“The wise Euripides put in his poetic drama about the Cyclops that he had three eyes, indicating by this that he had three brothers and that they cared for one another and kept a watchful eye on one another’s places in the island, fought together, and avenged one another.
And he also adds that he made the Cyclops drunk and unable to flee, because Odysseus made that very Cyclops “drunk” with a ton of money and gifts so he would not “eat those with him up”, which is not actually to consume them with slaughter.
He also says that Odysseus blinded his one eye with torch fire, really meaning that he stole away the only daughter of Polyphemos’ brother, a maiden named Elpê, with “fire”, which means he seized her on fire with burning lust. This is what it means that he burned Polyphemos in one of his eyes, he really deprived him of his daughter. The very wise Pheidias of Corinth provided this interpretation saying that Euripides explained this poetically because he did not agree with what the wisest Homer said about the wandering of Odysseus.”
Many are the forms of divine powers
Many are the acts the gods unexpectedly make.
The very things which seemed likely did not happen
but for the unlikely, some god found a way.
This turned out to be that kind of story.
[but also at the end of Alcestis, Medea, Andromache, Helen]
Lucian in The Symposium 48
“That, my dear Philo, was the end of that party. But it is better to intone that tragic phrase: ‘Many are the forms of divine powers / Many are the acts the gods unexpectedly make. / The very things which seemed likely did not happen’
For all these things too turned out to be unexpected. I have still learned this much now: it is not safe for a man who is unaccomplished to share a meal with clever men like this.”
“Many are the forms of the unlucky
but let the care and habit of pains
bring some comfort to men with gout.
This is how, my fellow sufferers,
you will forget our toils,
if the very things which seemed likely did not happen
but for the unlikely, some god found a way.
Let every person who suffers endure
being taunted and being mocked.
For this affair is that kind of thing.”
The Gorgon’s face is one of the most recognizable symbols from antiquity, adorning everything from vases and cups to temple pediments and metopes to confront the viewer with her petrifying stare and snaky ropes of hair. While the apotropaic function of the Gorgon is usually attributed to the directness of her gaze (one that is highly unusual in Greek art), depictions of Gorgons–including their most famous representative, Medusa–in archaic art frequently include an additional provocation in the form of a tongue.
Long and lolling, often poised between vicious-looking canine teeth, this aspect of the Gorgons’ iconography has conventionally been interpreted as a way to enhance her grotesqueness. Over time, however, depictions of the Gorgon shifted dramatically to portray these figures with typically feminine, even beautiful, features while retaining her uncompromisingly confrontational gaze. You can see a great timeline visualizing this evolution on the MET website.
The ubiquity of the Gorgon’s tongue in archaic art has always intrigued me. That this feature of her iconography is unique to this period, and a feature unique to the Gorgon in particular, makes it all the more intriguing, as it suggests a fleeting but pervasive mode of representing female transgressiveness. The Gorgon’s tongue made me wonder about the significance of this gesture: why would a stuck-out tongue be characteristic of a female monster? After all, in contemporary iconography (I’m thinking here especially of emojis) a stuck-out tongue is correlated most often with silliness and disinhibition, a response to the goofy or outrageous.
Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to think of counterexamples. We, especially as children, might stick out our tongues in response to something offensive or unwelcome. And, of course, the gesture in the right context may appear sexually charged. A good illustration of the latter comes in the form of Miley Cyrus, a figure who, like the Gorgon, also exhibits a dramatic shift in her public image.
Google “Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance” and the prevailing image that will turn up is one that sees Cyrus bent over against co-performer Robin Thicke, clad in flesh-toned latex bustier and shorts, her tongue stuck out sharply, complementing the two spiky buns above her brow. The performance drew shock and condemnation, not least because of the transformation it evinced in the former Disney Channel darling.
Like Cyrus, the evolving image of Medusa calcified in ancient art is also a testament to transformation. As Ovid relates (Met. 4.793-803), Medusa was formerly a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena and punished by the goddess with her snaky hair. While earlier accounts like that of Hesiod (Theog. 270-6) suggest that Medusa was born to her distinctive form, the Ovidian narrative connects Medusa’s sexuality and desirability–and Athena’s savage punishment of this–with the transformation in her appearance.
Likewise, Cyrus’ performance cast her in a sexually-charged role that drove home her evolution from Disney Channel PG fame. While Cyrus later said in an interview that her hairstyle was consciously infantilizing, it was hard for me not to see those spiky buns in conjunction with Medusa’s similarly unconventional and distinctive hairdo.
Why, then, would a stuck-out tongue define such a transformation? On the one hand, it is provocative, a function that seems at odds with the archaic Gorgon’s apotropaic power. But coupled with her fierce, frontal gaze, the Gorgon’s visage forces viewers into a confrontation. As some would characterize Cyrus’ performance, the Gorgon’s ferocious visage is similarly nothing if not transgressive.
And it is the tongue, I think, for both Cyrus and the Gorgon, that embodies this quality. A stuck-out tongue reaches out into the space between viewer and viewed. The tongue, after all, is the only part of the body that can easily be extended out of its natural confines. Thus, unlike the eyes, it is vividly visceral. In this sense, the petrifying effects associated with the Gorgon’s gaze gain clearer significance. While her face is safely rendered in paint or stone, her eyes and tongue can still serve to confront the viewer with a reminder of their fleshy corporeality. The tongue, in particular, serves as a gesture of defiance against the medium in which the Gorgon’s gaze has been fixed.
Cyrus’ performance, too, can be interpreted as an act of defiance against the public image she had accrued earlier in her career. More specifically, her exaggerated facial and bodily expressions make the viewer aware that they are viewing her like an object. This is a dynamic that meets active resistance in the display she created at the VMAs, one that works to displace the previous image of Cyrus that each viewer brings to their perspective on her performance.
Amy Lather is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek aesthetics, hence her fascination with the Gorgon’s tongue. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yesterday, I was editing a manuscript and thinking about Odysseus’ so-called “lying tales” in books 13-20 of the Odyssey. In one of them, he talks casually about murdering the son of Idomeneus. A song burst fully formed into my head. I made a poll. Over 3500 people voted.
(And, yes, as twitter let me know, it should be “shot” not killed”). To be honest, I thought the answer was clear and tried to direct it a bit:
Personally, I think it is Odysseus. He is soulless, dead-eyed killer who does something just to see what happens. Achilles has big feelings. And his big feelings lead to murder sprees. But he feels remorse sometimes.
I suspect that the issue here for most voters was really: who’s your favorite hero and who seems violent to you. Everyone knows Achilles is a cross between the Hulk and Superman and he just kills everything. Most people forget that Odysseus leaves a trail of slaughter in his wake too.
Earlier polls I have run seem to indicate that while the Iliad and Odyssey are pretty close in popularity people have a more positive view of Odysseus. I have spent several years working on a book on Odysseus (after working on the Iliad for over a decade). I think these evaluations of the characters are from an overall feeling and not an actual engagement with the texts.
I continued this conversation on and off line with Justin Arft:
Achilles is intense, like super intense, like there is extra and then there is Achilles extra. He gets his feelings hurt and then asks for Zeus to make his own people die. Patroklos dies because Achilles is so damn sensitive. Achilles’ rage is the point of the whole poem. But he is not calculating. He feels. He reacts. He regrets.
But behind all the arguments is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a hero in ancient Greece. They are not simple figures. They are not heroic in the modern sense. The word heros: can mean a man in the prime of his youth; or, a member of a race of superpeople before our current race of mortals; or, a person who follows a particular narrative/paradigmatic arc. It is value neutral when it comes to “good” and “evil”.
Despite Achilles’ constant lead, there was a chorus of objection:
This seems so obviously Odysseus that I didn't even understand the point of the question…and then he's losing! This is a guy who lied to his father and said he was dead for literally no reason. This is a guy who threatened his nurse with a cruel death.
Outside of the epics: he frames Palamedes and has him stoned to death; he tricks Achilles into coming to war; he strands Philoktetes for being wounded and then gets him to come back to Troy; he tries to stab Diomedes in the back; he is known for arranging for the killing of Astyanax. He probably killed Hecuba too.
Achilles’ rage is big and easy to conceptualize, easier to blame; Odysseus’ calculation is harder to understand and frame. We want to be like Achilles, I think, because we can blame our faults on emotions. That’s nature, right? We can’t control nature! It is harder to admit where we are like Odysseus because then we need to take responsibility for our faults. People who love Odysseus too often explain away his faults. (Which is why so much of Homeric scholarship refuses to acknowledge that Odysseus is crossing a line in killing the slave women, the suitors, blinding Polyphemos and more).
Not everything was about bashing Odysseus:
Achilles' wrath is to me petulant, vengeful; the disinterested curious turn to violence that that Cash line (remorsefully??) recalls seems to me closer to Odysseus's characteristic empathetic seeing-from-another's-eyes. Only twisted in a as-boys-are-to-flies moment, of course.
The "just to watch him die" bit is much more Odysseus than Achilles. Achilles would kill him for a reason and keep moving. Odysseus is one of my favorite characters, but… well… I can see him killing someone and then watching them go. Or saying he did, anyway.
And some people worked hard to bring greater context to the song and the identification:
Especially considering those two lines in context, in relation to the previous lines, I vote Achilles. “When I was just a baby My Mama told me, ‘son Always be a good boy Don't ever play with guns [or spears]’…”
Thanks for this great summary. I went for Achilles (despite his later, clear remorse, the dragging of Hector’s body has always bothered me) but do truly understand the arguments for Odysseus. The back-and-forth was stimulating and, at least for me, educational.
thanks to everyone who played along and took what was a lark seriously. Apologies to all the wits and wiseacres I didn’t include in this post. The thread on twitter is pretty cool. But, as with everything, Plato did it first and better.
Plato, Hippias Minor
“Homer made Achilles the best man of those who went to Troy, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the most shifty.”
In the tradition of Greek Myth, Hektor’s son Astyanax is well-known for being killed during the sack of the city. Other traditions weren’t having this. To wit, Servius:
Servius Danielis on Vergil, Aeneid, 9.264
devicta genitor (sc. Aeneas) quae cepit Arisba]
“Which his father took once Arisba was conquered…”
“(And yet, according to Homer, Arisba sent aid to the Trojans and was overcome by Achilles)…the city is called Arisba after the daughter of Merpos or Macareus who was the first wife of Paris. According to some authors, Abas, who wrote the Troika, related that after the Greeks left Troy, the rule of this city was given to Astyanax. Antenor expelled him once he had allied himself with the states neighboring where Arisba’s location. Aeneas took this badly and took up arms for Astyanax; once the expedition was prosecuted successfully, he returned the kingdom to Astyanax.”
[[atqui secundum Homerum Arisba Troianis misit auxilia et ab Achille subversa est …]] dicta est Arisba ab Meropis vel Macarei filia, quam primum Paris in coniugio habuit. quidam ab Abante, qui Troica scripsit, relatum ferunt, post discessum a Troia Graecorum Astyanacti ibi datum regnum. hunc ab Antenore expulsum sociatis sibi finitimis civitatibus, inter quas et Arisba fuit. Aeneam hoc aegre tulisse et pro Astyanacte arma cepisse, ac prospere gesta re Astyanacti restituisse regnum.
This text was discovered inside the hollow of a golden branch. On top was written, Pius Aeneas hoc scripsit (“Pious Aeneas wrote this”). On a separate document was a message written by one P.V.M. that said, carmen tam horribile est ut cum inhumata turba vagari malim.” (“This poem is so terrible that I prefer to wander with the unburied masses”). An earlier fragment seems obsessed with a certain Ioannes Nix.
It is thought that after Aeneas encountered Marcellus in the underworld, he received poetry lessons from Vergil himself. From a close reading of this text, we can also infer that Aeneas met the disembodied soul of George R.R. Martin and saw a performance of Game of Thrones. Edited by Dani Bostick.
“And just as constipated infants contort their miserable Faces but cannot manage to liberate their bowels, In this way, Jon Snow with a worried expression, Miserable, looks on the overturned city and kills the Mother of dragons in a sneaky way with his sword. Then, the Unhappy monster carries her body on his toenail into the ether. Snow speaks with these words: “Love is the death of duty.” But Dido gave herself a wound voluntarily with a sword, This queen is dead because of herself; it is not my fault, For I am remarkable in piety, but Snow rules In no kingdom.”
Ac veluti torquent ora infantes miseranda Crudi sed nequeunt compressos solvere alvos. Sic Nix sollicito vultu eversam miser urbem Aspicit et matrem draconum ensi necat furtim. Tum monstrum infelix corpus vehit ungula in aether. Nix tali ore refert: “Amor est finis pietatis.” At Dido vulnus dedit sponte sua sibi ferro, Regina moritur propter se; non mihi culpa est. Sum pietate insignis, et rex; Nix regit nullo In loco.
Brandeis University Commencement is today. We say farewell to our graduating students. And now is a time for my confession….
Solon, fr. 18
“I grow old, always learning many things.”
γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·
Kim Stanley Robinson The Years of Rice and Salt (2003: 758)
“Over time, Bao came to understand that teaching too was a kind of reincarnation, in that years passed and students came and went, new young people all the time, but always the same age, taking the same class; the class under the oak trees, reincarnated. He began to enjoy that aspect of it. He would start the first class by saying, “Look, here we are again.” They never knew what to make of it; same response, every time.
He learned, among other things, that teaching was the most rigorous form of learning. He learned to learn more from his students than they did from him; like so many other things, it was the reverse from what it seemed to be, and colleges existed to bring together groups of young people to teach some chosen few of their elders the things that they knew about life, that the old teachers had been in danger of forgetting.”
Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5
“People of every age enter this classroom. “Do we grow old only to follow the young?” When I go into the theater as an old man and I am drawn to the racetrack and no fight is finished without me, shall I be embarrassed to go to a philosopher?
You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.”
Omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. “In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?” In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit ad philosophum ire erubescam?
Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum.
Seneca, Moral Epistles 7.8-9
“Both habits, moreover, should be avoided. Don’t imitate bad people, because there are many of them, nor hate the many, because you aren’t like them. Take shelter in yourself, whenever you can. Spend time with people who will make you a better person. Embrace those whom you can make better. Such improvement is a partnership, for people learn while they teach.”
Utrumque autem devitandum est; neve similis malis fias, quia multi sunt, neve inimicus multis, quia dissimiles sunt. Recede in te ipsum, quantum potes. Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt. Illos admitte, quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines, dum docent, discunt.