The Best of the Achaeans
Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry
Revised Edition
Gregory Nagy

Copyright © 1980, 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. First edition 1979. Revised edition 1999. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.

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Chapter 8

The Death of Hektor

§1. By comparing the death of Achilles with the death of Pyrrhos, we have come to see more clearly the factor of ritual antagonism between god and hero. If, of course, we had only the Iliad as evidence, this factor would be much more difficult to discern in the case of Achilles, whose own antagonism with the god Apollo is so poetically stylized and elaborated as to suit the artistic framework of Panhellenic Epos. Even within such a monumental structure, however, the basic outlines emerge clearly enough. Although the death of Achilles himself at the hands of Apollo is deferred beyond the Iliad, the death of his surrogate Patroklos is presented in a manner that makes the experience apply directly to the hero of the Iliad.[1]

§2. Aside from this basic observation on the level of theme, we can also adduce detailed evidence on the level of diction. We have seen that the Iliad applies mênis 'anger' as a word appropriate specifically to Achilles among heroes, and that his mênis over his loss of tîmê 'honor' results from the earlier anger of Apollo, likewise specified as mênis, over his respective loss of tîmê. The first mênis, of Apollo, had caused what is called a loigos 'devastation' for the Achaeans in the form of a plague; the second mênis, of Achilles, then causes them devastation in the form of a dire military situation inflicted by Hektor at the Battle of the Ships. This second devastation is also specifically called a loigos. Moreover, both the first and the second loigos are described as bringing algea 'pains' to the Achaeans. The first loigos is removed when the plague is lifted, whereupon the Achaeans sing a paiêôn 'paean' to Apollo; the second is removed when Hektor is killed, and this time Achilles bids them to sing, again, a paiêôn.[1] We could go on multiplying examples of thematic and formal convergences between Apollo and Achilles. For instance, Walter Burkert is so struck by the physical resemblance in the traditional representations of the god and the hero--especially by the common feature of their both being unshorn in the manner of a koûros[2] --that he is moved to describe Achilles as a Doppelgängerof Apollo.[3] For now, however, let us simply adhere to this main point: that god and hero mirror each other, both formally and thematically, in the dimension of ritual.

§3. In order to observe how the formal and thematic matchings between Apollo and Achilles are actually enacted in an epic scene of ritual antagonism, let us contrast the Iliadic stance of Achilles with that of the intrepid Diomedes, who in his own right actually dares to wound the Olympian gods Aphrodite and Ares in Iliad V. After three consecutive attempts, even Diomedes shrinks from a fourth and final confrontation with Apollo (V 432-444), and in doing so he is specifically described as avoiding the god's mênis (mênin aleuamenos: V 444). At the moment that he is making this fourth attempt, Diomedes qualifies as daimoni îsos 'equal to a daimôn' (V 438, which is then reported at V 459), and the deployment of this epithet coincides with the climax of ritual antagonism between the god and the hero.[1]

§4. When Patroklos, the surrogate of Achilles, confronts Apollo four consecutive times in two separate but closely related scenes, he too qualifies during his fourth attempt in both scenes as daimoni îsos 'equal to a daimôn' (XVI 705, 786). In the first scene, Patroklos shrinks from a fourth and final confrontation with the god--and he lives (XVI 705-711). In the second scene that follows shortly thereafter, Patroklos fails to avoid the fourth and final confrontation--and he is killed (XVI 786-789). In the first scene, Patroklos, like Diomedes, is specifically described as avoiding the god's mênis (mênin aleuamenos: XVI 711); in the second scene, he has intrinsically incurred it.[1] So also with Achilles himself: when the time comes for his own final confrontation with Apollo, the hero of the Iliad will die by failing to avoid the god's mênis, and the diction of the Iliad itself predicts this. Consider the "rehearsal" at XX 447-454, where the action would have proceeded as it had in the second confrontation scene of Patroklos at XVI 786-789, if only Apollo had not made the action void (XX 441-446).[2] But even if the epic action of Achilles is here ineffectual, his stance of antagonism towards Apollo is ominously clear: as he is making his fourth attempt, he too is daimoni îsos 'equal to a daimôn' (XX 447).

§5. With the perspective of ritual at our disposal, and with the evidence of the traditionals epic diction that keeps formally matching the figures of Achilles and Apollo, we may now even ask whether the antipathy of the god toward the Achaeans in the Iliad has less to do--at least in origin--with his sympathy toward the Trojans and more with the theme of his antagonism toward the hero of the Iliad. In order to assure ourselves that the factor of ritual antagonism between god and hero can actually determine the antipathies of various gods in the epic tradition of the Trojan War, let us now turn to the figure of Hektor, the prime enemy of Achilles in the Iliad.

§6. The question is, which Olympian god would qualify as Hektor's ritual antagonist? Let us suppose that the heroic pattern of Hektor is inverse to that of his prime epic opponent. In that case, the Olympian who should bring about his death is Athena. And indeed, just as Paris and Apollo are named by the Iliad as the killers of Achilles (XIX 416-417, XXII 359-360), so also the death of Hektor is described as being actually caused by Athena, albeit with Achilles and his spear serving as her instrument (XXII 270-271, 445-446). Athena not only intervenes overtly in the final duel of Hektor and Achilles (see especially XXII 222-223, 275-277, 298-299); she even says that Achilles and she are to be the ones who vanquish Hektor (XXII 216-218).

§7. The mutual function of Athena and Apollo as the ritual antagonists of the two prime heroes who will fight each other in the Iliad, Hektor and Achilles respectively, becomes overt in Iliad VII 17-61. There the two Olympians, championing the Achaeans and Trojans respectively, decide to call a halt to the general battle between the two warring sides and to bring about instead a one-to-one conflict that pits Hektor against "whoever is best of the Achaeans" (VII 50).[1] At VII 58-61, as the preparations take place for a duel that should have matched Hektor against Achilles himself,[2] we get a singularly uncanny picture of the two main Olympian antagonists of Hektor and Achilles, Athena and Apollo, in the shape of two birds perched on the Tree of Zeus, observing the events that unfold--and all along "delighting in the heroes" (ndrsi terpmenoi : VII 61).

§8. If indeed we may call Athena the ritual antagonist of Hektor, what is there in the hero that mirrors the goddess? To put it another way, how do the figures of Hektor and this divinity converge in theme and form? Let us first consider Hektor's heroic attributes and then his aspirations. Among his attributes, we note that Hektor is the only Trojan in the Iliad who is described as "equal to Zeus in mêtis" (Di mtin tlante : VII 47, XI 200).[1] In the words of Agamemnon himself (X 47-52), no other Trojan had performed more deeds of mêtis (mhtsasyai : X 48) against the Achaeans than Hektor.[2] In this respect, then, the function of the hero has a close affinity to Athena, the goddess of mêtis incarnate.[3] Here is a divine figure who not only boasts that her mêtis confers upon her the kleos that is hers from poetry (mti ... klomai : xiii 299): the poetic tradition actually establishes her as daughter of Zeus and Mêtis personified (Hesiod Th. 886-900).

§9. Another of Hektor's traditional attributes is his reputation for protecting the city and its people. At VI 402-403 and XXIV 729-730, this basic function of the hero is heralded in what can almost be described as programmatic fashion. In fact, Astuanax, his son's name, comes directly from the father's function of protecting the astu 'city':[1]

tn =' Ektvr kaleske Skamndrion, atr o lloi
Astunakt': oow gr reto Ilion Ektvr

Hektor used to call him [his son] Skamandrios, but the others
called him Astuanax; for Hektor alone protected Ilion.[2]
VI 402-403

What is more, the name of Hektôr himself is an agent noun derived from the verb ekhô in the sense of "protect," as is attested precisely in the context of Hektor's protecting the city of Troy and its inhabitants:

w t min atn
=skeu, xew d' lxouw kednw ka npia tkna

... you [Hektor] who guarded it [the city],[3]
and you protected the cherished wives and helpless children[4]
XXIV 729-730

fw pou ter lan plin jmen d' pikorvn

Perhaps you [Hektor] think that you will protect
the city [polis] all alone, without the fighting men and the allies.[5]
V 473-474

In this respect, too, the function of the hero has a close affinity to Athena, who is worshiped by the Trojans as the official guardian of their city. She is the goddess whose idol is enshrined in their citadel, and it is to her that they as a community pray in their hour of need (see especially VI 286-311). In fact, when they specifically pray to Athena that she ward off the onslaught of Diomedes, the verb that designates the action is a derivative of ekhô (psx : VI 277). What is more, she is invoked in their prayers as (e)rusiptolis 'protector of the city' (=usptoli : VI 305), which is a generic cult epithet of Athena that we find applied exclusively to her in both of the two attested Homeric Hymn(s) to Athena (11.1, 28.3).[6]

§10. Both of these attributes showing an overlap between the figures of Hektor and Athena--as paragon of mêtis and as guardian of the city--are significantly involved in the actual death of the hero. The scene of Hektor's demise (at Iliad XXII) is motivated by an earlier scene of deliberation in the Council of the Trojans (XVIII 243-314), where Hektor goes against the pattern of action that is marked out even by his name. He advocates an offensive strategy in response to the impending onslaught of Achilles, whereas his counterpart Poulydamas is advocating a defensive strategy. The immediate stance of Poulydamas as a counterpart of and alternative to Hektor is highlighted in the narrative by the manner in which this hero is described: he was born on the same night as Hektor (XVIII 251), and he had the reputation of excelling with words whereas Hektor excelled "with the spear" (XVIII 252).[1] Significantly, the scene of deliberation ends with the stratagem that wins approval, that of Hektor, being described as bad in contrast with that of Poulydamas (XVIII 310-313); moreover, the narrative specifies that Athena had here taken away Hektor's senses (XVIII 311), and that the hero's mêtis had gone bad (kak mhtivnti : XVIII 312). For good measure, when the time comes for Hektor's final confrontation with Achilles, Athena again takes away Hektor's senses--this time by actively deluding him (XXII 222-247, 296-299).

§11. We come now to the question of Hektor's aspirations in the Iliad. The hero himself says that he wishes he were immortal and "honored"--specifically like Athena and Apollo:

e gr gn w
ehn ynatow ka grvw mata pnta,
tiomhn d' w tet' Ayhnah ka Apllvn,
w nn mrh de kakn frei Argeoisin

If only I were
immortal and unaging for all days to come,[1]
and if only I got tîmê [were honored] just as Athena and Apollo get tîmê [are honored]
--as surely as this day brings misfortune to the Argives.
VIII 538-541

What is more, he is accused by Poseidon (in the form of Kalkhas) of boasting that he is the child of Zeus:

Ektvr, w Diw exet' risyenow pw enai

Hektor, who boasts to be the child of mighty Zeus.[2]

In fact, Hektor himself wishes that he were the child of Zeus:

e gr gn otv ge Diw pw agixoio
ehn mata pnta, tkoi d me ptnia Hrh,
tiomhn d' w tet' Ayhnah ka Apllvn,
w nn mrh de kakn frei Argeoisi

If only I were the child of aegis-bearing Zeus
for all days to come, and the Lady Hera were my mother,
and if only I got tîmê just as Athena and Apollo get tîmê
--as surely as this day brings misfortune to the Argives.
XIII 825-828

For the second time, we see an overt comparison of the hero with the gods Athena and Apollo. And the epithet Dios pais 'child of Zeus' is equally unmistakable: when they had met at the Tree of Zeus in the context of planning the duel that pits Hektor against whoever is the best of the Achaeans, both Apollo and Athena were specifically designated as son/daughter of Zeus (VII 23/24).[3] After Hektor is dead, his own father says of him:

Ektor y', w yew ske met' ndrsin, od kei
ndrw ge ynhto pw mmenai, ll yeoo

Hektor, who was a god among men; and he seemed
to be the child not of a mortal but of a god.[4]
XXIV 258-259

The wording here conveys a striking variation on the conventional theme of a hero's getting tîmê from the community:

... yew d' w teto dm

... and he got tîmê from the dêmos, like a god
V 78 X 33 XI 58 XIII 218 XVI 605[5]

On the level of epic, of course, the hero gets tîmê by virtue of his reputation as a warrior; on the level of ritual, on the other hand, the hero gets tîmê in the form of cult--which is what the word tîmê itself can actually designate.[6] In the specific case of Hektor, the tîmê to which he aspires is that of Apollo and Athena themselves, and it is hard to imagine a more direct way for epic to convey the ritual aspect of a hero.

§12. The epic tradition of the Iliad has neither the vocabulary nor really the thematic need to distinguish the cult of heroes from the cult of gods. The hero's ritual antagonism with a divinity can find its epic expression in his aspiration to get the same tîmê as his divine counterpart, and the narrative leaves it at that. More directly, the plot of epic represents the ritual antagonism in a format where the god actually contrives the hero's death. What epic will not represent, however, is the symbiosis of god and hero in cult. On the level of epic, the Trojans cannot worship Hektor as the main protector of their city, in a manner that complements their worship of Athena.[1] For the Iliad, even the worship of Athena by the Trojans is a difficult theme to elaborate, because of the fundamental antagonism that exists between her and Hektor, the prime hero who protects the Trojans. For the Iliad, the narrative focus on the antipathy that Athena has for Hektor blurs whatever sympathy she would have had for the Trojans. The scene where the Trojans pray to her is but a vestige of her relation to them.[2] And aside from this one scene with its strong ritual orientation, the Iliad, with its overall epic orientation, highlights instead the sympathy of Athena toward Achaean champions like Achilles, parallel with the sympathy of Apollo toward Hektor.


§1n1. See again Ch.2§8 on the function of Patroklos as therapôn of Achilles and Ch.6§§23-26 on the mourning over Patroklos as a substitute for the mourning over Achilles.

§2n1. For citations and further discussion of how all these words function in the Iliad, see Ch.5§§8-16.

§2n2. Compare Apollo's epithet akersekomês 'unshorn' (as at XX 39) with the hair-shearing scene of Achilles at XXIII 140-153. Burkert (1975.19) stresses the association of this theme with vestigial aspects of what anthropologists would call initiation. Cf. also Brelich 1958.361.

§2n3. Burkert 1975.19. Cf. Chirassi Colombo 1977. In this connection, we may note that Achilles even swears by Apollo (I 86), and that the significance of this theme emerges from a careful study of the word apeileô'predict, threaten' and its deployment in the Iliad. I refer to a forthcoming work by Leonard Muellner, who also explores the thematic and formal links between apeileô and Apellôn/Apollôn.

§3n1. For more on the word daimôn: Ch.9§§5-6 (cf. Lowenstam 1975). Cf. also Muellner 1976.82-83 on XX 102.

§4n1. More on this crucial scene at Ch.17§5.

§4n2. Cf. also XXII 7-20.

§7n1. The essence of the gods' will is understood by Helenos, who imparts it to Hektor (VII 44-53). See Ch.2§3.

§7n2. See again Ch.2§3.

§8n1. On mêtis, see Ch.3§§5-8.

§8n2. The Achaeans' loss, which is in proportion to Hektor's gains in mêtis (X 43-52), is also equated with lack of boulê kerdaleê 'crafty planning' (boulw ... / kerdalhw : X 43-44). Compare this use of boulê 'plan, planning' in the context of mêtis with the uncanny image of Hektor as he "plans his plans," boulas bouleuei (X 415), at the sêma 'tomb' of Ilos, local hero of Troy. For the semantics of sêma, cognate of Indic dhyama 'thought', see Sinos 1975.83-90.

§8n3. See Detienne/Vernant 1974, esp. pp. 167-175, 176-200.

§9n1. For a correlation of the word astu itself with the theme of a protecting Hektor, see XXIV 499.

§9n2. This passage is the clearest example of a traditional convention in the naming of heroes: the son is named after one of the father's primary heroic characteristics. See Clader 1976.30-31 on Megapenthês 'he who has great penthos', the son of Menelaos (iv 11); the father's akhos/penthos 'grief' is a traditional epic theme (e.g., iv 108-110). Cf. also the son of Nestor, Peisi-stratos 'he who persuades the army'. As for the son of Odysseus himself, Têle-makhos, his name may mean either "he who fights far away [at Troy]" or perhaps "he who fights from far away [with arrows]"; both characterizations are appropriate to the father. Finally, see van der Valk 1958.147n164 on the names of two of Herakles' three children by Megara: Thêrimakhos 'he who fights beasts' and Dêikoôn 'vigilant in battle' (vel sim.; cf. Chantraine II 551). These names correspond respectively to five of the hero's labors involving beasts and to five involving treacherous enemies. (The themes of Hades/death and Hesperides/life round out the number of labors to twelve.)

§9n3. The pronoun is referring to the polis 'city' of Troy, at XXIV 728.

§9n4. On the semantics of nêpios 'helpless': Edmunds 1976.

§9n5. Chantraine (II 330) considers the derivation of Hektôr from ekhô without discussing the semantics of the verb. The article by Meier 1976 helps fill the gap, although I think that his definition of the semantic sphere of ekhô is overrestrictive. The notion of "domination" need not always imply "domination by conquest." Consider the semantics of ktizô, etc.

§9n6. For more on the generic cult function of Athena as protector of the city: Nilsson I 346-349. For another distinctive epithet that apparently emphasizes the protective and defensive aspects of Athena, consider alalkomenêis as at IV 8 and V 908. On the derivation from alalkeîn 'ward off', see Chantraine I 57. For a survey of traditional themes featuring Athena on the defensive and offensive, see Vian 1968.58.

§10n1. On the spear as an emblem of biê (as opposed to mêtis), see the use of biê at Hesiod W&D 148, in the context of W&D 143-155 as discussed at Ch.9§9; see also §12. Compare the image of Achilles as a boy, armed with nothing but a spear (Ch.20§8).

§11n1. On the function of this wording in the process of immortalization: Ch.10 §30n2. More on VIII 538-541 and related passages in Nagy 1990b.294.132-133.

§11n2. Having studied the inherited phraseology of eukhetai/eukheto 'boast', Muellner observes (1976.78): "This, the ultimate genealogy, is being put forward not as pretentious or boastful but true." For amplification, see the important discussion by Muellner at pp. 50-52, 80(n23).

§11n3. The specific wording Dios pais 'child of Zeus', as applied to Hektor (XIII 54), is also appropriate for female divinities (e.g., viii 488).

§11n4. Note too Muellner 1976.50 on VII 298, where the women of Troy are described as eukhomenai 'praying' to Hektor (dative): "This is the only place in all the Homeric corpus (including eukhomai in secular contexts) where a dative noun after eukhomai is not a god or a collection of gods."

§11n5. In the Iliad, this expression is applied respectively to Dolopion, priest of Skamandros; Agamemnon; Aeneas; Thoas; and Onetor, priest of Zeus Idaios. Its significance can best be appreciated by considering more closely what is represented by the dêmos, described here as the source of tîmê for the hero. See n6.

§11n6. On tîmê in the sense of "cult": Ch.7§1n2. Moreover, we have observed en passant in Ch.6§29 that cult practices were a strictly localized phenomenon in archaic Greek religion. Accordingly, the Homeric association of tîmê with dêmos (n5) is of utmost significance, in view of the connotations this word inherits. Derived from the root *dâ- 'divide, allot, apportion' (Chantraine I 274), dêmos had originally meant something like "district," and this intrinsic local connotation is still overt in numerous Homeric contexts (e.g., V 710; XVI 437, 514; etc.); see especially Detienne 1968.131 on dêmos in Odyssey ii 32, 44 and Herodotus 1.62. It is even possible that the element dêmo- in compound names like Dêmophoôn (H.Dem.234: "shining for the dêmos") and Dêmodokos (viii 44, etc.: "approved by the dêmos") emphasized the localized functions of such figures. For more on the name Dêmophoôn: Ch.10§10n4; also Nagy 1990b.132-133.

§12n1. For a latent reference to the worship of Hektor: §11n4.

§12n2. Thus I disagree with the notion (cf. Bethe 1927 III 19-20) that the scene in Iliad VI where the Trojans worship Athena necessarily represents a "new" tradition--let alone that the passage itself is an interpolation. As for the observation that Athena's being guardian of Troy seems to be a more central theme in the Iliou Persis (Proclus pp. 107-108 Allen), it does not necessarily follow that such a divergent thematic treatment is less archaic than that of the Iliad. Newer compositions like the Iliou Persis may in fact use older themes than what we find in the Iliad. The theme of Athena's being guardian of Troy may well suit the political realities of the eighth or seventh centuries B.C. in the Troad, but the theme itself may be much more archaic.

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Copyright © 1980, 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.