Like Blood Poured Over Milk: It Gets Worse When Achilles Dies

Inspired by the essay “Just a Girl: Being Briseis“, I have been reading through more passages about Briseis. In the Iliad, she performs a memorable lament for Patroklos. The much later Posthomerica similarly instrumentalizes her grief and uses her character as a way to amplify the loss of Achilles. Note, however, the really terrible observation of this passage that for a woman in war it can always get worse.

Quintus, Posthomerica 3.551-573

“Of all the women, Briseis felt the most terrible grief
in her heart within, the companion of warring Achilles.
She turned over his corpse and tore at her fine skin
With both hands and from her delicate chest
Bloody bruises rose up from the force of her blows—
You might even say it was like blood poured over milk.
Yet she still shined even as she mourned in pain
And her whole form exuded grace.
This is the kind of speech she made while mourning:

“Oh what endless horror I have suffered.
Nothing that happened to me before this was so great
Not the death of my brothers nor the loss of my country,

Nothing exceeds your death. You were my sacred day
And the light of the sun and the gentle life,
My hope for good and tireless defense against pain—
You were better by far than any gift, than my parents even—
You were everything alone for me even though I was enslaved.

You took me as your bedmate and seized me from a slave’s labor.
But now? Some other Achaean will take me away in his ships
To fertile Sparta or dry and thirsty Argos
Where I will again suffer terrible things working away,
Apart from you and miserable. I only wish that
The earth had covered over me before I saw your death.”

πασάων δ’ ἔκπαγλον ἀκηχεμένη κέαρ ἔνδον
Βρισηὶς παράκοιτις ἐυπτολέμου Ἀχιλῆος
ἀμφὶ νέκυν στρωφᾶτο καὶ ἀμφοτέρῃς παλάμῃσι
δρυπτομένη χρόα καλὸν ἀύτεεν· ἐκ δ’ ἁπαλοῖο
στήθεος αἱματόεσσαι ἀνὰ σμώδιγγες ἄερθεν
θεινομένης· φαίης κεν ἐπὶ γλάγος αἷμα χέασθαι
φοίνιον. ἀγλαΐη δὲ καὶ ἀχνυμένης ἀλεγεινῶς
ἱμερόεν μάρμαιρε, χάρις δέ οἱ ἄμπεχεν εἶδος.
τοῖον δ’ ἔκφατο μῦθον ὀιζυρὸν γοόωσα·
“Ὤ μοι ἐγὼ πάντων περιώσιον αἰνὰ παθοῦσα·
οὐ γάρ μοι τόσσον περ ἐπήλυθεν ἄλλό τι πῆμα,
οὔτε κασιγνήτων οὔτ’ εὐρυχόρου περὶ πάτρης,
ὅσσον σεῖο θανόντος· ἐπεὶ σύ μοι ἱερὸν ἦμαρ
καὶ φάος ἠελίοιο πέλες καὶ μείλιχος αἰὼν
ἐλπωρή τ’ ἀγαθοῖο καὶ ἄσπετον ἄλκαρ ἀνίης
πάσης τ’ ἀγλαΐης πολὺ φέρτερος ἠδὲ τοκήων
ἔπλεο· πάντα γὰρ οἶος ἔης δμωῇ περ ἐούσῃ,
καί ῥά με θῆκας ἄκοιτιν ἑλὼν ἄπο δούλια ἔργα.
νῦν δέ τις ἐν νήεσσιν Ἀχαιῶν ἄξεται ἄλλος
Σπάρτην εἰς ἐρίβωλον ἢ ἐς πολυδίψιον Ἄργος·
καί νύ κεν ἀμφιπολεῦσα κακὰς ὑποτλήσομ’ ἀνίας
σεῦ ἀπονοσφισθεῖσα δυσάμμορος. ὡς ὄφελόν με
γαῖα χυτὴ ἐκάλυψε πάρος σέο πότμον ἰδέσθαι.”

17th Century Tapestry based on Rubens’ “Briseis Returned to Achilles?

2 thoughts on “Like Blood Poured Over Milk: It Gets Worse When Achilles Dies

  1. “Like blood poured over milk”!! This is a fascinating and somewhat grotesque variation of a Homeric simile.

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