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

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Chapter 18. On the Stories of a Poet’s Life

18§1. In the preceding chapters, I have argued that the generic warrior/poet, as therápōn of Ares/Muses, is implicitly worthy of becoming a cult hero after death. This in fact is the explicit message, I now submit, of the famous poetic declaration made by the one attested figure who boasts of being both warrior and poet:

εἰμὶ δ᾽ ἐγὼ θεράπων μὲν Ἐνυαλίοιο ἄνακτος
καὶ Μουσέων ἐρατὸν δῶρον ἐπιστάμενος
I am a therápōn of Lord Enyalios [Ares],
and of the Muses, well-versed in their lovely gift.

Archilochus fr. 1W

The poet’s own words imply that Archilochus deserves a hero cult as both warrior and poet. And a hero cult is what he actually has on his native island of Paros, from archaic times onward, as we know both from the literary testimonia and from the evidence of archaeology. [1] Moreover, the Life of Archilochus tradition motivates the death of the poet as also being the death of a warrior. [2] He is killed in combat by a figure whose eponym is Kórax ‘Raven’. [3] Apollo is angry at Korax, who approaches his sanctuary at Delphi, [4] and he orders him to depart:

Korax protests that Archilochus had been killed as a warrior, not as a poet, [
6] but Apollo again declares that Korax has killed the therápōn of the Muses. [7] After further entreaties, Korax is finally granted an oracular directive: he must go “to the House of the Téttīx [Cicada],” [8] where he must propitiate the psūkhḗ of Archilochus. [9] We may detect a deeper significance in the names and themes of this story by considering the traditions of the Aesopic aînos. In the fables of Aesop, the kórax ‘raven’ is conventionally presented as the bird of Apollo (Fable 323 Perry), endowed with powers of prophecy (Fables 125, 236); he is also a harbinger of death (Fable 162). [10] The téttīges ‘cicadas’, on the other hand, are creatures of the Muses (Fable 470). [11] As we turn back to the Life of Archilochus tradition, we may infer that the figures of Kórax and Téttīx are parallel to Apollo and the Muses respectively. More specifically, the parallelism of Apollo and Kórax implies that Apollo is maleficent as well as beneficent towards the poet.

18§2. Similarly in the Life of Aesop tradition, Apollo is in fact both maleficent and beneficent to Aesop. We have already examined the maleficent aspect: Apollo is angry at Aesop for his neglect of the god at a sacrifice, and he actively helps the Delphians to bring about Aesop’s death. [12] Now we see that there is also a beneficent aspect of Apollo’s involvement in the killing of Aesop. Surely the pestilence that descends upon the Delphians after Aesop’s death is ordained by Apollo himself, and it is his Oracle that commands the Delphians to propitiate Aesop by worshiping him as a cult hero (P.Oxy. 1800, Vitae G+W 142; cf. Aristotle Constitution of the Delphians fr. 487). This beneficent aspect of Apollo helps account for the final gesture of Aesop, when he calls upon Apollo as “leader of the Muses” to be witness of his unjust execution by the Delphians (Vita G 142). I propose, then, that the traditional themes of antagonism between god and hero do not preclude a beneficent aspect on the god’s part. There {302|303} is in fact solid evidence that the ambivalence of a god in being both maleficent and beneficent towards a hero is so archaic as to have a heritage in the Indo-European traditions of epic narrative: it comes from the comparative studies of Georges Dumézil in linking the Old Norse hero Starkađr and the Indic hero Śiśupāla with the Greek hero Hērakléēs. [13] Aided by Dumézil’s findings, we now know that the suckling of Hērakléēs by Hḗrā after his birth (Diodorus Siculus 4.9.6) and the adoption of Herakles by Hera after his death (Diodorus 4.39.2–3) are themes of beneficence that complement the prevalent themes of her maleficence towards this hḗrōs ‘hero’, [14] and that together these themes of beneficence/maleficence constitute the traditional epic theme embodied in the very name of Hērakléās ‘he who has the kléos of Hḗrā‘. [15]

18§4. The rest of this story about Archilochus is beyond our immediate interest, except for what it says about the future. An oracle from Apollo himself at Delphi prophesies to the father of Archilochus that his son will have immortality and fame:

We see here an important dovetailing of the story with the self-avowed function of the entire Mnesiepes Inscription, which is to motivate the hero cult of Archilochus at Paros. First, the inscription formally restates an oracular command by Apollo to Mnesiépēs, with specific directives about the cult of Archilochus and other attendant ritual practices (E1 col.II 1–15). Then it briefly tells how the Parians complied with the Oracle’s directives, instituting the cult in a sacred precinct called the Arkhilókheion (EE1 col.II 16–19). Finally, it tells the Life of Archilochus (EE1 col.II 20 ff.), in which context we find the story of the poet and the Muses (EE1 col.II 23 ff.). In other words, the Mnesiepes Inscription is itself the clearest evidence for arguing that the Life of Archilochus tradition is deeply rooted in the realia of cult. Moreover, the poetry of Archilochus and its transmission also are rooted in cult, as we have seen from the poet’s traditional concept of himself as “therápōn of the Muses” (Archilochus fr. 1W). [
22] I conclude, then, that the Life of Archilochus tradition is not only derived from the poetic tradition of Archilochus but also parallel to it. [23] {304|305}

18§10. Keeping in mind this religious dimension of purification inherent in the word therápōn, we turn from the hero as warrior to the hero as poet. From the evidence of ancient poetic diction, we know that the generic poet is “therápōn of the Muses” just as the generic warrior is “therápōn of Ares.” [40] From the evidence of the Lives, on the other hand, we know that the poet becomes a hero because he forfeits his life and identity to Apollo, the leader of the Muses. The evidence is perhaps clearest in the Life of Aesop tradition, where Apollo ordains first the death and then the hero cult of Aesop. [41] In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an eternal symbiotic relationship. The clearest evidence for this sort of institutionalization is to be found in the actual cult of Apollo/Muses {307|308} and Archilochus at Paros, as actually documented by the Mnesiepes Inscription. [42] Finally, we see from the Life of Aesop tradition that the poet’s death results in purification. The immediate result from the death itself is impurity, but the ultimate result is eternal purification by way of propitiating the hero in cult—as ordained by Apollo himself. [43] Moreover, the mode of Aesop’s death is itself a purification, in that he dies like a pharmakós ‘scapegoat’. [44] His very appearance indicates a transfer of impurities upon himself: Aesop is notoriously ugly and misshapen (Vitae G+W 1), much like that other image of a pharmakós, Thersites (Iliad II 217–219). [45] {308|}


[ back ] 1. See Kontoleon 1964, esp. pp. 46, and Treu 1959:250; see now also Kontoleon 1965, esp. pp. 413–418, on the discovery at Paros of an archaic iconographical representation of Archilochus as cult hero. See now Nagy 1990b:47–51.

[ back ] 2. The references that follow are conveniently assembled by Treu 1959:122–124.

[ back ] 3. Plutarch De sera numinis vindicta 560e. See also the references at n. 5, n. 6.

[ back ] 4. I infer that Korax does so for the purpose of purification, on account of a pestilence or the like.

[ back ] 5. From Galen Protreptikos 23, to be read in conjunction with Dio Chrysostomus 33.12.

[ back ] 6. Heraclides Ponticus Perì politeiôn 8 (cf. Aristotle fr. 611.25 Rose).

[ back ] 7. Dio Chrysostomus 33.12. See n. 5.

[ back ] 8. Plutarch De sera numinis vindicta 560e: ἐπὶ τήν τοῦ τέττιγγος οἴκησιν. See n. 3.

[ back ] 9. Plutarch De sera numinis vindicta 560e; the author also supplies an interpretation of the oracular response, suggesting why the “House of the Téttīx” should be Tainaros. See n. 3.

[ back ] 10. In this fable, the kórax of death turns out to be the cover of the lárnax in which the overprotective mother is sheltering her child.

[ back ] 11. This fable is transmitted by Plato Phaedrus 259b–c. From Archilochus fr. 223W, we know that the poet called himself a téttīx in the context of composing blame poetry against those who harmed him.

[ back ] 12. Above, Ch.17§1.

[ back ] 13. Dumézil 1971:13–132; to be fully appreciated, the argument must be read in its entirety.

[ back ] 14. For the semantic relationship of Hḗrā and hḗrōs, see the important article of Pötscher 1961; cf. also Householder/Nagy 1972:770–771.

[ back ] 15. See Dumézil 1971:120, to be supplemented by Pötscher 1961 and 1971; cf. also Davidson 1975.

[ back ] 16. Above, Ch.17§1.

[ back ] 17. Conveniently available in Treu 1959:40–45. Although the inscription is of a relatively late date (ca. third century B.C.), its contents are archaic in theme: see Maehler 1963:49n2, with bibliography and brief polemics.

[ back ] 18. There is an archaic iconographical attestation of the same story (or of a close parallel) on a Boston pyxis from Eretria, dated ca. 460 B.C. (no. 37 tab. 15 Caskey/Beazley); see Kontoleon 1964:47–50.

[ back ] 19. On the verb skṓptō ‘ridicule’, see Ch.13§3 and n. 12; also and Ch.16§10 and n. 45.

[ back ] 20. For more on aoídimos ‘subject of song’, cf. Iliad VI 358 and Hymn to Apollo 299; note the orientation of both passages toward the audiences of the future.

[ back ] 21. The rest of the oracle (lines 51–52) links up with the continuation of the story (E1 col.II 53 ff.).

[ back ] 22. As an indication that the transmission of Archilochean poetry was rooted in the cult of Archilochus, I cite not only the function of the Mnesiepes Inscription but also the meaning of the name Mnēsiépēs ‘he who remembers the words [épos plural]’. As the figure to whom Apollo ordains the cult of Archilochus in the Arkhilókheion, Mnesiepes bears a name that seems to correspond to his own function. The semantics of his name integrate Mnesiepes into the mythology surrounding the foundation of the Arkhilókheion. Compare also the mythology surrounding the Aisṓpeion at Samos, as discussed in Ch.16§8n34.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Ch.17§§7–8 on the Life of Hesiod tradition. In the case of a typical local hero who is not a poet, his life story is simply a function of his cult. In the case of the poet-hero, on the other hand, his life story is a function of his cult and of the poetry ascribed to him. I would reconstruct, then, an archaic poet’s life story as a Vita tradition originally controlled both by the ideologies of his cult and by the contents of his poems. With the passing of the archaic period, however, the factor of cult recedes, and the genre of the poet’s Vita becomes totally dependent on the poems themselves. Without the control of the religious ideologies conveyed by the cult, the narrative patterns of the Vita become subject to arbitrary interpretations based on the contents of the poetry. On the other hand, if indeed the traditional narrative patterns of the Vita are historically rooted in the institution of hero cults, the characters in the Vita traditions will assume the roles of heroes even when they are historical figures. Consider the Life of Pindar tradition as discussed at Ch.7§9n28.

[ back ] 24. See Treu 1959:250.

[ back ] 25. See §3n18.

[ back ] 26. See Ch.17§3.

[ back ] 27. I must allow, however, that the Muses may not always be one-sided in every variant.

[ back ] 28. See Ch.17§3.

[ back ] 29. Cf. Slater 1971, esp. pp. 150, and Lefkowitz 1976. But see Foreword §7n5 above.

[ back ] 30. Ch.17§7

[ back ] 31. §4.

[ back ] 32. §5.

[ back ] 33. §§1, 3.

[ back ] 34. §2; also Ch.16§8n34, Ch.17§1.

[ back ] 35. Ch.17§1.

[ back ] 36. See again Ch.7.

[ back ] 37. Ch.17§5.

[ back ] 38. Ch.17§5.

[ back ] 39. Ch.17§4.

[ back ] 40. Ch.17§6.

[ back ] 41. §2

[ back ] 42. §§4, 5.

[ back ] 43. Ch.16§8. This formulation helps account for the semantics of ágos ‘pollution’/’expiation’ and enagízein ‘perform sacrifice in the cult of a hero’ as distinct from thúein ‘perform sacrifice in the cult of a god’. For a discussion of the formal and semantic connection between ágos and enagízein, see Chantraine/Masson 1954. Nock (1944) has reservations about the god/hero distinction in thúein/enagízein, on the grounds that thúein is also attested in the context of sacrificing to heroes. Even so, I maintain that the god/hero distinction remains valid so long as enagízein is not attested in the context of sacrificing to the celestial gods. Thus, thúein/enagízein would be the unmarked/marked members of the opposition. For the terms unmarked/marked, see Jakobson 1971:136: “The general meaning of a marked category states the presence of a certain (whether positive or negative) property A; the general meaning of the corresponding unmarked category states nothing about the presence of A, and is used chiefly, but not exclusively, to indicate the absence of A” (emphasis mine). In the case of thúein/enagízein, “property A” is the factor of a hero (or of a chthonic god—where I intend “chthonic” in the sense of “noncelestial”).

[ back ] 44. Ch.16§3.

[ back ] 45. Note the use of kátharma ‘purification, refuse of purification’ in the sense of ‘outcast’ when it is applied to Aesop as a term of insult by the other characters in the Life tradition (e.g., Vitae G+W 31); cf. Wiechers 1961:35.