Iliad vs. Odyssey? An Essential Complementarity

A few days back I ran a twitter poll setting the Iliad against the Odyssey. I figured that the Iliad would win, but I did not expect this to be as close as it was.

If we were to evaluate the popularity of the epics based on their mentions (using the Google ngram function), we would see that a few centuries ago, the Iliad had a pretty impressive lead over the Odyssey.

ngram

Here’s a different Ngram provided by Kyle Sanders ()which indicates the Odyssey overtook the Iliad in the late 1960s

NGram od 2

In the past century the mentions of the epics started to draw closer together. Is this because more people had less experience of war? Is there something more modern or simpler about the Odyssey?

the manuscript tradition for the Iliad is much better–there are more copies surviving from almost every period for which we have evidence. The epics were different enough that Samuel Butler (only partly joking) proposed that the Odyssey was composed by a woman. The epics differences were sensed in antiquity as well. Here’s how Aristotle puts it:

Aristotle, Poetics, 1459b

“for [Homer’s] two poems are complementary in structure, the Iliad being simple in plot and a poem of passion, and the Odyssey complex (it has recognitions throughout) and a poem of character; moreover they surpass all other poems in excellent of language and thought.”

πρῶτος καὶ ἱκανῶς. καὶ γὰρ τῶν ποιημάτων ἑκάτερον συνέστηκεν ἡ μὲν ᾿Ιλιὰς ἁπλοῦν καὶ παθητικόν, ἡ δὲ ᾿Οδύσσεια πεπλεγμένον (ἀναγνώρισις γὰρ διόλου) καὶ ἠθική· πρὸς δὲ τούτοις λέξει καὶ διανοίᾳ πάντα ὑπερβέβληκεν.

To pit one poem against another is, to my mind, to imagine a combat between day and night, land and sea, or life and death. These contrasts can be seen as polar–opposites canceling each other out–or they can be treated as binary where one can only exist because the other is there first. But it may be best not to think of them at all in terms of opposition, but instead as contrastive complements. This works on the level of content:

“This complementarity extends into other areas too. The so-called Monro’s Law states that the Odyssey never refers to any incident recounted in the Iliad, which at the very least strongly suggests that the Odyssey knew of the Iliad and deliberately stayed off its territory. Indeed, at the times when the Odyssey threatens to sing of Iliadic material, the moments are marked as highly problematic.” Barker and Christensen 2013

For all the years I have taught Homer in literature and myth courses, I have emphasized their complementarity in slightly different ways. Sometimes, I follow Aristotle’s emphasis on plots, pointing out that the Iliad ends in a funeral and the Odyssey ends in a wedding, anticipating in turn the plot structures of tragedy and comedy respectively. At other times, I have instead described the Iliad as a poem of death and the Odyssey as a poem of life. The former explores what is (and mostly what isn’t) worth fighting and dying for; the latter helps s understand what we live for and who we are outside of war.

Together, the epics teach how to live and how to die. One is essentially and forever incomplete without the other. But in concert, they reflect on the totality of life. (And I am so bold as to believe that this characteristic is part of why these two epics surpassed all others and survived antiquity: any other epic from their period would have been redundant).

I spent the first decade or more of my study of Homer passionately dedicated to the Iliad. I started working on the Odyssey primarily because I found students responding to it more easily than to the Iliad. I also grew more interested in how that epic engaged with other traditions, specifically those of Thebes and the so-called epic cycle. And then, when writing an introductory book about the epic with my friend Elton Barker, I was forced to think more deeply about the Telemachy and the importance of the reunions in epic’s second half.

But what really changed my relationship with the Odyssey was my own life. When I was writing on the Iliad in the 2000s, we were living a new state of war, sending our soldiers from the west to kill and be killed in a dwindling “coalition of the willing” in the east. The Iliad made sense to me. I used to mock the Odyssey too as that ‘other’ epic.

In 2010-11, I taught that other epic three times. We also welcomed two children into the world and lost my father to a sudden sickness in between. There is nothing like losing a parent and becoming one in the same year to force a reconsideration of life. These years also marked half a decade in Texas and a decade since I left New England. The Odyssey‘s exploration of who we are and nostalgia started to resonate with me like never before.

But I also started to see more in the epic itself. If the Iliad is a raging maelstrom of fire and blood, the Odyssey is a lit fuse which may or may not ever lead to a detonation. If the Iliad is loud and brash and confusing, the Odyssey is so subtle that many of us make the mistake of thinking it is simple. It is extremely sensitive to human mental function, to how we create ourselves through narrative, and to the therapeutic function of stories.

In antiquity, traditions of allegory were extremely influential among various approaches to the epics. Among these, one of my favorite readings of the epics as complements frames one as a narrative concerned with the development and excellence of the body and the other about the virtues of the mind.

Pseudo-Plutarch, De Homero 31–32

“Of these poems, the Iliad features the acts of the Greeks and the Barbarians over the abduction of Helen, especially the valor demonstrated by Achilles in that war; the Odyssey details Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War and how much he endured wandering during his nostos and how he avenged himself on those plotting against him in his home. From these summaries it is clear that the Iliad is really about the bravery of the body while the Odyssey concerns the nobility of the soul.

It is not right to fault the poet if he does not only present virtues in his poem, but includes as well weaknesses of spirit, pains, pleasures, fears and desires. For it is necessary that the poet show not just noble characters but weak ones too—without these unexpected accomplishments do not appear—from all of these it is possible that an audience will choose the better ones.”

ὧν ἡ μὲν ᾿Ιλιὰς ἔχει τὰς ἐν ᾿Ιλίῳ πράξεις ῾Ελλήνων τε καὶ βαρβάρων διὰ τὴν ῾Ελένης ἁρπαγὴν καὶ μάλιστα τὴν ᾿Αχιλλέως ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ τούτῳ διαδειχθεῖσαν ἀλκήν, ἡ δὲ ᾿Οδύσσεια τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως ἀνακομιδὴν εἰς τὴν πατρίδα ἀπὸ τοῦ Τρωικοῦ πολέμου καὶ ὅσα πλανώμενος ἐν τῷ νόστῳ ὑπέμεινε καὶ ὅπως τοὺς ἐπιβουλεύοντας τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτοῦ ἐτιμωρήσατο. ἐξ ὧν δῆλός ἐστι παριστὰς διὰ μὲν τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἀνδρείαν σώματος, διὰ δὲ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας ψυχῆς γενναιότητα.

     Εἰ δὲ μὴ μόνον ἀρετὰς ἀλλὰ καὶ κακίας ψυχῆς ἐν ταῖς ποιήσεσι παρίστησι, λύπας τε καὶ χαρὰς καὶ φόβους καὶ ἐπιθυμίας, οὐ χρὴ αἰτιᾶσθαι τὸν ποιητήν· <ποιητὴν> γὰρ ὄντα δεῖ μιμεῖσθαι οὐ μόνον τὰ χρηστὰ ἤθη ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ φαῦλα (ἄνευ γὰρ τούτων παράδοξοι πράξεις  οὐ συνίστανται), ὧν ἀκούοντα ἔνεστιν αἱρεῖσθαι τὰ βελτίω.

Of course, not all contrasts made between the two epics were positive. (Pseudo)-Longinus believed that the differences in the poem were results of the senility of the Iliad poet as he turned to the Odyssey.

From (Ps.) Longinus On the Sublime, 9.11-13

“Nevertheless, all through the Odyssey, which must be examined for many reasons, Homer reveals that as great inspiration fades away, storytelling becomes the dominant attribute of old age. For it is clear in many ways that this epic was composed second. Throughout the Odyssey we find episodes modeled on scenes from the Iliad, and, by Zeus, he apportions his heroes grief and misery as if these tales were long already known. The Odyssey is nothing other than an epilogue to the Iliad:

There lies fierce Ajax; here lies Achilles
There likes Patroklos, an advisor equal to the gods,
There lies my own dear son. (Od. 3.109-111)

The cause of this fact, I imagine, is that when the Iliad was being written at the peak of his strength, Homer imbued the whole work with dramatic power and action; when he was composing the Odyssey, however, he made it more of a narrative, as appropriate for old age. For this reason, you can compare the Odyssey’s Homer to a setting sun: the magnitude remains without its power.  Since, in it, he no longer preserves the same power of the Iliad, that overwhelming consistency which never ebbs, nor the same rush of changing experiences, the variety and reality of it, packed full with things from true experience. It is as if the Ocean were to withdraw into itself, quietly watching its own measure. What remains for us is the retreating tide of Homer’s genius, his wandering in storytelling and unbelievable things. When I claim this, I am not forgetting the storms in the Odyssey and the events placed near the Kyklopes and elsewhere—I am indicating old age, but it is still Homer’s old age. And, yet, the mythical overpowers in every one of these scenes.”

δείκνυσι δ’ ὅμως διὰ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας (καὶ γὰρ ταῦτα πολλῶν ἕνεκα προσεπιθεωρητέον), ὅτι μεγάλης φύσεως ὑποφερομένης ἤδη ἴδιόν ἐστιν ἐν γήρᾳ τὸ φιλόμυθον. δῆλος γὰρ ἐκ πολλῶν τε ἄλλων συντεθεικὼς ταύτην δευτέραν τὴν ὑπόθεσιν, ἀτὰρ δὴ κἀκ τοῦ λείψανα τῶν ᾿Ιλιακῶν παθημάτων διὰ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας

ὡς ἐπεισόδιά τινα [τοῦ Τρωικοῦ πολέμου] προσεπεισφέρειν, καὶ νὴ Δί’ ἐκ τοῦ τὰς ὀλοφύρσεις καὶ τοὺς οἴκτους ὡς πάλαι που  προεγνωσμένοις τοῖς ἥρωσιν ἐνταῦθα προσαποδιδόναι. οὐ γὰρ ἀλλ’ ἢ τῆς ᾿Ιλιάδος ἐπίλογός ἐστιν ἡ ᾿Οδύσσεια·

ἔνθα μὲν Αἴας κεῖται ἀρήιος, ἔνθα δ’ ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
ἔνθα δὲ Πάτροκλος, θεόφιν μήστωρ ἀτάλαντος·
ἔνθα δ’ ἐμὸς φίλος υἱός.

ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς αὐτῆς αἰτίας, οἶμαι, τῆς μὲν ᾿Ιλιάδος γραφομένης ἐν ἀκμῇ πνεύματος ὅλον τὸ σωμάτιον δραματικὸν ὑπεστήσατο καὶ ἐναγώνιον, τῆς δὲ ᾿Οδυσσείας τὸ πλέον διηγηματικόν, ὅπερ ἴδιον γήρως. ὅθεν ἐν τῇ ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ παρεικάσαι τις ἂν καταδυομένῳ τὸν ῞Ομηρον ἡλίῳ, οὗ δίχα τῆς σφοδρότητος παραμένει τὸ μέγεθος. οὐ γὰρ ἔτι τοῖς ᾿Ιλιακοῖς ἐκείνοις ποιήμασιν ἴσον ἐνταῦθα σῴζει τὸν τόνον, οὐδ’ ἐξωμαλισμένα τὰ ὕψη καὶ ἱζήματα μηδαμοῦ λαμβάνοντα, οὐδὲ τὴν πρόχυσιν ὁμοίαν τῶν ἐπαλλήλων παθῶν, οὐδὲ τὸ ἀγχίστροφον καὶ πολιτικὸν καὶ ταῖς ἐκ τῆς

ἀληθείας φαντασίαις καταπεπυκνωμένον· ἀλλ’ οἷον ὑποχωροῦντος εἰς ἑαυτὸν᾿Ωκεανοῦ καὶ περὶ τὰ ἴδια μέτρα †ἐρημουμένου τὸ λοιπὸν φαίνονται τοῦ μεγέθους ἀμπώτιδες κἀν τοῖς μυθώδεσι καὶ ἀπίστοις πλάνος. λέγων δὲ ταῦτ’ οὐκ ἐπιλέλησμαι τῶν ἐν τῇ ᾿Οδυσσείᾳ χειμώνων καὶ τῶν περὶ τὸν Κύκλωπα καί τινων ἄλλων, ἀλλὰ γῆρας διηγοῦμαι, γῆρας δ’ ὅμως ῾Ομήρου· πλὴν ἐν ἅπασι τούτοις ἑξῆς τοῦ πρακτικοῦ κρατεῖ τὸ μυθικόν.

I think Longinus is on to something here. But rather than being a sign of senility, the Odyssey‘s differences are indications of maturity. I don’t mean ‘mature’ as a sign of greater progress, necessarily; but I mean that the Odyssey is a poem that appeals more to those who have lived more in life, who have, like its hero, “suffered much on the seas and learned the minds of many people”.

So, if I had to save only 1, I would save the Odyssey, not because it is better than or superior to the Iliad but because its existence presupposes the existence of the other. And, one is, for better or worse, currently more meaningful to me.

(AP Latin Week) Humanizing a Monster: The Saddest Scene in Latin Literature

As a high-school Latin teacher, I am tasked with guiding young minds through the world’s finest piece of propaganda literature, Vergil’s Aeneid. We read through substantial portions of the text in preparation for the AP Latin exam, but this reading is largely dictated by a syllabus of readings which do not include the part of the poem which I regard as the most emotionally affecting scene in all of Latin literature. This is the scene in which Aeneas describes his first glimpse of the cyclops Polyphemus:

“Hardly had he spoken, when we saw the pastor Polyphemus moving himself in a great mass among his flocks and seeking the well-known beach – a horrible monster, deformed, huge, whose eye had been taken. A broken pine guided his hand and firmed his step, while his woolly sheep kept him company; that was his one pleasure, the one solace in his suffering.” (Aeneid 3.655-661)

Vix ea fatus erat summo cum monte videmus
ipsum inter pecudes vasta se mole moventem
pastorem Polyphemum et litora nota petentem,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum.
trunca manum pinus regit et vestigia firmat;
lanigerae comitantur oves; ea sola voluptas
solamenque mali.

To be sure, Polyphemus is described as an object of horror, but lines 660-1 (ea sola voluptas solamenque mali) turn Polyphemus into an object of pity rather than revulsion. [Indeed, I think that this is intentional; throughout the poem, Ulysses is portrayed as an unequivocal villain, and Polyphemus can be read as one of his many victims here.] I made sure to include this scene on my class syllabus (though not required for the course), because I think that it is an excellent example of subtle psychological complexity on Vergil’s part. Yet, as I was discussing the scene with my students, it occurred to me that this complexity was not Vergil’s invention it all – Homer had already built this into the character of Polyphemus! In Odyssey Book IX, Odysseus is attempting to escape from Polyphemus’ cave by hiding on the underside of a ram, which is moving slowly in response to the burden. Polyphemus then addresses the ram:

“Oh gentle ram, why do you come from the cave behind the rest of the flock? You never before tarried behind the other skeep, but striding far before the others you snatched the mild blossoms, you came first to the banks of the rivers, and you ever desired first to return home in the evening. But now you are last by far. Are you worried about my eye, which that rotten bastard Noone and his awful friends took from me after wrecking my mind with wine – I do not say that he has escaped death. Would that you could be of one mind with me, and could tell me where that man has fled from my wrath. Once slain, his brain would drip through my cave here and there to the ground, and it would ease my heart from those troubles which that worthless bastard Noone gave me.” (Odyssey 9.446-460)

κριὲ πέπον, τί μοι ὧδε διὰ σπέος ἔσσυο μήλων
ὕστατος; οὔ τι πάρος γε λελειμμένος ἔρχεαι οἰῶν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρῶτος νέμεαι τέρεν᾽ ἄνθεα ποίης
μακρὰ βιβάς, πρῶτος δὲ ῥοὰς ποταμῶν ἀφικάνεις,
πρῶτος δὲ σταθμόνδε λιλαίεαι ἀπονέεσθαι
ἑσπέριος: νῦν αὖτε πανύστατος. ἦ σύ γ᾽ ἄνακτος
ὀφθαλμὸν ποθέεις, τὸν ἀνὴρ κακὸς ἐξαλάωσε
σὺν λυγροῖς ἑτάροισι δαμασσάμενος φρένας οἴνῳ,
Οὖτις, ὃν οὔ πώ φημι πεφυγμένον εἶναι ὄλεθρον.
εἰ δὴ ὁμοφρονέοις ποτιφωνήεις τε γένοιο
εἰπεῖν ὅππῃ κεῖνος ἐμὸν μένος ἠλασκάζει:
τῷ κέ οἱ ἐγκέφαλός γε διὰ σπέος ἄλλυδις ἄλλῃ
θεινομένου ῥαίοιτο πρὸς οὔδεϊ, κὰδ δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸν κῆρ
λωφήσειε κακῶν, τά μοι οὐτιδανὸς πόρεν Οὖτις.

As horrifying as his earlier behavior had been, and as menacing as his threats to repaint his walls with Odysseus’ blood may sound, this speech is nevertheless given in the context of a much more deeply humanizing emotion: Polyphemus’ solicitous concern for his ram. He knows these animals, and evinces a tender regard for their well-being even in the midst of his own suffering. Indeed, this affectionate concern for his ram serves as a stark counterpoint to the actions of Odysseus, who throughout the poem shows no apparent serious regard for his companions. At no point in the poem does Odysseus show any outward emotional attachment to his men, and it is notable that even in his own tale of his sufferings, the loss of his men is primarily framed as something which happened to him. Polyphemus is thus portrayed as being, despite his monstrous qualities, a more compassionate figure than Odysseus.

Yet, putting Odyssean knavery aside, I think that the lines in the Aeneid reflect a very close reading of the Odyssey. Polyphemus tells his ram that murdering Odysseus would alleviate the sufferings in his heart (κὰδ δέ κ᾽ ἐμὸν κῆρ λωφήσειε κακῶν), but once the ram has left the cave, he is deprived of his chance at attaining this relief. Consequently, it is literally true that his flocks are now his only comfort. So, while it may appear that the phrase “that was his one pleasure, his one solace in his suffering” (ea sola voluptas solamenque mali) is included simply to heighten the pathos of the scene and underscore the humanity of even a monster like Polyphemus, it turns out that this brilliant psychological conceit is deeply rooted in a few lines of Homer.

More Wonder for A Wednesday: Whose Intestines Sing?

From the Paradoxagraphus Palatinus Admiranda 20

“Antigonos says [of sheep intestines] that those of rams are voiceless, but those from females can sing. This fact has not escaped the poet, for he says “He stretched the seven strings from female sheep.”

Επὶ τῶν <ἐντέρων τῶν> προβάτων φησὶν ᾿Αντίγονος τὰ μὲν τῶν κριῶν ἄφωνα εἶναι, τὰ δὲ τῶν θηλέων ἔμφωνα· οὐ λεληθέναι δὲ τοῦτο τὸν ποιητήν. φησὶ γάρ· ἑπτὰ δὲ θηλυτέρων οἴων ἐτανύσσατο χορδάς.

This last line is a variant for the Homeric Hymn to Hermes 51

“He stretched out seven symphonic sheep-gut strings”

ἑπτὰ δὲ συμφώνους ὀΐων ἐτανύσσατο χορδάς.

Zodiac Sign: Aries | Breviary | Belgium, Bruges | ca. 1500 | The Morgan Library & Museum

Breviary | Belgium, Bruges | ca. 1500 | The Morgan Library & Museum

Embracing the Dead: Homer, Vergil and Macrobius for AP Latin Week

Odyssey 11.204-222

“So she spoke but as I pondered this in my thoughts,
I wanted to clutch the soul of my departed mother.
Three times I reached out as my heart urged me to embrace her,
And three times she drifted from my hands like a shadow
Or a dream. The grief in my heart only grew sharper
And I spoke to her, uttering winged words.

“Mother, why don’t you wait as I come to hold you,
So we may even in Hades throw our arms around another
And have our fill together of cruel grief?
Or is it that dread Persephone sends only this ghost to me
So I may groan, grieving still more?”

So I spoke and my lady mother responded right away:
“Oh, my child, most ill-fated of all men,
Zeus’ daughter Persephone does not allow you things,
This is the law of mortals whenever they die.
We possess no tendons, flesh or bones—
Those things the strong force of burning fire
Consumed, and when the spirit first leaves its white bones,
The soul flits about and flies like a dream.”

ὣς ἔφατ’, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γ’ ἔθελον φρεσὶ μερμηρίξας
μητρὸς ἐμῆς ψυχὴν ἑλέειν κατατεθνηυίης.
τρὶς μὲν ἐφωρμήθην, ἑλέειν τέ με θυμὸς ἀνώγει,
τρὶς δέ μοι ἐκ χειρῶν σκιῇ εἴκελον ἢ καὶ ὀνείρῳ
ἔπτατ’· ἐμοὶ δ’ ἄχος ὀξὺ γενέσκετο κηρόθι μᾶλλον,
καί μιν φωνήσας ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδων·
‘μῆτερ ἐμή, τί νύ μ’ οὐ μίμνεις ἑλέειν μεμαῶτα,
ὄφρα καὶ εἰν ᾿Αΐδαο φίλας περὶ χεῖρε βαλόντε
ἀμφοτέρω κρυεροῖο τεταρπώμεσθα γόοιο;
ἦ τί μοι εἴδωλον τόδ’ ἀγαυὴ Περσεφόνεια
ὤτρυν’, ὄφρ’ ἔτι μᾶλλον ὀδυρόμενος στεναχίζω;’
ὣς ἐφάμην, ἡ δ’ αὐτίκ’ ἀμείβετο πότνια μήτηρ·
‘ὤ μοι, τέκνον ἐμόν, περὶ πάντων κάμμορε φωτῶν,
οὔ τί σε Περσεφόνεια Διὸς θυγάτηρ ἀπαφίσκει,
ἀλλ’ αὕτη δίκη ἐστὶ βροτῶν, ὅτε τίς κε θάνῃσιν.
οὐ γὰρ ἔτι σάρκας τε καὶ ὀστέα ἶνες ἔχουσιν,
ἀλλὰ τὰ μέν τε πυρὸς κρατερὸν μένος αἰθομένοιο
δαμνᾷ, ἐπεί κε πρῶτα λίπῃ λεύκ’ ὀστέα θυμός,
ψυχὴ δ’ ἠΰτ’ ὄνειρος ἀποπταμένη πεπότηται.

Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.13

“What do you make of the fact that all of Vergil’s work is made as sort of mirroring of Homer’s”?

Quid, quod et omne opus Virgilianum velut de quodam Homerici opus speculo formatum est?

Aeneid, 6.700-2

“Three times I tried there to wrap my arms around his neck,
Three times his ghost fled the empty closure of my hands,
Something like a blowing breeze or a flying dream.”

Ter conatus ibi collo dare brachia circum,
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

These lines in the underworld are repeated from Aeneas’ description of his flight from Troy when he bursts back into the city and encounters the ghost of Creusa.

Macrobius (Saturnalia 5.4 ) lists this a one of many passages adapted from Homer. But in his version, he offers a slightly different version of the Latin. Instead of the line listed in most MSS (2.794=6.702) Macrobius has Par levibus ventis volucrique simillima fumo, “similar to light winds and something like floating smoke”.

In his commentary, John Connington doesn’t make much of this variation. He does mention another.

Commentary on 2.792-794

[794] Hom.’s words are σκιῆ εἴκελον ἢ καὶ ὀνείρῳ. Virg., in talking of sleep, probably has a dream in his mind. In any case there is no probability in Macrobius’ (Sat. 5. 5) misquotation ‘fumo,’ which Wakef. adopts. The Medicean of Pierius has a curious variety, “Par levibus pennis volucrique simillima vento.”

Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.14-15

“Has it been proved to you that Vergil cannot be understood by someone who is ignorant of the sound of Latin and is equally distant to one who has not drunk Greek learning deep with the fullest thirst?

If I did not fear making you antsy, I could fill huge volumes with the material he translated from the most obscure Greek teachings. But these assertions are enough to support the thesis I have proposed.”

probatumne vobis est Vergilium, ut ab eo intellegi non potest qui sonum Latinae vocis ignorat, ita nec ab eo posse qui Graecam non hauserit extrema satietate doctrinam?

nam si fastidium facere non timerem, ingentia poteram volumina de his quae a penitissima Graecorum doctrina transtulisset implere: sed ad fidem rei propositae relata sufficient.’

Image result for Medieval manuscript Vergil

The Hands of the Child-Killing Man

Iliad 24.503-6

“Achilles, respect the gods and take pity,
Once you think of your own father. I am even more pitiable,
Since I endure what no other mortal person ever has,
To reach my hands to the lips of the man who slaughtered my child.”

ἀλλ’ αἰδεῖο θεοὺς ᾿Αχιλεῦ, αὐτόν τ’ ἐλέησον
μνησάμενος σοῦ πατρός· ἐγὼ δ’ ἐλεεινότερός περ,
ἔτλην δ’ οἷ’ οὔ πώ τις ἐπιχθόνιος βροτὸς ἄλλος,
ἀνδρὸς παιδοφόνοιο ποτὶ στόμα χεῖρ’ ὀρέγεσθαι.

CHildkilling

Image result for Achilles and priam greek vase

Dedicating What To Your Stepmother? Mother’s Day With Some Ancient Greek

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 16

“These things seem quite entertaining to me, but they are not true. I have also heard another reason for the bit, much more credible.  I am happy with what is said by those who generally agree in Greece, who believe that the goddess is Hera and the work was made by Dionysus. For Dionysus went into Syria on the road that goes to Ethiopia. There are many signs left by Dionysus in the Shrine, among them are foreign clothing and Indian stones and Elephant horns which Dionysus brought from Ethiopia. There are also two really big phalluses that stand up at the entrance gates. This epigram has been inscribed upon them. ‘Dionysus dedicated these phalluses to Hera, his stepmother.’

This remains enough for me, but I will tell you of another oddity in the temple of Dionysus. The Greeks bear phalloi in honor of Dionysus, and they carry something in front of it, a little man carved out of wood which has huge genitals. These are called puppets. There is also one of these in the temple. On the right side of the temple, there is a small bronze man that has giant genitals.”

[Thanks to the commander of trash for making me look at this passage]

Τὰ δέ μοι εὐπρεπέα μὲν δοκέει ἔμμεναι, ἀληθέα δὲ οὔ· ἐπεὶ καὶ τῆς τομῆς ἄλλην αἰτίην ἤκουσα πολλὸν πιστοτέρην. ἁνδάνει δέ μοι ἃ λέγουσιν τοῦ ἱροῦ πέρι τοῖς ῞Ελλησι τὰ πολλὰ ὁμολογέοντες, τὴν μὲν θεὸν ῞Ηρην δοκέοντες, τὸ δ’ ἔργον Διονύσου τοῦ Σεμέλης ποίημα· καὶ γὰρ δὴ Διόνυσος ἐς Συρίην ἀπίκετο κείνην ὁδὸν τὴν ἦλθεν ἐς Αἰθιοπίην. καὶ ἔστι πολλὰ ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ Διονύσου ποιητέω σήματα, ἐν τοῖσι καὶ ἐσθῆτες βάρβαροι καὶ λίθοι ᾿Ινδοὶ καὶ ἐλεφάντων κέρεα, τὰ Διόνυσος ἐξ Αἰθιόπων ἤνεικεν, καὶ φαλλοὶ δὲ ἑστᾶσι ἐν τοῖσι προπυλαίοισι δύο κάρτα μεγάλοι, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐπίγραμμα τοιόνδε ἐπιγέγραπται, “τούσδε φαλλοὺς Διόνυσος ῞Ηρῃ μητρυιῇ ἀνέθηκα.” τὸ ἐμοὶ μέν νυν καὶ τόδε ἀρκέει, ἐρέω δὲ καὶ ἄλλ’ ὅ τι ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ νηῷ Διονύσου ὄργιον. φαλλοὺς ῞Ελληνες Διονύσῳ ἐγείρουσιν, ἐπὶ τῶν καὶ τοιόνδε τι φέρουσιν, ἄνδρας μικροὺς ἐκ ξύλου πεποιημένους, μεγάλα αἰδοῖα ἔχοντας· καλέεται δὲ τάδε νευρόσπαστα. ἔστι δὲ καὶ τόδε ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ· ἐν δεξιῇ τοῦ νηοῦ κάθηται μικρὸς ἀνὴρ χάλκεος ἔχων αἰδοῖον μέγα.

Some Fragments on mothers to make up for this atrocity

Sophocles, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

Euripides’ Meleager Fr. 527

“The only things you can’t get with money
Are nobility and virtue. A noble child
Can be born from a poor woman’s body.”

μόνον δ’ ἂν ἀντὶ χρημάτων οὐκ ἂν λάβοις
γενναιότητα κἀρετήν• καλὸς δέ τις
κἂν ἐκ πενήτων σωμάτων γένοιτο παῖς.

Euripides, fr. 358 (Erechtheus)

“Children have nothing sweeter than their mother.
Love your mother children, there is no kind of love anywhere
Sweeter than this one to love.”

οὐκ ἔστι μητρὸς οὐδὲν ἥδιον τέκνοις•
ἐρᾶτε μητρός, παῖδες, ὡς οὐκ ἔστ’ ἔρως
τοιοῦτος ἄλλος ὅστις ἡδίων ἐρᾶν.

Sophocles, Electra 770-771

“Even if she suffers terribly, a mother cannot hate her child.”

οὐδὲ γὰρ κακῶς
πάσχοντι μῖσος ὧν τέκῃ προσγίγνεται.

And a somewhat nicer passage

According to the Greek Anthology there was a temple to Apollônis, the mother of Attalos and Eumenes, at Cyzicos. The temple had at least nineteen epigrams inscribed on columns with accompanying relief images. All of the epigrams have mothers from myth and poetry as their subjects. The Eighth Epigram is on Odysseus’ mother Antikleia.

On the eighth tablet is the underworld visit of Odysseus. He addressed is own mother and asked her for news of his home (Greek Anthology 3.8)

“Wise-minded mother of Odysseus, Antikleia
You didn’t welcome your son home to Ithaka while alive.
Instead, he is shocked when his glance falls upon his sweet mother
Now wandering along the banks of Akheron.”

᾿Εν τῷ Η ἡ τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως νεκυομαντεία• καθέστηκεν τὴν ἰδίαν μητέρα ᾿Αντίκλειαν περὶ τῶν κατὰ τὸν οἶκον ἀνακρίνων

Μᾶτερ ᾿Οδυσσῆος πινυτόφρονος, ᾿Αντίκλεια,
ζῶσα μὲν εἰς ᾿Ιθάκην οὐχ ὑπέδεξο πάιν•
ἀλλά σε νῦν ᾿Αχέροντος ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖσι γεγῶσαν
θαμβεῖ, ἀνὰ γλυκερὰν ματέρα δερκόμενος.

Of course, this scene plays upon book 11 of the Odyssey doubly: the image recalls Odysseus describing his mother in the Odyssey and it also plays upon the Odyssey’s catalogue of heroic mothers motif, which it in turn shares with the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue Of Women.

11.84-89

“Then came the spirit of my mother who had passed away,
The daughter of great-hearted Autolykos, Antikleia
Whom I left alive when I went to sacred Troy.
When I saw her I cried and pitied her in my heart,
But I could not allow her to come forward to touch
The blood before I had learned from Teiresias.”

ἦλθε δ’ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ μητρὸς κατατεθνηυίης,
Αὐτολύκου θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ᾿Αντίκλεια,
τὴν ζωὴν κατέλειπον ἰὼν εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρήν.
τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ δάκρυσα ἰδὼν ἐλέησά τε θυμῷ•
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς εἴων προτέρην, πυκινόν περ ἀχεύων,
αἵματος ἄσσον ἴμεν πρὶν Τειρεσίαο πυθέσθαι.

Attalos, Eumenes and Apollônis? These were members of the Attalid clan who ruled from Pergamon during the Hellenistic period (after 241 BCE). Attalus I married Apollônis who was from Cyzicos.

Image result for Ancient Greek mother

Achilles and his mom–a story for a different day.

What Does Helen Look Like?

A twitter friend asked me about the appearance of Helen recently:

This comes at a time when many are talking about the ethnicity of Homeric heroes and rightly arguing that so many of our ideas about race, color, and identity have little to do with the ancient world and everything to do with our own. (See also the discussion on Pharos.) Within this debate is the important realization that ancient concepts of hue and range of color-representation may have been altogether different from our own. In addition to Tim Whitmarsh’s essay (cited above) Maria Michel Sassi’s recent essay does well to explore gaps between how we conceive of color and how the ancients may have.

As @spannycat notes, Greek poetry describes Helen as xanthê and kuanopis. An insensitive and simplistic reading of these facts might claim that she was “blonde” with “blue eyes” (and I am not at all implying that @spannycat is doig this). Not only is the situation far more interesting and complicated than this, but I am pretty sure that even if we accept these two words as applying to Helen they would not be equivalent to the appearance these two terms denote in modern English.

Let’s start with the barest fact. What Helen actually looks like is never stated in Homer. When the Trojans look at her, they say she has the “terrible appearance of goddesses” (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν). This, of course, is not terribly specific.

Elsewhere, she is “argive Helen, for whom many Achaeans [struggled]” (᾿Αργείην ῾Ελένην, ἧς εἵνεκα πολλοὶ ᾿Αχαιῶν, Il. 2.161) she has “smooth” or “pale/white” arms (῏Ιρις δ’ αὖθ’ ῾Ελένῃ λευκωλένῳ ἄγγελος ἦλθεν, 3.121), but this likely has to do with a typical depiction of women in Archaic Greece (they are lighter in tone than men because they don’t work outside) or because of women’s clothing (arms may have been visible). Beyond that? In the Odyssey, She has “beautiful hair” (῾Ελένης πάρα καλλικόμοιο, 15.58) and a long robe (τανύπεπλος, 4.305).

If anyone is looking for a hint of the ideal of beauty from the legend who launched a thousand ships, they will be sorely disappointed. Why? I think the answer to this partly has to do with the nature of Homeric poetry and with good art in general. Homeric poetry developed over a long duration of time and appealed to many different peoples. To over-determine Helen’s beauty by describing it would necessarily adhere to some standards of beauty while alienating others.

In addition, why describe her beauty at all when the audience members themselves can craft an ideal in their mind. As a student of mine said while I mused over this, Helen “Cannot have descriptors because she is a floating signifier”. She is a blank symbol for desire upon which all audience members (ancient and modern, male and female) project their own (often ambiguous) notions of beauty. To stay with the ancient world, think of that seminal first stanza in Sappho fr. 16:

Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
[whatever] you love

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται

As long as beauty is relative and in the eye of the beholder any time we disambiguate it by saying that it is one thing and not another we depart from an abstract timeless idea and create something more bounded and less open to audience engagement. I think that part of what makes Homeric poetry work so well is that it combines a maximum amount of specificity within a maximized amount of ambiguity.

Outside of Homer, Helen is described with a little more detail, but in each case the significance of the signifier is less than it appears. In Hesiod, she has nice hair again (῾Ελένης ἕνεκ’ ἠυκόμοιο,Works and Days 165; this is repeated a lot in the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue). In fr. 9 of the Cypria she is merely a “Wonder for mortals” (θαῦμα βροτοῖσι·). Much later she has “spiraling eyebrows/lashes” (῾Ελένης ἑλικοβλεφάροιο, Quintus Smyrnaeus, 13.470).

If we want to learn more about Helen, she has additional features outside of epic poetry in lyric. I would be bold enough to claim that the more personal and erotic character of the genre is a better explanation for this specificity than anything else.

In lyric (e.g. Mesomedes, κυανῶπι θεά, θύγατερ Δίκας,) Helen is “cyan-eyed”, but if we look at the semantic range of this nominal root—which describes dark stones and eyes of water divinities—I think we can argue fairly that this indicates a dark and shiny, even watery texture (like lapis lazuli). I suspect this is about the sheen of eyes rather than their hue.

Eustathius remarks that the epithet κυανώπιδα is common (κατὰ κοινὸν ἐπίθετον) and is often used for dark sea creatures, describing as well his hair (Ποσειδῶνα κυανοχαίτην, Ad Hom. Il 1.555.23). Indeed, nymphs in general are “dark-eyed” in lyric (καὶ Νύμφαι κυανώπιδες, Anacr. fr. 12.2) and water deities remain so in Homer (κῦμα μέγα ῥοχθεῖ κυανώπιδος ᾿Αμφιτρίτης, Il. 12.60). Outside of Homer marriageable women also receive this epithet, including Helen’s sister Klytemnestra (Hes. Fr. 23a κού[ρην Τυνδαρέοιο Κλυταιμήσ]τρην κυανῶπ[ιν· cf. fr. 23.27 and for Althaia, 25.14, Elektra (169).

From Robert Beekes. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill, 2010

kuane

So, in lyric, Helen has dark pools for eyes. But what about her hair? At Sappho fr. 23 Helen is described as “xanthai” ([ ] ξάνθαι δ’ ᾿Ελέναι σ’ ἐίσ[κ]ην; cf. Stesichorus Fr. S103: [ξ]α̣νθὰ δ’ ῾Ελένα̣ π̣ρ[ ; Ibycus, fr. 1a.5: ξα]νθᾶς ῾Ελένας περὶ εἴδει ). But it is important to note that in this context there is a first-person narrator speaking (“I liken you to fair Helen…”). Note as well that there is something formulaic in these lyric lines: the epithet seems to begin the phrase each time.

When it comes to Hair color, xanthus is used in Homer to describe heroes, but not Helen (Menelaos is Xanthus, for example). A byzantine etymological dictionary suggests that the core meaning of this root has something to do with fire (Ξανθὴν, πυῤῥοειδῆ) and argues that the hair “symbolizes the heat and irascibility of the hero” (αἰνίττεται, τὸ θερμὸν καὶ ὀργίλον τοῦ ἥρωος, Etym. Gud, s.v.). But outside the Iliad and Odyssey the adjective is applied to goddesses: both Demeter (H. Dem. 302) and Aphrodite (Soph. fr. 255) are called Xanthê. Modern etymology sees this as anywhere from yellow to brown. But this is altogether relative again. “Light hair” in a group of people who are blond is almost white; among black/brown haired people, light hair can merely be a different shade of brown.

Again, from Beekes 2010:

xanthe

In the second book of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body Problem Trilogy” The Dark Forest, one of the main characters Luo Ji creates an ideal woman to love in his mind and goes so far as to converse with her, leave his actual girlfriend for her, and go on a trip with her. When he consults a psychologist about this, his doctor tells him his is lucky because everyone is in love with an idea–where the rest of the world will inevitably be disillusioned when they realize this, Luo Ji will never suffer this loss.

Trying to make Helen look like an actual person is not only impossible, but it is something which Homeric epic avoids for good reason.

Special thanks to .@spannycat for asking the question. Her own conclusions on the topic are pretty much the same.

menelaus_confronts_Helen.jpg

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