Monday, August 6, 2012

Hector returns to Troy - Book 6 - Hector the family man

The Truce erupts in war - Book 4
Diomedes fights the gods - Book 5 

At the end of the previous book we saw that the gods had retired to 'Mount Olympus' and

"So the clash of Achaean and Trojan troops was on its own,
the battle in all its fury veering back and forth,"

The back and forth is the key here, it tells us that both the armies were pretty much evenly matched and that's why the war has gone on for 9 years with no clear cut victory for either side. Even with the greatest warriors like 'Achilles' and 'Hector' on either side, the difference makers are the Gods and not the mortals. It's the mindset and wish of the Gods at that time that determines victory or defeat to either of them. Otherwise the result of the battle is too close to call. 

One thing I didn't mention in the earlier books is about the conversations the warriors have before starting their combat. Now I cannot imagine the warriors conversing at great length as they would all be full of blood-lust by then and the only sounds one can imagine is the grunting and moaning as their swing their weapons. One has to take this as the artistic/creative license of Homer when Diomedes and Glaucus converse and Glaucus says

"High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask about my birth?
Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
and the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away."

Such philosophical musing in the heat of battle? No away, but it adds poignancy to the battle and the lives of the warriors doesn't it? (The telling of 'Bhagwad Gita' and conversation between the warriors at Kurukshetra during the heated battles comes to mind). Homer also uses his creative license to tell short histories about the warriors fighting. By no means it is full and in most cases it is a reference of names, events and places only 3-4 lines like when he mentions that Euryalus

"... went for Pedasus and Aesepus, twins
the nymph of the spring Abarbarea bore Bucolion...
Bucolion, son himself to the lofty King Laomedon,
first of the line,...

The twins are actual the ones in the battle, but mention is made of his parents and his Grandfather too. A short genealogy itself is constructed here. This is an example of the minute detailing of the poem which acts as a form of historical documentation too (it's up to us to separate the myths from the facts). But this could be a bit confusing as you could get diverted by other warriors and events in the past. But thankfully, the translators have added notes at the end which explain a bit more in detail about what is described in the stanzas. If you are further interested you could look them up in other resources. 

Not all close range battles in the poem results in death. Capturing someone alive as prisoner can be lucrative too, as one can get lots of ransom for returning the prisoner alive. We get a lot of references to such ransoms paid in the past 9 years of the war and also see warriors ready to pay it to save their lives as 'Adrestus' who is caught by Menelaus says

"Adrestus hugged his knees and begged him, pleading,
Take me alive, Atrides, take a ransom worth my life!
Treasures are piled up in my rich father's house,
bronze and gold and plenty of well-wrought iron-
father would give you anything, gladly, priceless ranson
if only he learns I'm still alive in Argive ship!"

War is generally seen a glorious thing bringing great honor to the victor and in times to the vanquished too. We don't generally read about say, how the armies sustained themselves during it or how were the salaries of soldiers paid etc. In the above stanza, we see the business side of things in the war where as much as the Greeks want to destroy Troy (seemingly to uphold their honor) it is also a way of getting treasures from it. But alas, sometimes the rage of the warriors is too much that the thought of ransom cannot stop them from killing as Menelaus does now saying

"Ah would to god not one them could escape
his sudden plunging death beneath our hands!
No baby boy still in his mother's belly,
not even he escape - all Ilium blotted out,
no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves!"

(Illium - Troy)

The third and fourth lines in the above stanza shook me up more than the actual killing. If one listens, he can hear the echo of Menelaus's words even today. Don't we read about even foetus being pulled out and destroyed during ethnic/communal clashes? Even when you take into account mankind's unlimited capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others, even if you are cynical about it, the above lines will surely disturb you. When we talk about legacy and heritage of countries, one should be honest enough to include legacies such as these which spare no thought even for unborn children. Further in the book we will come across another mention of the side-effects of war, in this case on women.

The Greeks and their sacrifices of the Gods

As the Greeks seem to be gaining an upper hand, Hector is advised to go to Troy and ask his mother to pray to Athena, giving her offerings of 

"and take a robe, the largest, loveliest robe
that she can find throughout the royal halls,
a gift that far and away she prizes most herself,
and spread it out across the sleek-haired goddess kness.
Then promise to sacrifice twelve heifers in her shrine,
yearlings never broken, if only she'll pity Troy,"

The concept of 'sacrifice' is very important to the ancient Greeks (and of course to all ancient communities). When you are starting something new or completing something successfully or wanted something to turn in your favor, the Greeks always invoked the Gods  making sacrificial offerings to them. Not just even, even when a feast is being held the first offering is to the gods. Now, the offerings too have to be of quality good enough to satisfy the Gods, if it's a feast the best roasted parts of the meat and the purest wine is given to the Gods and only the rest is consumed by them. The Gods themselves look upon these sacrifices as very important and necessary. The slightest misstep by the mortal while making the sacrifices can result in great misery brought upon them by the Gods. It's not necessary that you totally forget about the offerings to be done, even if the offering is of poor quality you are doomed.

Hector the family man

Hector goes back to Troy and asks his mother to make the offerings to Athena and goes to meet his wife 'Andromache'. His wife is not in their house, she has gone to the gates of Troy to watch the battle 

"because she heard our men are so hard-pressed,
the Achaean fighters coming on in so much force.
She sped to the wall in panic, like a madwoman-"

Hector goes to the gates and meets his wife and his son who is

"in the first flush of life, only a baby,
and radiant as a star"

This is the first time in the poem where the misery of the Trojan women, under siege for 9 years, not knowing whether their husbands, sons would come back at the days end, always under a state of insecurity, not knowing what is going to happen to them, is bought out, when Andromache

"pressing close beside him and weeping freely now,
clung to his hand, urged him, called him:Reckless one,
my Hector-your own fiery courage will destroy you!
Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me,
and the destiny that weighs me down, your widow"

She has already lost her fathers and seven brothers who were butchered by Achilles. Hector consoles her saying that he has to fight for his country saying

"But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward"

What Hector says next is very poignant. He says that he knows that Troy would fall one day and everyone killed, but what hurts him most is not that because

"That is nothing, nothing beside your agony
when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears,
wrenching away your day of light and freedom!
Then far off in the land of Argos you must live,
laboring at a loom, at another woman's beck and call,
fetching water at some spring, Messeis or Hyperia,"
And a man may say, who sees you streaming tears,
There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter
and the fresh grief will swell your heart once more,
widowed, robbed of the one man strong enough
to fight off your day of slavery
let the earth come piling over my dead body
before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away!

Words that are true even today and one has to read it in conjunction with what Menelaus says about killing even unborn children, to get an idea of the utter destruction that war causes. Men at least get a closure even if they die in the battle, it's the end, their final act in the play of life. But not so for women and children. They are what is termed simply as 'Collateral damage' of the war, not taking part in it but suffering a great deal during it as well as after the end of the war. Isn't taking the women of the defeated countries as prisoners for sexual abuse, menial jobs a long standing tradition(?) maintained by all us honorable men (and warriors?). Don't we see and read that the things that happened to Trojan women happening even today in many parts of the world. It has happened before Troy, in Troy, has been happening in all the other wars after that and will happen in the wars to come too. 
'The Iliad' for all it's terrible description of violence doesn't ever glorify it, it states a way of life at a particular point of time, giving us multiple views of it. So when warriors fight for their glory, the suffering of women is told as a counterpoint, a warning even to the listeners. When a work of art comes into the public domain, we cannot estimate it's impact, its greatness. The ultimate recognition of a work comes over ages (i.e) due to the timeless quality of the work, a quality which makes someone like me reading this poem a couple of millennium after it was composed, relate to it. 

Achilles and Hector

This passages also shows us a crucial difference between Achilles and Hector. Both are the greatest warriors on either side, both have families, have their loved ones yes, but one cannot even imagine Achilles saying something like this to his beloved. Can you imagine Achilles doing as Hector does when

"and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods:
Zeus, all you immortals!Grant this boy, my son
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
and one day let them say, 'He is a better man than his father!-"

Yes, Achilles is so fond of Patroclus that he causes great devastation in the later books to avenge him. But one cannot imagine him wanting his son to be better than him and if some actually referred his son like that, Achilles would have probably gone to battle with his own son. He is a warrior over and above everything, who feels home most in a battle field where there is always a chance to garner glory. That's why he cannot (or doesn't want to) lead the Greek expedition. He is a king, but a soldier first and foremost. Diplomacy, tact and the day to day acts of governance  would bore him after a while and he would off looking for a new battle. But Hector is not like that, he is as much a family man as he is a warrior and because he is a family man, he is plagued by thoughts of his family suffering. He is also not a warmonger, he is always for letting Helen go back to the Greeks and putting an end to the war, but since Priam loves Paris so much and cannot deny his wish, Hector fights as he has to obey his king. He would have been the perfect successor to Priam, a great warrior and diplomat at the same time, but alas destiny has other plans for him.

After consoling his wife Hector returns back to the battlefield and on the way he meets Paris and tells him

now for attack! We'll set all this to rights,
someday, if Zeus will ever let us raise
the winebowl of freedom high in our halls,
high to the gods of cloud and sky who live forever-
once we drive these Argives geared for battle out of Troy!"

And so the brothers head off to war again and the book ends. There is a very interesting thing to note about this book, about it's tone and length. By far this is the shortest of the 6 books we have seen so far. The tone is mild when compared to the previous ones which had either mental or physical rage and the resultant violence as their running thread. Here too there is a description of battle, but the scene shifts soon to Troy where there is a lot of poignant moments. One can imagine Homer taking a breather from the high octane events of the previous books gathering his energy, while the listeners who would have been holding their breaths listening to the previous books, would have given a sigh and relaxed a bit. But it's only like the lull in the storm as we'll see in the next books.

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