If You Feel Rage Coming On, Sing Yourself a Song!

Aelian, Varia Historia 14.23 Achilles plays the Lyre to Calm his Rage

“Kleinias was serious in his manner and he was a Pythagorean in his philosophical training. If he was ever driven towards rage or had a sense of getting hot-headed, immediately before he became too overwhlemed with anger and before it was clear it was coming, he picked up the lyre and began to play. In response to people asking what the reason for this was, he responded melodiously, “I am calming myself”. Achilles in the Iliad seems to me to put his rage sleep when he sings along to a lyre and brings reminds himself of the famous tales of former men through his song. For, since he was a musical man, he chose the lyre first out of all the spoils.”

Κλεινίας ἀνὴρ ἦν σπουδαῖος τὸν τρόπον, Πυθαγόρειος δὲ τὴν σοφίαν. οὗτος εἴ ποτε ἐς ὀργὴν προήχθη καὶ εἶχεν αἰσθητικῶς ἑαυτοῦ ἐς θυμὸν ἐξαγομένου, παραχρῆμα πρὶν ἢ ἀνάπλεως αὐτῷ ἡ ὀργὴ καὶ ἐπίδηλος γένηται ὅπως διάκειται, τὴν λύραν ἁρμοσάμενος ἐκιθάριζε. πρὸς δὲ τοὺς πυνθανομένους τὴν αἰτίαν ἀπεκρίνετο ἐμμελῶς ὅτι ‘πραΰνομαι.’ δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ ὁ ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι ᾿Αχιλλεύς, ὁ τῇ κιθάρᾳ προσᾴδων καὶ τὰ κλέα τῶν προτέρων διὰ τοῦ μέλους ἐς μνήμην ἑαυτῷ ἄγων, τὴν μῆνιν κατευνάζειν• μουσικὸς γὰρ ὢν τὴν κιθάραν πρώτην ἐκ τῶν λαφύρων ἔλαβε.

Aelian is referring to the following passage from Homer when the embassy from Agamemnon comes to treat with Achilles in book 9. Odysseus, Ajax and Phoenix arrive and find Achilles singing.

Iliad, 9.185-191

“They came to the dwellings and the ships of the Myrmidons
And they found [Achilles] delighting his heart with the clear-voiced lyre,
A finely wrought one which was silver on the bridge,
The one he chose as a prize after sacking the city of Êetiôn.
He delighted his heart with that and sang the famous stories of men.
But Patroklos sat alone opposite him in silence,
Waiting for time when the grandson of Aiakos would stop his songs.”

Μυρμιδόνων δ’ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ’ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ’ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ’ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν ᾿Ηετίωνος ὀλέσσας•
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.
Πάτροκλος δέ οἱ οἶος ἐναντίος ἧστο σιωπῇ,
δέγμενος Αἰακίδην ὁπότε λήξειεν ἀείδων,

Aelian’s interpretation is interesting in part because it makes sense—Achilles is often seen as resting, or taking up time with the singing. But modern interpretations put a lot more weight into Achilles’ words, and what exactly it means to sing the “famous stories of men”. In the same book, Phoenix chastises Achilles by saying: “This is not what we have heard before in the famous stories of men/ heroes, whenever a powerful anger overtook someone” (οὕτω καὶ τῶν πρόσθεν ἐπευθόμεθα κλέα ἀνδρῶν / ἡρώων, ὅτε κέν τιν’ ἐπιζάφελος χόλος ἵκοι, 9.524-5). And in the Odyssey, the same phrase is used to indicate Demodokos’ ability to sing songs from the Trojan War, right before he sings about the conflict between Odysseus and Achilles. (Μοῦσ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸν ἀνῆκεν ἀειδέμεναι κλέα ἀνδρῶν, 8.73)

So, the basic argument is that the phrase kléa andrôn is a metonym for tales from myth or epic and that Achilles is not merely entertaining himself but, just as Phoenix invites him to consider the lessons from “the famous stories of men” as precedents to help correct his behavior, Achilles is singing in order to figure out where his story fits in the pantheon of tales he knows. And, against Aelian’s interpretation, Achilles doesn’t seem to have overcome his anger for very long once Odysseus begins to speak…


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