Homer’s “Mistake”

In the Iliad, Pandarus’ status as hero is marked by his distinctive weapon: a bow. On battlefields where spears are most common, a bow stands out.

In the Catalogue of Ships Homer gives the bow’s genealogy:

Iliad 2. 824-827

They who lived in Zeleia, under Mt. Ida’s farthest foot,
Rich from drinking the dark water of the river Aesepus,
They were Trojans, and their leader was Lycaon’s brave son,
Pandarus, the man to whom Apollo himself gave a bow.

οἳ δὲ Ζέλειαν ἔναιον ὑπαὶ πόδα νείατον Ἴδης
ἀφνειοὶ πίνοντες ὕδωρ μέλαν Αἰσήποιο
Τρῶες, τῶν αὖτʼ ἦρχε Λυκάονος ἀγλαὸς υἱὸς
Πάνδαρος, ᾧ καὶ τόξον Ἀπόλλων αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν.

Later, however, when Pandarus violates the truce by shooting Menelaus, Homer gives the bow a different genealogy:

Iliad 4.105-113

And right away he grabbed his polished bow.
It was made from the horns of a prancing goat,
A wild goat he himself had shot beneath the breastplate.
There he’d been, lying in wait, when it capered out
A hollow in the rocks. He shot it square in the chest
And down it went, back into the rocky crevice.
Horns sixteen palms long–some 4 feet, that is–grew from its head.
It was these a craftsman, expert in making bows from horns,
Joined together, polished top to bottom, and tipped with gold.
This was the bow he set down with care to string,
Bracing it on the ground.

ὣς φάτʼ Ἀθηναίη, τῷ δὲ φρένας ἄφρονι πεῖθεν·
αὐτίκʼ ἐσύλα τόξον ἐΰξοον ἰξάλου αἰγὸς
ἀγρίου, ὅν ῥά ποτʼ αὐτὸς ὑπὸ στέρνοιο τυχήσας
πέτρης ἐκβαίνοντα δεδεγμένος ἐν προδοκῇσι
βεβλήκει πρὸς στῆθος· ὃ δʼ ὕπτιος ἔμπεσε πέτρῃ.
τοῦ κέρα ἐκ κεφαλῆς ἑκκαιδεκάδωρα πεφύκει·
καὶ τὰ μὲν ἀσκήσας κεραοξόος ἤραρε τέκτων,
πᾶν δʼ εὖ λειήνας χρυσέην ἐπέθηκε κορώνην.
καὶ τὸ μὲν εὖ κατέθηκε τανυσσάμενος ποτὶ γαίῃ
ἀγκλίνας·

Let’s call these contradictory accounts something other than a mistake on Homer’s part.

The two passages show two methods at the singer’s disposal for accomplishing the same end–namely, to mark the bow (and by extension, Pandarus) as special. 

But having two genealogies also allows Homer to make two points, and those points reinforce one another.

When Homer makes the bow a gift from Apollo, the gift is both the bow itself and the skill of archery. Like Agamemnon’s scepter, fashioned by a god and passed to men, the bow exists in, and yet it is not of, human time. The object, and what it represents, will outlast the mortal recipient. It is imperishable. 

In the second genealogy, the bow is special precisely because it is the product of human making. And this allows Homer to make a point about mortal frailty. The skillful killing of the goat would seem to anticipate how Pandarus will kill his man. But of course he fails, and ultimately he is killed while trying to kill. Human excellence, Homer seems to say, is only so reliable. 

And let’s put another of Homer’s “mistakes” to use. Homer’s craftsman fashions the bow by joining the goat’s two horns. Commentators have noted that a bow made in this way would not produce enough power to kill anything at a distance. And that’s precisely the point! What comes from human hands–even the best of hands–is fallible. 

All of this is to say, even Homer’s “mistakes” accomplish a lot.  

Greek terracotta jug depicting an archer.
c.430-420 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

When Spirits Sin

Empedocles: Fragment 115 (Diels-Kranz)

There is a matter of Necessity, a decree of the gods,
Ancient, eternal, and sealed with broad oaths:
When someone commits the sin of murder
He pollutes his dear limbs, breaching his oath.

But since spirits are allotted long lives,
He’s to wander thirty-thousand years
Separated from the blessed ones,
Coming into being throughout time
As every kind of mortal thing,
This then that painful way of being.

Aether’s might pursues him into in the sea,
Then sea spits him out onto the earth’s floor;
Earth pelts him into the shining sun’s rays,
And that last throws him into aether’s whirls.
One then another, and all despise him.

I’m one of them myself–an exile from god and a wanderer,
Because I put my trust in frenzied Strife.

ἔστιν Ἀνάγκης χρῆμα, θεῶν ψήφισμα παλαιόν,
ἀίδιον, πλατέεσσι κατεσφρηγισμένον ὅρκοις·
εὖτέ τις ἀμπλακίῃσι φόνῳ φίλα γυῖα μιήνῃ
ὅς κεν ἐπίορκον ἁμαρτήσας ἐπομόσσῃ,
δαίμονες οἵτε μακραίωνος λελάχασι βίοιο,
τρίς μιν μυρίας ὧρας ἀπὸ μακάρων ἀλάλησθαι,
φυομένον παντοῖα διὰ χρόνου εἴδεα θνητῶν
ἀργαλέας βιότοιο μεταλλάσσοντα κελεύθους.
αἰθέριον μὲν γάρ σφε μένος πόντονδε διώκει,
πόντος δ’ ἐς χθονὸς οὖδας ἀπέπτυσε, γαῖα δ’ ἐς αὐγάς
ἠελίου φαέθοντος, ὁ δ’ αἰθέρος ἔμβαλε δίναις·
ἄλλος δ’ ἐξ ἄλλου δέχεται, στυγέουσι δὲ πάντες.
τῶν καὶ ἐγὼ νῦν εἰμι, φυγὰς θεόθεν καὶ ἀλήτης,
Νείκεϊ μαινομένῳ πίσυνος.

Detail from William Blake’s Cain Fleeing From the Wrath of God

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Screwing Up, Some Proverbs for FTS Week

Euripides, Hippolyus 916

“Oh humanity! You pointlessly fuck up so often!”

ὦ πόλλ᾽ ἁμαρτάνοντες ἄνθρωποι μάτην

 

Arsenius, Proverbs 68a

“If one must screw up, it is more righteous to die unjustly than to kill unjustly”

Εἰ δέοι τι ἁμαρτεῖν, τὸ ἀδίκως ἀπολῦσαι ὁσιώτερον τοῦ
ἀδίκως ἀπολέσαι.

12 97a

“A person who does the most messes up the most.”

῾Ο πλεῖστα πράσσων πλεῖστ’ ἁμαρτάνει βροτῶν.

13 39 h

“You can’t fuck-up twice in a war

Οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν πολέμῳ δὶς ἁμαρτάνειν

 

Lysias, fr. 267 [=Stobaeus 3.12.20]

“Lying the easiest thing for those who mess up frequently.”

Ψεύδεσθαι προχειρότατον τοῖς πολλάκις ἁμαρτάνουσιν.

 

Michael Apostolios, Proverbs

1.70

“A citizen’s screw-up is the state’s shame”

Αἰσχύνη πόλεως πολίτου ἁμαρτία: ἐξ ἀποφθέγματος.

 

8.52

“A nail for a nail. Also, to hammer a nail with a nail. This is for those who try to fix a mistake with another one.

῟Ηλος τὸν ἧλον: καί· Πάτταλος τὸν πάτταλον
ἐξέκρουσεν: ἐπὶ τῶν ἰωμένων δι’ ἁμαρτήματος ἁμάρτημα.

File:Northern France or Flanders, St. Omer or Thèrouanne, 14th century - Leaf from a Psalter- Initial D- A Fool Rebuked by God - 2011.55 - Cleveland Museum of Art.tif
God rebukes a fool

 

Screwing Up, Some Proverbs

Euripides, Hippolyus 916

“Oh humanity! You pointlessly fuck up so often!”

ὦ πόλλ᾽ ἁμαρτάνοντες ἄνθρωποι μάτην

 

Arsenius, Proverbs 68a

“If one must screw up, it is more righteous to die unjustly than to kill unjustly”

Εἰ δέοι τι ἁμαρτεῖν, τὸ ἀδίκως ἀπολῦσαι ὁσιώτερον τοῦ
ἀδίκως ἀπολέσαι.

12 97a

“A person who does the most messes up the most.”

῾Ο πλεῖστα πράσσων πλεῖστ’ ἁμαρτάνει βροτῶν.

13 39 h

“You can’t fuck-up twice in a war

Οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν πολέμῳ δὶς ἁμαρτάνειν

 

Lysias, fr. 267 [=Stobaeus 3.12.20]

“Lying the easiest thing for those who mess up frequently.”

Ψεύδεσθαι προχειρότατον τοῖς πολλάκις ἁμαρτάνουσιν.

 

Michael Apostolios, Proverbs

1.70

“A citizen’s screw-up is the state’s shame”

Αἰσχύνη πόλεως πολίτου ἁμαρτία: ἐξ ἀποφθέγματος.

 

8.52

“A nail for a nail. Also, to hammer a nail with a nail. This is for those who try to fix a mistake with another one.

῟Ηλος τὸν ἧλον: καί· Πάτταλος τὸν πάτταλον
ἐξέκρουσεν: ἐπὶ τῶν ἰωμένων δι’ ἁμαρτήματος ἁμάρτημα.

File:Northern France or Flanders, St. Omer or Thèrouanne, 14th century - Leaf from a Psalter- Initial D- A Fool Rebuked by God - 2011.55 - Cleveland Museum of Art.tif
God rebukes a fool

 

Screwing Up, Some Proverbs

Euripides, Hippolyus 916

“Oh humanity! You pointlessly fuck up so often!”

ὦ πόλλ᾽ ἁμαρτάνοντες ἄνθρωποι μάτην

 

Arsenius, Proverbs 68a

“If one must screw up, it is more righteous to die unjustly than to kill unjustly”

Εἰ δέοι τι ἁμαρτεῖν, τὸ ἀδίκως ἀπολῦσαι ὁσιώτερον τοῦ
ἀδίκως ἀπολέσαι.

12 97a

“A person who does the most messes up the most.”

῾Ο πλεῖστα πράσσων πλεῖστ’ ἁμαρτάνει βροτῶν.

13 39 h

“You can’t fuck-up twice in a war

Οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν πολέμῳ δὶς ἁμαρτάνειν

 

Lysias, fr. 267 [=Stobaeus 3.12.20]

“Lying the easiest thing for those who mess up frequently.”

Ψεύδεσθαι προχειρότατον τοῖς πολλάκις ἁμαρτάνουσιν.

 

Michael Apostolios, Proverbs

1.70

“A citizen’s screw-up is the state’s shame”

Αἰσχύνη πόλεως πολίτου ἁμαρτία: ἐξ ἀποφθέγματος.

 

8.52

“A nail for a nail. Also, to hammer a nail with a nail. This is for those who try to fix a mistake with another one.

῟Ηλος τὸν ἧλον: καί· Πάτταλος τὸν πάτταλον
ἐξέκρουσεν: ἐπὶ τῶν ἰωμένων δι’ ἁμαρτήματος ἁμάρτημα.

File:Northern France or Flanders, St. Omer or Thèrouanne, 14th century - Leaf from a Psalter- Initial D- A Fool Rebuked by God - 2011.55 - Cleveland Museum of Art.tif
God rebukes a fool

 

A Real Plato Quotation: Or, I Called Something Fake Too Fast

Yesterday I called the following quote fake too quickly.

This is the Paul Shorey translation available on Perseus. Here’s my translation and a bit more of the context:

Plato, Republic 347c-d

“….For they are not desirous of honors. It is indeed necessary to add some compulsion and penalty on them if they are intending to be willing to rule. This is likely the reason that a willingness to go to office without facing compulsion is considered shameful.

But the greatest penalty is to be ruled by someone worse if a person is not willing to hold office himself. It seems to me that people of propriety hold office (when they do) because they fear that outcome and that they enter into power not because they are going after something good or because they enjoy it, but because it is necessary and they are not able to entrust it to those better than themselves or their equals.”

. οὐδ’ αὖ τιμῆς ἕνεκα· οὐ γάρ εἰσι φιλότιμοι. δεῖ δὴ  αὐτοῖς ἀνάγκην προσεῖναι καὶ ζημίαν, εἰ μέλλουσιν ἐθέλειν ἄρχειν—ὅθεν κινδυνεύει τὸ ἑκόντα ἐπὶ τὸ ἄρχειν ἰέναι ἀλλὰ μὴ ἀνάγκην περιμένειν αἰσχρὸν νενομίσθαι—τῆς δὲ ζημίας μεγίστη τὸ ὑπὸ πονηροτέρου ἄρχεσθαι, ἐὰν μὴ αὐτὸς ἐθέλῃ ἄρχειν· ἣν δείσαντές μοι φαίνονται ἄρχειν, ὅταν ἄρχωσιν, οἱ ἐπιεικεῖς, καὶ τότε ἔρχονται ἐπὶ τὸ ἄρχειν οὐχ ὡς ἐπ’ ἀγαθόν τι ἰόντες οὐδ’ ὡς εὐπαθήσοντες ἐν αὐτῷ, ἀλλ’ ὡς ἐπ’ ἀναγκαῖον καὶ οὐκ ἔχοντες ἑαυτῶν βελτίοσιν ἐπιτρέψαι οὐδὲ ὁμοίοις.

The earliest instance of this I can find online is from 1963,  in Proceedings and Debates of the Congress, 109, part 29. If you search google books, you will find this quote is really popular in management leadership books where it debuts in the early 2000s and finds steady, unattributed representation.

Wikiquote.com notes that this is an “unsourced quotation”. It should not be considered so, but its use might receive a little more nuanced: this passage is about how ‘good’ people should not be interested in power and enter into it not for profit or possible self-interest, but to prevent lesser people from ruling and harming the state. This is an old-fashioned Greek noblesse oblige. But it is not a fake quote.

Thanks to those who called me out on the tweet. And to those who didn’t: call me out when I am wrong and I will fix it! As Cicero says: “All men make mistakes; but it is fools who persist in them” cuiusvis hominis est errare; nullius nisi insipientis perseverare in errore (Philippics 12.5). Or, as I prefer it: “any person can fuck up: but only fools keep fucking up in the same way.”

Ovid, Amores XIV, 1-8: Advice (to an undergraduate?) On Social Media Use

“I don’t beg you not to mess around because you’re pretty,
But to spare miserable me the need of knowing about it.
I am not some censor who orders you to be a prude,
But only someone who asks you to try to be discreet.
Whoever can deny her mistakes, hasn’t messed up at all.
Only the admitted fault brings dishonor.
What madness it is to confess in light things done at night?
And to report openly deeds performed in secret?”

Non ego, ne pecces, cum sis formosa, recuso,
sed ne sit misero scire necesse mihi;
nec te nostra iubet fieri censura pudicam,
sed tamen, ut temptes dissimulare, rogat.
non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.
quis furor est, quae nocte latent, in luce fateri,
et quae clam facias facta referre palam?