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The Ancient Greek Hero -Hour 3 – Achilles lament


Achilles and the Poetics of Lament.


Lament (Photo credit: silvia centomo)

Lament is important to the Iliad,  it is one of the central themes expressed from the very beginning. Lament is a form of art that is simultaneously a very basic form of human expression, which is crying, weeping. Lament is a medium where you cry and you sing at the same time

Key Words

The key words for this section are akhos and penthos, which both mean grief, sorrow and the public expression of sorrow by way of singing lament or keening.

A Man of Constant Sorrow.

Thus he [= Agamemnon] spoke. And the son of Peleus [= Achilles] felt grief [akhos], and the heart within his shaggy chest was divided whether to draw the sharp sword at his thigh and make the others get up and scatter while he kills the son of Atreus [= Agamemnon], or whether to check his anger [kholos] and restrain his heart [thūmos].

Iliad I 188-192

Here we are talking about the most basic emotions that have to do with basic identity and where everything is at stake. The word akhos is connected with the name of Achilles who is a man of constant sorrow. He experiences akhos straight way which turns quickly into kholos, anger.

Achilles and Penthesileia, the Amazon.

Penthesileia was the daughter of Ares and Otrera. Her story of Penthesileia survives in an ancient plot summary of a lost epic, the Aithiopis or ‘Song of the Ethiopians’, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, which belonged to a body of epic poetry known in the ancient world as the epic Cycle. Below is all that we have left, unfortunately, about Penthesileia.

The Amazon Penthesileia, arrives, as an ally of the Trojans. She is the daughter of Arēs and Thracian by birth. In the middle of her aristeia [= greatest epic moments], Achilles kills her and the Trojans arrange for her funeral. And Achilles kills Thersites, who reviled him with abusive words for conceiving a passionate love for Penthesileia, so he said.

 One of Achilles’ enemies in the medium of ancient Greek song culture is an Amazon. She is the female body double of Achilles he sees himself reflected in her. There’s so little trace of Amazons in this surviving verbal art. Just as the word akhos is connected with the name of Achilles, its synonym penthos is connected with the name Penthesileia.  Both names have to do with the expression of sadness, sorrow, by way of lament so they are matched not only physically but in their names also.

Achilles killed Thersites when he mocked Achilles for falling in love with Penthesileia. We can see that there was some truth in this from the evidence of ancient vase-paintings, dating from the sixth and fifth centuries, where we see depictions of the actual moment when Achilles kills the beautiful Amazon.

Here are two examples. They are two vase paintings, showing the killing of the Amazon Penthesileia by Achilles:

You can see how their eyes meet at the moment when he kills her. Her death becomes a source of sorrow for Achilles completing the circle.

A Conventional Gesture in Women’s Laments

Lamenting women Picture credit : kunst-fuer-alle.de

We looked in this section at some examples from other song cultures particularly in situations when women express in sorrow by way of singing and crying. Most traditional laments and love songs are performed by women. Laments aren’t always about past sorrow, they can also anticipate  things to come.

The first lament in this recording is northern Hungarian lament, sung and cried, by an old woman who was mourning two adult sons, both of whom were evidently killed in war. You can hear how she loses control and hear her disorientation as her memories shift from the present to the past.

Photo credit : rafahtoday

As laments can become love songs so love songs can become laments. Many love songs are about unrequited love and are felt to be deeply erotic. The second recording is another Hungarian song from Transylvania. It is a love song and was used in the film ‘The English Patient’. The crying in this song is very stylized, she is not really crying.

Below are those two recordings chosen by Professor Nagy for this part of the course. Professor Nagy said that it is a most important matter to consider right now, as we study the Homeric Iliad, since the traditions of such performances pervade the Iliad.  Homeric poetry needs to be rethought in the light of the women’s song traditions that pervade it.

There are some conventional gestures in women’s laments, traditional ways of expressing loss of control and order, such as tearing your hairscratching your cheeksripping your fine clothing. In the case of letting down the hair, this ritual gesture is normally preceded by the equally spontaneous but traditional ritual gesture of ripping off the headdress that holds the hair together and keeps it composed.

Once the headdress is torn off, the hair gets let down and becomes completely undone. A spectacular example is the scene in Iliad XXII when the wife of Hector, Andromache, rips off her headdress, which is the most elaborate headdress to be found in Homeric poetry, before she starts to sing a lament over the death of her husband. By ripping off this headdress, Andromache is letting down her beautiful curly hair, violently undoing it. In effect, what the Homeric narration presents here to the mind’s eye is the complete undoing of a woman’s composure. Andromache will perform her lament, crying and singing, with her hair completely undone.

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy. Photo credit : wikimedia

She [= Andromache] rushed out of the palace, same as a maenad [mainas], with heart throbbing. And her attending women went with her. But when she reached the tower and the crowd of warriors, she stood on the wall, looking around, and then she noticed him. There he was, being dragged right in front of the city. The swift chariot team of horses was dragging him, far from her caring thoughts, back toward the hollow ships of the Achaeans. Over her eyes a dark night spread its cover, and she fell backward, gasping out her life’s breath [psūkhē]. She threw far from her head the splendid adornments that bound her hair her frontlet [ampux], her snood [kekruphalos], her plaited headband [anadesmē],  and, to top it all, the veil [krēdemnon] that had been given to her by golden Aphrodite on that day when Hector, the one with the waving plume on his helmet, took her by the hand and led her out from the palace of Eëtion, and he gave countless courtship presents. Crowding around her stood her husband’s sisters and his brothers’ wives, and they were holding her up. She was barely breathing, to the point of dying. But when she recovered her breathing and her life’s breath gathered in her heart, she started to sing a lament in the midst of the Trojan women.

Iliad XXII 460–476

The Laments of Ch’unhyang

A Typological Comparison of Laments. Not all the comparisons that we make are historically based. Not everything we compare involves common inheritance. There’s some things that are just unrelated that are still worth comparing. These analogies will help us, just by engaging in comparison, appreciate even more the laments that happen in the two different song cultures.


Ch’unhyang is based on a medieval epic stemming from Korean song culture. It has many details that are comparable the Homeric Iliad.  The beauty of it is that this traditional epic medium is based on very traditional society values as is Homeric poetry.  They are not historically related but they are comparable as traditional epics.  This lament can be directly compared with that of Andromache’s first lament in the next section.

The two scenes examined were a scene of lament and a scene of anxiety, suffering, both mental and physical. In the first scene the husband, tells his wife that he has to leave her for an indefinite period. This takes the wife by surprise. Her reaction is the reaction of somebody who understands her vulnerability because of her low social standing, how once her husband is gone; she will get the unwanted attention of people who might harm her in one way or another.

Have a look at the video {here} the relevant part is from minute 46 to about 54. You can see that she laments in that she is crying and singing at the same time. You can also hear the master narrator telling the story and he is singing and crying a little lapsed from Ch’unhyang. The film has subtitles that you can switch on using the youtube captions button.

In performing this lament Ch’unhyang sings about memories of beauty and pleasure that the couple experienced during their short but intense life together.

Master Narrator Credit : bltnotjustasandwich

The technical term for this kind of epic recitation is p’ansori. The stylized nature of the voice of the professional singer may be a little disconcerting or surprising to those not familiar with this Korean way of  performing epic. I enjoyed the film. To understand the medium watch the beginning  You can see all the audience arrive at the theatre. They come from all age groups and walks of life. You can also see the master narrator on the stage and get a feel for what it might be like to be in the audience.

The story of Ch’unhyang is a popular on in Korea. There is a television series called Sassy / Delightful girl Ch’unhyang with a lot of episidoes. The theme is the same as the main film but in the series Ch’unhyang is not a Ch’unhyang. There is a lot of martial arts. It reminded me of Monkey or Jackie Chan.

The second scene we looked at is the primal scene in Ch’unhyang, where all the things that she worried would happen did.  The governor fell in love with her and was rejected. He puts her through mental and physical torture.  The series of blows that are dealt to  Ch’unhyang are so traumatic even for the audience, that you really want to look away. At one point, the camera moves away from the scene of torture to the face of the master narrator. You don’t have to see what’s happening, you can imagine it.  You can see the facial expression of the master narrator as  he’s internalizing the physical and mental pain of Ch’unhyang as the blows  keep coming and the pain keeps intensifying. The camera moves to the audience to see their reactions.

You can see the second scene {here} from the beginning of the video until about minute nine. Again the subtitles are available if you want. It is worth reading the subtitles to understand what she is crying out as she counts the blows. I think the language here is very powerful.

The First Lament of Andromache

“Andromache Mourning Hector” Photo credit : wikimedia

Andromache, in rhapsody six of the Iliad, is singing a lament of premonition, as was  Ch’unhynag in the first scene. Her vulnerability to pain is so searingly described that if you were Andromache’s husband and you heard this, it would just break your heart. It is an exercise in sharing one’s personal emotions with not only those who are immediately connected to you in your life, but anybody who happens to be listening. Everybody is brought into this experience of larger than life sorrow as expressed by way of song.

What’s got into you [Hector] – some kind of superhuman force [daimōn]? Your own power [menos] is going to make you perish [phthi-n-ein]. You are not showing pity, not thinking of your disconnected [nēpiakhos] son, and not thinking of me, deprived as I am of good fortune. I will soon become a widow, your widow, since you will soon be killed by the Achaeans. They will all rush at you. It would be better for me, if I should lose you, to lie dead and be covered over by the earth, since there will no longer  be anything left to comfort me when you have met your fate. I will have nothing but sorrows [akhos plural]. I have neither a father nor a queen mother now. My father was killed by radiant Achilles when that one destroyed the beautifully flourishing city of the Cilicians, Thebe, with its lofty gates. So he [= Achilles] killed Eëtion, but he did not strip him of his armour – at least he had that much decency in his heart [thūmos] – and he honoured him with the ritual of cremation, burning him together with his armour. Then he heaped up a tomb [sēma] for him, and elm trees were generated [phuteuein] around it by forest nymphs who are daughters of Zeus, holder of the aegis. I had seven brothers in my father’s house, but on the same day they all went down into the house of Hādēs. For they were all killed by Achilles, swift of foot, the radiant one, while they were guarding their ranging cattle and their bright-fleeced sheep. My mother – her who had been queen of all the land under the wooded mountain Plakos – he [= Achilles] brought here along with the captured treasures, and freed her for the price of an untold amount of property, but then, in the house of your father [= Priam], she was shot down by Artemis, shooter of arrows. Oh, Hector, you who are to me a father, a queen mother, a brother, and a husband in his prime – please, have pity on me; stay here at the fortifications; don’t make your child an orphan, and your wife a widow.

Iliad VI 407-432

From what Andromache says, it is clear that her father would rank highest in her ascending scale of affection – if he were alive. But her father is dead, and so too are her seven brothers and her mother. For Andromache, all she has left is her husband Hector, who is now the entirety of her ascending scale of affections. Hector has become for Andromache her father, brothers, and mother as well as her husband. In effect, Andromache is telling Hector: you’re my everything.

What Achilles Sang.   

The song that Achilles is singing to himself and to Patroclus when the three ambassadors enter his shelter is directly relevant to the story of Andromache.

The two of them reached the shelters and the ships of the Myrmidons, and they found Achilles diverting his heart [phrēn] as he was playing on a clear-sounding lyre [phorminx], a beautiful one, of exquisite workmanship, and its cross-bar was of silver. It was part of the spoils that he had taken when he destroyed the city of Eëtion, and he was now diverting his heart [thūmos] with it as he was singing [aeidein] the glories of men [klea andrōn]. Patroklos was the only other person there. He [= Patroklos] sat in silence, facing him [= Achilles], and waiting for the Aeacid [= Achilles] to leave off singing [aeidein]. Meanwhile the two of them came in – Odysseus leading the way – and stood before him. Achilles sprang up from his seat with the lyre [phorminx] still in his hand and Patroklos, when he saw the guests, rose also.

Iliad IX 185-195

Achilles and Patriclus Credit : ancienthistory

Achilles is singing the klea andrōn, the ‘glories of heroes of the past’ accompanying himself on a lyre. The lyre once belonged to Eëtion, Andromache’s father who Achilles killed. Achilles took the lyre as his prize.  You could say that Achilles is strumming the pain of Andromache. Prof. Nagy was reminded of the words of the song original sung by Roberta Flack, Killing me softly (1973): “Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, …”

The song – the klea andrōn, the ‘glories of heroes of the past’ –has been mentioned before in the second reading of hour two. Phoenix is telling the story of the hero Meleagros and his wife Kleopatra, he mentions the klea andrōn in his micro-narrative. From his viewpoint it is a song of the love that a hero owes to his comrades. From the viewpoint of the Iliad it is the meaning of Kleopatra herself, of her name, which signals the ‘glories of the ancestors’, the ‘glories of heroes of the past’.

The Song of Kleopatra 

It is ambiguous whether the song of Kleopatra is by Kleopatra or about Kleopatra. It’s both. This medium affects not only the person who is directly experiencing something larger than life. It also affects everybody in the group that is participating in the performance of such an experience, a group of participants. Performance is not something passive but something that brings everybody into the action and engages, activates everybody’s emotions.

She [= Kleopatra] had been given a special name by the father and by the queen mother back then [when she was growing up] in the palace. They called her Alcyone, making that a second name for her, because her mother [= Marpessa] was feeling the same pain [oitos] felt by the halcyon bird, known for her many sorrows [penthos]. She [= Marpessa] was crying because she had been seized and carried away by the one who has far-reaching power, Phoebus Apollo. |

Iliad IX 561-564

Meleagros and Kleopatra Credit : arcadja.com

The name Kleopatra,and  the song about Kleopatra as told by Phoenix,have meanings related to lamentation. Kleopatra is performing a lament, singing it to her husband Meleagros. Her lament is paraphrased in this song of and about Kleopatra.

Kleopatra’s second name is Alcyone, the name of a bird that is linked with singing songs of lament. The Iliad makes this link explicit in referring to the name Alcyone, given to the lamenting Kleopatra by her lamenting mother and father.

We can say that the klea andrōn sung by Achilles is, to some extent, the song of Kleopatra. It is the song of Kleopatra, but it is not only her song. It is also the song of Patroklos. As we have seen in Hour 2, the meaning of the name of Kleopatra is also the meaning of the name of Patroklos, ‘the one who has the glory [kleos] of the ancestors [pateres]’, and this meaning recapitulates the epic choice of Achilles, who ultimately opts for kleos over life itself.



  1. Nat Nelson says:

    Interesting. I never knew any of this! Obviously I knew what the word laments meant but not that there was so much behind it

    • Louise Taylor says:

      It is fascinating looking at these things in greater detail. I didn’t know before this course either.

  2. […] Achilles and the Poetics of Lament. Lament is important to the Iliad, it is one of the central themes expressed from the very beginning. Lament is a form of art that is simultaneously a very basic…  […]

  3. The video of the lament has been made private.

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