After the death of Hektor in Iliad 22, the poem moves to Andromache who gives a remarkable speech, most of which is occupied with thoughts of their son.
“And now you go under the hidden places of the earth to Hades’ home,
But you leave me in hateful grief, a widow in our home—
And your child too, still an infant, the one we bore
You and I, ill-fated, Hektor, you will not be of any use to him
Since you have died, and he won’t be to you.
For even if he should escape the Achaeans’ war of many tears,
Still there would be toil and griefs for this child afterward.
For others will deprive him of his lands.
The day that makes a child an orphan separates him from his peers.
His looks down all the time; his cheeks are covered in tears;
And the child goes in need to his father’s friends,
Asking one for a cloak and another for a tunic.
He holds out his little cup while they pity him—
He can moisten his lips but never fill his hunger.
A luckier child chases him from the feast,
Striking him with his hands and laying into him with words:
“Go away—your father doesn’t dine with us.”
And the cheerful child will return to his widowed mother,
Atsyanax, who used to eat only marrow and the rich fat
Of sheep as he sat on his father’s needs.
Then when sleep would come over him, he would stop playing
And rest on a bed in the arms of a nurse, his heart full
Of everything good on that soft bed.
But now, he would suffer much once he has lost this dear father,
Astyanax, as the Trojans call him as a nickname,
For you alone defended their bulwarks and great walls.”
νῦν δὲ σὺ μὲν ᾿Αΐδαο δόμους ὑπὸ κεύθεσι γαίης
ἔρχεαι, αὐτὰρ ἐμὲ στυγερῷ ἐνὶ πένθεϊ λείπεις
χήρην ἐν μεγάροισι· πάϊς δ’ ἔτι νήπιος αὔτως,
ὃν τέκομεν σύ τ’ ἐγώ τε δυσάμμοροι· οὔτε σὺ τούτῳ
ἔσσεαι ῞Εκτορ ὄνειαρ ἐπεὶ θάνες, οὔτε σοὶ οὗτος.
ἤν περ γὰρ πόλεμόν γε φύγῃ πολύδακρυν ᾿Αχαιῶν,
αἰεί τοι τούτῳ γε πόνος καὶ κήδε’ ὀπίσσω
ἔσσοντ’· ἄλλοι γάρ οἱ ἀπουρίσσουσιν ἀρούρας.
ἦμαρ δ’ ὀρφανικὸν παναφήλικα παῖδα τίθησι·
πάντα δ’ ὑπεμνήμυκε, δεδάκρυνται δὲ παρειαί,
δευόμενος δέ τ’ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς πατρὸς ἑταίρους,
ἄλλον μὲν χλαίνης ἐρύων, ἄλλον δὲ χιτῶνος·
τῶν δ’ ἐλεησάντων κοτύλην τις τυτθὸν ἐπέσχε·
χείλεα μέν τ’ ἐδίην’, ὑπερῴην δ’ οὐκ ἐδίηνε.
τὸν δὲ καὶ ἀμφιθαλὴς ἐκ δαιτύος ἐστυφέλιξε
χερσὶν πεπλήγων καὶ ὀνειδείοισιν ἐνίσσων·
ἔρρ’ οὕτως· οὐ σός γε πατὴρ μεταδαίνυται ἡμῖν.
δακρυόεις δέ τ’ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς μητέρα χήρην
᾿Αστυάναξ, ὃς πρὶν μὲν ἑοῦ ἐπὶ γούνασι πατρὸς
μυελὸν οἶον ἔδεσκε καὶ οἰῶν πίονα δημόν·
αὐτὰρ ὅθ’ ὕπνος ἕλοι, παύσαιτό τε νηπιαχεύων,
εὕδεσκ’ ἐν λέκτροισιν ἐν ἀγκαλίδεσσι τιθήνης
εὐνῇ ἔνι μαλακῇ θαλέων ἐμπλησάμενος κῆρ·
νῦν δ’ ἂν πολλὰ πάθῃσι φίλου ἀπὸ πατρὸς ἁμαρτὼν
᾿Αστυάναξ, ὃν Τρῶες ἐπίκλησιν καλέουσιν·
οἶος γάρ σφιν ἔρυσο πύλας καὶ τείχεα μακρά.
I was profoundly moved by this speech for its vividness and terrible irony long before I was a parent myself. The first time I read this passage in Greek as I prepared for my PhD exams, I wept while completing it. As a parent now, I struggle even to think about reading it. The terrible irony of course is that Astyanax is actually killed by the victors before he can suffer the deprivations his mother predicts, although she does fear this fate:
“You, child, will also either follow me
Where you will toil completing the wretched works
Of a cruel master or some Achaean will grab you
And throw you from the wall to your evil destruction
Because he still feels anger at Hektor killing his brother
Or father or son, since many a man of the Achaeans dined
On the endless earth under Hektor’s hands.”
… σὺ δ’ αὖ τέκος ἢ ἐμοὶ αὐτῇ
ἕψεαι, ἔνθά κεν ἔργα ἀεικέα ἐργάζοιο
ἀθλεύων πρὸ ἄνακτος ἀμειλίχου, ἤ τις ᾿Αχαιῶν
ῥίψει χειρὸς ἑλὼν ἀπὸ πύργου λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον
χωόμενος, ᾧ δή που ἀδελφεὸν ἔκτανεν ῞Εκτωρ
ἢ πατέρ’ ἠὲ καὶ υἱόν, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν
῞Εκτορος ἐν παλάμῃσιν ὀδὰξ ἕλον ἄσπετον οὖδας.
In the popular tradition the one who carries out the killing of Astyanax is Odysseus, that ‘hero’ of that other epic who gets to go home to his own son and father. If the way we talk about and treat our enemies dehumanizes them—and us—what does it mean when we murder, torture, or harm children?
In the future Andromache imagines, Astyanax is marginalized even among his own people by the loss of his father–he loses his status, his friends, and his former happiness. But in a foreign land, he loses all hope of happiness–he is a slave to another if he is lucky to be alive. I have to ask myself every time I read this whether or not an orphaned child is significantly better off today.
I can’t stop thinking about some of the details that surfaced last week about the separation of children from families by the US Government at our borders and within them. This is not some new legacy of course—from slavery through the devastation of indigenous families up into the modern judicial system and its enforcement of the new (and old) “Jim Crows”, we have a powerful and inescapable legacy of separating children from families. This creates an essential cognitive dissonance. You cannot be ‘pro-family’ and tear families apart.
I know that there has been extensive prevarication about the extent and severity of these separations. I don’t want to hear more of this because it all just amounts to fragile attempts of denial and blame shifting. We are obliterating families for being unlucky, brown-skinned, poor, and on the wrong side of man-made borders. We can’t comfort ourselves that our essential goodness has changed much in a few thousand years.