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The Maternal Warrior: Achilles and Gendered Similes in the Iliad

Celsiana Warwick

This paper argues that maternity in the Iliad is associated with martial protection, and that Achilles identifies his own problematic role as the protector of his comrades with the figure of the Homeric mother who is both protector and destroyer of her own offspring. This is reflected in his use of maternal similes to describe his relationship to the Achaean army (9.323-27) and to Patroclus (16.7-11), as well as in his performance of feminine-gendered mourning behavior, such as when he holds the dead Patroclus’ head in his hands at his funeral (23.136-137, cf. Kakridis 1949: 68 for this gesture as feminine). Foley has stated that unlike the “reverse-sex similes” in the Odyssey, which are integral to the structural development of the poem, these reverse-sex maternal similes in the Iliad “cluster randomly around the relation of Patroclus and Achilles” (1978: 21). I argue that these similes are not random, but that they instead illuminate a crucial aspect of Achilles’ role as a warrior: by associating himself with maternity, Achilles highlights the conflict between his obligation to protect his comrades and his desire to win timê and kleos

Achilles’ self-spoken maternal similes can be compared to a set of maternal similes applied by the narrator to other warriors on the battlefield, such as when Teucer is said to take shelter behind Ajax’s shield like a child taking shelter with its mother (8.268-272), and when Menelaus stands over Patroclus’ body like a mother cow over her first-born calf (17.1-6). Monsacré has suggested that these similes highlight warriors’ endurance by emphasizing maternal grief and pain (1984: 92). I, however, show that these passages are more closely associated with defense than with grief, and that they resonate with a larger theme of maternal protection seen throughout the Iliad. There are numerous instances where maternity is characterized as a protective force, with mothers, and especially the maternal body in which the child is enveloped, serving as places of refuge. This can be seen most strikingly in the actions that Aphrodite and Thetis undertake on behalf of their sons or substitute sons (5.311-18, 3.380-2; cf. Slatkin 1991 for Thetis’ protective abilities), and in similes involving Athena (4.130-1, 23.782), who protects warriors “like a mother.”

In this context, Achilles’ portrayal of himself as the mother of the Achaeans and Patroclus emphasizes his responsibility for protecting them. However, maternity has more than one valence in the Iliad, and maternal protection is often problematic (Murnaghan 1992). The trope of the mother who murders her own offspring is particularly applicable in the case of Achilles, who is responsible for the deaths of the Achaeans and Patroclus, his simile-children. Achilles is especially similar to the murderous mother of the Iliad, Althaea, who curses her son by praying to the gods for his death (9.566-72), just as Achilles asks Thetis to supplicate Zeus for the deaths of the Achaeans (1.407-10).

It is particularly telling that in Achilles’ first maternal simile he portrays himself as a diligent mother bird who suffers on behalf of her children (9.323-27), while in the other he characterizes himself as a neglectful mother whose daughter’s pleas for attention are hindering her from going about her business (16.7-11). These similes can be seen as a reflection of his conflicted feelings toward the Achaean army. His identification with maternity indicates a tacit acknowledgement that in refusing help to the Greeks and in wishing them dead Achilles is shirking his proper role, just as the “murderous mother” acts out a perversion of the mother’s life-giving function. However, it also shows his frustration that the needs of the Achaeans and Patroclus are hindering his personal pursuit of timê and kleos, for which he withdrew from the war. Maternity becomes an ideal analogy for a warrior’s relationship to his people because the dual nature of Homeric motherhood, representing as it does both preservation and annihilation, emphasizes the inherent instability of the heroic code.

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Gender and Identity

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