DEATH & RITUAL
Looking to the Iliad in the wake of the Queen's funeral
Now I know that you’ve almost certainly been bombarded on social media by many people’s intense feelings and contrary opinions surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II - I’m really not here to weigh in on the significance of the royal family, or dissect Britain’s history of colonialism in a few paragraphs. I absolutely understand that a great many are unable to celebrate her life, and therefore her death, because of the ongoing impacts of Britain’s imperial history and, of course, the monarchy cannot be divorced from that. I can also understand that as the longest reigning monarch, and a woman, the queen looms large in many people’s minds and hearts.
My partner turned on the live funeral coverage at around 11am and I found myself watching it with him on the sofa, both of us in dressing gowns, oscillating between giggling at some of the more extravagant (read: camp) headwear and being quite moved by parts of it. What it called to mind for me, almost immediately, was the importance of ritual in marking death and loss. From there, it was only the smallest of leaps to Homer, to the death of Patroclus and the grief of Achilles.
Let’s whizz through some context: Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem from ancient Greece (roughly, and I mean ROUGHLY, dated to 800 BCE) which tells the tale of the Trojan War, an epic (HA) decade-long battle between the Trojans and the Greeks. Achilles was the ultimate superstar, unequivocally the best Greek warrior, literally known as “the greatest of the Greeks.” He was also a huge diva. Agamemnon, another Greek warrior, and technically the KING of the Greeks, offends Achilles, laying claim to Briseis, a young woman taken by Achilles’ as part of his spoils of war. Achilles’ then FAMOUSLY sulks, refusing to fight against the Trojans, removing his men from the battlefield, causing the Greeks to lose countless men and any advantage they had. His lover/cousin (please just roll right past that one), Patroclus, decides to step in, stealing Achilles’ armour, and leading Achilles’ men (the Myrmidons) to battle.
It’s all going fabulously until all of a sudden it isn’t. Hector, the golden boy of the Trojans ends up slaying Patroclus. Homer offers a particularly heartbreaking description:
“And his soul, fleeting from his limbs, went down to the House of Hades, wailing its own doom, leaving manhood and youth.” Homer, Iliad, Book 16. Trans. by A. Lang, W. Leaf and E. Myers.
Achilles descends into a grief the depth of which is just ruinous to read about, let alone try and imagine.
Gavin Hamilton, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, 1763.
Something worth noting, though, before we zero in on Achilles’ grief, is the importance of Patroclus’ body after his death. After he is slain there is a FIERCE battle for his lifeless body - it is, of course, KEY that he is given the proper funeral rites according to ancient Greek religion but it also becomes quite clear that his body forms a central part of the grieving process for the Greeks that still live, Achilles in particular.
“Such was the grievous travail of men and horses over Patroklos that Zeus on that day wrought.” Hom. Il. 17.
Also, a blisteringly heart-rending part that is not often discussed, Patroclus’ horses are crying. CRYING. As the battle for his body rages on (Achilles still doesn’t even KNOW) the horses are bereft, described as WEEPING, refusing to move, guarding the body of their fallen charioteer. Eventually the gods breathed strength into the horses (did you forget we were dealing with myth? Same.), and they, with the help of Automedon, successfully extricated the body of Patroclus from the melee.
Messengers reach Achilles and relay the news, Achilles covers himself in dark dust, defiling his face, collapsing into the dirt, moaning and tearing at his hair. His divine mother, the sea nymph Thetis, is summoned by the grief of her son. She comes to him, begging to know what has happened, trying to comfort him by saying he’s gotten his way, the Greek army is struggling hugely wihtout him. He replies “But what delight have I therein, since my dear comrade is dead, Patroklos, whom I honoured above all my comrades as it were my very self?” Hom. Il. 18.
Achilles then announces that he will not bury Patroclus until he can bring him the armour and head of Hector, his killer. He also plans to slaughter 12 Trojan youths at the grave in an attempt to sate his anger. (If you thought parts of the Queen’s memorial were excessive, maybe this is a bit of helpful perspective?!) The body of Patroclus is then carefully washed and anointed by his comrades - much like the retrieval of the body itself this has clear religious significance but must have been crucial for the mourning process of those he was closest to. Patroclus’ body is then covered in cloth and dressed in a sort of ceremonial white robe, far more pared back than some of the accoutrements sported in London, both by mourners and the coffin itself, but I’d argue the gesture, or ritual, was performed with comparable intention. Thetis, Achilles’ mother, also performs ministrations upon the body as her son prepares for battle, giving Patroclus ambrosia and red nectar so that his body will not decay (embalming a la nereid).
Achilles forgoes food and drink, unable to be soothed by those around him, being absolutely torn apart by his anguish. All that will satisfy him is exacting his vengeance. And his vengeance he exacts. After slaying Hector (and countless other Trojans), Achilles returns to the Greek camp, leading the mourners as they circle around Patroclus’ body three times in their chariots. (See THIS makes me feel like the parallel I’m drawing isn’t TOO much of a reach). Their tears were so great they wet the sand and their weapons. Achilles places his hand on Patroclus, reassuring him that he has delivered what he promised him, both the body of Hector and 12 Trojan youths to be sacrificed so men and gods alike know the depth of his loss and the fierceness of his rage. There was a generous funeral feast and numerous sacrifices of oxen, boars, sheep and goat were made. Still Patroclus remained unburied. A fact which ghost-Patroclus doesn’t love. Yep, Achilles gets haunted. The ghost of Patroclus visits him in a dream and essentially says, “it’s all well and good that you killed my killer and you’re making a big song and dance, I know you live for the drama and I’ve always loved that about you, but you DO need to bury me my love, the other ghosts are making fun of me. Also… and like NOT a big deal if you’re not into it, but do you want to be buried together?” Achilles agrees to everything immediately (and then tries to embrace the ghost - does the make your heart hurt more or less than the crying horses?!).
Finally, Achilles cracks on with the whole process. All of Patroclus’ comrades cut off some of their hair, heaping it on the body to be burned with it. Animals were added to the funeral pyre, along with honey, oil, four horses (??), and the twelve Trojans, felled by Achilles’ sword. Achilles even goes as far to pray to the wind gods to make sure the funeral pyre burns brilliantly throughout the night. In the morning the bones of Patroclus are collected and placed in a golden urn, awaiting the ashes of Achilles. (If my love isn’t like this, I DON’T WANT IT).
THEN, because that was nowhere near ENOUGH (see this is really providing some perspective), Achilles “stayed the folk in place,” in other words wouldn’t let them LEAVE until they all competed in a ridiculously elaborate series of funeral games. He brought forth prizes, from sturdy donkeys to well-girdled women (if anyone knows what that might mean in this context please let me know), and hands them out to the winners of the chariot race, the boxing match, footrace, and archery competition. Everyone dissipates, knackered from the exacting festivities, but Achilles weeps on the beach, stomps around, and drags Hector’s body around the place (the man is in his FEELINGS).
The Funerary Mask of Agamemnon, located at the Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Back to my ORIGINAL point, the lengths Achilles goes to in order to mourn Patroclus are as ridiculous as they are heartening - plunging oneself into ritual to cope with (and distract from) grief goes as far back as the Trojan War. Funerary practices can be found in some of the earliest parts of the archaeological record; as soppy as it is, I believe that sharing in grief, and in all that comes with it, is quite wonderful, connecting us inextricably with our most distant ancestors.