Homer’s Tales and The Narrative Animal

Strabo, Geography 1.2.7-8

Homer tells precisely of not merely the neighboring lands and Greece itself—as Eratosthenes has claimed—but many other places farther afield too and he tells his myths better than those who followed him. For he does not offer every tale for wonder only, but also to contribute to knowledge—especially in the wanderings of Odysseus—he allegorizes, provides warnings, and delights [his audiences]. This is something [Eratosthenes] is really wrong about when he asserts that the poet and his interpreters are fools. This is a subject worth speaking on to a much greater extent.”

The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For Humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.

The reason for this is that story/myth is a novel-kind-of-thought [to them] which helps them thing not about what they already know but about different kinds of things too. To children we are obliged to hold out such enticements, in order that in riper years, when the mind is powerful, and no longer needs such stimulants, it may be prepared to enter on the study of actual realities.

There is sweetness in novelty and what someone does not already know, This is the very thing that also creates a love-of-learning. Whenever something amazing and ominous is present, it nurtures pleasure, which is a magic charm for learning. In the early years it is necessary to use these types of attractions, but when age increases toward the study of things as they really are, then the understanding has advanced and no longer requires flatteries.”

᾿αλλ᾽ οὐδὲ τὰ σύνεγγυς μόνον, ὥσπερ Ἐρατοσθένης εἴρηκε, καὶ τὰ ἐν τοῖς Ἕλλησιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν πόρρω πολλὰ λέγει καὶ δι᾽ ἀκριβείας Ὅμηρος καὶ μᾶλλόν γε τῶν ὕστερον μυθολογεῖται, οὐ πάντα τερατευόμενος, ἀλλὰ καὶ πρὸς ἐπιστήμην ἀλληγορῶν ἢ διασκευάζων ἢ δημαγωγῶν ἄλλα τε καὶ τὰ περὶ τὴν Ὀδυσσέως πλάνην, περὶ ἧς πολλὰ διαμαρτάνει τούς τ᾽ ἐξηγητὰς φλυάρους ἀποφαίνων καὶ αὐτὸν τὸν ποιητήν: περὶ ὧν ἄξιον εἰπεῖν διὰ πλειόνων.

καὶ πρῶτον ὅτι τοὺς μύθους ἀπεδέξαντο οὐχ οἱ ποιηταὶ μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ αἱ πόλεις πολὺ πρότερον καὶ οἱ νομοθέται τοῦ χρησίμου χάριν, βλέψαντες εἰς τὸ φυσικὸν πάθος τοῦ λογικοῦ ζῴου: φιλειδήμων γὰρ ἅνθρωπος, προοίμιον δὲ τούτου τὸ φιλόμυθον. ἐντεῦθεν οὖν ἄρχεται τὰ παιδία ἀκροᾶσθαι καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων ἐπὶ πλεῖον.

αἴτιον δ᾽, ὅτι καινολογία τίς ἐστιν ὁ μῦθος, οὐ τὰ καθεστηκότα φράζων ἀλλ᾽ ἕτερα παρὰ ταῦτα: ἡδὺ δὲ τὸ καινὸν καὶ ὃ μὴ πρότερον ἔγνω τις: τοῦτο δ᾽ αὐτό ἐστι καὶ τὸ ποιοῦν φιλειδήμονα. ὅταν δὲ προσῇ καὶ τὸ θαυμαστὸν καὶ τὸ τερατῶδες, ἐπιτείνει τὴν ἡδονήν, ἥπερ ἐστὶ τοῦ μανθάνειν φίλτρον. κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς μὲν οὖν ἀνάγκη τοιούτοις δελέασι χρῆσθαι, προϊούσης δὲ τῆς ἡλικίας ἐπὶ τὴν τῶν ὄντων μάθησιν ἄγειν, ἤδη τῆς διανοίας ἐρρωμένης καὶ μηκέτι δεομένης κολάκων.

Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

123: “The most general implication is that a culture is constantly in process of being recreated as it is interpreted and renegotiated by its members. In this view, a culture is as much a forum for negotiating meaning and for explicating action as it is a set of rules or specifications for action. Indeed, every culture maintains specialized institutions or occasions for intensifying this “forum-like” feature. Storytelling, theater, science, even jurisprudence are all techniques for intensifying this function—ways of exploring possible worlds out of the context of immediate need. Education is (or should be) one of the principal forums for performing this function—though it is often timid in doing so. It is the forum aspect of a culture that gives its participants a role in constantly making and remaking the culture…”

Bern Le Hunte and Jan A. Golembiewski. “Stories Have the Power to Save Us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories.” Arts and Social Sciences Journal 5.2 (2014) 73-76.

73: “The claim that stories have the power to save us is audacious, yet it is one that can be validated by neuroscience. This article demonstrates that the brain is hard-wired to process stories in a most fundamental way, indicating the evolutionary priority that storytelling has had in human development, and the importance it has in forging a future humanity.”

Edmund Wilson. “On Free Will and How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants.” Harper’s September 2014, 49-52.

51: “The final reason for optimism is the human necessity for confabulation, which offers more evidence of a material basis to consciousness. Our minds consist of storytelling.”

Jonathan Gottschalk. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012.

58: “The psychologist and novelist Keith Oakley calls stories the flight simulators of human social life.”

Mark Turner. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: 1996.

4-5:  “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”

A Farewell to Storify: Some Stories Before They’re Gone

The service Storify is going to close over the next years. Even though we have not used the format often, we have used it a few times in conjunction with some of our more unconventional moments. Below are the five stories we have made.

  1. Earlier this fall, we used Storify to assemble a twitter discussion about M. L West’s new Teubner. This was interesting and edifying for some, even if some on Facebook felt otherwise.

Story: A Group Review of West’s Teubner

2. About a month before Thanksgiving we asked which figures from Greco-Roman antiquity people would invite to dinner. There were lots of favorites, but some surprises too.

Story: DeadClassics Party

3. At the beginning of the fall, I used Storify to bring together my burgeoning obsession with animal noises in other languages.

Story: Zooglossia, What Animals Say in Different Languages

4. Over the summer, Erik and I spent some time at a museum. We took some pictures, posted some things. People seemed to enjoy it. The result? Storify!

Story: SententiaeAntique IRL: Erik and Joel Go to a Museum

5. But by far the most poignant use was when we noted the passing of a cherished Latin teacher at UTSA by debuting the hastag #mylatinteacher to recognize the contributions Latin teachers have made to so many lives.

Story: Gratitude for My Latin Teacher


Storify: Multas gratias tibi. Ave atque Vale

Image result for Ancient Roman Burial

Children and the Uneducated Need Scary Stories

Strabo 1.8

“Whenever you also consider the amazing and the disturbing, you amplify the pleasure which is a magic charm for learning. In the early years, we must use this sort of thing to entice children, but as their age increases we must lead them to a knowledge of reality as soon as their perception has gotten stronger and they no longer need much cajoling. Every illiterate and ignorant person is in some way a child and loves stories like a child. The one who has been only partially educated is similar, for he does not abound in the ability to reason and, in addition, his childish custom persists. Since not only frightening but also disturbing tales bring pleasure, we need to use both of these kinds of tales for children and those who are grown up too. For children, we provide pleasing fictions to encourage them and frightening tales to deter them.”

ὅταν δὲ προσῇ καὶ τὸ θαυμαστὸν καὶ τὸ τερατῶδες, ἐπιτείνει τὴν ἡδονήν, ἥπερ ἐστὶ τοῦ μανθάνειν φίλτρον. κατ᾿ ἀρχὰς μὲν οὖν ἀνάγκη τοιούτοις δελέασι χρῆσθαι, προϊούσης δὲ τῆς ἡλικίας ἐπὶ τὴν τῶν ὄντων μάθησιν ἄγειν, ἤδη τῆς διανοίας ἐρρωμένης καὶ μηκέτι δεομένης κολάκων. καὶ ἰδιώτης δὲ πᾶς καὶ ἀπαίδευτος τρόπον τινὰ παῖς ἐστι φιλομυθεῖ τε ὡσαύτως· ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ πεπαιδευμένος μετρίως· οὐδὲ γὰρ οὗτος ἰσχύει τῷ λογισμῷ, πρόσεστι δὲ καὶ τὸ ἐκ παιδὸς ἔθος. ἐπεὶ δ᾿ οὐ μόνον ἡδύ, ἀλλὰ καὶ φοβερὸν τὸ τερατῶδες, ἀμφοτέρων ἐστὶ τῶν εἰδῶν χρεία πρός τε τοὺς παῖδας καὶ τοὺς ἐν ἡλικίᾳ· τοῖς τε γὰρ παισὶ προσφέρομεν τοὺς ἡδεῖς μύθους εἰς προτροπήν, εἰς ἀποτροπὴν δὲ τοὺς φοβερούς.

Image result for Ancient Greek vase monsters

“If Wine Could Tell A Story”

Plautus, Truculentus 829-833

“This is no good. You are blaming the silent who cannot speak.
If wine could tell a story it would defend itself.
Wine doesn’t control men—men usually control wine!
Well, that’s how it is when men are fit for anything—certain fools
When they drink a little or not at all remain fools by nature.”


non placet: in mutum culpam confers quit loqui.
nam uinum si fabulari possit se defenderet.
non uinum moderari, sed uiri uino solent,
qui quidem probi sunt; uerum qui improbust si quasi Bibit
siue adeo caret temeto, tamen ab ingenio improbust.


Image result for Ancient Roman Drinking

A Verse Fable for the Superficial

The Fox and the Tragic Mask, Phaedrus 1.7

By chance a fox had seen a tragic mask:
What a sight, he has no brains inside!–he gasped.
To whomever fortune grants honor and glory,
It deprives of common sense, as in this story.


Personam tragicam forte vulpes viderat:
O quanta species, inquit, cerebrum non habet!
Hoc illis dictum est, quibus honorem et gloriam
Fortuna tribuit, sensum communem abstulit.

Fables to Begin Life; Fables at Its End

Last year we posted a lot of fables. Why? Because they are fabulous. But, also, because they are fun, fascinating, and a fine way to seek shelter from current events (while still doing some thinking). Ancient literature does not include a great deal of critical reflection on the Fable, but we do find it prized at the beginning of an education (by Quintilian) and the end of Socrates’ life.

Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 1.9.1-3

“Therefore, let children learn to relay Aesop’s fables—which follow closely the stories of the nursery, in a simple speech and without adding too much and then to write them down in the same unadorned fashion. They should first analyze the verse, then interpret it in their own words, and finally expand it in their own version in which they may either compress some parts or elaborate others with without losing the poet’s meaning.”

[2] igitur Aesopi fabellas, quae fabulis nutricularum proxime succedunt, narrare sermone puro et nihil se supra modum extollente, deinde eandem gracilitatem stilo exigere condiscant; versus primo solvere, mox mutatis verbis interpretari, tum paraphrasi audacius vertere, qua et breviare quaedam et exornare salvo modo poetae sensu permittitur.


Do you think Cheiron taught Achilles fables?

Diogenes Laertius, Vita Philosophorum 2.5.45

“Then they sentenced[Socrates] to death, adding 80 additional votes to this tally. After he was imprisoned for just a few days, he drank the hemlock, but not without having a few exemplary conversations which Plato describes in the Phaedrus. He also composed a paian which begins: “Hail, Delian Apollo, and Artemis, famous children”. Dionysodôros says that this paian is not his. He also composed Aesopic tales in verse, though not completely well, one of which begins:

“Aesop once said to the men who live in Korinth,
Do not judge virtue according to a jury’s opinion”

And then he was taken from the world of men. Soon, the Athenians changed their minds and closed the wrestling floor and gymnasium. They banished the accusers but put Meletos to death. They honored Socrates with a bronze statue which they placed in the Pompeion. It was mad by Lysippos. As soon as Anytos visited Heracleia, the people expelled him. Not only did the Athenians suffer concerning Socrates, but according to Heracleides they fined Homer fifty drachmae because he was insane and they said Tyrtaeus was out of his mind and they even honored Astydamas and others more than Aeschylus with a bronze statue. Euripides rebukes them in his Palamedes when he says:

“You have butchered/ you have butchered
The all-wise nightingale of the muses
Who caused no harm”

This is one story. But Philochorus claims that Euripides died before Socrates.”

Καὶ οἳ θάνατον αὐτοῦ κατέγνωσαν, προσθέντες ἄλλας ψήφους ὀγδοήκοντα. καὶ δεθεὶς μετ’ οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας ἔπιε τὸ κώνειον, πολλὰ καλὰ κἀγαθὰ διαλεχθείς, ἃ Πλάτων ἐν τῷ Φαίδωνί φησιν. ἀλλὰ καὶ παιᾶνα κατά τινας ἐποίησεν, οὗ ἡ ἀρχή· Δήλι’ ῎Απολλον χαῖρε, καὶ ῎Αρτεμι, παῖδε κλεεινώ. Διονυσόδωρος δέ φησι μὴ εἶναι αὐτοῦ τὸν παιᾶνα (FHG ii. 84). ἐποίησε δὲ καὶ μῦθον Αἰσώπειον οὐ πάνυ ἐπιτετευγμένως, οὗ ἡ ἀρχή·

Αἴσωπός ποτ’ ἔλεξε Κορίνθιον ἄστυ νέμουσι
μὴ κρίνειν ἀρετὴν λαοδίκῳ σοφίῃ.

῾Ο μὲν οὖν ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἦν· ᾿Αθηναῖοι δ’ εὐθὺς μετέγνωσαν, ὥστε κλεῖσαι καὶ παλαίστρας καὶ γυμνάσια. καὶ τοὺς μὲν ἐφυγάδευσαν, Μελήτου δὲ θάνατον κατέγνωσαν. Σωκράτην δὲ χαλκῇ εἰκόνι ἐτίμησαν, ἣν ἔθεσαν ἐν τῷ Πομπείῳ, Λυσίππου ταύτην ἐργασαμένου. ῎Ανυτόν τε ἐπιδημήσαντα αὐθημερὸν ἐξεκήρυξαν

῾Ηρακλεῶται. οὐ μόνον δ’ ἐπὶ Σωκράτους ᾿Αθηναῖοι πεπόνθασι τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐπὶ πλείστων ὅσων. καὶ γὰρ ῞Ομηρον καθά  φησιν ῾Ηρακλείδης (Wehrli vii, fg. 169), πεντήκοντα δραχμαῖς ὡς μαινόμενον ἐζημίωσαν, καὶ Τυρταῖον παρακόπτειν ἔλεγον, καὶ ᾿Αστυδάμαντα πρότερον τῶν περὶ Αἰσχύλον ἐτίμησαν εἰκόνι χαλκῇ.

Εὐριπίδης δὲ καὶ ὀνειδίζει αὐτοῖς ἐν τῷ Παλαμήδει λέγων (588 N2),

ἐκάνετ’ ἐκάνετε τὰν
πάνσοφον, <ὦ Δαναοί,>
τὰν οὐδὲν ἀλγύνουσαν ἀηδόνα μουσᾶν.

καὶ τάδε μὲν ὧδε. Φιλόχορος (FGrH 328 F 221) δέ φησι προτελευτῆσαι τὸν Εὐριπίδην τοῦ Σωκράτους.

Diogenes is not completely fabricating material here. Plato’s Phaedo records that Socrates while imprisoned composed “poems, arranged versions of Aesop’s tales and a prooimon to Apollo” (ποιημάτων ὧν πεποίηκας ἐντείνας τοὺς τοῦ Αἰσώπου λόγους καὶ τὸ εἰς τὸν Ἀπόλλω προοίμιον, 60d). When asked why he was occupying his time in this way, Socrates responds (Phaedo 60e-61a):

“The same dream often came to me in my past life, appearing in different forms from time to time, but saying the same things: “Socrates, make music and work on it.” In earlier time, I believe that it was compelling me and encouraging me to do what I was doing—just as some cheer on runners, in the same way the dream was telling me to do what I was doing, to make music, since philosophy is the greatest music of all and I was working on that. But now that the trial is complete and the festival has delayed my death, it seemed right to me, if the frequent dream really meant for me to make what is normally called music, not to disobey it but to compose.”

πολλάκις μοι φοιτῶν τὸ αὐτὸ ἐνύπνιον ἐν τῷ παρελθόντι βίῳ, ἄλλοτ᾽ ἐν ἄλλῃ ὄψει φαινόμενον, τὰ αὐτὰ δὲ λέγον, ‘ὦ Σώκρατες,’ ἔφη, ‘μουσικὴν ποίει καὶ ἐργάζου.’ καὶ ἐγὼ ἔν γε τῷ πρόσθεν χρόνῳ ὅπερ ἔπραττον τοῦτο ὑπελάμβανον αὐτό μοι παρακελεύεσθαί τε καὶ ἐπικελεύειν, ὥσπερ οἱ τοῖς θέουσι διακελευόμενοι, καὶ ἐμοὶ οὕτω τὸ ἐνύπνιον ὅπερ ἔπραττον τοῦτο ἐπικελεύειν, μουσικὴν ποιεῖν, ὡς φιλοσοφίας μὲν οὔσης μεγίστης μουσικῆς, ἐμοῦ δὲ τοῦτο πράττοντος. νῦν δ᾽ ἐπειδὴ ἥ τε δίκη ἐγένετο καὶ ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ ἑορτὴ διεκώλυέ με ἀποθνῄσκειν, ἔδοξε χρῆναι, εἰ ἄρα πολλάκις μοι προστάττοι τὸ ἐνύπνιον ταύτην τὴν δημώδη μουσικὴν ποιεῖν, μὴ ἀπειθῆσαι αὐτῷ ἀλλὰ ποιεῖν


(I don’t know if this is the saddest story I have ever read or not. Curse you, Plato).

“Feminine Fame”: Homer on Why We Disbelieve Women

Recent events and the refusal of some to believe the accounts of (less famous, less powerful) women were churning in my mind when I reread the following passage from the Odyssey this morning. After the suitor Amphimedon arrives in the underworld and tells the story of Penelope’s shroud and Odysseus’ return, Agamemnon responds:

“Blessed child of Laertes, much-devising Odysseus,
You really secured a wife with magnificent virtue!
That’s how good the brains are for blameless Penelope,
Ikarios’ daughter, how well she remembered Odysseus,
Her wedded husband. The fame of her virtue will never perish,
And the gods will craft a pleasing song
Of mindful Penelope for mortals over the earth.
This is not the way for Tyndareos’ daughter.
She devised wicked deeds and since she killed
Her wedded husband, a hateful song
Will be hers among men, she will attract harsh rumor
To the race of women, even for those who are good.”

“ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν’ ᾿Οδυσσεῦ,
ἦ ἄρα σὺν μεγάλῃ ἀρετῇ ἐκτήσω ἄκοιτιν·
ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
κούρῃ ᾿Ικαρίου, ὡς εὖ μέμνητ’ ᾿Οδυσῆος,
ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῶ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται
ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ’ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδὴν
ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
οὐχ ὡς Τυνδαρέου κούρη κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα,
κουρίδιον κτείνασα πόσιν, στυγερὴ δέ τ’ ἀοιδὴ
ἔσσετ’ ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους, χαλεπὴν δέ τε φῆμιν ὀπάσσει
θηλυτέρῃσι γυναιξί, καὶ ἥ κ’ εὐεργὸς ἔῃσιν.”

More than half of this speech praises Penelope for being a loyal, ‘good’ wife (and that is another issue of its own). Of course, this makes Agamemnon think of Klytemnestra. There’s a lot to be said about how this passage sets up the end of the Odyssey, but Agamemnon’s words are striking because they reflect a sad reality not just about misogynistic thinking but about the operation of human thought.

Let’s start with the misogyny: Agamemnon says here, quite clearly, that because of the behavior of one woman (well, two if we hear ambiguity in the phrase “Tyndareos’ daughter” and think of Helen too) all women have bad fame, even if they are “good”? A simple response to this is to wonder whether the same applies to men (of course not…) Let’s pass over the fact that the murder of Agamemnon was probably well deserved.  I think this passage also reflects human cognition: the story of Klytemnestra is paradigmatic. We learn basic patterns about people and the world and apply these patterns (prejudices) as substitutions for deeper thought.

I am not sure whether this serves as a bit of an anticipatory apologetic on the part of epic–that the tale of Penelope cannot match up to negative messages about women. It probably stands as an acknowledgement of a “negative expectancy effect”–we are primed to hear negative tales and to believe negative things. I suspect that on Homer’s part this is probably less about women and more about anticipating the reception of this poem.

But, at the very least, this is a clear indication that Homer knows the way it goes: we live in a cultural system that discounts positive stories about women in favor of negative ones and which, accordingly, downgrades the authority of the stories they tell.


Classical myth deserves trigger warnings.

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