Two Jars

pithoi at Cnossos

δοιοὶ γάρ τε πίθοι κατακείαται ἐν Διὸς οὔδει

δώρων οἷα δίδωσι κακῶν, ἕτερος δὲ ἑάων:

ᾧ μέν κ’ ἀμμίξας δώῃ Ζεὺς τερπικέραυνος,

ἄλλοτε μέν τε κακῷ ὅ γε κύρεται, ἄλλοτε δ’ ἐσθλῷ:

ᾧ δέ κε τῶν λυγρῶν δώῃ, λωβητὸν ἔθηκε,

καί ἑ κακὴ βούβρωστις ἐπὶ χθόνα δῖαν ἐλαύνει,

φοιτᾷ δ’ οὔτε θεοῖσι τετιμένος οὔτε βροτοῖσιν.


“For two jars sit upon Zeus’s floor, one of which supplies harmful gifts, the other blessings. If Zeus, who delights in thunder, bestows a mixture upon a person, sometimes he meets with misfortune, at other times he prospers. But if Zeus bestows sorrows upon him, he makes him a pariah, and utter misery impels him to wander the sacred earth, and he roams, honored by neither gods nor mortals.” (Homer, Iliad 24.527-33)


These are the words of the warrior Achilles, speaking to King Priam of Troy. The two men stand facing each other under the former’s roof. Priam has come to the camp of the Greek army to offer ransom for the return of his son’s body. The corpse of Hector, that is, who had slain Achilles’ boon companion Patroclus, and had in turn been killed in a duel by Achilles, two weeks before Priam traveled through the night to visit Achilles’ hut and plead with him.


Since that day on the battlefield, Achilles had kept Hector’s corpse nearby, unburied, lying facedown in the dust. Sleepless with grief, he’d been tormented each night, tossing and turning, weeping for Patroclus. Rising from his bed in the darkness, he’d walk out onto the beach and pace, until finally [h]e’d see Dawn’s approach across the sea and beaches, / then he’d harness his fast horses to their chariot, / tie on Hector and drag him behind, driving / three times around the tomb of Menoetius’ dead son (Johnston). 


Toss and turn, pace back and forth along a dark and lonely beach, drag a corpse in circles around a tomb. Toss and turn, pace back and forth along a dark and lonely beach, drag a corpse in circles around a tomb. Toss and turn, pace back and forth along a dark and lonely beach, drag a corpse in circles around a tomb. Toss and turn, pace back and forth along a dark and lonely beach, drag a corpse in circles around a tomb …


And now, beyond all expectation, Hector’s father has arrived to clasp the knees and kiss the hands of the man who killed Hector. Who’d killed others of his many sons. Who, together with the rest of the Greek armada, had brought war and a ten-year siege to Priam’s kingdom.



And now the younger man says to the older one, in essence, “You, your son Hector, me, my own father Peleus: we are none of us gods, and so the best we can hope for is not to be that unlucky man who never experiences any pleasure or contentment in life, whose suffering is ceaseless, and whose pain is so unnerving that neither gods nor his fellow humans can bear the sight of him.”


In this way, Priam and Achilles, mortal enemies, draw together for a time. In this way, the old man’s boldness, risking everything to recover his son’s body, has helped Achilles break free from an obsessive cycle of grief and rage, grief and rage.


But how can any of us know, in the midst of suffering which we have no hope (if Achilles is correct) of avoiding entirely, that we’re not among those ill-fated people, the ones for whom Zeus (malevolently? mischievously? absentmindedly? randomly?) dipped from one jar only?


Here, look at another vase. This is the so-called Mykonos Vase, which dates to the early 7th century BCE:


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I wonder.


On first glance, do you find yourself identifying / sympathizing with the warrior in the scene (who could be Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, et al.), the dead or dying child (likewise Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, et al.), the pleading parent (Priam, for example, or his wife Hecuba, or Achilles’ father Peleus, or Hector himself, father of little Astyanax, whom legend said the victorious Greeks dropped from the high wall of Troy), the godlike artist (Homer!), or simply with yourself, a mere observer?


That is, does it matter? Does it matter what mixture it is that you get from those jars in Zeus’s palace on Olympus?


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