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Achilles and the Black Cloud of Grief

In this book on the futility of longing for the dead, Professor Emily Austin of the University of Chicago explores the reaction of Achilles to the loss of his compatriot Patroclus. The text is, of course, the bedrock text of the Western world, The Iliad by Homer. Even though it was written some 2,750 years ago (no one is sure as we can’t even be certain a single author named Homer existed), modern scholars continue to write entire books about it year after year. Like the death of Lincoln, the death of the heroes in the Iliad (and its literary mate The Odyssey) has become a cottage industry. The human psyche obviously longs for these great men, forever reluctant to let them go. Even though the Achilles-Patroclus dynamic has been studied many times, I believe this is the first book-length treatment of the full panoply of the stages of grief that Achilles experienced.

One must first confront the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ that looms over any study of Achilles and Patroclus. Were they more than just close friends? Popular writers, who are keen to see homosexual intercourse under every bedsheet, will be disappointed in Austin’s approach. “I think the poem offers us a relationship that is best characterized neither as erotic nor as father-son, but instead as a remarkable instance of the mutually protective friendship that can blossom between two comrades in the course of a war.” One must also remember that Achilles was not entirely human either; his mother was Thetis, a Nymph who lived under the sea in a golden palace.

Austin describes this study as “robustly literary. That is, I am interested in the language of grief, longing, and anger.” Do not expect any solace from this book, as the author does not claim any universal insights into grief and anger. Rather, the articulations of loss are directly relevant only to the mythopoetic realm of ancient Greek times, even though they naturally have a “broad resonance.”

The author concentrates on the Greek word pothê, whose most similar meaning in English is “missing: if one friend says to another ‘I miss you,’ she means both that she feels the other’s absence and that she wishes the other were present.” Noting that the Iliad is not a work of philosophy, it never describes the relationship between pothê and grief. “Conceptually the two are distinct: longing is a force of attraction, grief the pain of loss.” Austin looks at previous scholarship on pothê, and finds it wanting. For example, she dismisses the claim of the German professor Gerrit Kloss that pothê does not embody any sense of ‘desire,’ writing he was wrong to “exclude the yearning that absence entails.” In a related context, she also dismisses the claim of Dr G.S. Kirk that the yearning of Achilles’ men to fight is inappropriate since Achilles is not absent but nearby. Austin rightly corrects the passage to mean that the Myrmidons “longed for the fighting Achilles as the person to lead them to fight.” She expresses this neatly as a “small slippage of thought,” and it is into such slippages that she makes headway in her arguments by a close reading of the passages relating to Achilles, and by refuting established scholarship. This particular point would have been clearer had Austin explained who the Myrmidons are, namely a group of Thessalian warriors commanded by Achilles. I will not get into further details here, but Austin finds four key elements of pothê that are critical for her overall study.

Each chapter is adorned with scores of footnotes, some of which contain important insights that should really have made it to the main text. On page 36 for example, one must read fn 56 to find a line from the Iliad that describes a “black cloud of grief” which covers Hektor at the death of Podes. Austin writes this “also describes Achilles’ grief for Patroclus.” I have used it in my headline for this review as it was the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hektor that led Achilles to exact revenge by killing Hektor. This book is really animated by an exploration of the anger Achilles felt, which “illuminates a narrative fact of the poem: killing Hektor does not ease Achilles’ grief. The killing is a manifestation of the insatiety of grief-longing, not its cure.” Her concluding chapter is about Hektor, and the differing way his death was described in the Iliad. The grief elements are muted for him, “never with the linguistic clarity and narrative focus” attached to the text relating to Achilles.

While there is some repetitive element to her arguments, Austin has done an admirable job at exploring the futility of longing for a dead hero. Even the ending of the Iliad holds promise for elucidating this. Postponing the actual fall of the city of Troy after its prime defender – Hektor – was killed, “allows us to see the underlying insanity driving Achilles’ anger. By delaying the fulfillment of Zeus’ will until after the poem’s end, we are forced to consider Achilles’ human motivations and their inner futility more fully.”  A slim but most valuable addition to the Classical bookshelf.


Grief and the Hero: The Futility of Longing in the Iliad (192 pages) is $70 by University of Michigan Press.

Photo: Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus (1855) by the Russian artist Nikolai Ge. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Achilles, at right, mourning Patroclus
Dr. Cliff Cunningham
Dr. Cliff Cunninghamhttp://sunnewsaustin.com
Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books.


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