A very odd thing happens in Book 16 of the Iliad when Zeus decides that Sarpedon must die. Sarpedon was one of the greatest of the Trojan warriors. He also happened to be the son of Zeus—though this does not render him immortal. As Sarpedon and Patroklos are about to fight, Zeus laments to Hera:

Ah me, that it is destined that the dearest of men, Sarpedon,
must go down under the hands of Menoitios’ son Patroklos.
The heart in my breast is balanced between two ways as I ponder,
whether I should snatch him out of the sorrowful battle
and set him down still alive in the rich country of Lykia,
or beat him under at the hands of the son of Menoitios. (16.433-8, tr. R. Lattimore)

This is a passage that has provoked much debate regarding the relationship between the will of Zeus and fate. On the one hand, Zeus says that Sarpedon is “destined” to die; on the other, he considers rescuing him. Is fate subject to Zeus? Is Zeus subject to fate? Can Zeus change fate? If so, what would happen? These are all important questions for determining the view of freedom and necessity, the power of the gods, and so on in the world of the Iliad, but it is not my purpose to enter into them here.

I would only note in passing that Hera seems to indicate in her response that such alteration is possible for Zeus, but that what would follow afterward would be unpredictable—perhaps a chaotic return to pre-Zeus divine disorder in the cosmos. In any event, she persuades him against saving his son. Sarpedon, then, will die.

Homer describes Zeus’s reaction in this way:

She spoke, nor did the father of gods and men disobey her;
yet he wept tears of blood that fell to the ground, for the sake
of his beloved son, whom now Patroklos was presently
to kill, by generous Troy and far from the land of his fathers.

What can it possibly mean for Zeus to weep tears of blood? Questions abound. Can the gods weep? That one is easy. In the Homeric world, yes, they can, and it is not at all surprising for them to do so. There has been some consternation over whether these drops should be taken as referring to “tears” or “raindrops,” but that distinction admits of a simple and elegant solution. The Homeric gods are anthropomorphized, and thus share many of the characteristics of men. They have bodies, houses, horses, desires, griefs, and so on. When they are sad, they cry.

But these same gods can also represent cosmic forces, and Zeus is the god of the sky and of weather, the one who causes thunder and rain. It stands to reason, then, that we don’t really need to choose between “tears” and “raindrops”—for, from the Homeric perspective, if Zeus were to weep, what else would it look like? The same would apply, mutatis mutandis, to the question of whether the verb ????????? should be translated as “he wept” or “he poured.” Did he “weep tears” or “pour drops”? Yes, precisely.

Not so easily disposed of is the fact that he wept tears of blood. This is the only occasion in the Iliad in which Zeus, or any other god, is said to do such a thing. There is a partial parallel in Book 11, but notice just how different it is:

And the son of Kronos
drove down the evil turmoil upon them, and from aloft cast
down dews dripping blood from the sky, since he was minded
to hurl down a multitude of strong heads to the house of Hades. (11.52-5)

In this passage, Zeus prepares to set in motion a play of human carnage: The blood is a sign of coming destruction from his pitiless hand. In the former, however, while the context of death is the same, Zeus’s emotional attachment is exactly the opposite: He is filled with grief for the coming death of his son. Even more striking is the fact that the Homeric gods do not have blood. They have ichor. Blood belongs to mortals. Zeus’s bloody tears, then, may be a pictorial representation of solidarity with his human son but they can never be more than merely symbolic.

Indeed, the fact that the expression is so rare demands the reader’s attention to the futility in the world of the Iliad of any attempt to render a man immortal. Even the son of the father of gods and men is subject to the day of doom. The blood of Zeus’s tears is a premonition of violence; the blood of his tears is a sign that that violence causes him anguish, but that it is a violence in which he will nevertheless acquiesce, though he would prefer to save his child.

Sarpedon will meet his destiny, and his destiny is to suffer. One is reminded here of a passage in W.H. Auden’s stunning “Shield of Achilles”:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same,
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help, and no help came;
What their foes liked to do was done; their shame
Was all the worst could wish: they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

Auden’s gloss on the Iliad amidst the wreckage of the middle of the twentieth century is dark, almost nihilistic. Homer’s is not quite so, but mortality is yet final and grief real and inevitable.

But the rarity of the expression does something else for the reader who is familiar with the Greek literature of eight hundred or so years later. It calls to his mind an equally striking description from a very different world:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

This sweat was accompanied, we know from elsewhere, by weeping: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7). Here, however, the weeping and bleeding is applied not to a father, but to a son. Here, in contrast to the Iliad, the will of the father will be accomplished (“Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done”)—but that will is for the son’s death on the cross. Here, the sweat is only like blood, for it looks forward to the real blood that will be shed in that death. Like the god Zeus, Jesus weeps. But like the man Sarpedon, his blood is real and will be poured out in death.

If that death were all that the writers of the New Testament had told us about, our world would perhaps be as dark as Homer’s. But of course it is not all. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say that those prayers of the son were offered “to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” In contrast to Auden’s Greeks, we know that Jesus in his hour of agony was not left helpless (“And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him,” Luke 22:43). And while Jesus, like Sarpedon, endured the death of the body, he ultimately was saved from death at his resurrection: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17–18). Zeus did not have the keys of Death and Hades. When Sarpedon went thither, he was never to return.

It would be too much, of course, to imagine Homer as a Christianus sine Christo. But is it too much to imagine that he had glimpses of the powerlessness of his gods over death, and regretted it? It would be too much to consider Iliad 16.458–61 a prophecy of the Messiah. But is it too much to consider the uncanny similarity with Luke 22:44 a happy instance of literary providence?

Jesus Christ answers to the deepest agonies and fears of the fallen human condition. Those agonies and fears are universal and were shared as much by Homeric man as they are by modern American man. But rather than weeping over the lion’s carnage on the plains outside ancient Troy (Iliad 16.488–9), there will be songs of joy and shouts of triumph for those who have conquered in the Lamb on a hill outside ancient Jerusalem. The Passion of Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, provides the antitype, as it were, to the type of the divine Zeus’s futile weeping over the impending death of his mortal son Sarpedon. The question of life and death raised in Iliad 16 finds its only satisfactory answer in Christ’s death-defeating death.

E. J. Hutchinson is assistant professor of Classics at Hillsdale College. 

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