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!”

With that,

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

him, vanished-

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!”

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