• The 3000 year old story of The Iliad told through various Wedgwood wares.

Wedgwood and The Iliad

  • by Lauren Grattage

Wedgwood Jasper Button. White on Blue Jasper Cameo depicting 'Priam begging Achilles for the body of Hector'. C.1795

Theme

The Old King and Grieving Son

“I have raised to my lips the hands of the man who killed my sons”

 

The Iliad is an epic with a circular story. Not only does it begin and end with an elderly father begging the return of their lost child but it begins and ends with Achilles anger as a major theme.

At the beginning of the book, Achilles is seen weeping, unable to find sleep because he is haunted by memories of his companion. Dawn after dawn he finds himself beating hectors body and visiting Patroclus’ grave mound, unable to stop his grief. In his lifetime, Hector had always been respectful of the Gods and in death; they wished to see him respected in return. Angry at Achilles, they protected Hectors’ body from harm and planned to steal his body away from the Myrmidon camp. Zeus decides instead of stealing the body, Achilles should give it up to Priam himself and return the son of Troy to his home for his burial rites. Knowing that Achilles may disagree, Zeus sends Thetis down to his camp, to convince him to follow the Gods plans. Not wanting to disobey the Gods any longer or show them disrespect, Achilles agrees to the plan while apologising to Patroclus for the dishonour that may cause him.

At the same time, Iris, the messenger Goddess in The Iliad is sent to Priam in Troy to tell him of the Gods plans. She gives him instruction to not be afraid, and go completely alone to the Greek camp to meet with the man who killed his son. When he tells his wife and sons of the plan they all try to dissuade him, causing him to become angry and ignore their pleas, more determined to save his son’s body. He makes his way across the plain when he is met by a stranger, who the reader knows is the God Hermes in disguise. Although he has company of this man for the trip, he knows he must face Achilles alone.

Desperate for the man to have pity on him and return his son’s body Priam supplicates the best of the Greeks. Supplication was an intimate ritual performed in order to beg another to adhere to the wishes of the suppliant. Priam grabs the knees of Achilles as he kneels before him and kissed his hands. This is such a bold gesture; Priam a King who would have bowed to no one has kissed the hands that have slaughtered his son. The two men then find some common ground; Achilles sees his old father Peleus in Priam and is bought to grief once more as he knows he will never see him again. Priam, faced with such youthful beauty and godlike strength is reminded of his son, and the two weep together for their losses. Although this is another deeply human insight into Achilles’ emotions, he does remain harsh and threatens Priam with his life when he feels he may disrespect him. The two men eat together before he body is returned and Priam sneaks back to Troy.

Jasper Button

The supplication of Priam is another key scene that Wedgwood developed into his work. This white jasper in blue dip match pot with a white relief shows the moment that Priam throws himself onto the floor before the Greek. He is seen gripping Achilles knees and bringing his hands to his lips. It shows Priam’s dignity but also the great love that he had for his son. For him to go to such lengths and risk this danger shows how much Hector was honoured by his father. But we cannot just focus on Priam’s bravery in this scene. This is also a crucial moment in the development of Achilles’ character. For him to overcome the dishonour that this would cause Patroclus, to overcome his anger at his enemy and to accepts the Gods’ wishes shows how much he has grown as a man. He started his time in Troy as a selfish, prideful boy, but ends the epic as a man who possesses sympathy for others. The two shocked soldiers that appear behind the King of Troy are a common appearance in other representations of this scene. They show the true unnatural events that are happening between two enemies at war. Around the outside of the figures is an oak border relief. In Greek mythology the oak tree was symbolic of Zeus, who the meeting was first arranged by.

However the key thing to remember about this scene is that the relationship seen between the two men here is entirely transitory. Neither man has shifted his alliance and Priam would still be arrested or killed by Agamemnon or any other generals if they knew he was there. Achilles loyalty doesn’t shift away from Patroclus and Priam continues to hate the Greeks after Hectors return. The meeting provides a touching interlude from battle and destruction of life and this marks the end of The Iliad as a set book. After this, various battles take place for Troy, leading to the death of main characters, including Achilles. As prophecy told, he died soon after he slaughtered Hector, falling to none other than Paris after being shot by his arrow. Before his death he ordered that after his funeral rites, his ashes be mixed in the urn with Patroclus’ so they would lie together for eternity.

Soon after this the city of Troy fell after the invention of the infamous Trojan horse. Hector’s beloved wife is kidnapped by Achilles’ son and reduced to slavery; Hector’s son Astyanax is thrown from the walls of the burning city, and his father and mother are slaughtered in the halls of their palace, along with the remaining of Priam’s 50 sons and countless daughters. Paris also died in the war at Troy and so Helen is eventually returned to Menelaus and they make their way back to Sparta after the Greeks win the legendary war.

Catalogue

Wedgwood Jasper Button. White on Blue Jasper Cameo depicting 'Priam begging Achilles for the body of Hector'. C.1795