Achilles’ (Missing) Sister

Reading over Merkelbach and West’s Fragmenta Hesiodea often reminds me of many things I have forgotten. I am too young to blame this forgetfulness on senility; and yet too old to blame it on youthful ignorance.

Today’s particular disturbance comes from fragment 213 which tells us that Achilles, like Odysseus, has a sister (fragment included within the scholia below).

At first, I thought that this was some sort of Lykophrontic fantasy. But, alas, upon looking into the details, she is actually mentioned in the Iliad!

Iliad, 16.173-178

“Menestheus of the dancing-breastplate led one contingent,
son of the swift-flowing river Sperkheios
whom the daughter of Peleus, beautiful Poludôrê bore
when she shared the bed with the indomitable river-god, Sperkheios
although by reputation he was the son of Boros, the son of Periêrês
who wooed her openly by offering countless gifts.”

τῆς μὲν ἰῆς στιχὸς ἦρχε Μενέσθιος αἰολοθώρηξ
υἱὸς Σπερχειοῖο διιπετέος ποταμοῖο·
ὃν τέκε Πηλῆος θυγάτηρ καλὴ Πολυδώρη
Σπερχειῷ ἀκάμαντι γυνὴ θεῷ εὐνηθεῖσα,
αὐτὰρ ἐπίκλησιν Βώρῳ Περιήρεος υἷι,
ὅς ῥ’ ἀναφανδὸν ὄπυιε πορὼν ἀπερείσια ἕδνα.

The confusion, shock and horror of this detail—which I presume the vast majority of Homer’s audiences have overlooked or forgotten as with the sad fate of Odysseus’ sister—can be felt as well in the various reactions of the Scholia where we encounter (a) denial—it was a different Peleus!; (b) sophomoric prevarication—why doesn’t Achilles talk about her, hmmm?; (c) conditional acceptance through anachronistic assumptions—she’s suppressed because it is shameful that she is a bastard; (d) and, finally, citation of hoary authorities to insist upon a ‘truth’ unambiguous in the poem.

I have translated the major scholia below. Note that we can see where the ‘fragments’ of several authors come from here (hint: they’re just talked about by the scholiasts). We can also learn a bit about the pluralistic and contradictory voices to be found in the Homeric scholia. The bastard child bit is my favorite part.


Schol A. ad Il. 16.175

“Pherecydes says that Polydora was the sister of Achilles. There is no way that this has been established in Homer. It is more credible that this is just the same name, as in other situations, since [the poet] would have added some sign of kinship with Achilles.”

ὃν τέκε Πηλῆος θυγάτηρ: ὅτι Φερεκύδης (Fr. 61-62) τὴν Πολυδώραν φησὶν ἀδελφὴν ᾿Αχιλλέως. οὐκ ἔστι δὲ καθ’ ῞Ομηρον διαβεβαιώσασθαι. πιθανώτερον οὖν ὁμωνυμίαν εἶναι, ὥσπερ καὶ ἐπ’ ἄλλων, ἐπεὶ προσέθηκεν ἂν τεκμήριον τῆς πρὸς ᾿Αχιλλέα συγγενείας.


Schol T. ad Il. 16.175

”  “Daughter of Peleus”: A different Peleus, for if he were a nephew of Achilles, this would be mentioned in Hades when they speak about his father and son or in the allegory of the Litai when he says “a great spirit compelled me there” or “my possessions and serving women” he might mention the pleasure of having a sister. The poet does not recognize that Peleus encountered some other woman. Neoteles says that Achilles’ cousin leads the first contingent and gives evidence of knowledge of war. And he gave countless gifts to marry the sister of Achilles. Should he not mentioned her in Hades? Odysseus does not mention Ktimene [his sister].

Pherecydes says that [Polydore] was born from Antigonê, the daughter of Eurytion; the Suda says her mother was Laodameia the daughter of Alkmaion; Staphulos says she was Eurudikê the daughter of Aktôr. Zenodotos says the daughter’s name was Kleodôrê; Hesiod and everyone else calls her Poludôrê.”

ex. Πηλῆος θυγάτηρ: ἑτέρου Πηλέως· εἰ γὰρ ἦν ἀδελφιδοῦς ᾿Αχιλλέως, καὶ ἐμνήσθη αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ ῞Αιδῃ περὶ τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ ἐρωτῶν (cf. λ 494—537), καὶ ἐν ταῖς Λιταῖς, φάσκων „ἔνθα δέ μοι μάλα <πολλὸν> ἐπέσσυτο θυμός” (Ι 398), „κτῆσιν ἐμὴν δμῶάς τε” (Τ 333), ἔφασκεν ἂν καὶ τῆς ἀδελφῆς ἀπόλαυσιν. Πηλέα τε οὐκ οἶδεν ὁ ποιητὴς ἑτέρᾳ γυναικὶ συνελθόντα. Νεοτέλης δὲ ὡς ἀδελφιδοῦν᾿Αχιλλέως φησὶ τῆς πρώτης τάξεως ἡγεῖσθαι, ὡς καὶ μαρτυρεῖ ἐπιστήμην πολέμου· †ὡς ἀχιλλέως τε ἀδελφὴν γαμεῖν† ἀπερείσια δίδωσιν ἕδνα (cf. Π 178). εἰ δὲ μὴ ἐμνήσθη αὐτῆς ἐν ῞Αιδου· οὐδὲ γὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς Κτιμένης (cf. ο 363 cum λ 174—9). Φερεκύδης (FGrHist 3, 61 b) δὲ ἐξ ᾿Αντιγόνης τῆς Εὐρυτίωνος, Σουίδας (FGrHist 602, 8) ἐκ Λαοδαμείας τῆς ᾿Αλκμαίωνος, Στάφυλος (FGrHist 269,5) ἐξ Εὐρυδίκης τῆς῎Ακτορος. Ζηνόδοτος (FGrHist 19,5) δὲ Κλεοδώρην φησίν, ῾Ησιόδου (fr. 213 M.—W.) καὶ τῶν ἄλλων Πολυδώρην αὐτὴν καλούντων.

Schol. BCE ad Il. 16.175

“They say that she is from another Peleus. For if he were a nephew of Achilles wouldn’t this be mentioned or wouldn’t he ask about his sister in Hades along with his father and son? At the same time, the poet does not know that Peleus encountered some other women. More recent poets say that Menestheus is his nephew and that this is the reason he leads the first contingent and shows knowledge of war and that ‘he gave countless gifts to marry the sister of Achilles’. But if he does not mention it, it is not necessarily foreign to him. For the poet is rather sensitive to certain proprieties.”

ἑτέρου, φασί, Πηλέως· εἰ γὰρ ἦν ἀδελφιδοῦς ᾿Αχιλλέως, πῶς οὐκ ἐμνήσθη αὐτοῦ ἢ τῆς ἀδελφῆς ἐν τῷ ῞Αιδῃ περὶ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐρωτῶν καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ; ἅμα τε οὐκ οἶδεν ὁ ποιητὴς Πηλέα ἑτέρᾳ συνελθόντα γυναικί. οἱ δὲ νεώτεροι ἀδελφιδοῦν αὐτοῦ λέγουσιν· ὅθεν καὶ τῆς πρώτης τάξεως ἡγεῖται καὶ πολέμων ἐπιστήμων μαρτυρεῖται, καὶ ὡς †ἀχιλλέως ἀδελφὴν γαμῶν ἀπερείσια δίδωσιν. εἰ δὲ μὴ ἐμνήσθη αὐτῆς ἢ τούτου, οὐ ξένον· περὶ γὰρ τῶν καιριωτέρων αὐτῷ ἡ φροντίς.

Schol. b ad Il. 16.175

“Since, otherwise, if Polydora were his sister, she would be a bastard and he would not want to mention her. Or, maybe it is because she has already died.”

ἄλλως τε ἐπειδὴ νόθη ἦν ἡ Πολυδώρη αὐτοῦ ἀδελφή, τάχα οὐδὲ μνημονεύειν αὐτῆς ἐβουλήθη. ἢ ὅτι καὶ αὐτὴ ἤδη τετελευτηκυῖα ἦν.

Schol D ad Il. 16.175

“Did Peleus have a daughter Polydôrê from another? Staphulos says in the third book of his Thessalika that she was born from Eurydike the daughter of Aktôr. Pherecydes says it was the daughter of Eurytion; others says Laodameia, the daughter of Alkmaion.”

ἐκ τίνος Πηλεὺς Πολυδώρην ἔσχεν; ὡς μὲν Στάφυλός φησιν ἐν τῇ τρίτῃ Θεσσαλικῶν, ἐξ Εὐρυδίκης τῆς ῎Ακτορος θυγατρός. Φερεκύδης δὲ ἐξ ᾿Αντιγόνης τῆς Εὐρυτίωνος, ἄλλοι δὲ ἐκ Λαοδαμείας τῆς ᾿Αλκμαίωνος.

What happened to Peleus’ first wife—if they were married? According to John Tzetzes (see Fowler 2013, 444) Peleus accidentally killed his father-in-law during the Kalydonian Boar Hunt, so he had to go abroad and in Iolkos the king’s wife tried to seduce him and told Antigone that Peleus would abandon her. Antigone killed herself, leaving Peleus free to marry Thetis. (But who took care of their daughter?).

It can get more confusing: some traditions (Apollodorus, 3.163 and 168) make a Polymele the daughter of Peleus and Patroklos’ mother whereas Polydora is Peleus’ wife in between Antigone and Thetis. Whatever the case, we can do our own scholiastic justification for Achilles not talking about his sister without creating a second Peleus. She must have been a bit older than Achilles since by all accounts Peleus fathered her before (1) the Kalydonian Boar Hunt, (2) the sacking of Iolkos and (3) the Voyage of the Argo. She would likely have been raised in a separate household from Achilles and married off before he went to study with the centaur Cheiron!

(More importantly: In the poetic world of Homer, sisters just don’t matter. Brothers do. Helen does not mention missing her sisters. Hektor talks to multiple brothers, but where are his sisters? In the Odyssey, Achilles asks about his father and son because Odysseus is interested in fathers and sons. This may make it more, not less, appropriate that Achilles says nothing of his sister: Odysseus just doesn’t care about sisters. Nor, it seems, does Homer.)

Works Consulted (apart from the Greek Texts).

Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. Baltimore, 1993.
Robert Fowler. Early Greek Mythography. Vol. 2:Commentary, 2013.

Image result for ancient greek achilles

Apollo’s Esteem for Human Beings

Schol. BT ad. Il. 21.465

“Whenever the poet turns his gaze to divine nature, then he holds human affairs in contempt.”

ὅταν δὲ ἀποβλέψῃ εἰς τὴν θείαν φύσιν ὁ ποιητής, τότε τὰ ἀνθρώπινα πράγματα ἐξευτελίζει. b(BCE3)T

Iliad 5.440-442

“Think, son of Tydeus, step off, don’t wish to think
Equal to the gods, since not at all similar are the races
Of immortal gods and humans who walk on the ground.”

φράζεο Τυδεΐδη καὶ χάζεο, μηδὲ θεοῖσιν
ἶσ’ ἔθελε φρονέειν, ἐπεὶ οὔ ποτε φῦλον ὁμοῖον
ἀθανάτων τε θεῶν χαμαὶ ἐρχομένων τ’ ἀνθρώπων.

Iliad 21.461-465

“Then lord Apollo the far-shooter answered,
“Earthshaker, you would not think that I would be prudent
If indeed I fought with you over mortals,
Wretched men who are like the leaves now flourish
Until they grow full, eat the fruit of fields,
And then they diminish until they die…”

Τὸν δ’ αὖτε προσέειπεν ἄναξ ἑκάεργος ᾿Απόλλων·
ἐννοσίγαι’ οὐκ ἄν με σαόφρονα μυθήσαιο
ἔμμεναι, εἰ δὴ σοί γε βροτῶν ἕνεκα πτολεμίξω
δειλῶν, οἳ φύλλοισιν ἐοικότες ἄλλοτε μέν τε
ζαφλεγέες τελέθουσιν ἀρούρης καρπὸν ἔδοντες,
ἄλλοτε δὲ φθινύθουσιν ἀκήριοι…


Image result for Ancient greek vase apollo

Rejected Responsibility: A Real Riot

Rachel Bespaloff, The Comedy of the Gods (trans. Mary McCarthy)

The Iliad has its share of the comic spirit. It even has humor: the Olympians supply it. Zeus’s court plays much the same role that worldly society and Alexander’s satellites play in War and Peace. The absolute futility of beings who are exempted by fortune from the common lot achieves, in the Immortals, a kind of showy, decorative stateliness. The gods of the Iliad and the worldlings of War and Peace have that want of seriousness (and by seriousness I do not mean heaviness) that for Homer, as for Tolstoy, is the distinguishing mark of the subhuman; this is what makes them such exquisite comic figures. Everything that happens has been caused by them, but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for that which they have not caused. The gods’ irresponsibility begins at home; they are not responsible for themselves. Where the free individual is not asserting himself against Fate, responsibility has nothing to grasp. Anger spills out in a burst of laughter that sanctions the triumph of incoherence. Thus the gods elude mortal classifications; both innocence and sin are beyond them. Agents provocateurs, smart propagandists, heated partisans, these belligerents do not mind the smell of carnage or the clash of tragic passions. Condemned to a permanent security, they would die of boredom without intrigues and war.

The Homeric Narrator Attempts to Soften Slavery with Toys

Homer, Od. 18.321-340

“Then fine-cheeked Melanthô reproached him shamefully.
Dolios fathered her and Penelope raised her. She treated her like her own child and used to give her delights* [athurmata] for her heart.
But she did not have grief in her thoughts for Penelope,
But she was having sex with and feeling affection for Eurumakhos.
She was reproaching Odysseus with abusive words.

“Wretched stranger, you are completely insane—
You don’t want to go sleep in the smith’s house
Or into a lodge but instead you say so much boldly
Here among the many men. And you are not at all afraid
In your heart. Really, wine has overtaken your thoughts or else
Your mind is always the kind to babble meaningless things.
Are you so confident because you defeated the beggar Iros?
May no other better than Iros quickly arise
Who might bash your head between his two strong hands
And drive you out of the house once he drenches you with so much blood.”

Then very-clever Odysseus answered as he glared at her:
“I will quickly tell Telemachus what you are saying, bitch,
After he comes here so that he can tear you apart by the limbs.”

τὸν δ’ αἰσχρῶς ἐνένιπε Μελανθὼ καλλιπάρῃος,
τὴν Δολίος μὲν ἔτικτε, κόμισσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
παῖδα δὲ ὣς ἀτίταλλε, δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ·
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς ἔχε πένθος ἐνὶ φρεσὶ Πηνελοπείης,
ἀλλ’ ἥ γ’ Εὐρυμάχῳ μισγέσκετο καὶ φιλέεσκεν.
ἥ ῥ’ ᾿Οδυσῆ’ ἐνένιπεν ὀνειδείοισ’ ἐπέεσσι·
“ξεῖνε τάλαν, σύ γέ τις φρένας ἐκπεπαταγμένος ἐσσί,
οὐδ’ ἐθέλεις εὕδειν χαλκήϊον ἐς δόμον ἐλθὼν
ἠέ που ἐς λέσχην, ἀλλ’ ἐνθάδε πόλλ’ ἀγορεύεις
θαρσαλέως πολλοῖσι μετ’ ἀνδράσιν, οὐδέ τι θυμῷ
ταρβεῖς· ἦ ῥά σε οἶνος ἔχει φρένας, ἤ νύ τοι αἰεὶ
τοιοῦτος νόος ἐστίν, ὃ καὶ μεταμώνια βάζεις.
ἦ ἀλύεις ὅτι ῏Ιρον ἐνίκησας τὸν ἀλήτην;
μή τίς τοι τάχα ῎Ιρου ἀμείνων ἄλλος ἀναστῇ,
ὅς τίς σ’ ἀμφὶ κάρη κεκοπὼς χερσὶ στιβαρῇσι
δώματος ἐκπέμψῃσι φορύξας αἵματι πολλῷ.”
τὴν δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπόδρα ἰδὼν προσέφη πολύμητις ᾿Οδυσσεύς·
“ἦ τάχα Τηλεμάχῳ ἐρέω, κύον, οἷ’ ἀγορεύεις,
κεῖσ’ ἐλθών, ἵνα σ’ αὖθι διὰ μελεϊστὶ τάμῃσιν.”
ὣς εἰπὼν ἐπέεσσι διεπτοίησε γυναῖκας.

Schol ad 18.323

[athurmata] Melanthô used to get ornaments and toys, and Penelope did not deprive her of delights, but instead was doing these things to please her—it is clear, this means material for children. For athurmata are the games of children.

δίδου δ’ ἄρ’ ἀθύρματα θυμῷ] ἡ Μελανθὼ χλιδὰς καὶ παιδιὰς ἐλάμβανεν, ἀλλ’ οὐ συνεχώρει αὐτῇ ἡ Πηνελόπη ἀθύρματα, ἀλλὰ τὰ πρὸς ἡδονὴν αὐτῆς ἔπραττε, δηλονότι νηπία ὑπάρχουσα. ἀθύρματα γάρ εἰσι τὰ τῶν νηπίων παίγνια. B.H.Q.


“Athurma: a children’s toy. Josephus writes: “[the man who] was a toy of the king and was put on display for jokes and laughter while drinking.” And elsewhere: “it is not the place of men to waste time with children’s toys” In the Epigrams: “They stripped it clean and dedicated it near the road as a fine toy.” Instead of dedication: in Cratinus’ Odysseuses: “a new-fangled delight was made.”

Ἄθυρμα: παίγνιον. Ἰώσηπος. ὃς ἦν τοῦ βασιλέως ἄθυρμα καὶ πρὸς τὰ σκώμματα καὶ τοὺς ἐν τοῖς πότοις γέλωτας ἐπεδείκνυτο. καὶ αὖθις: οὐκ ἔστιν ἀνδρῶν ἀθύρμασιν ἐμφιλοχωρεῖν παιδίων. καὶ ἐν Ἐπιγράμμασι: Πανὶ δέ μιν ξέσσαντες ὁδῷ ἔπι καλὸν ἄθυρμα κάτ- θεσαν. ἀντὶ τοῦ ἄγαλμα. Κρατῖνος Ὀδυσσεῦσι: νεοχμὸν παρῆχθαι ἄθυρμα.

Bilderesultat for ancient roman wicker chair

The Power of Story: A Podcast on the Odyssey

Last week I appeared on Cornell’s 1869 Podcast to talk about The Many Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Jonathan L. Hall.

The press values accessibility, so there’s a transcript too:.

I tell a little bit about the genesis of the book. (There’s more on this here):

My question was this, can we imagine that the Odyssey is depicting someone who has been broken down by life, who doesn’t believe that he can succeed anymore, and needs something radical to happen to shift him out of it? And how would this shape our reading of the epic, and help us understand what ancient audiences were doing with it?

CUP’s fabulous editor, Dr. Bethany Wasik ,was kind enough to edit a pull quote that works on twitter:

The podcast is not too long. It covers a good deal of the book and only features me saying “the ways in which” a few times, like here:

So, the real sort of key moment for me, happened in around 2011—my dad died suddenly. And I found myself returning to the Odyssey in class and thinking about the ways in which it forces us to think about the way that other people in your life create your identity for you.

Although I talk about my father a bit at the beginning of the book, I think this podcast is the first time I talk about seeing him in Homer’s Laertes:

So for people who may not remember the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after 20 years, and he’s not fully home until after a series of reunions—first with a son who never really knew, his wife, and then this problematic part in book 24 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus shows up in disguise still, and he tricks his father Laertes and father cries. And then he immediately relents, and says, “No, no, I’m your son Odysseus, I’m here.” And his father doesn’t believe him. And he has to prove it to him by showing him his scar that he got from when he was a young man on a hunting trip.

And then they go through this orchard, and name the trees that their fathers and grandfathers planted, and they took care of when Odysseus was young. And one day I was teaching that and just completely undone by it because it made me remember my father. And the way he bought five acres of land in the middle of the woods in Maine, when I was in third grade, and we spent the rest of his life trying to turn that into like lawn and gardens. Right. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had to stop the lawn mower and refuel in the process of mowing this ridiculous lawn.

Check out the podcast to support Cornell University Press, and the book. Remember that all of the author’s proceeds go to supporting open access publishing.

Pitiless Force a Pitiful Possession

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary McCarthy):

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. The human race is not divided up, in the Iliad, into conquered persons, slaves, suppliants, on the one hand, and conquerors and chiefs on the other. In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force. The common soldier in the Iliad is free and has the right to bear arms; nevertheless he is subject to the indignity of orders and abuse:

But whenever he came upon a commoner shouting out,

he struck him with his scepter and spoke sharply:

“Good for nothing! Be still and listen to your betters.

You are weak and cowardly and unwarlike,

You count for nothing, neither in battle nor in council.”

Thersites pays dear for the perfectly reasonable comments he makes, comments not at all different, moreover, from those made by Achilles:

He hit him with his scepter on back and shoulders,

so that he doubled over, and a great tear welled up,

And a bloody welt appeared on his back

Under the golden scepter. Frightened, he sat down,

Wiping away his tears, bewildered and in pain.

Troubled though they were, the others laughed long at him.

Achilles himself, that proud hero, the undefeated, is shown us at the outset of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief – the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared to oppose it:

. . . But Achilles

Weeping, sat apart from his companions,

By the white-capped waves, staring over the boundless ocean.

What has happened is that Agamemnon has deliberately humiliated Achilles, to show that he himself is the master:

… So you will learn

That I am greater than you, and anyone else will hesitate

To treat me as an equal and set himself against me.

But a few days pass and now the supreme commander is weeping in his turn. He must humble himself, he must plead, and have, moreover, the added misery of doing it all in vain.

In the same way, there is not a single one of the combatants who is spared the shameful experience of fear. The heroes quake like everybody else. It only needs a challenge from Hector to throw the whole Greek force into consternation – except for Achilles and his men, and they did not happen to be present.

The Intoxication of Force

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary McCarthy):


Nevertheless, the soul that is enslaved to war cries out for deliverance, but deliverance 
itself appears to it in an extreme and tragic aspect, the aspect of destruction. Any other 
solution, more moderate, more reasonable in character, would expose the mind to 
suffering so naked, so violent that it could not be borne, even as memory. Terror, 
grief, exhaustion, slaughter, the annihilation of comrades - is it credible that these 
things should not continually tear at the soul, if the intoxication of force had not 
intervened to drown them? The idea that an unlimited effort should bring in only a 
limited profit or no profit at all is terribly painful. 

What? Will we let Priam and the Trojans boast 
Of Argive Helen, she for whom so many Greeks 
Died before Troy, far from their native land? 
What? Do you want us to leave the city, wide-streeted Troy, 
Standing, when we have suffered so much for it? 

But actually what is Helen to Ulysses? What indeed is Troy, full of riches that will not 
compensate him for Ithaca's ruin? For the Greeks, Troy and Helen are in reality mere 
sources of blood and tears; to master them is to master frightful memories. If the 
existence of an enemy has made a soul destroy in itself the thing nature put there, then 
the only remedy the soul can imagine is the destruction of the enemy. At the same 
time the death of dearly loved comrades arouses a spirit of somber emulation, a 
rivalry in death. 

“The Most Famous Contest of All”

Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome 1

“Then, the most famous contest of all sports”

Clarissimum deinde omnium ludicrum certamen

Philo, The Worse Attack the Better 29

“There are some of those athletes who display such perfection of body that their opponents decline to face them and they are announced as victors without a fight….”

εἰσὶ δέ τινες τῶν ἀγωνιστῶν οἳ διὰ σώματος εὐεξίαν, ἀπειπόντων τῶν ἀντιπάλων, ἐστεφανώθησαν ἀμαχὶ…

Livy, 40.13

“Look at the kind of circumstance selected for murder: games, parties, and drinking.”

tempora quidem qualia sint ad parricidium electa vides: lusus convivii comissationis.

Plutarch, Life of Antony 28

“There, he used his leisure in the distractions of youth and childish games, spending and even wasting that most expensive currency, as Antiphon calls it, time.”

ἐκεῖ δὲ μειρακίου σχολὴν ἄγοντος διατριβαῖς καὶ παιδιαῖς χρώμενον ἀναλίσκειν καὶ καθηδυπαθεῖν τὸ πολυτελέστατον, ὡς2Ἀντιφῶν εἶπεν, ἀνάλωμα, τὸν χρόνον.

Horace, Epistles 1.19.48-9

“Sport tends to give rise to heated strife and anger, anger in turns brings savage feuds and war to the death”.

ludus enim genuit trepidum certamen et iram, ira truces inimicitias et funebre bellum.

Xenophanes, Fragment 2. 16-19

“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·

Homer, Odyssey 8.147-8

“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”

οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν,
ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν.

Superbowl53 (2)

The Art of Reading Slowly


I. Meaning in Literature: Saying Something Without Saying It

In Book Nine of the Iliad three ambassadors from the Greek army—Odysseus, Aias, and Phoinix—go to visit Achilles to appeal to him to rejoin the battle. He offers them hospitality in the proper manner:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ὤπτησε καὶ εἰν ἐλεοῖσιν ἔχευε,
Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.9.215–17)

But when he had roasted [the meat] and put it on the platters,
Patroklos took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Patroklos, of course, is Achilles’ closest friend and companion. He and Achilles share the duties of hospitality, and no doubt Achilles, as the official host, has the more important task of serving the meat, while Patroklos has the less honorary task of serving the bread.

In Book Twenty-four of the Iliad, Priam comes to Achilles’ hut to ask for the body of his son, Hektor, who has been killed by Achilles because he killed Patroklos. Achilles offers him the same kind of hospitality he offered to the three ambassadors:

ὤπτηςάν τε περιφραδέως, ἐρύσαντο τε πάντα.
Αὐτομέδων δ᾽ἄρα σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν Ἀχιλλεύς. (Il.24.624–26)

And he roasted [the meat] carefully, and pulled it all off [the spits]
And Automedon took the bread and set it out on a table
in beautiful baskets, but Achilles served the meat.

Lines 9.216–17 and lines 24.625–26 are identical, except for the name of the person serving the bread. Patroklos clearly can’t serve the bread because he has been killed by Hektor, whose father has come to ask for his body. The substitution of the name Automedon for the name Patroklos is a stark reminder of why Priam has come to Achilles, and a reminder of what Achilles has lost because of Hektor. The substitution carries with it all the grief and anger felt by Achilles and all the implicit threat of violence that Priam faces. The change of name signifies the absence of Patroklos and the reason for his absence. These lines, I would suggest, show the power of narrative to say something without explicitly saying it.

These lines are probably formulaic; that is, they probably belong to the stock of lines the poet has available to assist in the process of oral composition by improvisation. (I don’t mean to suggest that there was a complete set of fixed lines stored in the poet’s memory— formulaic composition was flexible and varied—but that’s another discussion.) Situations or actions which are likely to be happen with some frequency were likely to accumulate formulaic expressions—sacrifice, arming, preparing a ship for sailing, and so on. Offering hospitality no doubt occurred many times in oral epic, and it’s not surprising if there were formulas to express it. One might argue that this repetition of lines from Book Nine to Book Twenty-four is simply a consequence of the formulaic technique and therefore without any particular meaning. It is perhaps hard to imagine that the audience of oral epic performance would make the connection between these two passages. It is possible that the Homeric epics were usually performed in sections on different occasions; if so, it might seem even more unlikely that the audience would note the varied repetition of these two lines.

I am not persuaded by this argument. My reading of the epics tells me that Homer—the person or the tradition we call Homer, again that’s another discussion—was a skilled and subtle poet and psychologist. The epics are full of cross-references that come to their full meaning only if we allow ourselves to grant the poet the respect due to a great artist, a great composer of verse and narrative.

Most scholars, I believe, would agree that Books One and Twenty-four of the Iliad show a remarkable pattern of correspondences. We can identify a number of events in Book One which are then repeated in reverse order in Book Twenty-four; for instance, (A) Chryses’ appeal for the return of his daughter (1.10–42) corresponds to Priam’s appeal for the return of Hektor’s body (24.471–688); (B) the conversation between Thetis and Achilles (1.351–427) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Achilles (24.126–58); (C) the conversation between Thetis and Zeus (1.500–530) corresponds to another conversation between Thetis and Zeus (24.100–119); and (D) the gathering of the gods at the end of Book One (1.533–611) corresponds to the gathering of the gods at the beginning of Book Twenty-four ((24.32–76). Thus events ABCD in Book One are matched by events DCBA in Book Twenty-four. If Homer expected his audience to remember the events of Book One when they heard Book Twenty-four, he could have expected them to remember Book Nine as well.

The correspondence of events at the beginning and ending of the Iliad is an instance of what is called Ring Composition. This kind of ring can create an Invitation to Compare; here, for example, we are invited to compare Agamemnon’s rude dismissal of Chryses with Achilles’ gracious, if reluctant, acceptance of Priam.

Ring composition in various forms is very common in the Homeric epics and in classical literature generally. It is also common in modern literature, but less often noted by critics. Near the beginning of Orwell’s 1984, for instance, Winston Smith sees the three failed revolutionaries (Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford) sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café; at the very end of the novel, Smith himself, broken by interrogation, is sitting at the Chestnut Tree Café. A number of specific repetitions mark the ring: “It was the lonely hour of fifteen” (77 and 287); the song “Under the spreading chestnut tree (77 and 293); the chessboard (77 and 288). This ring is clearly an invitation to compare Smith to the earlier failed revolutionaries.

Rings can come in various lengths and have various functions. Flashbacks are often marked as rings. In the Odyssey, the famous passage which explains the scar of Odysseus is a ring, marked by the repetition of the words “scar” (οὐλήν at 19.393 and 19.464) and “recognized” (ἔγνω at 19.392 and γνῶ at 19.468). This flashback, like many others, is a folding back of time on itself, and a reminder that the past leaves its mark in the present. Each ring has to be interpreted in its own context.

All of these instances of Ring Composition, and the hundreds more that it would be easy to add to the list, are examples of Saying Something Without Saying It. These meanings typically don’t translate very well into explicit propositions. A joke loses its point if it has to be explained, and literary meanings are attenuated when they are stated as explicit themes.

Brygos Painter500 BC – 480 BC, ANSA IV 3710 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien

II. Philology: The Art of Reading Slowly

All my life I’ve been fascinated by words, by the way words form phrases and sentences, and the way sentences form poems and stories. The technical term for this fascination is philology—the love of language. Friedrich Nietzsche defined philology as the art of reading slowly. For about six months I’ve been publishing a blog titled “The Art of Reading Slowly: A Blog about Language and Literature”, in which I post little essays on philological topics that catch my fancy. Here’s the link: )

As I see it, philology has four major components, all of which work together. These components are (1) historical linguistics, (2) the editing of texts, (3) the interpretation of meaning in context, and (4) literary criticism with a particular attention to language. I’m interested in all of these, and I post on all of them, but my own work lies primarily in the third and fourth areas. I created this blog as an invitation for anyone who has a passion for language and literature—readers and writers of all sorts. I would like to think of it as one part of a conversation among people who share an interest in the way language works and the way it turns into art.

My own training is in classical philology, ancient Greek and Latin literature, but my blog is mostly about the English language and modern literature. Here are some titles of the blogs I’ve published: “Lost in a Book” (about the experience of reading); “Plangent, Ostiole, and Winze” (about the vocabulary of Malcolm Lowrey’s Under the Volcano); “A Heap of Words” (about the rhetorical figure called congeries); “Rhetorical Figures in Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians”; “Philology in the Future” (about editing texts); “Etymology and Entomology” (one of several posts on historical linguistics and etymology); and most recently “Verbish Nouns and Nounish Verbs” (about the parts of speech in English).

I have no particular plan for what comes next, though I think I will continue the discussion of parts of speech for another post or two, and I’m sure I will continue to talk about rhetorical figures, but anything that catches my eye when I’m reading might start me going. Several readers have contributed fascinating comments to the blog, and I encourage conversation; I’m also open to guest columns, and I was very pleased to publish a column, “Trauma and Reading Homer”, by Joel Christensen, the author/editor of sententiae antiquae and the author of the recent book about Odysseus, The Many-Minded Man: The Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic. If you think you might be interested in the blog, I invite you to take a look at it. Here’s the link again:

Image result for priam and achilles vase ransom of hector
Athens, ca 510 BC, Sackler Museum (Harvard U.)

Folk Etymologies: Useless and Uneducated in Homer

Homer, Od. 8.176-177

“Thus, you have a conspicuous appearance, but no god
could make you different: your mind is useless.”

ὡς καὶ σοὶ εἶδος μὲν ἀριπρεπές, οὐδέ κεν ἄλλως
οὐδὲ θεὸς τεύξειε, νόον δ’ ἀποφώλιός ἐσσι

Schol. ad Od. 8.177.12-14

Apopholios properly means someone who is not worthy to be numbered among men as a complete person, one who is lacking the use of words or deeds for the proper occasions. They also call schools phôleoi. Therefore, someone who has not gone to school is called useless, i.e. unschooled”

καὶ ἔστι κυρίως ἀποφώλιος ὁ μὴ ἄξιος συναριθμεῖσθαι ἀνδρῶν ὁλότητι ἐν φωτὶ, ἤγουν ἐν καιρῷ ἔργων ἢ λόγων δεομένῳ. φωλεοὺς λέγουσι τὰ παιδευτήρια. ὁ γοῦν μὴ φοιτῶν εἰς τὰ παιδευτήρια λέγεται ἀποφώλιος. E.

Schol. ad. Od. 5.182

Apophôlia: uneducated things. For phôleoi are schools. Or, they are things which someone shouldn’t declare because they are ineloquent or lack understanding”

ἀποφώλια] ἀπαίδευτα. φωλεοὶ γὰρ τὰ παιδευτήρια. ἢ ἃ οὐκ ἄν τις ἀποφήναιτο ὡς ἄρρητα ἢ ἀσύνετα. P.V.


Apophôlios: empty, unesteemed, simple. Or, uneducated.”

†ἀποφώλιος· μάταιος. ἀδόκιμος, εὐτελής. ἢ ἀπαίδευτος (θ 177) p

Etymologicum Genuinum 

….“this comes from phôleon: for schools are called phôleoi because people linger and spend time in them. Therefore they call uneducated people apophôlioi.”

γέγονε δὲ παρὰ τὸν φωλεόν· φωλεοὶ γὰρ λέγονται τὰ παιδευτήρια παρὰ τὸ ἐν αὐτοῖς φωλεύειν καὶ διατρίβειν. τοὺς οὖν ἀδιδάκτους ἀποφωλίους ἐκάλουν.


φωλεύεω, “to lurk in a hole or a den”….“to lie hidden”


More Etymologies: Notes (from Perseus)

[177] ἀποφώλιος. The derivation of this word is most uncertain; it is commonly compounded of “ἀπὸ-ὄφελος” [from ophellos, “use”], while others refer it to a root “φα”, ‘to blow,’ or to “ἀπάφεσθαι”, ‘to cheat.’ Autenrieth proposes to refer the latter part of the word to the same root as “φύω” and “φώς”, so as to mean, ‘grown out of shape.’