Suffering of Your Enemy

After Achilles has killed Hector, Homer takes us to Hector’s widow in the walls of Troy.

Hector’s wife had as yet heard nothing, for no one had come to tell her that her husband had remained without the gates. She was at her loom in an inner part of the house, weaving a double purple web, and embroidering it with many flowers. She told her maids to set a large tripod on the fire, so as to have a warm bath ready for Hector when he came out of battle; poor woman, she knew not that he was now beyond the reach of baths, and that Minerva had laid him low by the hands of Achilles.

To twist the knife a bit, Homer turns to Hector’s now fatherless son.

The day that robs a child of his parents severs him from his own kind; his head is bowed, his cheeks are wet with tears, and he will go about destitute among the friends of his father, plucking one by the cloak and another by the shirt. Some one or other of these may so far pity him as to hold the cup for a moment towards him and let him moisten his lips, but he must not drink enough to wet the roof of his mouth; then one whose parents are alive will drive him from the table with blows and angry words. ‘Out with you,’ he will say, ‘you have no father here,’ and the child will go crying back to his widowed mother.’

[Aside: The anger directed toward a weeping child reminded me of the pain of leaving for deployment. A socially awkward, emotionally stunted department head’s son came crying after him on the day of leaving for deployment. The man shouted to his son, “Get back in the house or I will beat your butt.”]

The closing line of Book 22 refers again to the widow, “In such wise did she cry aloud amid her tears, and the women joined in her lament.” This whole passage reminds me of the Biblical story of Deborah. Deborah’s general Barak, no relation, crushes the enemy army led by Sisera. Sisera runs away and seeks shelter to Jael. Jael, in another exercise of girl power, kills Sisera while he sleeps by driving a tent stake through his temple. The song of Deborah closes with this passage:

28 “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
behind the lattice she cried out,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
29 The wisest of her ladies answer her;
indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
30 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
a woman or two for each man,
colorful garments as plunder for Sisera,
colorful garments embroidered,
highly embroidered garments for my neck—
all this as plunder?’

Judges 5:28-30. I have often wondered what to make of this passage from the song of Deborah, which is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible. Are the Hebrews invoking sympathy for their enemies? Is Homer? The fact is, Homer treats Hector with much more respect than the Hebrews treated any Hebrew enemy. It makes me feel sympathy for the enemy, but is that the purpose? Or is the purpose to say to the People not only did we kill the enemy, we humiliated him and we made his women and children back home weep for him? Is this the beginnings of moving beyond tribalism, or is this dancing on the grave of the vanquished?

9 thoughts on “Suffering of Your Enemy”

  1. Deborah's song is very much a dancing on the grave feel for me.

    Homer's treatment is more a familiar theme in Greek stories about the contrast between the domestic ignorance of man and the capricious will of the gods.

    etsme ianducie

  2. The first time I read the Song of Deborah I reacted the opposite way so dramatically that it is hard for me to move away from it. That said, the more I've read and in fact the more I thought about it then, I have come to the opinion that it is about dancing on the grave.

    I'm equally conflicted about Homer. I also have to admit that I don't completely understand what you mean by the domestic ignorance of man. Do you mean that they are unaware of the wickedness the gods have prepared for them?

    I mentioned earlier the tender scene of Hector being home with his son. It seems that providing such glimpses must be to garner sympathy for Hector and his family. Of course, the same scenes could serve to show how completely the Acheans vanquished their foes.

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