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Achilleus’ defilement of the body of Hektor is a grotesque and elaborate moment in the story of the Iliad, while all of the other bodies killed in the epic are either carried back by their comrades or left to the vultures. His treatment of the body is obscene; even the gods are horrified by it and eventually must stop it. This brutality is hard to understand in a society centered on ceremony, glory, and strict adherence to the rules of behavior in battle. However, it is clear that Achilleus’ behavior is not show-boating, nor is he gloating. When Achilleus defiles the body of Hektor, he is defiling the representation of the passionate rage that defined his character thus far in the epic: rage toward sovereignty, rage for his lost comrades, rage at the murder of his best friend, and rage toward his fate, an early death with glory or a long life with none.
At the start of the epic, Agamemnon and Achilleus have an altercation, in which Achilleus disagrees with Agamemnon’s attitude toward returning Chriseis, and he in turn takes Briseis, Achilleus’ prize. This begins the tragic rage of Achilleus. “So he spoke, and the anger came on Peleus’ son… /pondering whether to draw from beside his thigh the sharp sword, driving/ away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus” (Homer, 1.188-191). In this moment, not only does Achilleus become the furious bystander he will be for eighteen books of the epic, but he develops a picture of Agamemnon as a leader that lacks consideration for consequence, changing Achilleus’ mentality for good.
He will no longer obey or follow commands, and with this Agamemnon forfeits a great fighter for himself and all the Achaians, as when Achilleus says, “For surely in ruinous heart he makes sacrifice/ and has not wit enough to look behind and before him/ that the Achaians fighting beside their ships shall not perish” (1.343-345). With this, the scene is set for tribulation. The thoughtless acts of the king will lead not only to an irate Achilleus, but also to the deaths of hundreds of Achaians and, eventually, Patroklos. In this light, Achilleus’ defilement of Hektor’s body is a defilement of poor leadership, stubborn acts of selfishness, and authority as a whole.
In the fighting before Achilleus returns to battle, the Trojans have many days of success. Without Achilleus, along with Zeus’ support of the Trojans, the Argives endure innumerable fatalities and are continuously pushed back toward their ships. Even their leaders and most skilled fighters are injured in the war. Although there are times when they recover temporarily, the Achaians suffer great losses both in numbers and in respected members of their troops. While Achilleus removed himself from the fighting early on, he unquestionably feels the effects of these losses from his ship.
He shows his concern by sending Patroklos to obtain a status report and identify a corpse he sees carried back from battle. When Achilleus finally enters the combat and faces Hektor outside Troy, he says, “You will pay in a lump for all those sorrows of my companions you killed in your spear’s fury” (22.271-272). In this way, the desecration of Hektor’s body is a desecration of the countless deaths of Achilleus’ comrades and friends.
The next, and most obvious, reason for Achilleus’ actions is the death of Patroklos. When Achilleus hears the news, he must deal with incredible grief and guilt, as he declares, “The spirit within me does not drive me to go on living and be among men, except on the condition that Hektor first be beaten down under my spear, lose his life and pay the price for stripping Patroklos, the son of Menoitos” (18.90-93).
Achilleus is not only angry for the loss of his best friend; he must live with the guilt of sending Patroklos into battle in his place, and the possibility that if he had gone sooner, Hektor would not have been alive to kill this man that meant so much to Achilleus. By handing Patroklos his armor, Achilleus sent him off to die without trying to stop him or to go with him to protect him. In this light, Achilleus is partly responsible for Patroklos’ death. When Achilleus destroys the body of Hektor, he is trying to destroy his sorrow for his fallen companion, and the remorse for sending that companion to be killed without following to save him.
Finally, Achilleus is faced with a difficult decision that in many ways sets the whole course of events into action. His fate affects his every action, and in turn affects the events of the war. As he explains:
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my death will not come to me quickly. (9.411-416)
These options make his decision to find Hektor and destroy him much more than a call for vengeance. When Achilleus was out of the battle, he was choosing to extend his life without the opportunity for glory. When he at last steps in to the fighting, he is deciding to earn his fame as well as avenge Patroklos, with the cost of his longevity. This decision affectively ended his life, with the promise of fate to take it in the near future. He is well aware that in killing the leader of the Trojans, he has earned his last glory. Thus, when Achilleus brutally disgraces Hektor’s remains, he is disgracing his own decisions, and the sad fate that forces him to make these difficult choices.
As it is so clear from the events leading to the demise and defilement of Hektor, Achilleus’ actions are about much more than glory and disgracing the Trojan people through their leader. Even the death of Achilleus’ best friend cannot take all of the blame for his atrocious and cruel treatment of Priam’s son. The defilement of the body of Hektor is Achilleus putting to an end the terrible things that lead up to that point. He is putting to a conclusion his rage at Agamemnon, his sorrow for his lost comrades and companion, and his frustration and guilt toward his own decisions as they affected these events. At the moment of Hektor’s demise, it is no longer about him as a ruler or as a killer; it is about disgracing the horror of the war and ending the anxiety it caused for Achilleus throughout the epic.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Lattimore, Richmond. London: The University of Chicago Press, 1951
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