Homer’s ILIAD: Hector Fights Achilles

CHAPTER 22: Hector Fights Achilles

In Troy, the warriors who had fled like fawns away from Achilles drank to quench their thirst. Outside the walls, the Greek troops approached the city. Still outside Troy’s walls was Hector, standing by the Scaean Gates. His fate approached.

Apollo now revealed himself to Achilles, saying, “Look at the god you are chasing. You thought that you were chasing Agenor! I tricked you. I wanted to save Trojan warriors. Look! They have reached the walls of Troy! But you are out here, far from the walls. You have been trying to kill me, but you can’t — I am immortal!”

Achilles was furious. He shouted at Apollo, “You saved many Trojans whom I would have killed! You have stolen kleos away from me. Because you are an immortal god, I cannot punish you, but if I were powerful enough to kill you, I would!”

Achilles ran to Troy. He was like a stallion pulling a chariot in a race.

Priam, King of Troy, saw Achilles first. Achilles blazed like the star known as Orion’s Dog, the star that brings dangerous fevers to mortals. Priam saw Achilles’ armor glinting, and he groaned and called to Hector, who was still standing outside the walls of Troy, “Don’t try to fight Achilles, my son! You have no friends by you to help you! Achilles will kill you without mercy! He is a much stronger warrior than you. I wish that the gods would answer my prayers and kill him and allow the dogs and birds to eat his flesh. Seeing that would relieve much of my misery!

“Achilles has taken so many of my sons away from me. Either he killed them, or he captured them and sold them into slavery far away. I look, but I cannot find my young sons Lycaon and Polydorus. They are two sons whom Laothoë bore to me. If Achilles captured them alive, I will ransom them with bronze and gold, treasure that is still left to me. We still have treasure left in Troy — treasure that Laothoë’s father gave to me as a dowry. But Lycaon and Polydorus may be already dead. Their mother and I will grieve long for them. The Trojans, however, will grieve for them for only a moment because they were minor warriors.

“But you, Hector, are the main defense of Troy! All Troy will grieve long for you if Achilles kills you! So come into the city — be safe behind the walls. You can still defend the Trojan men and the Trojan women. Don’t let Achilles kill you and gain kleos!

“Hector, pity me! I am an old man. I am not senile, but old age has withered my limbs. I have already looked on much horror, and no doubt Zeus knows that the end of my life will be additional horror. What will I see at the end of my life? With you dead, I will see my sons killed, my daughters dragged away to become sex-slaves, my treasure carried away, infants killed by being flung to the ground from the high walls of Troy, and the wives of my sons carried away to be slaves and serve their masters in bed!

“As for me, an enemy will kill me and my dogs will eat my body. The dogs that I have raised to guard me will lap up my blood.

“Young men who die in battle have a noble death. They win kleos as they defend wives, children, parents, and citizens. But when an old man dies, the dogs chew his head and his genitals. Does a crueler sight exist?”

Priam groaned, but Hector stayed outside the walls of Troy.

Hecuba, Hector’s mother, cried and opened her robe. She revealed a breast and held it. She called to Hector, “My child, look at this! Pity me, your mother, who breastfed you. Come behind the walls of Troy and fight Achilles from here. Don’t try to fight Achilles outside the walls of Troy in single combat. Achilles has no pity. If he kills you, I won’t be able to mourn over your body. Neither will Andromache, your wife, who loves you. Achilles will take your corpse back to the ships and allow the dogs and birds to eat your flesh!”

Both Priam and Hecuba wept and cried out to Hector, but he stayed outside the walls of Troy, waiting for Achilles. A poisonous snake can lie in wait, ready to strike and kill. So Hector waited for Achilles.

As he waited, Hector said to himself, “I must fight Achilles. I have no other good course of action. If I go inside the walls of Troy, I must face Polydamas, who urged me last night to return to Troy now that Achilles is once again fighting for the Greeks. I would not do as Polydamas advised. I was wrong. I should have followed his advice. Now the Trojan army is defeated. Now many Trojan warriors and allies are dead who would be still alive if I had followed Polydamas’ advice. Now many Trojan parents lack sons who would be still alive if I had followed Polydamas’ advice. Now many Trojan sisters lack brothers who would be still alive if I had followed Polydamas’ advice. Now many Trojan women are widows who would be still wives if I had followed Polydamas’ advice. I am ashamed to face the Trojans. Someone will point this out — correctly: ‘Hector destroyed his army because he was so confident in his own strength.’

“Now the best thing I can do is to fight Achilles and kill him. That is the best course of action available to me, and that is the best outcome.

“But suppose I put aside my weapons and armor and greet Achilles with respect. I could promise to give Helen back to the Greeks and give back the treasure that Paris stole from Menelaus. As war reparations, I could give half of the treasure that is inside Troy. I could swear an oath that we will hide no treasure from the Greeks.

“But why even daydream about such things. Achilles will have no pity for me, no mercy. If I don’t wear armor, he will kill me anyway. Instead of killing me like the warrior I am, he will kill me as if I were an unarmed woman.

“I can’t reason with Achilles. I can’t talk to him. It is not as if we are a boy and a girl talking together and sharing secrets.”

Hector was trying very hard not to think of Andromache, his wife.

Hector continued speaking to himself, “All I can do now is to fight Achilles. Zeus will give one of us — maybe even me — the victory.”

Achilles was close now, looking like Ares, the god of war, running straight at Hector. Achilles’ armor blazed like a fire or the sun.

Hector looked at him and lost his nerve. He was afraid, and he ran. He had no time to get through the Scaean Gates before Achilles reached him, so he ran away, around the city. Achilles was like a hawk chasing a dove, eager to tear it to pieces.

They ran and ran, passing the washing grounds outside the city. Two streams were there: one hot and steaming, and the other cold. In the days of peace, women would gather here to wash their laundry and then dry it on the grass. In the days of peace, so many things were different. People, including women and children, could leave the city and be safe. Shepherds could take their sheep to good pasture. Now only armed warriors left the city. The blessings of peace were gone. The people of Troy had traded the blessings of peace away for Helen so that Paris and she could have an adulterous relationship.

Achilles and Hector ran. Hector was a great warrior, but Achilles was a greater warrior. The two raced for a prize. They raced for a life — the life of Hector. They were like stallions racing in funeral games to celebrate the life of a fallen warrior. They were racing for a fine, notable prize worth racing for.

Achilles chased Hector three times around Troy, and the gods watched them.

Zeus said to the other gods, “I pity Hector. He is a mortal I respected, who respected me. Hector sacrificed many oxen to me both on Mount Ida and inside the walls of Troy. Now Achilles is chasing him, eager to take his life. Achilles is a faster runner than Hector.

“Gods, what should we do? Should we intervene and save the life of Hector or allow Achilles to take his revenge and kill him?”

Athena replied, “Hector is only a mortal. He has a fate — like all mortals, he is fated to die. You can do as you wish, but if you save his life, you will cause trouble.”

Zeus said, “Athena, I was merely pitying Hector. I do not intend to save his life. Go, and do to him whatever you wish to do.”

Athena flew from Olympus to outside the walls of Troy.

Achilles kept chasing Hector. He was like a hound hunting a fawn until the hound finds and kills the fawn. Hector could not outrun Achilles. Hector tried to run to the walls of Troy so that the Trojans could throw spears at Achilles, but Achilles headed off every attempt, making sure that Hector stayed in between Achilles and the other Greek warriors.

Hector ran like a man in a nightmare. He runs and runs and he can’t escape his pursuer, and his pursuer cannot catch him. Apollo gave Hector enough speed to keep just ahead of Achilles.

Achilles shook his head at the Greek warriors, warning them not to try to kill Hector. Only Achilles would kill Hector. Only Achilles would avenge the death of Patroclus.

When Achilles and Hector reached the washing springs for the fourth time, Zeus held his scales. On one scale he placed Hector’s fate, and on the other scale, he placed Achilles’ fate. Hector’s fate sank; on this day, his psyche would journey to the Land of the Dead. Apollo then left Hector.

Athena said to Achilles, “Now we will kill Hector. He cannot escape us. Not even Apollo can save his life. Stay here, and I will convince Hector to face and fight you.”

Athena assumed the form of Deiphobus, one of Hector’s brothers. She said to him, “Brother, I have come to help you fight Achilles. You and I can face him together.”

Hector replied, “Deiphobus, you are the brother closest to me, the one I have loved the most out of all the sons whom Priam and Hecuba produced. Now I love you even more. Only one brother left the walls of Troy to come and help me. All my other brothers have stayed where they are safe.”

Athena, still disguised as Deiphobus, said, “The others were afraid, both for themselves and for me, and they did not want to leave Troy. Even Priam and Hecuba wanted me to stay behind the walls of Troy. Everyone begged me to stay there.

“But now let’s fight Achilles. Either he will kill both of us, or you will kill him.”

Athena was luring Hector to his death.

Hector said to Achilles, “I will no longer run from you, Achilles. I was afraid, and I ran three times around the walls of Troy. No longer will I run. Now I want to fight you. Either you will kill me, or I will kill you.

“But first let us make an agreement with the gods as our witnesses. I swear to the gods that if I kill you I will not mistreat your corpse. I will strip your armor from you, but I will give your corpse to the Greeks so that they can give your body a proper funeral and your psyche will be allowed to enter the Land of the Dead and not be kept from it, wailing. The dead belong with the dead.”

Achilles frowned and said, “No, Hector! You and I shall make no agreements. Do lions and men make agreements? Do wolves and lambs make agreements? No, the only thing that they have in common is that they hate each other. The same is true of you and me. We have no love for each other. The only thing we desire for the other is death. But let’s fight. Use whatever courage you have, but it won’t do you any good. You do not have long to live. You will pay for the grief you have caused me.”

Achilles hurled his spear, but Hector ducked and avoided death. Athena instantly grabbed Achilles’ spear and gave it back to him — but Hector did not see her.

Hector said to Achilles, “You missed! You were sure that I would die, but that is not something you can know for sure. You are bluffing. You are trying to scare me with words. You may kill me, but you will not spear me in my back. I will not run. Even if the gods help you, the most you can do is to spear me in the front of my body. But maybe I can kill you with my spear — I want to bury it in your body. With you dead, the Trojans will have an easier time in battle.”

Hector hurled his spear and it hit Achilles’ shield right in the center — but the spear bounced harmlessly off it. Hector did not have a second spear, so he asked Deiphobus to give him his spear — but Deiphobus was not present. Hector realized that he was alone, and he knew that he must die.

Hector shouted, “My fate has arrived! The gods have let me know that I must die now. I thought that my brother Deiphobus was helping me, but Athena was tricking me. And now my death has arrived — the death that long ago all the gods must have planned for me. So let me die — but let me go down fighting!”

Hector drew his sword and charged Achilles. Hector was dangerous like an eagle attacking a lamb. But Achilles also charged, holding his shield in front of him. He also held his spear, the metal point of which blazed like the evening star.

Achilles thought about how best to kill Hector, who was wearing Achilles’ armor — armor that Hector had stripped from the corpse of Patroclus. Achilles knew the armor well, and he knew that the armor left the warrior’s throat exposed. As Hector charged him, Achilles stabbed him in the throat. The mortal wound did not damage the windpipe, so Hector was able to choke out some words as he lay dying.

Achilles spoke first: “Hector, when you stripped my armor from the corpse of Patroclus and put it on, you must have thought that you would be safe — even from me! I was far away, but I am a better warrior than you and I am the avenger of Patroclus’ death. You are not yet done paying for his death. The dogs and birds will mutilate your corpse as they feed on it. You will not be buried, but we Greeks will bury Patroclus. Your psyche will not be allowed to enter the Land of the Dead.”

Gasping, Hector pleaded, “I beg you by your parents and by the gods, don’t let the dogs and birds mutilate my corpse. My father and mother will ransom my corpse with bronze and gold. Give my corpse to the Trojans so that it can receive a proper funeral and my psyche can enter the Land of the Dead. The dead belong with the dead.”

Achilles frowned and said, “Don’t beg, dog! If I could, I myself would eat your corpse. I would hack off strips of your flesh and eat them raw. You have caused me agonies of grief.”

Zeus thought, Hector killed Achilles’ best friend, but Achilles has killed or sold into slavery many of Hector’s brothers. The person who has the bigger grievance is Hector, not Achilles. Achilles sent his best friend into battle — Achilles should have known that Patroclus could die in battle. What is the essence of war? The death of a loved one.

Achilles continued, “I will not allow you to be ransomed. No one will be able to keep the dogs and birds away from your corpse — not even for ten or twenty times the ransom you speak of, not even if they give me all that now and promise more later. I will not allow you to be ransomed even if Priam offers me your weight in gold. Your father and mother shall never give you a funeral. Instead, the dogs and birds will eat your flesh!”

Hector replied, “You have no mercy. You are incapable of pity. I am dying, and so I have the gift of prophecy. Your mutilation of my corpse will make the gods angry. Soon, Paris and Apollo will kill you before the Scaean Gates.”

Hector died. His psyche went down to the Land of the Dead, but not until his corpse had received a proper funeral would it be allowed to enter. His psyche mourned at having died in the prime of manhood. His psyche mourned at not being allowed to cross the river that kept it from the Land of the Dead. His psyche mourned at not being allowed to enter Hades.

Achilles said to the corpse, “Die! Die! Die! Now that you are dead, I will die willingly whenever Zeus chooses to bring my fate to me.”

Achilles pulled his spear out of Hector’s neck, and then he stripped the armor — Achilles’ old armor — from Hector’s body. The other Greek warriors now came close to look at the corpse of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior. Every Greek warrior stabbed the corpse of Hector. They laughed and said, “Hector isn’t so tough now — not like he was when he burned one of our ships!”

Achilles said to the other Greeks, “Now that the gods have allowed me to kill Hector, we will have to see what the Trojans plan to do next. Will they surrender to us? Will they make a last stand? But first, I have to attend to unfinished business. Patroclus is still unburied. His corpse is lying in my camp. I will never forget Patroclus, not even in the Land of the Dead, a place where souls are thought to lose all memory.

“Now we have triumphed! Let us take the corpse of Hector to our ships. Let us cry out in triumph: Hector is dead!”

Achilles was not finished shaming the corpse of Hector. He cut holes in Hector’s ankles. Through them he threaded rawhide ropes. He tied the ropes to his chariot and left Hector’s head lying on the ground. Then Achilles mounted his chariot and drove away, dragging Hector’s handsome head in the dust.

Hecuba, Hector’s mother, tore the veil and headdress from her face and screamed as she looked at her son’s corpse being dragged away with no hope for a funeral.

Priam cried, and the citizens of Troy cried with him. They cried as if Troy were in flames and were being sacked. They knew that soon — now that Hector was dead — Troy would fall to the Greeks.

Priam wanted to get Hector’s corpse back immediately so he could bury it and allow Hector’s psyche to enter the Land of the Dead. He wanted to ransom it immediately. Troy’s citizens physically held him back.

Priam cried to his citizens, “Let me go! I must go to Achilles and give him treasure. I must ransom the corpse of my son. Maybe Achilles will respect an old man. His own father is an old man now. He raised Achilles, who has been a horror to me — he has killed so many of my sons. I mourn Hector most of all. I mourn him so much that I could die. I wish that Hector could have died here, in my arms — then his mother and I could give him a proper funeral!”

Hecuba mourned, “How can I live without you, Hector? I was so proud of you. You were the defender of Troy. Trojan citizens honored you. But now you are dead.”

Andromache still did not know that she had become a widow. No one had brought to her the news that Achilles had killed Hector. She was still in their home, weaving and embroidering flowers onto a robe. She had ordered her serving women to heat water so that Hector could have a hot bath when he returned home from the fighting. She did not know that Achilles was dragging Hector’s head in the dust.

Andromache heard screams coming from the walls of Troy. She knew that something bad had happened. She stopped weaving; she shook with fright. She ordered her serving women, “Two of you go with me to the walls. I must find out what has happened — I just heard the screams of Hecuba, Hector’s mother. Something horrible must have happened! Maybe Achilles has killed my husband!”

She ran to the walls, her serving women following her. She looked down on the plain. She saw Achilles dragging the corpse of her husband behind his chariot. She fainted, and as she fainted she tore her veil and headdress from her face.

Zeus thought, I see so much when Andromache — and Hecuba earlier — tears off her veil and headdress. Married women wear veils and headdresses. When in Greek art a warrior tears off the veil and headdress from the head of a woman, it means that woman is now a widow and a slave. If the woman is young and pretty, like Andromache, she will be forced to serve her master in bed — she will be a sex-slave, just like Briseis and Chryseis. If the woman is older, like Hecuba, she will be a slave. The tearing off of a married woman’s headdress and veil is a way of representing that the woman’s marriage is being violated. The word for a married woman’s veil and headdress is kredemna. This is also the word for the ramparts and battlements of a city. When the ramparts and battlements of a city are thrown down, that city has been conquered. When Andromache tears off her veil and headdress, her kredemna, we see in that image the coming fall of Troy. Now that Hector is dead, the fall of Troy is inevitable — the Greeks will conquer Troy.

Andromache regained consciousness and struggled to breathe. The women of Troy tried to help her.

Andromache cried, “Hector, both of us are destroyed! We share the same sad fate, although you were born and raised in Troy and I was raised elsewhere. I wish that I had never been born!

“Now your psyche is journeying to the Land of the Dead, and I am still alive: a widow with a baby boy who has no father. What will happen to him now that you are dead and can no longer protect him? Even if he does not die during the war, his life will be filled with misery. Strangers will steal his land. Fatherless children have no friends. He will be humiliated and hungry. He will go to your former friends, and they will give him some food, but not enough. He will not starve, but he will be hungry. Bullies will beat him and tell him, ‘Go away. You have no father. You are not welcome here.’ Then he will come crying to me, his mother, a widow.

“But when you were alive, our son ate well. He ate the best, tastiest cuts of meat. When he was tired, he would go to sleep in the arms of his nurse; he was safe, secure, with no worries. He was called the Lord of the City because he was your son. You were the great hope of the Trojans to fight off the Greeks and keep Trojan citizens alive and free.

“But now your corpse will lie by the Greek ships. Worms will crawl through your corpse and eat it after the dogs and birds have eaten their fill.

“Your corpse will lie naked although in our home we have fine clothing. The clothing will never serve as your shroud, so I will burn it. I will sacrifice the clothing to honor you.”

Andromache cried, and the Trojan women cried.

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