“Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.”

In book 6 Hector’s brother Helenus, the “best of the seers who scan the flight of birds,” sends Hector back to Troy so that he can tell the women to mount some serious prayers to Athena, see if she won’t call off her boy Diomedes. Helenus gives reasonably detailed instructions as to what’s to be sacrificed: the loveliest robe the women can find, plus the promise of twelve yearling heifers, never broken, to be added in to sweeten the deal later.

As everyone who reads folklore knows, you don’t ignore your seers. Hector pushes his way through the battle and back to the city. Hector’s mother and the other Trojan women also know that you don’t ignore your seers. They get that robe, head straight to Athena’s shrine, and start praying.

It doesn’t work.

To which I go, what? Yet this isn’t the first time the Iliad has messed with my folkloric expectations. Folklore also tells me that one ignores dreams, especially dreams sent by the gods, at one’s peril–yet in the Iliad, the gods will send false dreams, all to get the dreamers to do things not in their best interests, and to do them while thinking they’re listening to the gods. In short, any sensible folklore or fairy tale rule you follow has even odds of working–or not–and there’s no way you can know. May as well flip a coin, except if it really is the gods urging you on and you ignore them, then you’re in extra trouble.

So the women pray and Athena ignores them, and Hector goes to hunt down Paris. Paris is still in his rooms, polishing his armor now, and he cheerfully tells Hector that no, really, he was just getting around to heading out to the battlefield, that Helen’s urging him to actually fight was finally having some effect, go on ahead and he’ll catch up with Hector any moment now.

(Helen, meet Hallgerður and Guðrún. They’d like to have a few words with you about the art of effective goading.)

Helen’s words seem filled with equal parts self-loathing and Paris-loathing. Hector, after a stanza or so, leaves them both and goes off to look for his own wife, Andromache.

And then my cynicism drops away, because what follows is genuinely moving.

Andromache and his infant son and his son’s nurse are by the city walls, where Andromache is distraught at the thought of losing Hector in battle. And the affection between them–the deep and real fear each has of losing the other, or seeing the other suffer–just feels so real, and so human, that it’s … I’m not sure heartbreaking is quite the right word, but something like that. The affection Hector has for his son feels just as real.

… shining Hector reached down
for his son–but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror–
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless fods:
“Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!’–
when he comes from battle bearing the bloody gear
of the mortal enemy he has killed in war–
a joy to his mother’s heart.”
So Hector prayed
and placed his son in the arms of his loving wife.
Andromache pressed the child to her scented breast,
smiling through her tears. Her husband noticed,
and filled with pity now, Hector stroked her gently,
trying to reassure her, repeating her name: “Andromache,
dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me?
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you–
it’s born with us the day we are born.
So please go home and tend to your own tasks,
the distaff and the loom, and keep the women
working hard as well. As for the fighting,
men will see to that, all who were born in Troy
but I most of all.”

We’re still in a world where men and women each have their own work, but this is such a far cry from Zeus telling Aphrodite not to trouble her pretty little head about battle that it’s not even in the same universe.

The gods can have their power and their capricious ways. I’ll take these doomed mortals–because we know, even as we read, that Hector, Andromache, and their son are all doomed–over the deathless gods any day.

Hector and Andromache part, slowly, with many glances back. As Hector lingers by the walls, Paris catches up with him, saying, “Dude, you didn’t have to wait up,” or words to that effect. And they both return to the battle and the story.

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