Archive for August, 2013

Summer Verdict

Posted in Art and Culture, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Priam begs Achilles for the body of Hector 

Priam begs Achilles for the body of Hector 

The day of the devastating verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial, I was reading a very old story about a father pleading for the body of his dead son. In the novel Ransom, author David Malouf re-enters the Iliad, telling an “untold tale” from the margins of that epic, his tale of Priam, King of Troy, whose son Hector was slain by Greek prince Achilles.

One morning, King Priam awakens with a vision: he will discard his royal finery and crown, garb himself in a plain white robe, seat himself on a simple wooden cart drawn by two mules and—solely in the company of a simple wagon driver– set off across the flatlands of Troy below the castle to the camp of his enemy, Prince Achilles.

Each day for the eleven consecutive days, Achilles– for his own reasons of maddened grief— binds Hector’s corpse to his chariot with a leather strap, drags what’s left of him behind his galloping horses. Hector’s lifeless skull bangs against rocks, his torso is pitted with gravel and splattered with mud. And each day, for eleven days, the parents of Hector—Priam and Hecuba–watch with horror from the ramparts of their city as their son’s body is gruesomely dishonored.

The king’s startling idea is a simple one: he will do something “new.” He will not beg for the body of his son as a king, but simply as a father. He will not take a retinue or any weapons, he will appeal directly to his enemy (son of a mortal and a goddess, who has chosen to live as mortal) as a fellow human being. “I believe that the thing that is needed to cut this knot we are all tied in,” he tells his skeptical wife, “is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new.”

You cannot help marveling at the utter dignity of this white-bearded sovereign who asks his enemy, “man to man, as a father” for the body of his son. He implores Achilles to let him bring Hector home. He asks to be able to honor his son’s memory. That, it struck me, is part of what we were yearning for in the infuriating Florida trial. We yearned to see Trayvon Martin’s parents allowed to honor the memory of their slain son. They sat there in that courtroom, witnesses to the dishonoring of their son’s memory. They sat straight-backed and grieving deeply, hoping for justice to be done.

We wanted something new to happen.

[above– detail of sculpture from Tyre, 
2nd century AD, 
marble. Photo by Steven Damron, Creative Commons license]

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