The Iliad is angry in a way I can relate to, in a way that many young women can relate to. Achilles cries, Patrokles cries, Thetis cries. All of them furious, all of them game-changers, and their tears don’t make them weak.
By Mikaella Clements
What you have to understand is this: It was my first real summer, in the literary, northern hemisphere sense of the word, and I was a little mad with the joy of it.
Australian summers don’t count. Australian summers wear you down and when they’ve finished wearing you down, they grind you into the ground with a week of 45-degree days that leave you panting and twitching. Also, the TV schedules don’t line up. Christmas cards are strange and hesitant or overly jolly. Everyday objects become enemies: seatbelt buckles, pavement, a flip-flop left too long in the sun.
Try that and then switch to a sedate UK summer — rain every other day, grey skies, and a warmth that is slow and sweet and embracing; there are curious and lovely smells in the air, and a complete lack of sunburn. (Amid all this, venturing into that the crappy tattoo parlor with its leather chair in the window of an arcade would start looking pretty good to you, too.)
For as long as I’d wanted a tattoo — about six years, at that point — I’d wanted a literary one. It stemmed from a 16-year-old obsession with Moby-Dick. I had essentially condensed the story into that moment where Ishmael casually details the day he found himself lacking pen and paper, so in lieu of writing, he tattooed the exact measurements of a whale skeleton onto his forearm. It’s a single, crystalline image, but more difficult to translate than you would think: After years trying to work out how to do it, rejecting lines of numbers and backing out at the last minute of one rather ambitious design, I still had no idea how to make my own whale measurements come to life.
But somewhere in there I found something else, some kind of patron saint: Achilles, the bad luck hero of Homer’s Iliad, the grimy dirty bastard who would never have been a saint, but would also never leave you in a tight spot.
The Iliad is a poem by the Ancient Greek poet Homer, who lived either around 852 BCE, or 1102 BCE, or somewhere in the middle of that 250 year gap, or maybe before or after that. We don’t know. We’re not really sure he existed. The Iliad itself, along with its companion, sequel poem The Odyssey, wasn’t written down until probably 760 BCE — but again, we don’t know. At the center of its pulsing, unknowable heart is Achilles, the half-divine Greek warrior who is the only man who can bring an end to the ongoing Trojan War, and the one who refuses to do so. You probably know him. (He was once played by Brad Pitt.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the lonely 16-year-old who loved Moby-Dick grew up to love Achilles; there is a certain portion of Achillean-like wrath in Moby-Dick. And beyond that, there is an understanding of tragedy, whether it is in the catastrophic moment — Achilles’s pride ripped away from him, Patrokles dead in the dirt — or in the slow grind of loneliness: Ishmael the last member of the crew, knowing when it’s about time he goes back to sea.
Herman Melville wrote, “I would up-heart, were it not like lead. But my whole clock’s run down; my heart the all-controlling weight, I have no key to lift again.” Melville was a Classics scholar, too, and he too had read the line where Odysseus tells Achilles, “Bear patiently, my heart, for you have suffered heavier things.” Personally, I’ve found Achilles is not too hard a heart to bear.
For the last three years, I’ve carried Achilles caught tight in my chest like some private saint. He’s not one you’d be wise to put your faith in, because Achilles leaves people in tight spots all the time, but I think if I dangled him from a charm on my wrist I’d be set. I wanted a personal Achilles, an Achilles keeping an eye out and catching my elbow. A Mikaella-Achilles, who thought I was important enough to come in and do things better when I needed it.
But instead of a charm bracelet, I got a tattoo.
I studied The Iliad in my second year of Classics at university. After only 18 months of studying Ancient Greek, it felt like an intimidating task, but that is the sly, wonderful thing about Homer: He is somehow the Greek author I am best at reading. It’s the Homeric rhythm that does it. If you immerse yourself in Homer the way we did, it becomes a language all on its own that is separate from Greek. There are rules and formulas and vocabulary to the language that is all Iliad.
Homer makes sense in tiny snatches, three or four words at a time, pausing, going on. My Greek teacher insisted we search for the caesura, the infinitesimal pause in the middle of each line, until finding it was instinctive. We approached each line with quiet, solid care, keeping an eye out for the caesuras as they came, pausing, waiting for their resolved meaning, then moving on.
Homer loves enjambment and quick short phrases — leaving you hanging, but always knowing what you’re hanging from. For the first few centuries (or less, or more) that the poem was known and beloved, it was an oral tradition. The Iliad wasn’t written down for a long time, and if you fit yourself into the dactylic hexameter that the poem is built upon, if you hear it instead of reading it, letting each word drop like a stone and be absorbed, the whole complicated thread of Greek untangles and lies sweet as a snake in your hand.
My first semester of Intermediate Greek I studied Herodotus and was hopelessly lost, out of my depth and struggling to make my way through endless sentences, hunting frantically for the right verb, any verb, god please.
Homer taught me to take things in a measured way, because everything is desperate.
I’d fretted over the potential Moby-Dick tattoo for six years, but when this new concept came to my head, I only thought about it for a couple of weeks at most. Then my girlfriend came home from her summer job at a milkshake shop in an arcade and told me that opposite her shopfront, a tattoo parlor had opened. They had a big glass window that opened onto the interior of the mall, waving in potential customers. They had a black leather chair that sat in the centre of this window, where my girlfriend and her colleagues gleefully watched people being tattooed all day long.
“God, why would you agree to that?” I said, rolling my eyes, when she told me. “It’s like you’re on some weird, painful display.”
“Maybe you should get your tattoo there,” she joked.
“Hey,” I said, slow, realizing, “maybe I should.”
We toed the idea back and forth for a week or so; I halfheartedly Googled some images. I wanted something simple and private, something that I wouldn’t have to explain to many people. On one morning I ate a bagel while my girlfriend put on her work uniform, and then, half by accident, I shuffled into the mall with her, and turned left into the tattoo parlor.
The tattoo artist looked at my proffered image for a moment and then made a small sketch on a piece of paper. “Like that?”
“Smaller,” I said, nervous, still haunted by the memory of that just-missed whale tattoo that was intended to take up my whole forearm. “I want it to fit under my knuckle.”
He nodded, and drew it again, then showed me how we could add shading to make the object itself more obvious: “Otherwise,” he said, “you’re going to get people thinking you got a thumb tattoo of a beachball or something.”
(Actually, Pokemon has been the most common guess. One uncle, examining it, asked me gravely if I was really such a big fan of pizza.)
I wasn’t so sure about the shading. It was my first tattoo and I was being a massive baby about it. “Let’s just do the outline first,” I said, settling into that display as confidently as I could, “and see what it looks like.”
Across the way, my girlfriend raised her eyebrows and gave me a wide-eyed look of surprise and a tentative thumbs up; her colleagues gathered around, giggling and staring.
Around the same time I was studying the Iliad at uni, I had a colleague, a nice guy with all the caveats that nice guys tend to have, who used to tell me that he couldn’t understand why I liked Achilles. Achilles wasn’t the trickster or the politician, he wasn’t nuanced or sympathetic or smart, he was just a brute.
Sometimes I think maybe Achilles is the best hero ever put down in any language. He is so fierce, so compelling, so dangerous, so compassionate, so human and so divine and as a result: so Other. When I was 20 and studying the Iliad, I had grown out of a lot of my high school queer kid loneliness, but not so much that I couldn’t recognize a fellow outsider. Far from the brute force my colleague and others have imagined, for me Achilles has always been about being both other (for my part: queer and female, for his: weird and half-divine) and sure that you’re angrier, smarter, cooler than all the people who are judging you — or afraid of you.
Homer taught me to take things in a measured way, because everything is desperate.
The Iliad is a poem interested in anger. There’s a moment early on when the goddess Athena grabs Achilles by the hair and pulls him back—hard—just as he is about to attack Agamemnon. Scholars argue she might be an anthropomorphisation (dios-morphisation) of Achilles’s own self-restraint. But for me, in that moment Athena isn’t there to provide a voice of reason or function as a symbolic second thought; she twists her hand in Achilles’s hair and hauls him back hard in mid-air, mid-jump. The Iliad doesn’t allow you the comfort of a metaphor: It is a poem about people hurting each other, and especially, hurting their favorites.
Achilles and his wrath is the most comforting and terrifying thing I can think of: world destroying, divine-reaching, natural-disaster level rage. Sometimes I think Achilles’s real hubris was just in being alive and being who he was. By Book 21, when in the middle of a blood-soaked, fury-routing turn on the Trojans, Achilles takes on a river god, but by that point? Everyone is just used to it; Hephaestion simply makes a face and saunters down to his aid.
Earlier in the same book when Lykaon, Prince of Troy, pleads for his life, both eloquently and reasonably, Achilles responds: Are you out of your fuckin’ mind, kiddo? Patrokles is dead. And look at me: I am so powerful, I am so beautiful, and I’m going to die, too. Who do you think you are?
The Iliad is angry in a way I can relate to, in a way that many young women can relate to. People cry in it a lot. Achilles cries, Patrokles cries, Thetis cries. All of them furious, all of them game-changers, and their tears don’t make them weak. For anyone charged with being overly-emotional: The Iliad is your poem.
Achilles has always been about being both Other (for my part: queer and female, for his: weird and half-divine).
Even the tragedy is furious, as in my favorite word in the Iliad, singular and unmissable: δυσαριστοτόκεια. The word that can only describe Thetis and does only describe Thetis. Dusaristotokeia: unlucky and fucked over enough to have borne the best son. The Thetis verb. Dusaristotokeia: I gave birth to you and you were perfect and now you’re going to die.
Back in the tattoo parlor, things were going strangely. The actual pain of it hit me with surprise — bad not in its extremity, but its unfamiliarity, and I was worried I was going to accidentally move my hand and jolt the needle. As the tattoo lines came to a close, the artist wiped away blood and raised his eyebrows at me. “Ready for the shading?”
“Actually,” I said, my voice thinner than I’d expected and trembling, “I think I might just leave it at this for a while… maybe I’ll come back for the shading when I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Sure,” he said. “Are you okay?”
I wasn’t, really; I was suddenly shivering, and there were weird tendrils of black creeping over my vision, receding, creeping back. My small breakfast was starting to feel like a mistake, though I wasn’t sure whether I wanted a more substantial meal or to throw up what little I’d eaten. The tattoo parlor staff gave me a collective concerned look, and someone handed me a Coke to get my blood sugar back up.
“Thanks,” I said, fumbling sips of it. “Thank you.” Across the way, my girlfriend was giving me worried looks too, along with questioning grins and gestures. I shrugged weakly at her. A passerby in the mall misinterpreted the direction of my shrug and made a who, me? face.
“Want to try standing up?” the tattoo artist asked.
“Sure,” I said, with what I thought was a tremendous amount of cheer. I stood up, took two or three tentative steps, and then collapsed against the wall, dropping the Coke and spilling it all over the store.
Outside, the passerby and the entire staff of the milkshake shop gaped delightedly, but thankfully by that time I’d passed out and couldn’t see them.
There are more than 250 deaths in the Iliad. Achilles’s is not one of them, but the threat of it is omnipresent, in verbs and in horses that swing their heads to tell Achilles, suddenly and sternly, that yes, they will carry him just this once more—and perhaps even again after that—but his doom is coming to him, and quickly now.
Death doesn’t come peacefully to the Iliad’s heroes. Their souls crawl out from behind their teeth; life deserts their limbs; blood is cast onto the sand and dirt as necks are caught on blades, chests on spears, heads on rocks. A simple swoon doesn’t really compare; it’s no surprise that in the poem, it’s mostly women who faint.
But that dizzying, public spectacle I made of myself was something strange and raw. I’d never fainted before. When I lurched to the side and slapped my palm against the cool wall, for a moment the dark in front of my eyes was unfamiliar. As far from sleep as you could imagine: pulsing, shattered, promising. Achilles never swoons outright, but when he hears of Patrokles’s death he falls to his knees on the dirt: that sudden, dizzying betrayal from gravity and body both.
I recognize the sensation, now, frightening in that it reduces you to impermanence, the boundaries of consciousness and bodily autonomy going very briefly blurry. When I opened my eyes again, sitting slack in a plastic chair, I looked first at the new dark permanency on my thumb. It looked a little silly. In the Iliad, Thetis goes to Hephaestion, the blacksmith god, for Achilles’s new armor, and it is Hephaestion who forges Achilles’s shield, with its five layers and elaborate illustration and hidden stories. Very far away from a small and crappy tattoo parlor in the middle of an arcade, but my vision was clearing and my thumb was throbbing.
Death doesn’t come peacefully to the Iliad’s heroes. Their souls crawl out from behind their teeth.
It was small and silly, but I liked it. I brushed my finger against the dark ink. This time, I stayed perfectly upright.
I never did make it back to the tattoo parlour for the shading on my tiny, pitiful tattoo: equal parts embarrassment and an absolute unwillingness to return to that chair for the strange tattoo zoo exhibition. Instead, I’ve let people ask me if it was a beachball, or a pizza, or a Pokemon ball, quietly carrying around the shield on my knuckle and leaving aside the story of why a shield, or whose shield it is, in favor of the — ultimately more entertaining — one about fainting for an audience.
Finger tattoos fade quickly — they’re being washed more frequently than other parts of your body. After only a year, mine is already blue-ish rather than the stark black lines it was for the first few months, and wobbly looking. Lately, I’ve been thinking about getting it fixed up a bit, including, at long last, that shading.
I’ve researched a more respected tattoo parlor this time, with one of the city’s best tattoo artists. And I’ve been thinking about a tattoo on the my other thumb’s knuckle to match: a helmet, those frightening Homeric helmets that mark only death and violence, the black nose-piece, the hard iron cheeks.
In the Iliad, Achilles’s armour is a transient, condemned object. Patrokles takes it, and dies, and Hektor takes it, and dies. But I want to build it up, piece by piece across my knuckles, until I’m not afraid of anyone, until my tears are only an asset to my fury, until it’ll take some divine collaring to hold me back. I’ve made Achilles mine.
And I’d take his doomed armor over anyone’s.