Myth of Niobe
Whereas in plain text, that is what the myths suggests, the underlying meaning that Achilles is trying to convey is that he is able to regain his composure and humanity and that while it is important to grieve for the death of your love ones, its most important to stay sane and live life. The story that Achilles tells is after a small conflict that emerges between King Priam and himself once the king arrives in his tent. Once the king had made it safely to Achilles’s tent with the guidance of Hermes, he is instantly angered and flustered by Achilles’s tone and “beating around the bush”.
He believes that since the great warrior had “taken [the] first step and allowed [him]/To live and see the light of day” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, 602-603), he was going to just hand over the body of Hector and let him leave. Achilles then replies with a rageful comment implying that he is doing this not because he wants to but because “A messenger came to [him]/ From Zeus – my own natural mother,” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, 606-607). The real first step in Achilles’s mind is not letting Priam live but instead opening his ears to the gods and following through with their will.
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This shows that he is once again living in fear of the gods and regaining his humanity and right state of mind like all other mortals do on a daily basis. The burning of offerings and construction of temples are not because mortals enjoy praising the gods, but because of their fear for them. Achilles, while born with godlike attributes, is still a mortal and as a result should be living in fear, and not act independent of his superiors on Mt. Olympus. In the story of Niobe, Achilles convinces King Priam that eating is important, even in the face of his beloved son’s death.
While on the surface, eating, a simple everyday task that is looked over by everyone, seems to be second nature; it is simple everyday tasks that keep us sane and living. Achilles knows this and is giving the king a simple yet important lesson. Priam as he later reveals that “[he] had eaten nothing till now. ” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, Line 692) as well as his “eyes have not closed since [his] son lost his life” (The Iliad, Book XXIV line 686) implying that he has also hasn’t slept.
Sleep is another simple yet easily overlooked task that keeps all living beings alive and energetic and is a simple necessity of life, same with eating. In the story, Niobe remembers to eat even in the face of the death of her 12 children, and it shows that she has “given up” on what she had been holding on to and is able to focus on her life and what she wants to do with it. In Priam’s case, even though his favorite and most “important” son is dead, he must regain his composure and fill the role as the King and ready his city for war as he can grieve for his son after his own death.
Priam must become himself again, put his city first for the next days as he has the rest of eternity to grieve for his son similar to how Niobe “broods on [her] sorrows” (The Iliad, Boox XXIV 668).. Achilles is fully aware of Priam’s situation “know[s] Priam, inside out” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, line 608-609) ,and knows the exact emotional state that Priam is in. He realizes that he himself is the killer of the King’s son and the mere presence of Priam shows that he has to have overcome a huge part of himself to bring the fortune he has to the Greek camp in offer for his son’s body.
With that being said, the way Achilles tells this story is very strategic and clever. He starts off with a relaxing comment, assuring Priam of his son’s body’s safety and that he has let him go and the continues with the myth. At the end of his myth, he leaves Priam with “Well, so should we, old sir,/ Remember to eat. You can mourn your son later/ When you bring him to Troy. You owe him many tears. ” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, Line 668-671). In addition to the regaining of humanity that is completely necessary in Priam’s situation,
Achilles is telling him to be calm, and not do anything he will regret. This is because Priam is currently in the middle of Greek camp and he understands the hate and the anger he has stored up for Achilles and his army and any sign of aggression will surely result in him losing his life. He assures Priam that his army, along with him “will have [an] armistice” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, Line 719) until “the twelfth day… [when they] fight, if [they] must” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, Line 717).
Achilles shows through his choice and placement of words that he acknowledges Priam’s pain and tries to advise him against any regretful decisions that he may have. In the morning after, Hermes comes to Priam and reminds him of the situation he is in, the king of Troy sleeping in the middle of the Greek camp. The fact that King Priam suddenly feels afraid shows that Achilles has instilled the instinct of fear, a common trait of mortals back into his life which shows that he is regaining his humanity.
Just before the funeral of Hector, Priam speaks to his people and tells them a similar message to what Achilles told him which was to “have no fear of an Argive ambush. ” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, line 834) and ready themselves for a feast and the funeral of his beloved son. He attempts to calm his people, and tell them that even though the end is near, and the war is the number one priority, the people of Troy must come together and “[assemble] for a glorious feast” (The Iliad, Book XXIV, line 858).
At the end of the day, Achilles’s act of kindness and compassion helps him regain his humanity in more then one way as he gives an enemy of his what he would never have done. He has given up his anger and grief for Patroclus’s death and not let anger cloud his judgement. By giving up Hector’s body because the gods told him so,he has regained his fear for the gods and acknowledged their strength and ultimately regained his own humanity as a mortal.