An unnamed woman’s lament as a signal of epic sorrow

2015.06.17 | By Gregory Nagy

This photograph, which appeared on the front page of the newspaper Ριζοσπάστης on May 10, 1936, shows a mother mourning over the dead body of her son, Tassos Toussis, a factory worker who had just been killed by police at a demonstration by striking workers in the city of Thessaloniki. This image led Yiannis Ritsos to compose the poem that is now known as the "Epitaphios (᾿Επιτάφιος)," imagined as a lament sung by the mourning mother in the photograph. (Published with permission.)
This photograph, which appeared on the front page of the newspaper Ριζοσπάστης on May 10, 1936, shows a mother mourning over the dead body of her son, Tassos Toussis, a factory worker who had just been killed by police at a demonstration by striking workers in the city of Thessaloniki. This image led Yiannis Ritsos to compose the poem that is now known as the “Epitaphios (᾿Επιτάφιος),” imagined as a lament sung by the mourning mother in the photograph. (Published with permission.)

Introduction

§0.1. In Odyssey 8, Odysseus sheds tears both times when he hears the two songs of Demodokos about the Trojan War, paraphrased at verses 72–83 and 487–498. As I argued in what I posted for 2015.06.10, Odysseus is weeping because he recognizes that the stories told in these songs are signals of a sorrow felt by himself and even by Achilles. In that posting, I highlighted two words that signal such epic sorrow. First, there was pēma at verse 81, which I translated simply as ‘pain’: this word, as I argued, refers not only to the general story about the conquest of Troy but also to the specific story about the temporary withdrawal of Achilles from the Trojan War, as narrated in the Iliad, and about this hero’s spectacular death, as narrated beyond the Iliad and as prefigured by the comparably spectacular death of Patroklos within the Iliad. The second word was akhos at verse 541, which I translated more specifically as ‘sorrow’ and which refers to the sadness felt by Odysseus in hearing the story sung by Demodokos about the conquest of Troy. When Odysseus feels akhos at verse 541, he is feeling the kind of ‘sorrow’ that is felt by singers of lament—especially by women who sing songs of lament. That is my argument here. And, as I will also argue, such a feeling of ‘sorrow’ extends from Odysseus to Achilles as well.

A poetics of lament

§1. But how exactly is sorrow expressed by lament? In Hour 3 of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (H24H), I offer this basic formulation: lament is a form of crying and singing at the same time. I repeat the essentials of what I say there:

When people like you and me cry, we just cry. When people in a song culture cry, they lament. That is, they sing while they cry, they cry while they sing, and this kind of singing is crying; this kind of crying is singing. The physical aspects of crying are all integrated into the singing: the flow of tears, the choking of the voice, the convulsions of the body, and so on, are all part of the singing. Anthropologists have collected many examples of laments that are sung and cried by persons in the depths of real grief. And there has been a great deal of ethnographic collecting of and research on such laments in Modern Greek song culture.[1]

Two times in this formulation, I have used the expression song culture in describing social contexts where crying and singing are happening at the same time. In Hour 3 of H24H, I highlight the fact that the ancient as well the modern Greek traditions of singing lament, especially as performed by women, are clear examples of such a song culture.

§2. In a new project of mine, Masterpieces of Metonymy (2015), I focus on one particular example of women’s lament.[2] It has to do with a Modern Greek poem that was inspired by a historical event, captured in a photograph showing a woman weeping over the body of a man sprawled on the ground. The body is the corpse of the woman’s son, who has just been shot to death in a confrontation with the police. The illustration for what I am posting here and now, 2015.06.17, shows a copy of that photograph, and the caption for the illustration gives the historical background.

An unnamed woman’s lament

§3. In ancient Greek traditions of lament, we find comparable situations. A striking example is a scene pictured in Odyssey 8 where we see an unnamed woman weeping over the body of a man sprawled on the ground. The man is the woman’s dying husband, mortally wounded in war while defending his family and his community. The scene comes from a simile that compares the weeping of this unnamed woman to the weeping of Odysseus himself in reaction to the singing of Demodokos about the Trojan War:

|514 ἤειδεν δ’ ὡς ἄστυ διέπραθον υἷες Ἀχαιῶν |515 ἱππόθεν ἐκχύμενοι, κοῖλον λόχον ἐκπρολιπόντες. |516 ἄλλον δ’ ἄλλῃ ἄειδε πόλιν κεραϊζέμεν αἰπήν, |517 αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσῆα προτὶ δώματα Δηϊφόβοιο |518 βήμεναι, ἠΰτ’ Ἄρηα, σὺν ἀντιθέῳ Μενελάῳ. |519 κεῖθι δὴ αἰνότατον πόλεμον φάτο τολμήσαντα |520 νικῆσαι καὶ ἔπειτα διὰ μεγάθυμον Ἀθήνην. |521 ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς |522 τήκετο, δάκρυ δ’ ἔδευεν ὑπὸ βλεφάροισι παρειάς. |523 ὡς δὲ γυνὴ κλαίῃσι φίλον πόσιν ἀμφιπεσοῦσα, |524 ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν, |525 ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ· |526 ἡ μὲν τὸν θνῄσκοντα καὶ ἀσπαίροντα ἰδοῦσα |527 ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει· οἱ δέ τ’ ὄπισθε |528 κόπτοντες δούρεσσι μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμους |529 εἴρερον εἰσανάγουσι, πόνον τ’ ἐχέμεν καὶ ὀϊζύν· |530 τῆς δ’ ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ φθινύθουσι παρειαί· |531 ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς ἐλεεινὸν ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δάκρυον εἶβεν. |532 ἔνθ’ ἄλλους μὲν πάντας ἐλάνθανε δάκρυα λείβων, |533 Ἀλκίνοος δέ μιν οἶος ἐπεφράσατ’ ἠδ’ ἐνόησεν

|514 He [= Demodokos] sang how the sons of the Achaeans destroyed the city [of Troy], |515 pouring out of the [Wooden] Horse, leaving behind the hollow place of ambush. |516 He sang how the steep citadel was destroyed by different men at different places. |517 —how Odysseus went to the palace of Deiphobos, |518 how he was looking like Ares, and godlike Menelaos went with him, |519 and how in that place, I now see it, he [= Demodokos] said that he [= Odysseus] dared to go through the most terrible part of the war, |520 and how he emerged victorious after that, with the help of Athena, the one with the mighty spirit. |521 Thus sang the singer [aoidos], the one whose glory is supreme. And Odysseus |522 dissolved [tēkesthai] into tears. He made wet his cheeks with the tears flowing from his eyelids, |523 just as a woman cries, falling down and embracing her dear husband, |524 who fell in front of the citadel and people he was defending, |525 trying to ward off the pitiless day of doom hanging over the city and its children. |526 She sees him dying, gasping for his last breath, |527 and she pours herself all over him as she wails with a piercing cry. But there are men behind her, |528 prodding her with their spears, hurting her back and shoulders, |529 and they bring for her a life of bondage, which will give her pain [ponos] and grief [oïzus]. |530 Her cheeks are wasting away with a sorrow [akhos] that is most pitiful [eleeinon]. |531 So also did Odysseus pour out a piteous tear [dakruon] from beneath his brows; |532 there he was, escaping the notice of all while he kept pouring out his tears [dakrua]. |533 But Alkinoos was the only one of all of them who was aware, and he noticed [noeîn].

Odyssey 8.514–533

By studying other Homeric contexts of the word akhos ‘sorrow’ as used here at verse 530 of Odyssey 8, we can see that this word is a stylized way of referring to the singing of lament.[3] The captive woman is not only weeping over the death of her husband: she is simultaneously singing a song of lament. A most telling part of the description here is the wording at verse 527: ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει ‘and she pours herself all over him as she wails with a piercing cry’. We see the same wording at verse 284 of Iliad 19, where the captive woman Briseis is lamenting as she embraces the corpse of Patroklos: ἀμφ’ αὐτῷ χυμένη λίγα κωκύει ‘and she pours herself all over him as she wails with a piercing cry’. In the case of Briseis, her song of lament is actually quoted at verses 287–300 of Iliad 19. In H24H 4§44, I translate this song of lament that Briseis performs.[4] And, in H24H 4§§44–48, I show how this song that we see being sung by Briseis at verses 287–300 is actually a replacement for another song. As the lamenting words of Briseis herself reveal at verses 291–297, her song of lament for Patroklos replaces a song of lament that she would have sung for her own husband, who was killed by Achilles and whose corpse she describes this way at verse 292: εἶδον πρὸ πτόλιος δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ ‘I saw him lying there in front of the city, all cut apart by the sharp bronze’. This earlier experience of Briseis, when her vision was assaulted by the sight of her dead husband, is now replaced by her later experience in seeing the dead Patroklos, as we read in verse 283: ὡς ἴδε Πάτροκλον δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ ‘when she [= Briseis] saw Patroklos, all cut apart by the sharp bronze . . .’.[5] And now Briseis is lamenting Patroklos, not her husband.

§4. Following the quotation of the lament sung by Briseis for Patroklos at verses 287–300 of Iliad 19 is the quotation of another lament for Patroklos at verses 315–337, and this lament is actually performed by the hero Achilles himself. Achilles here is represented as actually singing a lament, just as Briseis actually sings a lament. In H24H 14§42, I translate this song of lament that Achilles himself performs. And, in H24H 14§§37–42, I show how this lamentation of Achilles for his other self, Patroklos, is a signal for all the Achaeans to lament Achilles himself in the future, after his own death. The lamenting Achilles is signaling to the Achaeans: do as I do.

To transfer the sorrow

§5. The akhos ‘sorrow’ felt by the weeping captive woman at verse 530 of Odyssey 8 corresponds to the sorrow felt by Odysseus himself as he hears the story. Alkinoos as the caring host of Odysseus says so—after noticing that his yet-unidentified guest is weeping. In referring to the sorrow felt by Odysseus, Alkinoos will now say the same word akhos that we saw being used in the simile referring to the sorrow felt by the weeping captive woman. I quote here the wording of Alkinoos, starting at the point where he commands the singer Demodokos to stop the singing:

|537 Δημόδοκος δ’ ἤδη σχεθέτω φόρμιγγα λίγειαν· |538 οὐ γάρ πως πάντεσσι χαριζόμενος τάδ’ ἀείδει. |539 ἐξ οὗ δορπέομέν τε καὶ ὤρορε θεῖος ἀοιδός, |540 ἐκ τοῦδ’ οὔ πω παύσατ’ ὀϊζυροῖο γόοιο |541 ὁ ξεῖνος· μάλα πού μιν ἄχος φρένας ἀμφιβέβηκεν. |542 ἀλλ’ ἄγ’ ὁ μὲν σχεθέτω, ἵν’ ὁμῶς τερπώμεθα πάντες, |543 ξεινοδόκοι καὶ ξεῖνος, ἐπεὶ πολὺ κάλλιον οὕτω.

|537 It is high time for Demodokos to hold off and stop the song of that lyre of his with its clear sound.|538 I say that because the beauty and the pleasure he gives [kharizestai][6] as he sings these things does not at all extend to everyone here. |539 As soon as we began dining and as soon as the divine singer got started,[7] |540 ever since then there has been no pause in grief-filled lamentation [goos] on the part of this one, |541 I mean, on the part of this guest here. It seems to me that sorrow [akhos] has overcome his thinking, very much so. |542 This one [= the singer] must now hold off [on his singing], so that we may take delight [terpesthai] all together |543 —I mean, not only we as the hosts but also he as the guest. It would be much more beautiful that way.

Odyssey 8.537–543

So, the akhos ‘sorrow’ of the weeping captive woman at verse 530 in the simile has been transferred to the akhos ‘sorrow’ of the weeping guest at verse 541. Earlier, I noted that the word akhos at verse 530 refers not only to the sorrow felt by the weeping woman but also to the lament that she sings while she weeps in expressing that sorrow. Similarly, the word akhos at verse 541 refers not only to the sorrow felt by the weeping guest but also to the lament that he sings while he weeps. At verse 540, the sorrowful weeping of the guest is pointedly described as an act of goos or ‘lamentation’.

§6. In the posting of 2015.06.10, I quoted a parallel description involving the verb goân ‘lament’, derivative of the noun goos ‘lamentation’. This description came from the earlier part of the narrative in Odyssey 8 about the reaction of Odysseus to the singing of Demodokos about the Trojan War, at verses 83–92. In this passage, the act of ‘lamenting’ as expressed by the verb goân at verse 92 is accompanied by the act of veiling one’s own face and head at verses 84–88. As we have already seen in the posting for 2015.06.10, such an act of self-veiling as a formal expression of grief is a characteristic of Achilles. And, as we have also seen there, the experiencing of akhos ‘sorrow’ is likewise a characteristic of Achilles, signaled by the overall pēma ‘pain’ announced at verse 81 of Odyssey 8—a pain that was caused, first, by the withdrawal of Achilles from war, and then by his death after he rejoined his fellow Achaeans. The very idea of such a pain, as I noted in the posting for 2015.06.10, is linked even to the name of Achilles, which can be explained morphologically as *Akhi-lāwos ‘he who has akhos [“sorrow” or even “pain”] for the lāos [“host of fighting men”]’.[8] And now, in the present posting for 2015.06.17, we see that Achilles himself is the model for expressing such sorrow by way of lamentation. When he is represented at verses 315–337 of Iliad 19 as singing his own song of lament for his other self, Patroklos, he is lamenting not only Patroklos but also his own self, showing the Achaeans how it is done: do as I do. Later on, at the funeral of Patroklos, Achilles is pictured in the act of actually leading the communal song and choreography involved in the antiphonal lamenting of Patroklos by all the Myrmidons:

. . . οἳ δ’ ᾤμωξαν ἀολλέες, ἦρχε δ’ Ἀχιλλεύς

They [= the Myrmidons] all wailed together, and Achilles led them.

Iliad 23.12

τοῖσι δὲ Πηλεΐδης ἁδινοῦ ἐξῆρχε γόοιο

[Achilles] the son of Peleus led them [= the Myrmidons] in a pulsating song of lamentation [goos].

Iliad 23.17 [9]

So, the sorrow that is signaled by Odysseus in reacting to both songs of Demodokos about the Trojan War is made parallel to the sorrow that is signaled by the story of Achilles and even by Achilles himself. And the point of contact for the parallelism is the sorrow that is signaled by the lamenting captive woman.

Epic sorrow: A poetics of lament in Homeric poetry

§7. In the twin books Homer the Classic and Homer the Preclassic, I argued that the sad figure of the unnamed lamenting captive woman at verses 523–531 of Odyssey 8 signals a poetics of lament that informs both the Iliad and the Odyssey.[10] Here I summarize those parts of my argumentation that are relevant to the sorrows of the primary heroes in these epics, Achilles and Odysseus.

§8. I start by making a point that centers on the song sung by Demodokos at verses 487–498 of Odyssey 8 about the capture of Troy. This song, as an inner narrative that is paraphrased by the outer narrative of the Odyssey itself, is incomplete. The incompleteness is evident when we compare the outlines of a complete version that survives in the form of a prose paraphrase summarizing the plot of the Iliou Persis (‘The Destruction of Ilion’), an epic attributed to Arctinus of Miletus and belonging to the so-called Epic Cycle. The plot of this epic, as summarized by Proclus (pp. 107–8 ed. Allen 1912), indicates what happens after the Achaeans succeed in capturing Troy. That part of the narrative, as we will now see, is not paraphrased in Odyssey 8.

§9. After verses 521–522 of Odyssey 8, which mark the precise moment when Odysseus starts to weep in response to the narration of Demodokos, the narrative at verses 523–530 switches to a simile that compares the weeping of this hero to the weeping of an unidentified woman who has just been captured by the enemy.

§10. The simile interrupts the narration but also continues it indirectly, taking up the ongoing action at exactly the point in time where it was left off by the outer narrative of the Odyssey. As we see in the Proclus summary of the Iliou Persis (p. 108.8–10), this point in time is the moment when Odysseus is about to kill Astyanax, son of Andromache and Hector, and Neoptolemos is about to capture Andromache herself as his war prize.[11] Neoptolemos is of course the son of Achilles. So the enslavement of Andromache as a captive woman is perpetrated by the son of the man who made her a widow, Achilles. And the killing of Andromache’s son Astyanax is perpetrated by Odysseus himself.

§11. When the scene of Andromache’s capture is about to be retold in the song of Demodokos, something happens in the overall narrative of the Homeric Odyssey. At the moment in time where the retelling is about to happen, it is blocked. Unlike what happens in the Iliou Persis of Arctinus, where a high point of the narrative of Troy’s destruction is the capture of Andromache—which leads to the killing of Astyanax—that high point is missing in the Odyssey: instead, the narrator’s act of identifying Andromache as a captive woman is screened by a simile about an unidentified captive woman.[12]

Screen memory

§12. This sequence of narration in the Odyssey achieves an effect of screen memory. An essential phase in the sequence is being screened out by the memory of that narrative. The climax of the action, that is, the capturing of the woman who is yet to be identified as Andromache, has been screened out by a simile about the capturing of a woman who will never be identified.[13]

§13. There is an irony in the fact that Odysseus is not only the foregrounded audience of this song performed by Demodokos about the capture of Troy: he is also an agent of the plot that is being narrated by the song, since he is a direct cause of Andromache’s sorrows.[14]

§14. But Achilles too is an agent of the plot here, since he too is a direct cause of Andromache’s sorrows. By killing Hector, he is the one who makes Andromache a widow. And this widow then becomes comparable to that other widow whom we saw described as the unnamed lamenting woman in the simile at verses 523–530 of Odyssey 8. Like Hector, the husband of that lamenting woman is pictured as his city’s defender, and he is pointedly described as a protector of children at verses 524–525: ὅς τε ἑῆς πρόσθεν πόλιος λαῶν τε πέσῃσιν, |525 ἄστεϊ καὶ τεκέεσσιν ἀμύνων νηλεὲς ἦμαρ ‘who fell in front of the citadel and people he was defending, |525 trying to ward off the pitiless day of doom hanging over the city and its children’.

§15. The innocent children of the city are exemplified by Astyanax, victim of the unnamed guest. In her song of lamentation for Hector at his funeral, quoted at verses 725–745 of Iliad 24, Andromache herself laments prospectively the fate of Astyanax: at verses 734–735, her words are picturing a future moment when an unnamed Achaean will kill the orphan boy, throwing him down to his death from the high walls of Troy.

§16. This song of lament by Andromache, the captive woman of the future, is already a song of the past when the unnamed guest is about to hear what happened to her and to her son after Troy was captured. What happened is screened out, but the sorrow continues, finding expression in the lamentation that is internalized by the two main epic heroes of Homeric poetry.


Bibliography

Alexiou, M. 1974. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Cambridge. 2nd ed. 2002, with new introduction, by P. Roilos and D. Yatromanolakis. Lanham MD.

Allen, T. W., ed. 1912. Homeri Opera. Vol. 5, Hymni, Cyclus, Fragmenta, Margites, Batrachomyomachia, Vitae. Oxford.

Dué. C. 2002. Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. Lanham, MD.

Dué, C. 2006. The Captive Woman’s Lament in Greek Tragedy. Austin.

Muellner, L. 2012. “Grieving Achilles.” Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry (ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, Ch. Tsagalis) 197–220. Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 12. Berlin and Boston.

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999. Baltimore.

Nagy, G. 1996a. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge UK.

Nagy, G. 1996b. Homeric Questions. Austin.

Nagy, G. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Cambridge MA and Athens.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Nagy. G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. EPUB | Printed version. Cambridge MA.

Nagy, G. 2015. Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Both online and printed versions. Hellenic Studies Series. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.


Notes

[1] Nagy 2013 (H24H) 3§10. A particularly useful work that surveys the vast evidence to be found in Modern Greek traditions is the book of Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (1974; second edition 2002 via Yatromanolakis and Roilos).

[2] Nagy 2015 1§181.

[3] Nagy 1979 ch. 6.

[4] For more on the captive woman Briseis as a singer of lament, I cite the pathfinding work of Dué 2002.

[5] In my analysis of these verses in Nagy 2010|2009:249, where I say that the lament of Briseis over the corpse of Patroklos is “evoking her earlier lament over the corpse of her own dear husband,” I should have made it more clear that the “earlier lament” in this case was not allowed to happen.

[6] On the poetics of kharis as ‘the beauty and the pleasure’ of reciprocity in the performance of song, see Nagy 2009|2008 2§308.

[7] I translate ὤρορε (variant reading ὤρετο) here at verse 539 as ‘got started’ in the light of what we read at verse 499, ὁρμηθείς, which I interpret as ‘setting his point of departure’: see Nagy 2009|2008 2§287.

[8] This explanation, as I already noted in the posting for 2015.06.10, is summarized in Nagy 1979 4§6.

[9] Commentary in Nagy 1979 6§23.

[10] Nagy 2009|2008 2§§335–39, 2010|2009:125–26. On the poetics of lament as embedded in Homeric poetry, see also Dué 2002 and 2006.

[11] Nagy 1979 6§§8–9, Dué 2006:2. An alternative epic version, according to which Astyanax is killed by Neoptolemos, is analyzed in Nagy 2009|2010:204.

[12] Nagy 2009|20082§337.

[13] Nagy 2009|20082§338.

[14] Nagy 2009|2008 2§339, with reference to Nagy 1979 6§9.



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