The Death of Hector
April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
From Homer’s Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles)
Athena luring him on with all her immortal cunning-
and now, at last, as the two came closing for the kill
it was tall Hector, helmet flashing, who led off:
“No more running from you in fear, Achilles!
Not as before. Three times I fled around
the great city of Priam- I lacked the courage then
to stand your onslaught. Now my spirit stirs me
to meet you face-to-face. Now kill or be killed!
Come, we’ll swear to the gods, the highest witnesses-
the gods will oversee our binding pacts. I swear
I will never mutilate you-merciless as you are-
if Zeus allows me to last it out and tear your life away.
But once I’ve stripped your glorious amour, Achilles,
I will give your body back to your loyal comrades.
Swear you’ll do the same.”
A swift dark glance
and the headstrong runner answered, “Hector, stop!
You unforgivable, you… don’t talk to me of pacts.
There are no binding oaths between men and lions-
wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds-
they are all bent on hating each other to the death.
So with you and me. No love between us. No truce
till one or the other falls and gluts with blood
Ares who hacks at men behind his rawhide shield.
Come, call up whatever courage you can muster.
Life or death-now prove yourself a spearman,
a daring man of war! No more escape for you-
Athena will kill you with my spear in just a moment.
Now you’ll pay at a stroke for all my comrades’ grief,
all you killed in the fury of your spear!”
shaft poised, he hurled and his spear’s long shadow flew
but seeing it coming glorious Hector ducked away,
crouching down, watching the bronze tip fly past
and stab the earth- but Athena snatched it up
and passed it back to Achilles
and Hector the gallant captain never saw her.
He sounded out a challenge to Peleus’ princely son:
“You missed, look- the great godlike Achilles!
So you knew nothing at all from Zeus about my death-
and yet how sure you were! All bluff, cunning with words,
that’s all you are- trying to make me fear you,
lose my nerve, forget my fighting strength.
Well, you’ll never plant your lance in my back
as I flee you in fear- plunge it through my chest
as I come charging in, if a god gives you the chance!
But now it’s for you to dodge my brazen spear-
I wish you’d bury it in your body to the hilt.
How much lighter the war would be for Trojans then
if you, their greatest scourge, were dead and gone!”
Shaft poised, he hurled and his spear’s long shadow flew
and it struck Achilles’ shield- a dead-center hit-
but off and away it glanced and Hector seethed,
his hurtling spear, his whole arm’s power poured
in a wasted shot. He stood there, cast down…
he had no spear in reserve. So Hector shouted out
to Deiphobus bearing his white shield- with a ringing shout
he called for a heavy lance-
but the man was nowhere near
yes and Hector knew the truth in his heart
and the fighter cried aloud, “My time has come!
At last the gods have called me down to death.
I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus-
he’s safe inside the walls, Athena’s tricked me blind.
And now death, grim death is looming up beside me,
no longer far away. No way to escape it now. This,
this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago-
Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer-
though often before now they rushed to my defense.
So now I meet my doom. Well let me die-
but not without struggle, not without glory, no,
in some great clash of arms that even men to come
will hear of down the years!”
And on that resolve
he drew the whetted sword that hung at his side,
tempered, massive, and gathering all his force
he swooped like a soaring eagle
launching down from the dark clouds to earth
to snatch some helpless lamb or trembling hare.
So Hector swooped now, swinging his whetted sword
and Achilles charged too, bursting with rage, barbaric,
guarding his chest with the well-wrought blazoned shield,
head tossing his gleaming helmet, four horns strong
and the golden plumes shook that the god of fire
drove in bristling thick along its ridge.
Bright as that star amid the stars in the night sky,
star of the evening, brightest star that rides the heavens,
so fire flared from the sharp point of the spear Achilles
brandished high in his right hand, bent on Hector’s death,
scanning his splendid body- where to pierce it best?
The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor,
burnished, brazen- Achilles’ armor that Hector stripped
from strong Patroclus when he killed him- true,
but one spot lay exposed,
where collarbones lift the neckbone off the shoulders,
the open throat, where the end of life comes quickest- there
as Hector charged in fury brilliant Achilles drove his spear
and the point went stabbing clean through the tender neck
but the heavy bronze weapon failed to slash the windpipe-
Hector could still gasp out some words, some last reply…
he crashed in the dust-
godlike Achilles gloried over him:
“Hector- surely you thought when you stripped Patroclus’
armor that you, you would be safe! Never a fear of me-
far from the fighting as I was- you fool!
Left behind there, down by the beaked ships
his great avenger waited, a greater man by far-
that man was I, and I smashed your strength! And you-
the dogs and birds will maul you, shame your corpse
while Achaeans bury my dear friend in glory!”
Struggling for breath, Hector, his helmet flashing,
said, “I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents-
don’t let the dogs devour me by the Argive ships!
Wait, take the princely ransom of bronze and gold,
the gifts my father and noble mother will give you-
but give my body to friends to carry home again,
so Trojan men and Trojan women can do me honor
with fitting rites of fire once I am dead.”
Staring grimly, the proud runner Achilles answered,
“Beg no more, you fawning dog-begging me by my parents!
Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now
to hack your flesh away and eat you raw-
such agonies you have caused me! Ransom?
No man alive could keep the dog-packs off you,
not if they haul in ten, twenty times that ransom
and pile it here before me and promise fortunes more-
no, not even if Dardan Priam should offer to weigh out your
bulk in gold! Not even then will your noble mother lay you on
your deathbed, mourn the son she bore…
The dogs and birds will rend you-blood and bone!”
At the point of death, Hector, his helmet flashing,
said, “I know you well-I see my fate before me.
Never a chance that I could win you over…
Iron inside your chest, that heart of yours.
But now beware, or my curse will draw god’s wrath
upon your head, that day when Paris and lord Apollo-
for all your fighting heart- destroy you at the Scaean Gates!”
Death cut him short. The end closed in around him.
Flying free of his limbs
his soul went winging down to the House of Death,
wailing his fate, leaving his manhood far behind,
his young and supple strength. But brilliant Achilles
taunted Hector’s body, dead as he was, “Die, die!
For my own death, I’ll meet it freely-whenever Zeus
and the other deathless gods would like to bring it on!”