An anchor comment on the tomb of Achilles at Odyssey 24.76–84

2017.01.03 | By Gregory Nagy

The Homeric Iliad as we have it refers at least two times directly and two times indirectly to the tomb of Achilles, while the Odyssey refers to it one time directly. In the direct references that we see in the Iliad, it is made clear that this tomb starts off as a small-scale structure, located at the same place where a funeral pyre is constructed for the cremation of the body of Patroklos, and that the original function of this tomb is to enclose the bones of that hero after his body is cremated. But it is also made clear, in both the direct and the indirect references as we see them in the Iliad, that this same tomb will in a future time enclose the bones of Achilles as well, which will then be mixed together with the bones of Patroklos inside a golden jar. In this future time, when Achilles too is dead, it will be his own body that will need to be cremated at the same place and then entombed in the same structure. For this new entombment to happen, however, the small-scale structure that had enveloped the bones of Patroklos will now grow into a large-scale structure, exponentially larger than the original. Such is the tomb of Achilles as pictured in Odyssey 24.

View of the putative Tomb of Patroklos in Cape Yenişehir, Asia Minor (1867). Etienne Rey (French, 1789–1867). Image via Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation.
View of the putative Tomb of Patroklos in Cape Yenişehir, Asia Minor (1867).
Etienne Rey (French, 1789–1867).
Image via Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation.

 

The Homeric Iliad as we have it refers at least two times directly and two times indirectly to the tomb of Achilles, while the Odyssey refers to it one time directly. In the direct references that we see in the Iliad, it is made clear that this tomb starts off as a small-scale structure, located at the same place where a funeral pyre is constructed for the cremation of the body of Patroklos, and that the original function of this tomb is to enclose the bones of that hero after his body is cremated. But it is also made clear, in both the direct and the indirect references as we see them in the Iliad, that this same tomb will in a future time enclose the bones of Achilles as well, which will then be mixed together with the bones of Patroklos inside a golden jar. In this future time, when Achilles too is dead, it will be his own body that will need to be cremated at the same place and then entombed in the same structure. For this new entombment to happen, however, the small-scale structure that had enveloped the bones of Patroklos will now grow into a large-scale structure, exponentially larger than the original. Such is the tomb of Achilles as pictured in Odyssey 24.

 

O.24.076–084 / anchor comment on: tomb of Achilles, part 3.
subject heading(s): post-heroic age
see also anchor comment at I.23.125–126 on: tomb of Achilles, part 1
see also anchor comment at I.23.245–248 on: tomb of Achilles, part 2

The argumentation here can be divided into five interconnected points to be made:

Point 1. At I.23.125–126 and at I.23.245–248, we find two direct references to the tomb of Achilles, though at first it may seem as if the tomb belongs to Patroklos primarily and to Achilles only secondarily. See the anchor comments at I.23.125–126 and at I.23.245–248. Here at O.24.076–084, however, where we find the third and most detailed direct reference to the same tomb, it becomes clear that (A) this structure belongs primarily to Achilles and (B) the cremation and entombment of Patroklos were designed all along to prefigure the cremation and entombment of Achilles. Even in the Iliad, the two indirect references to the tomb show that Achilles is the primary occupant of the structure: see the comments on I.07.067–091 and on I.19.373–380.

Point 2. In the direct references that we find at I.23.125–126 and at I.23.245–248, it is made clear that this tomb starts off as a small-scale structure, located at the same place where a funeral pyre is constructed for cremating the body of Patroklos, and that the original function of this tomb is to enclose the bones of that hero after his body is cremated. But it is also made clear, not only in the direct references at I.23.125–126 and I.23.245–248 but also in the indirect references at I.07.067–091 and I.19.373–380, that this same tomb will in a future time enclose the bones of Achilles as well, which will then be mixed together with the bones of Patroklos inside a golden jar that had been given by the god Dionysus to the mother of Achilles, I.23.092. In this future time, when Achilles too is dead, it will be his own body that will need to be cremated at the same place and then entombed inside the same structure.

Point 3. Once the cremation of Achilles is completed, O.23.071, the bones of the hero are mixed with the bones of Patroklos and placed inside the golden jar, gift of Dionysus, that Thetis has now brought to the funeral, O.24.072–077. That golden jar signals a future of immortalization for Achilles and, by extension, for Patroklos, whose psūkhē ‘spirit’ had originally indicated the need for the bones of both heroes to be stored inside the golden jar, I.23.092 (BA 209–210). Now that the bones are safely stored in the golden jar, the two heroes must be entombed together. For this new entombment to happen, however, the small-scale structure that had enveloped the bones of Patroklos will now grow into a large-scale structure, exponentially larger than the original. As noted in the anchor comment at I.23.245–248…256–257, the entombment of Achilles together with Patroklos will now lead to an upgrading of the tomb, the size of which will become spectacular in both height and width, I.23.246–247. And it is this large-scale structure, in all its splendor, that we see pictured in Odyssey 24.

Point 4. The structure is a tumbos ‘tomb’, O.24.080, which is ‘heaped up’ by the Achaean=Argive warriors to entomb the bones of Achilles and Patroklos, O.24.081: so the tomb is a tumulus. And this tumulus is situated on top of a high promontory that looks out over the sea of the Hellespont, O.24.082, so that it may shine from afar as a beacon light of salvation for all those who sail through the troubled waters of that dangerous sea—not only ‘now’ in the heroic past but also in the post-heroic future, O.24.083–084. The time frame indicated as ‘now’ here is the era of the heroes who fought in the Trojan War, but the future is of course the ever movable here-and-now of Homeric reception (Nagy 2012:48). Already at I.23.248, Achilles makes a pointed reference to the Achaeans of the future who will be sailing past the promontory on top of which his tomb is located and marveling at the sight of the structure, which is called a sēma ‘tomb’ at I.23.257. See the anchor comment at I.23.245–248…256–257.

Point 5. By now we can picture the tomb of Achilles, situated on a promontory overlooking the dangerous sea of the Hellespont, as a magnificent structure resembling a splendid lighthouse. There is a comparable image to be seen at I.19.373–380: in these verses, which refer indirectly to the tomb of Achilles, the selas ‘flash of light’ streaming from the bright surface of the hero’s Shield, I.19.374, is compared to a selas ‘flash of light’ streaming from a fire that sends forth its light from a lighthouse, I.19.375. See the comment on I.19.373–380. As I note in the comment there, this saving light is described as holding forth a promise of salvation for sailors lost at sea who are longing to be reunited with their loved ones at home, I.19.375, I.19.377–378. And this light is said to be streaming from a fire that is burning at a remote place described here as a solitary stathmos ‘station’ situated in the heights overlooking the dangerous seas below, I.19.376–377. To picture the tomb of Achilles as a stathmos ‘station’ that shelters herdsmen and that protects sailors is another traditional way of viewing the sacred place where the hero Achilles once lived and died. See the comments on I.18.587–589 and I.19.373–380.

[[GN 2017.01.03; on an ancient rivalry between the cities of Mytilene and Athens in claiming ownership of the the tomb of Achilles, see HPC177–189.]]

 


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ      = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM    = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a

 


Bibliography

See the dynamic Bibliography for AHCIP.

 


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for AHCIP.

 

 



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