Penelope speaks to the disguised stranger in the Odyssey
Homer, Od. 19.325–324
“Stranger, how could you learn about me, if I am in any way
Superior to other women in my thought and clever wit,
Especially if you dine dressed terribly in the halls?
For human beings have short lives.
One who is harsh and knows harsh things,
All mortals will wish for him to have pains later
While alive and when he is dead everyone mocks him.
But whoever is blameless and thinks blameless thoughts.
Guests carry his kleos wide and far to all people.
And many say that he is a good man.”
“Human beings are short-lived”: she says this as a euphemism and is really talking about glory. For, since human beings have brief lives, they need to do well in their life and leave a good fame about themselves behind them.”
“They quickly placed the bones in an empty trench and then
They covered it with great, well-fitted stones.
They rushed to heap up a marker, around which they set guards
In case the well-greaved Achaeans should attack too soon.”
In Iliad seven, Hector challenges the ‘best of the Achaeans’ to a duel. There he imagines that, once he had won the contest, the dead hero’s tomb would be a monument to, and sign of, his everlasting glory. Ironically, the dead hero’s tomb turns out to be his, once the Trojans construct it at the epic’s end
But what kind of sign is it? Homer describes how the Trojans’ burial mound for Hector leaves ‘a mark’—the word here is sêma (from which we get the words ‘semantics’ or ‘semaphore’), and also means a sign or symbol. In the end, then, the epic leaves us with a symbol of some kind. Ostensibly, of course, that is Hector’s burial mound, a physical marker of his fame—and the fame of all the heroes who fought at Troy. Yet, its immediate referent, the physical thing it describes, is a ‘hollow grave’ (koilên kapeton).
An English speaker might wonder whether or not the hollowness of the grave marks some sort of empty meaning and thus offers some judgment on the vanity and meaninglessness of the conflict, perhaps evoking ambivalence. But part of the trick in translating metaphors from one culture to another is understanding that a cognitive valence can be very different. In English, ‘hollow’ and ‘empty’ tend to refer to the absence of substance within something else. (Hence, our use for it to describe depression or anhedonia.)
But in ancient Greek, the word koilê is used to describe the shape made by a thing that allows it to hold something else. It can sometimes then come to shift to point to the absence of that something else, but it is, more often, a marker for the vessel which can carry something, even when it is carrying it. In conjunction with Hektor’s grave, consider the following lyric mentions of the ‘hollow ships’ of the Trojan War:
Ibycus fr. 1a 16-19
Nor yet the overreaching virtue
of heroes whom the hollow, many-benched ships brought
as the destruction of Troy.
In both these passages, the ships are marked out for their potential to carry something and their ability to do so. It is also arguable that the ships carry ethical content of the heroes they convey to Troy as well. Of course, in the Iliad the ships are often invoked as empty in their capacity to carry things as well as people—but these moments are also seen as critical in telling the story, as when the Trojan herald Idaios refers to the beginning of the conflict:
“However many possessions Alexandros led in his hollow ships
To troy. Oh, how I wish he had died first!”
So, when the word used to describe that ‘hollow trench’ (koilein kápeton) is the same used for the ships that brought the Achaeans to Troy and will take their stories away, the grave is being marked out as a vessel for Hector’s fame. The message of Hektor’s “empty grave” is not like the elegiac regret of T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”, but instead it represents the potential of an empty vessel to be filled by the audience in its reception of the poem.
In addition to Hector’s grave itself, however, this vessel, this sêma, may also refer to the Iliad itself. The epic is a vessel of fame, of Hector’s, Achilles’, and Agamemnon’s, but it is also a marker for the death of a world, for the end of a bygone time. On the one hand, it marks the transition from the heroic age to the present day. On the other, it acts as a grave marker of an entire tradition of epic poetry which would have sung about the wars at Troy and Thebes.
The hollowness of this thing is not about being empty, but about having the power to carry something. As the Tao Te Ching states, “We shape clay into a pot / but it is the emptiness inside / that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space / that makes it livable” (Chapter 11; Stephen Mitchell, 1988). Thus, Hector’s grave carries with it everything he was or could be; and the Iliad, far from empty and devoid of meaning, is that vessel that carries so much unknown across the oceans of time.
Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translated by Stephen Mitchell (1988)
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.