Sacred Rituality and especially Hiketeia in the Iliad
Hiketeia is a ritual supplication in which an individual embraces the knees of another in solicitation of a favor or errand. The use of hiketeia in The Iliad establishes a nature of authority in characters of power, including Zeus and Achilles, by demonstrating and creating indebtedness in “generosity” granted to the supplicant. Passages in Book One and Book Twenty-Four validate and examine the acquisition of power for both Zeus and Achilles by granting the requests of Thetis and Priam made through hiketeia.
In Book One Achilles’s mother, Thetis, is an immortal goddess who performs hiketeia onto Zeus. She grasps him by the knees with one hand and his face by the other. Thetis begs him to bring honor to her son after Agamemnon has disgraced him in front of his troops. She asks Zeus to give the Trojans victory until Agamemnon begs in desperation for Achilles to return and fight. Because hiketeia is sacred and a moment of pure subjection, the request cannot be denied casually. If a request is granted, the baiter is indebted to the individual that granted hiketeia. Zeus ultimately agrees to this request, despite the repercussions from his wife and the deaths of thousands of mortals, because he himself is indebted to Thetis for saving him from the Olympians:
Away with you now. Hera might catch us here.
I will see to this. I will bring it all to pass.
Look, I will bow my head if that will satisfy you.
That, I remind you, that among the mortal gods
is the strongest, truest sign that I can give.
No word of work of mine—nothing can be revoked,
there is no treachery, nothing left unfinished
once I bow my head to say it shall be done (Homer, 94).
Zeus’s agreement is seen as generous because the gods will be angry by his decision, and therefore Zeus has gained a great power over Thetis. She is aware that Zeus will anger his wife, Hera, and the other gods by granting her this wish, and this strengthens Zeus’s power over her.
Zeus uses the power over Thetis that he gained in Book One later in Book Twenty-Four. Achilles has defeated and killed Hector, but instead of respectfully returning the corpse, he drags it by chariot around the city to disgrace him because Hector killed Patroclus. Achilles’s behavior makes the gods angry, so Zeus demands that Thetis tell Achilles to return the body to Hector’s family. Thetis is bound to his command and recognizes this herself before even knowing Zeus’s actual request,
Why… what does the great god want with me?
I cringe from mingling with the immortals now—
Oh the torment—never-ending heartbreak!
But go I shall. A high decree of the Father
Must not come to nothing—whatever he commands (Homer, 591).
Zeus then sends Iris with a message to Priam, Hector’s father. Iris tells Priam to go to Achilles and offer a ransom for Hector’s body. Priam follows the order and is protected by Hermes on his journey to Achilles’s camp. Upon seeing Achilles, Priam immediately performs hiketeia. Weeping, he embraces Achilles’s knees and kisses his hands, begging him to understand that he is a father whose fifty sons have all been killed in this war. Achilles is overwhelmed by guilt by the thought of his own father and agrees to return Hector’s corpse. However, guilt is not the reason Achilles’s gives in. He has already received the order from Zeus (through Thetis) to return the body. He also sees this as a double opportunity. By granting Priam’s request, Achilles is able to gain power over a great emperor while also seeming like a levelheaded, compromising, generous ruler.
Achilles condescendingly blames the situation on fate and expresses his “sorrow” for the way things transpired. He becomes angry when Priam demands to see his son with his own eyes without any more delay by Achilles. Achilles sends his guards to collect the ransom, but uses capes to make Hector’s body look presentable. He knows that if Priam becomes angry by the look of his son’s corpse, he will lash out and kill Priam. This, he knows, would make the Zeus and the other gods angry because it is an abomination to kill someone who has performed hiketeia. Achilles further insults Priam by telling him to eat with them and stay the night before he can see Hector’s body, for even Niobe “turned her thoughts to food” after her children were killed. Achilles furthers his hidden agenda to power by offering more generosity to Priam. He offers a war-delay for the time that it takes to bury Hector properly. This war-delay is likely a social custom, but Achilles poses the offer as a substantial gift.
In these two passages from The Iliad, hiketeia gives both Zeus and Achilles power over the solicitor. Zeus, who is more powerful than other gods and infinitely more powerful than Achilles, is able to settle an old debt with Thetis and subject her to his future bidding by granting her request through hiketeia. Zeus grants Thetis’s request with little thought, because even though he expects anger from Hera, he knows can gain power over his wife with a threat. Because Thetis is aware of these consequences for Zeus, the binding ritual increasingly subjects her to more debt.
While Zeus grants hiketeia with ease and thoughtlessness, Achilles is forced to grant hiketeia because of Zeus’s command, but he does it so to increase his power in the mortal world. Thetis gives him the message from Zeus that the gods are angry at his behavior and that me must return the body, but when Priam performs hiketeia, Achilles sees that obeying Zeus’s command the right way will give him power over an emperor and give him an advantage over Agamemnon in the view of his troops and peers. By handing over Hector’s body he receives the ransom that Priam offers: the clothes and treasures of an emperor. These are visual symbols of power that Agamemnon does not have. He continues with “generosity” in offering Priam a war-delay to bury his son, which is actually likely to be mere social custom. This act of mercy after his mutiny of Hector’s corpse shows the Achaeans that he is merciful and compromising, as opposed to Agamemnon, who let thousands of his own troops die because he could not compromise with Achilles over a war prize. Achilles uses indebtedness in gift giving to further his own prideful agenda and to finally avenge himself in his rivalry with Agamemnon.
Zeus and Achilles both grant hiketeia for self-seeking interests. Hiketeia is a way to gain power over another while seeming merciful and compromising—characteristics which neither Zeus nor Achilles actually possess. Granting requests in positions of influence, gift giving and generosity all establish a nature of authority over a supplicant and both Zeus and Achilles took their opportunities to do so, even if in a condescending manner. Both passages from Book One and Book Twenty-Four demonstrate the power that can be gained from “generously” granting hiketeia.
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