The Singer Resumes the Tale

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3. Homer and the Muses: Oral Traditional Poetics, a Mythic Episode, and Arming Scenes in the Iliad

Some critics have questioned whether the work of Milman Parry leaves room for an appreciation of the aesthetics of the Homeric epics. There must, of course, always be a place in any approach to Homer for such an appreciation. But an analysis of Homer’s style and aesthetics must also be based, in my opinion, on an understanding of the traditional nature of the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey . Paolo Vivante in his book The Epithets of Homer assumes, rather grudgingly, that Homer was an oral poet in Parry’s sense of the term. [1] Yet when he proceeds to discuss Homeric aesthetics, he ignores entirely the oral traditional qualities and aesthetic values of Homer’s poetry, even denying, it would seem, its place in tradition.

If Vivante means that for three generations, including Homer’s probably as the last, the ancient Greek tradition of epic song was at its height, expressing its thoughts and feelings in a superbly apt poetic style fully participated in and appreciated by those who listened to it, I could not find great cause to disagree. It is true that I do not know why he chose to limit the acme to three generations, except that—as Vivante probably does not know—that span is a common folk idea, which happens to be false. We in the Parry collection have documentary evidence of song traditions covering more than four hundred years. If Vivante meant to say what I have indicated, why did he not do so and omit the questioning of the existence of tradition?

In Iliad 21, in Achilles’ fight with the river, the pattern of the war of the gods shades into still another pattern, that of the almost-death of the hero. Achilles almost dies in his fight with the river, but he is saved by Hera, who sends Hephaestus with fire to subdue the waters. This is one of the most dramatic scenes in the poem:

I can cite an example of the almost-death of the hero from South Slavic epic. In one of the most famous of the songs of Marko Kraljević, the hero meets with the formidable roadblocker, Musa the Highwayman, who turns out to have three hearts, one of them a serpent. In this combat, Marko was saved by the aid of the vila, the winged mountain spirit who was his blood sister. Other examples of the theme of the near death of the hero come to mind in the almost-death of Beowulf in his fight with Grendel and his dam, also of Charlemagne in his combat with Baligant.

To return to the subject of poetic language, Homer’s had been forged by generations of singers before him, just as the average speaker of any language has inherited his nonpoetic language, which has been forged by generations of speakers before him and indeed by the same process of assimilation. In both cases not only are words inherited but also clusters of words in a variety {73|74} of combinations, together with the flexibility to create new combinations. But, although the basic process is the same, effected by singing or speaking rather than in writing, Homer’s composing of epic songs is different from the average speaker’s utterances, a vital difference being, of course, that Homer is singing in dactylic hexameters, whereas the average speaker is speaking in ordinary prose.

Homer, I maintain, inherited a poetic language adapted to metrical utterance, including words to express the most needed ideas and feelings in the epic songs and providing models for creating means to express any other ideas he may have wished to convey to his listeners. The modern poet seeks, rather, to create an individual, even individualistic, language of his own with its own diction and poetics. He can and is expected to seek new modes of thought and of language. The poetic moment is that of composition, a moment ideally relived by the listener or reader.

Homer, like other traditional singers of epic, does not eschew his inherited language, because it is an ideal language created to serve a particular purpose and serving it very well; it is necessary for him. The intellectual climate of Homer’s age expressed itself fully and satisfactorily in that poetic language; it sought no other. Instead, the intellectual climate of the modern poet consciously seeks individual creation, a new and individual poetic language. It is on this basis that the difference in poetics between oral traditional epic and written nontraditional epic is predicated.

When I spoke about words and combinations of words, I, of course, had formulas and themes in mind. But it must be understood that these formulas are not necessarily fixed entities although they may attain a kind of stability in a singer’s usage which is not by any means the same as permanent fixity. They are not dead phrases floating vaguely about as stock in trade for the poet singer. They are a living part of dynamic, traditional poetic language.

To treat the traditional formulas and themes as if they were vibrantly brand new each time they appear is, however, to miss their peculiar quality of traditionality, a kind of patina that is theirs alone. The literary critic should strive to see and appreciate the value of that patina. To try to refurbish the objet d’art by trying to make it look brand new is to falsify it. A patina is not the same as tarnish or grime.

The arming of Paris in 3.330-38 begins with the lines

κνημῖδας μὲν πρῶτα περὶ κνήμῃσιν ἔθηκε
καλάς, ἀργυρέοισιν ἐπισφυρίοις ἀραρυίας·
δεύτερον αὖ θώρηκα περὶ στήθεσσιν ἔδυνεν.

First he placed along his legs the fair greaves linked with
silver fastenings to hold the greaves at the ankles.
Afterwards he girt on about his chest the corselet.

The arming of Agamemnon in 11.17-45, that of Patroclus in 16.131-39, and finally the arming of Achilles himself in 19.369-74 and 380-83, all begin with the same three lines. These are the only times when any of these lines, alone or in combination, is used in the Homeric corpus as it has come down to us. That sets those four arming scenes in a place by themselves.

The first epithet in these three lines is καλάς ‘fair’, and I suggest that one of the elements in its choice was the fact that it alliterates with the ks of the preceding line. The only other epithet in these lines immediately follows καλάς, namely, ἀργυρέοισιν ‘silver’, and I suggest that one of the factors in its choice also was its assonance with the last word in its line, ἀραρυίας ‘linked’, although it is to be noted that it does not qualify that word.

Note the structure of the first two lines above:

noun acc.          adverb          prep. phrase          verb
κνημῖδας            πρῶτα          περὶ κνήμῃσιν        ἔθηκε

epithet          epithet          noun          participle
καλάς          ἀργυρέοισιν  ἐπισφυρίοις   ἀραρυίας {76|77}

and the third line:

adverb          noun acc.          prep. phrase          verb
δεύτερον      θώρηκα             περὶ στήθεσσιν      ἔδυνεν

The clasps are used only in these four passages in the Iliadand in the related 18.459, when Thetis asks Hephaestus for armor for Achilles:

καὶ καλὰς κνημῖδας ἐπισφυρίοις ἀραρυίας.
and beautiful greaves fitted with clasps.

Here the epithet for clasps (fastenings) is not used because the greaves are simply enumerated in a list of the items of armor to be prepared; they are not being donned. Hence only one line is used, not two. When the donning is described, two lines are needed in order to include the verb.

The same principle of alliteration that we saw above seems to influence the other words used in lines having κνημῖδας ‘greaves’ in them. So in 18.613 we find:

τεῦξε δέ οἱ κνημῖδας ἑανοῦ κασσιτέροιο.
He made for him greaves of light tin.

I cannot refrain from quoting the entire passage of which this is the last line, partly for the alliterations, partly for the repetitions of τεῦξε ‘made, wrought’, and partly for the cumulative effect of the lines themselves:

609    Αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τεῦξε σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε,
          τεῦξ᾽ ἄρα οἱ θώρηκα φαεινότερον πυρὸς αὐγῆς,
          τεῦξε δέ οἱ κόρυθα βριαρὴν κροτάφοις ἀραρυῖαν,
          καλὴν δαιδαλέην, ἐπὶ δὲ χρύσεον λόφον ἦκε,
          τεῦξε δέ οἱ κνημῖδας ἑανοῦ κασσιτέροιο.

          Then after he had wrought this shield, which was huge and heavy,
          he wrought for him a corselet brighter than fire in its shining,
          and wrought him a helmet massive and fitting close to his temples,
          lovely and intricate work, and laid a gold top-ridge along it,
          and out of pliable tin wrought him leg-armour …

The greaves are of tin partly at least because ‘tin’ (κασσίτερος), alliterates with κνημῖδας. We find also the same descriptive genitive κασσιτέροιο with the singular κνημίς in 21.592: {77|78}

ἀμφὶ δέ oἱ κνημὶς νεοτεύκτου κασσιτέροιο
σμερδαλέον κονάβησε …

Round about it the greave of newly made tin
clanged terribly …

‘Newly made’ (νεοτεύκτου) is clearly a very apposite epithet in this passage; for the greave in question is that in the new armor made by Hephaestus for Achilles. It is not actually, then, a “fixed epithet” for κασσίτερος, although the epithet νεοτευχής is used again in the Iliadin 5.194:

193    ἀλλά που ἐν μεγάροισι Λυκάονος ἕνδεκα δίφροι
          καλοὶ πρωτοπαγεῖς νεοτευχέες · ἀμφὶ δὲ πέπλοι

          somewhere in the great house of Lykaon are eleven chariots,
          beauties, all new made, just finished, and over them blankets.

At line 3.333, Homer continues the arming of Paris, with an idea peculiar to that hero’s corselet:

οἷο κασιγνήτοιο Λυκάονος · ἥρμοσε δ’ αὐτῷ.
of Lykaon his brother since this fitted him also.

which picks up the k alliteration again. After the description of the greaves, the donning of the armor is resumed in lines 334-38:

ἀμφὶ δ’ ἄρ’ ὤμοισιν βάλετο ξίφος ἀργυρόηλον
χάλκεον, αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε·
κρατὶ δ’ ἐπ᾽ ἰφθίμῳ κυνέην εὔτυκτον ἔθηκεν
ἵππουριν· δεινὸν δὲ λόφος καθύπερθεν ἔνευεν·
εἵλετο δ᾽ ἄλκιμον ἔγχος, ὅ οἱ παλάμηφιν ἀρήρει.

Across his shoulders he slung the sword with the nails of silver,
a bronze sword, and above it the great shield, huge and heavy.
Over his powerful head he set the well-fashioned helmet
with the horse-hair crest, and the plumes nodded terribly above it.
He took up a strong-shafted spear that fitted his hand’s grip.

But the first three lines we considered were used to introduce the arming of Agamemnon and of Achilles as well. In the case of Agamemnon, lines 11.20-28 describe the special corselet Agamemnon put on:

20      τόν ποτέ οἱ Κινύρης δῶκε ξεινήϊον εἶναι.
          πεύθετο γὰρ Κύπρονδε μέγα κλέος, οὓθνεκ’ Αχαιοὶ
          ἐς Τροίην νήεσσιν ἀναπλεύσεσθαι ἔμελλαν·
          τοὔνεκά οἱ τὸν δῶκε χαριζόμενος βασιλῆϊ.
          τοῦ δ᾽ ἤτοι δέκα οἶμοι ἔσαν μέλανος κυάνοιο,
25      δώδεκα δὲ χρυσοῖο καὶ εἴκοσι κασσιτέροιο·
          κυάνεοι δὲ δράκοντες ὀρωρέχατο προτὶ δειρὴν
          τρεῖς ἑκάτερθ’, ἴρισσιν ἐοικότες, ἅς τε Κρανίων
          ἐν νέφεϊ στήριξε, τέρας μερόπων ἀνθρώπων.

          [First he placed along his legs the beautiful greaves linked
          with silver fastenings to hold the greaves at the ankles.
          Afterwards he girt on about his chest the corselet]
          that Kinyras had given him once, to be a guest present.
          For the great fame and rumour of war had carried to Kypros
          how the Achaians were to sail against Troy in their vessels.
          Therefore he gave the king as a gift of grace this corselet.
          Now there were ten circles of deep cobalt upon it,
          and twelve of gold and twenty of tin. And toward the opening
          at the throat there were rearing up three serpents of cobalt
          on either side, like rainbows, which the son of Kronos
          has marked upon the clouds, to be a portent to mortals. {79|80}

After this special passage the lines in the two other armings (those of Paris and Patroclus) reappear in that of Agamemnon slightly changed in 11.29-31:

ἀμφὶ δ’ ἄρ’ ὤμοισιν βάλετο ξίφος · ἐν δέ οἱ ἧλοι
χρύσειοι πάμφαινον, ἀτὰρ περὶ κουλεὸν ἦεν
ἀργύρεον, χρυσέοισιν ἀορτήρεσσιν ἀρηρός.

Across his shoulders he slung the sword, and the nails upon it
were golden and glittered, and closing about it the scabbard
was silver, and gold was upon the swordstraps that held it.

Before the first line has ended, the sword’s description has begun. That description is followed immediately by that of the shield (32-40), a special and ornate passage that is unparalleled in the other passages.

          ἄν δ’ ἕλετ’ ἀμφιβρότην πολυδαίδαλον ἀσπίδα θοῦριν,
          καλήν, ἥν πέρι μὲν κύκλοι δέκα χάλκεοι ἦσαν,
          ἐν δέ οἱ ὀμφαλοὶ ἦσαν ἐείκοσι κασσιτέροιο
35      λευκοί, ἐν δὲ μέσοισιν ἔην μέλανος κυάνοιο.
          τῇ δ’ ἐπὶ μὲν Γοργὼ βλοσυρῶπις ἐστεφάνωτο
          δεινὸν δερκομένη, περὶ δὲ Δεῖμός τε Φόβος τε·
          τῆς δ’ ἐξ ἀργύρεος τελαμὼν ἦν· αὐτὰρ ἐπ’ αὐτοῦ
          κυάνεος ἐλέλικτο δράκων, κεφαλαὶ δέ οἱ ἦσαν
40      τρεῖς ἀμφιστρεφέες, ἑνὸς αὐχένος ἐκπεφυυῖαι.

          And he took up the man-enclosing elaborate stark shield,
          a thing of splendour. There were ten circles of bronze upon it,
          and set about it were twenty knobs of tin, pale-shining,
          and in the very centre another knob of dark cobalt.
          And circled in the midst of all was the blank-eyed face of the Gorgon
          with her stare of horror, and Fear was inscribed upon it, and Terror.
          The strap of the shield had silver upon it, and there also on it
          was coiled a cobalt snake, and there were three heads upon him
          twisted to look backward and grown from a single neck, all three.

The basic lines then reappear for another brief spell, also somewhat modified, in lines 41-45:

κρατὶ δ’ ἐπ’ ἀμφίφαλον κυνέην θέτο τετραφάληρον
ἵππουριν· δεινὸν δὲ λόφος καθύπερθεν ἔνευεν.
εἳλετο δ’ ἄλκιμα δοῦρε δύω, κεκορυθμένα χαλκῷ,
ὀξέα· τῆλε δὲ χαλκὸς ἀπ’ αὐτόφιν οὐρανὸν εἴσω
λάμπ’ … {80|81}

Upon his head he set the helmet, two-horned, four-sheeted,
with the horse-hair crest, and the plumes nodding terribly above it.
Then he caught up two strong spears edged with sharp bronze
and the brazen heads flashed far from him deep into heaven.

I have underlined the changes from the “basic lines” of the theme—for that is what it is—although one should also note that line 43 has the ἂλκιμα δοῦρε ‘strong spears’ found in the arming of Patroclus in 16.139. The arming of Agamemnon ends with line 44 above, or, more strictly, after the first word of line 45. Thus the arming of Agamemnon is completed, a combination of modified basic lines and special passages pertaining to it alone.

Achilles then tries himself in his armor in lines 384-86, “and the armour became as wings and upheld the shepherd of the people.” Finally he takes up his Pelian ash spear, his “special weapon.” With this his arming ends. It covers twenty-three lines—the next to the longest of the four passages involved. {82|83} The arming of Agamemnon with its twenty-eight lines surpasses it by five lines. Paris’s arming takes nine lines and Patroclus’s fourteen.

It is not surprising to find that the lines about Achilles’ Pelian ash spear (388-91) are alike in the arming of Patroclus, who does nottake it (16.139-44), and of Achilles, who does.

139    εἵλετο δ’ ἄλκιμα δοῦρε, τά οἱ παλάμηφιν ἀρήρει.
          ἔγχος δ’ οὐχ ἕλετ’ οἶον ἀμύμονος Αἰακίδαο,
          βριθὺ μέγα στιβαρόν· τὸ μὲν οὐ δύνατ’ ἄλλος ᾽Αχαιῶν
          πάλλειν, ἀλλά μιν οἶος ἐπίστατο πῆλαι Ἀχιλλεύς,
          Πηλιάδα μελίην, τὴν πατρὶ φίλῳ πόρε Χείρων
          Πηλίου ἐκ κορυφῆς, φόνον ἔμμεναι ἡρώσσιν …

          He took up two powerful spears that fitted his hand’s grip,
          only he did not take the spear of blameless Aiakides,
          huge, heavy, thick, which no one else of all the Achaians
          could handle, but Achilleus alone knew how to wield it;
          the Pelian ash spear which Cheiron had brought to his father
          from high on Pelion to be death for fighters …

Achilles takes up the spear in 19.387:

ἐκ δ’ ἄρα σύριγγος πατρώϊον ἐσπάσατ’ ἔγχος
Next he pulled out from its standing place the spear of his father.

Then the description of the spear follows as in 16.141-44. The alliteration in the Greek in these passages about the Pelian ash spear echoes around three ideas, Πηλιάδα ‘the Pelian one’ (143, and Πηλίου 144 and 19.390 and 391); πάλλειν ‘to brandish’ (142 and 19.389, ἐπίστατο Πῆλαι, also 142 and 19.389); and πατρώϊον ‘οf his father’ (ἐσπάσατ’ 19.387 [and πατρί 143 and 19.390]).

The epithets for the spear in these passages, in addition to Πηλιάδα, which together with πάλλειν establishes the alliteration, are worthy of our attention: βριθὺ, μέγα, στιβαρόν ‘heavy, huge, thick’. They are found in the same position three more times, always qualifying ἔγχος ‘spear’ at the end of the preceding line (the sole exception is in the arming of Patroclus, 16.140, where ἔγχος is at the beginning of the line). Twice they are used, interestingly enough, to describe Athena’s preparing to depart from Olympus:

5.745-47 and 8.389-91
ἐς δ’ ὄχεα φλόγεα ποσὶ βήσετο, λάζετο δ’ ἔγχος
βριθὺ μέγα στιβαρόν, τῷ δάμνησι στίχας ἀνδρῶν {83|84}
ἡρώων, οἷσίν τε κοτέσσεται ὀβριμοπάτρη.
(391 reads: ἡρώων, τοῖσίν τε κοτέσσεται ὀβριμοπάτρη.)

She set her feet in the blazing chariot and took up a spear
heavy, huge, thick, wherewith she beats down the battalions of fighting
men, against whom she of mighty father is angered.

The passages continue to lines 752 and 396 respectively without change of wording.

We see, therefore, that the epithets βριθὺ, μέγα, στιβαρόν are used together only for the spears of Athena and Achilles and for the substitute spear of Patroclus. In fact, in the Odyssey the only line in which βριθύ is found also describes Athena’s departure from Olympus, the same one with which we are now familiar: {84|85}

εἵλετο δ’ ἄλκιμον ἔγχος, ἀκαχμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
βριθὺ μέγα στιβαρόν, τῷ δάμνησι στίχας ἀνδρῶν
ἡρώων, τοῖσίν τε κοτέσσεται ὀβριμοπάτρη.

Odyssey 1.99-101

Then she caught up a powerful spear, edged with sharp bronze,
heavy, huge, thick, wherewith she beats down the battalions of fighting
men, against whom she of the mighty father is angered.

This combination of epithets is clearly special and not used for any ἔγχος ‘spear’ among the many in the Iliad and Odyssey but only for the one Athena picks up on Olympus when she comes down to Ithaca or Troy, one that is fatal for the ranks of men, or otherwise only for Achilles’ ἔγχος, the Pelian ash spear (or its substitute, which, as substitute, is shattered), which is also fatal to the ranks of men.

The epithets μέγα and στιβαρόν are also common with σάκος ‘shield’ in the arming of Paris, Patroclus, and Achilles and in the ordering and making of the great shield in 18.478 and 609. The other specific instances are 3.335 (Paris), 16.136 (Patroclus), and 19.373 (Achilles):

χάλκεον· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε
a bronze sword, and above it the great shield, huge and heavy.

The two instances in Book 18 are:

478    ποίει δὲ πρώτιστα σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε
          First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy.


609    αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τεῦξε σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε,
          Then after he had wrought this shield, which was huge and heavy,

It is curious to find Paris’s arming included in what is otherwise an all-Achilles phenomenon. It is also curious to find that the most elaborate arming, that of Agamemnon, is excluded. Put in other words, why does Paris have a σάκος μέγα τε στιβαρόν τε ‘a shield huge and heavy’, and why does Agamemnon have an ἀμφιβρότην πολυδαίδαλον ἀσπίδα θοῦριν ‘man-enclosing elaborate stark shield’? The answer to the latter question is easier than that to the former. Agamemnon’s shield is also very special with its four epithets, 11.32-33: {85|86}

ἂν δ’ ἓλετ’ ἀμφιβρότην πολυδαίδαλον ἀσπίδα θοῦριν,
καλήν, ἣν πέρι μὲν κύκλοι δέκα χάλκεοι ἦσαν,

And he took up the man-enclosing elaborate stark shield,
a thing of splendour. There were ten circles of bronze upon it.

The last epithet, καλήν ‘splendid’, may be explained by the alliteration of the line, recalling a similar case with the greaves, although in this case the alliteration is anticipatory.

The epithet θοῦριν is usually associated in penultimate position with the genitive θούριδος ἀλκῆς ‘impetuous might’ (twenty times in the Ιliad) or with the accusative of Ares, θοῦρον ῎Αρηα ‘violent Ares’ (nine times in the Iliad, of which seven are in penultimate position and two in the second foot). It is used twice in the nominative with Ares; it is used three times in the feminine accusative with ἀλκήν:

5.507 θοῦρος ῎Αρης ἐκάλυψε μάχῃ Τρώεσσιν ἀρήγων,
          As violent Ares defending the Trojans mantled in dark night the battle,
24.498 τῶν μὲν πολλῶν θοῦρος ῎Αρης ὑπὸ γούνατ’ ἔλυσεν.
            Violent Ares broke the strength in the knees of most of them.

7.164 τοῖσι δ’ ἐπ’ Αἴαντες, θοῦριν ἐπιειμένοι ἀλκήν,
          and next the two Aiantes rose, their fierce strength upon them,
18.157 τρὶς δὲ δύ’ Αἴαντες, θοῦριν ἐπιειμένοι ἀλκήν,
            Three times the two Aiantes with their battle-fury upon them,

The epithet θοῦρος ‘fierce’ seems to be comfortable with words beginning with alpha. It is used once of the aegis, 15.308!

306    Τρῶες δὲ προὔτυψαν ἀολλέες, ἦρχε δ’ ἄρ’ Ἕκτωρ
          μακρὰ βιβάς· πρόσθεν δὲ κί᾽ αὐτοῦ Φοῖβος ᾽Απόλλων
          εἱμένος ὤμοιιν νεφέλην, ἔχε δ᾽ αἰγίδα θοῦριν,
          δεινὴν ἀμφιδάσειαν ἀριπρεπέ᾽, ἣν ἄρα χαλκεὺς
          ῞Ηφαιστος Διὶ δῶκε φορήμεναι ἐς φόβον ἀνδρῶν.

          The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
          in long strides, and in front of him went Phoibos Apollo
          wearing a mist about his shoulders, and held the tempestuous
          terrible aegis, shaggy, conspicuous, that the bronze-smith
          Hephaistos had given Zeus to wear to the terror of mortals. {86|87}

The epithet θοῦριν is used once more with ἀσπίδα, in 20.162, when Aeneas goes forth to meet Achilles, and it is Aeneas’s shield to which it is applied:

161    Αἰνείας δὲ πρῶτος ἀπειλήσας ἐβεβήκει,
          νευστάζων κόρυθι βριαρῆ· ἀτὰρ ἀσπίδα θοῦριν
          πρόσθεν ἔχε στέρνοιο, τίνασσε δὲ χάλκεον ἔγχος.

          First of the two Aineias had strode forth in menace, tossing
          his head beneath the heavy helm, and he held the stark shield
          in front of his chest, and shook the brazen spear.

It is time to look at the last two of the epithets applied to Agamemnon’s great shield, πολυδαίδαλον ‘intricately worked’ and ἀμφιβρότην ‘man-enclosing’; πολυδαίδαλον is used six more times in the Iliadin addition to 11.32 in the arming of Agamemnon. We find it four times (3.358, 4.136, 7.252, and 11.436), in the line

καὶ διὰ θώρηκος πολυδαιδάλου ἠρήρειστο.
and smashed its way through the intricately worked corselet.

The first instance is in the duel between Menelaus and Paris. The latter has thrown his spear, which was caught by Menelaus on his shield. After a prayer {87|88} to Zeus, Menelaus casts his spear and strikes “the shield of Priam’s son on its perfect circle”:

355    ἦ ῥα καὶ ἀμπεπαλὼν προΐεν δολιχόσκιον ἔγχος,
          καὶ βάλε Πριαμίδαο κατ᾽ ἀσπίδα πάντος᾽ ἐΐσην·
          διὰ μὲν ἀσπίδος ἦλθε φαεινῆς ὄβριμον ἔγχος,
          καὶ διὰ θώρηκος πολυδαιδάλου ἠρήρειστο·
          ἀντικρὺ δὲ παραὶ λαπάρην διάμησε χιτῶνα
          ἔγχος· ὁ δ᾽ ἐκλίνθη καὶ ἀλεύατο κῆρα μέλαιναν.

          So he spoke, and balanced the spear far-shadowed, and threw it
          and struck the shield of Priam’s son on its perfect circle.
          All the way through the glittering shield went the heavy spearhead
          and smashed its way through the intricately worked corselet;
          straight ahead by the flank the spearhead shore through his tunic,
          yet he bent away to one side and avoided the dark death.

The second instance of the line is in another famous passage involving Menelaus, that of his being wounded by the arrow of Pandarus, 4.134-38:

ἐν δ᾽ ἔπεσε ζωστῆρι ἀρηρότι πικρὸς ὀϊστός·
διὰ μὲν ἂρ ζωστῆρος ἐλήλατο δαιδαλέοιο,
καὶ διὰ θώρηκος πολυδαιδάλου ἠρήρειστο
μίτρης θ᾽, ἣν ἐφόρει ἔρυμα χροός, ἕρκος ἀκόντων,
ἥ οἱ πλεῖστον ἔρυτο· διαπρὸ δὲ εἴσατο καὶ τῆς.

The bitter arrow was driven against the joining of the war belt
and passed clean through the war belt elaborately woven;
into the elaborately wrought corselet the shaft was driven
and the guard which he wore to protect his skin and keep the spears off,
which guarded him best, yet the arrow plunged even through this also.

It is not, of course, surprising that there should be a correlation between the lexicon of arming scenes and that of wounding scenes in which the armor is penetrated or broken, as we have seen in the “unarming” of Patroclus.

The aborted duel between Ajax and Hector is the scene in which πολυδαιδάλου is used a third time in the lliad, and it is also not surprising, because another son of Priam is involved, to find some of the same lines (7.248-54):

ἐν τῇ δ᾽ ἑβδομάτῃ ῥινῷ σχέτο· δεύτερος αὖτε
Αἴας διογενὴς προΐει δολιχόσκιον ἔγχος, {88|89}
καὶ βάλε Πριαμίδαο κατ᾽ ἀσπίδα πάντοσ᾽ ἐΐσην.
διὰ μὲν ἀσπίδος ἦλθε φαεννῆς ὄβριμον ἔγχος,
καὶ διὰ θώρηκος πολυδαιδάλου ἠρήρειστο·
ἀντικρὺ δὲ παραὶ λαπάρην διάμησε χιτῶνα
ἔγχος· ὁ δ᾽ ἐκλίνθη καὶ ἀλεύατο κῆρα μέλαιναν.

but was stopped in the seventh ox-hide. Then after him Ajax
the illustrious in turn cast with his spear far-shadowing
and struck the shield of Priam’s son on its perfect circle.
All the way through the glittering shield went the heavy spearhead,
and crashed its way through the intricately worked corselet;
straight ahead by the flank the spearhead shore through his tunic,
yet he bent away to one side and avoided the dark death.

The fourth and final instance of this line in the Iliad is in the scene of the wounding of Odysseus in 11.434-36:

ὣς εἰπὼν οὔτησε κατ᾽ ἀσπίδα πάντος᾽ ἐΐσην.
διὰ μὲν ἀσπίδος ἦλθε φαεινῆς ὄβριμον ἔγχος,
καὶ διὰ θώρηκος πολυδαιδάλου ἠρήρειστο.

He spoke, and stabbed Odysseus’ shield in its perfect circle,
All the way through the glittering shield went the heavy spearhead
and crashed its way through the intricately wrought corselet.

In the two duels the spear does not do as great damage as it might have, because the wounded man leans to the side and it does not hit a vital spot. In the woundings of Menelaus and of Odysseus, Athena saves the heroes. In 4.127-29 she saves Menelaus:

Still the blessed gods immortal did not forget you,
Menelaos, and first among them Zeus’ daughter, the spoiler,
who standing in front of you fended aside the tearing arrow.

and in 11.437-38 she keeps the point of the spear from penetrating too far:

and all the skin was torn away from his ribs, yet Pallas
Athene would not let the point penetrate the man’s vitals.

Note that the epithet πολυδαίδαλος is used only once to describe a shield—that of Agamemnon—but four times for the corselet, to which it seems to belong more commonly. Yet it marks the significant wounding of {89|90} significant figures at significant junctures in the epic: namely, the two duels that might have ended the war; the breaking of the truce; and in Book 11, the wounding of Odysseus, the last of the three chiefs (the other two were Agamemnon and Diomedes) who were taken from the field, in Odysseus’s case by Menelaus and Ajax. This action clears the arena eventually for Hector. It is followed immediately, however, by Paris’s wounding of Machaon, whom Nestor takes from the field; by Ajax’s stunning retreat; and by Paris’s wounding of Eurypylus, whom Ajax joins. These events set the stage for Achilles’ sending of Patroclus to Nestor to learn whom he was taking off the field. Patroclus is delayed in his mission as he stops to help Eurypylus, whom he meets as he passes the ships of Odysseus on his way back with Nestor’s entreaty to Achilles to send Patroclus into the battle in his, Achilles’, armor. Thus all four of the scenes in which this line appears are decisive for the outcome of the epic. Truly, ornamentation underlines important action, points to it, as it were; it is not “mere ornamentation” in oral traditional epic.

The description of Agamemnon’s shield and the four woundings leave two other instances of πολυδαίδαλος in the Iliadyet to be discussed. They are found in the last two books of the epic. In 23.743 the epithet is used, this time in the sense of “skillful,” to describe the Sidonian craftsmen who made a mixing bowl of silver offered as a prize in the foot race in the funeral games for Patroclus. I quote the passage at some length:

740    Πηλεΐδης δ᾽ αἶψ᾽ ἄλλα τίθει ταχύτῆτας ἄεθλα,
          ἀργύρεον κρητῆρα, τετυγμένον· ἓξ δ᾽ ἄρα μέτρα
          χάνδανεν, αὐτὰρ κάλλει ἐνίκα πᾶσαν ἐπ᾽ αἶαν
          πολλόν, ἐπεὶ Σιδόνες πολυδαίδαλοι εὖ ἤσκησαν,
          Φοίνικες δ’ ἄγον ἄνδρες ἐπ’ ἠεροειδέα πόντον,
745    στῆσαν δ᾽ἐν λιμένεσσι, Θόαντι δὲ δῶρον ἔδωκαν·
          υἶος δὲ Πριάμοιο Λυκάονος ὦvov ἔδωκε
          Πατρόκλῳ ἥρωï ᾽Ιησονίδης Εὔνηος.
          καὶ τὸν ᾽Αχιλλεὺς θῆκεν ἀέθλιον οὗ ἑτάροιο,
          ὅς τις ἑλαφρότατος ποσσὶ κραιπνοῖσι πέλοιτο.

          At once the son of Peleus set out prizes for the foot-race:
          a mixing-bowl of silver, a work of art, which held only
          six measures, but for its loveliness it surpassed all others
          on earth by far, since skilled Sidonian craftsmen had wrought it
          well, and Phoenicians carried it over the misty face of the water
          and set it in the harbour, and gave it for a present to Thoas.
          Euneos, son of Jason, gave it to the hero Patroklos
          to buy Lykaon, Priam’s son, out of slavery, and now {90|91}
          Achilleus made it a prize in memory of his companion,
          for that man who should prove in the speed of his feet to run lightest.

This history of the mixing-bowl reminds one of the earlier scenes, especially that of Lykaon’s death in Book 21 at the hands of a ruthless Achilles maddened at the loss of Patroclus. But that scene has nothing to do, of course, with the epithet, which is not in the earlier passage. We have now moved instead to a different context for the epithet’s use, that of the makers of beautiful objects for the house or for personal adornment rather than intricately wrought armor. The scenes in this group of contexts are of peace, not of war.

This point is illustrated also by the final case of πολυδαίδαλος ‘ornate’, where it is used to describe the couch to which Achilles returned after putting Hector’s body on a litter for Priam to take back to Troy (24.596-98):

ἦ ῥα, καὶ ἐς κλισίην πάλιν ἤϊε δῖος ᾽Αχιλλεύς,
ἕζετο δ᾽ ἐν κλισμῷ πολυδαιδάλῳ, ἔνθεν ἀνέστη,
τοίχου τοῦ ἑτέρου, ποτὶ δὲ Πρίαμον φάτο μῦθον.

So spoke great Achilleus and went back into the shelter
and sat down on the elaborate couch from which he had risen,
against the inward wall, and now spoke his word to Priam.

The form πολυδαίδαλον is used twice in the Odyssey (6.15 and 18.295) and once in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, and πολυδαίδαλος is used once in the Odyssey (13.11). In 6.15 it refers to Nausikaa’s bedchamber, which Athena visits:

βῆ δ᾽ ἴμεν ἐς θάλαμον πολυδαίδαλον, ᾧ ἔνι κούρη
κοιμᾶτ᾽ ἀθανάτῃσι φυὴν καὶ εἶδος ὁμοίη,
Ναυσικάα, θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ᾽Αλκινόοιο.

and she went into the ornate chamber, in which a girl
was sleeping, like the immortal goddesses for stature and beauty,
Nausikaa, the daughter of great-hearted Alkinoös.

In 18.295, Eurymachus sends his herald for a gift for Penelope, a lovely necklace:

ὅρμον δ᾽ Εὐρυμάχῳ πολυδαίδαλον αὐτίκ᾽ ἔνεικε,
χρύσεον, ἠλέκτροισιν ἐερμένον, ἠέλιον ὥς. {91|92}

Eurymachos’ man came back with an elaborate necklace of gold,
strung with bits of amber, and bright as sunshine.

The epithet describes a gift also in 13.11, a gift of gold from Alcinous for Odysseus:

10      εἵματα μὲν δὴ ξείνῳ ἐϋξέστῃ ἐνὶ χηλῷ
          κεῖται καὶ χρυσὸς πολυδαίδαλος ἄλλα τε πάντα
          δῶρ᾽, ὅσα Φαιήκων βουληφόροι ἐνθάδ᾽ ἔνεικαν.

          Clothing for our guest is stored away in the polished
          chest, and intricately wrought gold, and all those other
          gifts the Phaiakian men of counsel brought here to give him.

Finally, to round out the picture, πολυδαίδαλον ‘carved’ is used in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, line 345, to describe Hera’s chair on Olympus:

None of this has anything to do with the shield of Agamemnon, but in searching out the uses of the epithet in the Homeric poems we have learned that πολυδαίδαλος ‘intricately wrought’ is found in two main contexts. The shield belongs in the war context, where, however, the epithet is applied most frequently to a corselet, but only in this context to a shield, Agamemnon’s. In the peace setting it is applied often to gifts or to a prize. In the arming of Agamemnon, one may recall, the second piece of armor he dons, after the greaves, is the corselet, which had been a guest present to him. Could it be that the corselet and its history had, by association of ideas, brought πολυδαίδαλος to Homer’s mind, which he applied a few lines later to the shield?

Where the words ἀσπίδος ἀμφιβρότης ‘man-enclosing shield’ occur in 12.402, we also find a significant episode. Sarpedon has just pulled down part of the battlements:

And Sarpedon, grabbing in both ponderous hands the battlements,
pulled, and the whole thing came away in his hands, and the rampart was
stripped defenceless above. He had opened a pathway for many.

At this point, Ajax and Teucer attack him:

400    Τὸν δ᾽ Αἴας καὶ Τεῦκρος ὁμαρτήσανθ᾽ ὁ μὲν ἰῷ
          βεβλήκει τελαμῶνα περὶ στήθεσσι φαεινὸν
          ἀσπίδος ἀμφιβρότης· ἀλλα Ζεὺς κῆρας ἄμυνε
          παιδὸς ἑοῦ, μὴ νηυσὶν ἔπι πρύμνῃσι δαμείη.

          Aias and Teukros aimed at him together, and Teukros
          hit him with an arrow in the shining belt that encircled
          his chest to hold the man-covering shield, but Zeus brushed the death spirits
          from his son, and would not let him be killed there beside the ships’ sterns.

So Sarpedon is spared for the time being.

The final instance of ἀσπίδος ἀμφιβρότης (20.281) is in another striking scene, the encounter of Achilles with Aeneas. The role of the shield is {93|94} dramatic. Achilles has cast the Pelian ash spear, which struck the outer rim of the shield where it was thinnest:

276                   … ἡ δὲ διαπρὸ
          Πηλιὰς ἤϊξεν μελίη, λάκε δ᾽ ἀσπὶς ὑπ᾽ αὐτῆς.

                                     The Pelian ash spear
          crashed clean through it there, and the shield cried out as it went through.

The reaction of Aeneas involves the shield:

278    Αἰνείας δ᾽ ἐάλη καὶ ἀπὸ ἕθεν ἀσπίδ᾽ ἀνέσχε
          δείσας· ἐγχείη δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπὲρ νώτου ἐνὶ γαίῃ
          ἔστη ἱεμένη, διὰ δ᾽ ἀμφοτέρους ἕλε κύκλους
          ἀσπίδος ἀμφιβρότης.

          Aineias shrank down and held the shield away and above him
          in fright, and the spear went over his back and crashed its way
          to the ground, and fixed there, after tearing apart two circles
          of the man-covering shield.

Aeneas stands stock still and is overcome with emotion when he sees how close the spear came to him. He picks up a huge stone “which no two men could carry / such as men are now, but by himself he lightly hefted it.” Achilles would have fended it off with his shield and dispatched Aeneas with his sword, but Poseidon intervenes with the gods to save Aeneas. Poseidon’s ensuing conversation with Athena and Hera is reminiscent of Zeus’s with the same worthies over the case of his son Sarpedon. As a result, Poseidon goes to the field of action (20.321-27):

There quickly he drifted a mist across the eyes of one fighter,
Achilleus, Peleus’ son, and from the shield of Aineias
of the great heart pulled loose the strong bronze-headed ash spear
and laid it down again before the feet of Achilleus;
but Aineias he lifted high from the ground, and slung him through the air
so that many ranks of fighting men, many ranks of horses,
were overvaulted by Aineias, hurled by the god’s hand.

Although the sparing of Aeneas by Poseidon, playing Aphrodite’s role, reminds one, and quite rightly, of the scene in which Sarpedon is spared and inevitably, and more cogently, of course, also of the major scene in which he is not spared, it is not the noun-epithet combination ἀσπίδος ἀμφιβρότης {94|95} that makes the association. Yet, as was the case with θώρηκος πολυδαιδάλου ‘intricately worked corselet’, these noun-epithet combinations tend to occur in significant passages, some of which are multiforms of the same thematic material. How many of the scenes to which these epithets have led us involved sparing the life of an important figure in the heroic world!

We could continue in this vein and broaden our experience of arms and arming, investigating the epithets and other key words, observing them in their several and varied contexts, but we have examined enough to illustrate Homer’s technique. Sound patterns have been shown to play a large role in the choice of the epithets and in the phrasing of the lines. We have seen that Homer has a group of basic lines for arming, which he supplements and modifies as the scene and action require. We saw also that there are apparently only four armings in which this basic group forms the nucleus: that of Agamemnon, the longest and most special (in which the shield finds its closest parallel in the Shield of Heracles, not in Achilles’ shield); those of Achilles and Patroclus; and finally, and perhaps somewhat strangely, that of Paris. Notable are the otherworldly or divine connections in the major three, excluding Paris’s. In spite of the basic lines, the armings of Achilles and Paris are distinct and reflect the character of their heroes. It is clear that epithets are not used mechanically; rather, particular noun-epithet combinations recur in observable patterns in passages crucial for the action of the poem. A study of the ambiance of these phrases reveals their discriminating use in related passages important for their human and often divine associations. Their repetition is not accidental but helps to emphasize key ideas. Repetition and ornamentation are surely meaningful elements in oral epic tradition.


[ back ] 1. Vivante, 1982, chap. 22, n. 1: “I grant for the argument’s sake that Homer was an ‘oral poet,’ as supposed by Parry. Whether he wrote or not is not relevant to my thesis.”

[ back ] 2. Ibid., ix.

[ back ] 3. Ibid.

[ back ] 4. For the denigration of mythological analysis and of attempts to fathom the layers of meaning latent in the Homeric poems, see ibid.: “What the theorists of oral composition have done is to transform this concrete inevitable relation between speaker and hearer into a grand abstraction. Anthropology and history are now brought into the picture. The audience becomes the tradition, the depositary of myth and folklore, the spirit of the age; and the poet is made into the spokesman of the tribe; he embodies in his work the rich threads of a tradition which is the common property of his milieu” (176).

[ back ] 5. In the context of the fight with the river, compare Baal’s fight with Judge River in the Baal epic; see Cross, 1977, chap. 6, “The Song of the Sea and Canaanite Myth,” esp. 112-15. Achilles’ fight with the river may possibly find an echo in the story of Gen. 32:24-30 of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel (man) at the ford of the river Jabbok. There is some evidence that Jacob’s supposed adversary was a river-god; for the word wrestled in Hebrew is a verbal play on the name of the river “Jabbok”; see The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, sec. 2.54, pp. 33-34. His adversary was indeed divine, (Gen. 32:28); for the angel said to him, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Revised Standard Version).

[ back ] 6. See Iliad 8.133-36: “He thundered horribly and let loose the shimmering lightning / and dashed it to the ground in front of the horses of Diomedes / and a ghastly blaze of flaming sulphur shot up, and the horses / terrified both cringed away against the chariot.” The translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey used throughout this book, apart from occasional exceptions, are those of Richmond Lattimore: The Iliad of Homer, 1951, and The Odyssey of Homer, 1967.

[ back ] 7. Iliad 21:227; cf. 21.17-18: “But heaven-descended Achilleus left his spear on the bank / leaning against the tamarisks, and leapt in like some immortal” (… ὁ δ’ ἔσθορε δαίμονι ἶσος).

[ back ] 8. See Ε. Α. Speiser, in Pritchard, 1950, 60-72; Heidel, 1951; and Hesiod, 1966, 22-24 and index s.v. “Babylonian texts.”

[ back ] 9. Iliad 21.265-83.

[ back ] 10. For Achilles’ fight with the river Xanthus as an instance of mythological exemplum in Homer, see Nagy, 1992b, 325. He sees a partial comparison with Heracles’ fight with the divine ruler Acheloos in Archilochus F 286-87 West.

[ back ] 11. [Lord’s denial that oral traditional art is produced by a “collective” should lay to rest Rosalind Thomas’s interpretation of Parry’s and Lord’s views whereby “Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were not the creation of one poetic genius” (Thomas, 1992, 29) or that they were the product “of more than one poet” (31). The formative influence of tradition in oral poetry, as affirmed by Parry and Lord, does not imply multiple authorship and does not exclude the possibility of individual talent or genius in a particular oral poet, such as a Homer or an Avdo Međedović. On this point, see Janko, 1990, 326.]

[ back ] 12. Bowra, 1930, 81-84.

[ back ] 13. Parry, 1971: “For the ornamental epithet does not have an independent existence. It is one with its noun, with which it has become fused by repeated use, and the resulting noun-epithet formula constitutes a thought unit differing from that of the simple noun only by an added quality of epic nobility” (249); “But if it [the phrase] does not suit in every way, or if a better way of fitting the idea to the verse and the sentence is found, it is straightway forgotten or lives only for a short time, since with each new poet and with each new generation of poets it must undergo the twofold test of being found pleasing and useful” (330).

[ back ] 14. [A. Lord, 1991, 89-93, discussed arming scenes in the Iliad . In spite of the repetition, it seemed best to include the previous remarks for the sake of the continuity and cohesion of the present discussion, which adds extensively to what was said in the earlier treatment of the subject.]

[ back ] 15. Vivante, 1982, 50.

[ back ] 16. For a perceptive treatment of these four arming scenes, see Armstrong, 1958: “A reading of these four passages leads me to the conclusion that there is a real difference between the arming of Paris and the arming of Achilles, that Homer, as an oral poet, may so arrange his formulaic diction and his formula by variation, expansion, even by invention that he thereby enriches both the texture of his verse and the meaning of his poem” (353-54). In what follows I hope to add to and corroborate his conclusion. See also Lorimer, 1950, 188-92; and Kirk, 1985, 313-16.

[ back ] 17. [For a discussion of the arming of Patroclus, see Janko, 1992, 333-36.]

[ back ] 18. [Shannon, 1975, 31-86, has an extensive discussion of Achilles’ ash spear.]

[ back ] 19. For the arming of Achilles and particularly for his shield, see M. Edwards, 1987, index s.v. “Armor of Achilles.”

[ back ] 20. For the importance of fire and flaming light for the Iliad and particularly for Achilles, see Whitman, 1958, chap. 7, “Fire and Other Elements,” esp. 137-39. Whitman points out that in Book 18, “we meet the god of fire himself, Hephaestus. The forging scene opens with twenty bellows blowing up the coals for the work to begin. The thorax is brighter than the gleam of fire. The great shield is too transcendent an image to be wholly dominated by fire images, but it includes them; sun, moon, and stars, the fiery bodies of heaven (to all of which Achilles, dressed in these arms, is later compared) occupy a prominent position together with the other three elements, earth, sky, and sea” (138).

[ back ] 21. Contrast how Hector in Iliad 11.61-63 with his shield is compared to a baneful star: “And Hektor carried the perfect circle of his shield in the foremost, / as among the darkened clouds the bale star shows forth / in all shining, then merges again in the clouds and the darkness.”

[ back ] 22. [The spear at 16.802 has been discussed by Bannert, 1984, and 1988, 159-67. See also Janko, 1992, on 16.141-44 and 801-2.]

[ back ] 23. Trans, by Evelyn-White, 1943, 243.

[ back ] 24. Ibid., 348-49.

[ back ] 25. See Lorimer, 1950: “It [Agamemnon’s shield] is described as ἀμφιβρότη, ‘coming around both sides of a man’, an epithet originally designed for the body-shield, both forms of which are seen on the monuments to have a deep curvature within which the figure of the warrior disappears. The adjective is inappropriate to the round shield, which is sometimes quite flat and which, because its rim lies on one plane, cannot envelop the bearer even when it is convex, ἀμφιβρότη, which is used only with ἀσπίς and, apart from Β 389, only in contexts which show that the shield in question is round … must have acquired in epic the general meaning of ‘man-protecting’; the fact that it occurs only four times in the vulgate suggests that in Homer’s day it was almost obsolete” (189).