“Aristarchus believed it best to make sense of those things that were presented more fantastically by Homer according to the poet’s authority, that we not be overwhelmed by anything outside of the things presented by Homer.”
Since often in our conversations with one another about Homeric questions, when I try to show you that Homer interprets himself for the most part, and we consider from every angle in most instances based on our training more than [simply] knowing what he says, you have considered it right that I write up the things we have said rather than allow them to fall aside and disappear because we’ve forgotten them.
“The degree to which the best governed states have dedicated themselves to fine music finds ample testimony, especially in the case of Terpander who brought an end to the civil strife that was ruining the Spartans.
There’s also Thaletas of Crete who people say listened to the Delphic oracle and went Sparta and returned people to health with music, saving Sparta from the Pandemic that was gripping the land, as Pratinas claims.
Homer too says that the Greeks stopped a plague with music, for he says that “sons of the Achaeans propitiated the god with song and dance all day long / singing the noble paean and praising the / far-shooter who took pleasure in hearing the song.”
I’ll leave those verses as the final words in my argument about music, good teacher, since you started this discussion by quoting them to us. In truth, music’s first and finest labor is to give thanks back to the gods, and after that comes a cleansing of the soul, sure tone, and sustained harmony.”
“Avoid Kharybdis and come close to Skyla.” This is similar to the saying, “I avoided it by finding a better evil”
They say about Skyla that she was a Tyrrhenian woman, something if a beast, who was a woman down to the navel but she grew dog heads beneath that point. The rest of her body was a serpent. This kind of a cerature is very silly to imagine. But here is the truth. There were the islands of the Tyrrenians, which used to raid the coasts of Sicily and the Ionian bay. There was a trirereme which had the named Skyla. That trireme used to overtake other ships often and use their food and there was many a story about it. Odysseus fled that ship. trusting a strong and favorable wind and he told this story in Corcyra to Alkinoos, how he was pursued and how he fled and what the shape of the ship was. From these stories, the myth was formed.”
“Charybdis is an obvious name for luxury and endless drinking. Homer has allegorized manifold shamelessness in Skylla, which is why she would logically have a belt of dogs, guardians for her rapacity, daring, and pugnacity. “
“But you, go away from “the smoke and the wave” and depart the ridiculous concerns of mortal life as from that fearsome Charybdis without touching it at all, don’t even, as the people say, brush it with your littlest toe.”
“For satiety seems to be becoming worn out in pleasures from the soul suffering in some way with the body, since the soul does not shirk from its pleasures. But when it is interwoven, as it is said, with the body, it suffers the same things as Odysseus, just as he was held, clinging to the fig tree, not because he desired it or delighted in it, but because he feared Charybdis lurking below him. The soul clings to the body and embraces it in this way not because of goodwill or gratitude but because it fears the uncertainty of death.
As wise Hesiod says, “the gods keep life concealed from human beings.” They have not tied the soul to the body with fleshly bonds, but they have devised and bound around the mind one cell and one guard, our uncertainty and distrust about our end. If a soul had faith in these things—“however so many await men when they die”, to quote Heraclitus—nothing would restrain it at all.”
“…They will heap up a mound [sêma] on the broad Hellespont
And someone of the men who are born in the future may say
As he says over the wine-faced sea in his many-benched ship:
This is the marker [sêma] of a man who died long ago,
A man whom shining Hektor killed when he was at his best”
So someone someday will say. And my glory will never perish”
“After heaping up the mound [sêma] they returned. Then
Once they were well gathered they shared a fine feast
In the halls of the god-nourished king, Priam.
Thus they were completing the burial of horse-taming Hektor.”
“They quickly placed the bones in an empty trench and then
They covered it with great, well-fitted stones.
They rushed to heap up a marker [sêma], around which they set guards
In case the well-greaved Achaeans should attack too soon.”
“Don’t leave me unmourned, unburied when you turn around
And go back—so that I might not be a reason for the gods to rage—
But burn me with my weapons and everything which is mind
Then build a mound [sêma] for me on the shore of the grey sea,
For a pitiful man, and for those to come to learn of me.
Finish these things for me and then affix an oar onto my tomb,
The one I was rowing with when I was alive and with my companions”
I will speak to you an obvious sign [sêma] and it will not escape you.
Whenever some other traveler meets you and asks
Why you have a winnowing fan on your fine shoulder,
At that very point drive the well-shaped oar into the ground
Cristoforo Landino, Preface to Vergil in a Florentine Gymnasium (Part 3)
We have said therefore both what the art of poetry is and where the poet got a name for himself, and from where that name drew its origins. But now take this in the briefest possible words about the antiquity of poetry itself. You will find no nation so old, nor any republic so antique in the monuments of literature that it didn’t flourish from its very beginning with poets. Greece had no historians still, when heroic times and the Trojan War were being described by Homer. No philosophers were yet disputing about life and ethics when that same poet was explaining all the precepts which urge us on to living well and blessedly. Nor did he explain only those things which make us more learned in governing the republic or leading an army, but he also set out most excellently those things which set us up in private and leisured life. That most celebrated land of Greece was not yet glorying in its Seven Sages when it had already been made illustrious by Orpheus, Linus, Musaeus, and Amphion. Nor was any theologian found in this most learned nation who set down divine things in letters before the birth of Hesiod and some other poets. So, if we wish to speak more truly and to follow the thought of Aristotle, a poet is nothing other than a theologian. The faculty of speech did no sooner show how much skill in speaking, how much sweetness in delighting, nor indeed how much strength in persuading it had, before the speeches of Ulysses, and Phoenix, and the other heroes had been expressed in a poetic composition.
Diximus ergo et quid ars poetica sit et unde sibi nomen vendicaverit poeta, unde etiam originem suam traxerit. Nunc vero de antiquitate ipsius brevissimis accipite. Neque enim ullam aut nationem adeo vetustam aut rem publicam adeo priscam litterarum monumentis reperies, quae vel ab ipso statim initio poetis non floruerit. Nullos enim adhuc Graecia historicos habuerat, quando ab Homero heroica tempora et Troiana bella describebantur. Nulli adhuc philosophi de vita et moribus disputabant, cum vel idem vates omnia praecepta, quae ad bene beateque vivendum nos adhortantur, explicabat; neque solum quae aut in re publica temperanda aut in exercitu ductitando nos doctiores reddunt, verum et ea quae in privata atque ociosa vita nos instituunt, optime exposuerat. Nondum septem sapientibus celebratissima illa Graecia gloriabatur, et iam ab Orpheo, Lino, Musaeo, Amphione illustrata fuerat; neque apud hanc tam doctam nationem quisquam theologus invenitur qui, nisi post natum Hesiodum et non nullos alios poetas, divinas res litteris mandasset. Quin, si verius loqui et Aristotelis sententiam sequi volumus, nil aliud poeta est quam theologus. Facultas vero oratoria neque quantum acuminis in dicendo neque quantum suavitatis in delectando neque postremum quantum vehementiae in permovendo habeat, antea ostendit quam orationes Ulyssis et Phoenicis aliorumque heroum poetico carmine expressae essent.
In a choral ode from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, we find a folk etymology implied for Helen’s name. Where I have translated “killer”, the Greek has versions of the aorist of αἵρεω (εἶλον) which, without its augment looks like the beginning of Helen’s name (ἑλ-).
Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696
“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois
For a bloody strife.”
Ancient etymologies do not follow this Aeschylean play.
“Helenê. From attracting [helkein] many to her beauty. Or it is from helô, helkuô, she is the one who drags young men to her personal beauty. Or it comes from Hellas [Greece]. Or it comes from being born on the ground [helos].”
“Helenê: A heroine. From helô,helkuô, she is the one who drags young men to her personal beauty. Or it comes from Hellas [Greece]. Or it comes from being born on the ground [helos]. Or because she was thrown in a marshy [helôdei] place by Tyndareus once she obtained some divine prescience and she was taken back up by Leda. Helenê was named from pity [heleos].”
Modern linguistics show that Helen’s name is just really hard to figure out.
Some Modern Material
In Lakonia, Helen was original spelled with a digamma. (And this may have extended to Corinth and Chalcidice too Cf. R. Wachter Non-Attic Vase Inscriptions 2001, §251).
74 Von Kamptz 1958, 136 suggests that her name is a “cognate of σέλας” to evoke a sense of “shining”, as in her beauty. Cf. Kanavou 2015, 72
Vedic Saranyu: Skutsch 1987, 189; Puhvel 1987, 141–143 (The initial breathing in Greek often points to a lost initial *s but the digamma in certain dialects confuses this) The Vedic name means swift. The PIE root suggested here is *suel-.
Helen has variously been suggested as coming from a vegetation goddess (see Helena Dendritis, Paus. 3.19.9–10; Herodotus 6.61; cf. Skutsch 1987) or a goddess of light.
“After a while, Diomedes good-at-the warcry, addressed them:
“I will fight with you first because you are being foolish, son of Atreus,
Which is right, Lord, in the assembly. So don’t get angry at all.”
[“I will fight with you first”] “It is clear that he is also criticizing the rest of the Greeks because they are consenting to the retreat through their silence. For he says the fight in opposition to the speech.”
[“don’t get angry at all”] this is an anticipatory warning, since he is about to criticize him more severely than he has been reproached at anytime, [alleging that it is right] to speak against kings during assemblies. He asks him to set anger aside because he believes it is right to accept advantageous truth and he is clarifying the purpose of what is said—that it is not to insult.
“Generally, then, if one wants to examine it carefully, you will find Odysseus’ wandering to be an allegory. Homer has positioned Odysseus as some kind of an instrument of every kind of virtue and he has used him to philosophize, since he hated the wickedness which governs human life.
The land of the Lotus-eaters, a farm of exotic temptation, represents the temptation of pleasure through which Odysseus sailed in perfect control. He snuffs out the savage anger of each of us with the advice from his words as if cauterizing it. This anger is named the Cyclops, the one who steals away [hypoklôpôn] our faculties of reason.
What of this—does it not seem that Odysseus who ‘overcame the winds’ was the first to anticipate fair sailing through his knowledge of the stars? And he was superior to Kirkê’s drugs because he discovered a cure for addictive delicacies thanks to his deep wisdom.
And his intelligence extends even to Hades so that nothing in the underworld might go unexplored. Who listens to the Sirens and learns a diverse history of all time? Charybdis is an obvious name for luxury and endless drinking. Homer has allegorized manifold shamelessness in Skylla, which is why she would logically have a belt of dogs, guardians for her rapacity, daring, and pugnacity. The cattle of the sun are about controlling your eating—for he would not even allow starvation to be a compulsion to do injustice.
These stories were told mythically for their audiences, if someone delves into the allegorized wisdom, it will be the most useful to those who apprehend it.”
Here’s a bit of something different: I’d like to talk about new book my a good friend. Emily Austin’s Grief and the Hero: The Futility of Longing in the Iliad was released a few months ago. As anyone who has published something during the pandemic knows, there’s not much room for something as simple as a book in all the noise.
But this is a book I think people should read. Now, I read a lot of books about Homer. It is not just a job, it is something I have done as a hobby since I first read Gregory Nagy’s The Best of the Achaeans and Richard Martin’s The Language of Heroesas an undergraduate. I often ignored homework assignments in graduate school in favor of reading books like Donna Wilson’s Ransom and Revenge or Hilary Mackie’s Talking Trojans. See, before I started working on the Odyssey,I was all Iliad all the time.
D Schol. ad ll 1.1
“Sing the rage..” [People] ask why the poem begins from rage, so ill-famed a word. It does for two reasons. First, so that it might [grab the attention] of that particular portion of the soul and make audiences more ready for the sublime and position us to handle sufferings nobly, since it is about to narrate wars.
A second reason is to make the praises of the Greeks more credible. Since it was about to reveal the Greeks prevailing, it is not seemly to make it more worthy of credibility by failing to make everything contribute positively to their praise.”
Everyone knows the Iliad starts with the “rage of Achilles”. What that rage means and how it shapes the poem is not so universally understood. My first Greek teacher and now friend of two decades, Leonard Muellner, wrote one of the best books on this topic. In his The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic, Lenny shows how Achilles’ anger has cosmic implications and is rooted in a thematic pattern shared by gods like Demeter and Zeus. He also notes that there may have been versions of the poem that put Achilles’ rage alongside Apollo’s
The proem according to Aristoxenus
Tell me now Muses who have Olympian Homes
How rage and anger overtook Peleus’ son
And also the shining son of Leto. For the king was enraged…”
What I love about Emily Austin’s book is that she enters into a deep and ancient discussion and asks what seems like a simple question: what about the cause of rage? Starting from the premise that the absence of things, longing, what a Lacanian might call a “lack” (my words, not hers), Emily offers a reading of the epic that doesn’t countermand the importance of rage, but instead, decenters it, looking at how longing (pothê,) shapes the poem and its audiences expectations.
Here’s Emily talking about her book:
In Grief and the Hero, I set aside conversations about the Iliad’s composition and authorship, and instead consider the poem as narrative poetry. The heart of my book is Achilles’ experience of futility in grief. Rather than assuming that grief gives rise to anger, as most scholars have done, Grief and the Hero traces the origin of these emotions. Achilles’ grief for Patroklos is uniquely described with the word pothê, “longing.” By joining grief and longing, the Iliad depicts Achilles’ grief as the rupture of shared life—an insight that generates a new way of reading the epic. No action can undo the reality of his friend Patroklos’ death; but the experience of death drives Achilles to act as though he can achieve something restorative. Achilles’ cycles of weeping and vengeance-seeking bring home how those whom we have lost will never return to us, yet we are shaped by the life we shared with them. In Grief and the Hero, I uncover these affective dimensions of the narrative, which contribute to the epic’s lasting appeal. Loss, longing, and even revenge touch many human lives, and the insights of the Iliad have broad resonance.
I am not a disinterested party in this book. I read an early manuscript and recognized early on that this was an original contribution to an old debate. There is an urgency to longing and the absence of what we need to complete ourselves that motivates the actions of the poem and feeds the timeliness of this book. In a year of violence, disruption, and isolation, it is a perfect time to think about the causes of the things that set us apart.
Grief and the Hero provides a perfect complement to Muellner’s analysis of the thematic function of Achilles’ rage; it also functions as a corrective for many responses to Homer that shy away from the grand themes and the big stages of human life. There are a few dozen books about Homer I think a Homerist must read; there are only a handful I think everyone should try. Emily’s Grief and the Hero is now one of them.
Of course, I’m biased here. I’ve learned so much from talking to Emily about literature, loss and grief over the past few years that I am certainly not objective. But I asked a couple other friends for their thoughts too.
Emily Austin has written a rare and welcome contribution to recent Homeric scholarship: a “robustly literary” meditation on grief and the Iliad. In her reading, the Iliad shows how anger born of grief is never satisfied. It cycles on, relentlessly forward. Peace that comes from vengeance is illusory, and the yawning chasm of loss can only be repaired by letting go.
I have spent the better part of three years living inside the characters of the Iliad as I composed and now perform the Blues of Achilles, my first-person song cycle adaptation of the epic. I found Grief and the Hero exhaustingly resonant with what I’ve come to vividly understand as the core emotional arc of Achilles and those caught in his orbit. Grief and the Hero works for me on multiple levels: academic, creative, and, most importantly, human, so beautifully teasing out the most powerful and universal theme of the poem that I only began to fully discover and appreciate as I wrote my songs: the resolution of grief.
“In addition to providing a novel interpretation of the Iliad‘s narrative and applying close readings of phraseology and structures, Emily brings new depths to the character of Achilles that all subsequent interpretations will need to consider. Her approach is a perfect balance of careful scholarship and elegant interpretation.. She has challenged me to think about the human dimension of the stories.”
Those of us in academia have missed some minor things during the pandemic: book release parties, dinners to celebrate tenure, long talks away from loud conferences with friends. These are so insignificant compared to the losses of the past year that I feel bad even mentioning them. But loss is part of what makes us who we are.
Take a chance on a book; let’s make Emily’s year special.
and some epigrammatic humor to end the post
Palladas of Alexandria, Greek Anthology 9.169
“The Rage of Achilles has become the cause for me
a grammarian, of destructive poverty.
I wish the rage had killed me with the Greeks
before the hard hunger of scholarship killed me.”
Let us take up and inspect more closely each of the things previously stated. First, that we have taken up correctly along with those before us (among whom is Hipparchus) in stating that Homer is the forefather of geographical study, as he not only outstrips all before and after him in his poetic excellence, but also in his knowledge of political life. Not only did he set himself eagerly about practical affairs with an eye to learning about them and transmitting the knowledge to future generations, but he also worked with an eye to learning about individual lands as well as the whole scope of the inhabited world on land and sea. For, even in his circuit of the globe, he did not arrive at a recollection of the farthest lands of the world.
He was the first to show that the world was as it were circled and bathed by the Ocean. Then, of the various lands, he gave some names and posed riddles about others with some little clues. He called by name Libya, Aethiopia, the Sidonians and the Eremboi (whom he referred to as the Arabs of the Caves), but he referred enigmatically to the peoples who lived near the risings and settings of the sun, saying that they were bathed by the ocean.