Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts

  Barker, Elton T. E., and Joel P. Christensen. 2019. Homer's Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts. Hellenic Studies Series 84. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BarkerE_ChristensenJ.Homers_Thebes.2019.

2. The Labors of Herakles: Time [1]

In the last chapter we saw Tydeus, one of the original Seven against Thebes, being held up as a model for his son, Diomedes, to emulate. At key points in Diomedes’ maturation in the epic the name of his father is invoked, first before he proves himself in battle and later when he shows himself a man of politics who greatly surpasses his father in the arena of debate. In fact, it is in no small part due to his interventions in Book 9 and Book 14 that the Achaeans stay at Troy in the absence of their greatest warrior, Achilles; it is Diomedes who keeps the poem of the siege on message. The kind of singular heroics that Tydeus represents—at least in Agamemnon’s characterization—is out of step in the Iliad’s movement towards the foundation of a political community, where the Achaean heroes fight for a political voice as much as for the sack of Troy. After all, Tydeus lies dead and buried with the rest of his generation at Thebes; Thebes is already past. It is left to the sons of the Seven, along with comrades-in-arms from all around the Greek world, to lay down the institutions and social practices in this new siege story that will remain with us long after the race of heroes has turned to dust.
As a son of a Theban War veteran, Diomedes enjoys prominence in the Iliad until the moment when Patroklos takes an active role and roundly criticizes his friend, the even more singular hero Achilles, for sitting out the fight. At this point the poem’s focus shifts to Achilles, where it will remain for the rest of the epic. After Patroklos is killed, Achilles resolves to seek vengeance for his friend against Hektor. Recognizing that to stay at Troy seals his own fate, Achilles offers his mother a consolation (Iliad 18. 117–119):

“οὐδὲ γὰρ οὐδὲ βίη Ἡρακλῆος φύγε κῆρα
ὅς περ φίλτατος ἔσκε Διὶ Κρονίωνι ἄνακτι,
ἀλλά ἑ μοῖρα δάμασσε καὶ ἀργαλέος χόλος Ἥρης.”

“For not even violent Herakles escaped his fate,
though he was most dear to lord Zeus, son of Kronos,
but fate tamed him and the anger of Hera, hard to endure.”

If even the mighty Herakles could not escape his fate, then what use is there for Achilles to bewail his? In this final reckoning, heroes are only semi divine; like us, they are fated to die.

While many of Homer’s heroes turn to well-known myths to make sense of their situations, Achilles’ use of Herakles here seems off-beat and at the same time particularly charged. It is anomalous because until this point Achilles has not referred to any other figure from myth by name (even though he is famously recorded as singing the “famous stories of men” when the embassy meets him in Book 9: ἄειδε δ’ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν, 9.189). As we have seen in the previous chapter, however, references to other non-Trojan War heroes are liberally scattered throughout the speeches of Agamemnon, Sthenelos, Glaukos, and Diomedes, thereby providing indications, if fleeting and obscure, of the Iliad’s agonistic relationship with the broader heroic epic tradition. The lack of such references by Achilles until this point is no less telling, since it both marks him out as exceptional (as if there were no figure to whom he should appeal or could be compared) and serves to highlight the importance of Herakles (now that Achilles turns to him). There is good reason why it is Herakles whom Achilles should cite. Not only is Herakles arguably the foremost heroic figure of Greek myth, if one takes into consideration his various representations in media from across the Greek world (and beyond); [2] according to some of these other sources he also famously survived death and lived on with the Olympians. To insist on his death, as Achilles does here, would seem to indicate some emendation—or, at least, repurposing—of his tale by Homer’s protagonist. More broadly, it provides a tantalizing glimpse into the rivalry between Homer’s poem and a Herakles tradition, played out over the critical issue of immortality.
As we have already discussed in this book, the presence of Theban elements in the Iliad and Odyssey can be viewed in terms of a dynamic rivalry through which the Homeric poems shape Thebes and its tradition for their own narrative strategies. In this light it is worth considering that among other things Herakles is a Theban hero. On the one hand, Herakles is a hero to rank alongside any to be found in Homer, a superhuman son of Zeus who has many adventures. On the other, he barely figures in surviving epic, with only hints of his heroic endeavors in Homer and Hesiod, supplemented by fragments of purportedly contemporary epics.
In this chapter we begin by sketching out the antiquity of Herakles in myth and assessing its resonance in the fragmentary and extant poetry from the Archaic period. After exploring Herakles’ independent existence outside Homer, we explore how speakers in the Iliad relate, and relate to, the accomplishments of this hero, in trying to make sense of or influence their situations. By focusing on Herakles’ appearances in the Iliad through the lens of the poem’s sustained engagement with and manipulation of formulaic language, we will be able to reconsider Achilles’ curious statement as part an agonistic process by which the Iliad appropriates and marginalizes a hero ill fit to its tale. Our final section reflects on Herakles’ appearances in the Odyssey, which if anything present a figure even more out of time with this epic’s new world of human toil and labor. Extreme in both action and fate, Herakles is a figure from whom Odysseus—that other great traveling, suffering hero—is studiously careful to distance himself.

The Epic Herakles

There can be little doubt that Herakles was one of the most popular and enduring figures in Greek mythical representations of varying kinds. [3] In iconography Herakles adorns temple friezes and drinking vessels in equal measure. [4] In cult he ranks alongside the heroes of the Trojan War saga and others associated with protecting communities. [5] But he also exceeds other heroes: in Athenian dedications and prayers we find the formula “to the twelve gods and Herakles” (e.g. IG II 1.57). [6] Quintessentially, Herakles bestrides the human and divine worlds. As Herodotus notes, he was the only figure to receive sacrifices as both hero and god. [7]
While iconography alone attests to Herakles’ popularity throughout the Greek world, early literary material provides broad (if shallow) evidence of his importance and the elements of his basic fabula. [8] For Pindar, Herakles represents a paradigmatic figure for competing athletes, dedicating his life to completing tasks and upholding the Olympian order. [9] Part of this athletic portrayal depicts him living a life of leisure with divine company in an idealized representation of the acclaim and festive celebration that each victor could expect from his community upon returning home. [10] Typical of tragedy, Herakles’ super-human, uber-masculine characteristics come tinged with darker overtones. [11] In Euripides’ Herakles, at the zenith of his glory he is visited by the goddess Madness and slaughters his entire family; in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, he is the returning hero who perishes at the hands of a jealous wife. In both of these cases, the hero’s antisocial threat is emphasized and his apotheosis downplayed, notably in Sophocles’ play, even as it depicts his final moments. [12] His antisocial behavior also features in Euripides’ Alcestis, where he turns up drunk and expecting hospitality at a household in mourning; that (in shame) he subsequently ambushes Death to return Alcestis to his friend, Admetus, only further marks out the hero’s abnormality, as well as the play’s uncomfortable tonal shifts between tragedy and comedy. It is his merrymaking, voracious appetite and general boorishness that make him a frequent target of humor and abuse in comedy. [13]
The further back we go, the murkier Herakles’ appearances become; still, it is possible to detect the extent to which the language and motifs characteristic of Herakles in extant archaic Greek poetry intersect with elements from our epics. [14] Ancient biographical accounts even associated stories about Herakles with Homer’s epic output; [15] though now considered unreliable, these witnesses provide evidence for the strong similarity of the different compositions with respect to shared language, motifs, and story patterns, and suggest that any poems circulating about Herakles may have been similar in style and content to the Homeric epics that survived. [16] In all likelihood, the early epics helped in part to establish Herakles’ character, his traits, and the basic outline of his story in a Panhellenic context. [17] Equally, his mutable nature as hero or god (and sometimes both) necessarily positions him as an exception to the Homeric epics’ emphasis on human mortality and the correlative importance of fame. [18]
In the absence of any extant early Greek hexameter poem devoted to Herakles, we have to rely on fragments of possible poems, a single Homeric Hymn, and glimpses of the hero in the Theogony to put flesh on the bones of the epic Herakles. [19] The longest of our sources is the Hesiodic Shield, and it provides a good example of the kinds of interformularity and intertraditionality that we will see operating within the Iliad. [20] As we discussed in the Introduction, Bakker’s “scale of…interformularity” assists in describing levels of engagement with motifs and diction within the same tradition, while intertraditionality has to do with repetitions of and reflections on motifs and diction among different traditions. The narrative of the Shield, like that of the Iliad, is motivated by a divine plan and culminates in one-on-one combat between the hero and his antagonist, in this case between Herakles and Kyknos. [21] Its Herakles even talks like a Homeric hero, articulating the arduous tasks he must perform while anticipating his own kleos (94 and 106–107). More striking still, a significant portion of the poem (139–317) is occupied by an arming sequence that involves the ekphrasis of the poem’s eponymous shield. Betraying compositional similarities to the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, Herakles’ shield presents a hero who looks decidedly Achaean, armed with sword, helmet, and shield rather than his customary iconographic lion-skin and club.
Where there is a difference is in the concern to plot the hero’s life story, from his conception through to his performance of great deeds. Following a plot that recalls the pattern of murder, exile, and reintegration used in stories of displaced heroes in the Iliad, Herakles’ parents migrate to Thebes, [22] where Zeus “was planning in his thoughts wondrous deeds” (ἔνθα καθεζόμενος φρεσὶ μήδετο θέσκελα ἔργα, Shield 34). This language has broad purchase in surviving early hexameter epic poetry. In the Iliad Homer uses θέσκελα ἔργα ‘wondrous deeds’ to describe the combat between Paris and Menelaos (3.130); in the Odyssey, in response to Alkinoos’ request for information about his ex-Trojan War comrades, Odysseus glosses his news as θέσκελα ἔργα (11.374). [23] In the two Homeric poems, then, the “wondrous deeds” relate to the actions of the heroes of the epics. Here in the Shield, however, “wondrous deeds” has a divine dimension, in that it denotes Zeus’ plan to impregnate Amphitryon’s wife. This usage more closely matches a Hesiodic fragment in which Zeus contemplates θέσκελα ἔργα, as strife among the gods is set in motion by Helen’s marriage (“for then, indeed, he was devising wondrous deeds,” δὴ γὰρ τότε μήδετο θέσκελα ἔργα, Hesiod fr. 204.96). In this case, as in the Shield, the phrase marks a close equivalent of “the plan of Zeus,” suggesting, as with that famous formula, a heroic narrative (full of “wondrous deeds”) to follow. In the Shield, Zeus’ contemplation of “wondrous deeds” conceives of Herakles as a “guardian against ruin (ἀρῆς ἀλκτῆρα) for both gods and men” (29), a role that this poem sets about demonstrating. It is particularly notable that this phrase occurs on only two other occasions in extant early Greek hexameter poetry outside the Shield—in the Iliad, when Achilles bemoans how he failed to be a “guardian against ruin” for his comrade, Patroklos, and when the Trojan warrior Akamas, having taken revenge for his brother, declares, “Therefore a man prays to leave behind him in his house a brother as ἀρῆς ἀλκτῆρα.” [24] Thus the Shield not only draws on motifs and language shared with the Trojan War tradition; it also ranks Herakles’ birth and purpose as an act equivalent to the events of that war and Herakles himself as—naturally—the superior guardian-like figure, against whom even Homer’s Achilles fails to measure up. [25]
Such shared points of language and theme pervade arguably earlier and more fragmentary epic remains of Herakles. Though the Sack of Oechalia leaves barely three lines of hexameter, one names Nestor as the sole survivor of Herakles’ attack, an incident that Nestor himself reflects on in Iliad 11, as we shall see. [26] The fragments of Peisander’s Herakleia, also three lines in length, use language recognizable from other extant early Greek hexameter poems alongside motifs—such as Athena helping the hero and etiological wordplay—familiar to any modern reader of Homer and Hesiod. [27] The more extensive fragments of Panyasis’ Herakleia (over sixty hexameter lines) [28] include a catalogue of gods who endured at his hands, not dissimilar to Dione’s consolation to Aphrodite in Iliad 5.385–395. [29] Although the content of some of the longest passages seems un-Homeric to us, the phrases and imagery certainly draw on the same language from which our examples of early Greek hexameter epic derive. [30] The one complete surviving archaic Greek hexameter poem dedicated to Herakles is the Homeric Hymn to Herakles. The hymn is one of the shortest of the collection, but even its mere presence in the corpus is enough to demonstrate Herakles’ unique status as a hero to be honored like a god. Though brief, the Hymn serves to establish two key ideas. The first relates to a familiar trope from Homeric epic: Herakles is a son of Zeus and the “best” of those born on earth (1–3) “who both performed and suffered many terrible things” (πολλὰ μὲν αὐτὸς ἔρεξεν ἀτάσθαλα, πολλὰ δ’ ἀνέτλη, 6–7). In these lines Erwin Cook observes that “the very qualities that make the hero useful to the community leave him an inherently ambiguous figure.” [31] Homeric epic shares this ambivalence about the figure of the hero, since both Achilles and Odysseus are marked out in their respective epics for suffering, both their own and that which they cause to others. [32] Herakles too, then, “can serve as a vehicle for exploring the social consequences of an individual’s physical pre-eminence,” [33] particularly as a figure who represents a locus of contradictions. [34]
More fundamentally, however, Herakles is an even more problematic figure—and this relates to his praiseworthy status as an immortal hero. The Hymn presents Herakles as enjoying life on Olympus with Hebe as his wife and identifies his specific sphere of influence: he is asked to bestow excellence and happiness. [35] By virtue of living a blessed afterlife, Herakles is very different from the heroes in Homeric epic, with one exception. In the Odyssey we learn that Menelaos similarly receives special dispensation in death thanks to his marriage with Zeus-born Helen: he will live on forevermore and after in the Isles of the Blest (Odyssey 4.563–569). At the same time, in Homer’s depiction of their current married life, the blessed couple seem anything but, with Menelaos telling the story of how Helen tried to entice the Achaeans out of the wooden horse by imitating the voices of their wives, while for her part Helen drugs the wine to help them all forget their miseries. [36] In a similar way to Herakles, who suffered in mortal marriage(s) only to win immortality through union with a divine female, Menelaos has had to suffer in marriage, but now with his divine wife safely returned to him he can look forward to a life everlasting. [37]
Suffering more than both heroes is Odysseus, who remains resolutely fixed on returning home to his wife, despite the enticement of immortality offered to him by Calypso before his final journey home even begins. [38] The quasi-magical formula with which the goddess offers Odysseus the chance to become immortal—“to be deathless and ageless for all days” (θήσειν ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀγήραον ἤματα πάντα, 5.136)—resonates through the epic cosmos. We hear it when Demeter tries to make Demophoon immortal in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter or when Eos succeeds in making Tithonus deathless but not ageless in the Hymn to Aphrodite. [39] Significantly, it resonates too with Herakles’ situation in a way that marks out his unique status. In his Theogony, Hesiod describes Herakles as the husband of Hebe who lives “painless and ageless all of his days” (ναίει ἀπήμαντος καὶ ἀγήραος ἤματα πάντα, 950–956). [40] Replacing “deathless” (ἀθάνατον) with “painless” (ἀπήμαντος), Hesiod draws attention to Herakles’ status as immortal, while his agelessness—the other critical component of immortality as we note from the counter example of Tithonus—is assured by his marriage to Hebe, the instantiation of undying youthfulness. Thus the three marriage pairs—Herakles/Hebe, Menelaos/Helen, Odysseus/Penelope—all appear as variations on a theme whose progression helps both to index cosmic history and to communicate a particular story’s relationship to its poetic traditions. In this arch-narrative structure Herakles represents the ultimate fantasy of a hero who achieves a godlike status, and takes the divine Hebe as his wife; Menelaos, by virtue of his marriage to Helen, succeeds in gaining entry to the mysterious Isles of the Blest, where, if not strictly an immortal, he may reside for eternity (with Helen?); Odysseus expressly resists the offer of immortality, in order to return to his mortal wife. Moreover, in contrast to the epic fabula of Herakles, the Homeric poems are at pains to show that immortality cannot be achieved unambiguously. For Homer’s heroes, there is only ever the wish to be ageless and deathless, as expressed by Hektor (Iliad 8.539) and Sarpedon (Iliad 12.323). Indeed, such miraculous transformation is explicitly denied to the heroes of the Trojan War in the Iliad, as Zeus is warned of the destabilizing consequences of extending the life of his son Sarpedon—a critical moment in the epic, as we shall see. [41] Instead, immortality for the heroes is conceived of differently, as being achieved through the poetic performance itself. By rejecting an immortal life with Calypso, the “One who covers” or the “Hider,” Odysseus escapes being hidden from view and is able subsequently to reveal and enact famous deeds that will lead to his immortalization in epic song.
This brief survey shows that—from what we know of the epic tradition about Herakles—he occupied a complex, somewhat ambiguous place in narrative myth. He comes to exemplify the best (and worst) of Greek heroes in different poetic traditions, changing form according to each new poetic incarnation—now a mortal hero fighting a dangerous brigand (the Shield), now a drunk hedonist (Panyasis), now a god (the Hymn), now Zeus’ instrument in bringing order to the cosmos (Theogony). [42] It is easy to imagine an epic Herakles performing like the brief glimpse of him we get in Hesiod’s Theogony, where the hero suffers and metes out suffering in equal measure, before being rewarded in the end for his fidelity to a divine mission. For our purposes, however, it is enough to note that the complexity that pervades his archaic fabula, such as the tension between his identities as hero and god, and in particular the interformular means of expressing that complexity, mark him out as a significant figure for the Homeric poems in their agonistic engagement with rival traditions. In describing the Theogonic Herakles warding off evil sickness (κακὴν δ’ ἀπὸ νοῦσον ἄλαλκεν, Theogony 527), Hesiod recalls the hero’s cult-title alexikakos and its attendant connections. [43] Yet this formula also powerfully brings to mind a scene near the end of the Iliad when Achilles—at his most Heraklean—wrestles with the river Scamander. How Herakles is used in Homer, and what repercussions follow for our understanding of the epics, is the subject of the rest of this chapter.

A Son of God

Given the varied representations of Herakles in the archaic and classical Greek popular imagination, we can confidently posit that Herakles was already a hero of some pedigree prior to the formation of our Homeric epics, and that he enjoyed a well-known epic tradition. We have identified several key aspects of this, including, on the one hand, his mighty strength, his many labors, and his role in establishing (Zeus’) order; and, on the other, an emphasis on his suffering and hints of his excessive violence. The balance is encapsulated by his ultimate fate—as a man, who suffers and dies, and as the son of Zeus, who survives death to live a blessed afterlife with his divine consort. Yet, while Herakles makes several appearances in Homer, both in the narrative [44] and in speeches by characters, [45] Homer never treats Herakles at any length or in any detail. This reticence is an indication of the Homeric poems’ antagonistic rivalry with the Heraklean fabula, and follows on from our discussion in the previous chapter about Homer’s silence on (and silencing of) the siege of Thebes. [46]
While reticent on the details, the Homeric epics nevertheless show an awareness of something of these details, which we have sketched out above. A survey of the hero’s appearances indicates a consistent portrayal, which largely aligns with evidence outside Homer. [47] Herakles is born of both mortal and immortal fathers (Iliad 14.324–325; Odyssey 11.267–269); he must accomplish many labors (Iliad 15. 133–135) and is long-suffering (Odyssey 11.620–622) at the service of Eurystheus (Iliad 15.635–640 and 19.74–140). He is helped by Athena (Iliad 8.362–369) and Hermes (Odyssey 21.14–40); loved by Zeus (Iliad 15.24–32) but hated by Hera (Iliad 14.242–265); and has done battle with the gods themselves (Iliad 5.381–400). He has sacked many cities, including Troy (Iliad 14.266, 20.145), [48] commited violent acts, even against a host (Iliad 5.381–400; Odyssey 21.14–41). [49] He dies but lives on with the Olympian gods (Odyssey 11.603). Even so, as we shall see in this section, Homeric reference to these events establishes a dynamic engagement with the Herakles tale on the level of both language and traditional themes that functions almost exclusively to raise the profile of Homer’s heroes and themes.
Citations of Herakles are not only more frequent in the mouths of Homer’s characters (eleven out of a total of sixteen occasions across both Homeric poems); they also enjoy a different status than instances in the narrative. While the Homeric narrator is figured as a reliable conduit for the tradition with full control over the material, his characters lack the same degree of authority. Their use of traditional material is often represented as sitting uneasily with the surrounding narrative, [50] which makes their strategies more readily transparent and analyzable. At the same time, the complex engagement between their (mis)use of the material and its context is, as we discussed in Chapter 1 with the stories of Bellerophon and Tydeus, highly revealing of each epic’s own poetic strategies. A good example is when Athena, prevented by Zeus from helping the Achaeans, complains to a third party about how she once did Zeus a favor by helping Herakles complete his labors (Iliad 8.362–369). Given, however, the fact that she recounts this story to Hera, Herakles’ avowed enemy, the choice of example is an odd one. Though Hera “does not fail to obey” (8.381), the reference to Herakles sounds somehow out of place, if Athena is trying to persuade Hera to do her bidding. [51] In fact, precisely because the example seems to have no effect, we might posit that Herakles is no longer a concern for Hera—the Trojans have replaced him as the cause of her ire, and the heroic narrative resulting from her redirected anger is this poem. Examining other cases where Herakles is (re)deployed as a paradeigma by gods and men allows us both to identify moments of cross-poetic rivalry and to reflect on the specific forms and consequences of Homer’s agonistic engagement with the tradition.
In part, Homer allows Herakles to be appropriated by his speakers as a negative paradigm. After a passing mention in the Catalogue of Ships as the father and grandfather of two contingents of troops, Herakles appears next when Dione consoles Aphrodite after her wounding by the Tydean Diomedes. We discussed this passage in the previous chapter from the perspective of showing how the example of Tydeus spurs Diomedes on to a battle frenzy that renders him invincible, to the point where he challenges the gods themselves—a potentially dangerous transgression. Dione offers Aphrodite the consolation that other Olympians have suffered at the hands of men (Iliad 5.384). [52] Two men, Otus and Ephialtes, assaulted Ares. Worse still was Herakles, who, though he fought alone, wounded not only Hera but even Hades. [53]
Dione’s description of Herakles is significant in various ways. First, she does not refer to Herakles by name, but instead via a series of periphrastic constructions: initially as “the strong son of Amphitryon” (κρατερὸς πάϊς Ἀμφιτρύωνος, Iliad 5.392) or “the man, the son of Zeus” (εὖτέ μιν ωὐτὸς ἀνὴρ υἱὸς Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο , Iliad 5.396), then later (and more pointedly) as “the hateful man” and “worker of violence” (σχέτλιος ὀβριμοεργὸς, Iliad 5.403). As we learn in the Odyssey, providing or withholding a name is of critical importance. Odysseus is able to engineer the escape from Cyclops’ cave by providing no name (“Nobody,” Odyssey 9.366); yet he ends up incurring Poseidon’s wrath by revealing his name to Cyclops (Odyssey 9.504–506). This fateful epic boast draws attention to the importance of naming—one cannot have fame and renown if no one knows about your deeds—and the paradox in the Odyssey whereby Odysseus wins fame and renown precisely by maintaining disguise. [54] In this case, Dione’s reluctance to name Herakles underlines her point that the actions of this hero are not to be commended or emulated. In addition, the striking, and unique, collocation of man and son of Zeus in one complete hexameter line, εὖτέ μιν ωὐτὸς ἀνὴρ υἱὸς Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο (“this same man the son of aegis-bearing Zeus”), points to what is at stake in Dione’s description—the portrait of a man who dares to fight the gods. [55] At one level, Dione is making a rhetorical point, comforting Aphrodite for a wound that Diomedes has just given her. [56] At another, however, the violence that Dione describes is colored in a particular way. Her accounts both of the assault on Ares by Otus and Ephialtes and of Herakles rivaling the gods describe a world where gods and men are in regular and direct conflict with each other.
Dione caps her account of the “worker of violence” (ὀβριμοεργός) by observing that, as his arrows continued to trouble the gods, he did not take heed of his “unseemly deeds” (ὃς οὐκ ὄθετ᾽ αἴσυλα ῥέζων, Iliad 5.403). It is not only his striving against the gods that is to be condemned; it is the fact that Herakles does not consider his actions to be problematic that is the problem—indeed, this is one reason why his “doing” is deemed “unseemly.” Significantly, this description of Herakles performing unseemly deeds (αἴσυλα ῥέζων) is picked up later in the epic in a highly charged context, when the river god Scamander similarly complains to Achilles about the shamefulness of his assault (21.214). [57] We will return to discuss this example in more detail shortly; for the moment it is sufficient to note that, according to Dione (as we saw in the last chapter), Diomedes has been acting like a Herakles by doing violence to the gods. But there is a critical qualification to make: Diomedes’ actions are here being marked out as excessive in the extreme. Soon after—in fact, immediately once Diomedes has fulfilled Dione’s warning and been the latest hero to wound Ares—the Iliad makes it clear that performing such unseemly deeds will no longer be possible, let alone acceptable: Apollo intervenes to police the boundary between men and the divine and explicitly rule out men competing with gods. [58] In this process Herakles’ own actions become consigned to a period before the Iliad. Unrestrained violence of this kind is not, and cannot be, part of the world inhabited by Homer’s heroes.
Notably, Herakles is most frequently cited in the Iliad when, the gods take center stage. When the Achaeans are hemmed in behind their walls, Hera sets out to disrupt Zeus’ plan by enlisting Sleep in her plan of seduction. Sleep is wary, however, because of what happened the last time he helped Hera when she was working against Herakles. Once again, details are kept to a minimum: Sleep also withholds Herakles’ name (he is again “that man”: κεῖνος, 14.250) and presents an abbreviated narrative of Herakles’ deeds—just one hexameter line for Herakles to sack Troy and start his return home, like an Odysseus (ἔπλεεν Ἰλιόθεν Τρώων πόλιν ἐξαλαπάξας). [59] Instead, Sleep focuses on Hera’s machinations, as a result of which Herakles is carried over the sea as far from his friends (νόσφι φίλων) as Achilles is from his father (19.422). [60] The interformular moments here suggest Herakles’ capacity to be a hero on a par with the Homeric Achilles and Odysseus. Or rather, the introduction of Herakles as a city-sacker who is apart from his friends invites us to think about him in the way we think about Achilles and Odysseus, and ponder the ways in which they differ. Crucially, the story of Herakles’ greatness is never narrated in the Iliad. Homer is interested in the deeds of Herakles only insofar as they function within this epic and help set into relief the actions and thoughts of his heroes. [61]
The same is true when Zeus regains his senses and expands on Sleep’s allusive narrative. His focus is less on his suffering son (15.30), than on the pain he himself feels (15. 34–35) and Hera’s agency in opposing him (15.36–38). [62] Once again Herakles’ endeavors are held up as an implicit comparison to the Iliad’s narrative: just as Hera interfered then and caused Zeus grief, so is she now. But there is also a crucial difference. Hera’s betrayal of Zeus barely sets his plan back at all: in fact, it prompts Zeus to provide his most explicit and fullest enunciation of it yet (15.49–77).
The time for such cosmic infighting has passed. That much is implied a little before when Zeus, full of desire for Hera, catalogued his long list of female conquests (14.315–328). For, while undoubtedly not the most tactful line for seduction, a catalogue of women can, should, be deadly serious on the basis that Zeus’ powerful seed will produce male heirs. So Zeus enumerates the sons who were born from these unions—Minos, Radamanthus, Perseus, Perithoos, and, of course, Herakles, his “violence-minded” son (14.324). From an intertraditional perspective, a divine union and catalogue of women resonates powerfully with Hesiod’s Theogony, where we see Zeus fathering heroes who clear the world of monsters and evildoers. More generally, the coalescence of themes around divine conflict, deception, and reproduction reveals the latent danger in the coming together of the father of gods and men and his divine consort: Hera’s deception of Zeus could herald another Theogony. Here, however, no son rises from this union to challenge the father; Herakles’ birth in fact marks the end of Zeus’ issue. The succession narrative, after all, belongs to a world prior to Homeric epic. [63] Instead, though this section recalls the genesis of heroes, the poignant irony that unfolds is that the Iliad is an epic of dying heroes, not the birth of new ones. [64] The motif transference from such primeval struggles between Zeus and Hera as well as the triple invocation of Herakles results in an oddly underwhelming take on one of the central motifs of the Herakles myths. [65] But it also anticipates the problems caused by the sons of mortals in human worlds and the Iliadic motif that the gods only derive pain from involvement in mortal affairs.
By invoking him in paradeigmata, the Iliad appropriates and subordinates Herakles to its own needs in several ways. Primarily, Herakles, appearing in the speeches of the poem’s characters, does not enjoy the narrative spotlight but is relegated to the fringes of the tale, repurposed as either a model or a memory of heroic action, rather than depicted as an agent of heroic deeds himself. Still, given the gods’ interest in Herakles in the episodes that we have discussed, we may have expected that model or memory to be privileged. If anything, the opposite is true: though the gods’ stories do not directly contest the son of Amphitryon’s godhood, they do provocatively fail to mention his position as a god. Moreover, in the recasting of Herakles as simply one of many actors in the tales told by this poem’s agents, as a counterpoint to the heroes of this tale he does not fare well: his type of heroism belongs to the distant past, a past from which the Iliad is moving. Indeed, it is precisely his status as both a mortal and son of god, who can rival the immortals and disrupt the Olympian order, that Herakles appears out of step with the transformation taking place in (and being represented by) the Iliad. Even though he and Achilles share such a divided nature, Herakles’ tale functions to set him apart from the time and place of the Iliad’s participants, as we shall see in greater detail in the next section.

Out of Time

So far we have seen how Homer’s divine speakers characterize Herakles as mighty and violent, while at the same time marginalizing him as a figure from the epic cosmos’ distant (and perhaps even less human?) past. This picture of an out-of-place and out-of-time Herakles also emerges through a study of the speeches of the Iliad’s mortal characters.
One Homeric figure who himself represents a connection to the (differently configured) heroic past is Nestor, whom Homer introduces on his first appearance in the epic in terms that make this link to the past explicit. This hero has been witness to two previous generations of heroic men; this—the heroes of the Trojan War—was the third (Iliad 1.250–252). In his capacity as the link to the past (or voice of the tradition), Nestor frequently recalls the character of earlier heroes or their previous heroic action at important moments as comparanda for the events and heroes of the Iliad. At arguably the most critical moment, when Patroklos is gathering information for Achilles about how their comrades are faring, Nestor delivers his longest speech in the poem. In it, he mentions Herakles. This Herakles is depicted as assaulting the city of Pylos. Of his many brothers, only Nestor survived (τῶν οἶος λιπόμην, 11.690).
As we have seen from previous examples both in this chapter and the last, while the minimal detail may imply that the whole story was well known, it is also important to examine how the reference works in context. Here, Nestor uses Herakles’ violence against his city and family to put the focus on his own heroic deeds. He does so by redeploying the idea of the lone hero in provocative ways. First, Nestor pictures Herakles violently assaulting the city all by himself (ἐκάκωσε), as if he were still singly, and singularly, performing epic labors—a world away from the depiction of a city’s siege that we get in the Iliad, with the massed ranks of armies on both sides. At the same time, Nestor goes on to identify himself as the single figure, alone of all his brothers, to have survived Herakles’ onslaught, as if he were an equivalent figure, a solitary hero bereft of a community, or, even more pointedly, the “lonely” Nestor mentioned in the cast of the Heraklean Sack of Oechalia. [66] Indeed, by transferring the single motif from Herakles’ assault to his singular survival, Nestor prepares the way for his own heroic performance. And, yet, Nestor’s epic deeds differ radically from Herakles’, in that they form part of a narrative of collective action, not dissimilar to the battle that is taking place before Troy. For Nestor’s story pertains to the situation at hand, if paradoxically reached through the idea of his lone survival. When Nestor reaches the climax of his story, describing how all glorified him among men (11.761), he turns suddenly to the case at hand and adds: “But Achilles will enjoy his own valor alone” (αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς / οἶος τῆς ἀρετῆς ἀπονήσεται, 762–763). Nestor, we recall, is relating this story to Patroklos, in the hope of attracting him back into battle. At present, one man, Achilles, is refusing to fight: Nestor’s proposal, implicit in this story, is for Patroklos to fight in his place. Therefore, while the Herakles story would seem to put emphasis on the lone fighter, the very dynamics of this tale depend on the associations between the heroes. And it works. Patroklos is motivated to fight for the Achaeans. After him, belatedly Achilles too will return, not for his individual glory, but rather to avenge his fallen comrade.
There is one further observation. Nestor frames his fleeting reference to Herakles as being set in “the time before” (τῶν προτέρων ἐτέων, 11.691). As the poem has already determined, Nestor knows a thing or two about previous generations (cf. Iliad 1.250–252). A consistent pattern begins to emerge. A speaker raises the example of Herakles in order to make the point about (excessive) violence. It’s not that the Iliad condemns violent acts per se; rather, such individual acts of brutality and daring are generally consigned to a past world. The extreme acts of Herakles—those which made it possible for him to succeed as a solitary champion—are, as Nestor implies, actions that destroy communities and leave the survivors alone. For communities to thrive, they must be able to control and withstand violence and fight together. In the Iliad Herakles’ actions are relegated to a violent past in order to separate them from the present; where similar acts are integrated into the poem’s present, they are characterized as threatening to the emerging social order.
If anything, the disjunction between citations of Herakles and the narrative of the Iliad is at its most pronounced in the confrontation between his son, Tlepolemus, and Sarpedon. Tlepolemus, previously introduced in the Achaean catalogue, is the only one of Herakles’ sons fighting in this current war for Troy. [67] Facing him is Sarpedon, king of Lydia, whose entry brings to a close the Trojan catalogue; his credentials in this poem, moreover, have just been established by his stern, but fair, rebuke of Hektor earlier in the book. [68] But more is at stake than a battle between individual heroes; their meeting reflects upon traditions associated with Herakles and this story of Troy. [69]
The terms of engagement are established in the narrator’s opening verses. Elsewhere, the line that describes their advance (“When they came near to one another,” οἳ δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ σχεδὸν ἦσαν ἐπ᾽ ἀλλήλοισιν ἰόντες, 5.630) usually heralds an immediate coming to blows. Here, as Adrian Kelly has observed, however, “the poet surprises us with an ‘extra’ verse (631).” [70] This additional line, “son and grandson of Zeus the cloud-gatherer” (υἱός θ᾽ υἱωνός τε Διὸς νεφεληγερέταο), not only identifies the two men as related to Zeus but also sets up the dominant theme of the two speeches. This clash will be about genealogy. Whose connection to Zeus is better?
The power of this contrast draws on its interformularity. Tlepolemus, whose description here recalls his introduction in the Catalogue (as “the big and noble son of Herakles” (Τληπόλεμον δ᾽ Ἡρακλεΐδην ἠΰν τε μέγαν τε, 5.628; cf. 2.653), immediately identifies genealogy as the decisive factor in this confrontation. “They are liars,” he says to Sarpedon, “who say that you are the son of Zeus, holder of the aegis” (ψευδόμενοι δέ σέ φασι Διὸς γόνον αἰγιόχοιο / εἶναι, 5.635–636). It is he, through his own father Herakles, who can truly claim a bond of kinship with Zeus. [71] But Homer’s additional introductory verse highlighted above implicitly undercuts Tlepolemus’ charge. Back when Tlepolemus is first introduced, Homer uses the phrase “sons and grandsons of the violent Herakles” (υἱέες υἱωνοί τε βίης Ἡρακληείης, 2.666). Here, we have the near echo “son and grandson of Zeus the cloud-gatherer” (υἱός θ᾽ υἱωνός τε Διὸς νεφεληγερέταο). [72] Plurality gives way to singularity; Herakles gives way to Zeus. The audience hears an echo of Tlepolemus’ paternity even in the very description of Sarpedon’s: the former is one of many sons of Herakles, the son of Zeus; the latter is the son of Zeus. Tlepolemus already comes across as inferior, even before he speaks.
The critical importance of this displacement is evident from Tlepolemus’ basic argument where he denigrates the core subject of this narrative—the sack of the city. In a manner similar to how we might imagine Heraklean traditions responding to the Troy story, Tlepolemus boasts that his father, Herakles, has already sacked Troy. [73] Such a claim could, and should, be a threat to Homer’s Iliad. If Troy has already been besieged and taken by another hero from another tradition, what need is there to listen to or take account of this version? A similar anxiety emerged in our discussion in the last chapter regarding the siege of the other city, Thebes. There we argue that the Iliad’s response was twofold: to deauthorize the story by putting it into the mouth of a speaker with a case to make (who remains silent on the events of the siege itself), and to position it as prior to this siege story. One reason why this second move was probably so important was the likelihood that Theban traditions had used the same strategy, by representing its city hero, Herakles, sacking Troy before the real business of besieging Thebes could be undertaken. In this case too the Iliad deploys a twin assault: news of the other sack is provided by a none-too-impartial observer, whose argument is predicated on the precedence that other sack provides: since he is the son of Herakles, the hero who has already taken Troy, then he—Tlepolemus—is far superior to the Trojan ally whom he is about to fight.
While Tlepolemus uses Herakles as a paradigm for the present situation, and as a means of determining the outcome, the intertraditional resonance is far from so easy to control. In order to magnify his father’s prestige (and by association his own), Tlepolemus claims that Herakles sacked Troy with only six ships and not many more men. One unintended consequence that follows, however, is the suggestion that Tlepolemus—who has a vast supporting cast of Achaean heroes after all—is a considerably lesser hero, if, now in the tenth year of fighting, Troy has still yet to fall (again). [74] But it is not only the case that Tlepolemus’ choice to link his reputation to his father’s sack of the city runs the risk of diminishing his own heroic credentials; that prior sack also loses stature by being passed over so presumptuously and briefly—as we saw happen with Thebes in the previous chapter. Tlepolemus’ boast that Herakles needed only six ships and a few men could open the way to a very different interpretation—that the whole enterprise did not really amount to all that much. [75] What is made explicit in the Odyssey (1.352–353) with Telemachus’ claim that audiences like to hear the latest song is equally pertinent to thinking about the Iliad’s performance, as it deprioritizes those events conceived of as prior to it. The fact that Herakles has already sacked Troy ought to be an important counterpoint for, or even challenge to, this tale of a war at Troy. [76] And yet, while the Iliad demonstrates interest in the subject of the city’s survival, [77] it does not represent the sacking itself; mention of Troy’s ultimate downfall is instead left to the Odyssey, when Demodokos sings of the fall of Troy at Odysseus’ behest (Odyssey 8.495). In the Iliad Troy’s sack is infinitely deferred or, in the case under examination here, part of a character’s recollection of a dim and distant event. Displaced from the authority of the narrative voice and relegated to the era of a “past generation of men,” [78] Herakles’ prior sacking of Troy will have little relevance to or impact on this poem.
Sarpedon’s pithy response, dismissive not only of Tlepolemus’ posturing but also of his father’s epic career, gives articulation to Herakles’ irrelevance. His initial move is to undercut the magnitude of Herakles’ deeds by attaching blame to the founder of the city: Troy fell because of Laomedon’s folly (ἀφραδία, 5.649), [79] a state of mind associated with people or creatures like the Cyclops who bring evil upon themselves. [80] Sarpedon’s reference to “sacred Troy” (Ἴλιον ἱρήν, 648) economically re-establishes the sanctity of city in contrast to the actions of its founder. [81] More pointedly, Sarpedon robs Herakles of his name, labeling him simply “that man” (ἤτοι κεῖνος, 648). As we observed above, the withholding of a name runs counter to the impulse of epic poetry to record kleos. Once again, Herakles is being denied fame by being pointedly not named. Moreover, the combination of κεῖνος with the intensifier ἤτοι tends to be used by speakers in an aggressively dismissive manner. [82] Indeed, as many have noted for the Odyssey, the demonstrative κεῖνος can function to stand in place of the hero’s name, delaying the granting of fame and occluding the meaning of the reference. [83] Deliberate in his response, Sarpedon downplays the glory of that man’s previous deeds and, at the same time, denies the relevance of Herakles to this sack of Troy.
The payoff is both immediate and unambiguous, and at the same time more complex and meaningful than it might first appear. The two heroes simultaneously cast their spears; Tlepolemus is killed instantly. The implication is emphatic: Herakles and his progeny have no role to play in this epic tale of Troy’s sack. Yet the scene is more multifaceted and fraught than that, since Sarpedon too almost dies. The reasons why he does not perish here shed important light on the Iliad’s (re)deployment of Heraklean themes. At first, Sarpedon is rescued from the battle and protected by the swift actions of his comrades (663, 692). The action of our Iliad differs markedly from the action of a singular hero who could sack a city with only six ships. Ultimately, however, it is Zeus who saves Sarpedon. Capping his description of the spear’s path through Sarpedon’s thigh, Homer changes tack and adds: his father warded off ruin (πατὴρ δ’ ἔτι λοιγὸν ἄμυνεν, 5.662). Here, then, is the final riposte to Tlepolemus’ taunts about his genealogy. Zeus as Sarpedon’s father intervenes on his behalf to save him.
Even now the dynamic engagement between the traditions is not yet complete, since the epic leaves Sarpedon’s fate literally hanging by a breath. This “son of Zeus” (Διὸς υἱός) is at first protected by Athena (who wards off her favorite, Odysseus, from coming any closer), before he finally musters the strength to call out to Hektor for help. [84] This appeal, though, looks as if it is his last. In a sophisticated manipulation of epic formulae, Homer implies that Sarpedon is on the brink of death: as his companions leave Sarpedon by a great oak, “his spirit left him, and dark mist fell on his eyes” (τὸν δ᾽ ἔλιπε ψυχή, κατὰ δ᾽ ὀφθαλμῶν κέχυτ᾽ ἀχλύς, 5.696). At this notable moment, Homer has combined two formulae τὸν δ᾽ ἔλιπε ψυχή and κατὰ δ᾽ ὀφθαλμῶν κέχυτ᾽ ἀχλύς that elsewhere denote death. [85] From the perspective of traditional language, Sarpedon should die here; instead, remarkably, he breathes again (αὖτις δ’ ἀμπνύνθη, 597).
This sophisticated, and pointed, manipulation of formulae confirms Sarpedon as a hero of special note in the Iliad. [86] Again, the comparison to Tlepolemus’ father is telling. Unlike the storied Herakles, Sarpedon’s destruction is not being warded off permanently; he is saved here only to die another day, at the hands of Achilles’ comrade, Patroklos (16.502). Just before Sarpedon and Patroklos meet, Zeus ponders whether to save his son (16.433–438). Hera intercedes and strongly takes issue, not because Zeus couldn’t save his son—he could—only he should not. It would set a dangerous precedent: after all, all the gods would then want to save their favorites. Thus she persuades Zeus to accept fate and instead focus on saving Sarpedon’s body for burial. [87]
This, then, is the critical difference between a hero like Sarpedon in the Iliad and the Herakles of the tradition, who continues to live with his consort Hebe among the immortals, forever blessed. Sarpedon, a son of Zeus to rank alongside Herakles, could have received the same treatment from his father—but Homer has the gods expressly deny this as an option. Behavior like this, when gods and men fought with each other, and when men could become like gods and live forever, is typical of a prior world, where heroes and gods were not yet that distinct, where Zeus’ authority was not quite so unassailable, and where a Theogony was still in the making.
This exchange—on the surface a battlefield clash of arms between two heroes of famous fathers—is in effect the meeting, weighing, and resolution of competing epic traditions and ways of conceptualizing, and valorizing, heroic activity. In reply to Tlepolemus’ bluster about his famous father who had sacked Troy, Sarpedon offers an incisive interpretation that both minimizes that alternative version and amplifies this current account: Herakles was successful because his opponent was dishonest and stupid; the battle had been fought over horses by a handful of men. The real stakes, however, are higher still. This scene sets the tone of the Iliad as a world in which even the great (and seemingly singular) Achilles must die and where Zeus heeds Hera’s advice to let Sarpedon die lest it cause divine discord (Iliad 16.439–458). Sarpedon could be another Herakles, but on this occasion Zeus chooses not to save his son. In the Iliad’s new world order, heroes are represented as all-too-human men, struggling to come to terms with their (newly found?) reciprocal roles within their communities—most explicitly articulated, it should be remembered, by Sarpedon (Iliad 12.310–328)—and especially with their mortality.
The selective presentation of Herakles has its basis in two interrelated poetic strategies that have emerged in our discussion of Homer’s Thebes. One is poetic rivalry: Homer’s agonistic engagement with his tradition is here manifest in the Iliad’s expropriation from and downgrading of the rival siege story of Thebes as an adequate vehicle for the expression of epic deeds and character. The other is thematic: in a movement that traces the history of myth from the creation of the cosmos to the everyday lives of Homer’s audiences, Herakles occupies an important place. Betwixt and between two eras—the creation of the gods and the extinction of the race of heroes—he is the one figure who still has a foot in both worlds. In these terms the Iliad’s re-conception of time is highly charged. By locating its own events after Thebes and after the labors of Herakles, the Iliad separates both Herakles’ life events and his heroic qualities from the world of its story. Herakles remains a necessary model figure in the epic cosmos, but only insofar as he represents a bygone era of singular heroes. How the Iliad’s singular hero, Achilles, matches up to, and surpasses, Herakles, is the subject of our next section.

Even Herakles Had to Die

In the previous section we discussed how references to Herakles in the Iliad, though sporadic, brief, and largely communicated via different characters with their own agendas, deliver a consistent message. While certain actions (sacking cities, labors under Eurystheus, fighting the gods) or themes (suffering and doing violence in equal measure) relate to traditional Heraklean tales, so far as we can tell from the available evidence, the positioning of the hero as “out of time,” we suggest, derives from the Iliad’s posture as the epic that tells the heroic story of the separation of the worlds of gods and men. In this section we consider the consequences for thinking about Achilles if Herakles represents a bygone world. In continuing our investigation of characters’ (mis)use of Herakles as a paradigm, we turn the spotlight on to those moments in the narrative where Achilles and Herakles are brought into some kind of comparison with each other. In these cases both Achilles’ differences from and similarities to Herakles are significant in ways that goes beyond their shared possession of the epithet “lion-hearted” (θυμολέοντα). [88] While Achilles is comparable to Herakles in might and singularity, ultimately it is through his non-Heraklean social relationships that he achieves continuing relevance in this stage of transition to a world of men.
When Achilles calls the assembly in Book 19 to announce his intention to return and rouse the troops for war, Agamemnon intercedes to lay the ground for formal reconciliation. Substantively this means finally offering Achilles the compensation for the insult done to him at the beginning of the epic; but Agamemnon takes the opportunity to have one final say to explain (away) his slighting of Achilles. Another story about Herakles forms the basis of this apology. He was, Agamemnon explains, temporarily blinded by the goddess Atê (19.78–145), just as Zeus had once been when Herakles was about to emerge into this world. [89] According to Agamemnon, Zeus, in excitement at Herakles’ impending delivery, gathers the gods to announce the birth of a man who will be lord over the Argives. [90] Seeing an opportunity for mischief, Hera elicits an oath from Zeus that whoever is born that day will lord it over all; subsequently, she delays Herakles’ birth and induces Eurytheus’, thereby making the former subservient to the latter. And so it came to pass that Herakles suffered long at the hands of Eurystheus, and all the time Zeus suffered watching him. [91]
There are a number of observations that build on our analysis thus far. First, this story is explicitly set in a time before (ποτε ‘then’, 95; ἤματι τῷ ὅτ᾽ “on that day when,” 98). In fact, Agamemnon’s conclusion—that Atê now makes mischief among men—underlines the point that she no longer operates on Olympus, since Zeus has long since thrown her out. That is to say, Olympus is no longer subject to the kind of intense rivalry and dissension among the gods that we hear about in this story; Zeus’ power and authority are inevitable, as much as Hera and others may rail against them at times. Instead, the focus of the Iliad is on conflict among men, which bubbles to the surface again here: insofar as the story about Herakles represents an apology of sorts, it is also a(nother) performance of eristics on the part of the king. [92] By recalling Zeus’ blindness as a precursor for his own, Agamemnon exalts himself to the position of king of kings, [93] and once again betrays his dominating, and domineering, concern to exercise authority over Achilles, even as ostensibly he concedes the injustice he has done him. [94] Once again, however, a character’s paradigmatic story defies an unequivocal reading; indeed, it is quite typical that a directive by Agamemnon should escape his full control. In Agamemnon’s story Achilles comes across not so much as a Hera-like subordinate in the council of gods but as a hero like Herakles, forced to complete tasks at the behest of a far inferior superior (Eurystheus/Agamemnon). [95]
This multifaceted example marks social and cosmic relationships as well as to advance Iliadic concerns, particularly with regard to the poem’s central hero. Agamemnon may be using the exemplar of Herakles to explain a hierarchy that makes a more valiant warrior subordinate, if he is looking beyond his self-comparison to Zeus at all; ironically, however, his account also anticipates Achilles’ role-playing as Herakles, at the very point when the poem’s protagonist is finally about to rejoin battle and perform his own heroic endeavors. Embracing this Heraklean guise in the rest of the assembly, Achilles remains uninterested in talk and social contracts, eager instead for the blood, tears, and sweat of battle. [96] Yet Achilles ends up frustrated in his desire to play this role straightaway, as first Agamemnon and then Odysseus insist on making formal reparations. This disjunction between the hero’s Heraklean desire for combat and the Iliad’s more complex narrative of social affiliations relates to our discussion in Chapter 1, and to this epic’s construction of a political community. Achilles has been flirting with performing a Heraklean role ever since he first withdrew from the Achaean coalition in Book 1, when he had called the rest of the Achaeans nonentities for their (silent) support for Agamemnon and condemned them to suffering without his support in battle. His unilateral action, moreover, won Zeus’ (albeit grudging) endorsement against Hera’s will, as if this were a narrative about the son of Zeus carrying out important labors in the face of divine opposition. But even in this self-assertive opening act Achilles cannot completely remove himself from social ties. His withdrawal from battle also means removing his men along with him (Iliad 2.773–779); though he no longer fights, he keeps a keen eye on the action, alert to the suffering of the Achaeans, even as he rejects Odysseus’ delivery of Agamemnon’s offer (Iliad 9.349–353); even after the embassy, we find him waiting in anticipation of further communication (Iliad 11.599–601), and dispatching his friend for further news.. It was Achilles too who initially established the assembly and spoke on behalf of the suffering group, even underlying their role in the equitable distribution of goods, which he attempts to defend against Agamemnon’s grasping command. Later on, he dismisses Agamemnon’s reparations, in terms that appear a rejection of a code of behavior, but that turn out to be a restatement of social obligations, obligations which end up committing him to staying at Troy, even as the embassy departs having failed to re-enlist him in the fighting.
His lack of interest in those very social obligations in Book 19, which appears to us almost Heraklean in its emphasis on immediate action and almighty power, stems, moreover, from a very personal cause: the loss of his friend, Patroklos. At key points in the epic, then, Homer invites his audience to see Achilles as a hero from a previous era, with a special connection to the gods and set apart from the world of men in terms of his superhuman power, a Herakles in the making. And yet, Achilles never quite cuts that figure; he is only briefly a hero acting at his own behest. This is why the threat of Heraklean violence looms large over the thoughts and actions of the Iliad’s hero, the always present potential turn that the epic might take, were it not for the social relationships in which Achilles finds himself entangled and the institutions which he has helped to establish and activate. [97]
This struggle between heroic definitions (and missions) has been a feature of the poem from the very first mention of Herakles in the Catalogue of Ships. Immediately after the Dodecanese contingent, in which Tlepolemus plays the major role as the leader of Rhodes, comes Achilles, who, Homer reminds us, was presently sitting out the war (2.685). The way in which Homer describes Achilles pointedly resonates with Herakles’ epic characterization, while at the same time marking the difference between them. As we have seen above, Herakles is closely associated with enduring and completing tasks. Here, Homer describes Achilles as “having labored much” (πολλὰ μογήσας, 2.690), a phrase that is cognate with Herakles’ own labors, even as it is also used to denote Odysseus’ heroic activity. In fact, each Homeric protagonist engages with the theme of laboring in ways significantly different from Herakles. In the Odyssey the formula resonates strongly with the idea of nostos through the labors that Odysseus must endure. [98] In its first occurrence in the Iliad in the opening assembly, Achilles uses it to assert the toils that he has undertaken and suffered in war for the collective good (Iliad 1.162). [99] As Hesiod’s Theogony demonstrates, Herakles’ labors too had a social end connected with them, as part of Zeus’ ordering of the cosmos. Still, the emphasis that Achilles puts on his hard work in battle and his commitment to the common cause suggests a somewhat different picture from that of a lone hero enduring all manner of tasks set for him in a (still) supernatural world full of gods and monsters.
This repositioning of the hero through a cognate, yet subtly different, motif (interformularity) can also be read as an appropriation of an alternative tradition (intertraditionality). Here in the Catalogue, Homer expands upon those labors by associating them specifically with the sack of Lyrnessos and the “destruction of the walls of Thebes” (διαπορθήσας καὶ τείχεα Θήβης, 2.691). As we have already been at pains to point out in the Introduction, Homer is here describing Achilles’ sack of a minor settlement in the Troad. Yet the audience could be forgiven for also thinking of the far more famous Boiotian Thebes, from which Herakles hails (as Homer knows: Iliad 14.323–324) and which also has an epic tradition of a siege associated with it. [100] In place of the labors of the Theban Herakles Homer presents us with the labors of the Iliad’s Achilles over (not that) Thebes. Indeed, this Thebes has a tangentially critical role for the plot of the poem, since it is from this city and through these toils that Agamemnon had won Chryseis as a spoil of war—according to Achilles, when he recounts the events of the opening of the epic to his mother (1.366). It is when Agamemnon has to return her, and he demands another prize in return, that he provokes Achilles’ wrath. Thebes (but not that one) lies behind what turns out to be the catalyst for this epic tale about the fall of Troy.
As the Iliad gears up towards its final movements and the return of Achilles to battle, Homer marks the moment by having Zeus invite all the gods to enter the battle. In this controlled competitive environment, the Iliad’s agonism with its epic rivals comes to the fore—not only the Theogony (again) but other now lost traditions, like those associated with the one Trojan hero to escape the city’s sack, Aeneas. [101] As the gods agree to put an end to their (Theogonic) direct conflict with each other, and as the prelude to the (metapoetic) confrontation between Aeneas and Achilles, the narrator describes a scene of cosmic magnitude. The gods gather at the “high earth-piled wall of divine Herakles, which Pallas Athena and the Trojans made him so that he might get away from and escape the sea-monster whenever it chased him from the beach to the plain” (τεῖχος ἐς ἀμφίχυτον Ἡρακλῆος θείοιο / ὑψηλόν, τό ῥά οἱ Τρῶες καὶ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη / ποίεον, ὄφρα τὸ κῆτος ὑπεκπροφυγὼν ἀλέαιτο, / ὁππότε μιν σεύαιτο ἀπ’ ἠϊόνος πεδίον δέ, 20.145–147). [102] Again Herakles is firmly located in a bygone age, when walls were needed to ward off monsters from the sea, not the world of the Iliad, where it has been the Achaeans and Trojans who have been fighting from the beach to the plain and whom walls—both those longstanding and those built in the course of this epic—have been holding back. It is somewhat paradoxical that Herakles is associated with the construction of this particularly high section of the walls, when, as we have seen, he is famous elsewhere for having breached them. Indeed, soon afterwards Poseidon bitterly complains about the original construction of Troy’s walls (Iliad 21.441–457), reminding Apollo both of their suffering in their cause (“so that the city might be unbroken,” 447) and of the deception of Laomedon that still rankles him. Here too the poem remains silent on Troy’s former destruction and the hero responsible—Herakles. In this version Laomedon’s original sin has gone unpunished, Herakles’ sack has been forgotten, and the Achaean cause is made all the greater. Nor will the Iliad narrate their fall, save for the brief telescoping of time halfway through the epic when Homer takes us beyond this poem and beyond the heroic world itself to witness the gods’ final destruction of the city (Iliad 12.13–33). Nor, even, does the action of the epic take place around these walls, save here, as a rampaging Achilles puts the Trojans to flight, leaving Hector alone outside the city, from whose walls his parents watch with horror, as Achilles chases their son round and round them.
Instead Homer builds other walls, which form the intense focus of the action, and which are equally an affront to the gods—the walls hastily erected by the Achaeans to protect their ships. In their haste, the Achaeans forget to offer due prayers and offerings to the gods, who, as a result, condemn the walls to oblivion even as they are being built—the complainant is again Poseidon, and the precedent to which he appeals is again Troy and Laomedon’s deception (7.451–453). Thus these non-traditional Achaean walls, constructed in and by this poem, stand in for and replace the Trojan walls of myth. [103] But that is not all. They also represent the appropriation of a core element from the Theban tradition. As we mentioned in the Introduction, in Homer’s epic, the Achaeans, the besiegers of Troy, become themselves besieged, hemmed in behind the walls that they have built without the gods’ blessing. What is more, these walls have seven gates, as if Thebes en bloc has been relocated to the Troad. [104] And in a way it has. The description of the Herakles-built walls of Troy as “lofty” recalls the common formula “lofty-gated,” which is used in the Iliad only—aptly enough in the current example—of Troy—and—less aptly—of Troadic Thebes. [105] As an epithet that resonates with Troy and that paradoxically suggests its vulnerability as a city, its use in describing a minor city in the Troad with the famous name of another city under siege arguably constitutes the greatest act of erasure of the famous-gated Thebes from the epic record.
As we have seen, the fleeting mention of Herakles’ walls recalls a previous era of divine construction on the one hand and marauding monsters on the other. Moreover, it serves to bring to an end a passage unlike any other in the Iliad, as the gods battle it out among each other for ascendancy. The strife on Olympus that has been threatening to break out ever since the end of Iliad 1 finally comes to pass: though it is not ultimately a Theogony—Zeus is above it all, unassailable—the Theogonic resonances help to lend the necessary aura of an end of days for Homer’s heroes. On the other side of this wall, as it were, is the metapoetic confrontation between the hero of this epic and the one Trojan War hero to survive it. From the vantage point afforded by Herakles’ Trojan wall, then, we can observe a telescoping of time, from the epic conflagration of gods battling it for themselves (and the narratives that tell of this early period of cosmic history), through a period when heroes like Herakles built human structures to protect men from monsters (and the narratives associated with this post-cosmological pre-heroic conflict world), to the present war that is threatening to destroy, and will succeed in destroying, the race of heroes—the Iliad. And on this other, heroic, side of this wall enters Achilles, who, once his (non) conflict with Aeneas has been put to one side, slaughters all in his wake, battles with a river god, and threatens to sack Troy’s citadel singlehandedly, as if a hero from another world—a would-be Herakles.
The Heraklean tonality of the Iliad’s final scenes of battle extends to a complex case of interformularity. As mentioned in passing above, Herakles appears in cult-language as a “protector from evils” (alexikakos)—a title that is echoed in hexameter poetry when the Hesiodic Herakles “wards evil disease” from Prometheus (κακὴν δ’ ἀπὸ νοῦσον ἄλαλκεν, Hesiod Theogony 527) [106] and Theognis asks Artemis to “ward away the evil fates” (κακὰς δ’ ἀπὸ κῆρας ἄλαλκε, 13). [107] In the Iliad the verb ἀλέξω is deployed in highly specific places where a stronger party defends a weaker. [108] As powerful as this language seems to be, however, it shares formulaic elements with the verb ἀμύνω, most clearly evident in the formula *λοιγὸν ἀμυν-. [109] This formula is introduced at the very beginning of the epic, as Achilles looks for someone to ward off the danger resulting from Apollo’s anger (βούλεται ἀντιάσας ἡμῖν ἀπὸ λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι, Iliad 1.67), and becomes especially marked when Achilles points out that his withdrawal will deprive his people of someone who can “ward off danger” for them (1.341 and 398). [110] One of the many elements of the embassy negotiations during Book 9 centers on this theme, as first Odysseus and then Phoenix try to reestablish Achilles as the defender of the Achaeans. [111] At the end of his speech, Phoenix even replaces Odysseus’ traditional formula (which uses the more traditionally restricted ἀλέξω) with Achilles’ alternative variation (applying the more contextually marked ἀμύνω), taken from the beginning of the epic, [112] engaging in the type of dynamic manipulation of conventional language that, we suggest, characterizes the formation of the Homeric epics in general.
At the point when the Iliad slips into its Theogonic reckoning as Achilles (re)enters battle, he appears no longer as the hero who wards off danger, but as the one who must be warded off. Here, for the only time in the epic, Homer substitutes the combination *λοιγὸν ἀμυν- with the phrase λοιγὸν ἀλάλκοι (21.138, 250, 539). This substitution occurs at the moment when the river Scamander rises up in offense at Achilles’ indiscriminate massacre of Trojans and denotes the god’s attempt to shield his people from their destruction. [113] At his most Heraklean in appearance, wrestling gods and slaughtering men in their myriads, Achilles is described in language that inverts the relationship between Herakles the protector and the audience, and that in turn highlights the dangerous nature of such heroes. [114] At once, through the adaptation of traditional imagery and the inversion of conventional language, Homeric epic invokes the nature and name of Herakles but indicates the problematic ambiguity of these bygone heroes in its world. [115]
Thus, when Achilles cites Herakles as the example of a hero who could not escape his fate, “though he was most dear to lord Zeus, son of Cronos, / but fate tamed him and the grievous anger of Hera” (οὐδὲ γὰ οὐδὲ βίη Ἡρακλῆος φύγε κῆρα / ὅς περ φίλτατος ἔσκε Διὶ Κρονίωνι ἄνακτι, / ἀλλά ἑ μοῖρα δάμασσε καὶ ἀργαλέος χόλος Ἥρης, 18.117–119), [116] he activates a latent theme that runs through the Iliad. The way that Herakles is treated should now be familiar: the brevity of the citation perpetuates the de-emphasis on Herakles; the attribution of Herakles’ death to “fate” and “Hera” (119) casts the former hero as collateral damage in the conflict of the gods. He is neither an agent nor really a god at this point, but just another mortal who suffered because of the gods. [117] In this case Herakles is even denied explicitly the one thing that signified his unique importance in the whole of the tradition—survival beyond death.
The collocation of the death of Zeus’ dearest son and the inescapability of fate (as represented by Hera) recalls Sarpedon. As noted above, Zeus’ love and care extends only so far as to secure Sarpedon’s body, not to keep him alive, precisely because of the issue of fate. We are now firmly in a world where men are not rescued from death like Herakles in myth. Accordingly, Achilles looks forward to a future life not with the blessed gods but on the lips of men. He will win kleos (18.121), bringing wretched mourning upon Trojan women (18.122–125). By embracing the heroic paradigm of a short life with eternal renown, with the suffering it entails, Achilles willingly performs his story as a Heraklean tale. He accepts that he has caused destruction to his own and is resolved to turn this force against his enemies. On the other hand, while Achilles uses the paradigm to explain that this type of suffering is necessarily a component of his mortality, implicitly he is not Herakles, who died to be reborn. Rather, he will die and be reborn in the tale he is now part of, equally uniquely as himself, swift-fated Achilles. [118]
Ultimately, Achilles’ epic frustrates his attempt to be a Herakles, even as he dismisses his social obligations (Book 19), fights a river god (Book 21), denies a fallen hero right of burial (Book 22), and is nourished by the ambrosia of the gods dispensed by Athena. For we see him first establish funeral games for his fallen comrade, which allow his community to mourn and honor that man, and, ultimately, respect the supplication of the father of his friend’s killer, to allow even that man burial. [119] It is this love for his fallen comrade, Patroklos, whose death is the very stimulus behind his thinking here, that marks Achilles out as different from a hero like Herakles. Even as Achilles is at his most singular and extreme—his most Heraklean, as it were [120] —we see the effect of his ties of friendship (18.98, 103). Ultimately, Herakles represents a marginalized hero, projected into the past, and separated from what is most important to people in the world of today—(acceptance of) death and (guarantee of) burial.

Conclusion: A Wish Never to See the Like Again

In this chapter we have seen how the Iliad’s careful engagement with and management of Heraklean fabula—avoiding naming the hero, never giving away too many details—reveals its antagonistic relationship with the tradition even as it draws on language and themes from it. As the Theban hero par excellence, Herakles is modified to (not) fit the world of Homer’s Iliad. Through the use of his genealogy, the downgrading of the importance of his expedition, and the selection of details whereby he becomes rather less Theban (or, at any rate, his Theban identity is not celebrated), he is positioned primarily as a counter-model to the collective affairs of the Iliad’s heroes—even Achilles, whose mortality and comradeship come into focus when he cites Herakles as a heroic precedent. Taken together, Herakles’ appearances in the Iliad point to a hero out of time, a semi-god from a prior generation uninterested in, and incapable of, forming the kinds of social bonds that motivate and structure the behavior of Homer’s heroes. Correspondingly, the Iliad and its heroes represent a world a step further on in terms of cosmological development from the world of the Theogony and its depiction of warring gods and individual culture heroes beginning to lay down Zeus’ will. In fact, in part due to its appropriation of Herakles, the Iliad both represents and reproduces the separation of the race of heroes from the Olympian gods and the establishment of a world of men in its wake. As further proof of this argument, we finish this chapter by turning to the Odyssey, whose treatment of Herakles is even briefer, even starker, and even more clearly indicative of a hero ill-equipped either to survive the transition to the world of men or measure up to the man, Odysseus.
So much is clear from the first of the Odyssey’s triptych of Heraklean references. This initial example occurs when Odysseus moderates his boast to the Phaiakians by specifically declaring that he is not going to strive with the men of the past. The two heroes that he singles out are Herakles and Eurytos of Oechalia. Ironically, according to Odysseus, these men had themselves overreached their station by having continually endeavored to strive with the gods (8.222–225). [121] In the Iliad, as discussed above, Herakles is frequently mentioned in implicit comparison to Achilles, and Achilles himself even cites Herakles as a precedent. In contrast, Odysseus expressly asks not to be compared to Herakles. Such figures belong very much to a past whose relevance or indeed continued value is now very much in question.
The stakes of Odysseus’ refusal are clearly seen in the final reference to Herakles, as the narrator sets the scene for the climactic and critical bow contest. The bow, Homer tells us, was a guest-gift given to him by Iphitus. [122] This man is long since dead, for Herakles had “killed him in his house, even though he was a guest, respecting neither that hospitality nor the gods’ regard, the hard man” (ὅς μιν ξεῖνον ἐόντα κατέκτανεν ᾧ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ, / σχέτλιος, οὐδὲ θεῶν ὄπιν ᾐδέσατ᾽ οὐδὲ τράπεζαν, Odyssey 21.27–28). The point of Odysseus’ rejection of Herakles as a comparison should now be clear. [123] Such behavior as Herakles displays here—killing a guest and disrespecting the gods—evokes Polyphemos the Cyclops, who memorably denies interest in Zeus as god of hospitality, just before he grabs two of Odysseus’ men to eat—according to Odysseus, that is. [124] The significant point is that the reference to Herakles’ daring deeds (μεγάλων ἐπιίστορα ἔργων) occurs directly before Odysseus performs daring deeds of his own, deeds would be, under any other (normal) circumstance, be considered equally violent and questionable, particularly for the transgression of xenia: Odysseus slaughters all of the suitors who have been feasting in his home. Another name for this act would be the murder of guests, the very same act of which Herakles stands accused, were it not for the fact that the Odyssey, through its depiction of Athena’s support for the hero and the suitors’ many instances of disrespect, has carefully framed Odysseus’ actions as legitimate and not disproportionate. Herakles could be a paradigm for Odysseus, were it not for the Odyssey expressly instructing us otherwise.
This brings us to Herakles’ only other appearance in the Odyssey: in Odysseus’ shadowy meeting with the souls of the dead. Even in its conceptualization this episode has strong Heraklean resonances. Herakles was famous as the hero who descended into Hades (to capture Cerberus) and returned back alive. By enduring his own Hades adventure, Odysseus sets himself on par with Herakles, and sets the standard for heroic deeds in epics to come. Yet, at the same time, in Odysseus’ reversioning of the hero’s descent into the underworld, Hades appears to be not so much a physical location as a place that is accessed through ritual, as the spilling of blood summons or conjures up the dead. Odysseus does not so much descend into Hades as the shades of Hades rise up to greet him. Here is another deed where Odysseus’ daring is both Heraklean (in that he confronts the dead) and crucially non-Heraklean (in that he does not go into Hades himself).
At the very end of his encounters with the dead, Odysseus spies Herakles (11.601–629). [125] Or, rather, as Homer carefully articulates, it was Herakles’ “image” (eidolon) that Odysseus saw, since his actual self (autos) “among the immortal gods / delights himself at the feast and has fine-ankled Hebe as a wife” (τὸν δὲ μετ᾽ εἰσενόησα βίην Ἡρακληείην, / εἴδωλον: αὐτὸς δὲ μετ᾽ ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι / τέρπεται ἐν θαλίῃς καὶ ἔχει καλλίσφυρον Ἥβην, / παῖδα Διὸς μεγάλοιο καὶ Ἥρης χρυσοπεδίλου, 11.601–603). In what follows, this Herakles (the eidolon) tries to draw an affiliation with Odysseus by stressing the similarity of their plights: they have both suffered greatly (“you also have undergone a terrible fate,” καὶ σὺ κακὸν μόρον ἡγηλάζεις); like Odysseus he too has had difficult tasks to accomplish (“and he assigned me difficult labors,” ὁ δέ μοι χαλεποὺς ἐπετέλλετ᾽ ἀέθλους). Again, the two heroes are affiliated, this time directly by Herakles himself; in framing the episode, Odysseus resists too close a comparison. Odysseus has already drawn attention to the otherworldliness of this Herakles. “About him rose a clamor from the dead,” Odysseus narrates, “as if birds were flying everywhere in terror” (οἰωνῶν ὥς, / πάντοσ᾽ ἀτυζομένων, 11.605–606), while he “like the dark night” (ὁ δ᾽ ἐρεμνῇ νυκτὶ ἐοικώς, 11.606) gripped his bow in readiness to shoot, “glaring terribly” (δεινὸν παπταίνων, 11.608). Worse still is his baldric, “fearful” (σμερδαλέος, 11.609) to look at, all the worse, it seems, for bearing images that bring to mind the description of his shield in the Hesiodic poem of that name. [126] Odysseus comments that so fierce were these images that he wishes never to see the like of them ever again (11.610–614). [127]
We noted in the paragraph above the remarkable description of a dual Herakles—or, rather, a duality whereby Herakles is both the hero who survives death and a hero who, like many others, flits through a shadowy existence in Hades. [128] Nevertheless, the Odyssey’s categorical distinction between the hero’s self (autos) and his image (eidolon) is remarkable. Outside the Odyssean underworld, eidolon is used in Homer to denote the phantom of Aeneas that Apollo produces in order to rescue the hero from Diomedes, and the image of Penelope’s sister that Athena fashions to comfort her in her grief. [129] That is to say, the eidolon functions as a metapoetic signifier, which, by distinguishing its truthful fiction from the fictional truth of autos, draws attention to the act of artistic creation. In his play Helen, Euripides deploys the term eidolon to denote a phantom Helen at Troy over whom so many heroes fought and died, as opposed to the real Helen who for all this time has been holed up in Egypt. [130] More is at stake here than whether Helen really went to Troy or not. As Victoria Wohl has written (2015:114), “The Helen we see onstage is repeatedly taken for a mimēsis, a fictional double for the real Helen… [as] Euripides reminds us again and again that the world of the play is just a dramatic fiction.” [131] We suggest that Odysseus’ striking formulation indicates a similarly metadramatic encounter.
At one level, the distinction between the real and the mirror Herakles is raised only to be passed over, as Odysseus dwells on the terrifying properties of the latter, with which he goes on to engage. One reason for this must be, again, to diminish Herakles’ standing. Odysseus pays lip service to the idea that Herakles lived on in a blissful afterlife, but the interest and focus of this episode is on the Herakles whom Odysseus encounters. At the same time, however, the difference pointedly raises the problem of Herakles in Homeric epic. In Odysseus’ stark distinction between the mirror image (eidolon) and the self (autos), we find a unique and explicit separation between a hero and his story. And again it works to the detriment of Herakles. It is his eidolon that, by virtue of its epic-like description, is associated with his legendary deeds, to which Odysseus is currently contributing in his tall tale to the Phaiakians; the autos Herakles is nowhere to be seen. The shadowy eidolon thus masquerades as, and substitutes in for, the autos (divine) Herakles whose story is marginalized from Homer’s world and whose outcomes—an immortal life with a goddess—are explicitly rejected by the Odyssey’s hero in the epic’s opening movement.
There is one further point to make. When Odysseus attempts to embrace the eidolon of his mother’s soul, “three times if flitted through his arms like a shadow or a dream” (τρὶς δέ μοι ἐκ χειρῶν σκιῇ εἴκελον ἢ καὶ ὀνείρῳ / ἔπτατ᾽, Odyssey 11.207–208). If a shadow can function as a metaphor for reflecting on the impermanence of human life, it can also call to mind the idea of the person living on after death in stories. [132] Fragment B145 of Democritus preserves the proverbial-sounding assertion that “a story is a shadow of the deed” (λόγος ἔργου σκιή), as if the shade were a metaphor for the continuing afterlife of an object granted through the means of storytelling. The tension is highly charged between the pitiful existence of the soul, which assumes the image of the person as if it were a shadow, and the claims of epic in general to confer kleos and life after death. When Odysseus returns to the world of the living, the Odyssey countermands the glory of a short life exchanged for kleos aphthiton by granting its hero both fame and continued life.
No less than his wall in the Iliad, Herakles’ eidolon functions as a kind of metonym for how the Homeric poems exploit their epic past. The epics present an “eidolon” of the past, but reframe it, and adjust its meaning for a new world. Thus, the eidolon of Herakles resembles the very shadow of past tales of heroes that permeates the superstructure of both epics. But, in the end, it is not the thing itself. The Iliad and the Odyssey are new forms of their own making. In the next chapter we will turn to consider this heroic superstructure again, lingering a while longer with the shades of the Odyssean underworld to question the depiction of Oedipus and reflect on the form of Odysseus’ representation.


[ back ] 1. Many sections of this chapter draw on work originally published in Barker and Christensen 2014.
[ back ] 2. For the wide circulation of stories about Herakles, see Malkin 1998:156–209; 2011:119–142.
[ back ] 3. Herakles in the Mycenaean period: Fowler 2013:261. Cf. Galinsky 1972; Gantz 1993:374–381.
[ back ] 4. For Herakles imagery in Athens, see Boardman 1975; for images of his apotheosis, see Holt 1992.
[ back ] 5. Cf. Farnell 1921:95–98. For a recent discussion of Heraklean ritual as reflected in Euripides’ play, see Papadopoulou 2005:9–57. For a broader overview of scholarship on Heraklean ritual and cult since Farnell, see Stafford 2010.
[ back ] 6. Herakles’ divinity problematic for the Greeks: Shapiro 1983:9; rare from an Indo-European perspective: Davidson 1980:198; distorted by the literary record: Verbanck-Pierard 1989.
[ back ] 7. Herodotus II 44. On Pausanias: Ekroth 1999:150.
[ back ] 8. On this use of fabula: Burgess 2009.
[ back ] 9. Herakles was of course associated with the foundation of the Olympic Games and invoked as such at Pindar Olympian 2.8, 3.11, 6.68, and 10.10. Cf. Apollodorus II 141; Hyginus 273.5.
[ back ] 10. Isthmian 4.54–60 depicts Herakles’ afterlife among the gods, married to Hebe and reconciled with Hera, as a reward for his righteous deeds and support of the divine order. Cf. Nemean 1.67–79. Isocrates also claims that Herakles was more honored in Thebes than all of the other deities (Philip 88) and that Pindar marks out his special significance with the phrase ἥρως θεός (Nemean 3.22).
[ back ] 11. Herakles’ problematic masculinity is a feature of Victoria Wohl’s 1998 study of gender in tragedy.
[ back ] 12. On Euripides’ Herakles: Papadopoulou 2005. On Herakles in Sophocles’ Trachiniae: Liapis 2006.
[ back ] 13. The “hungry Herakles” was a stock gag in comedy: see, e.g. Aristophanes Peace 741; Wasps 60.
[ back ] 14. In addition to the early Greek hexameter poems that we discuss below, there may have been a poem from Eleusis about his descent into Hades, the fragmentary Meropis features Herakles, and he is prominent in the archaic poetry of Steisichorus (Geryon, Kyknos, Kerberos): Fowler 2013:260–261.
[ back ] 15. Ancient testimonia link Homer with composers of Herakles epics, counting Panyasis, Peisander, and Homer among the five best poets: Proclus Life of Homer 1.2; Tzetzes Prolegomena to Hesiod’s Works and Days: Bernabé 1996:166–167, 171–174; cf. Davies 1988:129–131. Homer is also linked with Creophylus as teacher and student (Photius), in-laws (scholion to Plato Republic 600b) or as guest-friends whose relationship was sealed by the gifting of the Sack of Oechalia: Strabo XIV 1.18; Proclus Life of Homer 5.30: Bernabé 1996:157–160. Creophylus as a “more laughable companion of Homer”: Plato Republic 600b; cf. Davies 1989:113–129. The dating and geographical range of these poets also echoes the broad dates and shifting locations for Homer. Creophylus and Peisander are conventionally dated to the seventh century at Samos and Rhodes respectively, whereas Panyasis is dated to the sixth century in Halicarnassus: Davies 1989:114, 129, and 149–153. West 2003:21–23 dates Peisander also to the sixth century based on his representation of Herakles with a club and lion-skin.
[ back ] 16. On the use of the ancient biographical tradition for thinking about the reception of poetry: Graziosi 2002. West 2013:17 imagines “no comprehensive Heracleia covering his whole career” but instead a “Herakles cycle” similar to a set of poems dedicated to a particular figure in the Near-Eastern traditions (e.g. Gilgamesh). Davies 1989 excludes Herakles epics from his consideration.
[ back ] 17. According to the Suda (s.v Peisandros), the Rhodian Peisander, who flourished in the seventh century, wrote about the “deeds of Herakles” in two books (and was the first to give him a club!). Two extant fragments of Panyasis (4 and 5 Bernabé) bestow a lion skin upon the hero.
[ back ] 18. Herakles’ excessive violence and antisocial individualism precluded him from participation in communal warfare and reciprocal honor: Galinsky 1972:9–10. For the “non-Homeric” nature of apotheosis and immortality for mortals: Griffin 1977. While it is true that the Homeric epics largely suppress narratives that grant immortality to mortals, such notions are not unknown to archaic Greek hexameter poetry. Ariadne becomes immortal at Hesiod Theogony 947–949; in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women Artemis makes Iphimedes (Iphigeneia) immortal when she is sacrificed (fr. 23.24); Ino (Leukothea), a sea nymph, is said to have once been mortal (Burkert 1985:172). Ganymede and Tithonos achieve problematic forms of immortality in the Hymn to Aphrodite, as we shall see below (see n39 below).
[ back ] 19. See Gantz 1993:374–460 for an extensive summary of the early evidence for Herakles’ myths. According to Proclus, before going to war, Nestor tried to dissuade Menelaos by offering him tales about men ruined by women. In this list, he included the madness of Herakles as a negative example (Chrestomathia 114–7). Cf. Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades 214.3–6. See also Hainsworth 1993:285; Lardinois 2000:649. Heath 1987:187 suggests that all the tales are of love-madness (cf. Scaife 1995:167). Herakles’ madness was popular at an early period and mentioned in the work of Steisichorus and even Pindar: Fowler 2013:269. The epic Sack of Oechalia apparently told of Herakles’ madness and abduction of Iole: Hesiod fr. 26.31–3; cf. Eusthathius on Iliad 300.43. Cf. West 2013:276.
[ back ] 20. For these terms, see Bakker 2013 and the Introduction. For a recent overview of the Hesiodic Shield that focuses on its engagement with the Iliad, particularly its “consciously post-Homeric” depiction of a theomachos, see Stamatopoulou 2017:11–16. On the Shield, see further Chapter 6, “Beyond Thebes” and “The Boiotian Hesiod.”
[ back ] 21. Shield 58–60. As in the Iliad, the primary conflict is moved by a combination of Apollo and Zeus, while Athena spearheads actual intervention.
[ back ] 22. Shield 1–28. The pattern recalls the plight of Bellerophon (Iliad 6.155–195) and Phoinix’s tale of his own life (9.457–484).
[ back ] 23. In its only other occurrence in extant early Greek hexameter poetry, θέσκελα ἔργα describes the baldric Herakles wears in Hades (11.610): see 176 (and note 317) below. On the popularity of this scene in sixth-century BCE art: Shapiro 1984:524–525.
[ back ] 24. Cf. Shield 128 (Herakles’ arms described as ἀρῆς ἀλκτῆρα); Iliad 18.100, 14.485.
[ back ] 25. See Stamatopoulou 2017:17 for a nuanced reading of the Shield’s depiction of Herakles as “an agent of justice aligned with the will of Zeus.”
[ back ] 26. Cf. frr. 1, 4 and 8 Bernabé, See Bernabé 1996:161–164. On Nestor’s story, see the section “Out of Time” below.
[ back ] 27. Fr. 7: “for him [Herakles] at Thermopylae grey-eyed Athena / made hot baths along the strand of the sea,” τῶι δ’ ἐν Θερμοπύληισι θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη / ποίει θερμὰ λοετρὰ παρὰ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης. Fr. 8: “There is no criticism even to tell a lie on behalf of one’s life,” οὐ νέμεσις καὶ ψεῦδος ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς ἀγορεύειν. Add to this two partial lines (frr. 9 and 10 Bernabé): “there’s no sense with Centaurs” and “of the most just murderer,” νοῦς οὐ παρὰ Κενταύροισι; δικαιοτάτου δὲ φονῆος. According to Athenaeus XI 783c, Peisander’s epic indicated that Telamon (Ajax’s father) was a favorite of Herakles; cf. Bernabé 1996:170.
[ back ] 28. Dionysius of Halicarnassus On Imitation II 2 and Quintilian X 1 52–54 compare Panyasis to Hesiod and Antimachus, praising Hesiod for his language but giving Panyasis some attention for his judgment; cf. Bernabé 1996:173–174.
[ back ] 29. “Demeter endured; the famous Lame-god endured; Poseidon endured; and silver-bowed Apollo endured / to serve a mortal for one year / and even Ares strongheart endured under his father’s compulsion,” τλῆ μὲν Δημήτηρ, τλῆ δὲ κλυτὸς ᾿Αμφιγυήεις, / τλῆ δὲ Ποσειδάων, τλῆ δ’ ἀργυρότοξος ᾿Απόλλων / ἀνδρὶ παρὰ θνητῷ θητευσέμεν εἰς ἐνιαυτόν, / τλῆ δὲ καὶ ὀβριμόθυμος ῎Αρης ὑπὸ πατρὸς ἀνάγκῃ (Panyasis Herakleia fr. 3 Benarbé = 16 K).
[ back ] 30. Fr. 16 Bernabé = 12 K discusses at length the virtues of wine and even goes so far as to grant equal fame to the man who delights in the feast as to one who leads an army into battle (8–9). Subsequent fragments moralizing about drinking (17 and 19 Bernabé) may function to create tension between the eventual madness or loss of control by Herakles and his heroic resolve. Of course, bereft of the larger context, the actual tone and purpose of the passage is difficult to resolve. Moreover, the fact that these two longest fragments are preserved in quotation by Athenaeus should give some pause about the contrast between his use of these lines and their original context(s).
[ back ] 31. Cook 1999:112.
[ back ] 32. Cf. Nagy 1999 [1979]:83–93; Haubold 2000, Chapter 2
[ back ] 33. Cook 1999:112.
[ back ] 34. Herakles as vacillating between civilized and bestial, serious and burlesque, sane and insane, savior and destroyer, free and slave, divine and human, male and female: Loraux 1990:24; cf. Kirk 1973:16.
[ back ] 35. Cf. Odyssey 11.603: Galinsky 1972:15.
[ back ] 36. On the Odyssey’s problematic representation of this troubled marriage, see Bergren 1981; Olson 1989.
[ back ] 37. A fate Nestor warns him about in the mythical tradition: see n19 above.
[ back ] 38. Calypso mentions the possibility after Zeus has commanded her to release Odysseus, Odyssey 5.135-6; cf. 7.251, 336.
[ back ] 39. For Zeus and Ariadne, see Theogony 947 (τὴν δέ οἱ ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀγήρων θῆκε Κρονίων); see also the reconstruction of Hesiod fr. 23a, (θῆκ[εν δ’ ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀγήραον ἤ]ματα πάντ̣[α, 12); Hymn to Demeter 242 (καί κέν μιν ποίησεν ἀγήρων τ’ ἀθάνατόν τε) and 260 (ἀθάνατόν κέν τοι καὶ ἀγήραον ἤματα πάντα); Hymn to Aphrodite 5.214 (where Ganymede becomes immortal; ὡς ἔοι ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀγήρως ἶσα θεοῖσιν); and 218–224 (where Eos asks for Tithonus “to be immortal and live for all days,” ἀθάνατόν τ’ εἶναι καὶ ζώειν ἤματα πάντα) but forgets to ask for “youth” and to “wipe away ruinous old age” (ἥβην αἰτῆσαι, ξῦσαί τ’ ἄπο γῆρας ὀλοιόν). For an analysis of the Hymn to Aphrodite, see Van Eck 1978; Falkner 1995:121–123; Segal 1974; and Faulkner 2011. For the development of the formula, see Janko 1981. This formula generally seems to indicate that for the Greeks immortality was bipartite, but it specifically marks figures—apart from Herakles—who are not Olympian gods, e.g., Medusa’s head on the Aegis (Iliad 2.447); Achilles’ horses (17.444); Calypso’s and Alkinoos’ guard dogs; Medusa (277) and Echidna (304) in the Theogony. Things thus described are typically marginal to other divinities or in some way fabricated.
[ back ] 40. Two reconstructed Hesiodic fragments also connect Herakles’ divinity to his marriage. In one (fr. 25) he dies and then ends up living with the other gods “deathless and ageless because he has fine-ankled Hebe as his wife” (ἀθάνατος καὶ ἄγηρος, ἔχων καλλ[ίσ]φυρον ῞Ηβην, 29); in the other, the hero lives “griefless and without care for all time, ageless and immortal because he has great Hebe” (ναίει ἀπήμαντος] καὶ ἀκηδὴς ἤ[ματα πάντα / ἀθάνατος καὶ ἄγη]ρος ἔχων μεγαλ̣[ ῞Ηβην, fr. 229.8–9).
[ back ] 41. In one of the Hesiodic fragments that alludes to his apotheosis through his marriage to Hebe, Herakles dies in a very mortal—even a rather Homeric—way as a “city sacker” poisoned by his wife before he achieves agelessness and immortality (“death’s end came quickly for Herakles the city-sacker, the son of Amphitryon, once he accepted it,” Ἀμφιτρυωνιά[δ]ηι Ἡ[ρακλῆϊ πτολιπό]ρθωι / δ[εξ]αμένωι δέ ο[ἱ αἶψα τέλος θανάτοι]ο παρέστη, fr. 25.23–4). This, in combination with some of our testimonia and the fragments discussed earlier in this chapter, provides some evidence for an epic and more mortal Herakles.
[ back ] 42. In Hesiod’s Theogony the hero slays order-threatening monsters and rescues Prometheus: Theogony 287 (Geryon), 314 (Lernean Hydra), 332 (Nemean Lion), and 526 (the liver-eating eagle). Another one of Herakles’ cult-names is Beast-slayer (e.g. Euripides Iphigeneia at Aulis 1570: Ὦ παῖ Ζηνός, ὦ θηροκτόνε, “Oh child of Zeus, oh Beast-killer”: see IG V 2.91).
[ back ] 43. For inscriptions with this cult name see IG VII 3416.1–2 (Ἡρακλεῖ / Ἀπαλεξικάκῳ); SEG XXVIII 232. Inscriptiones Creticae II xix 7.2 gives this cult name to Zeus when coupled with Herakles (Ζῆνά τ’ ἀλεξίκακον καὶ Ἡρακλέα πτολίπορθο[ν]). See Farnell 1920:147–149. For the wide range of this cult name especially in Attica, see Fowler 2013:313n180. The rescue of Prometheus signals a reconciliation with Zeus that earns the “strong son of Alkmênê…the Theban-born Herakles, kleos”—again, a rather Iliadic series of events.
[ back ] 44. The narrator includes his son (and grandsons) in the roll call of the Achaean army in the Catalogue of Ships (2.653–670, 679); upon regaining his supremacy in battle, Hektor kills the go-between for Eurystheus and Herakles (15.638–640); the gods gather on the battlefield at the site where Herakles built a wall (20.144–148). Cf. the Odyssey: Herakles killed the son of Eurytos in defiance of all rules of hospitality (21.14–41).
[ back ] 45. Dione consoles Aphrodite for the wound that she receives from Diomedes, by complaining about the injuries that the gods suffered from Herakles (5.392–404); Herakles is a point of contention as his son Tlepolemus clashes with Sarpedon (5.628–654); Athena recalls the help that she once gave to Herakles (8.362–369); Nestor tells how Herakles killed all of his brothers (11.689–693); Sleep reminds Hera of how Zeus was greatly angered when she made Herakles suffer greatly (14.249–266). After he recounts his lovers and his offspring with them, Herakles included (14.323–325), Zeus recalls the pain he felt for his son (15.18–30); Achilles faces up to his own death by recalling that even Herakles had to die (18.117–119); Agamemnon relates how Zeus too was deceived, which meant that Herakles suffered long at the hands of Eurystheus (19.95–133). Cf. the Odyssey: along with Eurytos, Herakles could rival the gods with the bow (Odyssey 8.224–226); He now enjoys a life of pleasure with his consort Hebe among the gods while his shade (eidolon) ranges furiously in Hades, bow in hand, remembering his suffering and the unenviable task of entering Hades (11.601–627).
[ back ] 46. This noticeable reticence about an alternative heroic tradition is typical of the Homeric poems. Citations of Thebes in the Iliad’s version of a siege are similarly restrained and indirect, and the Odyssey is almost completely silent on the tradition of the Argonauts: Circe mentions the Argo as the one ship to survive the Symplegades (12.69–72). The story of the Argo, however, was likely of great importance to the Odyssey: West 2005. In itself, this silence can be regarded as a sign of the Homeric poems’ agonism. A similar pattern can be detected in later literature: the Athenian tragedians rarely depict material from the Iliad and Odyssey though they fed at Homer’s table; Thucydides steers clear of Persian War material (at least directly), given its close association with Herodotus.
[ back ] 47. For a similar summary of Herakles in Homer: Mackie 2008:1–11.
[ back ] 48. While the epics clearly reflect some details, they may not reflect others such as Zeus’ Amphitryon disguise: Fowler 2013:260. Other references to the Sack of Troy by Herakles among early mythographers (especially Hellanicus’ rather full account): Fowler 2013:311–315; Gantz 1993:400–402.
[ back ] 49. Herakles is often cited in the formulaic epithet βίῃ Ἡρακληείῃ, unusual because unlike with other instances, such as “swift-footed Achilles” or “Odysseus of many turns,” here it is the hero’s characteristic that is the noun while his name assumes an adjectival form): Iliad 2.658, 672, 5.628, 11.689, 15.640, 18.117 and 19.98; cf. Odyssey 11.601. The idea of a violent, unmanageable Herakles is the essence of his traditional role in epic: Nagy 1999 [1979]:318.
[ back ] 50. “Examples…where a character deploys a story in order to make a rhetorical point indicate the difference from the narrator, since, unlike the Homeric poet, characters deploy stories without full cognizance or control over the relationship between traditional story and narrative context” (Kelly 2010:275).
[ back ] 51. Kelly 2010:274–275.
[ back ] 52. An indication of the insult here—that men have pained the gods—comes in the description of pains as “difficult,” a collocation that is elsewhere only used by Odysseus, who looks forward to punishing his traitorous servant Melanthius (22.177).
[ back ] 53. For Herakles’ wounding of Ares as represented in the Hesiodic Shield, see Stamatopoulou 2017.
[ back ] 54. See especially Odysseus’ concern to conceal the suitors’ dying groans with the sound of music (Odyssey 23.135–137): paradoxically “the hiding of the immediate fame of the deed broadcasts the canniness of Odysseus”: Goldhill 1991:94–95.
[ back ] 55. The image of Herakles taking on the gods with his bow implicitly complements the Odyssey, where Odysseus tempers his claims about being able to handle a bow by expressly refusing to rival the gods, unlike Eurytos and Herakles (Odyssey 8.224); cf. the picture of the image (eidolon) of Herakles raging in Hades with his bow (Odyssey 11.601–630).
[ back ] 56. Indeed, Dione’s description of the treatment that Hades receives for his wound (τῷ δ᾽ ἐπὶ Παιήων ὀδυνήφατα φάρμακα πάσσων / ἠκέσατ᾽· οὐ μὲν γάρ τι καταθνητός γε τέτυκτο) is repeated soon after, when Diomedes wounds Ares (5.900) and the god of war is forced to leave the field of battle. The repeated τλῆ μὲν / τλῆ δ᾽ (x2) resonates with the same structure in Panyasis’ Herakleia fr. 3 Bernabé = 16 K.
[ back ] 57. It is used too by both Mentor and Athena, who proclaim that Odysseus should be allowed to act harshly as a king, if his people are going to treat him so shabbily (Odyssey 2.232; 5.10). The point here is clearly a provocative one, with the implication being precisely that kings should not commit shameless deeds, since ideally they are part of a symbiotic relationship with their people.
[ back ] 58. Iliad 5.433. Cf. Nagy 1999 [1979]:318: the flexibility of the adjective-noun combination implies that the “Herakles figure and bie are traditionally linked on the level of theme.”
[ back ] 59. In the Odyssey, when Telemachus uses this line to ask for information about his father (Odyssey 3.85), we are witness to Odysseus’ kleos in action, as Nestor gives a lengthy report about Odysseus and his heroic qualities.
[ back ] 60. This idea also engages with the motif “though I have come from afar”: Sarpedon (5.471–492).
[ back ] 61. Hera reassures Sleep that, while Zeus may have cared about his son, he won’t help the Trojans (Τρώεσσιν ἀρηξέμεν, 14.265). Ironically, while seeming to confirm Herakles’ unique status as Zeus’ favorite, she’s also wrong. Zeus aids the Trojans throughout the poem in order to grant Achilles’ plea for his honor to be respected (Iliad 1.408). Elsewhere Zeus makes his assistance explicit as a warning to the gods (8.11), and turns his eyes from battle safe in that knowledge (13.9). Ares defends the Trojans (5.507). Hera manages to trick Aphrodite into helping her by using this line (14.192).
[ back ] 62. For the especially forceful use of language in this speech: Christensen 2010:558–559.
[ back ] 63. The potential overthrow of Zeus has already been circumvented: Thetis, prophesied to give birth to a son greater than the father, has already been married off—to a mortal: Slatkin 1991.
[ back ] 64. No children are born to gods anymore. Zeus and Hera have non-procreative sex. This is another way in which the content of Homer’s tale differs from those prior to it.
[ back ] 65. As if to illustrate the point, after Zeus announces that his plan is back on track, Hektor regains his primacy in the field. The fact that he kills only one man should not diminish its significance, since that man is the son of the intermediary between Herakles and Eurystheus (15. 639–640). It represents another act of severance.
[ back ] 66. Nestor’s use of the “individual” (οἶος) motif recalls his presence in one of the few surviving fragments of Herakles’ epic, the Sack of Oechalia (“Nestor alone survived in flowery Gerênos.” Νέστωρ <δ’> οἶος ἄλυξεν ἐν ἀνθεμόεντι Γερήνωι, fr. 8.1), whose Iliadic resonance we mentioned above. While we do not know how that epic played out, here Nestor moves swiftly to recounting a battle between the Pylians and Epeians, in which he stars.
[ back ] 67. As the leader of the nine ships from Rhodes (2.653–654), he is set apart from the other Herakleidai as a kin-slayer who had to flee his relatives into exile (2.653–670). One might fairly wonder if this is the best of the Herakleidai Homer could choose as a representative, or if this choice is strategic.
[ back ] 68. Iliad 5.471–492.
[ back ] 69. This scene is similar in tone to the objections made by Sthenelos to Agamemnon about the differences between the Seven against Thebes and the Epigonoi in Book 4 (387–400 and 404–418), on which see Chapter 2 above; cf. Mackie 2008:34–40 for both passages. For other discussions of this exchange, see Kelly 2010:264 for a bibliography; Lohmann 1970:27; Martin 1989:127; Mackie 1996:77–78; and Alden 2000:157–161.
[ back ] 70. Kelly 2010:263–264.
[ back ] 71. “Such men as, they say, was the great strength of Herakles” were begotten of Zeus (637–638).
[ back ] 72. The only other occurrence of “son and grandson” (υἱός θ᾽ υἱωνός τε) comes from Laertes at the end of the Odyssey (24.515), which certainly would blunt Tlepolemus’ attack: Kelly 2010:264n18.
[ back ] 73. See Chapter 6 on the material from Erginos, where we see this strategy of Theban traditions “punching back” and claiming their superiority over the stories of the Achaean-Trojan conflict.
[ back ] 74. “By linking his own story with the hypertext of Herakles and the previous sack of Troy, Tlepolemus sets up an unrealistic—in fact, unflattering—model for himself.” To bring up Herakles in this context, even if he is Tlepolemus’ father, is “just not a good link to make”: Kelly 2010:269. Cf. Sammons 2014:300, who calls the one place where Herakles’ conquest of Troy is mentioned “something of a rhetorical failure.”
[ back ] 75. Just such a strategy is used by Thucydides to magnify his war in contrast to the Trojan War, which only lasted so long because, he deduces, the Achaeans lacked sufficient supplies and continually had to forage (I 11).
[ back ] 76. Tlepolemus uses the Trojan past “as an informative paradigm for the present, indeed future, of the city” (Kelly 2010:266).
[ back ] 77. The phrase Ἰλίου ἐξαλάπαξε/ἐξαλαπάξαι πόλιν/πτολίεθρον, referring to the sack of Troy, has already been used by Zeus in shock at Hera’s apparent vindictiveness (she wants Troy’s sack, Iliad 4.33), as it is used by Agamemnon, who wishes that Zeus grant him Troy’s sack (8.288).
[ back ] 78. Tlepolemus identifies “past generations of men” (ἐπεὶ πολλὸν κείνων ἐπιδεύεαι ἀνδρῶν / οἳ Διὸς ἐξεγένοντο ἐπὶ προτέρων ἀνθρώπων, 5.636–637), of which his father was a part. The expression προτέρων ἀνθρώπων occurs twice elsewhere. Hesiod uses it to describe a poet (aoidos) who sings of the glorious deeds (κλεῖα) of former men and the gods who hold Olympus (Theogony 100). In the Iliad, Nestor instructs Antilochus for the chariot race by pointing to the turning post, either a grave marker of someone who died long ago or a racing goal made by earlier men (23.331–332). For Nestor, this difficult symbol (σῆμα) has lost its meaning. From the Iliad’s perspective, the generation of former men (προτέρων ἀνθρώπων) marks an age before, whose symbolism is now lost in the mists of time.
[ back ] 79. The idea of ἀφραδία (foolishness) has obvious associations with atasthalia discussed in the last chapter (see Chapter 1, nn75–77).
[ back ] 80. Iliad 2.368; 5.649; 10.122, 350; 16.354; Odyssey 9.361; 10.27; 17.233; 19.523; 22.288. Cf. Works and Days 134, 330. While Trojan actions in the Iliad can be interpreted as acts of folly (Pandarus breaking the truce; Paris refusing to give up Helen), for the most part Homer is remarkably even-handed in his treatment of both sides.
[ back ] 81. Iliad 4.46, 164, 416; 5.648; 6.96, 277, 448; 7.82, 413, 429; 8.551; 11.196; 13.657; 15.169; 17.193; 18.270; 20.216; 21.128, 515; 24.27, 143, 383; Odyssey 11.86; 17.293.
[ back ] 82. For example, when Diomedes dismisses Achilles’ rejection of the embassy (Iliad 9.701), when Nestor recalls the evil deeds of Aegisthus (Odyssey 3.195), and when various authoritative speakers anticipate the suitors’ doom (Zeus at Odyssey 5.24 and 24.480; Teiresias at 11.118). There appear to be two exceptions, one in either epic. Priam uses ἤτοι κεῖνος to denote Peleus (Iliad 24.490), while Eumaios uses it of Telemachus, when talking with the disguised Odysseus at Odyssey 14.183.
[ back ] 83. For the use of κεῖνος as typical with Odysseus in the Odyssey, see de Jong 2001:73; for the concomitant delayed naming of Odysseus, see Peradotto 1990.
[ back ] 84. Odysseus, who doesn’t miss much, notices Sarpedon’s plight and ponders in his mind whether to go after “the son of Zeus” (Διὸς υἱόν, 672). Athena wards him off, since it was not his destiny (μόρσιμον) for him to kill “the son of Zeus” (Διὸς υἱόν, 675). If these signs were not proof enough, Homer again names him as “the son of Zeus” (Διὸς υἱός, 683), in the same position in the line, when Sarpedon pleads for Hektor to protect him.
[ back ] 85. …δ᾽ ἔλιπε ψυχή (Iliad 16.452; Odyssey 14.426); κατὰ δ᾽ ὀφθαλμῶν κέχυτ᾽ ἀχλύς (Iliad 16.344). For the argument here and below, see Barker 2011.
[ back ] 86. “Homer’s sophisticated comment on the partiality of their perspectives is surely not unconnected with the progress of the subsequent combat itself…for it eventuates in Tlepolemus’ death and Sarpedon’s wounding and removal from battle, something that happens in no other major duel in the Iliad. Given the fact that Sarpedon needs to be kept healthy for his combat with Patroklos…Homer was not constrained to construct the scene in this way” (Kelly 2010:273–274). Indeed not. Kelly, however, fails to explain why Homer would construct the scene in this way.
[ back ] 87. Tlepolemus comes into conflict with Sarpedon, being roused by “overpowering fate” (μοῖρα κραταιή, 5.629). This phrase occurs only in the Iliad: 5.83; 16.334, 853; 19.410; 20.477; 21.110; 24.132, 209.
[ back ] 88. It is used of Herakles at 5.639 by his son, Tlepolemus, and at Odyssey 11.267, where Odysseus describes his birth. At Iliad 7.228, Ajax refers to Achilles as “man-breaker, lion-hearted” (ῥηξήνορα θυμολέοντα). As the only hero in the Iliad who receives Herakles’ traditional epithet, Achilles is implicitly compared to this other great hero: Nagy 1999 [1979]:137. It should be noted, however, that Hesiod also interestingly uses the epithet for Achilles, to describe Thetis giving birth to the hero (Theogony 1007). A similar case can be found in the Odyssey, where Penelope describes her husband in “Heraklean” terms (Odyssey 4.724). For the use of this epithet in each epic to align Achilles and Odysseus respectively with Herakles, see Wilson 2002b.
[ back ] 89. On the use and meaning of Atê in archaic Greek thought: Sommerstein 2012; cf. Dodds 1957:1–27. On this final Achaean assembly: Barker 2009; Elmer 2013.
[ back ] 90. The speech introduction used by Agamemnon (19.101), appears twice elsewhere. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Hera uses it to press her claim that Zeus has slighted her by giving birth to Athena (3.311). Earlier in the Iliad, Zeus warns the other gods not to get involved in the warring between the Trojans and Achaeans (Iliad 8.5). Thus it seems to indicate moments of critical importance on Olympus.
[ back ] 91. Just as Zeus “used to always groan” (αἰεὶ στενάχεσχ’, 132) at seeing his dear son labor on behalf of another by doing slave work (ἔργον ἀεικές: Iliad 14.13; 19.133; 24.733; Odyssey 3.265; 11.429; 15.236; 23.222), so Priam laments Hektor’s death (24.639).
[ back ] 92. We explore in more detail the theme of conflict (eris) in Chapters 4 and 5.
[ back ] 93. The scholia extend this connection to the rest of the poem: “and he compares him [Agamemnon] to Zeus in other places: his eyes and head (2.478); father of men and gods (22.167); and shepherd of the host (2.243). His scepter is from Zeus (2.101–108); his shield is similar to the aegis (11.36; cf. 5.742, 17.593, and 21.400); his thoughts [are compared to] whenever [Zeus] makes thunder and lightning (10.5)” (Scholia bT to Iliad 11.36b ex. 1–7).
[ back ] 94. For Agamemnon’s opening comments as an attempt to assert his authority: Barker 2009:80-82. The formal elements of the paradeigma: Lohmann 1970:75–80; cf. Edwards 1991:245.
[ back ] 95. “The fact that Agamemnon admits his own ate by citing this Herakles story ironically establishes him as a parallel to Eurystheus and Achilles as a parallel to Herakles”: Davidson 1980:200. This passage also shows beyond a doubt that the Homeric epics were aware of the basic outline of Herakles’ story: Fowler 2013:260–261.
[ back ] 96. A rather ironic turn of events given how instrumental he was in establishing the assembly as a place for dissent from the king at the beginning of the Iliad: Barker 2009:40–66.
[ back ] 97. See further Chapter 5 below.
[ back ] 98. In the Odyssey the phrase relates most often to Odysseus: 2.343; 4.170; 5.223, 449; 6.175; 7.147; 8.155; 19.483; 21.207; 23.101, 169, 338. It also extends, however, to his family and retainers: Athena (as Mentor) to Telemachus, 3.232; Odysseus to Eumaios, 15.489; the narrator about Eumaios welcoming Telemachus, 16.19; the narrator about Laertes, 24.207. On this aspect of the Odyssey, see Chapter 3 below. In the phrase’s only occurrence in Hesiod, the hero it describes is Jason (Theogony 997). The traditional referentiality of πολλὰ μογήσας, then, encompasses the major Achaean heroes of collective action, even as its meaning recalls Herakles’ laboring.
[ back ] 99. In the embassy Phoenix appeals to Achilles through this phrase (9.492). In Patroklos’ funeral games, Menelaos praises Antilochus, who at this point comes across as Achillean, for his efforts (23.607).
[ back ] 100. Significantly, the only other occurrence of this phrase is at 4.378, where it does indeed denote Boiotian Thebes.
[ back ] 101. On Aeneas’ confrontation with Achilles as an intertraditional exchange (mediated through the intervention of the gods), see Nagy 1999 [1979]:274–275.
[ back ] 102. Again the information about Herakles is minimal, carefully limiting his role and impact in the narrative.
[ back ] 103. These Achaean walls become the focus of the most intense fighting in the central section of the war narrative, from Book 12 to Book 16 (12.12, 64, 223, 257, 261, 352, 458; 14.15; 15.361; 16.558).
[ back ] 104. Cf. Tsagalis 2014.
[ back ] 105. τεῖχος ὑψηλόν: Iliad 12.388; 16.397, 512, 702; 21.540. The epithet ὑψίπυλος, is used only of Troadic Thebes (6.414) and Troy (16.698; 21.544). Cf. the new Archilochus fragment 19 (…ὑψίπυλον Τρώων πόλιν…): Barker and Christensen 2006.
[ back ] 106. Cf. Hesiod’s Shield when Zeus conceives Herakles to be “a defender against ruin for the gods and mortal men” (ὥς ῥα θεοῖσιν / ἀνδράσι τ’ ἀλφηστῇσιν ἀρῆς ἀλκτῆρα φυτεύσαι, 28–29). Cf. Hesiod fr. 195.29.7.
[ back ] 107. From a diachronic perspective forms of ἀμύνω replace ἀλέξω: Christensen 2013:268–272. Hesiod calls the golden race “spirits” (δαίμονες) who are “warders against evil” (ἀλεξίκακοι): Works and Days 123. Asklepios wards off disease (Ἀσκληπιὸ[ν ε]ἵσατο Δηοῖ / νοῦσον ἀλεξή[σ]αντ’, IG II2 4781.1–2); the compound Alexikakos appears with Apollo (e.g. Ἀ[πόλλωνι τῶι Ἀ]λεξικάκωι, SEG XXI 469 C.54 and ἀλεξικάκου Ἀπόλλωνος, MAMA IV 275A.3), Herakles (“Herakles, blood of Zeus, slayer of beasts, you were not born the only warder against evil in earlier years,” Ἥρακλες, αἶμα Διός, θηροκτόνε, οὔ νυ τι μοῦνος/ ἐν προτέροις ἐτέεσσιν ἀλεξίκακός τις ἐτέχθης, Clara Rhodos 2 (1932) 208,45.1–2), and Zeus (Ζῆνά τ’ ἀλεξίκακον καὶ Ἡρακλέα πτολίπορθο[ν], Inscriptiones Creticae II xix 7.2).
[ back ] 108. Christensen 2013: 271. Some of this is prefigured by the poetics of ἀλκή as described by Collins 1998.
[ back ] 109. This formula is particularly Iliadic: Christensen 2013:266 and 273–274. For special associations for the formula: Nagy 1999 [1979]:72–76; Slatkin 1991:87–88.
[ back ] 110. Much of this argument is summarized from Christensen 2013:271–279.
[ back ] 111. Odysseus uses ἀλέξω (“consider how you will ward off the ruinous day for the Danaans,” φράζευ ὅπως Δαναοῖσιν ἀλεξήσεις κακὸν ἦμαρ, 9.251), only to be countered by Achilles, who for the first time uses a form of ἀλέξω himself (“Let him consider how to ward the ruinous fire from the ships,” φραζέσθω νήεσσιν ἀλεξέμεναι δήϊον πῦρ, 9.347). In turn, Phoenix appropriates Achilles’ earlier language, as he criticizes Achilles for withholding his protection out of anger (οὐδέ τι πάμπαν ἀμύνειν…, 9.435), and makes the protection both personal (“I made you my child, so that you might ward unseemly ruin away from me,” ἀλλὰ σὲ παῖδα… / ποιεύμην, ἵνα μοί ποτ’ ἀεικέα λοιγὸν ἀμύνῃς, 9.494–495) and political (9.517–518).
[ back ] 112. “So he was warding the evil day away from the Aitolians” ὣς ὃ μὲν Αἰτωλοῖσιν ἀπήμυνεν κακὸν ἦμαρ, 9.597; cf. 9.251. Lest Achilles or anyone else miss the rhetorical point, Phoenix deploys the reduplicated aorist participle of ἀλέξω to warn that Achilles will lose honor, should he delay warding off war (9.605).
[ back ] 113. Christensen 2013:277–278.
[ back ] 114. For Herakles imagery in the characterization of Achilles: Nagy 1999 [1979]:318; Schein 1984:134–136.
[ back ] 115. The epic further marks the strangeness of this tale with his invocation of the Heraklean walls and the gathering gods. The divine audience of Achilles’ aristeia contrasts powerfully for the poem’s external audience with the divine council and “trial” at the beginning of Book 24. At this later point the gods pass judgment on Achilles’ mistreatment of Hektor’s corpse: while they are not unanimous (Hera attempts to hold on to the prior distinction between Achilles the divine-born hero and Hektor the man), they do signal that Achilles’ behavior is no longer acceptable. See further below in Chapter 5, “Enabling Strife, Founding Politics.”
[ back ] 116. In this passage Achilles imagines a Herakles who eventually submitted to the keres. This is strange because, as a cult-hero, Herakles was specifically invoked as an averter of the keres: Galinsky 1972:14.
[ back ] 117. This idea of not being able to escape one’s fate returns near the end of the Odyssey, where Athena ensures that even the most considerate suitor, Amphimedon, does not escape his fate (Odyssey 18.155). Similarly, Odysseus observes that the gods and fate tamed the suitors (Odyssey 22.413).
[ back ] 118. There may be engagement as well with external traditions on the afterlife and worship of Achilles: see Hooker 1988 for Achilles-cults and Hommel 1980 for Achilles worship in the Black Sea basin. Hedreen 1992 presents an updated discussion drawing on archaeological, epigraphic, and literary evidence. Tension between ritual and poetic traditions are significant to epic meaning, see Nagy 1999 [1979]:67–174.
[ back ] 119. Herakles of course was famous for founding the Olympic games, while “games of Oedipus” are mentioned in passing in Patroklos’ games (Iliad 23.679). In accordance with the poetic agonistics that we have been tracing in this book, Achilles’ establishment of games (agon) in honor of his fallen friend, and in particular their depiction of a new politics of mediation (cf. Hammer 2002) in their judging, could represent another assault on Heraklean and Theban traditions: see further Chapter 5, “Enabling Strife, Founding Politics.”
[ back ] 120. At least according to the Iliad. Elsewhere we see Herakles engaged in the kind of companionship that could make him a suitable paradigm for the Achilles-Patroklos relationship: consider his nephew Iolaus or his lover Hylas. The fact that the Homeric poems only show Herakles in isolation seems significant.
[ back ] 121. Odysseus is consistent in this regard: in Iliad 10 he also rules himself out of any comparison with great heroes.
[ back ] 122. Iphitus is the son of Eurytos, the hero paired with Herakles in that initial reference, and whose demise was narrated.
[ back ] 123. How appropriate is a hero who is essentially homeless and a mad-murderer of his wife and children for Odysseus’ tale? It is interesting, on the other hand, that Herakles is not used as a model or comparison for Agamemnon: both men are killed by their wives after they come home with a new woman as war-booty. As David Sider has pointed out to us, this similarity between Agamemnon and Herakles is manipulated by Sophocles in his use of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon as a literary model.
[ back ] 124. Commenting on the Herakles passage in the Odyssey, Galinsky 1972:12 writes, “This is one of the most devastating indictments of Herakles in literature, exceeded only by Sophocles and the shrill bias of the church fathers, and most subsequent writers took care to make him a more civil fellow. Whereas earlier in the Odyssey Homer had relegated Herakles to a mythological past, he now propels him into Odysseus’ own time without softening his stone-age behavior.”
[ back ] 125. There is a brief reference to his birth (the “bold and lion-hearted”) and a passing mention of Megara (“her, whom the always untiring fury of the son of Amphityron had held,” 266–70), which may well have evoked her murder and the death of their children (the story told by Euripides’ Herakles).
[ back ] 126. Wondrous things (θέσκελα ἔργα): Iliad 3.130; Odyssey 11.374, 610; Shield 34; boars and lions (σύες χαροποί τε λέοντες): cf. only Sheild 177; battles (ὑσμῖναί τε μάχαι τε φόνοι τ᾽ ἀνδροκτασίαι τε): cf. only Theogony 228; cf. Hymn to Aphrodite 5.11; Shield 155; hard labors (χαλεποὺς ἐπετέλλετ᾽ ἀέθλους): cf. only Shield 94.
[ back ] 127. Cf. Anderson 2012:139 and 149. This description has prompted some to see a representation of eighth-century BCE or earlier Mycenaean ornamentation.
[ back ] 128. For the picture of the hero who survives death, see the Homeric Hymn to Herakles, esp. 15.8.
[ back ] 129. Iliad 5.449 and 451; Odyssey 4.796. For denoting the souls of the dead: e.g. Odyssey 11.84, 213.
[ back ] 130. At, e.g., Euripides Helen 34 and 582.
[ back ] 131. We thank Sophie Raudnitz for this reference. On metatheater in Euripides’ Helen, see especially Downing 1990.
[ back ] 132. The idea that the shadow is like the image of a person in the afterlife is expanded on in Pindar, who reflects that “man is a dream of a shadow” (σκιᾶς ὄναρ, Pythian 8.95), while a fragment of Sophocles declares that “man is only breath and shadow” (ἄνθρωπός ἐστι πνεῦμα καὶ σκιὰ μόνον, fr. 13).