This is a chapter of The Sunset of the Heroes: Last Adventures of the Takers of Troy, by W. M. L. Hutchinson.
Now who would not think that the men of Troy would have been filled beyond measure with rejoicing and exultation to see the terror of all their race stretched lifeless before their eyes? Yet it was not so; no sound of laughter, no voice of triumph or thanksgiving was heard among them; but silently, with awestruck faces, they watched from the wall, while the Myrmidons lifted Achilles and laid him in his chariot, that his trusty charioteer, Automedon, had brought nigh. And then came old Priam upon the wall with the elders of the city, and Helen followed them, and Cassandra, and Andromache with Hector’s babe in her arms: all these gazed mutely on Achilles dead, as though that sight was strange to them beyond the happenings of a dream.
But the Greeks wept aloud, all the host of them, and the sons of Atreus the loudest; and like a moaning tide their battalions closed around the chariot and drew away across the plain, through the fast-falling twilight. Meantime, Paris stood yet beneath the oak, doubting whether he had but wounded Achilles or slain him outright, for, even as the arrow flew, Apollo snatched the bow from him and was gone. But by the lamentations of the Greeks as they came on, he perceived that Achilles was already dead, and he hid behind the oak to watch their passing, glorying in his heart.
Then saw he in their midst the immortal horses, Xanthus and Balius, that Zeus bestowed on King Peleus long of yore, stepping slowly with down-drooped heads, as well knowing what burden they bore along; none drove them, but the spangled reins were tied to the chariot rails and the charioteer followed on foot, lamenting. And over the car were spread cloaks of scarlet and purple, shrouding that which lay within; so Paris alone of the Trojans did not look upon his handiwork; nonetheless, he rejoiced over it, laughing to himself, and said, “Ah, Hector, my brother, how often would you chide my slackness in fight, how often cast scorn on me for that I had skill of no manlier weapon than the bow! Yet now I, the bowman, the faint heart among Priam’s valiant sons, have lightly vanquished the vanquisher of my brethren. Saviour of Troy am I, for never can the Greeks prevail against it without Achilles.” Thus he boasted to himself, while the host passed by his hiding place; then sped back to the city to tell what he had done.
But not even deliverance from their most dreaded foe could assuage the grief of Priam and his people for the huge havoc he had made of both Trojans and allies on his last field of fight. So through the brief hours of the summer night, city and camp rang alike with noise of mourning, and the Greeks beside their watchfires might see the redder glare of burning pyres under Troy walls, and hear afar the shrill cry of women and the wild keening of the Ethiopians. And ever and again fainter sounds were borne to them, blent with the murmurs of the sea — the voices of Thetis and her sisters making piteous moan far below in their coral caves.
Now ere break of day, King Agamemnon and the chiefs of the host were met together to take order for the funerals of the slain, among whom were not only Achilles and the son of Nestor, but vassals and henchmen some two score in number. And thus it seemed best to them: to burn on one common pyre the bodies of the men-at-arms, and lay their ashes in one grave hard by the camp, where already there were many such; but to raise for Achilles a pyre some way off, on a promontory of the shore, and there build his tomb, that it might be singled out from the rest to all time coming. But to Antilochus they appointed this signal honor, that his body should be burned on the pyre of Achilles, yet so far apart that their ashes should not mingle, for, at the burying of Patroclus, Achilles took an oath of all the princes that, when he too was fallen, they would lay his bones in the urn of his loved comrade.
And next the chieftains took thought of sacrifices and burned offerings, and Agamemnon declared that he himself would offer a hundred oxen at the pyre, being his king’s tithe of the herds Achilles and his men had driven in their forays; “Therefore reason would,” said he, “that I should render such mark of honor to the son of Peleus.”
Then Menelaus and brave Diomedes were both at point to speak, but Ajax quickly took the word and said, “Royal Agamemnon and comrades all, if you will hear the rede of a plain, blunt soldier, this it is — we shall best honor Achilles by avenging him. Let us first finish the work he had so nearly achieved when death stayed his hand; then will be time enough to mourn him, then may we offer him gifts meeter for his warrior soul — the spoils of burning Troy and the blood not of oxen but of his enemies. So, methinks, he would bid us do, who was the flower of us all.”
Odysseus shook his head at this, and the sons of Atreus interchanged doubtful glances; but Diomedes cried, “Well spoken, Ajax! Why should we waste one hour over funeral pomps while that wall stands yet whole that Achilles died to breach for us? Now by Athena, our lady of succor, I swear I will but tarry till his ashes are laid in earth, and then to Troy with my men — yea, though we should go alone!”
Then the more part of the chieftains declared themselves of one mind with Ajax and Diomedes; and Agamemnon, fearing dissension, gave his voice likewise on their side. So word was sent throughout the host that all save the Myrmidons and the men of Nestor should fall to the work of giving fire and sepulture to their dead comrades in arms, under command of Menelaus and Odysseus. But Automedon and the henchmen of Achilles were bidden to bring their dead lord in his chariot to the place of burning, and forth they went, the chariot of Nestor following, wherein the old man stood beside the corpse of his son. And after these came Agamemnon with the rest of the princes, and the Myrmidons, and Nestor’s vassals, folk of sandy Pylos, and last, a long troop of slaves, bringing wood and all things needful for the funeral rites. Thus came they to the place that was chosen, a low, solitary headland carpeted with turf and the sweet wild thyme; there was the pyre raised with speed of many hands, and the two heroes were laid thereon, each apart, with great store of unguents and spices.
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
Soon as the pyre was kindled, vassals and slaves were sent to trench a grave on the point of the headland and throw up soil for the mound. But the chieftains abode by the pyre, silent and heavy-hearted, watching the upcurling smoke and the flames that shone palely in the glow of sunrise. Then, athwart the smoke wreaths, they beheld nine radiant forms, as of flower-crowned maidens, hovering in air, from whose lips broke all at once a song not earthly, for now it was like the warbling of nightingales, now like the plaintive flute that shepherds hear far off on moonlit wolds and know Pan is abroad, now, like a symphony of all sad and lovely sounds that are. Words mingled with that melody, but their sense baffled the ear like whispers in a dream; only, they seemed to tell how all things sweet and fair fleet away in little space, yet are not wholly taken from us, for their beauty is made one with the manifold beauty of Earth. Such was the dirge the violet-crowned Muses sang over the son of Thetis.
And Thetis heard them, for, when they ceased, the Greek princes started as at the breaking of a spell, and were ‘ware of her standing close at hand in tears, and the gentle company of her sisters weeping around her. Then said she to the immortal Nine: “Ah, honey-voiced daughters of Zeus, another song was that you sang me on woody Pelion in the day of my espousals, when all the gods were gathered to the marriage feast and bright Apollo led your choir, harping on his harp of gold. Nought boded he, the heavenly seer —nor you, that know what is, and was, and is to come— of the bitter lot I must endure, mated to a mortal. Of the son I should bear, you sang in that bridal song, and how he should be of all men fairest and most glorious; but not how his mother —ah, me— must see him perish in his flower. And now I hear once more your divine voices, hymning not Love but Death — and the child of your promise lies there!”
“List yet again, sea king’s daughter,” answered one of the Muses, “for still our song shall be of Love — Love that in this place and hour is become Death’s vanquisher.”
And again they sang together; but now the mortal listeners heard no words, only such thrilling notes of purest joyance as the lark pours from heaven’s gate. And as the lark soars and sings until he and his carol are lost in the upper blue, so hovered upward the chanting Nine, and passed in melody out of sight. But with a glad cry Thetis darted forward and leaped upon the pyre, that blazed up as she did so in one clear sheet of flame; and through that fierce, white radiance, the astonied Greeks might plainly see her clasping in her arms the unscathed form of her son.
Then said the goddess in a voice of joy: “Oh, friends and comrades of Achilles, hear what high Zeus hath granted to his mother’s prayers, revealing it by the mouth of the Nine — even that his spirit should not dwell prisoner in the drear house of Hades, nor his body be consumed of ravening fire, but that I myself should waft him to a lone isle far away, where he shall abide in great peace forever. And you, dear sisters mine, hasten after me, that you may share my bliss in seeing life return to these fair limbs; but first unyoke Xanthus and Balius yonder and lead them with you to their lord’s new home. But with you, princes of the Greeks, I leave the glorious arms that Hephaestus forged for my son at my entreaty, commanding you to bestow them as a meed of valor on the warrior whom you account next in prowess to Achilles — for peer he hath left none. And know that you are fated not to enter Troy except the wearer of Achilles’s arms shall lead the way.”
When Thetis had thus spoken, dense clouds of smoke suddenly rose from the pyre, rolling seaward; therein she floated away with Achilles in her arms, and the Greeks saw them no more. Gone also were the lovely troop of the sea maidens, and gone Xanthus and Balius from their car; but far out on the deep, the Greeks beheld the fluttering of green, translucent robes, and the tossing crests of those immortal horses as lightly they skimmed along the waves.
Then seemed it best to the chieftains to lay the ashes of Patroclus in the grave prepared for Achilles, and rear a far-seen mound thereon, that so at least the twain might have one memorial, though they were not fated to rest together in death. So they buried there the golden urn, brought from the tomb by the camp wherein Achilles laid it to await the hour when it should receive his ashes also; and still it lies deep under the high, grassy barrow that is a mark for mariners on that wide-watered, solitary shore.
After that, they quenched the pyre with wine and gathered the bones of gallant Antilochus in a fair silver urn, which Nestor carried to his chariot, for, he said, “My son shall not lie here, but in the sepulcher of his fathers in Pylos, if the gods spare me to come home alive. Graciously may they hear my prayer to sleep beside him there at last!”
Then Agamemnon and all the chieftains returned again to their camp, pondering deeply the things they had seen and heard.