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Arethusa 34.2 (2001) 221-235

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Like a Woman: Hector and the Boundaries of Masculinity

Thomas Van Nortwick

For Nate Greenberg and Jim Helm
"But why does my heart within me debate these things?
I might approach him as a suppliant and he not pity me
nor respect me in any way, but kill me instead in my
like a woman, since I would have stripped off my armor.
Nor is there any way from an oak or a rock
to babble to him the things a boy and girl do,
what a boy and girl say when they flirt."1

Iliad 22.122-28

In the midst of his final, definitive monologue, Hector turns wistfully away from the hard necessities of the moment to imagine a different world. There boys and girls flirt in the shade of a spring; there he can shed his armor and talk like a woman. But that protected space, which surfaces again fleetingly in the hut of Achilles in Book 24, cannot long survive the relentless masculine drive for status that so dominates the Iliad. In Hector's mind, as in the aftermath of the poem, the beauties of peace and intimacy are immediately swept aside by the force of destruction. Commentators have been drawn to the enigmatic phrase "from an oak or a rock," but, for me, the heart of this speech is in the verb oarizein, usually translated as "to chat or gossip." For [End Page 221] me, as for Hector, the prospect of a vacation from the need to reassert, endlessly, my right to exist, is sweet.2

The verb is cognate with oar, "wife," the etymology suggesting that to oarizein is basically to "talk like a wife." In his last moments, Hector tries out the dream of bringing Achilles into a sheltered feminine space. But his rhetoric is dominated by the other world, and so the vignette of young lovers comes after the dismal picture of Hector, "like a woman," stripped of his protective armor, helpless before his masculine killer. This vision becomes reality soon after, as he lies pinned like a butterfly by Achilles' spear, begging for a decent burial (Il. 22.337ff.). Since this monologue sums up for us in many ways the character of Hector, his strengths and his failings, it is no accident that talking like a woman marks for him the impossibility of survival: he cannot sustain the dream of that other, feminine self, which seems to him the negation of all that is heroic. But the idea of being a woman--or acting like one--stays with Hector a little longer in the monologue. As he clings to it, his mind goes back to a time he did in fact talk like a wife: "And quickly he (Paris) came upon his brother Hector, as he was about to turn away from the spot where he was talking like a wife (oarize) to his wife" (Il. 6.514-16).3

The verb is used only in these two places in Homeric epic, though cognate nouns also appear in a few passages. Of these, two remain firmly within the world of women: oar, "wife" (Il. 9.327), and oaristus (Il. 14.216), the power of intimate, sexually-charged congress wafting from the girdle of Aphrodite; oaristês, "dear friend," is used by Odysseus in his disguise as Aethon, describing the friendship of "Odysseus" and Idomeneus (Od. 19.179). Here Odysseus is in fact talking to his wife, though she doesn't know it. In two other places, oaristus appears in contexts that extend the range of the root meaning in suggestive ways. At Iliad 13.291, the noun is limited by promachôn, "fighters in the forefront" and, at Iliad 17.228, it appears with polemou, "battle." The poet creates a brilliant and disturbing metaphor, comparing the chaos of battle, where men mingle with their enemies, to an intimate--often sexual--encounter. [End Page 222]

The common thread running through all these usages is that of boundaries breached, of intimacy that scrambles the orderly separation so...


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