Homeric Nēpios

  Use the following persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_EdmundsS.Homeric_Nepios.1990.

3. Children

Nēpia Tekna

In the last chapter, I tried to show that while the idea of fatherhood is a frequent contextual associate of ēpios, the basic meaning of this word is something like “connecting.” Thus it implies a social relationship between the ēpios person and someone else. And, indeed, whenever the word ēpios describes a person in the Iliad or Odyssey, that person is always ēpios toward another person. The word nēpios, on the other hand, appears to describe an absolute condition. It is never accompanied by a dative of interest or any word expressing for whom, toward whom, or in respect to whom a person is nēpios. In order to determine whether contextually, as opposed to grammatically, the word nēpios implies a social relationship of the nēpios person to someone else, I will discuss first the cases in which nēpios describes a word meaning “child.” The following list of passages in the Iliad and Odyssey containing nēpios plus teknon (or, plural, tekna, “child,” “children”) or huios (“son”) is exhaustive:

αἱ δέ που ἡμέτεραί τ᾽ ἄλοχοι καὶ νήπια τέκνα
ἥατ’ ἐνὶ μεγάροις ποτιδέγμεναι· ἄμμι δὲ ἔργον
αὔτως ἀκράαντον, οὗ εἵνεκα δεῦρ᾽ ἱκόμεσθα.

and far away our own wives and our nēpia children
are sitting within our halls and wait for us, while our work here,
for the sake of which we came hither, stays forever unfinished as it is,.

II 136–138

ἔνθα δ᾽ ἔσαν στρουθοῖο νεοσσοί, νήπια τέκνα,
ὄζῳ ἐπ᾽ άκροτάτῳ, πετάλοις ὑποπεπτηῶτες,
ὀκτώ, ἀτὰρ μήτηρ ἐνάτη ἦν, ἣ τέκε τέκνα.

Thereupon were nēpia children, the young of the sparrow,
cowering underneath the leaves at the uttermost branch tip,
eight of them, and the mother was the ninth, who bore these children

II 311–313

τῶν ἤτοι αὐτῶν τέρενα χρόα γῦπες ἔδονται,
ἡμεῖς αὖτ᾽ ἀλόχους, τε φίλας καὶ νήπια τέκνα
ἄξομεν ἐν νήεσσιν, ἐπὴν πτολίεθρον ἕλωμεν,

vultures shall feed upon the delicate skin of their bodies,
while we lead away their beloved wives and nēpia {25|26}
children, in our ships, after we have stormed the citadel.

IV 237–239

ἔνθ᾽ ἄλοχόν τε φίλην ἔλιπον καὶ νήπιον υἱόν,
κὰδ᾽ δὲ κτήματα πολλά, τὰ ἔλδεται ὅς κ᾽ ἐπιδευής.

there I left behind my own wife and my nēpios son, there
I left my many possessions which the needy man eyes longingly.

V 480–481

… ἔπειτά με καὶ λίποι αἰὼν
ἐν πόλει ὑμετέρῃ, ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἄρ᾽ ἔμελλον ἔγωγε
νοστήσας οἶκόνδε φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν
εὐφρανέειν ἄλοχόν τε φίλην καὶ νήπιον υἱόν.

… otherwise in your city
my own life must come to an end, since I could return no longer
back to my own house and the land of my fathers, bringing
joy to my beloved wife and my son, still nēpios

V 685–688

… αἴ κ᾽ ἐλεήσῃ
ἄστυ τε καὶ Τρώων ἀλόχους καὶ νήπια τέκνα

… if only she will have pity
on the town of Troy, and the Trojan wives, and their nēpia children.

VI 94–95 = VI 275–276 = VI 309–310

καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼν οἶκόνδε ἐλεύσομαι, ὄφρα ἴδωμαι
οἰκῆας ἄλοχόν τε φίλην καὶ νήπιον υἱόν

For I am going first to my own house, so I can visit
my own people, my beloved wife and my son, who is nēpios

VI 365–366

ὡς δὲ λέων ἐλάφοιο ταχείης νήπια τέκνα
ῥηϊδίως συνέαξε, λαβὼν κρατεροῖσιν ὀδοῦσιν,
ἐλθὼν εἰς εὐνήν, ἁπαλόν τέ σφ᾽ ἦτορ ἀπηύρα·
ἡ δ᾽ εἴ πέρ τε τύχῃσι μάλα σχεδόν, οὐ δύναταί σφι

And as a lion seizes the nēpia young of the running
deer, and easily crunches and breaks them caught in the strong teeth
when he has invaded their lair, and rips out the soft heart from them,
and even if the doe be very near, still she has no strength
to help…

XI 113–117

ἀλλ᾽ ἵνα μοι Τρώων ἀλόχους καὶ νήπια τέκνα
προφρονέως ῥύοισθε φιλοπτολέμων ὑπ᾽ Ἀχαιῶν.

but so that you might have good will to defend the nēpia {26|27}
children of the Trojans, and their wives, from the fighting Achaians.

XVII 223–224

τεῖχος μέν ῥ᾽ ἄλοχοί τε φίλαι καὶ νήπια τέκνα
ῥύατ᾽ ἐφεσταότες, μετὰ δ᾽ ἀνέρες οὓς ἔχε γῆρας

Their beloved wives and their nēpia children stood on the rampart
to hold it, and with them the men with age upon them …

XVIII 514–515

υἷάς τ᾽ ἀλλυμένους ἑλκηθείσας τε θύγατρας,
καὶ θαλάμους κεραϊζομένους, καὶ νήπια τέκνα
βαλλόμενα προτὶ γαίῃ ἐν αἰνῇ δηϊοτῆτι,
ἑλκομένας τε νυοὺς ὁλοῇς ὑπὸ χερσὶν Ἀχαιῶν.

… my sons destroyed and my daughters dragged away captive
and the chambers of marriage wrecked and the nēpia children taken
and dashed to the ground in the hatefulness of war, and the wives
of my sons dragged off by the accursed hands of the Achaians.

ΧΧΙΙ 62-65

… πρὶν γὰρ πόλις ἥδε κατ᾽ ἄκρης
πέρσεται· ἦ γὰρ ὄλωλας ἐπίσκοπος, ὅς τé μιν αὐτὴν
ῥύσκευ, ἔχες δ᾽ ἀλόχους κεδνὰς καὶ νήπια τέκνα.

… this city
will be sacked, for you, its defender, are gone, you who guarded
the city and the diligent wives, and the nēpia children …

XXIV 728–730

ὅς τις ἀϊδρείῃ πελάσῃ καὶ φθόγγον ἀκούσῃ
Σειρήνων, τῷ δ᾽ οὔ τι γυνὴ καὶ νήπια τέκνα
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντι παρίσταται οὐδὲ γάνυνται

whoever unsuspecting approaches them, and listens to the Sirens
singing, has no prospect of coming home and delighting
his wife and nēpia children as they stand about him in greeting

xii 41–43

αἶψα μάλ᾽ Αἰγυπτίων ἀνδρῶν περικαλλέας ἀγροὺς
πόρθεον, ἐκ δὲ γυναῖκας ἄγον καὶ νήπια τέκνα
αὐτούς τ᾽ ἔκτεινον·

they suddenly began plundering the Egyptians’ beautiful
fields, and carried off the women and nēpia children,
and killed the men …

xiv 263–265 = xvii 432–434

These passages share certain contextual elements. First, in all but three of the fourteen passages, the phrase {27|28}

nēpios (singular or plural) + “child,” “children,” or “son”

is coupled with the singular or plural of the word gunē (“woman”) or the word alochos (“wife”). The three exceptions are, first, II 311–313, where the children are sparrow nestlings who, like the children in most of the other passages, have their mother as a companion in helplessness; second, XI 113–117 where a lion seizes the nēpios children of a deer (here, again, the mother is present and unable to protect her children); and, finally, XXII 62–65, where the speaker is Priam, lamenting what he will suffer when Troy is taken. He is speaking of the general destruction of the city. The nēpios children would be his grandchildren. Their mothers are his daughters, whom he mentions in the previous line, and daughters-in-law, whom he mentions two lines later. So, once again, the nēpios children are coupled, contextually, with their mothers.

The second contextual element these passages share is the almost universal absence of fathers. The fathers are either not at home (II 136–138, V 480–481), will not return home (V 685–688, xii 41–43), have been or are being destroyed in battle (IV 237–239, VI 94–95, VI 275–276, VI 309–310, XVII 223–224, XVIII 514–515, XXII 62–65, XXIV 728–730, xiv 263–265, xvii 432–434), or do not, for practical purposes, exist (II 311–313, XI 113–117). The one apparent exception is VI 365–366, where Hektor speaks of going to see his wife and son before he returns to the battlefield. Two considerations will reconcile this passage with the others. The first is that Hektor pointedly says, “I shall go home (oikonde), so that I may see my family (oikēas), my wife and nēpios son.” When he speaks he is not at home. Furthermore, we know that he will not stay at home, and once he leaves he will never return.

The third contextual element common to these passages, besides the presence of mothers and the absence of fathers, is the fact or imminence or possibility of doom or destruction. The wives and nēpios children will either be left without their fathers, because the fathers have been destroyed, or they will, themselves, be taken captive or killed. Again, Astyanax is the apparent exception. In Astyanax, however, the figure of the nēpios child is expanded and developed (see below). His father’s destruction, which reveals his own utter helplessness, is an essential part of the plot of the Iliad. Astyanax is fundamentally nēpios from beginning to end, and therefore the epithet nēpios can be used of him when it is, from the point of view of the immediate context, inappropriate. {28|29}

There are places where the word nēpios is a metrically suitable epithet for a word meaning “child,” but where it does not appear. In the following passage, for instance, the still-disguised Odysseus is predicting to Eumaios his own (Odysseus’s) return. He says that within the month he will return:

… καὶ τίσεται ὅς τις ἐκείνου
ἐνθάδ᾽ ἀτιμάζει ἄλοχον καὶ φαίδιμον υἱόν

… and take his vengeance here upon any
who deprives his wife and his glorious son of their due honor.

xiv 163–164

In this passage the father is absent and the mother present; the epithet nēpios does not appear where we might expect it. Of course, Telemachos is older than Astyanax, but it is only a matter of days since he has been told:

… οὐδέ τί σε χρὴ
νηπιάας ὀχέειν, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι τηλίκος ἐσσί.

… You should not go on clinging
to your nēpios ways. You are no longer of an age to do that.

i 296–297

But more important, his father was returning (in fact, already had returned), and Telemachos would share in his victorious homecoming. If Hektor’s doom is implicit in the Iliad from beginning to end, so Odysseus’s survival is implicit throughout the Odyssey. In each case, the hero’s fate is reflected in the fate of his son. While nēpios is a singularly appropriate epithet for Astyanax, it is particularly inappropriate for Telemachos. [1] {29|30}


Astyanax is called nēpios almost every time he is mentioned (VI 365, 400, 408 [here nēpiachos], XXII 484, XXIV 726). When Hektor meets Andromache and the child in its nurse’s arms on the wall, Astyanax is described in the following way:

παῖδ᾽… ἀταλάφρονα, νήπιον αὔτως,
Ἑκτορίδην ἀγαπητόν, ἀλίγκιον ἀστέρι καλῷ
τόν ῥ᾽ Ἕκτωρ καλέεσκε Σκαμάνδριον, αὐτὰρ οἱ ἄλλοι
Ἀστυάνακτ᾽‧ οἶος γὰρ ἐρύετο Ἴλιον Ἕκτωρ.

… a child, tender-minded, entirely nēpios
Hektor’s son, the admired, beautiful as a star shining,
whom Hektor called Skamandrios, but all of the others
Astyanax—lord of the city; since Hektor alone saved Ilion.

VI 400–403

The word agapētos (translated above as ‘‘the admired”), a derivative of agapaō (“to regard with affection, be pleased with”), in the Iliad and Odyssey is used exclusively as a description of only sons. LSJ define it: “that wherewith one must be content.” In addition to its occurrence in VI 401, the word appears four times in the Odyssey, {30|31} always of Telemachos. Each time it is feared by the speaker that Telemachos is about to be destroyed (ii 365, iv 727, iv 817, v 18). The sense of impending doom may reverberate in VI 401 also.

Besides Astyanax, four other people and four things are compared to stars. Except in VI 401, when a person is compared to a star, it is an explicit indication of ill omen. Athene “like a star” is an omen of war to the armies (IV 75 ff.); Achilles is like Sirius, a portent of evil (XXII 26); Diomedes is like Sirius (V 5); Hektor is “like a baneful star” (XI 62). The crest on Achilles’s helmet (XIX 381) and his spear, with which he is about to kill Hektor (XX 317), are compared to stars. On the other hand, the robe the Trojan women offer to Athene and the robe Helen presents to Telemachos at Sparta are both described in the same phrase:

ὃς κάλλιστος ἔην ποικίλμασιν ἠδὲ μέγιστος,
ἀστὴρ δ᾽ ὣς ἀπέλαμπεν· ἔκειτο δὲ νείατος ἄλλων.

that which was the loveliest in design and the largest,
and shone like a star. It lay beneath the others.

VI 294–295, xv 107–108

This last simile is more like the comparison of Astyanax to a star. Astyanax is a household treasure. But again, there may be reverberations of ill-omen.

The nēpia tekna associative unit does not by any means exhaust the range of the word nēpios. In Chapter Four, I discuss nēpios as applied to adults, where the word seems to express a particular mental deficiency. The one action performed in the Iliad by Astyanax, the archetypal nēpion teknon, gives an indication of the nature of this mental deficiency. Astyanax takes fright at his father’s crested helmet. The helmet was designed to frighten and he is frightened by it. He reacts to the present illusion of danger, while Andromache speaks of past destruction wrought by Achilles and Hektor speaks of his own future fame.

It is clear from Andromache’s lament in XXII that Hektor’s death will lead to the social disconnection of Astyanax:

νῦν δὲ σὺ μὲν Ἀΐδαο δόμους ὑπὸ κεύθεσι γαίης
ἔρχεαι, αὐτὰρ ἐμὲ στυγερῷ ἐνὶ πένθεϊ λείπεις
χήρην ἐν μεγάροισι· πάϊς δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος αὔτως,
ὃν τέκομεν σύ τ’ ἐγώ τε δυσάμμοροι· οὔτε σὺ τούτῳ
ἔσσεαι, Ἕκτορ, ὄνειαρ. ἐπεὶ θάνες, οὔτε σοὶ οὗτος. {31|32}
ἤν περ γὰρ πόλεμόν γε φύγῃ πολύδακρυν Ἀχαιῶν,
αἰεί τοι τούτῳ γε πόνος καὶ κήδε᾽ ὀπίσσω
ἔσσοντ᾽· ἄλλοι γάρ οἱ ἀπουρίσσουσιν ἀρούρας.
ἦμαρ δ᾽ ὀρφανικὸν παναφήλικα παῖδα τίθησι·
πάντα δ᾽ ὑπεμνήμυκε, δεδάκρυνται δὲ παρειαί,
δευόμενος δέ τ᾽ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς πατρὸς ἑταίρους,
ἄλλον μὲν χλαίνης ἐρύων, ἄλλον δὲ χιτῶνος·
τῶν δ᾽ ἐλεησάντων κοτύλην τις τυτθὸν ἐπέσκε,
χείλεα μέν τ᾽ ἐδίην᾽, ὑπερῴην δ᾽ οὐκ ἐδίηνε.
τὸν δὲ καὶ ἀμφιθαλὴς ἐκ δαιτύος ἐστυφέλιξε,
χερσὶν πεπληγὼς καὶ ὀνειδείοισιν ἐνίσσων·
‘ἔρρ᾽ οὕτως· οὐ σóς γε πατὴρ μεταδαίνυται ἡμῖν.’
δακρυόεις δέ τ᾽ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς μητέρα χήρην.

Now you go down to the house of Death in the secret places
of the earth and leave me here behind in the sorrow of mourning,
a widow in your house, and the boy is only nēpios
who was born to you and me, the unfortunate. You cannot help him,
Hektor, any more since you are dead. Nor can he help you.
Though he escape the attack of the Achaians with all its sorrows,
yet all his days for your sake there will be hard work for him
and sorrows, for others will take his lands away from him. The day
of bereavement leaves a child with no agemates to befriend him.
He bows his head before every man, his cheeks are bewept, he
goes, needy, a boy among his father’s companions,
and tugs at this man by the mantle, that man by the tunic,
and they pity him, and one gives him a tiny drink from a goblet,
enough to moisten his lips, not enough to moisten his palate.
But one whose parents are living beats him out of the banquet
hitting him with his fists and in words also abuses him:
“Get out, you! Your father is not dining among us.”
And the boy goes away in tears to his widowed mother …

XXII 482–499

The severity of this picture of Homeric orphanhood may be surprising from a modern perspective. [
3] Surely his grandparents, his uncles, or someone, for Hektor’s sake, would see that Astyanax was well brought up. Andromache may be hysterically casting the situation in the worst possible light, but in fact, few Homeric heroes seem to have grown up as orphans (exceptions are discussed below).

Hektor fails to recognize, or chooses to ignore, that his own death will destroy his son also. He prays to Zeus and the other gods that Astyanax will be like him, strong in battle and ruler over the Trojans. Furthermore, he prays: {32|33}

… φέροι δ᾽ ἔναρα βροτόεντα
κτείνας δήϊον ἄνδρα, χαρείη δὲ φρένα μήτηρ.

… and let him kill his enemy
and bring home the blooded spoils, and delight the heart of his mother.

VI 480–481

Hektor, like Andromache, seems to have a presentiment of his own death. And he seeks either to comfort Andromache or to excuse himself for abandoning her by saying that his son will take his place. Astyanax will be the warrior, and Astyanax will make Andromache glad.

But Hektor’s suggestion that his son will replace him as a warrior is not simply a wish to comfort Andromache. Hektor is concerned about his kleos (“fame, reputation”). [4] He cannot abstain from battle:

οὐδέ με θυμὸς ἄνωγεν, ἐπεὶ μάθον ἔμμεναι ἐσθλὸς
αἰεὶ καὶ πρώτοισι μετὰ Τρώεσσι μάχεσθαι,
ἀρνύμενος πατρός τε μέγα κλέος ἠδ᾽ ἐμὸν αὐτοῦ.

the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.

VI 444–446

The idea that the kleos of a father and son are closely bound together is extremely common. Not the least example is the explanation of the name of Hektor’s son:

τόν ῥ᾽ Ἕκτωρ καλέεσκε Σκαμάνδρειον, αὐτάρ οἱ ἄλλοι
Ἀστυανάκτ᾽· οἶος γὰρ ἐρύετο Ἴλιον Ἕκτωρ.

whom Hektor called Skamandrios, but all of the others
Astyanax—lord of the city; since Hektor alone was saving Ilion.

VI 402–403

It was generally the custom to give the son a name that described his father. The use of patronymics is a reduplication of the intent of that custom. The naming of someone as his father’s son (e.g. “Lykaon’s glorious son” = Glaukos, V 276) is another form of the same thing. One technique of rousing warriors before a battle was to remind {33|34} them of their genealogies. Agamemnon bids Menelaos wake the Greeks:

πατρόθεν ἐκ γενεῆς ὀνομάζων ἄνδρα ἕκαστον,
πάντας κυδαίνων.

naming each by descent with the name of his father.
Give each man due respect.

X 68–69

Agamemnon himself uses less civil methods. He says to Diomedes:

ὤ μοι, Τυδέος υἱὲ δαίφρονος ἱπποδάμοιο,
τί πτώσσεις, τί δ᾽ ὀπιπεύεις πολέμοιο γεφύρας;
οὐ μὲν Τυδέϊ γ᾽ ὧδε φίλον πτωσκαζέμεν ἦεν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρὸ φίλων ἑτάρων δηΐοισι μάχεσθαι.

Ah me, son of Tydeus, that daring breaker of horses,
why are you skulking and spying out the outworks of battle?
Such was never Tydeus’ way, to lurk in the background,
but to fight the enemy far ahead of his own companions.

IV 370–373

The trading of genealogies on the battlefield was not uncommon (e.g. Aeneas’s speech to Achilles at XX 200–258). The words of Glaukos to Diomedes are especially revealing:

Ἱππόλοχος δέ μ᾽ ἔτικτε, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ φημι γενέσθαι·
πέμπε δέ μ᾽ ἐς Τροίην, καί μοι μάλα πόλλ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν,
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων,
μηδὲ γένος πατέρων αἰσχυνέμεν, οἳ μέγ᾽ ἄριστοι.
ἔν τ᾽ ‘Εφύρῃ ἐγένοντο καὶ ἐν Λυκίῃ εὐρείη.

But Hippolochos begot me, and I claim that he is my father;
he sent me to Troy, and urged upon me repeated injunctions,
to be always among the bravest, and hold my head above others,
not shaming the generation of my fathers, who were
the greatest men in Ephyre and again in wide Lykia.

VI 206–210

Along with fame, the protection and gifts of the gods are passed from father to son. Diomedes prays to Athene:

σπεῖό μοι ὡς ὅτε πατρὶ ἅμ᾽ ἕσπεο Τυδέϊ δίῳ
ἐς Θήβας, ὅτε τε πρὸ Ἀχαιῶν ἄγγελος ᾔει.

Come with me now as you went with my father, brilliant Tydeus,
into Thebes, when he went with a message before the Achaians …

X 285–286

Elsewhere Athene puts in the breast of Diomedes menos patrōion (“the strength of your father,” V 125). Machaon inherited his knowledge of medicine from his father who received it from Cheiron (IV 219). Achilles inherited his arms (XVII 194–196) and his spear (XIX 390–391) and his horses (XXIII 276–277) from his father, who got them from the gods. Similarly, Agamemnon got his sceptre (called patrōion “his father’s” at II 46), which was made by Hephaistos and had belonged also to Zeus and Hermes, from his father (by way of his uncle Thyestes), who had received it also as a family heirloom (II 101–108).

It could be said that a warrior is connected to his warrior status through the warrior status of his father. Or, to put it another way, a son replaces his father as a warrior. He is, or ought to be, identical with him. All those aspects of his father that, unlike his body, are immortal—namely, divine gifts and protection and kleos— are assumed by the son. It appears, however, that if a man dies when his son is still young, the epic destiny of the son is thwarted.

He is nēpios, disconnected from his father before him and his own future as a warrior. There are, of course, exceptions. Achilles’s son Neoptolemos followed him to Troy and fought there after his father’s death. But the only mention of Neoptolemos in the Iliad is in the context of Achilles’s lament for the fallen Patroklos. He says that neither the death of his father (the past) nor the death of his son (the future) would affect him as much. It is through father and son that he is connected to life. If Neoptolemos were to have been introduced into the Iliad as someone who had transcended the condition of the nēpion teknon, Achilles’s choice between present life and eternal fame would have been less stark.

Telemachos and Diomedes

In the nēpia tekna associative unit, children are nēpios when their fathers have gone off, not to return, leaving them with their mothers and disaster. This is a virtually fatal condition. Such a nēpios child does not ordinarily grow up to become a warrior. There are exceptions, however, and chief among them is Telemachos. When Athene visits him at the beginning of the Odyssey she tells him:

… οὐδέ τί σε χρὴ
νηπιάας ὀχέειν, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι τηλίκος ἐσσί. {35|36}

… You should not go on
clinging to your nēpios ways. You are no longer of an age to do that.

i 296–297

And Telemachos seems to take this advice. Four times in the Odyssey he says that he used to be nēpios and now he is not:

… ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα;
νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ μέγας εἰμὶ καὶ ἄλλων μῦθον ἀκούων
πυνθάνομαι …

… when I was still nēpios?
But now, when I am grown big, and by listening to others
can learn the truth …

ii 313–315

αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ θυμῷ νοέω καὶ οἶδα ἕκαστα,
ἐσθλά τε καὶ τὰ χέρεια· πάρος δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα.

I myself notice all these things in my heart and know of them, better
and worse alike, but before now I was only nēpios.

xviii 228–229

ὄφρα κεν ἐς θάλαμον καταθείομαι ἔντεα πατρὸς
καλά, τά μοι κατὰ οἶκον ἀκηδέα καπνὸς ἀμέρδει
πατρὸς ἀποιχομένοιο· ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα.
νῦν δ᾽ ἐθέλω καταθέσθαι, ἵν᾽ οὐ πυρὸς ἵξετ᾽ ἀϋτμή.

… while I put away my father’s beautiful armor
in the inner room; it is carelessly laid in the house and darkened
with smoke, in my father’s absence, and I was nēpios all that time.
Now I would put it away, where smoke from the fire will not reach it.

xix 17–20

… τὼ μή τίς μοι ἀεικείας ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
φαινέτω· ἤδη γὰρ νοέω καὶ οἶδα ἕκαστα
ἐσθλά τε καὶ τὰ χέρεια· πάρος δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα.

Let none display any rudeness
here in my house. I now notice all and know of it, better
and worse alike, but before now I was only nēpios.

xx 308–310

Penelope is slow to recognize the change in Telemachos. When she discovers that he has gone off to Pylos, she is worried and speaks of him as:

νήπιος, οὔτε πόνων εὖ εἰδὼς οὔτ᾽ ἀγοράων

nēpios, all unversed in fighting and speaking

iv 818

But even she eventually recognizes the difference:

παῖς δ᾽ ἐμὸς ἧος ἔην ἔτι νήπιος ἠδὲ χαλίφρων,
γήμασθ᾽ οὔ μ᾽ εἴα πόσιος κατὰ δῶμα λιποῦσαν·
νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ μέγας ἐστὶ καὶ ἥβης μέτρον ἱκάνει,
καὶ δὴ μ᾽ ἀρᾶται πάλιν ἐλθέμεν ἐκ μεγάροιο,
κτήσιος ἀσχαλόων, τήν οἱ κατέδουσιν Ἀχαιοί.

My son, while he was still nēpios and thoughtless, would not
let me marry and leave the house of my husband; but now
that he is grown a tall man and come to maturity’s measure,
he even prays me to go home out of the palace, fretting
over the property, which the Achaian men are devouring.

xix 530–534

A contrast is made in these passages between someone who is nēpios and someone who has adult characteristics. For example, in ii 313–315 there is a contrast between nēpios and punthanomai (“I learn the truth”). In xviii 228–229, the contrast is between nēpios and knowing better and worse. In xix 17–20 nēpios is contrasted with being able to take care of personal property. But there is also a contrast between being nēpios and being, simply, full grown (as in xix 530–534). Telemachos used to be nēpios, but now he is grown up and has adult characteristics, or rather, virtues. All this seems to have been achieved merely by the passage of time; he is no longer tēlikos (“of such an age,” i 297), he has reached hēbēs metron (“maturity’s measure,” xix 532). And he has had no father to guide him.

Diomedes, Orestes, and Telemachos all managed to grow up in their fathers’ absence. But the links between them are stronger than that. First, most obviously, Orestes provides the paradigm that Telemachos is exhorted to follow (i 298–302, iii 306–316). He has returned to his home, killed a man (a relative) who had taken over his father’s throne and wife and possessions. Telemachos is being exhorted to return to his home (he first has to go on a journey, i 284–285) and kill the men (i 295–296) who are taking his father’s possessions and trying to take his father’s wife. Diomedes, although this story is not told by Homer, after the death of his father, returned to his home and killed the men (relatives) who had taken over his father’s throne (Hesiod, Ehoiai, frag. 14 M-W; Apollodorus 1.8.6). He did not take possession of the throne himself, but returned it to his grandfather, Oineus or, alternatively, because of Oineus’s great age, to Oineus’s son-in-law. Thus, like Telemachos and Laertes, Diomedes and his grandfather both appear in the story. Like Orestes, Diomedes kills a relative who has taken over the throne that should have descended to him.

Another similarity between Telemachos and Diomedes is the preoccupation each has with his father who went off to war when he was a baby and whom he does not remember. This preoccupation is both subjective and objective. That is, Telemachos and Diomedes each speculate about their fathers themselves and they are each compared to their fathers by others. Agamemnon, who is going {38|39} about rousing the Greek troops, chooses the following goad for Diomedes: [6]

ὤ μοι, Τυδέος υἱὲ δαίφρονος ἱπποδάμοιο,
τί πτώσεις, τί δ᾽ ὀπιπεύεις πολέμοιο γεφύρας;
οὐ μὲν Τυδέϊ γ᾽ ὧδε φίλον πτωσκαζέμεν ἦεν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρὸ φίλων ἑτάρων δηΐοισι μάχεσθαι

Ah me, son of Tydeus, that daring breaker of horses,
why are you skulking and spying out the outworks of battle?
Such was never Tydeus’ way, to lurk in the background,
but to fight the enemy far ahead of his own companions…

IV 370–373

He gives a brief history of Tydeus’s exploits and ends thus:

τοῖος ἔην Τυδεὺς Αἰτώλιος· ἀλλὰ τὸν υἱὸν
γείνατο εἷο χέρεια μάχῃ, ἀγορῇ δέ τ᾽ ἀμείνω.

This was Tydeus, the Aitolian; yet he was father
to a son worse than himself at fighting, better in conclave.

IV 399–400

Diomedes himself gives his genealogy as credentials for his role as advice-giver to the Greek army:

πατρὸς δ᾽ ἐξ ἀγαθοῦ καὶ ἐγὼ γέvoς εὔχομαι εἶναι,
Τυδέος, ὃν Θήβῃσι χυτὴ κατὰ γαῖα καλύπτει.

τῶ οὐκ ἄν με γένος γε κακὸν καὶ ἀνάλκιδα φάντες
μῦθον ἀτιμήσαιτε πεφασμéνον, ὅν κ᾽ ἐῢ εἴπω.

I also can boast that my generation is of an excellent father,
Tydeus, whom now the heaped earth covers over in Thebe.

Therefore you could not, saying that I was base and unwarlike
by birth, dishonor any word that I speak, if I speak well.

XIV 113–114, 126–127

Again, he replies to Sthenelos’s suggestion that they retire from battle:

οὐ γάρ μοι γενναῖον ἀλυσκάζοντι μάχεσθαι
οὐδὲ καταπτώσσειν·

It is not my inheritance to avoid battle {39|40}
or to shrink back.

V 253–254

Twice Diomedes asks Athene’s aid by reminding her of her aid to his father (V 115–117, X 284–294).

Diomedes, sure of his ancestry, uses it as a call to action. Telemachos, unable to act at the beginning of the Odyssey, remarks diffidently:

μήτηρ μέν τ᾽ ἐμέ φησι τοῦ ἔμμεναι αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε
οὐκ οἶδ᾽· οὐ γάρ πώ τις ἑὸν γόνον αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.

My mother says indeed that I am his. I for my part
do not know. Nobody really knows his own father.

i 215–216

During the course of the Telemachy, he and his ancestry become progressively more firmly attached. Nestor makes this remark:

… δῖος Ὀδυσσεὺς
… πατὴρ τεός, εἰ ἐτεόν γε
κείνου ἔκγονός ἐσσι· σέβας μ᾽ ἔχει εἰσορόωντα.
ἦ τοι γὰρ μῦθοί γε ἐοικότες, οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἄνδρα νεώτερον ὧδε ἐοικότα μυθήσασθαι.

… godlike Odysseus
… your father; if truly
you are his son; and wonder seizes me when I look on you.
For surely your words are like his words, nor would anyone
ever have thought that a younger man could speak so like him.

iii 121–125

Helen is even more sure of the resemblance:

οὐ γάρ πώ τινά φημι ἐοικότα ὧδε ἰδέσθαι
οὔτ᾽ ἄνδρ᾽ οὔτε γυναῖκα—σέβας μ᾽ ἔχει εἰσορόωσαν—
ὡς ὅδ᾽ Ὀδυσσῆος μεγαλήτορος υἷϊ ἔοικε,
Τηλεμάχῳ τὸν λεῖπε νέον γεγαῶτ᾽ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ
κεῖνος ἀνήρ …

for I think I never saw such a likeness, neither
in man nor woman, and wonder takes me as I look on him,
as this man has a likeness to the son of great-hearted Odysseus,
Telemachos, who was left behind in his house, a young child
by that man …

iv 141–145 {40|41}

Menelaos is certain:

οὓτω νῦν καὶ ἐγὼ νοέω, γύναι, ὡς συ ἐΐσκεις·
κείνου γὰρ τοιοίδε πόδες ταιαίδε τε χεῖρες
ὀφθαλμῶν τε βολαὶ κεφαλή τ᾽ ἐφύπερθέ τε χαῖται.

I too recognize it, my wife, the way you compare them,
for Odysseus’s feet were like this man’s, his hands were like his,
and the glances of his eyes and his head and the hair growing.

iv 148–150

Just as Diomedes does not want to be thought a worse man than his father, Homer does not leave the impression that Telemachos is a lesser man than Odysseus. Telemachos would have strung the bow if Odysseus had not signalled to him to stop (xxi 128–129).

Another association Diomedes and Telemachos have in common is that with Odysseus. Outside of the Iliad, Odysseus and Diomedes were traditionally found together, in vase painting and in literature. [7] In the Iliad itself, Diomedes chooses Odysseus as his companion for the night expedition to the Trojan camp (X 241 ff.). In fact, although there is nothing like stewardship, consanguinity, or like names to associate them, the mention of either Diomedes or Odysseus in the narrative seems to lead to the appearance of the other. For example, in IV where Agamemnon is rousing the army, he speaks politely to Idomeneus, to the Ajaxes, to Nestor, but he rebukes Odysseus for hanging back. He then immediately turns to Diomedes and rebukes him in a similar way. While Agamemnon’s rebuke to Diomedes is based on the allegation that he is worse than his father, Odysseus, claiming that he is as good a warrior as anyone else, refers to himself as Tēlemachoio philon patera (“Telemachos’s own father,” IV 354). The only other place in the Iliad where Odysseus speaks of himself as Telemachos’s father is where he is rebuking and punishing Thersites (II 260). Thersites was one of the sons of Agrios. Agrios’s sons had seized the kingdom of Oineus, Diomedes’s grandfather, and had given it to their father. Diomedes later came from Argos and, restoring the throne to Oineus, killed all the sons of Agrios except Thersites and one other (Apollodorus 1.8.5–6). In VIII 92 ff. it is Odysseus whom Diomedes calls to help him rescue Nestor. Diomedes and Odysseus encourage one another and provide the last bit of Achaian resistance against Hektor’s onslaught (XI 310 ff.). {41|42}

Like Telemachos, Diomedes is a young man (IX 57, XIV 112), and like Telemachos he is concerned with courtesy and correct behavior. [8] Their situations are different: Telemachos’s concern with propriety is evident primarily in his statements about the treatment of guests in his house. [9] His reception of Athene in the first book of the Odyssey provides a good example, especially in the following statement:

… νεμεσσήθη δ᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
ξεῖνον δηθὰ θύρῃσιν ἐφεστάμεν·

… the heart within him was ashamed
that a guest should be standing long at his doors.

i 119–120

Telemachos also hopes to be able to speak without disgracing himself, as these words show:

Μένταρ, πῶς τ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἴω, πῶς τ᾽ ἂρ προσπτύξομαι αὐτόν;
οὐδέ τί πω μύθοισι πεπείρημαι πυκινοῖσιν·
αἰδὼς δ᾽ αὖ νέον ἄνδρα γεραίτερον ἐξερέεσθαι.

Mentor, how shall I approach him, how engage him?
I have no experience in close discourse. There is
embarrassment for a young man who must question his elder.

iii 22–24 {42|43}

Diomedes is a little older and wiser, [
10] but he feels the same social restrictions:

ἐγγὺς ἀνήρ, οὐ δηθὰ ματεύσομεν, αἴ κ᾽ ἐθέλητε
πείθεσθαι καὶ μή τι κότῳ ἀγάσησθε ἕκαστος
οὕνεκα δὴ γενεῆφι νεώτατος εἰμι μεθ᾽ ὑμῖν·

that man is here, we shall not look far for him, if you are willing
to listen, and not be each astonished in anger against me
because by birth I am the youngest among you.

XIV 110–112

But just as Telemachos is self-consciously concerned about propriety in the treatment of guests (and in his own conduct toward his mother—e.g., ii 130–131), so Diomedes staunchly insists that the Achaian army conduct the war in an appropriate, valorous fashion. It is he, for instance, who rejects the offer of the Trojans to return Menelaos’s treasure but not Helen (VII 399 ff.). [
11] He rebukes Agamemnon for wishing to give up and go home (IX 32 ff.), and when Odysseus rebukes Agamemnon in a similar fashion, Diomedes speaks up to say that the army must resume the fight (XIV 128–132). On the other hand, when Agamemnon has accused him of hanging back and being a lesser warrior than his father, he refuses to join Sthenelos in self-vindications, but replies that Agamemnon’s honor is at stake and of course he must rouse his troops in any way he can. Their duty is to fight (IV 411–418). Diomedes, too, takes guest-friendship and its obligations to heart, as is apparent in his conversation with Glaukos, where their hereditary guest-friendship is discovered, and the two potential enemies end by exchanging gifts. Like Telemachos, whose most characteristic epithet is pepnumenos (“aware, understanding, prudent”), Diomedes is praised by Nestor for his awareness of what is proper:

ἦ μὲν καὶ νέος ἐσσί. ἐμὸς δέ κε καὶ πάϊς εἴης
ὁπλότατος γενεῆφιν· ἀτὰρ πεπνυμένα βάζεις
Ἀργείων βασιλῆας, ἐπεὶ κατὰ μοῖραν ἔειπες.

Detailed descriptions of initiation rites are available elsewhere. [14] The important motifs are the following:

  1. nocturnal disappearance of novices
  2. their removal to sacred ground
  3. guidance by an adult member of the group
  4. instruction in group myths
  5. constant mortal danger during initiation
  6. the wounding or scarification of novices
  7. the revelation of divinity
  8. the tyrannizing of male initiates over women
  9. prohibition against sleep

Initiatory motifs 1–8 in the story of Telemachos are discussed fully by Eckert. [15] I will simply list them, giving the corresponding number from the list of motifs above:

  1. Telemachos takes a nocturnal voyage, without telling his mother that he is going.
  2. He goes to the homes of Nestor and Menelaos who, even for Telemachos, are legendary and heroic figures.
  3. He is accompanied and guided by Athene in the guise of Mentor.
  4. He hears the stories of the Trojan war and its aftermath.
  5. He is in danger of his life from the suitors, who plot against him. Moreover, Penelope fears that he has endangered his life simply by taking a sea journey.
  6. He receives a wound during the slaughter of the suitors.
  7. Athene appears to him twice as a bird, and during the slaughter of the suitors, the aegis is displayed. {45|46}
  8. Telemachos is estranged from his mother Penelope and often speaks abruptly to her. He hangs the unfaithful maidservants.
  9. Eckert does not mention the motif of wakefulness. Eliade, however, speaking of a certain tribe in which the novices must not go to bed until very late at night, says: “This is an initiatory ordeal that is documented more or less all over the world, even in comparatively highly developed religions. Not to sleep is not only to conquer physical fatigue, but is above all to show proof of will and spiritual strength; to remain awake is to be conscious, present in the world, responsible.” [16] Telemachos, undergoing a transition from childhood to adulthood, is differentiated from others by his wakefulness or semi-wakefulness. At the beginning of theOdysseythe process has just begun. Telemachos is tucked in by his childhood nurse; he passes the night in the following way:
    ἔνθ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ παννύχιος, κεκαλυμμένος οἰὸς ἀώτῳ,
    βούλευε φρεσὶν ᾗσιν ὁδὸν τὴν πέφραδ᾽ Ἀθήνη.

    There, all night long, wrapped in a soft sheepskin, he pondered
    in his heart the journey that Pallas Athene counseled.

    i 443–444

    And when Telemachos’s journey is about to begin Athene comes to his house:

    ἔνθα μνηστήρεσσιν ἐπὶ γλυκὺν ὕπνον ἔχευε,

    αὐτὰρ Τηλέμαχον προσέφη γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη …

    and there she drifted a sweet slumber over the suitors,

    afterward gray-eyed Athene spoke to Telemachos …

    ii 395, 399

    By the time he is ready to return from Sparta, Telemachos, hero-like, lies awake while others sleep:

    ἦ τοι Νεστορίδην μαλακῷ δεδμημένον ὕπνῳ·
    Τηλέμαχον δ᾽ οὐχ ὕπνος ἔχε γλυκύς, ἀλλ᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
    νύκτα δι᾽ ἀμβροσίην μελεδήματα πατρὸς ἔγειρεν.

    Indeed, the son of Nestor was held fast in the softening
    sleep, but the sweet sleep was not on Telemachos, wakeful
    through the immortal night, with anxious thoughts of his father.

    xv 6–8 {46|47}

The initiatory motifs surrounding Diomedes are not as well organized into a single story line as those in the Telemachy, and chronologically they are out of order, but with the possible exception of number 4 (instruction in group myths), they are all there:

  1. Diomedes goes on a night journey in book X of the Iliad, the Doloneia
  2. While the Trojan camp cannot, perhaps, be called “sacred ground,” it is outside the normal ground of Diomedes’s social group. It is the separation from ordinary reality that is important.
  3. Diomedes’s companion on this expedition is Odysseus. It seems noteworthy that the “initiator” (although this role is not, to be sure, emphasized in the Doloneia) of one of the two well-documented Homeric initiates, Diomedes, is the real father of the other, Telemachos. It is often customary for the initiator to assume some sort of disguise, as a god, as animal, or a legendary figure. [17] Odysseus does not put on a disguise, but he does put on the boar’s tusk helmet (X 261–271) which, since it had been passed, like legend, from hand to hand and was not a part of standard Iliadic armor, might be interpreted as a “mythic” garment. It is also in this book that the heroes clothe themselves in the skins of animals. Agamemnon puts on a lion skin (X 22–24), Menelaos wears a leopard skin (X 29–30). Diomedes too puts on a lion skin (X 177–178), and Dolon is dressed in a wolf skin (X 334). Eliade says, “The divine beings who play a part in initiation ceremonies are usually imagined in the form of beasts of prey— lions and leopards (initiatory animals par excellence) in Africa— soon afterward the novices are, themselves, dressed in leopard or {47|48} lion skins; that is, they assimilate the divine essence of the initiatory animal.” [18] Diomedes and Odysseus conform to this pattern in simile:
    βάν ῥ᾽ ἴμεν ὥς τε λέοντε δύω διὰ νύκτα μέλαιναν.

    they went like two lions through the dark night.

    X 297

  4. Apparently absent. [19]
  5. The reluctance of any of the Achaians to undertake the expedition is ample evidence that Diomedes is in mortal danger throughout his night journey. [20]
  6. Diomedes is wounded by an arrow from the bow of Pandaros and, in proper initiatory fashion, he makes little of his wound (V 95–122).
  7. Athene not only reveals herself to Diomedes, but also she says:

  8. The motif of tyranny over women appears in Diomedes’s treatment of Aphrodite (V 330–352). He both wounds her and, in rebuking her, insults women in general:
    ἦ οὐχ ἅλις ὅττι γυναῖκας ἀνάλκιδας ἠπεροπεύεις;

    It is not then enough that you lead astray women without warcraft?

    V 349

  9. Diomedes is awakened by Nestor (X 150–167). The theme of wakefulness is evident also in the descriptions of the leaders of both armies in this book. While the rest of the Achaians sleep, Agamemnon likes awake, pondering the fate of his troops (X 1–4). Similarly, Hektor, on the Trojan side, keeps all the leaders awake (X 299–301). {48|49}

Telemachos’s sponsor during his initiation is Athene. It is she who tells him what to do from beginning to end. Although Odysseus plays the role of “adult companion” for Diomedes during his “initiatory ordeal,” Athene is, for Diomedes too, the real motive force behind his action. [23] His aristeia begins in this way:

ἔνθ᾽ αὖ Τυδεΐδῃ Διομήδεϊ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη
δῶκε μένος καὶ θάρσος, ἵν᾽ ἔκδηλος μετὰ πᾶσιν
Ἀργείοισι γένοιτο ἰδὲ κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἄροιτο

There to Tydeus’ son Diomedes Pallas Athene
granted strength and daring, that he might be conspicuous
among all the Argives and win the glory of valour.

V 1–3

Diomedes, likeTelemachos, has inherited the protection of Athene from his father (V 115–117, V 125, X 284–294). In the Homeric associative unit delineated above, children who do not have fathers are nēpios and do not grow up. Diomedes and Telemachos do not have their fathers, but they do have Athene. In Chapter Two, I discussed a Homeric character type, the foster-father, which is embodied in both Phoinix and Eumaios. The foster-father is disconnected from his own parents and does not, or cannot, reproduce children of his own; he is ēpios and he is “like a father.” Athene is intimatelyconnected with her father Zeus, but she is disconnected from womankind (as she says herself in Aeschylus, Eumenides 736–739), by the fact that she has no mother. Furthermore, she is permanently a virgin and will never have children, Odysseus remarks that she has been ēpios to him:

τοῦτο δ᾽ ἐγὼν εὖ οἶδ᾽, ὅτι μοι πάρος ἠπίη ἦσθα

But this I know well: there was a time when you were ēpios to me

xiii 314 {49|50}

Telemachos says that she has been “fatherly” toward him:

ξεῖν᾽, ἦ τοι μὲν ταῦτα φίλα φρονέων ἀγορεύεις,
ὥς τε πατὴρ ᾧ παιδί, καὶ οὔ ποτε λήσομαι αὐτῶν

My guest, your words to me are very kind and considerate,
what any father would say to his son. I shall not forget them.

i 307–308

Athene is especially associated with those Homeric figures with whom initiation motifs are also associated: Telemachos, Diomedes, Odysseus, Nausicaa. [
24] (Achilles should not be omitted from a list of heroes with whom Athene is associated. But Achilles’s “initiation” is somehow confused and aborted—see below.)

It is customary for the mothers of novices who are beginning their initiation to mourn for them as if they were dying. When Penelope hears that Telemachos has gone on a voyage to hear word of his father, she says, among other things, the following:

τοῦ δὴ ἐγὼ καὶ μᾶλλον ὀδύρομαι ἤ περ ἐκείνου

I mourn for him [Telemachos] even more than for that
other one [Odysseus].

iv 819

Furthermore, when Telemachos has safely returned, Penelope seems alienated from him and confused by his behavior as if he were, indeed, a different person:

Τηλέμαχ᾽, οὐκέτι τοι φρένες ἔμπεδοι οὐδὲ νόημα
παῖς ἔτ᾽ ἐὼν καὶ μᾶλλον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ κέρδε᾽ ἐνώμας·
νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ μέγας ἐσσὶ καὶ ἥβης μέτρον ἱκάνεις,
καί κέν τις φαίη γόνον ἔμμεναι ὀλβίου ἀνδρός,
ἐς μέγεθος καὶ κάλλος ὁρώμενος, ἀλλότριος φώς.
οὐκέτι τοι φρένες εἰσὶν ἐναίσιμοι οὐδὲ νόημα

Telemachos, your mind and thoughts are no longer steadfast.
When you were a child still, you had better thoughts in mind. Now,
when you are big, and come to the measure of maturity, and one who
saw you, some outsider, viewing your size and beauty,
would say you were the son born of a prosperous man;
your thoughts are no longer righteous, nor your perception …

xviii 215–220

The relationship between mother and child, apparently is based upon the child’s infancy and helplessness. The Homeric father, by contrast, thinks of his child as a potential adult. While Andromache bewails the dangers that surround her helpless baby, Hektor envisions the day when he will surpass his father in battle. The contrast between the mother’s and the father’s relationship to their child is evident in Agamemnon’s words:

ἦ μέν μιν νύμφην γε νέην κατελείπομεν ἡμεῖς
ἐρχόμενοι πόλεμόνδε· πάϊς δέ οἱ ἦν ἐπὶ μαζῷ
νήπιος, ὅς που νῦν γε μετ’ ἀνδρῶν ἵζει ἀριθμῷ,
ὄλβιος· ἦ γὰρ τόν γε πατὴρ φίλος ὄψεται ἐλθών, {51|52}
καὶ κεῖνος πατέρα προσπτύξεται, ἣ θέμις ἐστίν.

She was only a young wife when we left her
and went off to the fighting, and she had a nēpios child then
at her breast. That child now must sit with the men and be counted.
Happy he! For his dear father will come back, and see him,
and he will fold his father in his arms, as is right.

xi 447–451

Agamemnon goes on to say that Klytemestra did not let him see his son when he returned from Troy, but killed him first. The correct thing (hē themis estin) is for a man’s wife to release his child when the child reaches adulthood. That child then ceases to be his mother’s and is his father’s. In the pair father-son, each has a claim on life through the other. If a mother’s relationship to her offspring can only last as long as the child’s infancy, and children who do not grow up are doomed, then we could expect that mothers would be associated with death. [
28] The fact that Odysseus sees his mother in the underworld may reflect this association.

Telemachos and Diomedes, as we have seen above, are strongly father-oriented. Achilles, on the other hand, turns, for both comfort and aid, to his mother. Initiatory motifs, in connection with Achilles, were abundant in the epic tradition: he was disguised as a girl, he lived in the wilderness, he had a non-human being—Cheiron the centaur—as his tutor. [29] These initiatory motifs do not appear in the Iliad. Achilles’s nurse/tutor, Phoenix, does appear in the Iliad; in fact, he was sent to accompany Achilles to Troy because Achilles was still nēpios:

… σοὶ δέ μ᾽ ἔπεμπε γέρων ἱππηλάτα Πηλεὺς
ἤματι τῷ ὅτε σ᾽ ἐκ Φθίης Ἀγαμέμνονι πέμπε
νήπιον, οὔ πω εἰδόθ᾽ ὁμοιΐου πολέμοιο, {52|53}
οὐδ᾽ ἀγορέων, ἵνα τ᾽ ἄνδρες ἀριπρεπέες τελέθουσι.
τοὔνεκά με προέηκε διδασκέμεναι τάδε πάντα,
μύθων τε ῥητῆρ᾽ ἔμεναι πρηκτῆρά τε ἔργων.

Peleus the aged horseman sent me forth with you
on that day when he sent you from Phthia to Agamemnon
still nēpios, knowing nothing yet of the joining of battle
nor of debate where men are made pre-eminent. Therefore
he sent me along with you to teach you of all these matters,
to make you a speaker of words and one who is accomplished in action,

IX 438–443

But the initiation of Achilles is never accomplished. He never transcends his mortality; his mother will mourn not for his symbolic death but for his actual death. Nor does he transcend the state of being nēpios, despite the gifts and aid of the gods:

νήπιος, οὐδ’ ἐνόησε κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμὸν
ὡς οὐ ῥηΐδι᾽ ἐστὶ θεῶν ἐρικυδέα δῶρα
ἀνδράσι γε θνητοῖσι δαμήμεναι οὐδ᾽ ὑποείκειν.

Nēpios, and the heart and spirit in him could not understand
how the glorious gifts of the gods are not easily broken
by mortal men, how such gifts will not give way before them.

XX 264–266

In contrast, neither Telemachos (as an adult) nor Odysseus is ever called nēpios, and Diomedes is so called only once (by the goddess Dione, V 406–407), but that is an empty threat. [

The contextual sphere of the phrase nēpia tekna suggests the generalization that Homeric children who are left without their fathers when they are still nēpios die without fulfilling their epic destiny. Telemachos and Diomedes (and Orestes), apparent exceptions to this rule, are each surrounded by a complex of initiatory motifs. One of the most important aspects of initiatory symbolism is that the novice dies and is reborn as an adult. Hence, if Diomedes and Telemachos are like all other initiates, then they are also no different from all other nēpia tekna. They do die, symbolically, without fulfilling their epic destiny. The difference between Diomedes and Telemachos and the other nēpia tekna is that they are reborn, and as warriors. {53|54}

Other Children

The usual, standard translation of the word nēpios is “child.” This study is proceeding on the premise that “child” is neither the root meaning of nēpios nor a very precise translation of its sense in the Iliad and Odyssey. There is no doubt, however, that nēpios did, eventually, come to mean simply “child” in Greek. Does the word nēpios in Homeric Greek ever mean simply “child” in an uncharged sense? Although some examples seem to suggest this possibility, their contexts show that nēpios belongs to the conceptual and semantic framework established earlier in this chapter.

There are four similes in which children appear and in which a nēp- word might seem to refer to childhood simply as a period of life with typical activities. In one of these similes, a child is building sandcastles. Here a derivative of the word nēpios seems to mean “playfulness”:

… ὡς ὅτε τις ψάμαθον πάϊς ἄγχι θαλάσσης,
ὅς τ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν ποιήσῃ ἀθύρματα νηπιέῃσιν,
ἂψ αὖτις συνέχευε ποσὶν καὶ χερσὶν ἀθύρων.

… as when a little child piles sand by the sea-shore
when in his nēpios way he makes sand towers to amuse him
and then, still playing, with his hands and feet ruins them and wrecks them.

XV 362–364

In this simile the ease with which Apollo will obliterate the fortifications of the Achaians is compared to the ease with which a child knocks down his sand castles. The child builds and then he knocks down. The Achaians built and Apollo will knock down. The nature of Homeric similes does not permit the automatic conclusion that “therefore, the Achaians built their fortifications in a nēpios way.” But compare the following words of Hektor:

γιγνώσκω δ’ ὅτι μοι πρόφρων κατένευσε Κρονίων
νίκην καὶ μέγα κῦδος, ἀτὰρ Δαναοῖσί γε πῆμα
νήπιοι, οἳ ἄρα δὴ τάδε τείχεα μηχανόωντο
ἀβλήχρ᾽ οὐδενόσωρα·

I see that the son of Kronos has bowed his head and assented
to my high glory and success, but granted the Danaans disaster:
nēpioi, who designed with care these fortifications,
flimsy things, not worth a thought …

VIII 175–178 {54|55}

The Achaians built their walls, as Poseidon complains (VII 446–453), without offering sacrifices to the gods. There must be some essential similarity (expressed by the same word in both cases: nēpieēsin and nēpioi) between the attitudes of the Achaians building their walls and the child building his sand castles. But the Achaians did not build “playfully” nor the child “foolishly.” The similarity is that both were ineffectual in that they produced impermanent structures.

The second and third similes are mutually explanatory. One concerns Patroklos and the other the Myrmidons. Patroklos, approaching Achilles, is compared to a young girl pulling on her mother’s skirts, weeping and asking to be picked up (XVI 7–10), The child is called nēpios. There is no reason to accuse this child of anything other than childish behavior. But another child appears in the Iliad crying and clinging to an adult, namely Astyanax, who is frightened by his father’s helmet. Unlike Andromache, who is all too clearly aware, at the time, of what the future will bring, Astyanax cannot see beyond the present and cannot see through the illusion of the helmet (which was constructed to be fearful). Although there is no mention in XVI 7–10 of the cause of the child’s weeping, Patroklos himself is like Astyanax in fretting about something other than the ultimate disaster that is approaching. Patroklos, as we shall see later, is particularly subject to the epithet nēpios. An important instance is the following:

ὣς φάτο λισσόμενος μέγα νήπιος· ἦ γὰρ ἔμελλεν
οἷ αὐτῷ θάνατόν τε κακὸν καὶ κῆρα λιτέσθαι.

So he spoke supplicating, greatly nēpios; this was
his own death and evil destruction he was entreating.

XVI 46–47

Unlike Achilles at this particular moment, Patroklos does not have a clear view of the future. The two separate meanings LSJ assign to the word nēpios, “child” and “without foresight,” seem to overlap in this simile, which likens Patroklos to a child.

The Myrmidons, whom Patroklos leads into battle, are compared to wasps in the following simile:

αὐτίκα δὲ σφήκεσσιν ἐοικότες ἐξεχέοντο
εἰνοδίοις, οὓς παῖδες ἐριδμαίνωσιν ἔθοντες,
αἰεὶ κερτομέοντες, ὁδῷ ἔπι οἰκί᾽ ἔχοντας
νηπίαχοι· ξυνὸν δὲ κακὸν πολέεσσι τιθεῖσι. {55|56}

They came streaming out like wasps at the wayside
when children have got into the habit of making them angry
by always teasing them as they live in their house by the roadside;
nēpiachoi, they do something that hurts many people …

XVI 259–262

The poetic force of the simile is in the image. The wasps and the troops are alike in activity, in anger, and in the singleness of purpose which unites the many members of the group, as well as in the danger they present to those in their way. But the Myrmidons, too, were aroused by someone who was nēpios —not a playful child, but Patroklos. Both the children who stirred up the wasps and Patroklos were unaware of the consequences of their actions and, for this reason, both are called nēpios. Intellectually, in respect to the thing each is doing at the moment, they are disconnected from past and future.

The fourth and last of the similes involving children concerns Ajax, who is compared to a donkey in a field of corn. Children are beating the donkey with sticks, trying to get him out:

… βίη δέ τε νηπίη αὐτῶν
σπουδῇ τ᾽ ἐξήλασσαν, ἐπεί τ᾽ ἐκορέσσατο φορβῆς·
ὣς τότ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ Αἴαντα μέγαν, Τελαμώνιον υἱόν,
Τρῶες ὑπέρθυμοι πολυηγερέες τ᾽ ἐπίκουροι
νύσσοντες ξυστοῖσι μέσον σάκος αἰὲν ἕποντο.

… but their strength is nēpios.
Yet at last by hard work they drive him out when he is glutted with eating;
so the high-hearted Trojans and companions in arms gathered
from far places kept after great Ajax, son of Telamon
stabbing always with their spears at the center of the great shield.

XI 561–565

The ineffectuality conveyed by the word nēpios is evident here. Although the Trojans are attacking Ajax with spears, they are not fighting like warriors. Many of them fight against one of him, and they defeat him not by any great deeds but by wearing him down. Furthermore, they are all nameless in this passage. They fight, but without winning fame and glory.

In four other passages, a nēp- word refers to the childhood of a character in the Iliad or Odyssey, and superficially (as in the similes) the reference seems to be to a time of life and its characteristic activities. {56|57}

In the first example, Andromache is speaking of Astyanax:

αὐτὰρ ὅθ᾽ ὕπνος ἕλοι, παύσαιτό τε νηπιαχεύων,
εὕδεσκ’ ἐν λέκτροισιν, ἐν ἀγκαλίδεσσι τιθήνης,
εὐνῇ ἔνι μαλακῇ, θαλέων ἐμπλησάμενος κῆρ

And when sleep would come upon him and he was done with doing nēpios things,
he would go to sleep in a bed, in the arms of his nurse, in a soft
bed, with his heart given all its fill of luxury.

XXII 502–504

It appears that nēpiacheuōn is what a child does when he is awake, hence the usual translation of this word “playing.” But the passage in which these lines occur defines Astyanax as a child who, in losing his father, loses his epic destiny. What he does as a child (nēpiacheuōn) is ineffectual; it cannot win him kleos nor any more immediate advantage.

Another possible example of nēpios meaning, simply, “child” is Phoenix’s complaint that when Achilles was a baby he often at dinner soiled Phoinix’s clothes nēpieē alegeinē (“in troublesome nēpios behavior,” IX 491). In comparison with other uses of alegein- (of fire, the north wind, a river, the pain of a wound, a message from Zeus, etc.), the collocation of this word with “ nēpios behavior” seems humorous and affectionate. Yes, Achilles was troublesome, but it was a completely impermanent and unimportant kind of troublesomeness.

The suitor Antinoos refers to his own childhood when he recalls having seen Odysseus shoot the great bow. He says:

οὐ γάρ τις μέτα τοῖος ἀνὴρ ἐν τοίσδεσι πᾶσιν
οἷος Ὀδυσσεὺς ἔσκεν· ἐγὼ δέ μιν αὐτὸς ὄπωπα—
καὶ γὰρ μνήμων εἰμί—πάϊς δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα.

There is no man among the lot of us who is such a one
as Odysseus used to be. I myself have seen him,
and I remember well, though I was still a nēpios child.

xxi 93–95

There is a sinister irony here. Antinoos’s speech also begins with the word nēpios. He taunts the swineherd and cowherd with these words:

νήπιοι, ἀγροιῶται, ἐφημέρια φρονέοντες! {57|58}
ἆ δειλώ, τί νυ δάκρυ κατείβετον ἠδὲ γυναικὶ
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ὀρίνετον; ᾗ τε καὶ ἄλλως
κεῖται ἐν ἄλγεσι θυμός, ἐπεὶ φίλον ὤλεσ᾽ ἀκοίτην.

Nēpioi, rustics, thinking thoughts of a moment!
Poor wretches, why are you streaming tears, and troubling the lady
now, and stirring up her heart, when she has enough already
of sadness her heart rests on, now she has lost a dear husband.

xxi 85–88

Antinoos himself, not Eumaios and Philoitios, is ephēmeria phroneōn (“thinking thoughts of a moment”). The woman who has lost her husband is about to get him back. When Antinoos praises Odysseus he thinks his words are empty courtesy; in fact, they are about to prove far truer than he would wish to know. Antinoos not only was, but still is, nēpios, and it will soon prove to be, for him, a fatal condition.

Finally, Patroklos uses the word nēpios in referring to his own childhood when he speaks to Achilles in a vision. He tells how he had killed another child when he was young:

νήπιος, οὐκ ἐθέλων, ἀμφ᾽ ἀστραγάλοισι χολωθείς.

nēpios, not intending it, but angered over a game of dice.


Lattimore translates the word nēpios here “I was a child only,” but the key is ouk ethelōn (“not intending it”). The use of nēpios in XXIII 88 follows a pattern (discussed in the next chapter) in which nēpios is clearly a term of reproach, as when Odysseus’s men who ate the cattle of the sun god and thus ensured their own destruction are called nēpios (i 7–9).

The remaining passage to be discussed in which children are called nēpios, is also a context of reproach. Nestor is speaking to the assembled Achaians:

ὦ πόποι, ἦ δὴ παισὶν ἐοικότες ἀγοράασθε
νηπιάχοις, οἷς οὔ τι μέλει πολεμήϊα ἔργα.
πῇ δὴ συνθεσίαι τε καὶ ὅρκια βήσεται ἥμιν;
ἐν πυρὶ δὴ βουλαί τε γενοίατο μήδεά τ᾽ ἀνδρῶν,
σπονδαί τ᾽ ἄκρητοι καὶ δεξιαί, ᾗς ἐπέπιθμεν·

Oh, for shame! You are like children when you hold assembly,
nēpiachoi, to whom the works of war mean nothing.
Where then shall our covenants go, and the oaths we have taken? {58|59}
Let the counsels and the meditations of men be given to the flames then,
with the treaties and promises in which we trusted.

II 337–341

All these things which the Achaians have forgotten—covenants, oaths, counsels, meditations, treaties, and promises—are the guarantees for the future which men can make among themselves. Children, being essentially ephemeral, disconnected from past and future, have no part in them.

In conclusion, it seems evident that even where the word nēpios seems to mean simply “child,” the Homeric concept of childhood was emotionally charged in a way that our own concept of childhood is not. Homeric children, while not without the charm of promise (Astyanax, compared to a star, is a household treasure), do not possess those strengths or virtues through which adults strive to achieve permanence or immortality. Theirs is not the kingdom of heaven, nor will those like them inherit the earth.


[ back ] 1. The phrase kai nēpia tekna might also have been used in the following line: εὐφρῆναι ἄλοχόν τε φίλην κεδνούς τε τοκῆας. to make glad his dear wife and cherished parents. XVII 28 cf. εὐφρανέειν ἄλοχον τε φίλην καὶ νήπιον υἱόν. to make glad his dear wife and nēpios son. The absence of nēpia tekna here may be conditioned by the presence of the word nēpios four lines later. See Chapter Four on the phrase rhexthen de te nēpios egnō.

[ back ] 2. See the discussion in Chapter One of the division of society between women and children as one group and men as the other. Note also the phraseology in, e.g., xiv 263–265 where gunaikas (“women”) and the nēpia tekna are, along with the “beautiful fields,” the property of the Aiguptiōn andrōn (“the Egyptian men”) and contrasted to autous (“themselves”).

[ back ] 3. Astyanax will lose, first, his lands (498) and, second, this place at table (493–498). These are the very things that distinguish a warrior from others, as discussed in Chapter One.

[ back ] 4. On the kleos of the hero, see Nagy 1979.

[ back ] 5. In Orestes’s family, this was something of a tradition. In II 106 it is said that Agamemnon’s scepter had been passed from his father Atreus to his uncle Thyestes and then to him. Eustathius’s Commentary on this line suggests that Atreus had appointed Thyestes guardian of his young children when he died, and Thyestes duly relinquished the kingship to Agamemnon when he came of age (remarkable, considering the enmity between the two branches of the family). Thus Agamemnon and Menelaos must have grown up as orphans. There are also those who left home and father at an early age, like Phoinix, Patroklos, and Eumaios. But in the case of each of these, it is specifically said that he came to someone who was “like a father” to him. He also assumed a socially subordinate position in his new household.

[ back ] 6. Athene, also, rebukes Diomedes for being a lesser man than his father (V 800–813).

[ back ] 7. Sophocles’s Philoctetes is only one example. In the Little Iliad, Diomedes and Odysseus rob the Trojan Palladion together, a frequent subject of vase-painting.

[ back ] 8. See Chapter Four, where I discuss the word nēpios in the context of “social disconnections.” One form of social disconnection is the perversion of what should be a means of social connection, namely courtesy and, in particular, guest-friendship.

[ back ] 9. When a Homeric child grows up, I have suggested, he replaces his father. This can usually only be done when his father is present. When a child is not grown, he is nēpios. In Chapter Four, I discuss the idea that courtesy is a characteristic of someone who is not nēpios. We might, then, conclude that sons learn courtesy directly from their fathers. This conclusion is born out in Telemachos’s remark to Antinoos, who has rebuked Eumaios for bringing the disguised Odysseus to Telemachos’s house. Telemachos says to him, with some sarcasm: Ἀντίνο᾽, ἦ μευ καλὰ πατὴρ ὣς κήδεαι υἷος! ὃς τὸν ξεῖνον ἄνωγας ἀπὸ μεγάροιο δίεσθαι μύθῳ ἀναγκαίῳ—μὴ τοῦτο θεὸς τελέσειε! Antinoos, as a father for his son you take good care of me, when you tell our stranger guest to get out of the palace, with a strict word. May this not be the end god makes of it. xvii 397–399

[ back ] 10. Diomedes is a warrior, fighting at Troy, but see note 12.

[ back ] 11. Compare IX 696 ff. where Diomedes suggests that Achilles’s anger is inappropriate behavior and that Agamemnon should not have sent him an apology.

[ back ] 12. Nestor’s youngest son is Peisistratos, who is the same age as Telemachos (xv 197). If Diomedes and Peisistratos are the same age, then Diomedes and Telemachos are also the same age.

[ back ] 13. See Eckert 1963 for a discussion of initiation motifs in the Telemachy.

[ back ] 14. See, especially, Eliade 1965 and van Gennep 1960.

[ back ] 15. Eckert 1963.

[ back ] 16. Eliade 1965.15

[ back ] 17. Both Eliade 1965 and van Gennep 1960 give numerous examples of disguises or non-ordinary dress assumed by both novices and initiators.

[ back ] 18. Eliade 1965.23

[ back ] 19. There is a possible example of “instruction in group myths” in the story of Diomedes. Curiously, however, Diomedes is not present to hear it. The “lesson” appears at V 382 ff., where Dione tells Aphrodite of various mortals who fought with gods. She ends with these words: νήπιος. οὐδὲ τὸ οἶδε κατὰ φρένα Τυδέος υἱός, ὅττι μάλ᾽ οὐ δηναιὸς ὃς ἀθανάτοισι μάχηται nēpios, the heart of Tydeus’ son knows nothing of how that man who fights the immortals lives for no long time. V 406–407 The lesson does not seem to apply, for Diomedes has fought with two gods and is not about to die. But compare what he says in VI 129 ff. Here Diomedes himself gives another example from myth and says he will not fight against the gods—that is, he seems to have received the instruction even though he was not present at the lesson.

[ back ] 20. Dione’s warning (see note 17), also, expresses the mortal danger which the “initiation” of Diomedes involves him in.

[ back ] 21. Eliade 1965.3: “The puberty initiation represents above all the revelation of the sacred.”

[ back ] 22. Christian baptism is only one comparative example. This and various others are documented by van Gennep 1960 and Eliade 1965.

[ back ] 23. The only Homeric evidence to connect Orestes with Athene is iii 307, where it is said that Orestes came back to kill Aigisthos from Athens. In Aeschylus’s Eumenides, of course, it is Athene who finally acquits him.

[ back ] 24. In the story of Nausikaa, the following elements correspond to initiatory motifs: Athene’s waking her from sleep, the journey to a distant place in the company of her age-mates, bathing, dancing, the practice of specifically feminine skills (in this case, clothes-washing), her encounter with a man, and, perhaps, making him walk behind the wagon.

[ back ] 25. Compare the qualities that contrasted to the word nēpios in the descriptions of Telemachos.

[ back ] 26. Eliade 1965.xii

[ back ] 27. See also Vidal-Naquet 1986.137–138.

[ back ] 28. Distaste for the child who has not been released by his mother is expressed by Euripides’s Electra: κἀκείνους στυγῷ τοὺς παῖδας, ὅστις τοῦ μὲν ἄρσενος πατρὸς οὐκ ὠνόμασται, τῆς δὲ μητρὸς ἐν πόλει. And those children I hate who are called in the city not their male father’s, but their mother’s. Euripides Electra 933–935

[ back ] 29. See Pindar, Nemean 3.43 ff. and Schol. XIX 326. For transvestitism as an initiatory motif, see Vidal-Naquet 1986.116–117.

[ back ] 30. On Diomedes, see note 17. The Kyklops Polyphemos and Athene both ask Odysseus if he is nēpios. On those instances, see Chapter Four.