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Helen and the Last Song for Hector
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Transactions of the American Philological Association 132.1-2 (2002) 21-27

SUMMARY: This article examines the order of the three laments in Iliad 24 and especially the significance of Helen's prominent position as the last mourner of Hector. The article suggests that Helen's position in the trio of mourning women is dictated not by ritual form or by her relation to Hector but by virtue of her particular understanding of the importance of heroic kleos and poetry as the means for conferring it.


AT THE END OF THE Iliad the Trojans gather at the house of Priam for Hector's funeral. The lamentation begins with the thrênos (24.720-21) performed by professional singers, followed by the gooi, the dirges of Hector's kinswomen. Andromache, Hecabe, and Helen perform individual laments mourning Hector's death and the devastating consequences of his loss for the city and its people. Their songs are answered antiphonally by a refrain of wails and cries from a chorus of Trojan women. The overall description of the scene is consistent with the principles of funerary ceremonies and formal lamentation well-known to us and extensively documented in ancient iconography and literature from Homer until the early twentieth century.

Within the last few decades, the genre of lament has attracted the attention of cultural anthropologists and literary critics. From the literary perspective, Margaret Alexiou's 1974 study of Greek ritual lament remains the most extensive diachronic treatment of the genre, while Gail Holst's more recent study focuses on mourning as an expression of the female voice and its potential impact on social order. Richard Martin and Greg Nagy have discussed extensively the language and performance aspects of ritual laments and their role in epic narrative. The war context of the Iliad offers several significant instances of lamentation, such as Achilles' and Briseis' laments for Patroclus (19.287-302 and 315-37), Thetis' lament for Achilles' imminent death (18.51-64), and, most importantly, the description of Hector's funeral rites.

Studies on the style and occasion of these scenes have greatly enhanced our understanding of ancient mourning rituals. In the case of Hector's funeral, however, one additional topic must be considered, namely, the order of the laments performed by Andromache, Hecabe, and Helen. Considering that mourning of the dead has traditionally been the duty of women, especially the duty of the closest female relatives, it is no surprise that Andromache and Hecabe, Hector's wife and mother respectively, are shown leading the lamentation. Helen's presence and prominent position as the last speaker in this trio of mourners, however, is problematic. Homer's audience may wonder why Helen, the ostensible cause of Hector's death, is even included in the funeral ritual. Her participation, it could be argued, is hardly appropriate in the presence of Hector's mother and wife, and is puzzling in light of the animosity that, according to Helen's own words (24.768-70), the Trojan women have displayed toward her. Furthermore, her position as the last speaker is inconsistent with what appears to be an epic convention of ranking affinities as shown by J. Kakridis in his 1949 study entitled Homeric Researches.

Kakridis has demonstrated that the Homeric poems employ an "ascending scale of affection," that is, a structuring device that involves a "fixed gradation of friends and relatives," with the closest person, typically the wife, named last. Kakridis notices this pattern in the story of Meleager, narrated by Phoenix (9.529-99), where Meleager's wife, Cleopatra, is the last person, in a series of relatives and friends, to entreat and finally convince the hero to rejoin the fighting. Similarly, it is Patroclus, Achilles' closest friend, who persuades him to set aside his anger and help the Greeks—after Agamemnon's three envoys have failed. An even more relevant example is seen in the sequence of Hector's meetings with acquaintances and relatives during his last visit to Troy. First he meets the Trojan women (6.238), then his mother (6.251-85), then his brother Paris and Helen (6.321-68), and, finally, Andromache and Astyanax (6.394-502). The last and most...

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