This is in the Cuisine of the Dead series, which explores the connections between food and death. Intro, Grave-Goods, Funeral Feasts.
“Legends are lessons. They ring with truths” – Brave (2012)
Homer is believed to have been a blind poet from Ancient Greece, who lived around the time of 8 BCE.[i] He is attributed with writing The Odyssey and The Iliad. There is some skepticism that these epic legends were written and not part of a larger Bronze Age oral tradition. However, like Shakespeare the author of these stories had a grasp of human nature and range of emotion that makes them still relevant today.[ii] The Iliad takes place in the tenth year of the Trojan War,[iii] which began when Paris son of Priam of Troy kidnapped “Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta”[iv] the “most beautiful women in the world” and ended when the Greeks defeated the Trojans through the cunning use of a wooden horse.I have used Books 23 and 24 of The Iliad for analysis.
In book 23 the war has been raging for years and both sides have lost many men. One of the main characters and a Greek Hero Achilles has lost his comrade in arms and childhood friend Patroclus.
“My faithful comrades, valiant Myrmidons,
Loose we not yet our horses from the cars;
But for Patroclus mourn, approaching near,
With horse and car; such tribute claim the dead;
Then, free indulgence to our sorrows giv’n,
Loose we the steeds, and share the ev’ning meal.”
He is devastated and even while at war is determined to have a fitting funeral for his beloved friend. This funeral is of epic proportions it includes a large feast, a pyre, and games with prizes. The importance of a proper funeral and feast in Patroclus’ memory shows some of the importance that the Ancient Greeks placed on these rituals.
“While he th’ abundant fun’ral feast dispens’d.
There many a steer lay stretch’d beneath the knife,
And many a sheep, and many a bleating goat,
And many a white-tusk’d porker, rich in fat,
There lay extended, singeing o’er the fire;
And blood, in torrents, flow’d around the corpse.”
“Observe we now the mournful fun’ral feast;
But thou, great Agamemnon, King of men,
Send forth at early dawn, and to the camp
Bring store of fuel, and all else prepare,
That with provision meet the dead may pass
Down to the realms of night; so shall the fire
From out our sight consume our mighty dead,
And to their wonted tasks the troops return.
He said; they listen’d, and his words obey’d;
Then busily the ev’ning meal prepar’d,
And shar’d the social feast; nor lack’d there aught.
The rage of thirst and hunger satisfied,
Each to their sev’ral tents the rest repair’d;
The funeral pyre is one of epic proportions Achilles commits many animals and twelve captured Trojans as sacrifices to the gods in order to speed the soul of Patroclus to the afterlife.
“Then many a sheep and many a slow-paced ox
They flay’d and dress’d around the fun’ral pyre;
Of all the beasts Achilles took the fat,
And cover’d o’er the corpse from head to foot,
And heap’d the slaughter’d carcases around;
Then jars of honey plac’d, and fragrant oils,
Resting upon the couch; next, groaning loud,
Four pow’rful horses on the pyre he threw;
Then, of nine dogs that at their master’s board
Had fed, he slaughter’d two upon his pyre;
Last, with the sword, by evil counsel sway’d,
Twelve noble youths he slew, the sons of Troy.”
During the burning of the pyre Achilles drinks wine all night and spills it upon the ground as a tribute to Patoclus. When the morning comes Achilles orders the men to drown the flames with wine. And to remove Patoclus’ body from those of the sacrificed and inurn it, with plans to later have his own ashes with those of Patoclus upon his own death.
“All night Achilles from a golden bowl
Drew forth, and, in his hand a double cup,
The wine outpouring, moisten’d all the earth,
Still calling on his lost Patroclus’ shade.”
“Anon, awaken’d by the tramp and din
Of crowds that follow’d Atreus’ royal son,
He sat upright, and thus address’d his speech:
’thou son of Atreus, and ye chiefs of Greece,
Far as the flames extended, quench we first
With ruddy wine the embers of the pyre;’
Thus spoke Achilles; they his words obey’d:
Far as the flames had reach’d, and thickly strown
The embers lay, they quench’d with ruddy wine;”
In his anger Achilles has been abusing the body of Patroclus’s killer, Hektor. But having found favor with the Gods, Hektor’s body has been protected from damage and decay. In book 24 Priam the father of Hektor is led by the god Hermes to Achilles’ camp unseen to fetch the body of his son. And they have a meal together. During this meeting the two characters see each other’s humanity; Achilles being reminded of his own father upon seeing Priam’s sorrow and Priam of his lost sons when seeing Achilles’ grief after losing his friend Patroclus.
Achilles recalls the tale of Niobe[v] who boasted about the number of children she had to Leto[vi], the mother of only two children, the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis; who slay all of Niobe’s children to avenge their mother’s honor. In her grief, Niobe did not eat or drink and did not bury her children, the gods then buried her children and she was turned to stone. Their meal becomes a representation of reconciliation, and they break bread together in their sorrow.
“This said, Achilles to the tent return’d;
On the carv’d couch, from whence he rose, he sat
Beside the wall; and thus to Priam spoke:
‘Old man, thy son, according to thy pray’r,
Is giv’n thee back; upon the couch he lies;
Thyself shalt see him at the dawn of day.
Meanwhile the ev’ning meal demands our care.
Not fair-hair’d Niobe abstain’d from food
When in the house her children lay in death,
Six beauteous daughters and six stalwart sons.
The youths, Apollo with his silver bow,
The maids, the Archer-Queen, Diana, slew,
With anger fill’d that Niobe presum’d
Herself with fair Latona to compare,
Her many children with her rival’s two;
So by the two were all the many slain.
Nine days in death they lay; and none was there
To pay their fun’ral rites; for Saturn’s son had
Given to all the people hearts of stone.
At length th’ immortal Gods entomb’d the dead.
Nor yet did Niobe, when now her grief
Had worn itself in tears, from food refrain.
And now in Sipylus, amid the rocks,
And lonely mountains, where the Goddess nymphs
That love to dance by Achelous’ stream,
‘Tis said, were cradled, she, though turn’d to stone,
Broods o’er the wrongs inflicted by the Gods.
So we too, godlike sire, the meal may share;
And later, thou thy noble son mayst mourn,
To Troy restor’d—well worthy he thy tears.”
“This said, he slaughter’d straight a white-fleec’d sheep;
His comrades then the carcase flay’d and dress’d:
The meat prepar’d, and fasten’d to the spits;
Roasted with care, and from the fire withdrew.
The bread Automedon from baskets fair
Apportion’d out; the meat Achilles shar’d.
They on the viands set before them fell.
The rage of thirst and hunger satisfied,
After the meal Priam tells Achilles that this meal has been the first time he has eaten since he received news of his son’s death. Like Niobe he had been unable to properly bury his child and not begin to mourn properly, including the funeral feast.
“Dismiss me now, illustrious chief, to rest;
And lie we down, in gentle slumbers wrapp’d;
For never have mine eyes been clos’d in sleep,
Since by thy hand my gallant son was slain:
But groaning still, I brood upon my woes,
And in my court with dust my head defile.
Now have I tasted bread, now ruddy wine
Hath o’er my palate pass’d; but not till now.”
Finally Achilles releases Hektor to his father and halts the war giving him the time he needs to properly mourn his son, and give him a funeral.
“But tell me truly this; how many days
For godlike Hector’s fun’ral rites ye need;
That for so long a time I may myself
Refrain from combat, and the people stay.”
To whom in answer Priam, godlike sire:
“If by thy leave we may indeed perform
His fun’ral rites, to thee, Achilles, great
Will be our gratitude, if this thou grant.
Thou know’st how close the town is hemm’d around;
And from the mountain, distant as it is,
The Trojans well may fear to draw the wood.
Nine days to public mourning would we give;
The tenth, to fun’ral rites and fun’ral feast;
Then on th’ eleventh would we raise his mound;
The twelfth, renew the war, if needs we must.”
“From sudden inroad of the Greeks to guard.
The mound erected, back they turn’d; and all
Assembled duly, shar’d the solemn feast
In Priam’s palace, Heav’n-descended King.
Such were the rites to glorious Hector paid.”
Humble meals and decadent feasts after the death of loved ones are both placed in high esteem by Homer in these chapters. Eating and drinking show love to the memory of those who have passed on, as well as the humanity of one’s enemy. These scenes bring a human element to the war, and show that there is grayness in the human condition where every person is special to someone, especially during war, and the pain when someone is lost, is shared.
The Trojan War is a myth or legend of the Ancient Greeks. Many Greeks believed the war to have taken place and the knowledge of its basis and occurrence seems to be a common misconception to this day.[vii] It is seen by scholars to be an accumulation of several factual battles and elaborated war stories. For many years historians have continued “to dispute the extent to which the Trojan War reflects historical events.”[viii] The city of Troy is believed to be an actual place in present day Turkey, which was founded around the year 2920 BCE[ix] and destroyed by various catastrophes and rebuilt many times during its history. It was then found abandoned by the Greeks, who believed it to be the mythical Troy, and the city of Ilion was built upon its remains around 700 BCE [x]. After the settlement was abandoned by the Greeks in approximately 1500 CE, it was rediscovered in 1868 by German-American adventurer Heinrich Schliemann. Using the geographical references in The Iliad he determined that it was the site of the ancient city of Troy. Many stories and legends have their humble beginnings in truth and while we can not make definitive statements as to the accuracy of The Iliad, we should not forget the lessons it can teach us.
[i]Elizabeth H. Riorden, “Troy,” University of Cincinnati, http://www.cerhas.uc.edu/troy/index.html (accessed April, 2014).
[ii] M. M. Willcock, Homer. http://www.oxfordreference.com/10.1093/acref/9780198601654.001.0001/acref-9780198601654-e-322.
[iii] Shmoop Editorial Team, “The Iliad Summary,” Shmoop University, Inc., 11 November 2008, http://www.shmoop.com/iliad/summary.html (accessed April, 2014).
[v]R. M. Cook, Niobe and Her Children : An Inaugural Lecture (London).1964).
[vi]Arthur Cotterell, Rachel Storm, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology : An A – Z of the Myths and Legends of the Ancient World (London: Lorenz, 1999).
[vii] Trojan War, Oxford
[viii] Trojan War, Oxford
[ix]Riorden, Troy, http://www.cerhas.uc.edu/troy/index.html University of Cincinnati.
[x]Riorden, Troy, http://www.cerhas.uc.edu/troy/index.html University of Cincinnati.