Hector, in many ways, is the closest to Christ in the ancient pagan world of heroes, literature, and lore. Yet, he falls short of Christ as all men do—and as all pagans did. But there is something remarkably sacramental about Hector to the Christian reader; there is something about Hector that shows glimpses of the ever-lasting man and the loving God-man who died for others.

One of the most touching scenes in Homer’s Iliad is when Priam enters the tent of Achilles to plead the return of Hector’s body. It is interesting that most of the touching, most human, and most moving scenes in Homer’s epic involve the Trojans and Hector in particular. The Trojans, and Hector, after all, are the antagonists to the protagonists. The Iliad is the song of Achilles and his rage; yet, the human heart agonizes with Priam, Andromache, and Hector instead of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Menelaus.

I do not wish to suggest that there aren’t any touching moments with the Greeks. Achilles’ grieving, though turning to rage, over the death of Patroclus is certainly stirring enough. When Odysseus meets the heroes of Troy in the underworld, now dead, and they ask about their families, sons, and daughters, we encounter a series of touching scenes even though it is after the fact and they have all been forever torn asunder from the love which had brought men and women, young and old, father and son, body and soul, together.

Homer’s depiction of pious Hector causes one to question whether Hector is the (tragic) hero of the epic. He is a mighty prince of Troy. A great warrior. A wise man, a loving man, a family man. Christians certainly received Hector with greater love than any other characters from the story. Hector is placed in Limbo by Dante in the Inferno. Hector was also elevated to the status of the nine worthies of the medieval Christian world. It shouldn’t be a surprise why.

Love, sacrifice, and suffering are universals of the human condition. Homer’s Iliad is filled with love, sacrifice, and suffering; and the one person who happens to embody these universals most visibly is Hector. Hector’s love for his father, for his country, for his wife and son, moves him into a state of agonizing sacrifice and suffering during the Trojan War. He wants what is best for his father and for his people, but he is always pulled into action—sometimes irrationally—by the affections of his heart.

Hector, in many ways, is the closest to Christ in the ancient pagan world of heroes, literature, and lore. Yet, he falls short of Christ as all men do—and as all pagans did. But there is something remarkably sacramental about Hector to the Christian reader; there is something about Hector that shows glimpses of the ever-lasting man and the loving God-man who died for others.

Love, sacrifice, and suffering are not unique to the Christian story and consciousness. Martyrdom and redemption are (and oftentimes martyrdom and redemption go together as two sides of the same coin). Much of the talk in comparative mythology between the dying and rising god misses the uniqueness of Christianity: self-sacrificial martyrdom.

The dying and rising motif of the pagan world are often laced with explicit violence and sexual overtures; Osiris is resurrected by Isis only after a spell which allowed her to be impregnated for “new life” giving birth to Horus. Dionysus’ butchering at the hands of the Titans was motivated by hate and the lust for domination; his resurrection occurs for no apparent reason other than a part of his heart survived the lustful hunger of the Titans. Persephone’s return to life was forced by Zeus, but Zeus didn’t sacrifice himself to set Persephone free and her return to life wasn’t because of any sacrifice on her part. As it relates to Set killing Osiris, there is also skullduggery among the gods. Lust, sex, and war; violence and the lust for domination; cruelty and hatred reign supreme in those stories. The inability to see the self-sacrificial giving that led to Christ’s death reveals the blindness of the scholars to the exceptionalism of the Christian story.

Christianity took love, sacrifice, and suffering deeper than the pagans ever could. But Homer, among a few others—Plato comes to mind as another close counterpart—came the closest to offering a hero who was a martyr for love. And Hector is the closest person to having been a martyr in the Christian sense.

The most touching scene with the living Hector is when he approaches his infant son, Astyanax, to comfort him. Veiled and hidden behind his armor and helmet, Astyanax weeps in terror with the looming specter of war all around him adding to the drama. Hector, understanding the situation, and moved by his love for his son, disrobes to reveal himself to his beloved son. It is the closest revelation to the incarnation in ancient Greek literature. A loving, warlike, but veiled father, in hearing the cries of his son, unveils himself in the flesh to nurture his beloved.

On the walls of Troy which shall burn, Hector and his family have a moment of respite amid the chaos and death that surrounds them. Astyanax is comforted in Hector’s loving and tender arms, the loving and tender embrace of all-loving father, and his cries cease. Hector, being the pious man that he is, offers up a prayer to the gods for protection. We know that it is in vain, but the scene is so moving that any man of flesh and blood, with affection pulsating through his body of dust, ought to be moved to tears.

The other moving scene, as stated, is when Priam—alone and undeniably endangered—is compelled by the love of his son to visit the dangerous and murderous Achilles to recover the body of Hector. Like Joseph of Arimathea, Priam wishes to give the body of Hector a proper burial despite the suffering that had befallen it. Priam begs and begs and begs; his pleading to Achilles shows how much love the king had for his son. Achilles relents, as ordained by the gods, and Priam returns to Troy with the body of his beloved son, deceased hero, and fallen father.

Hector did not die a martyr, at least not in the depth and deepest sense understood by Christianity and exemplified by Christ. Hector came close to martyrdom but in the moments leading up to his death he loses his nerve at the sight of Achilles and flees from him. He runs around the city walls of Troy hoping to elude his pursuing foe but realizes he cannot outrun Achilles. He turns to accept his fate and is slaughtered by the rage of Achilles. Hector died in war, in a battle to protect others, but he did not freely sacrifice himself so that others might live.

The pious fatalism of the pagan classics is an enduring and seductive aspect of the stories. Without the hope of redemption, pious fatalism was the best that the pagan world could offer. So it is with Hector. The prince of love, of patriotism, and tenderness must stoically accept the decree of the gods to be killed by the bloodthirsty hand of Achilles. He has no other choice but be pulverized back to dust because that is the fate ordained to him by the gods. Indeed, this reality reasserts itself just at the moment when we approach the possibility of martyrdom. Homer gets close, but he doesn’t quite arrive at the other side of the Jordan. But the Christian reader, or the reader with Christian sensibility, sees just how close Hector was.

In a world without hope, in a world without life, in a world where the darkness of death is all that awaits, there is no greater mark of a man than to accept his fate. It is a stark world, one dark and gloomy, where love is eventually eradicated in the disintegration to ash. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Commentary on the Sentences, those without hope choose to die for their fatherland or to avoid dishonor because that’s the best they can opt for. But ashes shall rise and dry bones shall be flesh and blood once more.

The scandal of Christianity is that it stands apart from the other religions and philosophies and considerations about the world. In death there is life. The God who is Love became flesh, dwelt among men in the lowest of forms—not as a political king, a conquering general, or an aristocrat, but as a babe, a carpenter, and a servant. The martyrdom of Christianity is a self-giving for others not on a promise of self-gain, but in imitation of He who is Love, the Bread of Life, and the Cup of Salvation. The promise of Christianity is not to take away the suffering of the world but to declare that suffering is not in vain; the promise of Christianity is that as we stumble and fall up the mountain to Golgotha we are lifted up for the final push to finish the race and then enter that abode of “inexhaustible abundance” which the soul “thirsteth after.”

There is an understandable, and undeniable, reason why Christians gravitated to Hector instead of Achilles. In every way, Hector is closer and closest to Christ. Even more so than his mentee, Aeneas. Hector’s love brought out great agony, suffering, and torment. Hector’s death came close to the martyrdom of self-giving sacrifice for others. Hector’s death came the closest to Golgotha among all the pagan heroes. It takes Christ, however, to be able to see Hector’s death as having been on the path to Calvary. If only he had Christ, then it would have been consummated.

The tragedy of Hector was the best that the pagan world could produce. He died for his fatherland and rather than be slaughtered with his back turned in disgrace, he turned around and accepted his fate and died in combat instead of being slain in dishonor with his back turned to Achilles. Homer’s Hector is a remarkable achievement all things considered. Hector’s story shows us the totality of love, sacrifice, and suffering in the pagan world.

Yet, there is something amiss at the end. Hector’s death was ultimately for himself; he turned to accept his fate rather than die in flight to avoid dishonor, and his death in the service of his fatherland was the best death he could hope for—in the end, he did not lay down his life for others though he came very close to doing to so. Homer, therefore, also shows us the limits of love, sacrifice, and suffering in a world where fatalism always triumphs. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” It is only through Christian eyes that the classical stories gain a greater appreciation, a greater poignancy, and, to some extent, the possibility of redemption which brings those stories into eternity.

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The featured image is “Achilles slaying Hector,” by Peter Paul Rubens and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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