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Book 24

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 24 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 24 | Summary

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Summary

For the next several days, Achilles drags Hector's corpse around Patroclus's tomb every time he misses his comrade. Apollo protects the body from decay and damage, but Hera, Athena, and Poseidon won't let the other gods steal it from Achilles and return it to Hector's family. Zeus decrees a compromise: Achilles will give up Hector's body for a ransom, which Priam will bring in person and alone. With the treasures gathered, Priam prays for a sign of approval and Zeus sends a huge eagle in confirmation. Zeus sends the god Hermes, who disguises himself as Achilles's aide, to hide him and guide him safely to Achilles.

Arriving at Achilles's lodge, Priam kneels before him and kisses his hands. Priam's appeal touches Achilles's heart, and they weep together. Achilles agrees to give up Hector's body, but when Priam suggests he sail home safely to his own father, Achilles warns him not to tempt his rage. After ordering Hector's body prepared, Achilles provides hospitality—food and a bed for the night. Achilles pledges to hold off attacking until Hector is buried.

Fearing Priam might be captured, Hermes wakes him before dawn and guides him out of the Achaean camp with Hector's body. Priam's daughter Cassandra sees him approach, and the entire city gathers at the gates to receive its favorite son. Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen sing songs of mourning that highlight Hector's skill in battle, how the gods favored him, and his kindness. After nine days of mourning, his body is burned and his bones interred in a golden box. "And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses."

Analysis

Book 24 is a portrait of grief, from anger to compassion. Up to this point Achilles has been stuck in anger fed by grief. At the beginning of the section Apollo calls him "That man without a shred of decency in his heart," all "brute force and wild pride," and no "shame that does great harm or drives men on to good." Abusing the corpse of noble Hector offends the gods and brings him no honor. However, when Achilles is asked to give up Hector's body, it seems to open his ears, and he actually listens to Priam. When they weep together, Achilles is mostly crying for his own losses, but he also empathizes with Priam's pain, recognizing that his own father will feel the same grief after Achilles's fated death. The other concession he offers Priam, to hold the Achaeans back from attacking until Hector is buried, seems inspired entirely by his own compassion with no prompting of the gods. He is finally putting aside his godlike rage and finding his humanity.

This gentler Achilles is not likely to stick around for long, though. The poet shows that his anger is not far from the surface, even now. He warns Priam not to insult his honor with suggestions that he sail home without glory, and he avoids rousing Priam's anger, fearing it will ignite his own rage again and he will kill Priam in defiance of Zeus's decree. Other characters also display anger in grief. Priam takes his pain out on his remaining sons, saying he wishes they had died instead of Hector. Hecuba (Hector's mother) is so angry she could "sink my teeth in [Achilles's] liver, eat him raw!" echoing Achilles's words to Hector in Book 22.

Eating plays a significant role in this section. In his grief, Achilles isn't eating or sleeping. His mother, Thetis, asks him, "How long will you eat your heart out here in the tears and torment?" He seems to be living on rage rather than food. However, after weeping with Priam he tells the story of Niobe to urge Priam to eat. They dine together, symbolically providing some healing for both their griefs.

The eagle of Zeus again appears in Book 24 as a sign of the god's approval of Priam's trip to the Achaean camp. As an animal with excellent vision, it also symbolizes that the gods will help the king navigate successfully through the darkness. The god Hermes, who acts as Priam's guide, is likewise associated with clear sight.

The poet uses parallel events to bring the story structure full circle. Chryses's appeal for the return of his daughter from Agamemnon in Book 1 is balanced by Priam's appeal for the return of his son's body in Book 24. The parallel is masterful—the first appeal starts the conflict and the second one ends it. The poet's choice to end the story with this emotional resolution, rather than with a dramatic battle that provides a military resolution, focuses the epic on the characters's emotional journeys. The burial of Hector parallels the burial of Patroclus and ends the poem with mourning befitting not only Hector but all those who died.

The story of the Trojan War continues in many other stories, including Homer's The Odyssey. (Tragically, Andromache's fear that an Achaean will hurl Hector's son "down from the ramparts" does foretell his fate.) However, the story of Achilles's rage is done.

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