Coping with Death
Death is said to be the great equalizer. Laying low the rich, the poor, the chaste, and the glutenous. Yet in the end, it is not the one who dies that feels the most sorrow, but rather those around him. The ones who loved, and were loved, those who shall forever entrust the memory of their fallen comrade to their hearts. That is how we gain immorality, by those we leave behind. Yet, grief manifests itself in many ways, be it anger, sadness, or simply a deep and profound sense of loss. In the case of Homerís and Sinís characters these rules hold no exception. For, every personality in those myths had their own way of dealing with death. It is this mourning, this quintessential sense of grief that I shall endeavor to explore within the next few pages.
In Homerís Iliad Achilles has a unique way of dealing with Patroclusís death. At first, Achilles is filled with a keening grief so painful that he is sent into spasms, which soon spread to the others in the camp (Il. 18.25-40). Yet, this terrible sense of grief and pain is soon replaced by a deep gnawing thirst for vengeance against the one who instigated his comradeís death, Hector. He is further enraged at Hector because not only did he strip Patroclusís body of Achillesís armor but now actually has the audacity to wear it. So, when the battle begins again Achilles rides forth with his men, determined to avenge his slain comrade. But, although the battle goes well, Hector is warned by the gods to stay away from Achilles else he will meet his fate (Il. 20.428). Hector takes Apolloís advice, and for a moment Achilles is robbed of his chance of vengeance. Before long the battle is taken before Troyís walls and Achilles has another chance to take his vengeance, clothed in armor made by the gods. This time, Achilles is victorious and Hector falls to his spear (Il. 22.379-397). But the death of Hector is not enough for Achilles , who proceeds to desecrate and abuse Hectorís body, striving to exact more pain for the death of his comrade (Il. 22.465-476). It seems to me, what Achilles is doing is dealing with his friendís death the only way he knows how. All his life, he has been a soldier, raised in the heat of battle and suckled on rage. When it came time to feel or display emotion he did so the only way he knew how, through rage and violence. Killing and mutilating Hector was justified to him because it was sating his emotional rage, filling the gap left by Patroclus with hate and vengeance rather than friendship. This is considered perfectly acceptable by those around him, because they act the same way. In fact, Patroclusís death is celebrated by games that are in their basal form rather violent.
The irony of Achillesís view towards death is when he is faced with his own mortality, instead of anger or blind wrath we see a calm, composed disposition (Il. 22.430-432). I am inclined to believe this is due to Achillesí long time foreknowledge of his own destruction. From the beginning of the poem, clues are dropped that Achilles has long known that his life is due to be short and that his blood would stain the gates of Troy (Il. 1.415). Because of his foreknowledge Achilles seems to have been able to come to grips with the knowledge of his eventual death and is able to accept it. Because of this acceptance, he is able to face life with renewed vigor and courage because he knows the only way to live forever is his fame; so he must make each moment count. At one point when Achilles threatens to sail away it seems he is trying to shirk fate, but an odd series of events forces his hand and he remains in Troy, victorious only temporarily.
The Trojans take an entirely different view towards the death of their leader, Hector. In contrast to Achillesís rage the Trojans are sad and somber, quietly reflecting on their leaderís death (Il. 24.192-196). Their somber attitude is further contrasted to Achillesí when instead of holding a great and violent set of games to celebrate death, they instead spend the time in solitude; mourning with brave words, flowers, and fond remembrances (Il. 24.930-945). The difference between the ways of mourning can be explained by the different cultures Hector and Patroclus come from. Patroclus hails from a warlike people who take great joy in battle while Hector hails from Troy which is described as wealthy and full of culture. It would seem a fair enough conclusion that a more wealthy and cultured society would have less need for war and more for quiet contemplation, so Hectorís calm and meaningful burial stems from his societies social expectancies. But perhaps the greatest difference between the two menís death is how Hector was received overall. Like Achilles, many Achaeans responded to Patroclusí death with anger whereas the Trojans cared so deeply for their leader they could only respond with muted shock. In fact, instead of responding with rage and violence, Hectorís father, the king, sneaks from the city, and begs for the return of his sonís body (Il. 24.591-620)--a wholly different reaction than the Achaeans showed earlier.
Yet, perhaps the most interesting reaction of all the characters to a companionís death was shown by Gilgamesh. At first, he cried and said things that were kind and complimentary to the dying man and even went on to promise that the entire city would cry and weep for his passing.(Gilgamesh VII.iii) But then, Gilgasmesh decides to go on a journey and wander the plains to reflect on Enkiduís passing.(Gilgamesh VIII pg. 93) At first, he does just that weeping over his friendís death and regretting the loss of his companionship. (Gilgamesh IX pg95) But then, his reflections turned inward as he began to infer the meaning of his own friends death upon his mortality. For the first time in his life Gilamesh seems afraid of death and decides to set off on this holy quest for immortality. His fears become more apparent as he speaks to other people because although he always starts a conversation with how he is mourning the loss of a friend, one way or another he always comes back to the following quote. "I was frightened and I am afraid death, so I roam the open country" (Gilgamesh X pg.101). This one line summarizes the fear and apprehension Gilgamesh feels about his own situation. In the end it is very odd because Gilgameshís reaction to Enkiduís death is partly grief for his friend, but mostly self-pity for himself.
I believe there are several parallels that string Homerís Iliad and Gilgamesh together when it comes to grieving for the dead. Firstly, is the idea of immorality via fame. In Gilgamesh and the Iliad it is stressed that fame is very important. The Homeric code of excellence and Gilgameshís quest for notoriety by slaying the Humbaba demonstrates that theory rather well. Secondly, is the idea of profound sadness. Achilles, the Trojans, and Gilgamesh all show deep regret and pain over the loss of their comrades some even going so far as to emotionally break down as Achilles demonstrates in the beginning of book 18. But perhaps the most important fact that strings all of the myths ways of dealing with death together is the lack of regret. Although sadness and even anger is shown, the people of myth seem to accept that the death was the will of the gods and not to be argued with. People get upset, or may even disagree with the death having to happen, but nonetheless they seem to accept it. This tenet differs greatly from modern societyís general consensus, where death must be fought off with machines and oils long after any mind has departed, and hence stands out rather vividly as a connecting link between all the myths.
I myself have had the unfortunate luck to have several close friends die within the past several years. My first reaction tended to be a state of shock. It was like I was sitting in a room with four walls and all of a sudden one of the walls just disappeared; it was just hard to accept. My second reaction was a great sense of lose and depression because I knew that I would never be able to share my life with that someone who was important to me ever again. But finally, a sense of my own mortality, realizing that someday too my number will be up and I will have to be gone forever. That last stage is the most frightening because it seems to rip every shred of your inner self out of your body and leave it drying out in the sun to be viewed by everyone, even yourself. I think when I compare my mourning with what occurred with Achilles and the Trojans I do not really see many similarities. I didnít feel angry and I most certainly did not wish to grieve silently and gentlemanlike. Rather, I think my grief most related to Gilgamesh. The questioning of his own life and what mortality means rings a frighteningly familiar bell in my head. In fact, I would venture to suggest that Gilgameshís reaction was perhaps the most universal of all the myths because I think every time we look at a casket we picture ourselves lying within its satiny embrace.
I think grief and mourning transcends both time and space. Achillesí rage at the death of Patroclus can be seen in the Detroit riots that occurred after Martin Luther King Jrís assassination. Hectorís stately death is mirrored in that of Eva Peronís grand funeral. Even Gilgameshís frantic questioning can be seen on he face of any widow who has just seen her husband lowered into the ground. Though the times have changed, the earth being paved over by manís ambition, death remains a constant and so do our reactions to it. I think that if anything is to be learned by these long ago deaths is that grief is important, nay integral. For only by expressing ourselves and how we feel can we ever hope to banish the demons that dwell inside our minds. If we see that half-divine Achilles can cry over the body of his slain friend than perhaps we can learn that it is okay to cry when grandfather dies. It is okay to express ourselves when the world seems to have darkened around us.
In the end death is one of the few things that connects the ancient past to today. The grieving widows of Trojan and Achaean soldiers can still be related to by every women who has ever seen her husband off the war. The idea of death is timeless and more powerful than anything man can describe or imagine. For be you Achilles, Hector, or Tim the dry cleaner that ghostly specter carrying his impossibly sharp sickle never strays far. And be you Priam, Andromache, or Suzy next door, the grief felt at someoneís loss is both painful and eternal.
"For the roads go ever onward towards the sun,
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