2. σφυρόν in the Iliad

One way of approaching the importance of the epithet καλλίσφυρος is a consideration of the meaning and use of the noun σφυρόν which lies at its root. This noun is not particularly obscure in meaning, and yet it appears infrequently in Greek verse. It occurs not at all in Hesiod or in extant lyric poetry and only five times in Homer, all of them in the Iliad. Pindar uses it twice, but in both cases it has lost its literal, specific meaning. In Isthmian VII 13 it stands loosely for feet or legs, and not for ankles. [1] And in Pythian II 44-46, it has a metaphorical meaning, referring to the foot of a mountain. [2] This meaning becomes quite common in later Greek writers. [3]
In the Iliad, the noun bears its specific, literal meaning. But a consideration of the five passages in which it occurs suggests that while it makes a simple anatomical reference it also serves an important and consistent symbolic function that transcends its literal meaning.
The first appearance of the noun is in Book IV of the Iliad, when Pandaros treacherously violates the truce by shooting an arrow at Menelaos. The arrow wounds him in the waist and the deep color of the blood that pours out prompts an elaborate simile. The digression concludes with the image of his thighs, legs and ankles stained with blood:
τοῖοί τοι Μενέλαε μιάνθην αἵματι μηροὶ
εὐφυέες κνῆμαί τε ἰδὲ σφυρὰ κάλ' ὑπένερθε
Iliad IV 146–147
Pandaros’ wounding of Menelaos is crucial to the narrative because it spurs the first outbreak of war. During the first three books of the poem no death occurs, no fighting erupts; there is still hope for a settlement of the conflict. But this incident violates the pact, destroying all possibilities of peace and opening the way for violence.
It is appropriate that Menelaos is the first casualty of the war, since it is on his account that the conflict began. In fact the particular circumstances of his wounding—that is, a treacherous abuse at the hands of a Trojan—stands as a paradigm of the cause of the war, of Paris’ original betrayal. The incident also echoes Menelaos’ humiliation in the preceding book, where Paris dupes him by disappearing and going to Helen’s chamber in the midst of a confrontation. So the entire narrative that begins with the duel in Book III and ends with Pandaros’ attack is a symbolic replay of the original treachery of Paris against Menelaos. [4]
The scene in which σφυρόν first appears is therefore crucial both to the narrative and to the symbolic structure of the Iliad. Even the immediate context in which the word appears seems significant. For Menelaos’ ankle is mentioned together with his thigh, a part of the body that has more than its obvious anatomical connotation. It is probably the most common place for wounds in the poem. It is also the part of the animal that is offered to the gods in the sacrificial scenes in the Iliad. [5] This connection is not merely coincidental. For it has been demonstrated that the human thigh is symbolically associated with death in archaic poetry: each time a character slaps his thighs (μηρὼ πλήσσεσθαι) seems to signify an imminent death. [6] So the combination of σφυρόν and μηρός in this passage is provocative and suggests that σφυρόν, like μηρός, might have latent symbolic importance.
While the wounding of Meneloas begins the first battle of the Iliad, the final scene of Book IV concludes this first panorama of war, and it is this scene where σφυρόν appears for the second time. Peiros wounds the Epian leader Diores near the ankle and then kills him:
Ἔνθ' Ἀμαρυγκείδην Διώρεα μοῖρα πέδησε·
χερμαδίῳ γὰρ βλῆτο παρὰ σφυρὸν ὀκριόεντι
κνήμην δεξιτερήν· βάλε δὲ Θρῃκῶν ἀγὸς ἀνδρῶν
Πείρως Ἰμβρασίδης ὃς ἄρ' Αἰνόθεν εἰληλούθει.
ἀμφοτέρω δὲ τένοντε καὶ ὀστέα λᾶας ἀναιδὴς
ἄχρις ἀπηλοίησεν· ὃ δ' ὕπτιος ἐν κονίῃσι
Iliad IV 517-523
Diores is not the prominent figure in the Iliad that Menelaos is. [7] But he is nevertheless important at the close of Book IV as a symbol of the destruction of war. The last lines of the book present the image of his corpse lying beside the corpse of his killer. [8] The two warring leaders, ironically united in death, are emblematic of all those who die. The last five lines of the book, in fact, stand back from the action and emphasize explicitly the significance of the image as a paradigm of war. [9]
The noun σφυρόν, with its association with wounding and with death, thus both introduces and then concludes the first outbreak of violence, the first battle of the war. Since Book V moves to the aristeia of Diomedes, the battle in Book IV does constitute a separate entity. Diores’ death and the first battle of the war are associated, through the repetition of σφυρόν, with the earlier passage about Menelaos and with the origin of the war.
Σφυρόν also appears in Book XVII, in the battle over Patroklos’ corpse. Hippothoos, the Trojan ally and leader of the Pelasgians, tries to drag it away, holding it by the ankles:
Ἱππόθοος ποδὸς ἕλκε κατὰ κρατερὴν ὑσμίνην
δησάμενος τελαμῶνι παρὰ σφυρὸν ἀμφὶ τένοντας.
Iliad XVII 289–290
Patroklos’ death has the most important consequences of any event in the Iliad. It marks the turning point in the story, spurring Achilles’ entrance into battle and thereby precipitating the concluding events of the poem.
Like Menelaos’ wounding, the circumstances of Patroklos’ death are important not only to the narrative but also the symbolic structure of the Iliad. Since Patroklos dies clothed in Achilles’ armor, his death suggests Achilles’ own destruction. The scene also includes the transference of Achilles’ armor to Hektor, and so symbolically marks Hektor as the next to die, anticipating his death in the same garb in Book XXII. [10]
It is, in fact, in reference to Hektor that σφυρόν makes its two other appearances in the Iliad. One of these appearances marks the only use of the word outside of the context of destruction and death. This instance is in Book VI, when Hektor decies to leave the battle and return to Troy to urge the women to pray. There is a brief description of his departing figure:
Ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας ἀπέβη κορυθαίολος Ἕκτωρ·
ἀμφὶ δέ μιν σφυρὰ τύπτε καὶ αὐχένα δέρμα κελαινὸν.
Iliad VI 116–117
This passage, free from any violence, seems at first to have nothing in common with the themes and imagery of the other passages where the noun appeared. Yet the details of this description are significant, for they form an important symbolic image, one that presages exactly the circumstances of Hektor’s death. The passage describes only the hero’s neck and ankles, his αὐχήν and σφυρόν as the oxhide shield clashes against them. And it is the αὐχήν, in the end, where Achilles makes the fatal wound, and the σφυρόν by which Achilles drags the corpse (XXII 396–397).
The symbolism intended in the description of Hektor’s departure for Troy is ironic. At a moment of glory, as Hektor inspires his troops, the image of his death looms. Yet this foreshadowing is apt, because this visit to Troy will be his last, his encounter with his mother and wife the last before his death. The lament for Hektor by Andromache and her handmaidens at the end of Book VI is an explicit presage of his death, one that reinforces and sustains the implicit symbolism of the earlier description in which σφυρόν appears.
Achilles finally kills Hektor in Book XXII. He wounds him fatally in the αὐχήν and mutilates his body by piercing his ankles and then dragging the corpse by them. Here σφυρόν appears for the final time in the Iliad:
ἀμφοτέρων μετόπισθε ποδῶν τέτρηνε τένοντε
ἐς σφυρὸν ἐκ πτέρνης, βοέους δ' ἐξῆπτεν ἱμάντας.
Iliad XXII 396–397
The ox-hide thongs drawn through Hektor’s ankles recall the image of the ox-hide shield hitting his ankles in Book VI. All the details of his death and mutilation have resonances in this earlier passage.
The mention of σφυρόν connects Hektor’s death with the characters in the other passages where the word appears. It recalls most closely, and most significantly, the death of Patroklos and the dragging of his corpse by the ankles. There are, in fact, many points of identity between the two characters: both die wearing Achilles’ armor; both die of fatal wounds in the upper back; [11] both corpses are stripped and mutilated; and both corpses are, finally, dragged by their ankles.
The deaths of Hektor and Patroklos are the two most important deaths in the Iliad. And they are two links in an inexorable chain of events. For Patroklos’ death spurs Achilles’ entrance into the war, a fact which results not only in Hektor’s death but also unavoidably in his own, as the prophecies of both Thetis and the dying Hektor warn.
Achilles’ death is of course not included in the narrative of the Iliad. But it is described in later works which sum up or imitate lost epic traditions. In the Chrestomathy, Proclus reports that Achilles is killed by Paris and Apollo together—just as the Iliad predicts—but he does not state how he was killed or where the fatal wound occurred. [12] Quintus Smyrnaeus, however, describes Achilles’ death in detail in his epic poem on the fall of Troy. In his version it is Apollo who kills Achilles, shooting a poisonous arrow in his ankle:
ἠέρα δ' ἑσσάμενος στυγερὸν προέηκε βέλεμνον
καί ἑ θοῶς οὔτησε κατὰ σφυρόν. Αἶψα δ' ἀνῖαι
δῦσαν ὑπὸ κραδίην·
Quintus Smyrnaeus The Fall of Troy III 61–63
Though Quintus is a writer of quite late times, he certainly adopted both his language and his subject matter from the epic cycles. His diction is very close to that of the Homeric poems; and his narrative covers the same material as the Aithiopis, the Iliupersis and the Little Iliad do. And so it is likely that he drew the details of Achilles’ death from earlier traditions. The connection that the fatal ankle wound establishes with the deaths of Hektor and Patroklos in the Iliad makes sense thematically, and is indeed what one might expect to follow from the symbolic and thematic implications in the Iliad. This late attestation lends further credence to the significance of σφυρόν in the Iliad.
This description of Achilles’ death might also help explain the evolution of the myth of “Achilles’ heel,” the story of his immortal state flawed only by his mortal heel. Perhaps this epic tradition of his fatal wound was conflated and confused in time with other traditions about his invulnerability or his rebirth. Accorditing to some sources, such as Pindar and Euripides, he did not in fact die but was translated to the Island of the Blessed or the Leuke; and according to Pausanias, for example, he was worshipped in Laconia and sacrifices were made to him. [13] In the context of these beliefs the epic narration of his death could only be explained by this one anatomical exception to his invulnerability. The myth about his mortal heel is only attested in Latin writers, such as Hyginus. And it is especially striking to note that talum, the word Hyginus uses in his narrative, has as its original meaning “ankle”; its meanings as “heel” is only a later transferred meaning of the word. [14] So the late, fantastic stories about Achilles’ immortality have connections with the narrative of Quintus and, in turn, with the significance of σφυρόν in the Iliad.
Each of the five appearances of σφυρόν in the Iliad is in a passage of thematic or symbolic importance for the entire poem. It occurs in the narration of the two most important deaths in the work. It also appears in the first and last woundings of the first battle of the Iliad. Similarly, but more importantly, it appears in the first and last of the many war casualties of the entire narrative: for Menelaos’ wounding triggers the first violence and Hektor’s death concludes the last battle narrated in the poem. Since the Iliad does seem to represent a compressed history of a much longer war, the occurrence of the noun in the first and last casualties is especially significant. For Menelaos’ wounding is a re-enactment of the war’s cause, and Hektor’s death signifies Achilles’ own death, the defeat of Troy, and hence the end of the war. So the mention of σφυρόν embraces the whole history of the conflict.
The noun is associated with glorious and violent death—with the deaths of Diores, Patroklos, Hektor and even Achilles, as the symbolism of the Iliad implies and as Quintus Smyrnaeus confirms. The passage about Menelaos’ wound is the only exception to this pattern, since Meneloas does not die and since the scene is not tragic or impressive. But this is not a surprising or inappropriate variation of the theme, since Menelaos stands out as a less than glorious character among the principle protagonists of the poem. The pathetic scene of his wounding is a foil to the noble deaths of Patroklos and Hektor.
The consideration of the function of the σφυρόν in the Iliad reveals that it does have a latent significance, a consistent symbolic importance. This inquiry provides not only a deeper understanding of this word but also a new illustration of the intricacy of structure and imagery in the Iliad.


[ back ] 1. Pindar Isthmian VII 12-13: ἢ Δωρίδ' ἀποικίαν οὕνεκεν ὀρθῷ / ἔστασας ἐπὶ σφυρῷ
[ back ] 2. Pindar Pythian II 44-46: τὸν ὀνύμαζε τράφοισα Κένταυρον, ὅς / ἵπποισι Μαγˈνητίδεσσιν ἐμείγνυτ' ἐν Παλίου / σφυροῖς
[ back ] 3. Cf. Theocritus XVI 77; A.P, 6.114, 7.50
[ back ] 4. Whitman 1967:268.
[ back ] 5. Cf. Iliad I 40; XII 360
[ back ] 6. In Iliad XVI 125, for example, Achilles slaps his thighs in addressing Patroklos shortly before Patroklos’ death. See Lowenstam 1975 passim.
[ back ] 7. It is interesting to note that Diores’ father Amarynkeos, always mentioned in connection with Diores in the Iliad, is an important Epian hero and so may have figured more significantly in other epic traditions. Diores is not necessarily as insignificant a character elsewhere as he is in the Iliad.
[ back ] 8. Iliad IV 536–853: ὣς τώ γ' ἐν κονίῃσι παρ' ἀλλήλοισι τετάσθην, / ἤτοι ὃ μὲν Θρῃκῶν, ὃ δ' Ἐπειῶν χαλκοχιτώνων / ἡγεμόνες·
[ back ] 9. Iliad IV 539, 543–544: Ἔνθά κεν οὐκέτι ἔργον ἀνὴρ ὀνόσαιτο μετελθών … / πολλοὶ γὰρ Τρώων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν ἤματι κείνῳ / πρηνέες ἐν κονίῃσι παρ' ἀλλήλοισι τέταντο.
[ back ] 10. Whitman 1967:200–212.
[ back ] 11. For Patroklos death, cf. Iliad XVI 791.
[ back ] 12. Proclus Chrestomathy 5.
[ back ] 13. Achilles’ translation: Pindar Achilles’ translation: Pindar Olympian II 77ff.; Nemean IV 49. Euripides Iphigeneia in Taurus 435ff. Achilles’ cults: Pausanias III 20.8; III.24.5.
[ back ] 14. talum as ankle: Ovid Metamorphoses 4.343; Pliny II 46.106; Martial 8.75.3.