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.

What Hephaestus Really Wanted from Thetis

Schol. to Pin. Nemian Odes, 4.81

“Phylarkhos claims that Thetis went to Hephaistos on Olympos so that he might create weapons for Achilles and that he did it. But, because Hephaistos was lusting after Thetis, he said he would not give them to her unless she had sex with him. She promised him that she would, but that she only wanted to try on the weapons first, so she could see if the gear he had made was fit for Achilles. She was actually the same size as him.

Once Hephaistos agreed on this, Thetis armed herself and fled. Because he was incapable of grabbing her, he took a hammer and hit Thetis in the ankle. Injured in this way, she went to Thessaly and healed in the city that is called Thetideion after her.”

Φύλαρχός φησι Θέτιν πρὸς ῞Ηφαιστον ἐλθεῖν εἰς τὸν ῎Ολυμπον, ὅπως ᾽Αχιλλεῖ ὅπλα κατασκευάσηι, τὸν δὲ ποιῆσαι. ἐρωτικῶς δὲ ἔχοντα τὸν ῞Ηφαιστον τῆς Θέτιδος, οὐ φάναι ἂν δώσειν αὐτῆι, εἰ μὴ αὐτῶι προσομιλήσαι. τὴν δὲ αὐτῶι ὑποσχέσθαι, θέλειν μέντοι ὁπλίζεσθαι, ὅπως ἴδηι εἰ ἁρμόζει ἃ ἐπεποιήκει ὅπλα τῶι ᾽Αχιλλεῖ· ἴσην γὰρ αὐτὴν ἐκείνωι εἶναι. τοῦ δὲ παραχωρήσαντος ὁπλισαμένην τὴν Θέτιν φυγεῖν, τὸν δὲ οὐ δυνάμενον καταλαβεῖν σφύραν λαβεῖν καὶ πατάξαι εἰς τὸ σφυρὸν τὴν Θέτιν· τὴν δὲ κακῶς διατεθεῖσαν ἐλθεῖν εἰς Θετταλίαν καὶ ἰαθῆναι ἐν τῆι πόλει ταύτηι τῆι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς Θετιδείωι καλουμένηι.

Image result for Thetis Berlin F2294
Hephaistos Thetis Kylix by the Foundry Painter Antikensammlung Berlin F2294

What Hephaestus Really Wanted from Thetis

Schol. to Pin. Nemian Odes, 4.81

“Phylarkhos claims that Thetis went to Hephaistos on Olympos so that he might create weapons for Achilles and that he did it. But, because Hephaistos was lusting after Thetis, he said he would not give them to her unless she had sex with him. She promised him that she would, but that she only wanted to try on the weapons first, so she could see if the gear he had made was fit for Achilles. She was actually the same size as him.

Once Hephaistos agreed on this, Thetis armed herself and fled. Because he was incapable of grabbing her, he took a hammer and hit Thetis in the ankle. Injured in this way, she went to Thessaly and healed in the city that is called Thetideion after her.”

Φύλαρχός φησι Θέτιν πρὸς ῞Ηφαιστον ἐλθεῖν εἰς τὸν ῎Ολυμπον, ὅπως ᾽Αχιλλεῖ ὅπλα κατασκευάσηι, τὸν δὲ ποιῆσαι. ἐρωτικῶς δὲ ἔχοντα τὸν ῞Ηφαιστον τῆς Θέτιδος, οὐ φάναι ἂν δώσειν αὐτῆι, εἰ μὴ αὐτῶι προσομιλήσαι. τὴν δὲ αὐτῶι ὑποσχέσθαι, θέλειν μέντοι ὁπλίζεσθαι, ὅπως ἴδηι εἰ ἁρμόζει ἃ ἐπεποιήκει ὅπλα τῶι ᾽Αχιλλεῖ· ἴσην γὰρ αὐτὴν ἐκείνωι εἶναι. τοῦ δὲ παραχωρήσαντος ὁπλισαμένην τὴν Θέτιν φυγεῖν, τὸν δὲ οὐ δυνάμενον καταλαβεῖν σφύραν λαβεῖν καὶ πατάξαι εἰς τὸ σφυρὸν τὴν Θέτιν· τὴν δὲ κακῶς διατεθεῖσαν ἐλθεῖν εἰς Θετταλίαν καὶ ἰαθῆναι ἐν τῆι πόλει ταύτηι τῆι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς Θετιδείωι καλουμένηι.

Image result for Thetis Berlin F2294
Hephaistos Thetis Kylix by the Foundry Painter Antikensammlung Berlin F2294

What Hephaestus Really Wanted from Thetis

Schol. to Pin. Nemian Odes, 4.81

“Phylarkhos claims that Thetis went to Hephaistos on Olympos so that he might create weapons for Achilles and that he did it. But, because Hephaistos was lusting after Thetis, he said he would not give them to her unless she had sex with him. She promised him that she would, but that she only wanted to try on the weapons first, so she could see if the gear he had made was fit for Achilles. She was actually the same size as him.

Once Hephaistos agreed on this, Thetis armed herself and fled. Because he was incapable of grabbing her, he took a hammer and hit Thetis in the ankle. Injured in this way, she went to Thessaly and healed in the city that is called Thetideion after her.”

Φύλαρχός φησι Θέτιν πρὸς ῞Ηφαιστον ἐλθεῖν εἰς τὸν ῎Ολυμπον, ὅπως ᾽Αχιλλεῖ ὅπλα κατασκευάσηι, τὸν δὲ ποιῆσαι. ἐρωτικῶς δὲ ἔχοντα τὸν ῞Ηφαιστον τῆς Θέτιδος, οὐ φάναι ἂν δώσειν αὐτῆι, εἰ μὴ αὐτῶι προσομιλήσαι. τὴν δὲ αὐτῶι ὑποσχέσθαι, θέλειν μέντοι ὁπλίζεσθαι, ὅπως ἴδηι εἰ ἁρμόζει ἃ ἐπεποιήκει ὅπλα τῶι ᾽Αχιλλεῖ· ἴσην γὰρ αὐτὴν ἐκείνωι εἶναι. τοῦ δὲ παραχωρήσαντος ὁπλισαμένην τὴν Θέτιν φυγεῖν, τὸν δὲ οὐ δυνάμενον καταλαβεῖν σφύραν λαβεῖν καὶ πατάξαι εἰς τὸ σφυρὸν τὴν Θέτιν· τὴν δὲ κακῶς διατεθεῖσαν ἐλθεῖν εἰς Θετταλίαν καὶ ἰαθῆναι ἐν τῆι πόλει ταύτηι τῆι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς Θετιδείωι καλουμένηι.

Image result for Thetis Berlin F2294
Hephaistos Thetis Kylix by the Foundry Painter Antikensammlung Berlin F2294

Peleus’ Knife, A Proverb

Appendix Prov.

“Peleus’ knife” The knife was a prize of prudence which was given to Peleus—it was made by Hephaistos.”

Πηλέως μάχαιρα: σωφροσύνης γέρας ἡ μάχαιρα τῷ Πηλεῖ δέδοται, ῾Ηφαιστότευκτος οὖσα.

“Peleus’ knife”: this is a proverb. Aristophanes also records this: “he thinks more of himself than Peleus did with the knife”. It seems that this thing which Peleus took was a Hephaistos-made gift of prudence.”

Πηλέως μάχαιρα: παροιμία: ταύτην ἀναγράφει καὶ Ἀριστοφάνης οὕτως: μέγα φρονεῖ μᾶλλον ἢ Πηλεὺς ἐπὶ τῇ μαχαίρᾳ. ἣ ἐδόκει σωφροσύνης γέρας ἡφαιστότευκτος, ἣν εἰλήφει μάχαιραν ὁ Πηλεύς.

Photios

“Peleus’ knife. Aristophanes also records this: “he thinks more of himself than Peleus did with the knife”. It seems that this thing which Peleus took was a Hephaistos-made gift of prudence.

This proverb is used for rare and extremely honored possessions. For they say that Peleus received a sword from the gods because of his surplus of prudence. It was made by Hephaistos.”

Πηλέως μάχαιρα: παροιμία· ταύτην ἀναγράφει καὶ ᾿Αριστοφάνης οὕτως· μέγα φρονεῖ μᾶλλον ἢ Πηλεὺς ἐν τηῖ μαχαίρηι· ἐδόκει σωφροσύνης γέρας ῾Ηφαιστότευκτος ἣν εἰλήφει μάχαιραν ὁ Πηλεύς· λαμβάνεται δὲ ἐπὶ τῶν σπανίων καὶ τιμιωτάτων κτημάτων· διὰ γὰρ σωφροσύνης ὑπερβολὴν παρὰ θεῶν λαβεῖν φασὶ τὸν Πηλέα ξίφος, ῾Ηφαίστου κατασκευάσαντος.

A bronze age sword