“Antinoos, full of outrage, deviser of evils—they even claim that you
Are the best among those your age among the people of Ithaka
In council and speeches—but you really are not such a man.
Maniac! Why do you weave death and doom for Telemachus
While you fail to give help to suppliants over whom Zeus indeed
Is witness? It is not right to devise evils for one another.
Don’t you know that when your father came here as an exile
He was afraid of the people? For they were completely enraged with him
Because he had fallen in with Taphian pirates
And was harming the Thesprotians who were our allies.
They were willing to destroy him and crush his dear heart
And to consume his great pleasing life altogether.
But Odysseus defended him and held them off even though they were eager.
Now you eat up his dishonored home, you woo his dishonored wife,
And you are killing his child—and you are greatly aggrieving me.
I order you to stop and to compel the others.”
The sacrifice of Iphigenia is a pivotal moment in the tale of the House of Atreus—it motivates Agamemnon’s murder and in turn the matricide of Orestes—and the Trojan War, functioning as it does as a strange sacrifice of a virgin daughter of Klytemnestra in exchange for passage for a fleet to regain the adulteress Helen, Iphigeneia’s aunt by both her father and mother. The account is famous in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the plays Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians by Euripides. Its earliest accounts, however, provide some interesting variations:
Hes. Fr. 23.13-30
“Agamemnon, lord of men, because of her beauty,
Married the dark-eyed daughter of Tyndareus, Klytemnestra.
She gave birth to fair-ankled Iphimede in her home
And Elektra who rivaled the goddesses in beauty.
But the well-greaved Achaeans butchered Iphimede
on the altar of thundering, golden-arrowed Artemis
on that day when they sailed with ships to Ilium
in order to exact payment for fair-ankled Argive woman—
they butchered a ghost. But the deer-shooting arrow-mistress
easily rescued her and anointed her head
with lovely ambrosia so that her flesh would be enduring—
She made her immortal and ageless for all days.
Now the races of men upon the earth call her
Artemis of the roads, the servant of the famous arrow-mistress.
Last in her home, dark-eyed Klytemnestra gave birth
after being impregnated by Agamemnon to Orestes,
who, once he reached maturity, paid back the murderer of his father
and killed his mother as well with pitiless bronze.”
This fragment presents what is possibly the earliest account of the tale of Iphigenia and contains the major elements: the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter is tied to vengeance against Helen; the daughter is rescued by Artemis, made immortal and made her servant. [In some traditions she is either made immortal or made into a priestess of Artemis at Tauris]. Orestes kills the murderer of his father and his mother. Continue reading “The Names of Agamemnon’s Daughters and the Death of Iphigenia”→
Astuanassa: A handmaid of Helen, Menelaos’ wife. She first discovered positions for intercourse and wrote On Sexual Positions. Philainis and Elephantinê rivaled her in this later—they were women who danced out these sorts of wanton acts.
As is largely unsurprising from the perspective of Greek misogyny, excessive interest in sexual behavior is projected a female quality. Expertise beyond interest is made the province of female ‘professionals’ (slaves) who may act as scapegoats and marginal figures for the corruption of both men and women. There is a combination of such interest with an excessive emphasis on eating (and eating really well) in Athenaeus where the pleasures of the body are combined.
Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 8.335c
“Dear men, even though I have great admiration for Chrysippus as the leader of the Stoa, I praise him even more because he ranks Arkhestratos, well-known for his Science of Cooking along with Philainis who is credited with a licentious screed about sexual matters—even though the iambic poet of Samos, Aiskhriôn, claims that Polycrates the sophist started this slander of her when she was really quite chaste. The lines go like this:
“I, Philainis, circulated among men
Lie here thanks to great old age.
Don’t laugh, foolish sailor, as your trace the cape
Nor make me a target of mockery or insult
For, by Zeus and his sons in Hell
I was never a slut with men nor a public whore.
Polykrates, Athenian by birth,
A bit clever with words and with a nasty tongue,
Wrote what he wrote. I don’t know anything about it.”
But the most amazing Chrysippus combines in the fifth book of his On Goodness and Pleasure that both “the books of Philianis and the Gastronomiai of Arkhestratos and forces of erotic and sexual nature, and in the same way slave-girls who are expert at these kinds of movements and positions and who are engaged in their practice.” He adds that they learn this type of material completely and then thoroughly possess what has been written on these topics by Philainis and Arkhestratos and those who have written on similar topics. Similarly, in his seventh book, he says ‘As you cannot wholly learn the works of Philianis and Arkhestratos’ Gastronomia because they do have something to offer for living better.’ “
We have posted before about Odysseus’ sister Ktimene. She is mentioned by the swineherd Eumaios but never by Odysseus. The scholia connect her to one of Odysseus’ companions. The evidence for this seems to be the fact that Ktimene was sent to Same for marriage (where Eurylochus is from) and a kinship term used for him by Odysseus. Also of interest, according to the scholion, Odysseus may have had more sisters.
Homer, Odyssey 15.364-41
Strong Ktimenê, the youngest of the children she bore.
I was raised with her, and she honored me little less.
But when we both made it to much-praised youth,
They gave her to Samê and received much in return
But she gave me a cloak, tunic and clothing
Dressing me finely and give me sandals for my feet
And sent me to the field. But she loved me more in her heart.
“So he spoke, and I was turning over in my thoughts
As I began to draw the sharp-edged sword next to my thick thigh,
Whether I should cut off his head and drive him to the ground
Even though he really was my relative. But our companions
Were restraining me with gentle words from all sides.”
“Pêos: A relative by marriage. In-law. Also, “in-lawness” [Pêosunê], relation-by-marriage. There is also Pêôn [genitive plural], for “of relatives-by-marriage. Homer has: “relatives and friends” [Il. 3.163]
“And what about you, Nikêratos—what kind of knowledge do you cherish?” And he said “My father, because he wished for me to be a good man, compelled me to memorize all of Homer. And now I can recite the whole Iliad and Odyssey.” Antisthenes said “Has it escaped you that all the rhapsodes know these epics too?”
Over the past few weeks there has been a bit of a frenzy over Oxford University’s potential move to drop Homer and Vergil from their required curriculum for Classics. We have heard the typical cries of “O Tempora, O Mores” in articles lamenting the fall of education and the decline of the west. This news even made The Blaze!, quoting only a student who calls it “a fatal mistake” because “Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity.”
(And you know that if a cultural question got Blazed. it is of real, deep, ethical concern.)
You know what I haven’t heard much of? People defending this proposal. Well, here I am, and that’s what I am going to do.
I am a Homerist. I have spent more than half my life reading, teaching, and writing on Homer. To say that I love the Homeric epics is such an understatement that it breaks my basic constative ability to do so. But this proposal makes sense. Let me tell you why.
Leonardo Bruni de Studiis et Litteris 21
“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.”
Quid Homero deest, quominus in omni sapientia sapientissimus existimari possit? Eius poesim totam esse doctrinam vivendi quidam ostendunt, in belli tempora pacisque divisa
First, the brouhaha mis-characterizes the proposal which is to make Homer and Vergil optional. From years of teaching Homer to undergraduates, I know that fewer are prepared to read something of this length and depth. They have read little in pre-collegiate classes of this length and intricacy. And we do not have the time in class to move from understanding a sentence to its relationship to the whole to its critical engagement with cultures over time.
The worst thing I see happening—and I know this happens at Oxford—is teaching Homer badly. Students don’t have the cultural frameworks, or the training to understand what they’re looking at. And this is in part because many people who teach Homer have a backwards idea of what the epics are and how they work.
These backwards ideas come from a teleological perspective that has over time selected from the past only works that conform to certain expectations and then force them to conform to others. Teaching Homer badly is objectively a bad thing. It turns students off to Homer; it gives them misconceptions about the ancient world; and it harmfully enforces the history of European literature.
Homer contains some nasty stuff. Taught in the wrong way, it glorifies violence, perpetuates misogyny, oversimplifies “heroes”, their faults, and gives terrible lessons on life and death. “Reading” a text is not merely passing one’s eyes over it or uttering the words aloud. It requires patience, contemplation, identification, alienation, communion with others and repetition
This is about the way we teach Homer as a holy, simple thing, with clear messages and heroes who can be understood in a few lessons. Homeric epics are dialogic, they are complex creations between audiences and the words themselves and without time, deep learning, and space, they function to advance a simplistic, but powerful policy of canon-enforcement
Henry David Thoreau, from his essay Walking (1862)
“The poet to-day, notwithstanding all the discoveries of science, and the accumulated learning of mankind, enjoys no advantage over Homer.”
Homer as often taught as canon—which is the main argument in many articles—is a product not of antiquity but of the time between antiquity and now. To disentangle the layers of interpretation and the centuries of misunderstandings that have accrued, students need sensitive reading skills and agile teachers.
Before reading Homer, students need to learn to read, to understand the relationship between text and audience, and the operation of literature—and especially the literary canon—as part of cultural discourse. We are better off by spending time teaching students a few poems by Sappho or lyric and elegiac poets, if what we want to learn about is Greek culture and poetry.
(And all of this sidesteps what modern program in Classical Studies is for. If we have only a small handful of credit hours to enlighten the mind and prepare it to engage fruitfully with the world it encounters, is slogging through an epic the best use of our time?)
But if you read even passively, the stalwart Homeric defenders aren’t really interested in the past. They are interested in Homer as a marker of their own culture. And look at the way people defend it! In one piece, the author cries that Homer is the beginning of a Trojan war story that made London “New Troy”. No cultural supremacy or appropriation there.
Werner Jager, Paideia (tr. Gilbert Highet, pp.35-36)
“We are right in feeling such bare utilitarianism to be repulsive to our aesthetic sense; but it is none the less certain that Homer (like all the great Greek poets) is something much more than a figure in the parade of literary history. He is the first and the greatest creator and shaper of Greek life and the Greek character.”
Homer, as taught in many places, is a ‘genius author’ who laid the foundations of western literature. Homer “wrote” the Iliad and the Odyssey and handed down the guidebook for mimetic narrative and human achievement. These ‘facts’ are demonstrably false and yet the way many teach Homer and position the epics as canon are based on these premises.
The ‘lie’ of Homer is an originary tale of ‘authenticity’ and cultural hegemony which intentionally overlooks that the Homeric epics are products and well as producers of this culture. This is deeply connected to how easily the Classics can be appropriated by white supremacists.
And the ‘Homer’ we possess is one of our own creation. There is a fundamental problem here in the concept of the word “authentic”, a quasi-religious belief and consequent search for the original, authoritative, and authentic form of Homer which goes back to antiquity (once “Homer” was separated from its performance context and reassembled by Hellensitic authors) and which is reborn and supercharged in that overlapping space between Classical and Biblical philology. M.L. West’s, an Oxford prodcut, posthumous text of the Odyssey, for example, operates on the principle that there was a single author and a single text and that the task of a textual critic—and philology at large—is to help us get closer to that original, that authentic, that divine genius.
And there is a Christian, revelationist stance in some of the philology that emerges from this background. In his recent commentary to Odyssey book 1, Simon Pulleyn, rejecting the idea of an oral tradition as critical to the epic we possess, tradition, revealingly combines belief in God with belief in Homer: “Just as the faith once put in God reposes nowadays largely in committees, so we are invited to see the epics not as masterpieces of an individual artist but as the product of numerous generations of bards each contributing their bit. We are asked to rid ourselves of anachronistic notions of the genius of individual authors” (2019 39).
Too much of what we call “classical studies” and canon are retrograde assumptions about the world and what it means to be human. They reduce everything to divinely-derived aesthetics and marginalize people and creeds who do not confirm to “Western” measures (as defined after the age in which the epics were formed). When we talk about what we should teach as the foundation of Classical Studies, we need to think about what our goals are, what we want students to be able to do when they are done.
“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”
Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.
Making Homer optional is not “watering down” the curriculum. It is opening up our education to do what we are supposed to do: critically and pointedly examine the past. Sure, advanced students, graduate students, professionals in the field, they should probably read Homer, but should everyone?
I am not saying that we should not have students reading Homer—but that if we only have a small collection of classes, they can acquire critical language, reading, reasoning, and cultural skills in other ways. This is important both in focusing on what our undergraduate learning goals are and in thinking about what we want classical studies to become in the future.
Are we going to merely perpetuate the same training, beliefs and ideas over and over again without reflecting on where they come from or what they mean? Are we going to ignore the fact that our histories of the Mediterranean have been figuratively and literally whitewashed in the service of colonial, nationalist, and racist discourse? Or are we a field where we train people to think critically, to re-frame the past, and then reclaim it?
As a Homerist, I think I’ve found myself in part by searching for “Homer”—and I think this is indeed one of the most salubrious effects of literature. But this is not the only goal and this is not the Aristotelian end for Classical Studies. We need students to enter with the world with the ability to question and reframe the worth of the pasts we have inherited.
Because if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, it is not going to turn out well. And soon.
Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione
“The ancients decided that reading should begin from Homer and Vergil, though it requires a firm sense of judgment to understand their virtues.”
Veteres instituerunt, ut ab Homero atque Vergilio lectio inciperet, quamvis ad intelligendum eorum virtutes opus esset firmiori iudicio.
Gregory Nagy (Best of the Achaeans 1979, 1999) has drawn on the work of others to argue that in early Greek poetry (especially Homer and Hesiod) there is a tension between character and activities associated with force (biê) and intelligence (mêtis). He sees Achilles and Odysseus as representing these vectors respectively and, in turn, as the antagonism or contrast between the heroes and (in part) their epics as an extension or embodiment of these basic qualities. Similarly, structural interpretations of Greek myth have mapped these tensions onto gendered polarities as well—for Hesiod’s Theogony, the conflict between the male and female forces can be conceptualized as well as one between male biê and female mêtis. (For this, see especially, Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles 1996)
In Simonides (above) the “hands and feet” are metonyms for physical deeds while the mind (noos) represents acts of mêtis (be them planning or speaking). In the Odyssey, the hero’s mêtis is often illustrated with reference to his noos or operations thereof. That the reference to a complete man by Simonides recalls these tensions and laments the rarity of the person who can resolve them is supported in part by a few passages from the Odyssey. In the first, it is clear that “hands and feet” represent deeds. In the second, Odysseus himself opposes this concern with the hands and feet as those of “appearance” and not thought or speaking.
“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory
than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
“Friend, you don’t speak well. No, you’re like a wreck of a man.
The gods don’t distribute charms in this well to all men,
Not in form, brains or their ability to speak
For while one man is less than impressive in appearance,
But a god crowns his form with words. And people delight
As they gaze upon him, while he speaks strongly,
With reverent shame, and he is conspicuous among those assembled
As they look upon his travel to the city as if he were a god.
Another man in turn is similar to the immortals in appearance,
But not charm hands about his words at all.
That’s you: brilliant in appearance and not anyone
Not even a god could make you otherwise. But you’re useless at thinking.”
The passage above is especially charged in the Odyssey for a few reasons. For one, by calling the young Phaeacian prince atasthalos (ἀτασθάλῳ ἀνδρὶ ἔοικας) Odysseus aligns them with people who bring destruction upon themselves, including his own men and the suitors in Ithaca (For the atasthalia theme in the Odyssey see especially Cook, The Odyssey in Athens 1995; Bakker, The Meaning of Meat 2013, 96-119). I think that the comparison of the Phaeacians to the suitors is especially damning here. Both groups are characterized as being especially stupid, reckless, and concerned overmuch with leisure activities.
I think there is also an emerging political valence to the contrast. A presocratic fragments supports this.
Xenophanes, fr. 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.”
As I have written elsewhere, “swiftness of feet” is a metonym for biê and the type of hero who succeeds through force and deeds rather than intelligence. For Xenophanes, this quality is an obstacle to eunomia (good governance). I cannot help but think that Simonides, Xenophanes and Homer are all involved in the same debate about what kind of a person should lead a city. Let’s not forget Archilochus too:
Archilochus, fr. 114
“I don’t love a tall leader, or one striding far,
Or one who takes pride in his hair or shaved head.
No, give me a shorter man, who looks bowed near the shins
But who is sure on his feet, and strong of heart.”
The Odyssey pretty clearly falls on the side of mêtis and speech, as is clear from its hero. Ancient scholars sensed the themes deployed with Telemachus as well.
Schol QT ad Od. 8.166
“Friend, you do not speak well”: It is the Homeric custom to evaluate even the character of one you meet from his words. For elsewhere someone says about Telemachus “you are one of noble blood, dear child, based on the way you are speaking” (4.611). This is because he thinks that being well-born and educated necessarily coincide, and that speaking is conspicuous beyond all else. But Odysseus, does not maintain absolutely that he is reckless, but instead that he is like someone who is thanks to his response and what he said.”
The scholia have a few interesting things to add to this.
Schol. ad Hom. Od. 10.495
“They leap like shadows”: The rest of the dead apart from Teiresias are shadows and they move like shadows, just like the shadows that follow men who are moving. This term is used instead of souls [psukhai]. Certainly the poet has the rest of the dead come forward for comparison in this, but the rest of the dead move like shadows”
Stobaeus (1.49.54) in discussing shadows and death, notes that “if they meet their near and dear, they cannot see them nor can they converse with them, but they are walled off from aesthetic reality, they appear to them something like shadows”