The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry

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Chapter 14. Epos, the Language of Blame, and the Worst of the Achaeans

14§1. The resemblances in poetic form between the Archilochean Iambos and the Homeric Epos suggest that blame poetry may have evolved away from an old (and unattested) form corresponding to that of praise poetry (as still attested in Pindar and Bacchylides) into its newer form resembling comedy. The key here to formulating the evolution of blame poetry is the evolution of epic poetry itself into a superbly versatile medium equally capable of dialogue and narrative. In fact, Aristotle singles out Homeric Epos as an ideal medium of dialogue (Poetics 1448a20–24, 1460a7), with as much dramatic potential as he finds in Aristophanic comedy or Sophoclean tragedy (Poetics1448a25–28). [1]

14§4. It may well be by way of retrojecting his scheme of current poetic forms that Aristotle conceives of protopsógoi as blame of the base by the base only and protoenkṓmia as praise of the noble by the noble only. This restrictive formulation actually fits the Aristotelian view of attested comedy and tragedy respectively. There is an impor-{254|255} tant adjustment, however: for these attested poetic forms, the actual elements of blame and praise are left out of the formulation. Comedy is seen simply as a base medium representing the actions of the base and tragedy as a noble medium representing the actions of the noble (cf. especially Poetics 1449a32–39). By analogy, then, Aristotle sees protopsógoi as a base medium representing the actions of the base by way of blame, and likewise protoenkṓmia as a noble medium representing the actions of the noble by way of praise (see again Poetics 1448b24–27). There is a clear recognition here that blame and praise had been functional elements ‘at first’ (prôton: 1448b27), in the poetic forms of psógoi and enkṓmia. There also is a clear implication that they are no longer directly functional in comedy and tragedy. In fact, Aristotle explicitly says so in the case of comedy. He specifies that this poetic form has the dramatic function not of psógos ‘blame’ but simply of tò geloîon ‘laughter’ (Poetics 1448b37–38).

14§5. Since laughter is recognized as the obvious function of comedy also in English usage, we may henceforth approximate Aristotle’s tò geloîon with ‘the comic element’ as well as ‘laughter’ while we proceed to examine further the relationship of blame poetry with Iambos and comedy. Aristotle remarks that comedy represents the actions of the base because tò geloîon ‘the comic element’ is an aspect of tò aiskhrón ‘baseness’ (Poetics 1449a32–34) and further, that the laughter of comedy—tò geloîon—is intrinsic to aîskhos ‘baseness’, so long as it is not too painful or destructive (1449a34–37). If indeed the comic element is intrinsic to what is aiskhró– ‘base’ and aîskhos ‘baseness’, it is significant that the diction of Homeric Epos itself associates these same words with the overall concept of blame poetry. For example, aîskhos is used as a synonym of óneidos ‘blame, reproach’ at III 242. [8] Moreover, we see that Melantho enénīpe ‘reproached’ the disguised Odysseus aiskhrôs ‘in a base manner’, at xviii 321. Five verses later, the same action is restated: at xviii 326, she enénīpe ‘reproached’ Odysseus oneideíois epéessi ‘with words of óneidos‘. {255|256} Finally, Hektor neíkessen ‘reproached [made neîkos against]’ Paris aiskhroîs epéessi ‘with base words’, at both III 38 and VI 325. The last example is particularly instructive: Hektor’s words of blame against Paris are aiskhrá ‘base’ not because Hektor himself is base but because Paris is so. In other words, the subject of blame is base, and so too are the words that describe him, but the blamer himself can remain noble. Such a situation cannot be accommodated by Aristotle’s scheme of blame poetry, where the blamer too would have to be base. [9] Moreover, Hektor’s words of blame are hardly comic, any more than the words of Achilles when he blamed Agamemnon. [10] Here it is useful to consider again Aristotle’s observation that laughter is intrinsic to aîskhos ‘baseness’ (Poetics 1449a32–37). We may now wish to restate: baseness has merely a potential for the comic element. Having noted that epic diction itself equates aîskhos ‘baseness’ with the substance of blame, we can now appreciate Aristotle’s observation that tò geloîon ‘laughter’ rather than psógos ‘blame’ is the function of comedy (Poetics 1448b37–38). Again we may restate: blame poetry has a potential for the comic element, and comedy formalizes this element of blame poetry. But blame poetry itself is more inclusive and thus cannot be equated with comedy. Blame poetry can be serious as well as comic; it can condemn as well as ridicule.

14§6. Still, the nonserious side of blame poetry is also formally indicated in Homeric diction, and the key word is hepsiáomai ‘play, get amusement’. [11] The only Homeric attestation of the simplex verb occurs in a particularly suggestive context:

Whereas we see the simplex verb hepsiáomai reflecting the element of poetry, the compound kath-epsiáomai reflects a complementary element, that of blame by way of ridicule. We begin at xix 372, where the disloyal handmaidens kathepsióōntai ‘ridicule’ the disguised Odysseus. This action of the women is then designated in the next verse as a lṓbē ‘outrage, disgrace’ and as aískhea ‘acts of baseness [aîskhos]’ (Odyssey xix 373). In other words, the ridicule committed by the women is an act of blame. [
13] As the blamers of Odysseus, the women are themselves counterblamed by being called kúnes ‘dogs’ at xix 372. [14] The equivalent of kathepsióōntai ‘ridicule’ at xix 372 is in turn ephepsióonto ‘ridiculed’ at xix 370, likewise designating the action of the disrespectful handmaidens. This other compound eph-epsiáomai now leads us to another attestation, in one of the most revealing Homeric passages on blame as a foil for praise:

14§10. In fact, the name Margī́tēs has a strikingly close formal parallel in Thersī́tēs, the name of a figure described in the Iliad itself as the most base of all the Achaeans who came to Troy. The actual word here for ‘most base’ is aískhistos (Iliad II 216), belonging to the family of the same noun aîskhos that conventionally designates the baseness of blame poetry. This man who is the worst of the Achaeans {259|260} (cf. also Iliad II 248–249) is also described as ékhthistos ‘most hateful’ to Achilles and Odysseus specifically (Iliad II 220), who happen to be the best of the Achaeans in the Iliad and Odyssey respectively—and thereby the two preeminent figures of Panhellenic Epos. [27] In this respect also, the word ékhthistos is significant. It belongs to the family of the same noun ékhthos ‘hatred’ that conventionally designates the nature of blame poetry compared to that of praise poetry: “being ekhthrós” as against “being phílos.” [28] Moreover, Thersites is said to be ékhthistos ‘most hateful’ in particular to Achilles and Odysseus (Iliad II 220) for the following reason:

… τὼ γὰρ νεικείεσκε
… because he made neîkos against these two

Iliad II 221

Thersites is the most inimical figure to the two prime characters of Homeric Epos precisely because it is his function to blame them. Epos is here actually presenting itself as parallel to praise poetry by being an institutional opposite of blame poetry. This passage, then, even supports Aristotle’s formulation of Epos as a descendant of enkṓmia ‘praise poetry’ (Poetics 1448b24–38). [
29] We should add the qualification, however, that Epos is more likely a partial and maybe even an indirect descendant. [30] Nevertheless, it implicitly recognizes its own affinity to praise poetry.

14§11. The name of Thersī́tēs connotes blame poetry not only by way of its parallelism with the formation Margī́tēs. [31] The boldness conveyed by the element thersi– is not the same as a warrior’s thérsos/thársos ‘boldness’. [32] Rather, it is akin to the thérsos/thársos ‘boldness’ of the blame poet. Consider the expression thersi-epḕs phthónos ‘bold-worded envy’ at Bacchylides 13.199, which serves as a foil for aineítō ‘let him praise’ at line 201. [33] Or again, we may note {260|261} that Antinoos calls Odysseus tharsaléos ‘bold’ (Odyssey xvii 449) after hearing a speech directed at him by the would-be beggar, who is asking him for food (Odyssey xvii 415–444). When the base suitor refuses, he is reproached by Odysseus (Odyssey xvii 454–457), whose words are actually acknowledged as óneidos [plural] ‘blame’ by Antinoos. [34] Finally, consider the collocation Polutherseḯdē philokértome at xxii 287, applied in derision to Ktesippos, another of the base suitors, at the moment of his death by the man who killed him, the loyal Philoitios. The lṓbē ‘outrage’ of Ktesippos against the disguised Odysseus (Odyssey xx 285) [35] had been verbal as well as physical: while sarcastically advocating that the apparent beggar be treated as a xénos (Odyssey xx 292–298), Ktesippos had thrown a foot of beef at him (Odyssey xx 299–300). Having now avenged this insult, Philoitios ridicules the slain Ktesippos by calling him Polu-therseḯdēs and philo-kértomos (Odyssey xxii 287) in the context of reproaching him specifically for improper speech at the time of his physical attack on Odysseus (Odyssey xxii 287–289). The mock patronymic Polu-therseḯdēs ‘son of Bold-in-many-ways’ reinforces the epithet philo- kértomos ‘lover of reproaches’. [36] In sum, a man who had reproached Odysseus is now getting a taste of his own medicine.

14§13. We may note that the word here for ‘laughable’ is actually geloíïon (Iliad II 215), corresponding to Aristotle’s term for the function of comedy, tò geloîon (Poetics 1448b37, 1449a32–37). We may note also that Aristotle’s concept of aîskhos ‘baseness’, to which the concept of tò geloîon ‘laughter’ is intrinsic (Poetics 1449a32–37), corresponds to the characterization of Thersites as the aískhistos ‘most base’ of all the Achaeans who came to Troy (Iliad II 216). I infer, then, that Homeric Epos can indeed reflect the comic aspect of blame poetry, but that it does so at the expense of the blame poet. In the Thersites episode of the Iliad, it is Epos that gets the last laugh on the blame poet, rather than the other way around. Not only the maltreatment of Thersites by Odysseus but even his physical description by the narrative makes him an object of ridicule. Epos dwells on his deformities in repulsive detail (Iliad II 217–219), thus compounding the laughter elicited by his baseness. He is aískhistos ‘most base’ not only for what he says and does (or for what is said and done to him {262|263} by Odysseus!) but also for his very ugliness. And surely the base appearance of Thersites serves to mirror in form the content of his blame poetry. The content, in fact, is a striking illustration of what is called in Pindaric praise poetry ekhthrā̀ … párphasis ‘hateful misrepresentation’ (Nemean 8.32)—the negative essence of blame poetry. [41] In the words that Thersites is quoted as saying, we actually find such a misrepresentation: the anger of Achilles, he says, is nonexistent, since such a superior hero would surely have killed Agamemnon if he had really been angry (Iliad II 241–242). Since the mênis ‘anger’ of Achilles is the self-proclaimed subject of the Iliad (Ι 1), these words of Thersites amount to an actual misrepresentation of epic traditions about Achilles. [42] As a blamer of the Iliad, Thersites is deservedly described at II 220 as ékhthistos ‘most hateful’ to the prime hero of our epic.

éris ‘strife’

Thersites makes éris against kings (ἐριζέμεναι βασιλεῦσιν: Iliad II 214, 247).

neîkos ‘quarrel, fight’

Thersites makes neîkos against kings in general (νεικείειν: Iliad II 277) and Agamemnon in particular (νείκεε: Iliad II 224, 243); also against Achilles and Odysseus (νεικείεσκε: Iliad II 221), who are also kings (cf. Iliad I 331 and IX 346 respectively).

óneidos ‘blame, reproach’

Thersites speaks ‘with words of óneidos’ (ὀνειδείοις ἐπέεσσιν: Iliad II 277), equated with ‘making neîkos’ against kings (νεικείειν: same verse), on which see the previous entry in our list. The plural of óneidos designates his words against kings in general and Agamemnon in particular (ὀνείδεά at Iliad II 251 and 222 respectively). He is ‘making óneidos’ against Agamemnon (ὀνειδίζων: Iliad II 255).

kertoméō ‘reproach [verb]’ [44]

The participle (κερτομέων: Iliad II 256) is equated with the participle of oneidízō ‘make óneidos‘ (ὀνειδίζων: Iliad II 255). The subject is Thersites. For the ridiculing aspect in the semantics of kertoméō, see §11n36. {263|264}

élenkhos ‘reproach, disgrace’

Thersites reproaches all the Achaeans by addressing them with the plural of this neuter noun, described as kaká ‘base’ (κάκ᾽ ἐλέγχε᾽: Iliad II 235). [45] For more on élenkhos, see §7, especially n. 17; also §11n34.

lōbētḗr ‘man of lṓbē [outrage]’ [46]

This epithet is applied to Thersites by Odysseus (Iliad II 275). For more on lṓbē, see §§5(n8), 6, 11.

aískhistos ‘most base’

See again §§10, 13.

ékhthistos ‘most hateful’

See again §10. Finally, we may append a set of negative epithets applied to Thersites that serve to reproach not only the poetic form of his discourse but also its very style:


‘whose words [épos plural] have no moderation’ (Iliad II 212)


‘whose words [mûthos plural] cannot be sorted out’ (Iliad II 246)


‘who throws his words [épos plural]’ (II 275). [47] {264|}


[ back ] 1. Cf. Plato Republic 392d–394d. From Plato Ion 535c, we see that a rhapsode of epic uses its dialogues to show off his full powers of dramatic performance (mímēsis); cf. also Ion 536a. Else (1965:69) summarizes: “The rhapsodes did not merely recite Homer, they acted him, and from this quasi-impersonation of Homeric characters it was only a step to full impersonation, from the rhapsode who momentarily spoke in the person of Achilles or Odysseus to the ‘actor’ who presented himself as Achilles or Odysseus.”

[ back ] 2. A worthy example is the praise of Odysseus by Agamemnon at Odyssey xxiv 192–202 (discussion at Ch.2§13). Compare also Semonides 7.30–31W, where the praise of a woman by a xénos ‘guest-stranger’ is quoted directly. The quotation itself is introduced with the word epainései ‘will praise’ (7.29).

[ back ] 3. Above, Ch.12§6.

[ back ] 4. See Lucas 1968:75 on 1448b25–26; also p. 63 on 1448a2.

[ back ] 5. Lucas 1968:63.

[ back ] 6. For a discussion of the words epainéō ‘praise’ and pségō ‘blame’, see again Ch.12§§2–3.

[ back ] 7. See esp. Ch.12§4.

[ back ] 8. On the word óneidos, see Ch.12§§3, 7 (usage in praise poetry) and Ch.12§§6, 11 (usage in Epos). Also, aîskhos is used as a synonym of lṓbē ‘outrage, disgrace’ at Iliad XIII 622, Odyssey xviii 225, xix 373. Finally, note that Clytemnestra is said at Odyssey xi 433 to have made aîskhos not only for herself but also for all womankind in the future by way of betraying Agamemnon. At Odyssey xxiv 200, this same betrayal turns the very concept of Clytemnestra into a stugerḕ … aoidḗ ‘hateful song’ that will survive into the future (Odyssey xxiv 201) and will bring a bad name to all womankind (Odyssey xxiv 201–202). We have here one of the clearest instances of blame as blame poetry. For more on Odyssey xxiv 192–202, see Ch.2§13.

[ back ] 9. See again §3.

[ back ] 10. See Ch.12§6. Consider also the aoidḗ ‘song’ of blame directed at Clytemnestra in particular and women in general (Odyssey xxiv 199–202), as discussed at n. 8. This aoidḗ blaming Clytemnestra serves as a serious foil for the aoidḗ praising Penelope (Odyssey xxiv 196–198). For the typology of praising/blaming the wives of others and one’s own, cf. Semonides 7.112–113W, on which there is more at §7.

[ back ] 11. For the semantics, see Chantraine II 394.

[ back ] 12. Whereas the conventional ‘amusement’ denoted by this word is nonserious, the actual ‘amusement’ intended by Odysseus for the suitors is of course dead serious.

[ back ] 13. On lṓbē and aîskhos as indicators of blame, see §5n8.

[ back ] 14. On the traditional use of kúōn ‘dog’ and its derivatives in the language of blame: Ch.12§6.

[ back ] 15. On the etymology of amū́mōn ‘blameless’, see Chantraine I 79. The word is probably related to mômos ‘blame, reproach’ (on which see Ch.12§3). In Hesychius, the related noun mûmar is glossed as aîskhos and psógos; also, the verb mūmarízei is glossed as geloiázei ‘jests’.

[ back ] 16. Whereas the harsh man gets the ridicule of blame poetry, the blameless man gets the kléos of praise poetry. As such, the blameless man qualifies as esthlós ‘worthy’. The collocation of kleos with this epithet esthlós is suggestive: see Ch.10§3n6.

[ back ] 17. The words élenkhos/elenkheíē designate the shame and disgrace that result from blame (cf. Iliad XI 314). The derivative adjective elenkhḗs ‘worthy of reproach’ is specifically applied to the person who is being blamed (as at Iliad IV 242, where the quoted words of blame are introduced by neikeíeske ‘made neîkos‘ at verse 241). Note too the use of élenkhos in Pindar Nemean 8.21, introducing the theme of blame poetry at lines 21–25 (on which see Ch.12§5).

[ back ] 18. For more on lṓbē ‘outrage, disgrace’: §5n8.

[ back ] 19. Cf. Hesiod Works and Days 701, warning men not to choose a bad wife—the source of khármata ‘merriment’ for the neighbors. Cf. also Theognis 1107–1108 = 1318a–b W, where one man’s misfortunes are described as a katákharma ‘thing of merriment’ to one’s ekhthroí ‘enemies’ and a pónos ‘pain’ to one’s phíloi ‘friends’. For more on the semantics of root *khar– as in khaírō and kháris, see Ch.5§39.

[ back ] 20. At Iliad XXI 389–390, Zeus ‘laughed’ (egélasse) in his heart with ‘mirth’ (gēthosúnēi) when he saw the other Olympians confronting each other in éris (ἔριδι). Compare the epithet kakókhartos ‘made happy by evil/misfortune’ as applied to Éris personified in Hesiod Works and Days 28; compare also the image of Éris as she ‘made merry’ (khaîre) over the fighting of the Achaeans and Trojans, at Iliad XI 73. For more on the theme of blame as grief for the one who is blamed and laughter for the ones who hear the blame, see §11n36 below.

[ back ] 21. Cf. Ch.5§39.

[ back ] 22. Cf. Ch.12§21, Ch.13§§2, 6, 7.

[ back ] 23. I note again—as I have done throughout—that in matters of archaic Greek poetry our concern should be more with questions of poetic tradition than with questions of poetic authorship.

[ back ] 24. Aristotle specifically attributes the Margites to “Homer” (ibid.). My own formulation is that the poem is within the Homeric tradition (n. 23). Aristotle’s attribution is nevertheless valuable because it implies an affinity of the Margites with Homeric composition that cannot be matched by the Cycle, which Aristotle does not even attribute to “Homer” (Poetics 1459b1). For more on the Margites as archaic poetry in the Homeric tradition, see Forderer 1960.

[ back ] 25. For an interesting supplement: West 1974:190.

[ back ] 26. See Ch12§9.

[ back ] 27. See Ch.2; cf. also Puelma 1972:105n74.

[ back ] 28. See Ch.12§21n77.

[ back ] 29. In this connection, we may note again the interesting expression used by the rhapōsidoí ‘rhapsodes’ to designate ‘recite Homer’: Homēron epaineîn (discussion at Ch.6§6n18). Moreover, the word kléos designates both praise poetry (Ch.12§3) and Epos (Ch.1§2).

[ back ] 30. Cf. §2.

[ back ] 31. On the forms, see Chantraine 1963:21.

[ back ] 32. See Chantraine 1963:20, for attestations of historical figures in Thessaly named Thersī́tās, where indeed the naming must have been inspired by the concept of a warrior’s thérsos (Aeolic for thársos).

[ back ] 33. On this instance of phthónos, see also Ch.12§4.

[ back ] 34. See Ch.12§11. Compare also Odyssey xviii 390, where the suitor Eurymakhos tells the disguised Odysseus that he has spoken tharsaléōs ‘boldly’. The would-be beggar has just spoken words of counter-reproach to the suitor (Odyssey xviii 366–386), who had reproached Odysseus for being a glutton (Odyssey xviii 357–364). Note that Eurymakhos specifically reproaches Odysseus for having an insatiable gastḗr ‘belly’ (Odyssey xviii 364), and that Odysseus refers to this in his counter-reproach when he speaks to Eurymakhos as one who is ‘reproaching my belly’, tên gastér’ oneidízōn (Odyssey xviii 380). In this connection, we should observe the insulting of the poet by the Muses in Hesiod Theogony 26: shepherds are gasterḕs oîon ‘mere bellies’. For the appositive kák’ elénkhea ‘base objects of reproach’ (again, Theogony 26), see the brief discussion of élenkhos at §7n17; cf. §14. For a brilliant exercise in correlating Theogony 26 with Odyssey xiv 124–125, see Svenbro 1976:50–59: the gastḗr is an emblem of the poet’s readiness to adjust his themes in accordance with what his immediate audience wants to hear.

[ back ] 35. For the implications of lṓbē: §5n8.

[ back ] 36. The word kertomíai ‘reproaches’ at Odyssey xx 263 is equated with thūmòs enīpês ‘spirit of blame’ at Odyssey xx 266. (For more on the noun enīpḗ ‘blame, reproach’ and the corresponding verb enénīpe ‘blamed, reproached [aorist]’, see §5 and Ch.13§6.) Note too the use of the verb kertoméō ‘reproach’ at Odyssey xviii 350: the suitor Eurymakhos is kertoméōn ‘reproaching’ Odysseus, and his words of blame are said to cause ákhos ‘grief’ for Odysseus (Odyssey xviii 348) and gélōs ‘laughter’ for the other suitors (Odyssey xviii 350).

[ back ] 37. On the family of enīpḗ ‘blame, reproach’ (with expressively reduplicated aorists enénīpe and ēnī́pape), see Chantraine II 349. Cf. §§5, 11n36); also Ch.13§6.

[ back ] 38. Cf. §§7 and 11n36.

[ back ] 39. Since the function of Thersites as blame poet is described as the making of éris against kings and since the kleos of praise poetry is traditionally described as etḗtumon ‘true, genuine’ (see Ch.12§3n7), we may compare the epic antithesis of Eteo-kléōs (‘whose kléos is genuine’) as king and Polu-neíkēs (‘whose reproaches are many’) as potential usurper. Cf. Reinhardt 1951:339 en passant; also Burkert 1972b:83. For more on the strife between Eteokles and Polyneikes, see Ch.7§16n47 and Ch.12§7n30. For more on neîkos ‘quarrel, fight’ as a word marking blame as a foil for praise, see above at Ch.12§3. Finally, compare the semantics of Thersī́tēs with the name given to the son of Polu-neíkēs, Thérs-andros (Pindar Olympian 2.43). On the convention of naming heroes after the father’s prime characteristic, see further at Ch.8§9n14.

[ back ] 40. The expression katà kósmon ‘according to the established order of things’ (Iliad II 214) implies that blame poetry, when justified, has a positive social function. Cf. Ch.2§13n43.

[ back ] 41. See Ch.12§7.

[ back ] 42. Note too that Thersites here fails to use the word mênis for ‘anger’, resorting instead to the unmarked khólos (Iliad II 241). Cf. Ch.5§8n18.

[ back ] 43. Compare this list with the original list at Ch.12§3, comprised of words indicating blame as a foil for praise poetry.

[ back ] 44. Cf. also kertomeîn at Archilochus fr. 134W.

[ back ] 45. Cf. also the reproach of the poet by the Muses in Hesiod Theogony 26: shepherds are kák’ elénkhea ‘base objects of reproach’; see §11n34. We may note that the Judgment of Paris took place in his méssaulos ‘courtyard [for animals]’ (Iliad XXIV 29), where he blamed Hera and Athena but praised Aphrodite (see Ch.11§16). On the pastoral background of the Paris figure: scholia (A) to Iliad III 325.

[ back ] 46. Cf. also lōbēt[… at Archilochus fr. 54.9W (the same fragment also contains the name of Lykambes!).

[ back ] 47. For the formation of this word, cf. the interesting collocation épesin … ēdè bolêisin at Odyssey xxiv 161, referring to the way in which the suitors had reproached Odysseus (eníssomen, same verse).