My blog poses the questions that everybody wants answered.
OK, maybe that’s optimistic, but I’m going to suggest that the Greco-Roman gods’ ability to weep is not a given, and thus when and how they dissolve in tears can be instructive.
Our text is a powerful scene in Aeneid 10 where the young warrior Pallas, facing his nemesis Turnus, prays to Hercules for success. It’s Hercules he appeals to because, as we have learnt in Aeneid 8, the hero had once visited the kingdom of Pallas’ father Evander (on the future site of Rome) and rid it of the troublesome monster Cacus. By this point in Book 10 we are some years later, and in the meantime Hercules has died and become the god to whom Pallas can direct his prayer.
Here is Pallas’ appeal, Hercules’ tearful response, and the chief god Jupiter’s reaction (10.457-73, accompanied by the translation of Fairclough and Goold in the Loeb):
hunc ubi contiguum missae fore credidit hastae,
ire prior Pallas, si qua fors adiuuet ausum
uiribus imparibus, magnumque ita ad aethera fatur:
‘per patris hospitium et mensas, quas aduena adisti,
te precor, Alcide, coeptis ingentibus adsis.
cernat semineci sibi me rapere arma cruenta
uictoremque ferant morientia lumina Turni.’
audiit Alcides iuuenem magnumque sub imo
corde premit gemitum lacrimasque effundit inanis.
tum genitor natum dictis adfatur amicis:
‘stat sua cuique dies, breue et inreparabile tempus
omnibus est uitae; sed famam extendere factis,
hoc uirtutis opus. Troiae sub moenibus altis
tot gnati cecidere deum, quin occidit una
Sarpedon, mea progenies; etiam sua Turnum
fata uocant metasque dati peruenit ad aeui.’
sic ait, atque oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis.
But Pallas, when he thought his foe within range of a spear-cast,
moved forward first, in the hope that chance would aid the venture
of his ill-matched strength, and thus to great heaven he cries:
“By my father’s welcome, and the table to which you came as a stranger,
I beseech you, Hercules of the stock of Alceus, aid my great enterprise.
May Turnus see me strip the bloody arms from his dying limbs,
and may his glazing eyes endure a conqueror!”
Hercules heard the youth, and deep in his heart
stifled a heavy groan, and shed useless tears.
Then with kindly words the Father addresses his son:
“Each has his day appointed; short and irretrievable is the span
of life for all: but to lengthen fame by deeds—
that is valour’s task. Under Troy’s high walls
fell those many sons of gods; indeed, with them fell
my own child Sarpedon. For Turnus too his own
fate calls, and he has reached the goal of his allotted years.”
So he speaks, and turns his eyes away from the Rutulian fields.
There’s a lot going on here, among other things an assimilation of Hercules to Aeneas, who had also visited Pallas’ father at the site of Rome and enjoyed his hospitality (compare 10.515-7, Pallas, Euandrus, in ipsis/ omnia sunt oculis, mensae quas advena primas/ tunc adiit, dextraeque datae). In addition, though, and this is relevant to the tears, Virgil’s Jupiter recalls in his consoling words to Hercules a very important moment in Homer’s Iliad, when Zeus/Jupiter himself had contemplated rescuing his son Sarpedon, a Lycian warrior allied to the Trojans, from his fated death at the hands of Patroclus (16.419-61). Back then Zeus had been dissuaded from any such intervention by Hera, and that scene had illustrated a theme central both to the Iliad and to the epic tradition as a whole: the insignificance of human life and the unbridgeable chasm that separates suffering mortals and the comfortable and untroubled existence enjoyed by the gods.
The unavoidable tragedy of human life and death is thus what Jupiter starts by reminding Hercules of here. But the name Sarpedon evokes another significant moment in the Iliad, as at 12.322-8 he is the mouthpiece for one of the most memorable statements of heroic values in the poem. Sarpedon explains to his fellow-Lycian Glaucus why they are obliged to lead the fight against the Achaeans:
“Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle
we were for ever to be ageless and immortal,
neither should I myself fight among the foremost,
nor should I send you into battle where men win glory;
but now—for in any case fates of death threaten us,
fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—
now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us.”
Human life is incomparably worse than the life of the gods in the Iliad, but the brevity and insignificance of our human existence is also what shapes the heroic ethos, and indeed epic poetry. The inevitability of their death drives the heroes of epic to seek an alternative form of immortality, to compensate for abbreviated lives with the everlasting glory achieved by deeds great enough to be commemorated in song. That immortal glory, an alternative existence, is what Homer’s Iliad bestows on Sarpedon, and the fundamental heroic calculus, fame achieved by bravery in the face of certain death, is exactly what Jupiter is setting out for Hercules in Virgil’s account.
But it’s tears that I’m meant to be talking about.
When he hears Pallas’ prayer, Hercules weeps. His foreknowledge of Pallas’ doom is perhaps divine, but his tears are emphatically not. There was a well-established literary convention that the life of the gods was so carefree, in contrast to the limitless sufferings of humanity, that they could not physically cry. Now, we do see gods crying in Greco-Roman accounts: Artemis even cries in the Iliad after a scolding from Hera (21.493-6), and Aphrodite/Venus, while she doesn’t explicitly cry when stabbed by Diomedes in Iliad 5, does have eyes welling with tears when he addresses Jupiter at Aen. 1.228-9. But Venus is a special case among epic gods, closer in some respects to human shortcomings. In general, also, poetic convention was more rigid than poetic practice, and Ovid, a great manipulator of literary convention, twice asserts the principle that gods cannot cry, at Fasti 4.521-2 and Metamorphoses 2.621-2 (Apollo after killing his lover Coronis): “the cheeks of the heavenly gods may not be wet with tears”, he writes in the Metamorphoses. The passage in the Fasti I discuss in my forthcoming book Ovid: A Very Short Introduction, but the idea was clearly familiar to Virgil’s contemporary readers, and important when we contemplate Hercules, since as a god he really shouldn’t be crying.
Well, the fact that Hercules weeps is a hint, as delicate as can be, that he’s still a novice at this immortality game, only recently made a god, and not yet as free as a divinity should be of emotional attachments to humanity. Jupiter, the seasoned deity, puts Hercules right, teaching him that gods and humans are irrevocably different by virtue of death, and–if the Loeb translation of oculos Rutulorum reicit aruis (10.73) is right–gives him an object lesson in divine indifference by turning his gaze away from human misery in Italy.
So Virgil contradicts the rule that gods can’t cry, and also, in Hercules, allows a human to beat death and secure everlasting life. But it’s by breaking the rules that he achieves this immensely subtle characterisation of Hercules, and also, through Jupiter’s words, how he powerfully reasserts the essential truth of the heroic world: gods are ineffably happier than us, and we will die.