The Story of the Iliad/Chapter 26

The Story of the Iliad by Homer, translated by Alfred John Church
Chapter 26



When the burial of Patroclus was ended, the gods held council about Hector, for Achilles did despite to the body of Hector, dragging it about the tomb of his friend, but the gods had pity on the dead man, because in his life he had ever honoured them.

Then did Zeus send for Thetis, and when she was come to Olympus, he said: "Get thee to the camp, and bid thy son give up Hector for ransom, for I am wroth with him because he doth despite to the dead."

So Thetis went to Achilles, and found him weeping softly for his dead friend, for the strength of his sorrow was now spent, and she said to him: "It is the will of the gods that thou give up the body of Hector, and take in exchange the ransom of gold and precious things which his father will give thee for him."

And her son answered, "Be it so, if the gods will have it."

Then Zeus sent Iris, who was his messenger, to King Priam, where he sat with his face wrapped in his mantle, and his sons weeping about him, and his daughters wailing through the chambers of his palace.

Then Iris spake: "Be of good cheer, Priam, son of Dardanus; Zeus has sent me to thee. Go, taking with thee such gifts as may best please the heart of Achilles, and bring back the body of thy dear son Hector. Go without fear of death or harm, and go alone. Only let an aged herald be with thee, to help thee when thou bringest back the body of the dead."

Then Priam rose with joy, and bade his sons bring forth his chariot; but first he went to his chamber, and called to Hecuba, his wife, and told her of his purpose, nor heeded when she sought to turn him from it, but said: "Seek not to hold me back, nor be a bird of evil omen in my house. If any prophet or seer had bidden me do this thing, I should have held it a deceit; but now have I heard the very voice of the messenger of Zeus. Wherefore, I shall go. And if I die, what care I? Let Achilles slay me, so that I embrace once more the body of my son."

Then he bade put into a wagon shawls and mantles that had never been washed, and rugs, and cloaks, and tunics, twelve of each, and ten talents of gold, and two bright three-footed caldrons, and four basins, and a cup of passing beauty which the Thracians had given him. The old man spared nothing that he had, if only he might buy back his son. None of the Trojans would he suffer to come near him. "Begone," he cried, "ye cowards! Have ye nothing to wail for at home, that ye come to wail with me? Surely, an easy prey will ye be to the Greeks, now that Hector is dead."

Then he cried with like angry words to his sons, Paris, and Agathon, and Deïphobus, and the others—there were nine of them in all:—

"Make haste, ye evil brood. Would that ye all had died in the room of Hector. Surely, an ill-fated father am I. Many a brave son I had, as Mestor, and Troilus, and Hector, who was fairer than any of the sons of men. But all these are gone, and only the cowards are left, masters of lying words, and skilful in the dance, and mighty to drink wine. But go, yoke the mules to the wagon."

So they yoked the mules to the wagon. But the horses for his chariot Priam, with the herald, yoked himself.

Then Hecuba came near, and bade a woman-servant come and pour water on his hands. And when she had poured, King Priam took a great cup from the hands of his wife, and made a libation to Zeus, and prayed:—

"Hear me, Father Zeus, and grant that Achilles may pity me. And do thou send me now a lucky sign, that I may go with a good heart to the ships of the Greeks."

And Zeus heard him, and sent an eagle, a mighty bird, whose wings spread out on either side as wide as is the door of some spacious chamber in a rich man's house. On his right hand it flew high above the city; and all rejoiced when they saw the sign.

Then the old man mounted his chariot in haste, and drove forth from the palace. Before him the mules drew the four-wheeled wagon, and these the herald Idæus guided. But his chariot the old King drove himself. And all his kinsfolk went with him, weeping as for one who was going to his death. But when they came down from the city to the plain, Priam and the herald went towards the ships of the Greeks, but all the others returned to Troy.

But Zeus saw him depart, and said to Hermes: "Hermes, go guide King Priam to the ships of the Greeks, so that no man see him before he comes to the tents of Achilles."

Then Hermes fastened on his feet the fair sandals of gold with which he flies, fast as the wind, over sea and land, and in his hand he took the rod with which he opens and closes, as he wills, the eyes of men. And he flew down and lighted on the plain of Troy, taking on him the likeness of a fair youth.

But when they had driven past the great Tomb of Ilus, they stopped the horses and the mules, to let them drink of the river. And darkness came over the land; and then the herald spied Hermes, and said:—

"Consider, my lord, what we shall do. I see a man, and I am sore afraid lest he slay us. Shall we flee on the chariot, or shall we go near and entreat him, that he may have pity upon us?"

Then the old man was sore troubled, and his hair stood up with fear. But Hermes came near and took him by the hand and said:—

"Whither goest thou, old man, with thy horses and mules through the darkness? Hast thou no fear of these fierce Greeks, who are close at hand? If any one should see thee with all this wealth, what then? And thou art not young, nor is thy attendant young, that ye should defend yourselves against an enemy. But I will not harm thee, nor suffer any other, for thou art like my own dear father."

"It is well, my son," said the old man. "Surely one of the blessed gods is with me, in causing me to meet such an one as thou, so fair and so wise. Happy the parents of such a son!"

And Hermes said: "Come, tell me true, old man. Are you sending away all these treasures that they may be kept safe for you far away? or are all the men of Troy leaving the city, seeing now that Hector, who was their bravest warrior, is dead?"

Then Priam answered, "Who art thou, my son, and what thy race, that thou speakest so truly about my hapless son?"

"Often," said Hermes, "have I seen Hector in the battle, both at other times, and when he drove the Greeks before him at the ships. We, indeed, stood and watched and marvelled at him, for Achilles would not suffer us to fight, being wroth with King Agamemnon. Now I am a follower of Achilles, coming from Greece in the same ship with him. One of the Myrmidons I am, son of Polyctor, an old man such as thou art. Six other sons he has, and when we drew lots who should come to the war, it fell to me. But know that with the morning the Greeks will set their battle in array against the city, for they are weary of their sojourn, and the kings cannot keep them back."

Then said Priam, "If thou art an attendant of Achilles, tell me true, is my son yet by the ships, or have the dogs devoured him?"

And Hermes answered: "Nor dogs nor vultures have devoured him. Still he lies by the ships of Achilles; and though this is the twelfth day since he was slain, no decay has touched him. Nay, though Achilles drags him round the tomb of his dear Patroclus, yet even so does no unseemliness come to him. All fresh he lies, and the blood is washed from him, and all his wounds are closed—and many spear-points pierced him. The blessed gods love him well, dead man though he be."

This King Priam was well pleased to hear. "It is well," he said, "for a man to honour the gods; for, indeed, as my son never forgot the dwellers on Olympus, so have they not forgotten him, even in death. But do thou take this fair cup, and do kindness to him, and lead me to the tent of Achilles."

"Nay," answered Hermes; "thou speakest this in vain. No gift would I take from thy hand unknown to Achilles; for I honour him much, and fear to rob him, lest some evil happen to me afterwards. But thee I will guide to Argos itself, if thou wilt, whether by land or sea, and no one shall blame my guiding."

Then he leapt into the chariot of the King and caught the reins in his hand, and gave the horses and the mules a strength that was not their own. And when they came to the ditch and the trench that guarded the ships, lo! the guards were busy with their meal; but Hermes made sleep descend upon them, and opened the gates, and brought in Priam with his treasures. And when they came to the tent of Achilles, Hermes lighted down from the chariot and said:—

"Lo! I am Hermes, whom my Father Zeus hath sent to be thy guide. And now I shall depart, for I would not that Achilles should see me. But go thou in, and clasp his knees, and beseech him by his father, and his mother, and his child. So shalt thou move his heart with pity."

So Hermes departed to Olympus, and King Priam leapt down from the chariot, leaving the herald to care for the horses and the mules, and went to the tent. There he found Achilles sitting; his comrades sat apart, but two waited on him, for he had but newly ended his meal, and the table was yet at his hand. But no man saw King Priam till he was close to Achilles, and caught his knees and kissed his hands, the dreadful, murderous hands that had slain so many of his sons. As a man who slays another by mishap flies to some stranger land, to some rich man's home, and all wonder to see him, so Achilles wondered to see King Priam, and his comrades wondered, looking one at another. Then King Priam spake:—

"Think of thy father, godlike Achilles, and pity me. He is old, as I am, and, it may be, his neighbours trouble him, seeing that he has no defender; yet so long as he knows that thou art alive, it is well with him, for every day he hopes to see his dear son returned from Troy. But as for me, I am altogether wretched. Many a valiant son I had,—nineteen born to me of one mother,—and most of them are dead, and he that was the best of all who kept our city safe, he has been slain by thee. He it is whom I have come to ransom. Have pity on him and on me, thinking of thy father. Never, surely, was lot so sad as this, to kiss the hands that slew a son."

But the words so stirred the heart of Achilles that he wept, thinking now of Patroclus, and now of his old father at home; and Priam wept, thinking of his dead Hector. But at last Achilles stood up from his seat and raised King Priam, having pity on his white hair and his white beard, and spake:—

"How didst thou dare to come to the ships of the Greeks, to the man who slew thy sons? Surely, thou must have a heart of iron. But sit thou down: let our sorrows rest in our hearts, for there is no profit in lamentation. It is the will of the gods that men should suffer woe, but they are themselves free from care. Two chests are set by the side of Father Zeus, one of good and one of evil gifts, and he mixes the lot of men, taking out of both. Many noble gifts did the gods give to King Peleus: wealth and bliss beyond that of other men, and kingship over the Myrmidons. Ay! and they gave him a goddess to be his wife. But they gave also this evil, that he had no stock of stalwart children in his house, but one son only, and I cannot help him at all in his old age, for I tarry here far away in Troy. Thou, too, old man, hadst wealth and power of old, and lordship over all that lies between Lesbos and Phrygia and the stream of Hellespont. And to thee the gods have given this ill, that there is ever battle and slaughter about thy city walls. But as for thy son, wail not for him, for thou canst not raise him up."

But Priam answered: "Make me not to sit, great Achilles, while Hector lies unhonoured. Let me ransom him, and look upon him with my eyes, and do thou take the gifts. And the gods grant thee to return safe to thy fatherland."

But Achilles frowned and said: "Vex me not; I am minded myself to give thee back thy Hector. For my mother came from the sea, bearing the bidding of Zeus, and thou, methinks, hast not come hither without some guidance from the gods. But trouble me no more, lest I do thee some hurt."

And King Priam feared and held his peace. Then Achilles hastened from his tent, and two comrades with him. First they loosed the horses from the chariot and the mules from the wagon; then they brought in the herald Idæus, and took the gifts. Only they left of them two cloaks and a tunic, wherein they might wrap the dead. And Achilles bade the women wash and anoint the body, but apart from the tent, lest, perchance, Priam should see his son and cry aloud, and so awaken the fury in his heart. But when it was washed and anointed, Achilles himself lifted it in his arms and put it on the litter, and his comrades lifted the litter on the wagon.

And when all was finished, Achilles groaned and cried to his dead friend, saying:—

"Be not wroth, Patroclus, if thou shouldst hear in the unknown land that I have ransomed Hector to his father: a noble ransom hath he paid me, and of this, too, thou shalt have thy share, as is meet."

Then he went back to his tent, and set himself down, over against Priam, and spake: "Thy son is ransomed, old man, and to-morrow shalt thou see him and take him back to Troy. But now let us eat. Did not Niobe eat when she lost her twelve children, six daughters and six blooming sons, whom Apollo and Artemis slew—Apollo these and Artemis those—because she likened herself to the fair Latona? So let us eat, old man. To-morrow shalt thou weep for Hector; many tears, I trow, shall be shed for him."

So they ate and drank. And when the meal was ended, Achilles sat and marvelled at King Priam's noble look, and King Priam marvelled at Achilles, so strong he was and fair.

Then Priam said: "Let me sleep, great Achilles. I have not slept since my son fell by thy hand. Now I have eaten and drunk, and my eyes are heavy."

So the comrades of Achilles made him a bed outside, where no one might see him, should it chance that any of the chiefs should come to the tent of Achilles to take counsel, and should espy him, and tell it to King Agamemnon.

But before he slept King Priam said: "If thou art minded to let me bury Hector, let there be a truce between my people and the Greeks. For nine days let us mourn for Hector, and on the tenth will we bury him and feast the people, and on the eleventh raise a great tomb above him, and on the twelfth we will fight again, if fight we must."

And Achilles answered, "Be it so: I will stay the war for so long."

But while Priam slept there came to him Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, and said: "Sleepest thou, Priam, among thy foes? Achilles has taken ransom for thy Hector; but thy sons that are left would pay thrice as much for thee should Agamemnon hear that thou wert among the ships."

The old man heard and trembled, and roused the herald, and the two yoked the horses and the mules. So they passed through the army, and no man knew. And when they came to the river, Hermes departed to Olympus, and the morning shone over all the earth. Wailing and weeping, they carried the body to the city.

It was Cassandra who first espied them as they came. Her father she saw, and the herald, and then the dead body on the litter, and she cried, "Sons and daughters of Troy, go to meet Hector, if ever ye have met him with joy as he came back from the battle."

And straightway there was not man or woman left in the city. They met the wagon when it was close to the gates: his wife led the way, and his mother and all the multitude followed. And in truth they would have kept it thus till evening, weeping and wailing, but King Priam spake:—

"Let us pass; ye shall have enough of wailing when we have taken him to his home."

So they took him to his home and laid him on his bed. And the minstrels lamented, and the women wailed.

Then first of all came Andromaché, his wife, and cried:—

"O my husband, thou hast perished in thy youth, and I am left in widowhood, and our child, thy child and mine, is but an infant! I fear me he will not grow to manhood. Ere that day this city will fall, for thou art gone who wast its defender. Soon will they carry us away, mothers and children, in the ships, and thou, my son, perchance will be with us, and serve the stranger in unseemly bondage; or, it may be, some Greek will slay thee, seizing thee and dashing thee from the wall; some Greek whose brother, or father, or son, Hector has slain in the battle. Many a Greek did Hector slay; no gentle hand was his in the fray. Therefore, do the people wail for him to-day. Sore is thy parents' grief, O Hector, but sorest mine. Thou didst stretch no hands of farewell to me from thy bed, nor speak any word of comfort for me to muse on while I weep night and day."

Next spake Hecuba, his mother: "Dear wast thou, my son, in life to the immortal gods, and dear in death. Achilles dragged thee about the tomb of his dear Patroclus, but could not bring him back, I ween, and now thou liest fresh and fair as one whom the God of the silver bow has slain with sudden stroke."

And last of all came Helen, and cried: "Many a year has passed since I came to Troy—would that I had died before! And never have I heard from thy lips one bitter word, and if ever husband's sister, or sister-in-law, or mother-in-law—for Priam was ever gentle as a father—spake harshly to me, thou wouldst check them with thy grace and gracious words. Therefore I weep for thee; no one is left to be my friend in all the broad streets of Troy. All shun and hate me now."

And all the people wailed reply.

Then Priam spake: "Go, my people, gather wood for the burial, and fear not any ambush of the Greeks, for Achilles promised that he would stay the war until the twelfth day should come."

So for nine days the people gathered much wood, and on the tenth they laid Hector upon the pile, and lit fire beneath it. And when it was burnt they quenched the embers with wine. Then his brethren and comrades gathered together the white bones, and laid them in a chest of gold; and this they covered with purple robes and put in a great coffin, and laid upon it stones many and great. And over all they raised a mighty mound; and all the while the watchers watched, lest the Greeks should arise and slay them. Last of all was a great feast held in the palace of King Priam.

So they buried Hector, the tamer of horses.


After these things came Memnon the Æthiopian to the help of Troy. He slew Antilochus, son of Nestor, in battle, but was himself slain by Achilles. Not many days after this Achilles himself perished, for, having declared at a banquet of the chiefs that he would make his way by his valour into Troy, he strove to break through the Scæan gate. There did Paris wound him to the death with an arrow, but it was Apollo that guided the archer's hand.

When Achilles was dead, his mother gave his arms to be a prize to the bravest of the Greeks. Then stood up Ulysses and Ajax the Greater, and contended together; but the Greeks adjudged the prize to Ulysses; therefore Ajax slew himself.

Yet still Troy could not be taken. Then Helenus the seer, who was one of the sons of Priam, having been taken prisoner by Ulysses, said to the Greeks: "Ye cannot take the city unless ye bring hither Philoctetes, with the bow which Hercules gave him, and with him one who is one of the race of Achilles."

Now the Greeks, when they sailed to Troy, had left Philoctetes in Lemnos, because the stench of the wound where a serpent had bitten him could not be endured. So they sent Ulysses to fetch him. Also they sent for Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, that was brought up in Scyros by the father of his mother.

Philoctetes, when he was come to Troy, slew Paris with one of the arrows of Hercules, and Neoptolemus slew the son of Telephus, who was the last and bravest of the allies of Troy.

But when the city still held out, a certain Epeius, Athené advising him, devised a device by which it was taken. The Greeks made as if they had departed, burning their camp and sailing away in their ships. But they left behind them a great horse of wood in which the bravest of the chiefs hid themselves. This the men of Troy drew into their city; and at night, when their thoughts were given to feasting, for they thought that the war was ended, the chiefs came out of the horse and threw open the gate, so that the Greeks entered and took the city.