other cultures to show that the Greek tradition is by no means an isolated phenomenon. Women all over the world have been since ancient times and continue to be today singers of lament. When we combine that knowledge with research that has shown how performers of epic can embody their characters and become one with them, especially when singing in the first person, we can see that it is very likely, if not provable, that the laments of Greek epic, although performed by a male aoidos, would nevertheless have evoked for ancient audiences the songs of their mothers and grandmothers, performed at funerals upon the death of family members and extended relatives. In this way epic subsumes a distinctly feminine mode of singing within its own mode of expression, the dactylic hexameter, no doubt transforming it, but also maintaining many of its essential features and emotional resonance.

Let’s begin to test this idea by exploring a few passages.The first comes immediately after the third song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8. Odysseus is being feasted and entertained in the court of King Alkinoos among the Phaeacians, who don’t yet know his identity. Demodokos sings about Odysseus raging through the streets like Ares during the sack of Troy:

ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς τήκετο, δάκρυ δ’ ἔδευεν ὑπὸ βλεφάροισι παρειάς. ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα, ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν, ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ· ἡ μὲν τὸν θνῄσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα ἀμφ’ αὐτᾠ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ’ ὄπισθε κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ’ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀϊζύν· τῆς δ’ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί· ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν.

The renowned singer sang these things. Meanwhile Odysseus melted, and wet the cheeks below his eyelids with a tear. As when a woman laments, falling over the body of her dear husband who fell before his city and people, attempting to ward off the pitiless day for his city and children, and she, seeing him dying and gasping, falling around him wails with piercing cries, but men from behind beating her back and shoulders with their spears force 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 brows. (Odyssey 8.521-531)

The simile is so striking because the generic woman of the simile, who has fallen over the body of her husband slain in battle, and who will soon be a captive slave, could easily be one of Odysseus’ own victims in the Trojan War, an Andromache or a Hecuba. I have argued in my 2006 book that although the woman in the passage does not actually speak, the formulaic language of the simile has powerful associations with the lamentation of captive women elsewhere in epic, with the result that an ancient audience member familiar with such poetic laments—not to mention the laments of their own family members—could have easily conjured her song.

That Odysseus’ grief upon hearing the tale of Troy could be conveyed to the audience by way of a lamenting captive Trojan woman has fascinated me since I first began to work on the topic of lament. I am likewise fascinated by the fact that Achilles too compares his own sorrow to that of women in a passage in book 9 (during the embassy to Achilles). He says in Iliad 9.323-327:

ὡς δ’ ὄρνις ἀπτῆσι νεοσσοῖσι προφέρῃσι μάστακ’ ἐπεί κε λάβῃσι, κακῶς δ’ ἄρα οἱ πέλει αὐτῇ, ὣς καὶ ἐγὼ πολλὰς μὲν ἀΰπνους νύκτας ἴαυον, ἤματα δ’ αἱματόεντα διέπρησσον πολεμίζων ἀνδράσι μαρνάμενος ὀάρων ἕνεκα σφετεράων.

Like a bird that brings food to her fledgling young in her bill, whenever she finds any, even if she herself fares poorly, so I passed many sleepless nights, and spent many bloody days in battle, contending with men for the sake of their wives.

Achilles draws here on the suffering of women in order to articulate his own sorrow as he struggles against his mortality and the pleas of his comrades that he return to battle. By using a traditional theme of women’s laments, that of the mother bird who has toiled to raise her young only to lose them, Achilles connects on a visceral level with the women that he himself has widowed, robbed of children, and enslaved.

The Iliad and Odyssey are explicitly aware of the effects of war on women. The enslavement and sexual violation of women and the death of husbands are realities of war that are neither condemned nor avoided in epic poetry.2 For example, the taking of Troy is compared in the Iliad by Achilles to the tearing of a woman’s veil and in this way characterized as a rape:3

αἲ γὰρ Ζεῦ τε πάτερ καὶ Ἀθηναίη καὶ Ἄπολλον μήτέ τις οὖν Τρώων θάνατον φύγοι ὅσσοι ἔασι, μήτέ τις Ἀργείων, νῶϊν δ᾽ ἐκδῦμεν ὄλεθρον, ὄφρ᾽ οἶοι Τροίης ἱερὰ κρήδεμνα λύωμεν.

Would, by father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, that not a single man of all the Trojans might be left alive, however many there are, nor any of the Argives, but that we two might escape destruction, so that we alone might unfasten the holy veil of Troy. (Iliad 16.97-100)

And in yet another passage spoken by Achilles, a warrior’s epic glory in song, that is his kleos, and the lamentation of women are explicitly linked. As he prepares to return to battle after the death of Patroklos, he says:

νῦν δὲ κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἀροίμην, καί τινα Τρωϊάδων καὶ Δαρδανίδων βαθυκόλπων ἀμφοτέρῃσιν χερσὶ παρειάων ἁπαλάων δάκρυ’ ὀμορξαμένην ἁδινὸν στοναχῆσαι ἐφείην, γνοῖεν δ’ ὡς δὴ δηρὸν ἐγὼ πολέμοιο πέπαυμαι·

But now may I win good kleos, and may I cause some one of the deep-girdled Trojan and Dardanian women to wipe the tears from their delicate cheeks with both hands and wail with cries that come thick and fast. And they may know that too long I have held back from battle. (Iliad 18.121-125)

Andromache’s song of sorrow is Achilles’ song of glory.

Briseis’ lament for Patroklos in book 19 has the same basic structure and echoes many of the same themes and even particular phrases that we find in Andromache’s speech I have already touched upon from Iliad 6. Briseis has returned to the camp because Achilles has agreed to set aside his wrath, accept the restitution offered by Agamemnon, and return to battle. Like Andromache’s, Briseis’ lament exhibits a traditional form and structure, consisting of a direct address, a narrative about the past and future, a renewed address and lamentation, followed by a response from her surrounding mourners. It is worth quoting in full, given that these are the only words she speaks in the entire epic:

Βρισηῒς δ’ ἄρ’ ἔπειτ’ ἰκέλη χρυσέῃ Ἀφροδίτῃ ὡς ἴδε Πάτροκλον δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκᾠ, ἀμφ’ αὐτᾠ χυμένη λίγ’ ἐκώκυε, χερσὶ δ’ ἄμυσσε στήθεά τ’ ἠδ’ ἁπαλὴν δειρὴν ἰδὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα. εἶπε δ’ ἄρα κλαίουσα γυνὴ ἐϊκυῖα θεῇσι·

(I) Πάτροκλέ μοι δειλῇ πλεῖστον κεχαρισμένε θυμᾠ ζωὸν μέν σε ἔλειπον ἐγὼ κλισίηθεν ἰοῦσα, νῦν δέ σε τεθνηῶτα κιχάνομαι ὄρχαμε λαῶν ἂψ ἀνιοῦσ’· 

(II) ὥς μοι δέχεται κακὸν ἐκ κακοῦ αἰεί. ἄνδρα μὲν ᾧ ἔδοσάν με πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ εἶδον πρὸ πτόλιος δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκᾠ, τρεῖς τε κασιγνήτους, τούς μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ, κηδείους, οἳ πάντες ὀλέθριον ἦμαρ ἐπέσπον. οὐδὲ μὲν οὐδέ μ’ ἔασκες, ὅτ’ ἄνδρ’ ἐμὸν ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεὺς ἔκτεινεν, πέρσεν δὲ πόλιν θείοιο Μύνητος, κλαίειν, ἀλλά μ’ ἔφασκες Ἀχιλλῆος θείοιο κουριδίην ἄλοχον θήσειν, ἄξειν τ’ ἐνὶ νηυσὶν ἐς Φθίην, δαίσειν δὲ γάμον μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσι.

(III) τώ σ’ ἄμοτον κλαίω τεθνηότα μείλιχον αἰεί.

ὣς ἔφατο κλαίουσ’, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες Πάτροκλον πρόφασιν, σφῶν δ’ αὐτῶν κήδε’ ἑκάστη. 

Then Briseis like golden Aphrodite, when she saw Patroklos torn by the sharp bronze, wailed with piercing cries, falling around him. And with her hands she struck her breast and tender neck and beautiful face. And then lamenting she spoke, a woman like the goddesses:

(I) “Patroklos, most pleasing to my wretched heart, I left you alive when I went from the hut. But now returning home I find you dead, O leader of the people.

(II) So evil begets evil for me forever. The husband to whom my father and mistress mother gave me I saw torn by the sharp bronze before the city, and my three brothers, whom one mother bore together with me, beloved ones, all of whom met their day of destruction. Nor did you allow me, when swift Achilles killed my husband, and sacked the city of god-like Mynes, to weep, but you claimed that you would make me the wedded wife of god-like Achilles and that you would bring me in the ships  to Phthia, and give me a wedding feast among the Myrmidons.

(III) Therefore I weep for you now that you are dead ceaselessly,  you who were kind always.”

(Refrain) So she spoke lamenting, and the women wailed in response, with Patroklos as their pretext, but each woman for her own cares. (Iliad 19. 282-302)

As I argued in my 2002 book, in terms of narrative, Briseis’ widowed and captive status is quite personal. Lament is a powerful, first-person form of speech and song in which women can narrate their own life experiences, and this is the only place in the Iliad where we learn about Briseis’ life prior to her capture. But her lament gains a great deal of power from the fact that Briseis’ grief foreshadows the grief of every Trojan wife. When Briseis throws herself down on the body of Patroklos, she is already a captive woman—something that Andromache only imagines herself to be in Iliad 6.

Such resonances and interconnections are made possible by the traditional diction and formulaic language in which the Iliad and Odyssey have been composed. The audience’s familiarity with such language likewise allows them to receive these passages on a deeper level than would an audience hearing this passage for the first time. When Briseis falls over the body of Patroklos and begins lamenting with piercing cries, a traditional audience can not only think of the generic woman and her fallen husband in Odyssey 8, but also Briseis’ first husband, whom she has already lamented, and they can look ahead to the death of her current, would be husband, Achilles, whom she mourns here—just like Achilles’ mother Thetis does in Iliad 18—as much as she does Patroklos.

It is with all of this in mind that I now turn to the grief of Achilles himself, for which the Greek word is akhos. Achilles’ grief for Patroklos is of course a driving theme of the Iliad as we now know it. As Nagy has shown, the very name of Achilles contains the word akhos (Palmer 1963:79), and the Iliad shows “a pervasive nexus” between the word akhos and Ἀχιλ(λ)εύς, which is “integrated in the inherited formulaic system and hence deeply rooted in the epic tradition” (Nagy 1976:216). But an ancient variation on the story of the Iliad that has been explored by Leonard Muellner reveals that this theme may have once been even more pervasive (Muellner 2012). Muellner argues that surviving Greek vase paintings represent an alternative epic tradition in which Achilles’ dominant emotion throughout the epic (including the early books) is actually akhos, sorrow, not mēnis (‘wrath,’ the first word of our Iliad). In the akhos variation, Achilles covers his head and refuses to speak when his comrades beg him to return to battle, which would be a substantial departure from the Iliad as we now know it. Muellner argues that the akhos version has survived primarily in vase painting, while the mēnis (wrath) version has survived in poetry. The akhos variation would seem to have very deep roots in the poetic tradition as well, however. As Muellner points out, the so-called catalogue of ships book 2 of the Iliad twice explains the reason for Achilles’ absence from battle. In the first (2.686–694), the emphasis is on Achilles’ grief for the taking of Briseis, while the second (2.768–773) emphasizes his wrath.

Book 18 of the Iliad opens with Achilles learning of the news of Patroklos’ death. He proceeds to lay on the ground and cover his beautiful body with dust; and the way his body is described - megas megalosti - makes it clear that we are to make the connection between Patroklos’ corpse and the corpse that Achilles will soon be. (These same words are in fact used to describe Achilles’ corpse in the underworld scene of Odyssey 24, where Agamemnon narrates Achilles’ death in battle to the shades of the recently arrived suitors.) Thetis, hearing Achilles’ cries (ὤιμωξεν), then laments her son (though it is Patroklos who as died), accompanied by her sisters the Nereids, before proceeding to go and comfort him. Most of the rest of book 18 is then taken up by Achilles’ decision to return to battle to avenge Patroklos’ death and his need for new armor, which Thetis commissions from the god Hephaistos. And in the opening lines of book 19,Thetis brings Achilles this new set of armor to wear into battle, where she and he know he will soon die. She finds him like this (Iliad 19.4-6):

εὗρε δὲ Πατρόκλῳ περικείμενον ὃν φίλον υἱὸν κλαίοντα λιγέως: πολέες δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτὸν ἑταῖροι μύρονθ᾽

She found her dear son fallen about [the body] of Patroklos, lamenting with piercing cries. And his many companions around him were weeping

How might we now understand this passage in light of the poetics of the captive woman’s lament that I have been exploring? In Odyssey 8, we saw that Odysseus’ tears and grief are compared to those of a newly widowed woman at the moment that she is being taken captive. Here in Iliad 19 Achilles physically embodies the actions, tears, and lamentation of such a woman while mourning his comrade. And just as the women antiphonally respond to Briseis as she concludes her lament, so too do Achilles’ comrades respond to him. In fact the scholia (that is, marginal commentary) in the margins of the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad on these lines gloss the word μύροντο (“they were weeping” 19.6) as ἐθρήνουν - formed from one of the two primary words that Homeric epic uses for lament (the other being goos).

I was very intrigued to find that ancient scholarship preserved in the scholia of the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad actually discusses Achilles’ crying in this passage. Here is what the A scholia have to say at Iliad 19.5:

κλαίοντα λιγέως πάντας τοὺς ἥρωας ἁπλότητος χάριν εὐχερῶς ἐπὶ δάκρυα ἄγει. Ἀγαμέμνονα· Πάτροκλον Ὀδυσσέα ἐφ’ οὗ καὶ τὴν παραβολὴν τῆς χήρας ἔλαβεν. ἀεὶ δὲ ἀριδάκρυες ἀνέρες ἐσθλοί·

“lamenting with piercing cries” [Homer] leads all the heroes, because of their sincerity, to tears easily: Agamemnon, Patroklos, Odysseus, to whom he makes the comparison of the widow. And good men are always exceedingly prone to tears.

The comment refers explicitly to the simile of Odyssey 8, giving further support to the idea that the kind of weeping being attributed to Achilles at the beginning of book 19 is like that of generic captive woman of Odyssey 8, or of Briseis, whose lamentation for Patroklos later in Iliad 19 is described, as we have seen, with similar formulaic language that explicitly invokes the death of her husband. When viewed in this way, the grief of Achilles reverberates with the grief of the many women whose husbands he has killed (and the husband he has yet to kill, Hektor), and we realize that Achilles’ kleos comes at the cost of not only the unceasing lamentation of the women of Troy, but also his own never ending sorrow.

It also comes at the cost of the sorrow of those who love him. This is especially true of Achilles’ mother Thetis, who as Achilles notes will have “infinite grief” (πένθος… μυρίον) because she will never “receive him coming back home again” (τὸν οὐχ ὑποδέξεαι αὖτις/οἴκαδε νοστήσαντ᾽; 18.88–90). Being an immortal goddess, she will literally grieve for all time. I submit that not only is Achilles being represented as a captive woman lamenting her fallen husband, but that he is elsewhere in the surrounding books represented as mourning Patroklos like a mother does for her child. Mary Ebbott and I have written an article entitled “Mothers-in-Arms” (War, Literature, & the Arts 2012) in which we examine the ways that fellow soldiers are represented as being mothers to each other in the Iliad. We can get a good sense of it by way of the following passage from Iliad 18:4

…αὐτὰρ Ἀχαιοὶ ἀσπασίως Πάτροκλον ὑπ᾽ ἐκ βελέων ἐρύσαντες κάτθεσαν ἐν λεχέεσσι: φίλοι δ᾽ ἀμφέσταν ἑταῖροι μυρόμενοι: μετὰ δέ σφι ποδώκης εἵπετ᾽ Ἀχιλλεὺς δάκρυα θερμὰ χέων, ἐπεὶ εἴσιδε πιστὸν ἑταῖρον κείμενον ἐν φέρτρῳ δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ, τόν ῥ᾽ ἤτοι μὲν ἔπεμπε σὺν ἵπποισιν καὶ ὄχεσφιν ἐς πόλεμον, οὐδ᾽ αὖτις ἐδέξατο νοστήσαντα.

…Meanwhile the Achaeans gladly drew the body of Patroklos out from under the arrows and placed him on a bier. And his dear comrades stood around him weeping. And after them swift-footed Achilles followed shedding hot tears, when he looked upon his comrade lying on a bier pierced by the sharp bronze, the one whom he sent with his horses and chariot to war, but he did not receive him returning back home again. (Iliad 18.231–238)

Achilles is the mother who, like Thetis, sent her son to war but will never welcome him home (Iliad 18.58–60).

But Achilles’ grief is so profound that he grieves not only like a widow and soon-to-be captive woman, and not only like mother for her child who does not return home, but also like a father for his son, and a son for his father. Let’s turn finally now at Achilles’ lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19. We have looked at Briseis’ lament, and here now is Achilles’ (19.314-339):

μνησάμενος δ᾽ ἁδινῶς ἀνενείκατο φώνησέν τε:

(I) ἦ ῥά νύ μοί ποτε καὶ σὺ δυσάμμορε φίλταθ᾽ ἑταίρων αὐτὸς ἐνὶ κλισίῃ λαρὸν παρὰ δεῖπνον ἔθηκας αἶψα καὶ ὀτραλέως, ὁπότε σπερχοίατ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ Τρωσὶν ἐφ᾽ ἱπποδάμοισι φέρειν πολύδακρυν Ἄρηα. νῦν δὲ σὺ μὲν κεῖσαι δεδαϊγμένος, αὐτὰρ ἐμὸν κῆρ ἄκμηνον πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἔνδον ἐόντων σῇ ποθῇ:

(II) οὐ μὲν γάρ τι κακώτερον ἄλλο πάθοιμι, οὐδ᾽ εἴ κεν τοῦ πατρὸς ἀποφθιμένοιο πυθοίμην, ὅς που νῦν Φθίηφι τέρεν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβει χήτεϊ τοιοῦδ᾽ υἷος: ὃ δ᾽ ἀλλοδαπῷ ἐνὶ δήμῳ εἵνεκα ῥιγεδανῆς Ἑλένης Τρωσὶν πολεμίζω: ἠὲ τὸν ὃς Σκύρῳ μοι ἔνι τρέφεται φίλος υἱός, εἴ που ἔτι ζώει γε Νεοπτόλεμος θεοειδής. πρὶν μὲν γάρ μοι θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἐώλπει οἶον ἐμὲ φθίσεσθαι ἀπ᾽ Ἄργεος ἱπποβότοιο αὐτοῦ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ, σὲ δέ τε Φθίην δὲ νέεσθαι, ὡς ἄν μοι τὸν παῖδα θοῇ ἐνὶ νηῒ μελαίνῃ Σκυρόθεν ἐξαγάγοις καί οἱ δείξειας ἕκαστα κτῆσιν ἐμὴν δμῶάς τε καὶ ὑψερεφὲς μέγα δῶμα. ἤδη γὰρ Πηλῆά γ᾽ ὀΐομαι ἢ κατὰ πάμπαν τεθνάμεν, ἤ που τυτθὸν ἔτι ζώοντ᾽ ἀκάχησθαι γήραΐ τε στυγερῷ καὶ ἐμὴν ποτιδέγμενον αἰεὶ λυγρὴν ἀγγελίην, ὅτ᾽ ἀποφθιμένοιο πύθηται.

ὣς ἔφατο κλαίων, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γέροντες, μνησάμενοι τὰ ἕκαστος ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἔλειπον:

And then, remembering, his sighs became thick and fast and he addressed him:

(I) Indeed once upon a time you, my ill-fated dearest of comrades, were the one who placed beside us a savory dinner in the hut quickly and readily, whenever the Achaeans hastened to bring tearful war against the horse-taming Trojans. But now you lie mangled [literally, “pierced”], while my heart fasts from drink and food, although they are inside, because of longing for you.

(II) For I could not suffer another thing worse, not even if I were to learn that my father had died, who surely now in Pythia sheds a tender tear for want of such a son. Meanwhile I am in a foreign land fighting with the Trojans for the sake of Helen at whose name one shudders. Or if I learned that he who is being raised as my own son in Skyros [had died], —if somewhere Neoptolemos who is in appearance like a god still lives at least. For before now the heart in my chest hoped that I alone would perish far from horse-pasturing Argos here in Troy, and that you would return to Phthia, in order that my child in the swift black ship you might lead from Skyros and show him everything, my property and slaves and great high-roofed house. For by now I suppose that Peleus at least is altogether dead, or perhaps still alive he is grieved by hateful old age and always waiting for sorrowful tidings of me, when he shall learn that I have died.

(Refrain) So he spoke lamenting, and the old men wailed in response, remembering what each had left behind in their halls.

As we can now see, Achilles’ lament corresponds in many ways to the lament of especially Briseis (and these correspondences have been noticed before—see Lohman 1970:102–105 and 1988:13–32, Alexiou 1974:132, and Pucci 1993) but we also hear echoes of Andromache and Thetis, because Achilles’ lament exhibits so much of the traditional structure that we observe in Greek women’s laments for the dead. Many laments contain a narrative of both the past and the future. Peleus and Neoptolemos are Achilles’ past and future, and he compares his grief for Patroklos to his imagined grief for both.

In terms of grief, Patroklos is both father and son to Achilles, and this is very much in keeping with the way their relationship is depicted elsewhere in the Iliad, as Mary Ebbott and I discuss in “Mothers-in-Arms,” and other scholars have noted as well. Here is a beautiful example of the way their intimacy and care for one another are conveyed in the Iliad:

ὡς δὲ πατὴρ οὗ παιδὸς ὀδύρεται ὀστέα καίων νυμφίου, ὅς τε θανὼν δειλοὺς ἀκάχησε τοκῆας, ὣς Ἀχιλεὺς ἑτάροιο ὀδύρετο ὀστέα καίων, ἑρπύζων παρὰ πυρκαϊὴν ἁδινὰ στεναχίζων.

As when a father mourns while burning the bones of his son who is a bridegroom, and in death he brings sorrow to his miserable parents, so did Achilles mourn while burning the bones of his comrade dragging himself alongside the pyre and wailing with cries that came thick and fast.

(Iliad 23.222-225)

The relationship between Achilles and Patroklos is several times described in the Iliad by similes that involve the parent/children motif, especially in the final third of the poem.

What does it mean for the poetics of the Iliad that Achilles laments like a wife or a mother? I think the reason I avoided discussing Achilles’ lament for Patroklos in Iliad 19 in both my 2002 and my 2006 books is that I was focused on the idea that lament is a woman’s form of song, and I did not quite know how to explain the significance of Achilles’ lamentation. I see two ways to confront it now. First, we might question whether lament really is a woman’s form of song—and certainly some scholars have. Especially in tragedy we can find examples in which men arguably lament. Even in epic it can be argued that old men lament, such as Priam in Iliad 22, or the father in the simile I have just quoted. I have also suggested that Hektor makes use of the language of lament in his response to Andromache’s lament in Iliad 6. Let’s return briefly to that comment in the scholia at 19.5: “And good men are always exceedingly prone to tears.” The sentence comes from a tradition of proverbs, as we find for example in the work of the Roman sophist Zenobius (1.14) and quite a few other authors, and it is included in many manuscripts of the Iliad with scholia. Pursuing this line of thought, Hélène Monsacré, in her beautiful work Les Larmes d’Achille or (in English) The Tears of Achilles, attempts to show that male tears in the Iliad are “masculine” or “heroic.” (Her work, however, like the proverb, focuses on the actual tears, not songs of lamentation.)

Just as we might question whether lament really belongs to women, we can also question whether epic really belongs to men. Work by Aida Vidan and Olga Levaniouk makes the case in that in modern oral epic traditions comparable to the one in which our Iliad evolved there are particular settings in which women can perform epic, and such performances may well have influenced the development of our Iliad. If women can perform epic, perhaps men can lament. Maybe lament is not that gendered after all.

But another way to look at Iliad 19 is to say that Achilles is being characterized as a male performing a female kind of song. In other words, Achilles is not presented as a male lamenting in heroic, masculine ways (as Monsacré suggests), but as a male lamenting in a female way. Just like the Trojan allies such as Iphidamas, Simoeisios, and Gorgythion, who don’t have a mother or wife present at Troy to lament them, with the result that the narrator takes over and laments them in the third person, so too is Patroklos far from home without mother or wife. (See the commentary by Dué and Ebbott on Iliad 10.317.) And just as Andromache says to Hektor, “you are my father and mother,” so too is Achilles Patroklos’ entire family. Achilles and the women he has taken captive take the place of the Patroklos’ absent kinswomen, with Achilles arguably in the place of his widow.

My more specific point is that in lamenting Patroklos Achilles is characterized very much like a wife, widow and soon-to-be captive woman in Iliad 19. Again, what is the poetic significance of this characterization? How would an ancient audience have received it? Our first instinct might be to think of the non-Iliadic sources that explicitly depict Achilles and Patroklos as lovers. Is that how the Iliad is characterizing their relationship in this book? I don’t think that is actually what is going on, though I can certainly imagine that resonance being there at various times and places. But my previous work on the representation of the captive women of Troy in Greek literature leads me to suggest that for an ancient Greek audience the Trojan women held an iconic status, that they were the embodiment of wartime suffering in the Greek imagination. By comparing Achilles to one of them, whether it be a widow who has lost her husband, brothers, and parents, or a mother who has lost her son (and we can think especially of Hecuba, who loses fifty sons), the Iliad depicts Achilles as experiencing the most profound grief possible. And so while I have long admired Monsacré’s book, Les Larmes d’Achille, ultimately I must disagree with key aspects of her approach, and especially her assertion that women’s tears do not hold the same value as men’s within the poetics of the Iliad. Quite the opposite, I am suggesting that the tears of the women who by all accounts are the most marginalized—the foreign, female, soon-to-be slaves—are in fact the most powerful, so much so that the larger-than-life grief of the hero with the greatest kleos of all can only be properly conveyed by comparison with them.

I should be clear that West has not bracketed a large segment of Achilles’ lament because he objects to Achilles lamenting. By definition, West’s brackets mean simply that he does not believe these verses to have been composed by the poet traditionally referred to as Homer. As I note in Achilles Unbound, West seems to generally object to the passage because it includes material he deems Cyclic, that is, that it belongs to the now lost poems of the Epic Cycle. He writes in his 2001 book, The Making of the Iliad: “This and the other passage that alludes to Neoptolemos, Ω 466 f., must be regarded as rhapsodic interpolations designed to take account of a figure who featured in the Little Iliad, Iliou Persis, and Nostoi, and was known to POd (λ 492 ff.). In Il. we have a consistent picture of Ach. as a doomed young man whose divine mother and distant, aged father are his only family.” But the fact is, as West admits, there are several references to Neoptolemos in both the Iliad and Odyssey. At Iliad 24.465–467 Hermes tells Priam to beseech Achilles by his father, mother, and son (though he does not in fact mention Neoptolemos by name). West brackets this passage also. In Odyssey 11, Achilles asks Odysseus about Neoptolemos. (In West’s 2017 edition of the Odyssey he allows references to Neoptolemus, on his assumption that that work has been composed by a different poet.) West sees the Iliad passages as being incompatible with the “consistent picture” that is created if they are left out, but that consistent picture only works if the ancient audience somehow remained unaware of all the other co-existing song traditions that did feature Neoptolemos. While I can agree that Neoptolemos did not play a large role within the poetics of the Iliadic epic tradition, the Iliad did not exist in a mythological or poetic vacuum, such that he could never be invoked.

But this is not the only passage where West seems unaware of the traditional phraseology, themes, and structure of lament when making an editorial choice. In Helen’s lament for Hektor in Iliad 24, for example, West brackets two verses:

Ἕκτορ ἐμῷ θυμῷ δαέρων πολὺ φίλτατε πάντων, [ἦ μέν μοι πόσις ἐστὶν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής, ὅς μ᾽ ἄγαγε Τροίηνδ᾽: ὡς πρὶν ὤφελλον ὀλέσθαι.]

Hektor, dearest by far to my thumos of all my brothers-in-law, indeed my husband is Alexander with the looks of a god, who led me to Troy. How I ought to have died before then.

(Iliad 24.763–64)

In his apparatus West writes simply seclusi—“I have excluded.” In West’s 2001 book Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad, he makes arguments against the verses based on logic and rhetorical flow and because it is obvious that Alexander is her husband: “No one needs to be reminded why Hector is Helen’s δαήρ” (West 2001:282). Here again I find a lack of sensitivity to formulaic language on the part of West, and especially a lack of sensitivity to the traditional language of lament. In women’s laments for the dead in the Greek tradition, it is common for women to narrate their own life history, and contrast it with the present circumstances. Longing for death is also a traditional feature of laments. A close examination of these verses within the poetics of lament could easily show that they are perfectly formulaic and traditional. (For just such an analysis of Helen’s speech throughout the Iliad within the poetics of lament see Ebbott 1999.) We can compare Iliad 3.173–5 (Helen speaking to Priam), 3.428–429 (Helen speaking to Alexander), 6.344–348 (Helen speaking to Hektor), 19.59–60 (Achilles of Briseis), as well as Hecuba at 22.431–2 and Andromache at 22.481. Why would we want to exclude them from our understanding of the Iliad?

Achilles’ lament for Patroklos, including the verses about Neoptolemos, is typical of lament as well. Many laments contain a narrative of both the past and the future—Briseis’ lament for Patroklos earlier in book 19 does this as well, as Pucci (1993) has shown. Understanding Achilles’ words within the context of women’s songs of lament for the dead opens up a host of poetic possibilities. As we have seen, Andromache’s song of sorrow is Achilles’ song of glory. But Achilles’ song is also a lament for Patroklos—and for himself (Iliad 23.123–126):

πάντες δ᾽ ὑλοτόμοι φιτροὺς φέρον… κὰδ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκτῆς βάλλον ἐπισχερώ, ἔνθ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀχιλλεὺς φράσσατο Πατρόκλῳ μέγα ἠρίον ἠδὲ οἷ αὐτῷ.

All who had been cutting wood bore logs… they threw them down in a line upon the seashore at the place where Achilles would make a mighty funeral mound for Patroklos and for himself. (Iliad 23.123–126)

Early in this essay I suggested that the Iliad that survives for us exhibits a tension between two competing traditional themes: Achilles’ wrath and his grief. Where West sees interpolated “Cyclic” material that is extraneous to the Iliad, I find evidence for the wider poetic traditions from which our Iliad emerged and with which it interacted.

I can’t help but wonder if West’s gender has influenced his work as an editor of these lament filled passages. Some of his assumptions about the text are inevitably also assumptions about gender and what is appropriate to the character (crying, lamenting, etc.). Those unexamined and superimposed assumptions from a male point of view (including West’s and his predecessors’ hostility to oral traditional language, which I have explored in Dué 2006b) creates a text in West’s own image.5

As I hope I have made clear, the point of this essay has not been to disparage the work of a renowned scholar who has recently died, but rather to reflect upon how any edition of the Iliad (or any other ancient work) might be shaped by the gender of the editor. Of course, I do not assert that all women would edit the Iliad the same way, only that each individual female editor might notice different things from her male colleagues in the discipline, and contribute in that way to furthering our collective understanding to these works. Proof of my statement comes in the form of Stephanie West, whose (1967) edition of fragments of Homeric poetry that survive on papyrus takes a profoundly different approach to the epics from my own.

But to my way of thinking, when one’s vision of Homer is such that we have to remove the passages that don’t fit, to literally discard the evidence of a traditional system in order to make that vision work, we are probably not seeing the full picture accurately (our data set is after all woefully incomplete). Maybe a new perspective is required. If Achilles can lament like a woman, maybe a woman can edit the Iliad. Perhaps now is exactly the right time for women to be editing the Iliad, because we might be able to see some things now that previous editors have not. The same is surely true for others who have not traditionally been granted access to the editorial keys to the kingdom of textual criticism. What if women and men of color and differently abled people and LGBTQ people edited the Iliad? What might they find worth keeping that others have wanted to throw out or emend?

I am no longer as naive as I once was, or as unthinking about the dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexuality within our field. Though educated at elite institutions, I now teach at the University of Houston, one of the most diverse college campuses in the country. How might these students of mine, who were never supposed to learn Greek and yet somehow wound up in my classroom, who have already lived such different lives from my own and who have such brilliant insights into Greek poetry, contribute to the next generation of scholarship? Some of these students have already contributed to our collaborative Homer Multitext. Undergraduate editors of the Homer Multitext present at national and international conferences and write undergraduate theses and become Fulbright fellows. I don’t have to surmise that they will notice things that I have not—they already have. It is my hope that in building the project this way, the voices of the Homeric epics in all their variety and multiformity can be witnessed not just in our translations but even in our editions of the text, thereby laying the groundwork for a more inclusive and holistic understanding of the Homeric epics.

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  1. Of course the character of Penelope has been well studied in Homeric scholarship (see e.g., Murnaghan 1987, Katz 1991, Clayton 2004, and Felson and Slatkin 2004 with further references ad loc; more recently Pache 2016), and fictionalized in modern form (see, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad). ↩︎

  2. On this point, see also Scodel 1988, who cites Iliad 2.354-55: τὼ μή τις πρὶν ἐπειγέσθω οἶκον δὲ νέεσθαι/πρίν τινα πὰρ Τρώων ἀλόχῳ κατακοιμηθῆναι. “Let no one hasten to return home before sleeping beside a wife of the Trojans.” It should be noted, however, that this is said in the context of paying the Trojans back for the theft of Helen (2.356: τίσασθαι δ’ Ἑλένης ὁρμήματά τε στοναχάς τε “and getting payment for his struggles and wails in connection with Helen”). See also Gottschall 2008. ↩︎

  3. See Nagler 1974, 44-63 and Monsacré 1984, 68-69. See also the Seven Against Thebes 321–332, which likewise equates the tearing of a woman’s veil with the capture of a city. ↩︎

  4. See also 17.400–411. On the “overlap” of maternity and war in the Iliad see also Monsacré Part I Chapter 4, Part III Chapter 5, and the conclusion. ↩︎

  5. In making this argument I am reminded of a notoriously controversial passage in Euripides’ Medea, her speech at 1021–1080. Many editors, including Diggle and Kovacs, bracket large portions of the speech, 1056–1080 in particular. The arguments are too complex to summarize briefly here, and I recommend Foley 2001:243–271 (where she makes the case for retaining the complete speech) for an overview and bibliography. I mention it here because in the disputed verses Medea laments her children, who are still alive, in a way that is simultaneously traditional and incredibly moving (in keeping with songs of lament for dead children) but also incredibly disturbing, because she will be their killer. ↩︎

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