Epic Duals and Audience Receptions

N.B. Dual forms are in bold while potentially conflicting plural forms are bold underlined.

Homer, Iliad 9.168-198

Let Phoinix, dear to Zeus, lead first of all
And then great Ajax and shining Odysseus.
And the heralds Odios and Eurubates should follow together.
Wash your hands and have everyone pray
So we can be pleasing to Zeus, if he takes pity on us.

So he spoke and this speech was satisfactory to everyone.
The heralds immediately poured water over their hands
And the servants filled their cups with wine.
And then they distributed the cups to everyone
And then they made a libation and drank to their fill.
They left from Agamemnon’s, son of Atreus’ dwelling.
Gerenian Nestor, the horseman, was giving them advice,
Stopping to prepare each one, but Odysseus especially,
How to try to persuade the blameless son of Peleus.

The two of them went along the strand of the much-resounding sea,
Both praying much to the earth-shaker Poseidon
That they might easily persuade the great thoughts of Aiakos’ grandson.
When the two of them arrived at the ships and the dwellings of the Myrmidons
They found him there delighting his heart with a clear-voiced lyre,
A well-made, beautiful one, set on a silver bridge.
Achilles stole it when he sacked and destroyed the city of Eetion.
He was pleasing his heart with it, and was singing the famous tales of men.
Patroklos was sitting there in silence across from him,
Waiting for Aiakos’ grandson to stop singing.

The two of them were walking first, but shining Odysseus was leading.
And they stood in front of him. When Achilles saw them, he rose
With the lyre in his hand, leaving the place where he had been sitting.
Patroklos rose at the same time, when he saw the men.
As he welcomed those two, swift-footed Achilles addressed them.

“Welcome [you too]–really, dear friends two have come–the need must be great,
When these two [come] who are dearest of the Achaeans to me, even when I am angry.”

Φοῖνιξ μὲν πρώτιστα Διῒ φίλος ἡγησάσθω,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ’ Αἴας τε μέγας καὶ δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς·
κηρύκων δ’ ᾿Οδίος τε καὶ Εὐρυβάτης ἅμ’ ἑπέσθων.
φέρτε δὲ χερσὶν ὕδωρ, εὐφημῆσαί τε κέλεσθε,
ὄφρα Διὶ Κρονίδῃ ἀρησόμεθ’, αἴ κ’ ἐλεήσῃ.
῝Ως φάτο, τοῖσι δὲ πᾶσιν ἑαδότα μῦθον ἔειπεν.
αὐτίκα κήρυκες μὲν ὕδωρ ἐπὶ χεῖρας ἔχευαν,
κοῦροι δὲ κρητῆρας ἐπεστέψαντο ποτοῖο,
νώμησαν δ’ ἄρα πᾶσιν ἐπαρξάμενοι δεπάεσσιν.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ σπεῖσάν τ’ ἔπιόν θ’ ὅσον ἤθελε θυμός,
ὁρμῶντ’ ἐκ κλισίης ᾿Αγαμέμνονος ᾿Ατρεΐδαο.
τοῖσι δὲ πόλλ’ ἐπέτελλε Γερήνιος ἱππότα Νέστωρ
δενδίλλων ἐς ἕκαστον, ᾿Οδυσσῆϊ δὲ μάλιστα,
πειρᾶν ὡς πεπίθοιεν ἀμύμονα Πηλεΐωνα.

Τὼ δὲ βάτην παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης
πολλὰ μάλ’ εὐχομένω γαιηόχῳ ἐννοσιγαίῳ
ῥηϊδίως πεπιθεῖν μεγάλας φρένας Αἰακίδαο.
Μυρμιδόνων δ’ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ’ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ’ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ’ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν ᾿Ηετίωνος ὀλέσσας·
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.
Πάτροκλος δέ οἱ οἶος ἐναντίος ἧστο σιωπῇ,
δέγμενος Αἰακίδην ὁπότε λήξειεν ἀείδων,
τὼ δὲ βάτην προτέρω, ἡγεῖτο δὲ δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεύς,
στὰν δὲ πρόσθ’ αὐτοῖο· ταφὼν δ’ ἀνόρουσεν ᾿Αχιλλεὺς
αὐτῇ σὺν φόρμιγγι λιπὼν ἕδος ἔνθα θάασσεν.
ὣς δ’ αὔτως Πάτροκλος, ἐπεὶ ἴδε φῶτας, ἀνέστη.
τὼ καὶ δεικνύμενος προσέφη πόδας ὠκὺς ᾿Αχιλλεύς·
χαίρετον· ἦ φίλοι ἄνδρες ἱκάνετον ἦ τι μάλα χρεώ,
οἵ μοι σκυζομένῳ περ ᾿Αχαιῶν φίλτατοί ἐστον.

Early Greek at some point in its history had a full system of nominal and verbal endings for what we call the dual number.  To add to the number distinction between singular and plural, both Greek and Sanskrit have a dual form to describe pairs of things acting together: eyes, twins, people, etc. In most cases the sound marking the dual is quite distinct: the combination wo in two and the long vowel in both are good examples of the vestigial dual persisting in English.

Classical Greek retained a limited use of the dual and Homeric Greek preserves it here and there. The most striking place where it shows up in the Iliad is in describing the movement of two heralds from one place to another. So, when Agamemnon sends heralds to retrieve the captive woman Briseis from Achilles in book 1 of the Iliad, we find dual forms for their pronouns and their verbal endings.

The embassy includes three speakers, Odysseus, Achilles’ older ‘tutor’ Phoenix, and his cousin, the powerful warrior, Ajax the son of Telamon. The two heralds accompany them as well. Yet the pronouns and verbal forms that describe them move between dual and plural forms. The grammarian responds that this is incorrect because there are at least five entities involved here. Modern responses over the past century have been:

  1. The text needs to be fixed, the duals have come from an older/different version of the poem that had a smaller embassy (with several variations)
  2. The traditional use is imperfect, the dual is being used for groups. Some scholiasts suggest that audiences would have just used the dual for the plural
  3. The dual herald scene is merely formulaic and has been left in without regard for changes in the evolution of the narrative
  4. The text is focalized in some way, showing Achilles (e.g.) refusing to acknowledge the presence of someone he dislikes (Odysseus, see Nagy 1979) or focusing on two people he does like (Phoenix and Ajax, Martin 1989)
  5. The text is jarring on purpose, highlighting that something is wrong with this scene

Ancient commenters seem less bothered by the forms: an ancient scholiast suggests that the first dual form refers to Ajax and Odysseus because Phoinix hung back to get more instruction from Nestor (Schol ad. Il. 9.182). Of course, this interpretation doesn’t even try to explain what happened to the actual heralds who were sent along with the embassy. Yet the interaction of forms seems to give some support to a complex reading. The number and entanglement of the forms makes interpolation seem unlikely (if not ludicrous) as an explanation.

I have presented the responses in a sequence that I see as both historical (in terms of traditions of literary criticism) and evolutionary. The first response–that the text is wrong–assumes infidelity in the transmission from the past and entrusts modern interpreters with the competence to identify errors and interpolations and to ‘correct’ them. The second response moves from morphological to functional, positing that ancient performers might have ‘misused’ the dual for present during a period of linguistic change. Neither of these suggestions are supported by the textual traditions which preserve the duals without significant exception and which show only a very marked and appropriate use of the dual throughout Homeric epic.

The final three answers depend upon the sense of error explored in the first two: first, a greater understanding of oral-formulaic poetry extends the Parryan suggestion that some forms are merely functional and do not express context specific meaning (#3) while the second option models a complex style of reading/reception that suggests the audience understands the misuse of the dual to evoke the internal thoughts/emotions of the character Achilles in one way or another. 

The third explanation is harder to defend based on how integrated the dual forms are in the passage: the dual is used to describe travel to Achilles’ tent, then the scene shifts to Achilles playing a lyre and Patroklos waiting for him to stop followed again by dual forms with what seems like and enigmatic line “and so they both were walking forth, and shining Odysseus was leading” (tō de batēn proterō, hēgeito de dios Odusseus). Ancient commentary remains nonplussed: Odysseus is first of two, the line makes that clear, and Phoinix is following somewhere behind. 

Nagy’s and Martin’s explanations are attractive and they respond well to the awkward movement between dual and plural forms as well as Achilles specific use of the dual in hailing the embassy with a bittersweet observation. I think I like taking these two together, leaving it up to audiences to decode Achilles’ enigmatic greeting.

The final option builds on the local context of the Iliad and sees the type scene as functioning within that narrative but with some expectation that audiences know the forms and the conventions. As others have argued, the use of the duals to signal the movement of heralds is traditional and functional in a compositional sense because it moves the action of the narrative from one place to another. In the Iliad, the herald scene marks a movement from one camp to another, building on what I believe is its larger conventional use apart from composition which is to mark the movement from one political space, or one sphere of authority to another. When Agamemnon sends the heralds in book 1 to retrieve Briseis, the action as well as the language further marks Achilles’ separation from the Achaean coalition. In book 9, the situation remains the same–Achilles is essentially operating in a different power-structure–but the embassy is an attempt to address the difference. The trio sent along with the heralds as ambassadors are simultaneously friends and foreign agents. Appropriately, the conventional language of epic reflects this tension by interposing the duals and reflecting the confused situation.

I would suggest that in this situation most of the responses except for the first two are valid. The first two responses–that the text is wrong or the usage is wrong–selectively accept the validity of some of the text but not that they find challenging for interpretive reasons or assume a simplicity on the part of ancient audiences (and many generations in between). My primary qualm with the subsequent responses is the tendency to wholly credit a creative intention rather than the collaborative ecosystem of meaning available to Homeric performance. In the telling of epic tales, it may well have been customary to manipulate conventional language through creative misuse; and yet, if audiences are not experienced enough of the forms or attentive enough to the patterns, such usage would not likely be sustained. Audiences (like the ancient scholar) imagine Phoinix lagging behind, or Achilles focusing just on one character, or sense the pattern of alienation and separation that makes it necessary to treat Achilles as a foreign entity and not an ally.

So, while the text relies on audience competency with epic conventions, this specific articulation also allows for depth of characterization in this moment: The final three interpretive options cannot be fully disambiguated, although we can argue for greater weight to the typological argument.

Here are some recent texts with good bibliographies on the issue. I strongly encourage everyone to run out and read Lesser’s brand new Desire in the Iliad

Jasper Griffin. Commentary on Iliad 9. Oxford. 1995

Rachel H. Lesser. Desire in the Iliad. Oxford. 2023.

Bruce Louden. The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning Oxford 2006.

Richard Martin. The Language of Heroes. 1989.

Gregory Nagy. Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore: 1979

Ruth Scodel. Listening to Homer. Michigan, 2002.

Close up on the eyes of the Mona lisa