Book 23 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802

The Achaians return to their ships, and Achilles and the Myrmidons immediately resume their mourning of Patroclus. They drive their chariots around his body three times and defile the body of Hector. Then they take off their armor and hold a great funeral feast. As Achilles falls asleep on the...

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The Achaians return to their ships, and Achilles and the Myrmidons immediately resume their mourning of Patroclus. They drive their chariots around his body three times and defile the body of Hector. Then they take off their armor and hold a great funeral feast. As Achilles falls asleep on the beach, the ghost of Patroclus appears to him. The ghost admonishes him for not properly burying his body and thus preventing his spirit’s passage through the gates of Hades. He also requests that his bones and Achilles’s be placed together in death as they were together in life.

In the morning, men are sent to gather wood for the funeral pyre. Achilles orders the Myrmidons to arm themselves, and Patroclus’s body is carried to the pyre site. Achilles cuts off the lock of hair he had been growing in dedication to the river Spercheios for his safe return. The pyre is built 100 feet square and the body is placed on top. The body is wrapped in the fat of sheep and cattle, and their carcasses are added to the pyre. Along with these are added jars of honey and oil, four horses, two dogs, and the twelve captured Trojans, and the pyre is set aflame. After the fire has done its work, it is extinguished with wine. The bones of Patroclus are carefully separated from the others and gathered in a golden jar for burial. A mound is built over the site of the pyre as a memorial.

Meanwhile, Aphrodite protects the corpse of Hector, keeping the dogs away and anointing his skin to protect it from tearing. Apollo brings a dark cloud over the body to keep the sun from damaging it.

After the proper burial procedures for Patroclus have been followed, Achilles gathers the people and shows them the prizes to be offered in the funeral games. There is to be a great chariot race, a boxing fight, a wrestling match, a foot race, a duel, a discus competition, an archery competition, and a spear throw. The competition is fierce but civil, and all the prizes are awarded.

Analysis

Ironically, after all that Achilles has done for Patroclus, the ghost of his friend admonishes Achilles for forgetting him. The appearance of the ghost of Patroclus underlines the importance of proper burial. While Achilles has been doing everything in his power to mourn Patroclus and revenge his death, he has not actually buried the remains. Because of this, the spirit of the dead man is forced to wander around the gates of Hades without entering. The peaceful passage of the soul into the afterlife depends very heavily on the actions of the living.

Those actions are described in detail in this chapter. The funeral pyre is enormous, and it takes many men to gather the wood. Elaborate measures are taken to purify the body. First it is carefully washed, then anointed with oils and wrapped in fat. Finally, the body is burned. The dead man is treated as if he were embarking on a long journey, and several things are burned along with the body to make the traveling more comfortable. These include jars of honey and oil for sustenance, and horses and dogs for companionship. The twelve captured Trojans who burned with Patroclus are for revenge and are also sent to serve the warrior in the afterlife. Just as war prisoners are sold or given into slavery in life, so they are given in death.

The cutting of Achilles’s hair is symbolic of his dedication to his dead comrade. The hair was grown to honor the river Spercheios in anticipation of a safe return. However, Achilles has now made the decision to avenge Patroclus, knowing that killing Hector will bring about his own death. Because hair continues to grow after death, it becomes a symbol for life. The death of Patroclus has blocked out everything else for Achilles. His life has lost its meaning. When Achilles cuts his hair, he is both acknowledging that he will not return to his homeland alive and symbolically sending his own life to the flames in the ultimate gesture of mourning.

Another important funeral ritual includes the games held in the dead warrior’s memory. As the dead man showed his bravery and skill in battle, so those who remain compete in tests of strength. The prizes offered by Achilles are elaborate. The events comprise a sort of Olympics, as the men compete in races, discus throwing, boxing, and other sports. The games serve as an opportunity to reunite Achilles with the community. His self-imposed isolation from the Achaians is over now that Patroclus has been avenged. His offering of such generous prizes shows his good will to the others and almost serves as an apology for his past behavior.

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