Ankle and Ankle Epithets in Archaic Greek Verse

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.

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.

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 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.

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.