Associate Professor of Classics Leah Himmelhoch recently presented a paper at the annual conference of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States, held in New York City in early October. Himmelhoch’s presentation was titled “Engendering Immortality: The Childbirth Simile of Agamemnon’s Retreat in Iliad 11.269-272.”
Himmelhoch’s talk was focused on a short section of text in the ancient Greek epic poem, the Iliad, attributed to the poet Homer. It takes place when King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, has left the battlefield wounded during the siege on Troy. In Himmelhoch’s own translation of the Greek, the section reads:
But after the wound became dry, and the bleeding ceased,
sharp pains fell upon the strength of Atreus’ son.
As when the sharp arrow gets hold of a woman in labor,
piercing, the kind that the Eleithuiai of the birth pangs —
Hera’s daughters who hold the bitter birth-pains — send,
in this way the sharp pains fell upon the might of Atreides.
Himmelhoch notes that this is one of three times in the work that Agamemnon is associated with pregnancy, and theorizes that “… Agamemnon’s childbirth simile participates in, and possibly culminates, his sustained, indirect characterization as a woman.”
She further notes numerous parallels between the characterization of Agamemnon and that of Pandora, the mythological “first woman” seen in the works of the poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. Both, she writes, “are shameless and deceitful, and are the cause of disease and death for many through a lack of sexual restraint.”
Himmelhoch’s love for the works of Homer dates back to her college years, when she read them in Greek. “The Iliad is about a war and takes place during a war,” she says. “But it’s not really a war story. It’s about family and love, and realizing that, ultimately, the people in your life are all you have—not your status, not your stuff, not what you think you deserve. It’s about realizing that, no matter what your society says you should care about, in the end, people are the most important thing.”
Teaching Greek and Roman literature to her students, says Himmelhoch, has relevance for today’s students. As the first written work in the Western tradition, the Iliad elicits responses even from modern writers. “This notion that the Iliad is THE precedent for Western literature is real,” she says. “It is genuinely helpful for a student to read the Iliad if he or she wants to ‘get’ a lot of subsequent literature.”
With its emphasis on the importance of family and loved ones, it also suggests a message that college students, in particular, need to hear. “This poem can remind them that balance in life is really important,” she says.