The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic


1. Introduction

The focus of attention in the last chapter was Odysseus, whose adventures preserve a latent relation between “mind” and “return.” In this chapter I shall consider another Homeric figure, who by his very name— Néstōr—tightens the connection between the words nóos and néomai.

Much of the scholarly work necessary to understanding Nestor’s name has already been done, and this work is fundamental to the present study. Nevertheless certain misconceptions have arisen, first of all with regard to the precise interpretation of Nestor’s name and, as a result of this, the interpretation of Nestor’s original nature. Oddly, what has helped to obscure these matters is an achievement which has shed light on so many other things—namely, the archeological discovery of the Bronze Age city of Pylos.

The discovery that Pylos once really existed has not unnaturally led to the assumption that Nestor was once really its king. The possibility that there was such a historical figure must in fact be granted; but this possibility, even if it became fact, would not explain the name Néstōr or the original function of the figure so called in Homer. One purpose of this chapter will be to show that at least the “original” Nestor must have been a purely mythological figure. {81|82}

2. Nestor and the Greek Root *nes

The view has long been held that the name Néstōr contains the verbal root nes– (followed by the agent suffix –tōr). This derivation was first proposed by Curtius and has since been accepted by such scholars as Kretschmer, Hofmann, Palmer, Heubeck, Mühlestein, Durante, Ruijgh, and Frisk. [1] The derivation is thus solidly established.

Nevertheless, there has been disagreement on the interpretation of the name. The predominant modern view is that the root nes– in Néstōr has a transitive sense and that the name therefore means “he who brings [his people] home.” Kretschmer, in his time, offered a different interpretation. He retained the intransitive sense of néomai by proposing that Néstōr simply meant “he who returns” and that the figure so called was originally a vegetation deity. This view has been supported most recently by Hofmann (see n. 1).

This makes it probable that the name Néstōr also had a transitive meaning. For the present, however, I shall go no further than this. Other aspects of Palmer’s argument require more caution and will be considered later in detail. Among these is the view—probable in itself—that the name of Nestor’s father, Nēleús, stands for the Mycenean form Nehélāwos. Improbable, however, is the view that this is a crucial factor in determining what the name Néstōr originally meant. Arguments will later be given for rejecting Palmer’s view that Néstōr is only a “short form” of Nehélāwos, and that it therefore has the same meaning, “he who leads the war-folk home.”

But two points have been firmly established: the first, that Néstōr is related to the verb néomai, and the second, that the name could have been understood in a transitive sense at an early period. One half of our problem has thus already been eliminated through previous scholarship. The other half, however, {83|84} has never been recognized; it has to do with nóos. But this part of the problem, once it is recognized, all but solves itself.

It requires little argument to become convinced that Nestor has as strong a connection with nóos as he does with néomai. The figure who is known to us from Homer is the very embodiment of wisdom. In the Iliad he is the wise old counselor of the Greeks, and his subsequent fame derived from this role above all. Nor does it matter that his advice to the Greek princes often seems old-fashioned and long-winded, for his role is rather to symbolize nóos than to make nóos effective.

A few passages from the Iliad may be quoted to show Nestor’s clear connection with nóos. His most important advice (although it ultimately fails) is to send the embassy to Achilles. He introduces this proposal as follows (IX 103 ff.):

αὐταρ ἐγὼν ἐρέω ὥς μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι ἄριστα.
οὐ γάρ τις νόον ἄλλος ἀμείνονα τοῦδε νοήσει,
οἷον ἐγὼ νοέω, ἠμὲν πάλαι ἠδ᾿ ἔτι καὶ νῦν
ἐξ ἔτι τοῦ ὅτε, διογενές, Βρισηΐδα κούρην
χωομένου Ἀχιλῆος ἔβης κλισίηθεν ἀπούρας
οὔ τι καθ᾿ ἡμέτερόν γε νοον.

I will speak as seems best to me. For no one else will conceive a better plan than this one, such as I have in mind, either now or long before now, ever since the time when you, O Zeus-born king, went and took the maiden Briseis from the tent of angry Achilles, which was not at all according to my advice.

When the embassy fails, Nestor slips into the background for a while, at least as the wise counselor. When the Greeks reach the point of full retreat, however, he is at hand again to suggest that Agamemnon call a council, phrasing his advice as follows (XIV 61–62):

ἡμεῖς δὲ φραζώμεθ᾿ ὅπως ἔσται τάδε ἔργα,
εἴ τι νόος ῥέξει.

Let us take counsel as to how these matters will be, if intelligence may accomplish anything. {84|85}

In this case it is very plain that Nestor is only the symbol of nóos. In actuality it is Diomedes rather than Nestor who proposes the measure which is adopted— that the wounded champions should encourage their men from behind the lines.

A third passage dwells on the word mē̂tis rather than nóos. When, during the funeral games for Patroclus, Nestor instructs his son Antilochus how best to compete in the chariot race, he introduces his advice as follows (XXIII 313 ff.):

ἀλλ᾿ ἄγε δὴ σύ, φίλος, μῆτιν ἐμβάλλεο θυμῷ
παντοίην, ἵνα μή σε παρεκπροφύγῃσιν ἄεθλα.
μήτι τοι δρυτόμος μέγ᾿ ἀμείνων ἠὲ βίηφι·
μήτι δ᾿ αὖτε κυβερνήτης ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ
νῆα θοὴν ἰθύνει ἐρεχθομένην ἀνέμοισι·
μήτι δ᾿ ἡνίοχος περιγίγνεται ἡνιόχοιο.

But come, dear son, and put into your mind all sorts of intelligent schemes so that the prizes do not escape you. It is by intelligence rather than strength that a woodcutter becomes much the better, and it is again by intelligence that a helmsman on the wine-dark sea holds his ship on course when it is battered by the winds. It is also by intelligence that charioteer surpasses charioteer.

Once again Nestor seems to be present mainly as the symbol of “intelligence.” In the lines immediately preceding what is quoted above, he in fact recognizes that Antilochus already has mē̂tis enough of his own, at least in relation to his competitors:

οὐδὲ μὲν αὐτοὶ
πλείονα ἴσασιν σέθεν αὐτοῦ μητίσασθαι .

They do not know how to devise more schemes than you yourself.

It is unnecessary to give further examples of this sort. What Nestor symbolizes is already perfectly clear; Nestor is in fact among the strongest single arguments for the derivation of nóos from the root nes-. {85|86}

3. Nestor’s Original Function

A significant problem was ignored in the precious section. I stated that the name Néstōr contains the root nes– but did not explain how the verbal notion of this root is relevant to understanding the Homeric figure so called.

Mühlestein has followed Palmer in equating the names Néstōr and Nehélāwos, and has therefore tried to find an instance in which Nestor “brings the war-folk safely home.” He argues that such an instance appears in XI 759 ff., when Nestor has slain his last victim and the “Achaeans” return to Pylos:

αὐτὰρ Ἀχαιοὶ
ἂψ ἀπὸ Βουπρασίοιο Πύλονδ᾿ ἔχον ὠκέας ἵππους
πάντες δ᾿ εὐχετόωντο θεῶν Διὶ Νέστορί τ᾿ ἀνδρῶν.

But the Achaeans headed their swift horses back from Bouprasion to Pylos, and they offered prayers to Zeus among gods and to Nestor among men.

It is in fact plausible to see Nestor as a kind of Nehélāwos in this passage.

But this final moment does not exhaust the relevance of Nestor’s story to his name. The mere fact that Nestor is involved with the {86|87}word nóos indicates that he is a deeply traditional figure, whose roots go back to a time when the relation between nóos and néomai was still perceived. At this time, moreover, the root nes– still signified a “return to life” and was used in the context of sun symbolism, the dominant feature of which, in Homer, involves the sun’s “cattle.” These observations determine what we should be looking for in Nestor’s story.

His story does not disappoint us. The first episode he describes is in fact a boēlasíē, a “cattle-raid” (cf. XI 671–672). Under the leadership of Nestor, a band of Pylians stages this raid against one of the Epeians and drives the captured spoil home to Pylos (XI 671 ff.). The rest of the narrative springs from this beginning. In the next section (683–707) the spoil is divided at Pylos. We learn that the Pylians, first weakened by their conflict with Heracles, had been abused by the Epeians; the Epeians had probably been engaged in raiding the cattle of the Pylians, since the latter (the Pylians) regarded the newly won spoil as their rightful due. In the next section (707–761) the Epeians attack and the Pylians hasten from their city by night to meet them. The battle takes place on the next day and the Pylians are victorious.

This is the structure of Nestor’s story. There are two major episodes, a cattle-raid and a battle, and in trying to understand Nestor’s function, the first deserves at least as much attention as the second. For while Nestor may bring the war-folk home from battle, he also “rescues” from the Epeians the herds and flocks which rightfully belong to Pylos. He is the foremost figure in the cattle-raid, insofar as he kills Itymoneus, who is present to protect his “cattle” (ho d’ amúnōn hē̂isi bóessin, in l. 674). In the following lines we see Nestor, as the first among his companions, bringing huge flocks and herds home to Pylos; the elaborateness of the description is itself a sign that this function is important (XI 677 ff.):

ληΐδα δ᾿ ἐκ πεδίου συνελάσσαμεν ἤλιθα πολλήν,
πεντήκοντα βοῶν ἀγέλας, τόσα πώεα οἰῶν,
τόσσα συῶν συβόσια, τόσ᾿ αἰπόλια πλατέ᾿ αἰγῶν, {87|88}
ἵππους δὲ ξανθὰς ἑκατὸν καὶ πεντήκοντα,
πάσας θηλείας, πολλῇσι δὲ πῶλοι ὑπῆσαν.
καὶ τὰ μὲν ἠλασάμεσθα Πύλον Νηλήϊον εἴσω.

We drove together from the plain an immense amount of spoil: there were fifty herds of cattle, as many flocks of sheep, as many droves of pigs, and as many wide-ranging flocks of goats; there were also a hundred and fifty brown horses, all of them mares, and many of them with foals following underneath. All of these we then drove into Pylos, the city of Neleus.

Pausanias goes on to conjecture that the cattle in question were those which had earlier belonged to the Thessalian Iphiclus, and {90|91} which Neleus had demanded as the price for his daughter’s hand. It is worth considering this legend more closely. Homer refers to it twice in the Odyssey, in Books 11 and 15. According to these accounts, Bias wanted to marry the daughter of Neleus. His brother Melampus, a prophet, therefore undertook to bring back the cattle of Iphiclus. Melampus, however, was captured in the attempt and imprisoned for a year before being released with the cattle.

The language used to describe the imprisonment is striking. One instance occurs in xi 292–293:

χαλεπή δὲ θεοῦ κατὰ μοῖρα πέδησε,
δεσμοί τ᾿ ἀργαλέοι καὶ βουκόλοι ἀγροιῶται.

The hard destiny of the god, painful bonds, and rustic cowherds shackled him.

There is another description in xv 231 ff.; here Phylacus, the father of Iphiclus, is mentioned:

ὁ δὲ τῆος ἐνὶ μεγάροις Φυλάκοιο
δεσμῷ ἐν ἀργαλέῳ δέδετο, κρατέρ᾿ ἄλγεα πάσχων
εἵνεκα Νηλῆος κούρης ἄτης τε βαρείης.

He meanwhile was tied in painful bonds in the house of Phylacus, suffering harsh woes because of the daughter of Neleus and the heavy ruin.

Words like moĩra, “destiny,” and átē, “ruin,” suggest that the imprisonment was somewhat extraordinary. More suggestive still is the description of the release of Melampus in xv 235–236:

ἀλλ᾿ ὁ μὲν ἔκφυγε κῆρα καὶ ἤλασε βοῦς ἐριμύκους
ἐς Πύλον ἐκ Φυλάκης.

But he escaped death and drove the loud-bellowing cattle from Phylaca to Pylos.

Melampus is said to have driven the cattle ek Phulákēs, “from the town of imprisonment” (cf. also Phúlakos); first, however, {91|92} he “escaped death,” ékphuge kē̂ra. The latter phrase is similar to the second-level expression phúgomen thánaton, “we escaped death,” which has replaced the notion of “returning from death” elsewhere in the Odyssey. [
13] One is inclined to think that this was also the original notion in the Melampus legend. Even the role of nóos seems to have been preserved. In xi 296–297, Iphiclus is said to have released Melampus when the latter had “told all the oracles,” thésphata pánt’ eipónta. The significance of prophecy in the context of “returning from death” has already been seen in connection with Teiresias. [14]

This raises the final point to be considered in this section. In addition to evidence for his freeing of the cattle of the sun, can one also find signs in Book 11 that Nestor’s original function was to restore mortals to life and to light? I suggest that there are traces of this. {93|94}

There is also a sense in which Nestor brings the Pylians back to life. If one considers the narrative in Book 11 as a whole, it becomes clear that Nestor, far more than “bringing his people home from battle,” effectively restores his people to life. The following lines (XI 689 ff.) show how close to extinction Pylos was before Nestor accomplished his cattle-raid and subsequent battle-rout:

ὡς ἡμεῖς παῦροι κεκακωμένοι ἐν Πύλῳ ἦμεν·
ἐλθὼν γάρ ῥ᾿ ἐκάκωσε βίη ῾Ηρακληείη
τῶν προτέρων ἐτέων, κατὰ δ᾿ ἔκταθεν ὅσσοι ἄριστοι· {94|95}
δώδεκα γὰρ Νηλῆος ἀμύμονος υἱέες ἦμεν·
τῶν οἶος λιπόμην, οἱ δ᾿ ἄλλοι πάντες ὄλοντο.

There were few of us left in Pylos and we were badly off, for Heracles had come in earlier years and hurt us badly—all the bravest men were killed. There had been twelve sons of blameless Neleus, but of these only I was left; the others had all perished.

I would suggest that at an earlier stage as well an historical dimension began to replace the original myth. The myth was recast as the hostility between two peoples, with the conflict between Heracles and Pylos occupying the background. When this happened the role of the “return from death” became obscure; the idea could survive only as suggested above—namely, as a return from virtual extinction by Nestor’s people. {95|96}

4. A Closer Look at Nestor’s Name

In the previous section I have argued that the essential part of Nestor’s story in Iliad 11 descends from an original myth of the sun. This would imply that Nestor himself came to be viewed as “historical” only when his myth had first been historicized. The trend of modern scholarship since the discovery of Pylos has been to historicize Nestor even more, and a pivotal argument in this trend has to do with the interpretation of Nestor’s name. In this section, therefore, I shall reexamine this matter in some detail.

The crucial point is the independence of the –tōr agent suffix. This liberates Néstōr from Nehélāwos, and allows Nestor to be as old and as mythological as necessary. At the same time, however, a name like Néstōr could have “replaced” a name like Nehélāwos, if the former had the same meaning as the latter. We already have reason to believe that originally the name Néstōr referred to more than “bringing the war-folk safely home,” and more reasons will emerge from the discussion to follow. But it is also possible that by the late Mycenean era the name Néstōr had lost its full original meaning, and was perceived as an equivalent of Nehélāwos. This would leave open the possibility of there having been a real King Nestor. The case for such a loss of original meaning will be developed further in the discussion to follow.

In the meantime, the name Néstōr stands alone and must be interpreted alone. In arguing that Nestor’s original function was to “bring back to life and light,” I have already committed myself to a transitive force of the root nes– in his name. This may be related to the conjecture of other scholars that the name Nehélāwos presupposes a transitive form *néō, which has been lost. It is my contention, however, that the form has not been completely lost but has actually survived, disguised as something else, in one Homeric passage. To validate this claim I shall have to leave Nestor for a while and return to Odysseus. But the results of this shift will ultimately be important for Nestor.

In a passage of Odyssey 18, Penelope repeats to one of her suitors what Odysseus had said to her when he left for Troy, namely (xviii 259 ff.), that he did not think all the Achaeans would “return home”:

ὦ γύναι, οὐ ὀΐω ἐϋκνήμιδας ᾿Αχαιοὺς
ἐκ Τροίης εὖ πάντας ἀπήμονας ἀπονέεσθαι.

O woman, I do not think that all the well-greaved Achaeans will return home safe and unharmed from Troy. {99|100}

For (he said) the Trojans are skilled in the arts of war—spear-throwing, archery, and horsemanship—and they can therefore quickly decide the issue of a battle. In conclusion to this, Odysseus then added (xviii 265–266):

τῷ οὐκ οἶδ᾿ ἤ κέν μ᾿ ἀνέσει θεός, ἦ κεν ἁλώω
αὐτοῦ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ.

Therefore I do not know if a god will anései me, or if I will die in Troy.

This conclusion is plainly a reversion to the initial point. Odysseus began by saying that he did not think all the Achaeans would “return home.” He must therefore now be saying that he does not know whether he himself will “return home” or die in Troy. This much is clear; but it is not immediately clear how this meaning can be extracted from the Greek. What stands in the way is the peculiar verbal form anései in line 265.

I propose that the two words m’ anései actually stand for an original *me nései, which gives us a future form of the hitherto hypothetical verb néō. The meaning of lines 265–266 would then be: “therefore I do not know whether the god will bring me home or whether I will die in Troy,” and the root nes– would be present at the end as well as the beginning of Odysseus’s statement. But to defend this proposal we must first see how the form anései has been explained in the past.

It has traditionally been explained as an irregular future of aníēmi. But everywhere else the future of this verb is anḗsṓ with a long vowel, and the irregularity raises serious doubts. The advantage of this explanation, on the other hand, is that aníēmi supplies at least a vaguely appropriate sense. Homer uses the verb with the meaning “release” (cf. emè d’ oud’ hō̂s thumòn aníei . . . odúnē, “but even so the pain would not let go of my will “release” him from Troy. {100|101}

This much of Monro’s argument seems perfectly correct. But he also wished to explain anései in xviii 265 in the same way, and that is a different matter. For the aorist forms, both the forms and the meaning are transparently accurate, and they are also otherwise attested. But not so for the future in xviii 265. The only evidence for a future hésō from the root sed– is the form kathésō in the comic playwright Eupolus. This could be overlooked were it not for the question of meaning. Monro’s {101|102} own examples show that his compound verb means to place or set upon. To make sense in xviii 265, this meaning must be extended to “set up” and then interpreted as “restore.” But even the meaning “restore” does not really convey what Odysseus intends to say in xviii 265.

The inevitable question now is whether thánaton phúgoi has replaced a phrase containing the root nes– for the same reason that thánaton phúgomen has replaced ásmenoi ek thanátoio. In other words, does the transitive verb néō in xviii 265 mean “to bring back from death” just as ásmenoi means “having returned from death”? I suggest that it does, and that this can be seen by considering the line xviii 265 as a whole.

What must be considered more closely is the verb halṓō at the end of the line. This is an aorist form of halískomai, which means “to be seized” or “to be captured.” But in xviii 265 and in a few other Homeric occurrences, the verb clearly means “to be killed” or simply “to die.” How is this meaning to be explained? {103|104}

The first pattern in fact reveals immediately how the meaning “to die” developed. The original notion was “to be seized by death,” as in the following lines (v 312 = XXI 281 and xxiv 34):

νῦν δέ με λευγαλέῳ θανάτῳ εἵμαρτο ἁλῶναι

But now it is my fate to be seized by a grievous death,

νῦν δ᾿ ἄρα σ᾿ οἰκτίστῳ θανάτῳ εἵμαρτο ἁλῶναι

But now it is your fate to be seized by a most pitiable death.

The phrase thanátōi . . . halō̂nai, “to be seized by death,” is perfectly understandable as an equivalent for thaneĩn, “to die.” But it is obvious that the word thanátōi, “by death,” is necessary to the sense. How, then, can the second formulaic type, in which thanátōi is no longer present, be explained? This type is exemplified by xviii 265 and xv 300, and by a few other passages to be discussed below. The essential feature of this pattern is the occurrence of a form of halō̂nai as the second member in a set of alternatives, the alternatives being marked by the particles (or ēé) and ē̂.

Once the ellipsis of thanátōi had begun in a line like xviii 265, it could then spread. A line in which the ellipsis was necessarily continued was xv 300, which was patterned directly on a line like xviii 265. In this line the expression thánaton phúgoi, “would escape death,” makes the notion of death explicit; but in spite of this, the meaning of halṓēi is no longer quite accurate. The line now means literally “pondering whether he would escape death or be caught,” and it is not clear who or what threatens to catch him (viz. Telemachus). The line plainly depends on xviii 265: “therefore I do not know whether the god will bring me back from death or whether I will be caught,” where no such ambiguity exists.

Homer, too, may have felt that the opposition between “escaping death” and “being caught” was somewhat imprecise. A solution would have been to vary the second member in the opposition, as in the following lines where Penelope “ponders” the nóstos of Telemachus (iv 789–790):

ὁρμαίνουσ᾿ ἤ οἱ θάνατον φύγοι υἱὸς ἀμύμων,
ἦ ὅ γ᾿ ὑπὸ μνηστῆρσιν ὑπερφιάλοισι δαμείη.

Pondering whether her blameless son would escape death or be overcome by the arrogant suitors. {105|106}

These lines clearly have to do with xv 300, but the ambiguity of the latter has been removed. Dameíē, “be overcome,” is clearer than halṓēi in the meaning “be killed,” and specific agents, who come to mind already in xv 300, have replaced the latent thanátōi of the latter line; it is specifically the suitors who threaten Telemachus.

The above discussion has shown the meaning “to die” of Homeric halō̂nai, when used alone, can best be explained by starting from a line like xviii 265. The development of this meaning begins with an ellipsis of thanátōi, “by death,” which is understandable only if the verb nései has to do with “bringing back from death.” In support of this argument may now be mentioned the only example known to me where halískomai means “to die” in later Greek. The example occurs in Pindar Pythian 3.54 ff., in which the perfect participle halōkóta is used to mean “dead.” The context concerns Asclepius, whose fame as a physician has just been celebrated, but who is now censured for an unholy deed:

ἀλλὰ κέρδει καὶ σοφία δέδεται.
ἔτραπεν καὶ κεῖνον ἀγάνορι μισθῷ
χρυσὸς ἐν χερσὶν φανεὶς
ἄνδρ᾿ ἐκ θανάτου κομίσαι
ἤδη ἁλωκότα

But even wisdom is subject to greed. When he saw gold in his hands, he was perverted by this lavish pay to bring back from death a man who had already been caught.

Greedy for profit, Asclepius used his wisdom “to bring back from death” a man who had already been “caught,” and for this impiety (as the following lines inform us) both he and the {108|109} rescued man were struck down by Zeus. The phrase ek thanátou komísai, “to bring back from death,” gives the precise meaning that has been proposed for transitive néō. What is equally striking, however, is the clear opposition between this phrase and the word halōkóta. One could not “bring back from death” a man who had already been “caught (by death).” [
49] It is also well worth noting the role of sophía, “wisdom,” in this passage. With different words Pindar seems to have preserved something very old—namely, the connection between nóos and néomai. Wisdom is connected with “bringing back from death,” although not even the wisdom of Asclepius could bring back one who was caught by death. [50]

The meaning “he will bring back from death,” of the form nései in xviii 265, brings transitive néō in line with intransitive néomai. It is significant that xviii 265 pertains to Odysseus, whose “return from death” was studied in the last chapter. Of course Homer, who uses this line in connection with a “return from war,” has lost the line’s original context along with its original wording. From the point of view of context, the secondary line xv 300—hormaínōn ḗ ken thánaton phúgoi ē̂ ken halṓēi, “pondering whether he would escape death or die,” has remained closer to the original meaning of the root nes-. In the passage preceding xv 300, Telemachus takes on board his ship the seer Theoclymenus, and following Athena’s command (nuktì d’ homō̂s pleíein, in xv 34) he sails for home by night (xv 296). His voyage home is thus a passage through darkness to light, and is made in the company of one whose presence reflects the original role of nóos.

The next problem is to determine the relative age of transitive néō and, if its antiquity be granted, of the line represented by {110|111} xviii 265. From the Indo-European standpoint, Greek néomai belongs to a class of verbs that are media tantum. When such verbs develop active forms, this process occurs only within the individual languages. Hence the verb néō must have been created within Greek itself. Whether it was created during or after the period of common Greek cannot be told.

Since Nestor’s origins are to be found in myth, a final question arises concerning his original mythological status. Are we entitled to consider him a god? Since we know so little about the period of his origin, the question is perhaps presumptuous, but attention can at least be drawn to certain indications. The first of these is the word theós in xviii 265; as subject of a verb which is closely related to Nestor’s name there appears the word “god.” A second indication is the impression gained from Homer that Nestor alone defied the famous dictum of Glaucus (VI 146 ff.) that the generation of men is like the generation of leaves. For Nestor, when he is met in Homer, has survived the passing of not only one, but two generations. In the following lines from the Iliad (I 250 ff.) Nestor is represented as the sole survivor from a former era:

τῷ δ᾿ ἤδη δύο μὲν γενεαὶ μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
ἐφθίαθ᾿, οἵ οἱ πρόσθεν ἅμα τράφεν ἠδ᾿ ἐγένοντο.
ἐν Πύλῳ ἠγαθέῃ, μετὰ δὲ τριτάτοισιν ἄνασσεν.

For him two generations of mortal men had already passed away, those born and raised with him in holy Pylos, and now he was king among the third.

Taking this passage literally, one cannot think that Homer simply means that Nestor is over sixty years old, for two entire generations do not vanish in so short a time.

There is a second reference to Nestor’s survival from generation to generation in the Odyssey. Of the following lines (iii 245–246) which Telemachus addresses to Athena, the second is especially revealing:

τρὶς γὰρ δή μίν φασιν ἀνάξασθαι γένε᾿ ἀνδρῶν,
ὥς τέ μοι ἀθάνατος ἰνδάλλεται εἰσοράασθαι.

They say that he has ruled during three generations of men; thus he seems to me to be an immortal to look upon. {113|114}

When Telemachus gazes at Nestor, the latter seems to him to be “immortal.” We already share this impression ourselves, but what makes us do so the more is the fact that no tradition has survived concerning Nestor’s death. The only minor blemish on this argumentum ex silentio is the mention in Pausanias 4.62.3 of a mnē̂ma, “monument, tomb,” within the Messenian city of Pylos which was said to belong to Nestor.

Another name that comes to mind is Méntōr. Mentor is not a god in the Odyssey; but, significantly, it is his likeness that Athena assumes when she accompanies Telemachus. The name is a very close parallel to Néstōr; it, too, contains the root of an intransitive verb in a transitive sense—the sense “to put in mind”—and its meaning is likewise connected with mental activity. Perhaps we should view Nestor, like Mentor, as neither wholly human nor wholly divine, but as something in between.

This, at any rate, accords with the picture Homer gives of Nestor when the latter, at the end of his story in Iliad 11, says that his restored people gave glory to Zeus among gods and to Nestor among men (761):

πάντες δ᾿ εὐχετόωντο θεῶν Διὶ Νέστορι τ᾿ ἀνδρῶν.

Nestor includes himself among men, but the mere fact that he is glorified like Zeus raises him toward Zeus’s level. {114|115}

Even if a good possibility remains that Nestor was originally a god, we may rest content with what clearly emerges from Iliad 11—namely, that he was at least mythological. Like the Phaeacians, who were seen in the last chapter to perform the same function of “bringing back to life,” the Homeric Nestor does not belong entirely either to the world of gods or to the world of men. {115|116}


[ back ] 1. G. Curtius, Grundzüge der griechischen Etymologie (Leipzig, 1869), p. 294; P. Kretschmer, “Mythische Namen,” Glotta 4 (1913): 308–309; J. B. Hofmann, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Griechischen (Munich, 1949), s.v. néomai; L. R. Palmer, Eranos 54 (1956): 7 ff., also his The Interpretation of Mycenean Greek Texts (Oxford, 1963), pp. 79–80; A. Heubeck, Beiträge zur Namenforschung 8 (1957): 28; H. Mühlestein, “Namen von Neleiden auf Pylostäfelchen” (chap.1, n. 7), p. 158; M. Durante, “Νείλεως e Νηλεύς,” Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici 21, no. 3 (1967): 36; C. J. Ruijgh, Études sur la grammaire et le vocabulaire du grec mycénien (n. 37), pp. 369–370; H. Frisk (chap.1, n. 4), s.v. néomai.

[ back ] 2. M. Ventris and J. Chadwick, Documents in Mycenean Greek 2 (Cambridge, 1973), p. 421.

[ back ] 3. L.R. Palmer, Eranos (n. 1), pp. 9 ff.

[ back ] 4. On the archaic form of these compounds, see C. Watkins, Indogermanische Grammatik, vol. 3, pt. 1 (Heidelberg, 1969), pp. 94–95.

[ back ] 5. H. Mühlestein, “Namen von Neleiden auf Pylostäfelchen” (chap. 1, n. 7), p. 158.

[ back ] 6. For a detailed investigation, see R. Cantieni, Die Nestorerzählung im XI. Gesang der Ilias (Zurich, 1942).

[ back ] 7. The actual description of the spoil, including cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, seems to be stock in nature; cf. the parallel description of Odysseus’s possessions in xiv 100 ff.

[ back ] 8. According to R. Cantieni (n. 6), p. 64, mention of this incident represents a later interpolation into Nestor’s original story; see sect. 3 below for further suspected interpolations.

[ back ] 9. Cf. the frequent Homeric formula hup’ augàs ēelíoio, “under the rays of the sun.”

[ back ] 10. Theocritus 25.88 ff.: αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα βόες μάλα μυρίαι ἄλλαι ἐπ᾿ ἄλλαις / ἐρχόμεναι φαίνονθ᾿ ὡσεὶ νέφη ὑδατόεντα, / ἅσσα τ᾿ ἐν οὐρανῷ εἶσιν ἐλαυνόμενα προτέρωσε / ἠὲ Νότοιο βίῃ ἠὲ Θρῃκὸς Βορέαο. (Then the cattle came thousand upon thousand like watery clouds driven forward through the sky by the force of the south wind or the north wind from Thrace.)

[ back ] 11. As Geryon, for example, is slain by Heracles; cf. chap. 3, sect 2 above.

[ back ] 12. Pausanias 4.36.2–3: καὶ σπήλαιόν ἐστιν ἐντὸς τῆς πόλεως· βοῦς δὲ ἐνταῦθα τὰς Νέστορος καὶ ἔτι πρότερον Νηλέως φασὶν αὐλίζεσθαι· εἴη δ᾿ ἂν Θεσσαλικὸν τὸ γένος τῶν βοῶν τούτων, Ἰφίκλου ποτὲ τοῦ Πρωτεσιλάου πατρός· ταύτας γὰρ δὴ τὰς βοῦς Νηλεὺς ἕδνα ἐπὶ τῇ θυγατρὶ ἤτει τοὺς μνωμένους. (And there is a cave inside the city; they say that here the cattle of Nestor, and earlier those of Neleus, were stabled; these cattle would have been Thessalian in origin, as they once belonged to Iphiclus, the father of Protesilaus; for Neleus demanded these cattle as the bride-price for his daughter from her suitors.)

[ back ] 13. See above chap. 3, text at n. 37 and n. 47; cf. also chap. 2, text at n. 16 and n. 17.

[ back ] 14. See chap. 3, sect 2 above, where the Apollonian prophet Euenius is also discussed.

[ back ] 15. The myth in which Melampus is involved seems to reflect historical ties between Thessaly and the western Peloponnesus in the Mycenean age; cf. M. P. Nilsson, The Mycenean Origin of Greek Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1932), pp. 141–147.

[ back ] 16. In Iliad 11, Nestor brings the cattle back from Elis, whereas his cave is in Pylos. Perhaps relevant to discovering the underlying myth is the fact that there were three cities in the western Peloponnesus named Pylos, in Messenia, Triphylia, and Elis; the name Pylos appears to have a mythological connection with the “gates” to the underworld (see below in text), and the fact that there was more than one city of this name perhaps suggests a belief in different points of entrance and exit from the underworld.

[ back ] 17. “Die merkwürdige Tatsache, dass mehrere Namen um Pylos und Neleus Hadesbeziehungen ausdrücken …”: H. Mühlestein, “Namen von Neleiden auf Pylostäfelchen” (chap. 1, n. 7), p. 169 n. 49.

[ back ] 18. Cf. Hesychius, periklúmenos: ho Ploútōn (god of the underworld).

[ back ] 19. Hesiod says that Nestor was in Gerenia at the time of Heracles’ attack, cf. frags. 34 and 35 in Fragmenta Hesiodea, ed. R. Merkelbach and M.L. West (Oxford, 1967).

[ back ] 20. The fact that it is Athena who comes with the “forewarning” seems significant, since the patron deity of Pylos was Poseidon; perhaps Athena’s role has to do with nóos in this episode, as it does in the final homecoming of Odysseus (see chap. 3, sect. 4 above).

[ back ] 21. That hippóta Néstōr, “the horseman Nestor,” is deprived of his own horses and forced to get new ones is an interesting, and perhaps a significant, detail. See chap. 6, n. 72 below for remarks on the possible significance of Nestor’s epithet “the horseman.”

[ back ] 22. See n. 6 above.

[ back ] 23. For the location of Bouprasion, see Cantieni, pp. 43 ff.; for his discussion of the interpolated passages, pp. 36–57.

[ back ] 24. Whatever the second element of this name has to do with (práson, “leek”?), the first element has to do with “cattle.”

[ back ] 25. Cf. M. Durante (n. 1), p. 34: “Si tratta di una persona di condizione modesta, che viene citata a proposito di una assegnazione di frumento e di olive.” [“It is a matter of a person of modest state, who is cited in connection with an allotment of grain or olives.”]

[ back ] 26. L. R. Palmer, Eranos (n. 1), p. 7.

[ back ] 27. M. Durante (n. 1); Palmer, Eranos (n. 1), p. 7, simply calls Nēleús a “short form” of Nehélāwos.

[ back ] 28. Durante, p. 33.

[ back ] 29. J. Wackernagel, Berliner philologische Wochenschrift (1891), cols. 6–7; Durante, p. 40 n. 29 allows other possibilities as well.

[ back ] 30. Summarized from Durante, pp. 35–41.

[ back ] 31. Durante says eight of ten instances (p. 37); the figures should be seven of eleven.

[ back ] 32. Palmer, Eranos, p. 7; Durante, p. 36; Mühlestein (chap. 1, n. 7), p. 158.

[ back ] 33. “Un bell’esempio della consuetudine, greca e indoeuropea, di dare al figlio un nome che ripetesse in parte quello paterno”: Durante, p. 36.

[ back ] 34. G. Macurdy, “Homeric Names in -tor,” Classical Quarterly 23 (1929): 23–27.

[ back ] 35. P. Kretschmer, Glotta 20 (1932): 230: “Ich meine, es handelt sich hier nicht um gewöhnliche Kurzformen, für die ein Suffix mit einer stets bewahrten Funktion wie -τωρ sonst nicht üblich ist, sondern man könnte höchstens annehmen, der Kürze halber sei das Kompositum durch ein gleichbedeutendes Nomen agentis ersetzt worden”; cf. also A. Heubeck (n. 1), p. 29, who agrees with Kretschmer, and who also draws attention to Illyrian names ending in –tor (Aetor, Buctor, Daetor, Veitor, among others) as showing the antiquity of these names.

[ back ] 36. Cf. D. B. Monro, Homer, Iliad Books XIII–XXIV 2 (Oxford, 1890), commentary on XIII 657 and XIV 209; I have been unable to find where Monro first proposed this derivation.

[ back ] 37. Cf. M. Lejeune, Phonétique historique du mycénien et du grec ancien (Paris, 1972), p. 102.

[ back ] 38. See below in text for further discussion.

[ back ] 39. This would, in fact, have been close to the original sense of nései which I propose (see below in text).

[ back ] 40. See n. 13 above for page references.

[ back ] 41. See below in text.

[ back ] 42. Formulaic in II 374, IV 291, and XIII 816.

[ back ] 43. For the notion of death as “seizing” its victims, cf. Hesiod Theogony 765–766, regarding Thánatos, “Death”: ἔχει δ᾿ ὃν πρῶτα λάβῃσιν / ἀνθρώπων. (He holds fast any man that he first seizes.)

[ back ] 44. This passage is in fact a conflation of formulaic patterns; cf. IX 701–702: ἀλλ᾿ ἤτοι κεῖνον μὲν ἐάσομεν, ἤ κεν ἴῃσιν, / ἤ κε μένῃ. (But let us not concern ourselves with him, whether he comes or stays.)

[ back ] 45. There is a similar opposition in XXI 493 ff., in which a divinity is indirectly involved: θεὰ φύγεν ὥς τε πέλεια / ἥ ῥά θ᾿ ὑπ᾿ ἴρηκος κοίλην εἰσέπτατο πέτρην, / χηραμόν· οὐδ᾿ ἄρα τῇ γε ἁλώμεναι αἴσιμον ἦεν, “The goddess fled like a dove that flies into a hollow rock, a cave, away from a hawk; it is not destined for the dove to be caught [killed].” Since the opposition does not apply directly to the “immortal” in question, halṓmenai here, too, can mean “to be killed.”

[ back ] 46. For a second instance of the opposition between katakteĩnai and halō̂nai, cf. XVII 506.

[ back ] 47. Cf. Attic legal usage, in which hairéō means “convict,” halískomai “be convicted.”

[ back ] 48. Thus LSJ, s.v. αἱρέω.

[ back ] 49. In LSJ (s.v. ἁλίσκομαι), nósōi, “by disease,” rather than thanátōi, “by death,” is suggested as the word lost by ellipsis, but this would imply that any recovery from illness would offend Zeus.

[ back ] 50. Another point to be noticed in this passage is the context of illness and healing, for this is the semantic sphere of German genesen, “get well,” one of the cognates of néomai to be discussed in chap. 6.

[ back ] 51. The alternative question markers ἤ κεν and ἦ κεν require some comment. It is assumed that Homeric ἤ and ἦ represent contractions of ἠέ and ἦε (cf. H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch [chap. 1, n. 4], s.v. ἦ); the latter particles are from *ἠ-Fε and *ἦ-Fε, both containing the alternative marker *-we, as in Latin sive. It should be noted, however, that in Homer the particle κεν also serves as an alternative marker (cf. P. Chantraine, Grammaire homérique [Paris, 1963], 2: 21 and 295). In the sequence ἤ κεν . . . ἦ κεν, the particle -Fε would therefore be redundant, and it is best simply to posit the particle ἦ by itself; for this interjectional and interrogative particle, see E. Schwyzer and A. Debrunner, Griechische Grammatik (Munich, 1950), 2: 546–547. The Homeric formulaic evidence, furthermore, favors ἤ κεν and ἦ κεν as older forms than (ἠέ κεν) and ἦέ κεν. Further examples of ἤ κεν and ἦ κεν, to add to those quoted in the text above, are found in XIII 742–743, XX 311, and XXI 226; cf. also XXII 244 ff. By contrast, ἦέ κεν seems to occur only once (xxiv 218). It is also necessary to draw attention to the etymological digamma in the verb ἁλώω in xviii 265, and to suggest that the sequence ἦ κεν ἁλώω, if it is old, must originally have contained a preconsonantal form of the particle *kn̥ (zero-grade of κεν); see L.R. Palmer, “The Language of Homer,” in A Companion to Homer, ed. A.J.B. Wace and F.H. Stubbings (London, 1963), pp. 90 ff.

[ back ] 52. Cf. P. Chantraine, Grammaire homérique, 2: 225.

[ back ] 53. The sigmatic aorist, as an athematic formation, originally had a short-vowel subjunctive; for dialect forms of a third-singular subjunctive in -σει, see C. D. Buck, The Greek Dialects (Chicago, 1955), pp. 119–120.

[ back ] 54. I.e., the split proposed by E. Risch, “Die Gliederung der griechischen Dialekte in neuer Sicht,” (chap. 2, n. 13).

[ back ] 55. G. Nagy, Greek Dialects and the Transformation of an Indo-European Process (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 135, 142.

[ back ] 56. Cf. n. 35 above for Illyrian names in –tōr.

[ back ] 57. See É. Benveniste, Noms d’agent et noms d’action en indo-européen (Paris, 1948), pp. 28 ff., 62.

[ back ] 58. Gregory Nagy has pointed out to me a strong parallel for the active formation. Aristotle, de Caelo 305a11, distinguishes between the two verbs sbénnusthai and maraínesthai—whereas sbénnusthai is used in relation to a fire which is put out by someone, maraínesthai is used of a fire which goes out by itself; nevertheless, maraínesthai is put in an active form in Hymn to Hermes 140, with Hermes (i.e., a god) as the subject: anthrakíēn d’ emárane, “he extinguished the burning embers.” There is another interesting example in the verbs khráomai, “to consult an oracle,” and khráō, “to give an oracle”; the active verb khráō was created from the middle verb khráomai, and the subjects of the active verb are limited to the gods and their prophets.

[ back ] 59. See n. 4 above.

[ back ] 60. For another attempt to explain the development of a transitive néō, cf. A. Heubeck (n. 1), p. 30. Heubeck starts from the Mycenean form netijano, interpreted as Nestiánōr, the first part of which was originally an abstract noun (*néstis), representing either an action noun or a personification within the compound itself; the name would thus have originally meant “happy home-coming of men.” Subsequently, however, the first member would have been felt to have a transitive verbal force. While this argument is plausible in itself, it does not explain the transitive force of the root nes– in the old name Nestor, which should be reckoned with first. This is an appropriate place to mention another Mycenean name that may contain the root nes-. Mühlestein (chap. 1, n. 7), p. 157, cites a form pironeta, which he interprets, hesitantly, as *Philo-nes-tas, “he who saves his dear ones” (“der seine Lieben rettet”). If this is correct, one should note (as Mühlestein does) the similarity in formation to Polu-dék-tēs, an epithet of the god Hades (cf. sect. 3 above for remarks on Nestor and his brother Periclymenus).

[ back ] 61. É. Benveniste (n. 57), p. 55.