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Homer’s Iliad, the first surviving piece of European literature, is an epic narrative about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The soldier’s obligation to his family and community, the drive for revenge, and the unbearable costs during and after war are among the themes of this epic poem, a work that was both orally composed in verse and also transmitted orally over centuries before it was finally written down and preserved for future generations.

Though set in the distant past and composed before 700 BCE, the ancient Greek words of the Iliad, a story about gods and heroes, reach the human heart more than 2,000 years later. Among the voices that touch us is a speech of Andromache, the wife of the Trojan hero Hektor. Immediately after his death, we meet her in the inner part of her house at her loom “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 Hektor when he came out of battle; poor woman, she knew not that he was now beyond the reach of baths, and that Athena had laid him low by the hands of Achilles. She heard the cry coming as from the wall, and trembled in every limb; the shuttle fell from her hands, and again she spoke to her waiting-women. "Two of you," she said, "come with me that I may learn what it is that has befallen.” (Iliad book XXII, lines 442–450)

The warmth of home, the embroidering of something simple, delicate and alive like a flower is still possible even in the midst of this bloody battle. But once she hears a cry from Hektor’s mother, Andromache runs to the city walls and sees the corpse of Hektor being dragged by Achilles’ chariot toward the ships of the Greeks, called Achaeans by Homer. At that moment Andromache faints and rips from her head the headdress that was given to her on her wedding day. She leads the Trojan women in a ritual lament about her new status as a widow and about her newly orphaned son, Astyanax.

Addressing the dead Hektor she sings:
You are now going into the house of Hades under the secret places of the earth, and you leave me a sorrowing widow in your house. The child, of whom you and I are the unhappy parents, is as yet a mere infant. Now that you are gone, O Hektor, you can do nothing for him nor he for you. (Iliad book XXII, lines 482 – 486)

Andromache then foretells the pain and anxiety their newly orphaned son will face:
Even though he escape the horrors of this woeful war with the Achaeans, yet shall his life henceforth be one of labor and sorrow, for others will seize his lands. 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. (Iliad book XXII, lines 487 – 493)

By imaging their son, Astyanax, attending a future banquet, Andromache dramatically depicts the loss and suffering Hektor’s absence will entail:
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 - he, Astyanax, who erewhile would sit upon his father's knees, and have none but the daintiest and choicest morsels set before him. When he had played till he was tired and went to sleep, he would lie in a bed, in the arms of his nurse, on a soft couch, knowing neither want nor care, whereas now that he has lost his father his lot will be full of hardship - he, whom the Trojans name Astyanax, because you, O Hektor, were the only defense of their gates and battlements. (Iliad book XXII, lines 494 – 507)

Andromache paints a picture of the rhythms and details of daily life during peace: eating, sleeping, playing then returning to a safe spot on one’s father’s knees. All these are at risk and will be lost in the aftermath of war. Domestic order, the familial and familiar connections that make life feel safe and secure, the social fabric woven over centuries that we rely upon and even take for granted during times of peace are suddenly shredded. And now what has been lost can no longer be taken for granted. The soft and nourishing aspects of everyday domestic life are destroyed by the brutal and harsh reality of battles and their aftermath. The traumas of war leave a gaping tear in the fabric of families and society. Hundreds of years of oral tradition culminating in Homer’s epic show us this tragic truth.

About the Author:

Michelle Kwintner, PhD, LCSW-R, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Ithaca, New York, USA, and a faculty member at International Psychotherapy Institute based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Prior to that, she was a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin literature.