The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry

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Chapter 4. The Death of Achilles and a Festival at Delphi

4§1. The quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus in the first song of Demodokos, viii 72–82, dramatizes the antithesis of two inherited central themes built into the Iliad and the Odyssey, namely, the qualifications of Achilles and Odysseus respectively for the title “best of the Achaeans.” Their epic actions are striving to attain what is perhaps the most distinctive heroic epithet that the kléos of the Achaeans can confer upon a mortal. In the first song of Demodokos, the poet—or let us say Demodokos—comments not only on the Odyssey but also on the Iliad itself. Or better, I should say, “an Iliadic tradition” instead of “the Iliad.” Moreover, Monro’s Law is not overturned, in that this quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles in Odyssey viii is no playback of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in Iliad I. There are basic differences in roles as well as in characters.

4§2. As we have seen, there are elements of diction and theme in the first song of Demodokos that must stem from an independent and idiosyncratic tradition and simply cannot be based on the opening of Iliad I. One of the most divergent and interesting aspects of the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus is that it took place ‘at a sumptuous feast of the gods’ (θεῶν ἐν δαιτὶ θαλείῃ: Odyssey viii 76). Besides the intrinsic meaning here, the other Homeric contexts where feasts of the gods are mentioned make it clear that this expression denotes a sacrifice. [1]

4§4. Pindar’s fragmentary Paean 6 was evidently composed for an agṓn ‘contest’ at the Panhellenic festival of the Delphic theoxénia; the poet describes himself as:

ἀγῶνα Λοξία καταβάντ᾽ εὐρὺν
ἐν θεῶν ξενίᾳ
entering the broad contest place of Loxias [Apollo]
at the theoxénia

Pindar Paean 6.60–61SM

By the very fact that it is a Paean, the poem is a glorification of Apollo. [
7] In particular, it commemorates a tradition concerning a quarrel of the gods:

Then the Muses are invoked to inspire a retelling (54–58). Mention of a sacrifice (62–64) is followed by a considerable lacuna, and when the text resumes we hear that Apollo in the guise of Paris has killed Achilles on the battlefield (78–80). [
9] An elaboration follows concerning the consequences of Apollo’s action:

Ἰλίου δὲ θῆκεν ἄφαρ
ὀψιτέραν ἅλωσιν
and he straightway caused
the capture of Troy to happen later

Pindar Paean 6.81–82

There is further elaboration at 87–89, where we learn specifically that Apollo ‘had a quarrel’ (ἔριξε: 87) with Hera and Athena. [
10] Since this elaboration is bracketed, before and after, by a description of how and why Achilles died, the inference is that the death of Achilles had something to do with the quarrel between Apollo on one side, Hera and Athena on the other. Since the gods’ quarrel involves the capture of Troy, is it parallel with the quarrel of Achilles and Odysseus over whether Troy would be captured by bíē ‘might’ or by mêtis ‘artifice’ Since the battles of heroes are matched by the battles of their divine patrons in the Homeric theme of theomakhíā, we may expect a thematic match between heroic and divine quarrels as well. There is also a formal match that may be cited in this regard: the Muses are asked to explain the cause of the éris ‘quarrel’ between Achilles and Agamemnon at Iliad I 8 in much the same way that they are asked to explain the éris among the gods at Paean 6.50–61.

4§5. The evidence may seem meager at this point, but there must have been something about Achilles that was particularly offensive to Apollo. Conversely, we know that Paris, the antagonist and future killer of Achilles, offended the same gods whom we now see {61|62} quarreling with Apollo in Paean 6, namely, Hera and Athena. The offense of Paris was the outgrowth of a quarrel that took place at a banquet given by the gods to celebrate the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles himself. This quarrel of the gods served as the epic theme for the opening of the Cypria (Proclus summary 102.14–16 Allen), and there are clear references to the same epic tradition in Iliad XXIV 25–30. Moreover, the Cypria presents this quarrel as a fitting epic theme for the opening of the entire Trojan War! The grievance of Hera and Athena against Paris was that he made a choice favoring Aphrodite instead of them (Cypria Proclus 102.16–19 Allen). The Iliadic allusion to this tradition, however, also alludes to a grievance of Apollo against Achilles. It seems as if the polarization of Hera and Athena on one side and Apollo on the other corresponds not only to the hostility of the first two divinities against Paris but also to the hostility of the third against Achilles. [11] The three divinities are continuing their quarrel in Iliad XXIV 25–63. In the course of their quarrel, Apollo describes Achilles as a brute who is like a ravenous lion, without any control over his bíē ‘might’ (Iliad XXIV 42). [12] In Pindar’s Paean 6, at the very moment that Apollo destroys Achilles, the hero is described as βιατάν ‘endowed with bíā [epic bíē]’ (line 84). One of the reasons, then, for Apollo’s enmity may well have been the championing of bíē by Achilles. A more general reason, however, is yet to emerge from our ongoing scrutiny of the characteristics common to the god and the hero. It is too early at this point to attempt a precise formulation, and I offer here only the essentials: the hostility of Apollo and Achilles has a religious dimension, in which god and hero function as ritual antagonists. [13]

4§6. Even though the actual concept of ritual antagonism between Apollo and Achilles remains to be articulated, we can already see the stark consequences of this antagonism in the dimension of myth. In Pindar’s words:

πρὸ πόνων
δέ κε μεγάλων Δαρδανίαν
ἔπραθεν, εἰ μή φύλασσεν Ἀπό[λ]λ[ω]ν·
before the great suffering,
he [Achilles] would have destroyed Troy, {62|63}
if Apollo had not been protecting it

Pindar Paean 6.89–91SM

By killing Achilles, the god Apollo postponed the destruction of Troy and thus brought about a great deal of suffering that otherwise would not have happened. In the Iliad too, there is allusion to the tradition that great suffering was caused by the death of Achilles. The death of Patroklos in the Iliad, which duplicates the death of Achilles beyond the Iliad, is announced with the following words:

ὄφρα πύθηαι
λυγρῆς ἀγγελίης, ἣ μή ὤφελλε γενέσθαι.
ἤδη μέν σε καὶ αὐτὸν ὀΐομαι εἰσορόωντα
γιγνώσκειν ὅτι πῆμα θεὸς Δαναοῖσι κυλίνδει,
νίκη δὲ Τρώων· πέφαται δ̓ ὤριστος Ἀχαιῶν,
Πάτροκλος, μεγάλη δὲ ποθή Δαναοῖσι τέτυκται.
that you may learn
of the ghastly news, which should never have happened.
I think that you already see, and that you realize,
that a god is letting roll a pain [ pêma ] upon the Danaans,
and that victory belongs to the Trojans; the best of the Achaeans has been killed,
Patroklos, that is; and a great loss has been inflicted on the Danaans.

Iliad XVII 685–690

Only here in the Iliad does Patroklos get the epithet that elsewhere distinguishes Achilles, “best of the Achaeans”; the death of Patroklos is being presented as a prefiguration of the death of Achilles. [
14] By dying, the “best of the Achaeans” is the source of great pêma ‘pain’ for the Achaeans. For the Trojans too, Achilles is the greatest pêma—in the words of Hektor and Priam themselves (Iliad XXII 288 and 421 respectively). That is, Achilles is a pêma for the Trojans so long as he is fighting against them. When he withdraws from the fighting, however, there is pêma for the Achaeans and kûdos ‘glory of {63|64} victory’ for the Trojans (Iliad VIII 176), [15] a situation that is recognized as the Will of Zeus by Hektor (Iliad VIII 175, XII 235–236) and by the narrative itself (Iliad XII 255, XV 592–599). [16] In short, Achilles is a pêma for the Trojans when he is at war and a pêma for the Achaeans both when he withdraws from war and when he dies.

4§7. With the background of these patterns in traditional diction, the words of Demodokos assume an ominous tone:

When Agamemnon rejoiced at the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus, who were “the best of the Achaeans” (Odyssey viii 78), he rejoiced at a sign that presaged the destruction of Troy. In his joy he was unaware of the intervening pain yet to be inflicted on the Achaeans by the withdrawal and then by the death of Achilles. His joy was justified in the distant future but unjustified in the events at hand. In Pindar’s words, the destruction was not to happen πρὸ πόνων ‘before suffering’ (Paean 6.89). Our Iliad presents a highly sophisticated variation on this theme, in the episode of Agamemnon’s False Dream. As in the first song of Demodokos, the impetus is the boulḗ ‘plan, will’ of Zeus (Iliad II 5). As in the song of Demodokos, the promise is that Troy will be destroyed (Iliad II 12–15, 29–32). As in the song of Demodokos, Agamemnon arrives at a premature conclusion: [

From the standpoint of our Iliad, the story to be told concerns some of those ‘pains’ [álgea] that are yet to intervene before the capture of Troy. In fact, the same word álgea is deployed at the very beginning of our Iliad to designate the countless ‘pains’ of the Achaeans (Iliad I 2), caused by the mênis ‘anger’ of Achilles (Iliad I 1) and motivated by the Will of Zeus (Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή: Iliad I 5).

4§8. Demodokos, then, is alluding to an Iliad, but not to our Iliad. Like our Iliad, the Iliad that Demodokos could have sung would feature the mênis ‘anger’ of Achilles and Apollo. Unlike our Iliad, however, this Iliadic tradition would feature Odysseus, not Agamemnon, as the prime offender of Achilles. Unlike our Iliad, this Iliad would have the chief resentment of Achilles center on the slighting of his bíē ‘might’. An Iliad composed by Demodokos would have been a poem with a structure more simple and more broad, with an Achilles who is even perhaps more crude than the ultimately refined hero that we see emerging at the end of our Iliad. I have little doubt that such an Iliad was indeed in the process of evolving when it was heard in the Odyssey tradition which evolved into our Odyssey. Demodokos had heard the kléos and passed it on in song.{65|}


[ back ] 1. See especially Odyssey iii 336 and 420; also Odyssey xiv 251. Cf. Ch.3§21.

[ back ] 2. For a suggestive discussion, adducing the comparative evidence of other festivals parallel to the theoxénia: Gernet 1968 [=1928]:32–33.

[ back ] 3. For a survey: Nilsson 1906:160–162.

[ back ] 4. This supposition is developed further at Ch.7§§8–13, 17–20, 25–30.

[ back ] 5. Apollo is preeminent at the Delphic theoxénia not necessarily because of any special affinity with the practice of theoxénia but rather simply because of his preeminence at Delphi itself.

[ back ] 6. The citations at n. 4 above apply here as well.

[ back ] 7. On this function of the paean, cf. also Ch.5§9. On the Panhellenic nature of the Delphic theoxénia, consider the lines that immediately follow those just quoted, at Paean 6.62–63: θύεται γὰρ ἀγλαᾶς ὑπὲρ Πανελλάδος ‘sacrifice is being made on behalf of splendid All-Hellas’ (cf. Radt 1958:131–134). The poem goes on to say that the festival had been instituted as a result of a promise contained in a prayer offered by the community at a time long ago when it had been afflicted by a famine (lines 63 ff.); the food of the theoxénia, then, is a factor of compensation.

[ back ] 8. For the editors’ restoration of ἔρις here at line 50, cf. ἔριξε at line 87, referring to the same quarrel.

[ back ] 9. The Iliad itself refers to the interaction of Apollo and Paris in the killing of Achilles: see Iliad XIX 416–417, XXII 358–360.

[ back ] 10. Cf. n. 8 above.

[ back ] 11. For more on god-hero antagonism as a factor in determining the alignments of various gods in the Trojan War, see Ch.8§12.

[ back ] 12. Further discussion at Ch.7§22.

[ back ] 13. See Ch. 7 (esp. §4) and Ch. 8 (esp. §§1–5).

[ back ] 14. See Ch.2§8. In this connection, the wording πῆμα θεὸς Δαναοῖσι κυλίνδει ‘a god is letting roll a pêma upon the Danaans’ here at Iliad XVII 688 is directly comparable to τάχα οἱ μέγα πῆμα κυλίσθη ‘surely a great pêma rolls down upon him’ at Iliad XVII 99—words applied by Menelaos to any mortal who dares to fight Hektor and thus undertake a confrontation with Apollo himself (Iliad XVII 98–99). Patroklos had done so, but Menelaos dares not do likewise (Iliad XVII 100–101). The stance of Patroklos in his confrontation with Apollo is described as πρὸς δαίμονα ‘facing the daímōn [divinity]’ (Iliad XVII 98), which conveys the theme of ritual antagonism between god and hero (see Ch.8§§3–4 and Ch.17§5). On the collocation of pêma ‘pain’ and kulíndō ‘roll’ [as a rock], note also the parallel at Odyssey viii 81–82 as quoted in §7 below.

[ back ] 15. On the function of kûdos ‘glory of victory’ in Homeric narrative: Benveniste 1969 II:57–69.

[ back ] 16. Further discussion of pêma/kûdos and the Will of Zeus at Ch.20§§15–17.

[ back ] 17. The double-edged πήματος ἀρχή ‘the beginning of the pêma [pain]’ is a thematic germ of the Achilles figure: even his name may be explained as taking its form from the concept ‘grief for the people’: *Akhílâu̯os. See Ch.5. Cf. also the expression νείκεος ἀρχή ‘the beginning of the strife’ (Iliad XXII 116), as discussed at Ch.11§12 and n. 26.

[ back ] 18. Cf. Ch.7§25n71.

[ back ] 19. On the word krátos: Ch.5§25.