Recently I was saddened by the news of a horse who dropped dead from exhaustion in Chile. Yet those news of a horse reaching the end of his strength reminded me of a beautiful story in the Iliad of a pair of noble horses who at the limit of their effort cried abundant tears. Although I am not an ancient scholar, I would say this is the oldest text I know of in defense of animal feelings.
In Iliad’s book 17 Homer sings how the two immortal horses of Achilles cried for the death of Patroclus, his corpse covered in dust and blood. The horses detained their race and looked down upon their fallen master, so young and beautiful. Just a few moments before he was full of life and the two animals remembered his fond caresses and love tenderly. Automedon, companion of Patroclus and the rider of the horse carriage, tries to push the exhausted animals, mixing pleas and lashes. Yet the horses do not move, unable to raise their eyes from the sad body of their beautiful young master lain on the ground, immobile just as equine statues over a tomb. They cry ardent tears from their black eyes, disconsolately shaking their long manes. Zeus from his heavenly throne looks upon the suffering animals “Unhappy pair, why did we give you, ageless and immortal, to that mortal king, Peleus? Did we mean you to sorrow with these wretched men? For what is there more miserable than man, among all the things that move and breathe on earth?” The 20th century poet Cavafy in his short poem “The horses of Achilles” follows Homer’s poem almost line by line and yet he adds a surprising twist! For those horses were far more sensitive and human than the great Zeus imagined – they cried not just for the gentle Patroclus, but also for all the endless deaths of war:
At that instant Homer relates the two animals recovered strength, shook the dust from their dark fur and took Automedon far from the murderous battle, so that at least one of their masters survived the horror. To me this is one of the most moving scenes of European literature and one that shows that Homer, even without a sophisticated literary technique, was able to depict beautiful images in its war epic. I do not feel it was a mere coincidence that the epic poet dedicated some of his most beautiful phrases to two horses, for he wanted to show how heartfelt and noble the feelings in animals were. Some of the great kings and royal kin in the Iliad fail to show such depth of emotion.
However, Homer did not just write about the nobility of animals and went on to do something even more original by scripting the first environmental defense! On book 21 of the Iliad, the warrior Achilles wishes to avenge his friend Patroclus and kills all the enemies he can, throwing their corpses to the river Xanthus. The river Xanthus stinks with the pestilence of rotten bodies and its waters run full of blood and flesh. The great river god asks Achilles to stop contaminating its waters, formerly clean and crystalline. Achilles replies that he will throw whatever he wants wherever he so chooses! The great river god then raises himself, pounding with turbulent waters and tides upon Achilles who begins to drown. Achilles is only saved thanks to the help of the god Vulcan who burns the river with fire.
These are two beautiful and entirely original scenes in Homer, ones of which we do not find of a similar kind in all of Greek mythology. This leads me to believe that doubtless Homer was an animal rights and environmental activist, the first one in history! The images show the horses of Achilles mourning for Patroclus, Automedon attempting to control the horses, and Achilles drowning in the river Xanthus. A friend of mine also reminded me that the great philosopher Nietzche suffered an emotional collapse after witnessing a horse being flogged, the first event of a prolonged sickness that led to his death.