...Panel 9: Thersites’ rant
Ainia and Antianara, under the advice of Artemis, begin their return to Themiskyra. Thersites comes upon Achilles, who seems to be expressing a dark desire for the dead Penthesilea. Thersites mocks Achilles, enraging him. The son of Peleus strikes and kills Thersites.
In a moment of respite with the overhead clouds of Zeus’ anger veiling the battlefield in black, Artemis, wearing the clothes of an aged mourner looking for a fallen son, urged Ainia the swift to return to her children. Ainia, still determined to confront Achilles, refused until Antianara, recognising the goddess, told Ainia that for the security of Themiskyra they must ride northeast to warn Clete before she reaches Truwisa by water.
Working their way through the field, they watched the warrior sons of Argos hastily stripping blood-stained spoils from the corpses strewn all round. Young Antianara saw Bremusa, eyes wide-open as if alive. So swift was the stroke of Idomeneus that it left no mark to betray a fatal wound. The Amazons continued through the bodies of the fallen, ponies delicately avoiding the mourners and broken chariots. Among the rummaging soldiers lay Klonie, Thermodosa and Euandre. Derimakheia and Alkibie, mutilated, would not join Ainia to see their own children grow. Unidentifiable now, they would be thrown into an anonymous pit outside of the moat. Behind Ainia, for whom a city would be named, and Antianara, whose name would be as renowned as Hyppolyte, in a dangerous place close to their slain queen, lay their sisters Antandre, Polemousa, Harmothoe, Hippothoe and Derinoe.
Thersites the son of Agrius had already incurred Odysseus’ wrath with his ranting. Odysseus had struck Thersites with the sceptre of Agamemnon but let him live. Spared by Diomedes, Thersites, now lame and bow legged, with shoulders caved inward, poked at the eyes of dead Harmothoe with the intention of removing them. His head was shaped like a sugar loaf, coming to a point. Atop that head sprouted tufts of hair. Thersites was a vulgar man with a head full of obscenities and nonsense.
The father of Thersites, Agrius, from a young age had been raised with Oeneus in Aetolia. When Oeneus became ruler of Calydon he adopted Agrius as his brother to honour their long friendship. After many years, Thersites with his brothers Onchestus, Prothous, Celeutor, Lycopeus and Melanippus conspired against their adoptive uncle. The city of Calydon was delivered to Agrius but shortly after all the brothers were slain by Diomedes, the scion of Oeneus, except for Thersites, who, in the clothes of a woman, managed to escape and make his way to Peloponnesus.
Thersites, deprived of any wealth he may have once possessed, was drafted as a hoplite with the Argives at Troy. What he had learned from war was to avoid dangerous situations, while at the same time to be present wherever princes and heroes gathered between battles. In these assemblies of the sons of gods and goddesses he appeared as a buffoon, ugly but somewhat amusing in otherwise serious circumstances.
King Agamemnon had seen through Thersites and suspected him a traitor but he also exploited Thersites’ tendency to rant as a means to get a sense of the encampment. When Agamemnon tested the loyalty of his command by suggesting a retreat, Thersites responded loudly, “Wives and children sit at home and wait for us, meanwhile we don’t advance against Priamos. Board the ships, I say, and home! Troy will never fall to this rabble.” Hearing such words shouted directly to the king, many did leave the field and take to the ships.
Through these rants Thersites allowed the king to determine his weakest ranks. Then when Agamemnon communicated his decision to remain, Thersites, too stupid to understand the situation, went on, “My lord Agamemnon... what is the problem now? What more do you need? The ships are full of loot, and you always get the first pick! You get the best whores as well! Are you suddenly short of gold or whores or is it that Achilles screws your prize?” Then he turned loudly to the gathering, “Let us sail home and leave this fellow here with his spoils so that he can find out how much he completely depends on our ranks.”
When Thersites’ diatribe ended, the son of Laertes swiftly intervened, calling him insolent and threatened, “You should be thankful for the king’s patience but if I should catch you playing us fools again, I will strip you of your clothes and thrash you ignominiously!” With these words, Odysseus struck him with Agamemnon’s staff, drawing some blood from the side of his twisted face. Thersites, rather than defending himself, flinched, and sat on the ground terrified, brushing away tears as the rest of the assembly laughed at his expense.
On this dark day Peleus’ son gazed and continued to gaze wild with regret at Penthesilea. She, no longer lethal but calm and beautiful, lay in the dust. Before Achilles had ever killed, he had experienced an attraction to the sleep of death, such that in youth he would spend hours pretending to be dead. There was something about this vulnerable state that stirred in him an intense hunger. And now his heart was wrung, broken down with sorrowing love as deep and strong as he had ever known. He felt desire for the fallen Penthesilea as strong as when his beloved Patroclus had died, and more deeply than he had ever felt.
Thersites, no longer amused by stripping the dead, turned to the leader of men and suddenly spoke, “You are truly a vainglorious coward! The son of Peleus lusts after a corpse with tits. You have been called a god but your desire really is to possess a thing that cannot resist or reject you. Do you think that because there is no one to be harmed it cannot be wrong? Even if I was girl enough to accept your fantasies, it is still not normal: only a mad person wants to have sex with the dead. Are you possessed by the Maniae or do you expect us to abandon the dignity of the dead, to harden the heart and loosen inhibitions, so that we should lust after the asses of our ponies and our neighbours’ chickens?”
So Thersites, realising that he had an audience, railed and mocked Achilles. “Sorry-souled masturbator Achilles! Have you no shame to let some evil power allow you to pity a dead whore whose whole purpose was to slay us in fury? Have you no sense? Your soul lusts for this dead ass as if she was a lady with a dowry, knowledgeable in economy and hoping for a proposal of marriage! You took Priamos’s son, a prince, and dragged him like garbage to and fro before his great city, yet here you are sighing over a lesser corpse. Look at you, you unmanly ass, falling all over a dead whore. You forget all about reputation and valour the second your eyes lust for a pair of tits. Where is this leader of men, the brave Achilles, the one with good sense? Have you lost your stainless strength to be a whoring girl? Do you have any conception of the misery that this Amazon has brought to Troy?”
He turned now, speaking loudly to draw more people around him. “I tell you that you are ass-lucky that your spear reached the Amazon first because her weapons were meant for your heart and she would have remorselessly slain you for the fun of moving forward and burning our ships.”
Where there is rage, there is also fear, perhaps obscured in the background. Aggression is the body’s response to fear, for when threatened it can help assure survival. The insults that Achilles felt were affronts to self-esteem, status and dignity, none of which threatened him physically. Thersites hardly posed a threat to the son of Peleus but Achilles had grown accustomed to using excessive violence as a response.
Thersites jabbered long and loud, pleased with his oratory. “Battle makes men heroes and only Ares’ work was meant for this field. There is nothing worse for a man than to lust for woman’s beauty for it makes fools of wise men. You are romancing a corpse as if you were a maiden in wait of promised sweet kisses in a pasture. Only a coward craves beauty and a bed with the whore that she was! Look at her! Why do you think that she seems prettier as a disarmed stiff?”
With these words the mighty heart of Peleus’ son leapt into a flame of anger. With a swift movement his backhand struck Thersites below the ear. Teeth flying in all directions, the fool fell face to the earth. As he took his last breath it seemed that he might have had another word to utter before the blood began to ooze from his lips.
Then from the warrior Argives cried the voice of the son of Telamon, “It is not good that baser men complain about kings, secretly or openly, for death may come quickly. Dike who oversees from the stars always assures that justice prevails and even Ate, who delivers woe on woe to Greeks and Trojans, will stop to punish a shameless tongue.” So his voice was heard above Achilles’ rage, “It is good that an idiot lies in the dust. Could he have not learned from Diomedes’ rage or from the patience of Agamemnon? Odysseus thrashed this fool in public but still he babbled with venomous tongue until now he met his end, having insulted for the second time the great warrior son of Peleus.”
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