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Discuss Motherson Relationships In The Iliad Essay

Discuss Mother-son Relationships In The Iliad Essay, Research Paper

The Iliad deals primarily with human relationships. There is a preoccupation with life and death, pride, love (in its many guises) and honour and these traits are all shown through the interactions between the characters. One aspect of the relationships on offer in the work, which it is essential that we bear in mind, is the fact that the perspective is a wholly male one. Women, whether presented as peripheral to the story (as in the Iliad) or as essential to it (as in the Odyssey) are largely symbolic in Homers works and the society of the epics does not depict any one period or group of women due to it’s method of construction. When exploring the nature of the mother-son relationship in the world of the Iliad we must ask: What role does the mother take in her son’s life? What is her attitude towards her son? What is the son’s attitude to his mother and to her role? Why is she depicted the way she is? To what extent does a woman have power in this role or, perhaps more specifically, is the mother-son relationship perceived as very significant or important? We could also ask how motherhood in this context fits in to the Homeric society.

The Iliad’s main mother-son pairings are Thetis and Achilles and Hector and Hecuba. Though there are others who are interesting, for example the character of Andromache in her role as mother of Astanax.

There are definite male and female spheres of life in the Iliad, it is, after all, an epic war story and war is seen as the concern of men. There are many explicit references to motherhood in the form of similes for example when Agamemnon is injured in battle his pain is said to come:

“As the sharp sorrow of pain descends on a woman in labour, the bitterness that the hard spirits of childbirth bring on”

This suggests that in Homer?s world child bearing is a woman?s duty to society just as fighting a war is a mans and reinforces the fact that Homer accepts that women are important but that this is not an epic in which they should or would be involved. They are the wives or mothers of warriors, not the warriors themselves , Andromache’s place in the world is defined by her relationships with men, and she is helpless without Hector?

“?For me it would be far better to sink into the earth when I have lost you: for there is no other consolation for me after you have gone to your destiny, only grief; since I have no father, no honoured mother. ”

She defines herself as wife of Hector, mother of Astanyax. Her son is all she has left of Hector when he dies but her lamentation speech after Hector is dead makes one feel that a mother is seen as below a father, she speaks of Astanyax being beaten by children whose parents are living, they shout “Get out, you! Your father is not dining among us” . She also talks of how her son will have to suffer with the loss of luxury and love . Although Andromache?s mother is said to have had matriarchal power in Thebes it seems that she herself is not the partner who is in control, this seems to be linked to her marriage to Hector being patrilocal. Andromache’s concern for her son’s future and deep emotion are indicative of how the epics present mothers, always seeking to guide and aid their sons, terrified of what lies ahead for them.

This applies especially accurately to the relationship between Achilles and his mother Thetis. Her powers extend further than that of the average mother in that she is a sea goddess, as such she could be seen as expressing the lengths to which a less powerful mother would go if she were able. I would consider this the most important mother-son relationship of the Iliad. Thetis as a Nereid, who is afraid of mortality , is tremendously over protective of her son, Achilles. She shows great bitterness at the choice that was given him :

“Your birth was bitterness. Why did I raise you? If only you could sit by your ships untroubled, not weeping, since indeed your lifetime is to be short, of no length. Now it has befallen that your life must be brief and bitter beyond all men’s. To a bad destiny I bore you in my chambers.”

Achilles’ mother gives him knowledge absent from most heroes’ dealings with their mothers, she has told him his destiny. This is one of her main functions in the story, she heightens the emotions through telling the audience that Achilles is to die gloriously, this is all the more emotive when it comes from his mother who, though she knows what will happen, has had to accept her son’s choice. Homer uses her as a tool in book eighteen to hint that this will be the book when Achilles will decide to rejoin the fight. She laments again of her son’s fate as she recognises the turning point that Patroklos’ death will be in Achilles’ life. Achilles’ attitude to his mother is shown as one of pity later on when he says:

“I wish you had gone on living then with the other sea goddesses of the sea, and that Peleus had married some mortal woman. As it is, there must be in your heart a numberless sorrow for your son’s death, since you can never again receive him home again to his country.”

This passage shows much understanding between the pair through their mutual sorrow, Thetis for her son and Achilles for his best friend, Patroklos, and for himself.

Thetis commissions the famous shield of Achilles from Hephaestos. It seems that as soon as Achilles wants to rejoin the fighting she agrees whole-heartedly with him though he does not believe she will and tells her : “Do not hold me back from the fight, though you love me. You will not persuade me.” Thetis replies with enthusiasm that she will not hold him back, she admires his courage and she will aid him in his plan “. This is no cowardly action, to beat aside sudden death from your afflicted companions”. There seems to be an implication that she feels she is unable to stand in her son’s path in the state he is in, all she can do is try to protect him as best she can. Indeed, it seems that Thetis inspires Achilles to action after this point as a pose to merely answering to his demands, as shown in the book nineteen :

“‘Go then and summon into assembly the fighting Achaians, and unsay your anger

against Agamemnon, shepherd of the people, and arm at once for fighting, and put your war strength upon you.’ She spoke so and drove the strength of great courage into him”

She also comforts her son by preserving his dear friend so as not to let his body rot;”through the nostrils of Patroklos she distilled ambrosia and red nectar, so that his

flesh might not soil”.

One of the most important functions she performs as a mother in the story comes on her very last appearance in book twenty-four when she is sent by Zeus to persuade her son to return the body of Hektor to the Trojans. Once again she is used to facilitate the fate of Achilles and to bring about the conclusion to Homer?s tale.

So it seems that Achilles and his mother have a very strong relationship, as Hera states “always his mother is near him night and day”. Thetis loves Achilles with all her heart, however, there is a sense of guilt when it comes to his mortality, an anger that her son must die, which is understandable. Her place in the story is the link between Achilles and Olympus; she accepts the anger of her son and agrees with his choice when his anger is taken over by a thirst for revenge. Achilles’ attitude to his mother comes across as more than a little demanding and childish, as though he has power over her even though she is a goddess, that power being emotional. Thetis is to some extent a slave to her son, while he respects and loves her; he also uses her as a go-between. She spends much of her time lamenting her son’s fate, while enabling it come about.

Achilles? nemesis, Hektor, is one of many sons. Hecuba, his mother is Priam?s chief wife and as such is an aristocratic woman with more power than most (the same can be said for all the women of the Iliad). Hecuba is one of the women (along with Andromache and Helen) whom Hektor meets as he returns to troy in book six. Homer uses this episode to force the reader or listener to consider a different aspect of the warring society; the plight of the wives and mothers left at home. Hektor respects his mother, calling her “honoured” when she offers to bring him wine with which to pour a libation to Zeus (Which shows both their shared piety and her willingness to serve him as a mother.). He asks her politely to perform religious rites to Athena and she immediately complies . Hector mentions his brother, Paris, whom he thoroughly dislikes: “If only I could see him gone down to the Death God, then I could say my heart had forgotten its joyless affliction”. Hecuba, also Paris’ mother, does not reply. Thus she does not disagree with one son or the other; she doesn’t reveal what she believes. We see here the obedient spirit we saw in Thetis, Hektor also seems dominant though highly respectful towards his mother.

In book twenty-two Hecuba uses an obvious image of motherhood (her breasts) to attempt to persuade him to be careful :

“Hektor, my child, look upon these and obey, and take pity on me, if ever I gave you the breast to quiet your sorrow. Remember all these things, dear child?”

She uses the word “child” three times in six lines to emphasise the strength of her feeling, all the while crying. At the end of this speech (which was proceeded by another emotive speech from his father, Priam) Hektor is, like Achilles, blinded by passion and pride and refuses. The balance of power between mother and son is shown clearly here as his needs are placed above hers. Homer uses the image of the mother in this scene to emphasise the pathos of Hektor?s fate but her tone also emphasises her reliance on him.

Later in the book, after Hektor has been killed she gives another emotional speech wondering: “What shall my life be in my sorrows, now you are dead?” . She expresses again here her reliance on her son, her husband is elderly, she appreciates that Hektor is the man she relies on to defend not only the city of Troy, but to protect her. We see that the death of her son leaves her with nothing.

Hecuba’s bitterness and hatred at this is directed towards Achilles in a venomous attack in book twenty-four when she states:

” I wish I could set teeth in the middle of his liver and eat it. That would be vengeance for what he did to my son; for he slew him when he was no coward but standing before the men of Troy”

The depth of the anger felt by Hecuba is made explicit here, as well as showing her pain at the death of her son she also brings to mind the issues which Homer wishes to address concerning the wrath of Achilles and the nature of the fates. She is not shown as a member of ?the weaker sex? but is a resentful mother who has lost a son in an unnecessarily brutal way.

The theme of loss is one that appears time and again in the dealings between mother and son within the Iliad. The mothers we encounter fear greatly for their son?s life, they express this by constantly attempting to protect and shield them. Even the goddess Aphrodite feels the need to protect her son Aineas when, in book five she saves her ?beloved son? from Diomedes? blow. In many ways mothers are shown as gently attempting to redirect disturbance away from their children. In book four the simile;

?She brushed it away from his skin as lightly as when a mother brushes a fly away from her child who is lying in a sweet sleep?

Is used when Athena sweeps the ?tearing arrow? aside its path towards Menelaos. This relates the protectiveness that a mother feels for her son who is at war.

On the other hand the role of the mother is shown as, to some extent, an antithesis to war, for example when Andromache or Hecuba lament the negative influence that war has had on their respective son?s lives we feel the sorrow felt by those left at home. We also see that the attitude of a son to his mother is one of respect but not automatic compliance. Both Hector and Achilles disregard their mother?s emotional stances and do what they want, or need, to do. Their mothers are obedient to them, not visa versa and the love they feel is valued by their sons, but valued far below their heroism and pride. In the Iliad the protective love of the mother is rewarded by the due respect of her son, however, the son is always the one who has the final word, even if he chooses not to abuse this power.

The Iliad of Homer, Trans. Richard Lattimore(1976)

A. Cameron & A. Kuhrt(eds.) Images of women in Antiquity, London (1993)

J. Peradotto & J.P. Sullivan(eds) Women in the Ancient world. The Arethusa papers. New York (1984)

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, whores, wives and slaves: Women in classical antiquity (1975)

Sealey, R Women in classical law and society, London(1990)

Willcock.M. A companion to the Iliad, Chicago(1976)