David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.
Respect For the Dead
If you have ever been to a funeral, you know that there are certain rituals and rules that must be followed. These may vary from culture to culture, but every culture has these rules about how to pay proper respect to the dead. In Book 17 of Homer's The Iliad, we see the importance of funeral rites in Ancient Greek culture and how those are followed, or not followed, during wartime.
How We Got Here
Before getting in Book 17 of The Iliad, it will help to get a quick recap of Book 16, which features one of the most pivotal moments in the story: the death of Achilles' dear friend Patroclus. With Achilles still sitting out the battle, Patroclus had gone into battle wearing Achilles' armor to save the ships of his and Achilles' people.
Book 16 was also a turning point in the battle because, before he died, Patroclus led a rout of the Trojan army, turning the tide in the war. This fate and their eventual loss in the war was foreseen by Zeus at the end of Book 15.
The Fight Over the Armor
As Book 17 opens, a fight breaks out over the armor that Patroclus is wearing, which of course belongs to Achilles. Euphorbus, the Trojan soldier who first speared Patroclus, tries to claim the armor but is killed by Menalaus. Ajax then convinces Hector to not remove or desecrate Patroclus' body, but Hector still claims the armor.
Hector is upbraided by Glaucus for leaving behind Patroclus' body. Glaucus points out they could have traded the body for the body of Sarpedon, the Trojan and son of Zeus who was killed by Patroclus. So Hector offers half of the war's spoils to the Trojan who can recover Patroclus' body.
The Recovery of Patroclus
A back and forth battle over the body ensues between Hector and the Trojans on one side and the Achaeans, led by Ajax and Menalaus on the other. Hector gets a moment of strength thanks to Zeus but the Achaeans beat the Trojans back to the city walls. At one point, Achilles' charioteer Automedon gets in on the action, killing a Trojan and taking his armor as payback for Patroclus, though the Trojan is way less important than Patroclus.
The gods get involved once again, with Athena on the Achaeans' side and Apollo on the Trojans'. Zeus helps the Trojans as well, but eases off to allow the Achaeans to drag Patroclus' body away.
The Importance of Funeral Rites
The protracted battle over Patroclus' body in Book 17 is one of the many indications of the importance of funeral rites, or the practices and rituals associated with death, in ancient Greek culture. Both sides are trying to get back the bodies of important soldiers; the Trojans want Patroclus' body so they can trade it for Sarpedon's.
The emphasis placed on recovering the bodies of these important soldiers highlights the importance of being remembered and commemorated in Greek culture. The Greeks believed a man became immortal like the gods if he is remembered for his great deeds, and the funeral rites were an important part of this remembrance. Conversely, stealing and desecrating an enemy's body was the ultimate sign of disrespect because it prevented them from being remembered.
The observance of funeral rites and respect for the dead in wartime is still an important issue that comes up in modern conflicts. The Geneva Convention, a series of treaties governing the rules of warfare which have been signed by most countries in the world, set rules for the recovery and return of the bodies and possessions of dead enemy combatants. However, there are still armies that violate these rules in order to show disrespect for their enemies and further inflame the conflict, as the Trojans attempt to do to Patroclus.
Book 17 of The Iliad describes the battle between the Achaeans and Trojans to recover the body of the fallen Patroclus. The effort put into recovering his body highlights the importance of funeral rites in Greek culture and its emphasis on being remembered. And it also foreshadows what will happen to Hector's body when it stays in possession of his enemy Achilles.
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