Archive: Posts by Leonard Muellner from HeroesXv2

We are happy to share the following archive of posts written by Leonard Muellner during the second session of HeroesX. Muellner is the Chair of the Board of Readers for HeroesX and Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He has been collaborating with Professor Gregory Nagy for over four decades.

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_1

Key Terms: song culture, kleos aphtiton, Milman Parry, Albert Lord Scroll 9 Iliad, modern oral traditions, Korea, Tibet

Hi everyone, this is a wonderful topic to get your heads around, and all of your posts so far are very helpful. One thing worth clarifying is that in the Ancient Greek version of the song culture, the spoken word is immortal, the kleos is aphthiton, as Achilles says about his choices in Scroll 9, because the notion is that the tradition of singing goes on forever. From our point of view, it looks as though a song culture without recording loses everything — but that’s not in the least the way it looks from inside it. Here’s something else: there’s nothing inevitable about the way that song cultures deal with writing and vice versa. Experience in the field — and there are still places in which what you are calling oral traditions survive, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in parallel with written traditions (as for example in modern Korea) – experience only teaches us that there is no way to predict what will happen. Last fall I learned from Chinese researchers that in some places in modern Tibet where the song culture survives and some singers have learned to write, the writing singers use writing the same way as their peers do singing: it’s just another performance medium. Milman Parry and Albert Lord, the two classicists who did fieldwork in the South Slavic region starting in the 1920’s through the 1950’s, found the opposite thing as well. When they read a song from a printed collection to their illiterate singers, for them it was the same as a performance, and they could then re-perform it. There is no rule that you have to get “re-wired” when you learn to write! Make sense to you? –Lenny

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_2

Key terms: Achilles’ anger, mênis, Achilles’ pride, hubris, Christian humility, Scroll 1 Iliad

Hi everyone,

It’s wonderful to see you all so deeply and passionately engaged in the discussion of Achilles’ anger — as several of you pointed out, his anger is announced in the first line of this huge poem as its subject after all, so thinking about how to understand it and making the effort to do so with care has to be an important task for all readers. So we must think, as many of you have said in answer to Omphale’s original question, that this ‘anger’ of his and its causes are significant. The problem that Achilles’ ‘anger’ presents to us as readers is not small: most modern cultures don’t encourage their citizens to be angry in public the way that Achilles and Agamemnon are. In the US, for instance, a politician who expressed anger as overtly as Agamemnon or Achilles do would lose his status and his credibility immediately. So I would encourage you to keep on thinking about this, and to be aware that the word for Achilles’ anger, mênis, in Scroll 1 line 1, is not an exact synonym of English ‘anger’ or even ‘wrath.’ You will learn more about this word as the Iliad goes on, because it really is the subject of the whole poem, so keep an open mind and keep thinking. There are other examples of mênis that you will soon come across that are very helpful in understanding the context and significance of Achilles’, and they are all tracked in the translation that we are using.

I have two other things to add to the discussion as it has evolved, and I hope that they are helpful. Several of you have spoken about Achilles’ pride and some of you have spoken of his (or others’) hubris. Those two words, pride and hubris are definitely not interchangeable. In fact, there is no Ancient Greek word that means what we mean by ‘pride’ or ‘proud’ — it’s one of the seven deadly sins in Christian teaching, and it ‘comes before a fall,’ but it’s not an Ancient Greek concept. Neither is its opposite, the Christian virtue of humility — so responding to Achilles’ non-existent pride as we have been taught to respond to pride in ourselves and our peers is “reading into” the text, not reading out of the text what it has to tell us about itself. Greek heroes don’t get praised for being humble or blamed for being proud. If you are a Greek hero and you really are good at something, you can and should and do tell people that you are. As far as the word hubris is concerned, there is a lot of attention coming to this term in the book The Ancient Hero in 24 Hours (H24H), but here’s one factoid that you may find helpful in a specific and a general way. It’s a very rare word in the Iliad, but it is used once in Scroll 1, when Achilles speaks to Athena when she grabs him by his long hair to stop him from killing Agamemnon. Achilles uses it to describe what Agamemnon has done to him, Achilles, in taking Briseis. The passage is in Scroll 1 lines 200-204, and it is marked as [hubris] there and translated with the English word “outrage” — it is not a word that designates some internal moral quality. It designates an act, a kind of behavior. Starting to look carefully at the words of the text and trying to figure out what is going on in it — that’s the first thing we all need to do as we learn to read this amazing document from another time and place. You’re in for an adventure of an exceptional kind if you stick with it, believe me! All best wishes, Lenny

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_3

Key terms: fate, choice, destiny, character, free will Democritus, ethos ho daimon

I really like this part of a wonderful discussion, because I think you are getting a grip on the notion of fate — it’s too easy for us to externalize it as some force bigger than the characters that makes them do things or deprives them of choices, but if you look really hard, you can see that it’s the product of a whole system of narrative that doesn’t work the way we’re used to thinking of narratives working. We want our stories to have surprise endings, but these people keep on retelling the stories: instead of suspense being what they’re after, it’s anticipation of a result that they know, but how you get there, or more specifically, how artistically you go about telling the story to get to the known end point, that’s where the tension and excitement and engagement lies. So in the end “destiny” is 1) built into the way a person is portrayed, what we call his/her character, because you need to have a narrative that works with the way the people in it behave, and 2) is actually the known overall trajectory of the narrative itself, not some external force. So Achilles’ destiny is his character and his character is his destiny (–I’m quoting the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, to whom a proverb that can be translated both those ways is attributed: in Greek, ēthos ho daimōn). This means that “free will” does exist, in a big way, because the person in the story is interacting with his being and the constraints on his behavior that any person or creature in the natural world has to interact with. See what I mean? What do you think? –Lenny

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_4

Key terms: performance, gender, Judith Butler, Greek vase painting, South Slavic song culture; Ingrid Huber, Die Ikonographie der Trauer in der Griechische Kunst; Aida Vidan, Embroidered with Gold, Strung with Pearls

Yes, as Claudia says, I’m very interested in performances and also in the way that they are gendered. In fact, there’s a very interesting modern philosopher, Judith Butler, who thinks that gender as a concept is essentially a matter of performance, a performance of things that a person has learned to act out that define her (or his) gender in socially recognizable terms. So what WilliamMoulton2 says about the male poet by definition taking over feminine performances of the Muses is super interesting, as is the fact that the public performers of epic in antiquity were all males, as far as we know. It’s also been shown by a historian of Greek art, Ingrid Huber (Die Ikonographie der Trauer in der Griechsiche Kunst, 2001), that in Greek vase paintings, men slowly take on and then take over the poses and activities of women as mourners over time, starting in the Bronze Age and continuing into the Classical period. It’s not that the men doing these things are thereby feminized — it seems to be men who are poaching on women’s activities, and that poaching on female gender performance seems to be an active process in Homeric epic, where women seem to be the basic mourners, but men are described as mourning and singing laments, plus you actually will get to see one warrior performing a lament. The emotional aspects of this process and the motivations for it are worth thinking about. People are still working out how to approach these things. When it comes to gender and performance, we need to look at the situation in a comparative perspective — for instance, the differences between what women sing and what men sing in the South Slavic song culture that was investigated starting in the 1930’s. The first publication of women’s songs from that tradition (all the others are men’s songs, about warriors) is by Aida Vidan.Embroidered with gold, strung with pearls (Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press, 2003), and it offers a very interesting example of how things like this work in a song culture.

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_5

Key terms: Achilles, Patroklos, singing in turns, poetic performance, lyre Derek Collins, Master of the Game; Sicilian shepherds

Here’s a try at some answers — not the last word! Achilles is singing to Patroklos, and Patroklos is waiting his turn to respond and sing in turn — that’s what the resonance of the words used to describe the way he waits imply. Singing in turns, responsively and also competitively, is a feature of poetic performance in antiquity (we actually have a much later poem in this tradition that is a competition between Homer and Hesiod; there’s a book about this kind of performance tradition in Greece by Derek Collins, Master of the Game) and it survives in folklore traditions around the world. I once heard a pair of shepherds from Sicily do one of these — not so easy to stand for in a lecture hall full of professors! They were loud and competitive and got more and more intense. So I don’t think that you’re look at a disconnect between the two, just the opposite. I think that you will shortly learn a lot more about the extent of the connection between these two guys, so stay tuned on that front.

I love what you have to say about the visual aspect of the lyre. If you’re looking for more: in the epic world, all objects are hand-made by artisans and are in principle beautiful and laden with value that is both aesthetic and social and economic all at once (there is no money, so exchange of beautiful things is what occupies that space but in a very different way), but the lyre that Achilles sings on is even special in that regard, part of the booty from the capture of the city of Andromache’s family and her father, Eetion. Especially precious stuff, and in this case perhaps also related to the beauty and craftsmanship of the song tradition and the preciousness of fame itself, for which the lyre is a vehicle.

What do you think? Are these helping you to think more of the inspiring thoughts you are already sharing?

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_6

Key terms: sêma, sumbolon, animal similes, omens, mutilation of heroes, beautiful corpse, recognition by feet and hands, divine revelation, labor pains, Achille’s wound Alex Hollmann, The Master of Signs:  Signs and Interpretation of signs in Herodotus; Song of Roland; Scroll 13 Iliad 71-72; Choephoroi; Scroll 3 Iliad, 

Dear Fuchsin and also Alex,

First to point out that Alex is a person who knows a lot about the word sêma and people in ancient Greece who wield signs, including Herodotus: see A. Hollmann, The Master of Signs: Signs and Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus, Cambridge and Washington, 2011, a wonderful book.

On sumbolon, Greg has interesting things to say about it in Hour 16, much along the lines that Alex anticipates: the word originally means a stick broken in half, and the things “thrown together” are the two halves, which could be used to authenticate a message or a messenger, for instance. But the word moves beyond that and has to do, as Alex says, with figuring out a sequence of signs or putting together pieces of a puzzle.

Maybe I can respond to a few of the other things in your wonderful list of questions, Fuchsin: about the meaning in lions and snakes and birds other creatures that recur in the text and similes and also the omens (there’s a direct relationship between the birds in the imagery of the poem and the way oracles are interpreted, for instance): the way to think of them is as a bestiary, or a corpus of animals, with a lot of nuanced differentiations in the way that they work in the poetry. For instance, you have a big difference between birds of prey, like eagles and falcons and vultures, which are traditionally (observations from nature are a part of these systems of meaning, but not the whole of it: they take on a life of their own) solitary and family oriented, and used to represent elite heroes, as against social birds like jackdaws or swans or geese, which are group-oriented and can represent whole armies or contingents of them that get put to flight or attacked by the predators. And there are subtle differences between the predators. For instance, there are lions and boars and wolves who attack nomadic animals like cattle and sheep, but the three of them are differentiated: lions attack and defend, but boars with their tusks are fierce defenders, so there are similes in which you can say that a hero is like a lion or a boar, but he will be taking a defensive posture if he’s like a boar; whereas wolves are social predators. All these details are exquisitely worked out, and something like that needs to be thought through for snakes, who have a special relationship with tombs because they live in the ground. I’m not giving you an answer, because I don’t know the answer to your question, but this is the way to one.

About the mutilation of heroes in battle scenes: the truth is that all of the gruesome descriptions of battle fighting are sanitized and stylized compared to the “reality” of sword and spear fighting. As I remember it, you have way more graphic and gross-out descriptions of mutilation in, say, the Song of Roland, than in the Iliad, but it’s been pointed out by doctors and others that what really must have happened is not only limbs cut off and horrible, disfiguring injuries, but also many people would die of infection, of gangrene, from infected wounds, since the defense against bacteria was warm water and bandages, neither of them sterile. No one in the Iliad dies of gangrene or bleeds to death all over the place in the battle scenes. Given the idea that the beautiful body of the dead warrior and the beauty of his death are intertwined, even disfiguring wounds like the ones that will be made to Hector’s corpse get magically mended by the gods who are concerned, so there is a real sense that too much horror would diminish the beauty of the death that the epic is, as you say, intending to preserve and glorify, even for the people whose mention as human beings is a sentence or two. But on the other side, it does not want to diminish or blunt the horror of death itself and the brutality of battle. There’s a huge and complex system in place to individualize the descriptions of the masses of deaths that are being narrated.

One more item: the recognition by the feet and knees in Iliad XIII lines 71-72. This is a slight mistranslation of the Greek, which says “the traces/tracks of the feet and lower legs [not knees!] left behind/I easily recognized as he went off.” This is still not easy to understand, but there is a famous passage in the beginning of the Libation Bearers/Choephoroi of Aeschylus, a text which is part of this project, where Electra finds Orestes’s footprints and puts her feet in them and decides that they are her brother’s feet (and I think that the combination “traces of feet and knees” doesn’t mean anything more than footprints, vividly and poetically expressed, but I may be wrong!); closer to home, there is also a passage in the 4th book of the Odyssey (that I won’t spoil for you) where a person is recognized by both their hands and feet (not traces of them). So does this help? One thing is that the gods are “in reality” bigger and more beautiful than the heroes, just as the heroes are bigger and better than we are, and that’s why the concept of “traces” and the word “left behind” comes into play: but also, the gods reveal the size and shape of their feet as traces when they themselves are no longer there, so that we know they were. There’s another example of this revelation of divine disguise trick at the last moment at the end of Iliad 3, when Aphrodite appears to Helen in disguise as an old woman, and just when she’s leaving, Helen gets a glimpse of the beauty of her neck (at least, that’s what I remember — ) and knows that it’s the goddess. Either there are lots of cool things going on here about the way you envision gods working in our world, or I’m way off. Don’t believe me just because I’m saying it!

Last point, about labor pains and Agamemnon’s wound: great observation, but keep looking! There are many more places where big macho warriors are likened to/liken themselves to women, mothers, and little girls, including the greatest of them all, Achilles. Given the real extent of the unbearable pain involved in childbirth, though, this is probably the least amazing of them from the standpoint of a male-dominated culture, but it’s important to realize that women and their experience are not as suppressed and diminished as we expect of a male-dominated society.Hope this helps, but also, these are terrific questions, and I hope you and others will respond, especially, if you aren’t satisfied or if you and others come up with better answers. And please, KEEP ON ASKING THEM! It took us a while to respond, but not because we didn’t want to.


Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_7

Key terms: Milman Parry, traditional epithets, name plus epithet combinations, Apollonius of Rhodes; Vergil; systematic formulaic composition; distinctive, generic, and particularized epithets; composition in performance; multiformity; poetic fluctuation and geography Adam Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse; Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales; Nicole Loraux; Matijas Murko; lower-caste song traditions in modern India; Joyce Flueckiger;

I’d like to respond to all of the posts in this thread so far, if it’s possible, first with a more detailed account of what Milman Parry’s first doctoral thesis (1928) on traditional epithets sought to prove (he wrote two: another, just as important and brilliant, applied the insights of the first to a series of old problems in the study of Homeric verse; they both have been translated into English in The Making of Homeric Verse, edited by his son, Adam Parry), then with a pointer to the other seminal work on the subject of oral traditional poetry, The Singer of Tales, by Albert B. Lord, who was Parry’s protégé; they did fieldwork together in the 1920’s and ’30’s in the mountains of Bosnia and Hercegovina, recording and interviewing poets who did not know how to read and write and who could sing songs, one of them at least a song as long as the Odyssey that they neither had memorized nor “improvised”; after Parry died, Lord returned to the region as late as the 1950’s). The argument of Parry’s luminous and disciplined doctoral thesis, which he wrote under the direction of the great Indo-European linguist Antoine Meillet, was really very simple. He demonstrated by patient and careful research that for each of the principal characters in the epic, both heroes and gods, there was a system of inherited name + epithet combinations designed to fit into different parts of the hexameter verse. Steve Berry showed the complex pattern of long and short syllables in that verse in the first response to Flying Cloud’s post (actually, there are more complex features than its sequence of short/long or light/heavy syllables: there are also compulsory word breaks, as Steve said, along with places where word breaks are ruled out, and there are also tendencies to avoid certain patterns, like ending the line with four long/heavy syllables, in favor of others). These name+epithet combinations (like the several different forms of “swift-footed Achilles”, all of which use slightly different words and fit in different parts of the line) are also complicated by the fact that ancient Greek is an inflected language, so that the form and therefore, potentially, the metrical adaptability of a word changes with its grammatical function, such that if Achilles is the subject of a sentence, he has one set of name + epithet combinations, but if he is the object of the sentence, or if he is being addressed in a speech, there is a different set of them. But to get back to Parry’s argument, he showed that these combinations of names with epithets were generally (but not always or only) intended to complete the verse, to fit different patterns for endingthe poetic line, where there are in fact the largest number of constraints on what the word breaks and patterns in the hexameter line should and should not be. He also showed that for each of the main characters in the poem, with a few interesting and explainable exceptions, there were not two ways to combine the character’s name with an epithet that had the same metrical value — in other words, that the system for each individual character was, as he put it, “thrifty” in avoiding multiple ways of filling the same portion of the verse for the same name + epithet combination. Parry then looked at noun + epithet combinations for common objects in the poems, like ships and swords and so forth, and he found the same kind of systematization of adjectives with nouns for them as he had found with the names of the characters.

What Parry then did was to study the name+epithet combinations in poems composed by poets whom we know wrote their poems, Apollonius of Rhodes and the Roman poet, Vergil, who were imitators of the Homeric style and content. In them, he found that the use of names and epithets differed not only in quantity but in quality from what he had shown to be the case in Homeric verse. There was never the same kind of thrifty system for each character — in fact there was often redundance. And there was never the apparent lack of constraint that we see in Homeric epic about repeating the same name + epithet combinations.

So here was what he concluded from this research: that the systematized combinations of names or nouns with epithets that he found in the Homeric poems could not be the creation of a single individual, but that it had to be the product of a tradition developing over a long period of time. He also believed that what he had shown was true for the names of heroes and gods and some common nouns was also true for all the language in the poem, namely, that it was a manifestation of a system of thrifty expressions intended to fit into chunks of the hexameter line, such that everything in the poem was “formulaic” even if we did not have enough parallel texts to prove it: that also was the way in which his director, Meillet, spoke of Homeric verse in the work that he wrote showing that Indo-European meters are reflected in the lyric poetry of Ancient Greek (like that of Sappho). Parry was, as Steve said, also interested in the meaning of the epithets, but he did not conclude that they were meaningless or ill-suited to their contexts; he thought of them as an essential, powerfully expressive element of epic style, whose meaning reflected on the whole tradition as well as the individual characters who had what he called distinctive epithets (many, including those who have distinctive epithets, also have generic epithets, like the word translated “radiant,” dios). But he distinguished distinctive and generic traditional epithets from what he called particularized epithets, which are adjectives that have the kind of contextual meaning that we expect an adjective to have in poetry. Epithets are more like names than those kinds of adjectives; and Parry would have been pleased with the formulation of the French scholar Nicole Loraux, who said of the epithets that they are condensed narratives. We do not always know what those micro-narratives were, and many of the epithets are very old in form and some are obscure in meaning — just like names are for us. They are certainly an ongoing subject of study, and unpacking their meaning in reference to specific heroes and in reference to specific contexts, of which Steve wrote, is an ongoing subject of research. One thing is clear: that the poets had a system that gave them great versatility in the composition of a given epic verse, and that, as Parry and Lord observed in their fieldwork, there is no need to assume that they were ever at a loss for words as we would be if we had to perform a poem for an evening’s entertainment without having memorized it in advance.

But the epithets are also an essential element of the epic style, and when he wrote his first thesis, Parry did not know or pretend to assert more than that about them, along with the indisputable notion that the extensive and economical systems that he had found were the product of a tradition evolving over generations, not invented by one person. It was at his thesis defense that Meillet introduced him to a Yugoslav scholar, Matijas Murko, who had been studying epic singers in his own country, and that eventually resulted in the fieldwork of Parry and Lord on South Slavic epic singers. The classic work on that subject was written by Lord, because Parry died at the age of 33, and Lord’s work was published in 1960, and called The Singer of Tales. There you can learn how an illiterate person can learn to sing a set of songs — in the case of the Moslem singers, one for every night of Ramadan — without memorizing them, by learning a super-language over and above one’s everyday language that is the language of song, and by apprenticing one’s self to a mature singer and practicing until the process of “performance in composition” that some of you have mentioned becomes as simple as speaking prose is for a professor.

What the fieldwork showed was that the kind of systematic formulaic composition that Parry had described in his two doctoral theses as functioning in the composition of Homeric verse are a telltale sign of such composition. It is not a matter of an unfinished work that we are dealing with in Homeric poetry: there have certainly been processes that reduce the degree of variation that is natural in such a system of composition. The Yugoslav poets say that they always sing the same song word for word and line for line, but they do not really know what a word is and even though in fact there is variation, or as Lord preferred to call it, multiformity (as opposed to uniformity) in each performance. So there is no controversy about the “improvisational” or “unfinished” character of the Homeric poems as we have them: they are the product of a system designed for composition in performance, and the key to unlocking their meaning that you are all looking for (and so are we) is to learn the way that the system works. That system accounts for the multiformity that our transmission of the poetry from antiquity actually exhibits, even though scholars up until recently have treated the poems as the works of a single “author” whose text had to have one “correct” version.

I hope this account is helpful: it’s not that this is the party line or the last word on this subject, but it’s a slightly longer summary I’ve given you and hopefully a fuller picture of the current scholarship on Homeric poetry that sees it as the product of an oral tradition, both why and how that works, and how epithets functioned in such a system of poetic composition. They are certainly highly poetic terms that were the product of a long period of singer-audience interaction and selection, and their importance for understanding the poetry should not be under- or, for that matter, overestimated.


Not sure that I get what is the tough part, but I don’t think your models are all that helpful. Here’s a piece of actual data: in fieldwork on lower-caste song traditions in modern India, Joyce Flueckiger has shown that the more popular and widespread (in geographical terms) a particular song tradition becomes, the less fluctuation there is in its expression, or to put it in another hopefully relative and not absolute way, the more rigid it becomes. As for the way that the singer works, he works within a system, but like all language-based systems, it is open-ended. Even if the singers think that they are repeating the same song word for word and line by line, they add and change and also repeat and preserve. Am I getting some place? One last and very important point: there is nothing exceptional about the “Homeric system.” Traditions for generating poetry in performance are a world-wide phenomenon, or were, and there’s nothing special about the way it worked in Ancient Greece. That’s the beauty part: we can test things out in living situations. But if I haven’t dealt with your doubt as directly as I should’ve, please don’t give up!! I’ll try harder!!

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_8

Key terms: typologies; compelling parallels; story of Giong; Herakles;  Jesus; Orestes, Herodotus; Sappho

Dear NguyenPTPhan and others who have contributed so creatively to this wonderful thread of ideas,

I just want to tease out one fundamental principle in this discussion that is important for The Ancient Greek Hero, namely, that there are compelling parallels between the way stories work in totally unrelated cultures — we tend to call them “typologies” because they are like typologies in the amazingly parallel way that words change in meaning between totally unrelated languages — and then there are compelling parallels in the way that stories work in historically related cultures, as for example what may well be happening in the story of Jesus and its parallels to the way Greek heroes die and become objects of worship that achurchill describes so beautifully above. It’s important and helpful to keep these two kinds of parallelism separate, but in the end both of them help us to see what is similar as well as what is different about the particular story that we are looking at, and that can be very helpful indeed.The story of Giong, for instance, reminds me of the stories about Herakles (Latin name: Hercules) who is a hero of the generation previous to that of the Homeric heroes. He is a hero who carries a club as well as a bow, and he kills monsters and defends Hellas from all sorts of threats from without as well as within, in a Panhellenic (“for all Greeks”) way. But he must die, and he also becomes a god even within the Homeric epic itself, which is very rare. He also was a remarkable baby — there is a story about the snakes whom the goddess Hera sent to kill hiim, but which he strangled as a new-born. His mother was a mortal woman as well whom Zeus made pregnant. But there are wonderful and telling parts of the Vietnamese tale that have no parallel in the Greek one as well: the fact that the baby Giong didn’t speak until the King’s messengers came to his village looking for a leader, for instance, and then suddenly made very specific demands about what it would take for him to defend the land. Or the marvelous story about the huge footprint. Supposedly when the bones of Orestes were dug up from his tomb (the story is told by the historian, Herodotus, parts of whose work you will read later), they were much bigger than those of any present day humans, even though he belongs to the generation after Agamemnon — but the function of the huge footprint as the mark of the divinity (and the woman putting her own foot in it, possibly as a way of becoming pregnant?) are amazing.Also, the reflections on the short lives of generals and beautiful women are indeed relevant: NguyenPTPhan, you have just begun your journey, but you will remember them when you come to the discussion of the poetess Sappho and her portrayal of Achilles. I hope you will keep on posting these helpful and insightful reflections from your own culture, and that others will be inspired to do so as well. They really help all of us!

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_9

Key terms: defilement of Hector’s body; encounter of Achilles and Priam; funeral games for Patroklos; concept of justice; cultural concepts of moral and immoral; gold and silver ages Odyssey; Theogony; Works and Days;

Hi elva01,
I’m not so sure about the “it didn’t matter” analysis of Achilles, since a lot of the things did matter: the gods won’t let Hector’s body be defiled since it does matter, and Achilles was explicit from the beginning about the impact he wanted to have on Agamemnon and the whole social group in order to prove his value to them and their mistake by doing nothing, so that the radically contradictory way in which he was mistreated by Agamemnon can matter and can have consequences; and the point of the encounter of Achilles with Priam is a profound and consistent theme at the end of the poem that we see in the funeral games for Patroklos, which is that the community needs to be restored and even enemies have common ground as human beings suffering the sorrows of life and death.Meanwhile, the point of Hour 12 is that while, for instance, the Iliad shows us a world in which concepts of justice are at best nascent and developing (“justice” does not arise as an operative term for all intents and purposes), the Odyssey makes progress towards civilized life in contrasting just behavior and its positive consequences with the unregulated, violent behavior of the suitors, and the Theogony and the Works & Days get us finally to a world in which behavior is more precisely regulated — though even then, it’s not about absolutes. I like the section that begins on Works and Days line 707, “Don’t make your companion equal to a brother; but if you do, then…”So watch out, because “moral” and “immoral” are culture-bound concepts, and it’s important not to assume that what you think is moral and consequential was understood by Ancient Greeks the same way. I’m not sure what you are referring to, elva01, when you say that “some inferior groups still got honors after death” — I bet it’s the silver age people, who are “under the earth” and are the objects of cult despite their disregard for the gods. But that is consistent with the paired structure of the myth that works in relative rather than absolute terms, in terms of better and worse generations rather than mutually exclusive totally good and totally bad pairs. The gold and silver ages are two of a kind, and clearly the silver people are less helpful and important in their afterlife than the silver ones as they were much less effective in their pre-afterlife existence. Is it possible that this kind of not so absolute moral calculus is what is troubling you? I may be way off, but I hope that this can at least lead to clarification and further discussion!
Best, Lenny

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_10

Key terms: “truth” of myth; cosmology of the Yukuna; epic poetry and interpretation; Homer; epic composition; Indo-European society Aristotle; Jacopin; Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales; Gregory Nagy

Thanks, Claudia, for introducing me to this amazing discussion. I may have something to contribute in the background to it, in the way of some ideas about the “truth” of myth and how it functions in a society that does not have science and history and philosophy that compete with it for “truth” — at least science and history and philosophy didn’t exist until the 5th/4th Centuries BCE in Athens, which is when a word like “myth” began to mean (to some, like Aristotle) “lies,” because they espoused a competing way of understanding the world, and they wanted to push the mythological world out of its privileged place. The world before you have that competition is an importance mental place to try and think yourself into, if it’s possible to say such a thing. One way to do that is to realize that it’s especially hard for us to think of a world in which mythology is not contrasted with the thing that we call ‘reality.’ I used to teach with an anthropologist who had worked in the Columbian Amazon with a small-scale society of people who called themselves Yukuna, a word that meant something like ‘myths’ in their language (that’s already a challenging idea, no?). What Jacopin (the anthropologist in question) used to say was that for the Yukuna the myth was MORE real than ‘reality.’ Our idea is that we measure the truth value of the story against what is possible in the real world or in our world. For the Yukuna, it was exactly the other way around. If the ‘real’ world didn’t measure up to the mythical world, then it was a failure on the part of the ‘real’ world. The whole notion of science and scientific thinking is based on the notion that you test a hypothesis on the basis of phenomena: not so for the Yukuna: you test the reality against the myth and find the reality wanting. For instance, the cosmology of the Yukuna said that the moon rose when the sun set and vice versa. When Jacopin asked them why you can sometimes see the moon in the sky on a sunny day, they explained that it was because they had messed the world up. I’m not saying that the Greeks thought about truth in exactly this way, but they did not have a competing explanation for their past than this, and I’m sure that it is proper to try to conceive that the fact there is little or nothing that defies human experience as Greeks experienced and understood it in the Iliad and the Odyssey. It’s a model world, not a world of fiction, and a world of the past that finds us wanting.

Here’s another thing: we (and I’m including myself) attempt to pass judgment on the poems themselves, and it’s a fun thing to do, but that’s an inconceivable thing in their own cultural context. It’s really the other way around (for Greeks, and it may also be true for us): the poems pass judgment on us depending on how well we understand what they have to say. Along these lines, I’d like to make one more point: some of you talk about the Iliad and the Odyssey as “written” by a “writer,” and you think of Homer or Homēros as an individual like yourself, or rather as a genius who did something extraordinary in “creating” the Iliad and the Odyssey. But there’s an accumulating amount of comparative evidence and trenchant analysis to show that it’s the poetry that created in the figure of Homer its idealized version of a poet-performer, because Epic was experienced by Greeks in the historical period in performances, not in writing, and the performers were like the performers described in the poetry itself and explained in a famous book, The Singer of Tales, by Albert Lord, who was Greg’s and my teacher. What this means is fun but also very challenging: when we read the Homeric poems, we’re not communing with one person’s account of the past, but with an evolving tradition of performers over generations, over centuries going back before the invention of the wheel, since we can scientifically show that there are expressions like kleos aphthiton itself, expressions that reference the existence of a poetic tradition, that go back to before the split of Indo-European society into the Greek and the Indo-Iranian branch. Those generations of performers perfected the poetry into something like the form in which we have it, because we know that there were performances of Homeric poetry that probably started in the 7th Century BCE in Ionia and were still going on in places like Alexandria up into the 2nd century CE. These works are better conceived of as the evolving product of a whole culture over many centuries of its history, not one guy. What do you think?

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_11

Key terms: Achilles’ anger, mênis, Apollo’s mênis; Briseis; rules of exchange; Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles:  Mênis in Greek Epic;  Chryses; Hephaistos, Scroll 1 Iliad; Scroll 15 Iliad

Hi Bill and LeilaIslam, I’ve argued that Achilles’ mênis (like all other examples of it in Homeric epic) is caused by violation of the cosmic order — it’s exactly analogous to Apollo’s, since what Agamemnon does in taking Briseis is a violation of the rules of exchange that govern human interaction as well as divine interaction and human-divine interaction. Agamemnon had committed the same kind of offense in rejecting the priest, Chrysēs, and his offer to exchange a ransom for his daughter. The consequences can’t be separated from the causes, because it’s all a matter of paying back for what you give or take! For the details, check out The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic. But what you’ve said about it not being “divine anger” is totally correct — other heroes in the Epic have it besides Achilles, including Odysseus and even Agamemnon makes a claim to it. And to answer LeilsIslam’s question, it’s a sanction that can be levied by Zeus, for instance, against other gods: that’s what is behind the story at the end of Iliad Scroll 1, where Hephaistos talks about being hurled down from Olympus, which is one way that Zeus manifests his mênis, by indiscriminately hurling gods right and left down from the divine threshold. The scene at the beginning of Iliad Scroll 15 between Zeus and Poseidon is another example where it is the sanction of one god against another that is looming over the dispute between Zeus and Poseidon. Hope this helps! Best, Lenny

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_12

Key terms: Achilles’ anger, mênis; treatment of the corpse; tabu; epic world; dikedikaios; the raw and the cooked; Themis Scroll 24 Iliad ; thought experiment

Dear Ed,

I’m joining this discussion late, and I’m also and above all wishing you well. As Claudia says, it’s amazing that you have the focus and discipline to do this work when stuff like that is looming. As for my ability to contribute to this discussion, I’m in awe both of what you’ve said already and of what Claudia has articulated in response to it. There’s so much depth to the characters and the concepts being conveyed in these magnificent texts! Here are some responses, though, and they are in no way definitive. I wouldn’t object to thinking that the way that Achilles treats Hector’s is abhorrent within the epic system, just as the way that he sacrifices the Trojan captives at Patroklos’ funeral is abhorrent to the narrator. There’s a flagrant contradiction and irony in the fact that Achilles’ anger, his mênis, is reflected in his attempts to mistreat Hector’s corpse (note that the gods prevent it from being disfigured in any way), because not burying a corpse is the kind of tabu-breaking that regularly is cited as something that actually arouses themênis of the gods. It’s also worth noticing that Achilles’ version of this special kind of anger from the very beginning of the poem is associated with leaving unburied corpses to be fed upon by dogs and birds. That’s one thing: another is that the notion of leaving corpses unburied so that dogs and birds devour them never actually happens to a single corpse in the poem, that’s how abhorrent it is. How can we, then, understand this? Is Achilles really being transformed in Scroll 24 from a tabu-breaker to a moral human being? I think part of the answer to this question is the rest of the course, so I think you should and will form your own conclusions on these matters. I’d just suggest one thing, intended to keep your mind open: that the world of Achilles and Hector is differentiated from “our own” world by definition, and that it does not feature the vocabulary of just and unjust that the post-Epic Greeks participated in. (By “our own” world, I don’t mean the 21st Century — I mean the world of the epic audience, then and now, since we are trying to do a thought experiment here and engage with it as fully as possible on its own terms.) It even seems to avoid using the later words for justice and just (dikë is the noun, the adjective is dikaios) in anything like their moral sense. So one way of understanding the difference between the epic world and “ours” is that it belongs to an earlier time (not necessarily a more primitive time, just earlier and different) in the history of the world. We can even say that the food that the heroes eat is a reflection of this kind of difference: they eat meat on skewers cooked over an open fire, whereas we eat meat simmered in sauces, so that it is cooked evenly through, not charred on the outside and almost raw on the inside. This comes to mind because in the epic, the word dikaios is used to refer to proper table manners, to etiquette, which is another important form of human behavior, along with fighting hand-to-hand or with a bow and chariot racing. In fact the goddess Themis, who seems to be the incarnation of order in the divine sphere, is in charge of the gods’ table manners. I’m not sure I’m helping, but, to coin a phrase, maybe it’s food for thought!! Best, Lenny

Post ID: Archive_HeroesXv2_LennyMuellner_13

Key terms: development of Epic; Homer; oral traditions; Martin P. Nilsson; processes of synthesis; fluid tradition; performance Milman Parry

I’m very late joining this discussion, which Claudia told me about a few days ago and I’d hoped to join sooner but couldn’t. In the meantime, I think that you’ve really sorted out everything, but I just want to add a few words about the way that post-Parry/Lord scholarship looks at the historical development of Epic and how that differs from the analytic methodologies of 19th (and in some instances 20th) Century analysis of Homer that JackVaughn has been thinking with. Two things happened: the analysis of Homer into “original” elements and earlier and later “strata” and “interpolations” and “insertions” belongs to the vocabulary of a written text as an object worked over by individuals, and the scholars of the 19th Century generally disagreed significantly with each other about what the older and the newer elements were. Despite occasional appeals to linguistic criteria (like the “long-form datives”, which are associated with Aeolic dialectal features), most of the ideas about what was old and thus “original” rather than new and thus “secondary,” were subjective and not based on some consistent principles or, more importantly, on comparative understanding of the way that oral traditions actually function. One of the first people to really articulate this because he understood the way religious institutions and folklore functioned from his own life experience was a Swedish scholar of Greek religion, Martin P. Nilsson, who also was one of the first European scholars to recognize the importance of Parry’s work on Homer already in the 1930’s. What happens is that old and new elements, be they linguistic or narrative or aspects of material culture, become part of a system that is fluid and changing, and older elements no longer really distinguishable as such because everything is used and reused to express a self-renewing and systematic whole. There may be elements that aren’t totally integrated, and there may be places where two traditions that look contradictory to us are not so perfectly synthesized, but such processes of synthesis are part of the way that the tradition grows and develops and changes. Old material becomes alive in new ways and gets reinterpreted and reused; new material is integrated with it so totally that it can’t be integrally parsed out. Instead of the model of elements layered on top of one another in a historical sequence by a variety of individuals, there is a fluid tradition created in performance by generations of individuals interacting live with an audience. That tradition keeps on reconstituting itself and integrating elements because the tradition and its composer/performers are constantly improving the expressiveness and the beauty and the integrity of the whole.