“Immortal Fire”

(A loose translation of The Iliad, 18.1-254)

Hector and the two Ajaxes fight over Patroclus' body

This lengthy excerpt from Homer’s epic tells of Achilles’ hearing of and reaction to the news of Patroclus’ death. For centuries now, scholars have debated over the extent of the relationship between these two heroes, but we can safely acknowledge that Achilles’ love for Patroclus extends beyond even brotherly love: thus, he grieves passionately and to such a powerful level that he affects everyone around him — even his mother, deep beneath the waves of the Mediterranean.

Of particular note here is the blatant involvement of (and interference by) the gods, Thetis’ flight to Olympus to ask Hephaestus to make Achilles new armor (Homer spends a hundred lines or so describing just this armor), the repetition of “three times” between descriptions of Hector and Achilles, and Achilles’ appearance to the Greeks and Trojans in battle. All in all, this is a particularly potent section of the epic.

[As a side-note: I realize the tone of this translation is substantially more formal and serious than “The Death of Patroclus” and especially “A Few Words Before Shoving Off,” but I felt it would be inappropriate and uneven to have the Greeks and Trojans hurling around hypermasculine insults in the same passage that describes Achilles’ extraordinary grief. I’m not conducting a fully cohesive translation of The Iliad, anyway, so these translations from the epic seem fairly independent to me.]

***

Antilochus, old Nestor’s battle-hardened son, had
Run from the detestable maw of death on the field,
Sent from Lacadaemonian Menelaus to
Find furious Achilles, who was then brooding by
The massive hulls of the mighty Greek ships, guessing at
What had occurred before Troy’s unscalable heights in
His absence. Doom hung drearily over Achilles:

“The wind is blowing through the Greeks’ hair — I can see it
Clearly, I can see them fleeing from the battlefield
With the Trojans hot on their heels, foremost Hector and
Aeneas, who are picking the Greeks off whimsically,
As children flick insects away for sport. A damn shame!
And brave Patroclus, I fear, has been too brave, and has
Engaged godlike Hector in battle. If this is so,
Then Patroclus is surely dead; bravery cannot
Defeat a deadly warrior, regardless of how
Heartened and honorable it makes you in battle.”

It was at this time, when Achilles was guessing at
The fate of his comrades, that Antilochus arrived.
Tears rolled as mighty rivers down the cheeks of Nestor’s
Son as he delivered his message to Achilles:

“Hail Achilles, Peleus’ son: I bear news
Terrible to speak and treacherous to hear: noble
Patroclus has fallen, skewered at last by Hector’s
Death-tipped spear. Priam’s most deadly son has stripped the corpse
Of your glorious armor, which Patroclus donned in
Your absence. Even now they are fighting over the
Body of your noble kinsman. O dark day of days!”

Penthus, daemon of grief and herald of unnumbered
Sorrows, wrapped his black cloak about Achilles’ stunned form
And sent the Myrmidonian captain into an
Inconsolable frenzy: he grabbed fistfulls of blood-
Red sand and poured it upon his head, creating clumps
Of dirt in his fair hair and blemishing the godlike
Beauty of his heavenly face. He cast himself flat
Upon the ground and rolled about in insanity,
Besmirching his craftily-spun cloak in the black ash
Of the beach-head campfires. His death-bringing hands gripped his
Sand-laced hair and pulled furiously at its deep roots.
The concubines that Achilles and Patroclus had
Looted in raids on hamlets allied with the Trojans
Fell out of the tent of Peleus’ violently-
Grieving son, they too tearing at their hair and shrieking
In utter desperation. They so beat their chests that
Their knees soon gave out, causing them to fall upon the
Ground beside their surviving master. Antilochus
Still wept mighty rivers as he knelt down to console
His mighty comrade, who was now screaming from the depths
Of his pain-stricken soul — screaming so loudly, in fact,
That the Greeks and Trojans miles away upon the field
Before Troy’s unscalable heights could hear and feel the
Grief of mighty Achilles. Hector looked up for a
Moment and, hearing the cry, knew his impending doom.

Achilles’ soul-shaking mourning traveled over the
Winedark sea water and plunged beneath the rolling waves.
There, in those dark depths, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, the
Beautiful Nereid Thetis, heard the depths of her
Son’s lamentation, which shook her maternal soul to
Its core. She cast herself down beside her father, old
Nereus, and she wept bitterly with her pained son.
Her saltwater sister, the other daughters of old
Nereus, joined her in the lamentation as she
Said: “O sisters, my perfect son’s heroic soul is
Tempest-tossed and deeply pained, as his fate commands; for
As long as he lives, suffering will dig its talons
Into him, which even my maternal love can’t stop.
But I can at least go to him now, and provide what
Little comfort my words might lend.” Thus holy Thetis.

She and her sisters rolled as a great wave upon the
Beach at Troy, and Achilles soon found his head cradled
In the familiar arms of his mother. She absorbed
His lamentation and began to speak in deep tones:

“What pain causes mighty Achilles such misery?
For what reason have you run sand through your flaxen hair?
For what reason have you torn so roughly at its roots?
For what reason have you blemished your beautiful face?
And for what reason, my child, do you toss on the ground?
Almighty Zeus has granted your prayers, and the Greeks now
Find themselves losing their foothold upon the field. They
Have been beaten back so far that I can smell their blood
From this distance — they are almost here, near defeated,
Just as your prayers had intended; tell me why you weep.”

Achilles’ eyes flared from behind his veil of sorrow.

“Almighty Zeus may have granted my prayers, but they were
The selfish requests of an arrogant man. My friend,
Brave Patroclus — true Patroclus — loving Patroclus —
Is dead, and I might as well be a corpse beside him.
How mightily I wish that you had not gone to bed
With my father, that he’d married a mortal and that
You’d stayed below the waves of the winedark sea with old
Nereus. Were I a lesser man, I might fall on
My sword and be done with it; for as I now see it,
There is no life while Patroclus resides in Hades.
Mighty Hector drove a death-tipped spear through his body
And stripped my godly armor from his corpse. I know my
Fate is to die in this wretched war; I have found the
Reason for my death: to engage mighty Hector in
Battle and pour his black blood as a river before
Troy’s unscalable heights; and if he spills my blood first,
At least I will die with the peace of mind that I have
Avenged sweet Patroclus’ unfair and premature
Death in fierce combat against his hateful murderer.
Either Hector dies, or I die; it now rests with fate.”
Thus Achilles, fierces of the Greek captains at Troy.

And Thetis, talking through her saltwater tears, replied:

“You know as well as I that you shall die if Hector
Dies. How can a mother respond to such a grim fate?”

Pushing aside Penthus’ black cloak, Achilles said:

“If Hector dies, then I will be glad to die! My sweet
Patroclus needed my brotherly protection out
There; I failed him, and now he’s dead. His death was my fault,
And ripping Hector apart is the only way to
Make amends. I know my fate causes you pain, mother,
But take heart knowing that all mortals die in due time.
Even mighty Heracles, Zeus’ favorite, gave
Up the ghost when the Fates cut his life-line. When my time
Comes, I will not cower before my destiny like
A heartless whelp but face it directly like a man.
But enough talk of fate; now to action. I’ll lunge back
Onto the field and make those Trojans taste my return.
Don’t try to stop me, mother, for I will not listen.”

And Thetis, digging her silver feet into the sand:

“Blessed are those who die in battle defending their friends.
I won’t try to talk you out of returning to the
Field, my child, but I will at least disparage your lack
Of armor. Hector now wears yours in morbid glory.
I’ll speed to Olympus’ cloudy heights and ask good
Hephaestus to make you a new, heavenly suit of
Armor; for otherwise you will be picked off by some
Whelp before you even confront Hector in battle.
Look for me when Tithonus paints the rose-colored dawn.”

Thus Thetis, who thereafter hastened to Hephaestus.

As she flew on her silver feet to Olympus’
Cloudy heights, Hector let forth a roar that almost drove
The Greeks back to their beach-head camp on the Hellespont.
He was leading the charge to claim Patroclus’ corpse:
Three times he lunged forward and clasped the corpse by the heels;
Three times Telemonian Ajax and Oilean
Ajax rushed him and beat him from their comrade’s body.
Like shepherds beating a furious lion from the
Carcass of a lamb, the Ajaxes protected the
Lifeless body of most honorable Patroclus.

As the Ajaxes clashed with furious Hector, a
Rainbow formed from the top of Olympus and settled
Next to Achilles, not far from the vicious fighting.
This was Iris, messenger of the Olympians,
Sent by white-armed Hera to speak to fierce Achilles:

“Hail, Achilles, Peleus’ son: you must rescue
The body of noble Patroclus, for which a host
Of men fight not far from here. Even now Hector has
Routed the two Ajaxes from his glorious prize
And is dragging it back to his wind-swept Ilion.
Must I tell you what his intentions are? They are not
Subtle: he will strip the body of its coat of skin
And will then impale the head upon a stake which he
Will raise on a palisade high above Troy’s great walls.
May you find much shame in the afterlife if you let
Such defilement come to noble Patroclus’ corpse.”
Thus Iris, rainbow-maker and messenger of the gods.

And Achilles, raring to avenge his fallen friend:

“And how am I supposed to save sweet Patroclus’
Body? The Trojans have my armor, and my mother
Has journeyed to cloudy Olympus to seek out old
Hephaestus and ask if he’ll hammer me out a new
Set of armor. No other gear could keep me so safe,
Except maybe Telemonian Ajax’s shield,
But he’s still out there fighting over Patroclus’
Body — well, I hope he’s still out there fighting for it.”

And rainbow-making Iris said back to the hero:

“Of course we know they have your armor — what don’t the gods
Know? But use your head: you know what fear you struck into
The hearts of the Trojans; when they see you back out there,
So great will be their terror that many will give up
Their ghosts right there on the battlefield. You need no kind
Of mortal armor for this rescue mission; you won’t
Even need a spear; your mere presence will be enough.”

Rainbow-making Iris spoke these words while already
Rising into the sky to return to Olympus.
When she was just a multicolored blur across the
Sky, Achilles — beloved by the gods — rose from his grief.

Wise Athena, fierce patron of the Greeks, flew down from
Olympus’ cloudy heights and appeared to mighty
Achilles; she set about his powerful shoulders
Her tasseled aegis, that indestructible shield; and
She set behind his golden head a brilliant light that
Made him seem even more immortal than usual.
The light glared as a thousand fires lit within the walls
Of a besieged city that summon allies to race
To the rescue. He set off furiously towards the
Trenches — not near the battlefield itself since Thetis
Wanted him to wait until she returned with the new
Heavenly armor before he jumped into the gray —
And from this distance, just barely visible to the
Warriors on the battlefield, he let forth a scream,
A war-cry unlike any other ever before
Made by a mortal man, sharp and terrible to hear.

The warriors — Greeks and Trojans alike — turned to see
The source of the mighty war-cry; and near the trenches
They saw a howling, haloed angel of death, mighty
Achilles, whose fear-inspiring appearance was made
Even more terrifying by the Grey-Eyed Goddess.
The horses reared and the charioteers stood aghast,
For, like the deafening horns of an army come to
Lay waste to a city, Achilles’ voice pierced their ears.
Three times he screamed this blood-thinning war-cry, and three times
The Trojans and their allies stumbled and looked for an
Escape. Twelve of their best warriors were killed in the
Chaos; the spirits of some of the lesser men saw
Achilles’ terrifying form and heard his piercing
War-cry and simply departed from their bodies then,
Anticipating the slaughter soon to be dealt by
Raging Achilles. Even mighty Hector, bravest
Of the Trojan men, was stupored by the fierce war-cry
And lost his ground in the battle over the body
Of noble Patroclus. The two Ajaxes rushed the
Mighty son of Priam and found the grip needed to
Pull Patroclus’ body out of harm’s way. The fray
Was dissolving — all thanks to Achilles’ fierce war-cry —
And Hector ordered his shaken forces to retreat.

Achilles, greatest of all the warriors at Troy,
Saw the lifeless body of noble Patroclus and
Wept hot saltwater tear, which fell upon the corpse and
Sent whisps of steam into the sky. His fellow Greeks were
Weeping too, though their pain even when combined did not
Measure remotely close to Achilles’ great sorrow;
For Patroclus was closer even than a brother
To Peleus’ perfect son; and so the hero
Sprawled his body over the corpse of his close comrade
And wept bitterly for the loss, cleansing the body
With hot saltwater tears and his soul’s immortal fire.

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