Tyranny, Terror, and Mutilation

CW: Violence, torture, killing

Today’s monstrous news shows Russian soldiers mutilating and killing prisoners of warHomeric epic features its ‘hero’ doing the same thing, and few respondents over time have worried about what that means.

Homer, Odyssey 22.474-477 

“They took Melanthios out through the hall and into the courtyard.
They cut off his nose and ears with pitiless bronze.
Then they cut off his balls and fed them raw to the dogs;
And they cut off his hands and feet with an enraged heart.”

ἐκ δὲ Μελάνθιον ἦγον ἀνὰ πρόθυρόν τε καὶ αὐλήν·
τοῦ δ’ ἀπὸ μὲν ῥῖνάς τε καὶ οὔατα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ
τάμνον μήδεά τ’ ἐξέρυσαν, κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι,
χεῖράς τ’ ἠδὲ πόδας κόπτον κεκοτηότι θυμῷ.

Ekhetos is mentioned again at 18.116 and 21.308.

Od. 18.83-87

“If this one defeats you and proves stronger,
I will send you to the shore, throw you in a black ship,
And ship you off to king Ekhetos, the most wicked man of all.
He will cut off your nose and ears with pitiless bronze
And after severing your balls, he will feed them raw to his dogs.”

αἴ κέν σ’ οὗτος νικήσῃ κρείσσων τε γένηται,
πέμψω σ’ ἤπειρόνδε, βαλὼν ἐν νηῒ μελαίνῃ,
εἰς ῎Εχετον βασιλῆα, βροτῶν δηλήμονα πάντων,
ὅς κ’ ἀπὸ ῥῖνα τάμῃσι καὶ οὔατα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ
μήδεά τ’ ἐξερύσας δώῃ κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι.”

Schol ad. Hom. Od. 18.85 QV

“Ekhetos was the son of Boukhetos, after whom there is also a city named in Sicily. He is said to have been tyrant of the Sicilians. The story is that he did every kind of mischief to the inhabitants of his land and killed foreigners by mutilating them. He exhibited so much wickedness that even those who lived far off would send people to him to kill when they wanted to punish someone. He developed all kinds of unseemly methods. This is why the people would not endure so bitter a tyranny, and they killed him by stoning.”

εἰς ῎Εχετον βασιλῆα] ῎Εχετος ἦν μὲν υἱὸς Βουχέτου, ἀφ’ οὗ καὶ ἐν Σικελίᾳ πόλις Βούχετος καλεῖται. Σικελῶν δὲ τύραννος λέγεται. τοῦτον τοὺς μὲν ἐγχωρίους κατὰ πάντα τρόπον σίνεσθαι, τοὺς δὲ ξένους ἀναιρεῖν λωβώμενον· τοσαύτην δὲ κακίαν ἔχειν ὡς καὶ τοὺς μακρὰν οἰκοῦντας ὅτε θέλοιεν σφόδρα τινὰ τιμωρῆσαι καὶ ξένῳ περιβαλεῖν θανάτῳ ἐκπέμπειν αὐτῷ. πολλὰς γὰρ μηχανὰς ἐξευρεῖν τοῦτον αἰκίας. ὅθεν τὸν λαὸν οὐχ ὑπομένειν τὴν πικρὰν ταύτην τυραννίδα, λίθοις δὲ αὐτὸν ἀνελεῖν.

A lingering interpretive problem for the Odyssey is why the epic  introduces this torture and attributes it to a very bad person, only to have Odysseus commit the very same act later in the epic. A pressing question for modern readers of Homer is why so few of us have bothered to worry about this at all.

Combined with the hanging of the enslaved women, this should be an indictment of Odysseus and support for the rebellion against him in book 24.

From the Suda:

“Tyrannos: The poets before the Trojan War used to name kings (basileis) tyrants, but later during the time of Archilochus, this word was transferred to the Greeks in general, just as the sophist Hippias records. Homer, at least, calls the most lawless man of all, Ekhetos, a king, not a tyrant. Tyrant is a a name that derives from the Tyrrenians because these men were quite severe pirates.* None of the other poets uses the name tyrant in any of their works. But Aristotle in the Constitution of the Cumaeans says that tyrants were once called aisumnêtai, because this name is a bit of a euphemism.”

Τύραννος: οἱ πρὸ τῶν Τρωϊκῶν ποιηταὶ τοὺς βασιλεῖς τυράννους προσηγόρευον, ὀψέ ποτε τοῦδε τοῦ ὀνόματος εἰς τοὺς Ἕλληνας διαδοθέντος κατὰ τοὺς Ἀρχιλόχου χρόνους, καθάπερ Ἱππίας ὁ σοφιστής φησιν. Ὅμηρος γοῦν τὸν πάντων παρανομώτατον Ἔχετον βασιλέα φησί, καὶ οὐ τύραννον. προσηγορεύθη δὲ τύραννος ἀπὸ Τυρρηνῶν: χαλεποὺς γὰρ περὶ λῃστείας τούτους γενέσθαι. οὐδεὶς δὲ οὐδὲ ἄλλος τῶν ποιητῶν ἐν τοῖς ποιήμασιν αὐτοῦ μέμνηται τὸ τοῦ τυράννου ὄνομα. ὁ δὲ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐν Κυμαίων πολιτείᾳ τοὺς τυράννους φησὶ τὸ πρότερον αἰσυμνήτας καλεῖσθαι. εὐφημότερον γὰρ ἐκεῖνο τὸ ὄνομα. ὅτι καὶ ἕτεροι ἐτυράννησαν, ἀλλ’ ἡ τελευταία καὶ μεγίστη κάκωσις πάσαις ταῖς πόλεσιν ἡ Διονυσίου τυραννὶς ἐγένετο.

Theodor van Thulden, 1606 – 1669,

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