Homer’s “Mistake”

In the Iliad, Pandarus’ status as hero is marked by his distinctive weapon: a bow. On battlefields where spears are most common, a bow stands out.

In the Catalogue of Ships Homer gives the bow’s genealogy:

Iliad 2. 824-827

They who lived in Zeleia, under Mt. Ida’s farthest foot,
Rich from drinking the dark water of the river Aesepus,
They were Trojans, and their leader was Lycaon’s brave son,
Pandarus, the man to whom Apollo himself gave a bow.

οἳ δὲ Ζέλειαν ἔναιον ὑπαὶ πόδα νείατον Ἴδης
ἀφνειοὶ πίνοντες ὕδωρ μέλαν Αἰσήποιο
Τρῶες, τῶν αὖτʼ ἦρχε Λυκάονος ἀγλαὸς υἱὸς
Πάνδαρος, ᾧ καὶ τόξον Ἀπόλλων αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν.

Later, however, when Pandarus violates the truce by shooting Menelaus, Homer gives the bow a different genealogy:

Iliad 4.105-113

And right away he grabbed his polished bow.
It was made from the horns of a prancing goat,
A wild goat he himself had shot beneath the breastplate.
There he’d been, lying in wait, when it capered out
A hollow in the rocks. He shot it square in the chest
And down it went, back into the rocky crevice.
Horns sixteen palms long–some 4 feet, that is–grew from its head.
It was these a craftsman, expert in making bows from horns,
Joined together, polished top to bottom, and tipped with gold.
This was the bow he set down with care to string,
Bracing it on the ground.

ὣς φάτʼ Ἀθηναίη, τῷ δὲ φρένας ἄφρονι πεῖθεν·
αὐτίκʼ ἐσύλα τόξον ἐΰξοον ἰξάλου αἰγὸς
ἀγρίου, ὅν ῥά ποτʼ αὐτὸς ὑπὸ στέρνοιο τυχήσας
πέτρης ἐκβαίνοντα δεδεγμένος ἐν προδοκῇσι
βεβλήκει πρὸς στῆθος· ὃ δʼ ὕπτιος ἔμπεσε πέτρῃ.
τοῦ κέρα ἐκ κεφαλῆς ἑκκαιδεκάδωρα πεφύκει·
καὶ τὰ μὲν ἀσκήσας κεραοξόος ἤραρε τέκτων,
πᾶν δʼ εὖ λειήνας χρυσέην ἐπέθηκε κορώνην.
καὶ τὸ μὲν εὖ κατέθηκε τανυσσάμενος ποτὶ γαίῃ

Let’s call these contradictory accounts something other than a mistake on Homer’s part.

The two passages show two methods at the singer’s disposal for accomplishing the same end–namely, to mark the bow (and by extension, Pandarus) as special. 

But having two genealogies also allows Homer to make two points, and those points reinforce one another.

When Homer makes the bow a gift from Apollo, the gift is both the bow itself and the skill of archery. Like Agamemnon’s scepter, fashioned by a god and passed to men, the bow exists in, and yet it is not of, human time. The object, and what it represents, will outlast the mortal recipient. It is imperishable. 

In the second genealogy, the bow is special precisely because it is the product of human making. And this allows Homer to make a point about mortal frailty. The skillful killing of the goat would seem to anticipate how Pandarus will kill his man. But of course he fails, and ultimately he is killed while trying to kill. Human excellence, Homer seems to say, is only so reliable. 

And let’s put another of Homer’s “mistakes” to use. Homer’s craftsman fashions the bow by joining the goat’s two horns. Commentators have noted that a bow made in this way would not produce enough power to kill anything at a distance. And that’s precisely the point! What comes from human hands–even the best of hands–is fallible. 

All of this is to say, even Homer’s “mistakes” accomplish a lot.  

Greek terracotta jug depicting an archer.
c.430-420 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

One thought on “Homer’s “Mistake”

  1. Can’t a fellow own two bows anymore? What sorry state of affairs we have come to, when the liberal patrol wants even ancient Greeks to be stripped of their gods-given 2nd-Ammendment rights?

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