Guest Post: Achilles’ Violent Shouting by Tom Hillman

Detail from The Fight of Achilles against Scamander and Simoeis by Auguste Couder, ca. 1819. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not ordinarily a New Year’s resolutions kind of girl, I’m making an exception this year and resolving to slow down a bit in 2018. Chasing Helen in Egypt last summer was followed by sweating all fall while renovating our farm in South Carolina. My only compensation for the back-breaking work was deliciously savoring every page of my new beautiful hardbound museum exhibition catalog of Peter Paul Rubens: “The Life of Achilles.

Now, sick with the flu and sipping hot ginger tea with honey that my beloved but equally sick husband so kindly prepared for me, I am nevertheless happy to be back in my cozy little home and catching up on all things Achilles.

Spotlighting Achilles’ Terrifying Cry of Grief

Slowing down seems to be rather unavoidable at the moment, so I’m taking this opportunity to share Tom Hillman’s excellent post spotlighting that dramatic moment when Achilles’ terrifying cry of grief rends the Trojan sky.

Tom first contacted me on Twitter (follow him @alas_not_me) about using my Shield of Achilles on his post, but I had just left for Egypt and half a year got away from me. Now, what a pleasure it is to visit his blog and get to know him better – it seems we have much in common.

Tom writes on his blog, Alas not me, that his ancestors are primarily from Ireland and Germany, and that he is happy to be a native New Yorker.

Although my parents are also from NY, and from primarily Irish and German roots, you won’t need to share ancestors to appreciate Tom’s captivating family story:

… it’s a fair sign of change that eventually one of the Irish Catholics married one of the German Protestants, and no one disowned anyone. Among Tom’s ancestors were: a Canadian who fought in the US Civil War because he believed all men were created equal; teamsters who listened to Eugene Debs speak in Union Square before the Great War and who delivered Dutch Schultz’s milk after they came back; a saloon-keeper who went underground with Prohibition; police officers, teachers, nurses, a jobbing Broadway actor; and a heartbroken, homesick grandmother who decided to go home to Ireland, but met a charming, dapper, dancing fellow on the ship, who kept visiting her in Swanlinbar, Co. Cavan, all the way from Co. Wicklow — quite a journey in those days — and wooed her back to New York.

Growing up on stories and languages, as Tom notes, “New York was and is all about stories and languages,” he credits his family for starting him on his lifelong journey of studying Latin, Greek, and a few other languages, most recently Old English.

Mourning The Needless and Unexpected Violent Death

Compassionately mourning the “needless and unexpected violent death of one we love,” Tom sees Achilles’ wrath over Patroklos’ death as a justifiable cause that “even we these days can grasp fully.”

Achilles Mourning the death of Patroklos, ca. 1760-63 by Gavin Hamilton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Achilles Mourning the death of Patroklos, ca. 1760-63 by Gavin Hamilton.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is this enduring power of ancient words to captivate the modern imagination that so enchants me. Time has little value in a world ruled by emotions – over and over again, across countless generations, it feels like Patroklos died just now.


Achilles … terrifies us with his violent shouting

Originally published on Alas, not me
By Tom Hillman

Reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

Reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved

If you’ve really read The Iliad through, slogged through the sometimes horrid tedium of the so called battle books, the deaths of both Sarpedon and Patroclus hit you hard, with all the weight of how different it could have been for them thrown into the scales of Zeus. And now, with Patroclus’ death, Achilles’ wrath has a cause that even we these days can grasp fully, the needless and unexpected violent death of one we love. The rage that comes soaring up from within him, shouting ‘now for wrath, now for ruin, and a red nightfall’ as it were, can blow you away. As it did the Trojans, as it did me. (But then fuimus Troes.) Tennyson’s version of this explosion of wrath at Iliad 18.202ff. is a marvel. Read it out loud.


Achilles Over the Trench

SO SAYING, light-foot Iris pass’d away.
Then rose Achilles dear to Zeus; and round
The warrior’s puissant shoulders Pallas flung
Her fringed ægis, and around his head
The glorious goddess wreath’d a golden cloud,
And from it lighted an all-shining flame.
As when a smoke from a city goes to heaven
Far off from out an island girt by foes,
All day the men contend in grievous war
From their own city, but with set of sun
Their fires flame thickly, and aloft the glare
Flies streaming, if perchance the neighbours round
May see, and sail to help them in the war;
So from his head the splendour went to heaven.
From wall to dyke he stept, he stood, nor join’d
The Achæans—honouring his wise mother’s word**—
There standing, shouted, and Pallas far away
Call’d; and a boundless panic shook the foe.
For like the clear voice when a trumpet shrills,
Blown by the fierce beleaguerers of a town,
So rang the clear voice of Æakidês;
And when the brazen cry of Æakidês
Was heard among the Trojans, all their hearts
Were troubled, and the full-maned horses whirl’d
The chariots backward, knowing griefs at hand;
And sheer-astounded were the charioteers
To see the dread, unweariable fire
That always o’er the great Peleion’s head
, for the bright-eyed goddess made it burn.
Thrice from the dyke he sent his mighty shout,
Thrice backward reel’d the Trojans and allies;
And there and then twelve of their noblest died
Among their spears and chariots.

** Achilles’ mother, Thetis, had asked him not to enter battle until Hephaestus made him new armor.
The title of this post of course comes from C.P. Cavafy’s allusion to this moment in his poem Trojans.
And go visit Kathleen Vail’s Shield of Achilles website. It’s worth every minute.
One of the most powerful moments I have ever had in a classroom was discussing The Iliad for weeks, and then watching the 1989 film GloryI wept.  It also gave me the idea for what was my favorite exam question. I quoted the scene in The Odyssey, where the ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be the slave of the lowest man on earth than king of all the dead, and asked my students if they thought the men of the 54th Massachusetts would agree.


Please take a vacation by visiting Tom’s enchanting website, Alas, not me. As he declares and I totally agree, “All literature enchants and delights us, recovers us from the 10,000 things that distract us. The unenchanted life is not worth living.”

(Top Image Source and credits)

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