How Thersites Makes The Beautiful Body and The Beautiful Mind

Iliad 2.211-224

“The rest of them were sitting, and they had taken their seats.
Only Thersites, a man of measureless speech, was still declaring–
A man who knew many disordered things in his thoughts and who
Strived pointlessly with kings out of order,
–whatever he thought would be amusing to the Argives.
And he was the most shameful man who came to Troy.
He was cross-eyed and crippled in one foot. His shoulders
Were curved, dragged in toward his chest. And on top
His head was mishaped, and the hair on his head was sparse.
He was most hateful to both Achilles and Odysseus
For he was always reproaching them. Then he was shrilly cawing
At lordly Agamemnon again, as he spoke reproaches. The Achaeans
Were terribly angry at him and were finding fault in their heart.
As he shouting greatly, he was reproaching Agememnon.”

῎Αλλοι μέν ῥ’ ἕζοντο, ἐρήτυθεν δὲ καθ’ ἕδρας·
Θερσίτης δ’ ἔτι μοῦνος ἀμετροεπὴς ἐκολῴα,
ὃς ἔπεα φρεσὶν ᾗσιν ἄκοσμά τε πολλά τε ᾔδη
μάψ, ἀτὰρ οὐ κατὰ κόσμον, ἐριζέμεναι βασιλεῦσιν,
ἀλλ’ ὅ τι οἱ εἴσαιτο γελοίϊον ᾿Αργείοισιν
ἔμμεναι· αἴσχιστος δὲ ἀνὴρ ὑπὸ ῎Ιλιον ἦλθε·
φολκὸς ἔην, χωλὸς δ’ ἕτερον πόδα· τὼ δέ οἱ ὤμω
κυρτὼ ἐπὶ στῆθος συνοχωκότε· αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε
φοξὸς ἔην κεφαλήν, ψεδνὴ δ’ ἐπενήνοθε λάχνη.
ἔχθιστος δ’ ᾿Αχιλῆϊ μάλιστ’ ἦν ἠδ’ ᾿Οδυσῆϊ·
τὼ γὰρ νεικείεσκε· τότ’ αὖτ’ ᾿Αγαμέμνονι δίῳ
ὀξέα κεκλήγων λέγ’ ὀνείδεα· τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ᾿Αχαιοὶ
ἐκπάγλως κοτέοντο νεμέσσηθέν τ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ.
αὐτὰρ ὃ μακρὰ βοῶν ᾿Αγαμέμνονα νείκεε μύθῳ·

Schol T. ad Il. 2.216a

“most shameful: this is also said of an ape.”

ex. αἴσχιστος: τοῦτο καὶ ἐπὶ πιθήκου.

Schol. BT [Aristonicus] ad Il. 2.217a

“pholkos: this is spoken once. Homeric pholkos means when the eyes are narrowed together, which means turned.”

Ariston. | Ep. φολκός: ὅτι ἅπαξ εἴρηται. Aim b (BCE3)T | ἔστι δὲ Hom. φολκὸς ὁ τὰ φάη εἱλκυσμένος, ὅ ἐστιν ἐστραμμένος. Aim

Homer presents a overlap between ‘beautiful body’ and ‘beautiful mind’. This physiognomic category error pervades a great deal of classical Greek culture. In the Iliad, Thersites transgresses physical boundaries through his unheroic body and ethical boundaries by using the genre of rebuke upward in the social hierarchy. He is hateful to both Achilles and Odysseus because they exemplify in a complementary fashion the ‘center’ or ideal of the heroic person—Achilles is the beautiful body, Odysseus is a beautiful mind. But both of them stay within the boundaries of ‘normal’ in their own deviance (Achilles’ political straying, Odysseus’ aging, imperfect body). Thersites, labelled by many as a comic scapegoat, functions as an inferior in order to define the center as non-transgressive. This is, in particular, why he is hateful to Achilles and Odysseus: without him, their persons might be monstrous or disabled. And this also helps explain why Odysseus must physical beat Thersites in public.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York.

5: “related perceptions of corporeal otherness” includes mutilation, deformation, crippledness, or physical disability…”

7: “..the meanings attributed to extraordinary bodies reside not in inherent physical flaws but in social relationships in which  one group is legitimated by possessing valued physical characteristics and maintains its ascendency and its self-identity by imposing the role of cultural or corporeal inferiority on others.”

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependency of Discourse. Ann Arbor. 2000. Cf. Wills, David. 1995. Prosthesis. Stanford.

57: “Whereas the “unmarred” surface enjoys its cultural anonymity ad promises little more than a confirmation of the adage of a “healthy” mind in a “healthy” body, disability signifies a more variegated and sordid series of assumptions and experiences. Its unruliness must be tamed by multiple mappings of the surface. If form leads to content or “embodies” meaning, then disability’s disruption of acculturated bodily norms also suggests a corresponding misalignment of subjectivity itself.”

59: “If the “external effect” led directly to a knowledge of the “internal faculty,” then those who inhabited bodies deemed “outside the norm” proved most ripe for a scrutiny of their moral or intellectual content. Since disabled people by definition embodied a form that was identified as “outside” the normal or permissible, their visages and bodily outlines became the physiognomist’s (and later the pathologist’s) object par excellence. Yet, the “sinister capability” of physiognomy proves more complex than just the exclusivity of interpretive authority that Stafford suggests. If the body would offer a surface manifestation of internal symptomatology, then disability and deformity automatically preface an equally irregular subjectivity. Physiognomy proves a deadly practice to a population already existing on the fringes of social interaction and “humanity.””

60: “Elizabeth Cornelia Evans argues that physiognomic beliefs can be traced back as far as ancient Greece. She cites Aristotle as promoting physiognomic reasoning when he proclaims, “It is possible to infer character from physique, if it is granted that body and soul change together in all natural affections . . . For if a peculiar affection applies to any individual class, e.g., courage to lions, there must be some corresponding sign for it; for it has been assumed that body and soul are affected together” (7). In fact, one might argue that physiognomics came to be consolidated out of a general historical practice applied to the bodies of disabled peoples. If the extreme evidence of marked physical differences provided a catalog of reliable signs, then perhaps more minute bodily differentiations could also be cataloged and interpreted. In this sense, people with disabilities ironically served as the historical locus for the invention of physiognomy.”


See Odyssey: 1.302: “I see that you are really big and noble,  and be brave / that a man born in the future might speak well of you” μάλα γάρ σ’ ὁρόω καλόν τε μέγαν τε, / ἄλκιμος ἔσσ’, ἵνα τίς σε καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἐὺ εἴπῃ =3.199–200 (Nestor addressing Telemachus). Cf. 4.141–147 where Helen recognizes Telemachus because he looks like his father and Menelaos responds “I was just now thinking this too, wife, as you note the similarity: /  these are the kinds of feet and hands / the eye glances, and head and hair belonging to that man” (οὕτω νῦν καὶ ἐγὼ νοέω, γύναι, ὡς σὺ ἐΐσκεις· / κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες τοιαίδε τε χεῖρες / ὀφθαλμῶν τε βολαὶ κεφαλή τ’ ἐφύπερθέ τε χαῖται, 4.148–150).

Cf. Achilles to Lykaon, Il. 21.108: “Don’t you see what kind of man I am, beautiful and big?” οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;


Minchin, Elizabeth. 2007. Homeric Voices: Discourse, Memory, Gender. Oxford

167–8: Rebuke is a speech genre highly marked for social position: Penelope rebukes Eurykleia, Nausikaa rebukes her handmaidens. Melanthô should not rebuke Odysseus because it would transgress the normative boundaries for a slave to reproach a master.


On Thersites as a “bona fide satirist”, see Rosen 2003:123. Halliwell 1991:281 too draws attention to Thersites’ role as a “habitual entertainer”, and points to Plato’s shrewd description of him as a γελωτοποιός (Rep.10.620c3). For Thersites as a blame-poet, see Nagy 1979: 211-75. For Thersites’ in general see Lowry 1991 and Postelthwaite 1998.

Lowry, E. R. Thersites: A Study in Comic Shame.

Marks, Jim. 2005. “The Ongoing Neikos: Thersites, Odysseus, and Achilleus.” AJP 126:1–31.

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore.

Postlethwaite, N. 1998.Thersites in the Iliad, in Homer: Greek and Roman Studies, eds. I. McAuslan and P. Walcot, Oxford, = 83-95.

Rose, P. W. 1997. “Ideology in the Iliad: Polis, Basileus, Theoi.” Arethusa 30:151-199.

Rosen, R. M. 2003. “The Death of Thersites and the Sympotic Performance of Iambic Mock-ery.” Pallas 61:21–136.

Thalmann, W. G. 1988. “Thersites: comedy, scapegoats and heroic ideology in the Iliad.” TAPA 118:1-28.

Vodoklys, E.1992.. Blame-Expression in the Epic Tradition. New York.

Special thanks to David M. Perry for giving me a starter Bibliography for Disability Studies and to Dimitri Nakassis for adding to the bibliography on Thersites.

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