In both Homer’s Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, a character finds themselves in a pitiful situation. Achilles of the Iliad adversely shows pity to his deceased enemy’s father, Priam, because the gods insist that he does so. Achilles also shows pity in result of Priam’s begging strategies. In Oedipus at Colonus, Theseus showers his pity upon Oedipus because of Oedipus’ alliance to the city of Athens and because of Oedipus’ promises to give a gift that will forever protect Athens. The comparisons of these pity-seeking situations can further the understanding of Greek Literature. I will discuss Achilles’ and Theseus pity through the causes: divine intervention, Priam and Oedipus’ strategies to gain pity, and the specific ways in which Achilles and Theseus decide to reveal their pity.
As in every Ancient Greek play I have read thus far, the gods have a say in almost every mortal affair. Divine intervention occurs in both works, Iliad and Oedipus at Colonus, but the style is different in each book. In the Iliad, Apollo persuades Zeus to encourage Priam to ransom his son’s corpse from Achilles. Zeus says, “Perhaps in fear of me he will give back Hektor. / Then I will send Iris to Priam of the great heart, with an order / to ransom his dear son, going down to the ships of the Achaians / and bringing gifts to Achilles which might soften his anger” (Iliad. 24. 116-119). Zeus then sends Achilles’ mother, Thetus to persuade Achilles to accept the ransom. At one point in Priam’s quest for pity, Priam takes it too far and Achilles boldly states that his reason for showing pity is because of the gods, but if Priam pushes him, Achilles will disobey the gods and kill him.
“Then looking darkly at him spoke swift-footed Achilles:
‘No longer stir me up, old sir. I myself am minded to give Hektor back to you. A messenger came to me from Zeus … I know you Priam, in my heart, and it does not escape me that some god led you to the running ships of the Achaians …
you must not further make my spirit move in my sorrows, for fear, old sir, I might not let you alone in my shelter, suppliant as you are; and be guilty before the god’s orders.’
He spoke, and the old man was frightened and did as he told him” (Iliad. 24. 559-571).
Achilles’ only shows pity to obey the gods, but Theseus, on the other hand, shows pity because the gods will show him favor. In Oedipus at Colonus¸ the divine intervention is not as apparent. Oedipus offers promises to Theseus, that he prays that are in the gods’ will. “Just defend your word to the last, and you / will never say you welcomed Oedipus for nothing, / a useless citizen in this land of yours, / unless the gods defeat my dearest hopes” (710-713). Theseus believes in Oedipus and keeps his vows with hopes that Oedipus’ promises come true. “And he said that if I keep my pledge / I’d keep my country free of harm forever. / I swore it, and the powers heard my vows, / and Zeus’s son above all, / the guardian of our oaths who sees all things” (1984-1988). In both cases, divine intervention plays a major role in the characters’, Achilles and Theseus, decision to give pity to the ones that sought it.
Priam and Oedipus have a common strategy as they yearned for pity: begging. As soon as Priam enters his enemy’s territory, he falls at Achilles’ feet, which is the ultimate image of a beggar. “Tall Priam / came in unseen by the other men and stood close beside him / and caught the knees of Achilles in his arms, and kissed the hands / that were dangerous and manslaughtering and had killed so many / of his sons” (Iliad. 24. 476-480). Priam’s actions cause Achilles to either feel sorrow for Priam or guilt within himself because he makes Priam rise from the floor. “he rose from his chair, and took the old man by the hand, and set him / on his feet again, in pity for the grey head and the grey beard,” (Iliad. 24. 515-516). Priam’s obvious form of…