Fighting Words and Feuding Words: Anger and the Homeric Poems

Chapter 5. Anger’s Aggression: The Wrath of Feud

{96|97} I began this study with a close look at the terms of Calchas’s definition (Il . 1.80-83), especially because he uses three categories to define the two different kinds of anger, khólos and kótos. Those three categories were time, social status, and the body. We proceeded to examine the features of Homeric diction that characterize kótos in the Iliad and Odyssey, as revealed to us through an overview of formal characteristics such as grammatical class and regularity of phrase with special attention to context. Through all this discussion, I have championed Calchas’s culturally informed definition by pointing to the category of time—the long duration of kótos—and its consistent refusal to be part of any immediate quarrel: kótos has typically highlighted the anger that comes into play from beyond the particulars of the narrative proper. We have also seen that hierarchy, the role of the basileús in particular, has a special place with reference to kótos, although that feature of Calchas’s definition remains to be further delineated. Finally, we looked at potential congeners of kótos, and found that the compelling series of cognates can best be grouped and analyzed by bringing what we know of Homeric kótos to bear on the linguistic evidence. By doing so, I developed the idea that Greek kótos continues an old feature of IE *kot , with reference to the anger that accompanies a particular kind of violence.

But to come to terms with that violence, we need to turn to the literature of comparative ethnography, where the taxonomy of violence in diverse cultures has been explored. What kind of violent, aggressive impulse and behavior might kótos refer to, if that question is asked with a view to typological comparison?

Because of my exclusive focus on kótos and khólos, I cannot claim to strike the definitive note on the topic of feuding in Homeric narrative beyond its particular relationship to kótos, but the conclusions that have emerged from the study of Calchas’s definition of kótos lead directly to the social conception of the feud and its relevance to Homeric anger. In particular, what anthropologists know about the feud presents an answer as to why kótos involves the notions of duration and hierarchy.

Black-Michaud’s study, in its critique of earlier literature on feuds, presents his own synthetic theory, so as to place the notion of feud in certain kinds of societies and to establish the kinds of conflicts that are defined by the term “feud.” In Black-Michaud’s analysis, previous writers have fallen short of seeing the full implications of feud over time (86), in part because they stressed too strongly the idea that feud could have a built-in machinery for the conclusion of hostilities. Understandably, such theorists were not able to see a feud as in existence when there was no such conciliatory mechanism. Black-Michaud comes to the conclusion that such conciliatory mechanisms are not central to the feud.

The details of Black-Michaud’s study come from the tribal societies that practice feud in the Mediterranean and Middle-East, which he subdivides into those societies that have herding as their primary means of subsistence (and are primarily nomadic), and those that subsist primarily through agriculture (and hence are sedentary). Furthermore, these societies are primarily egalitarian, so that the individual members of the social order see few means by which they can gain a position of social superiority over another (150). {98|99}

Black-Michaud proceeds to present two problems that face the ethnographer in dealing with these societies: how do leaders arise to fulfill indispensable functions despite a “fiercely egalitarian ideology” (191)? And why does there exist a marked difference between the frequency and intensity of feuds in sedentary agricultural societies and nomadic pastoral groups” (191), in that the sedentary societies have much more devastating feuds than do the nomads?

The basic outline of Black-Michaud’s conclusions is that feud is a social system per se (169) and not to be identified merely with homicide nor with revenge killing. In defining the social phenomenon of the feud, Black-Michaud describes the externals that mark its course, especially in the way that feud arises in what he calls a “fiercely egalitarian ideology,” and also in the differences that are present between the intensity and frequency of feud in sedentary agricultural societies and in those that are nomadic pastoral groups (191). Feud partakes of a ritual “language” that “succeeds in conveying the messages of ‘cohesion and superordination’” (241); in the societies identified as “feuding” societies, the feud is not a part of the social life of these people; the feud, rather, is the social system itself, because it defines the leaders and identifies the coherence of the groups within the social structure.

More importantly for our purposes, Black-Michaud stresses that although previous thinkers have emphasized the methods by which feuding can be brought to an end, these methods—a successful vengeance killing, the act of compensation, or any other element in the system of action and response—can only “arrest but not terminate” the feud. Feud, in contrast with vengeance killing, is political because it provides the foundations for internal political hierarchy and because it establishes external ties of temporary dominance.

Even if Homeric “society” is not a feuding social order, the role of kingship in Calchas’s definition can be clarified by means of reference to the anthropology of the feud, for the Homeric text conserves structures from many different cultural moments. Thus, when Calchas invokes the anger of feud, he suggests that if Agamemnon engages that kind of anger, it threatens to capsize the balance among the kings of the Achaeans. Agamemnon thus threatens to assume a hierarchical position by consolidating his power with reference to others: he becomes more than a primus inter pares. Thus the egalitarian subculture of Athenian kings promotes the threat of feud. Agamemnon, in fact, reverses this threat in his attempt to neutralize what ought to be his greatest fear, that Achilles’ anger will rise to the level of kótos: (Il . 1.180-81): Murmidónessin ánasse, séthen d’ egṑ ouk alegízō, / oud’ óthomai kotéontos, “Rule over the Myrmidons, but I don’t care about you, nor do I have regard for your kótos.” {100|101}

Black-Michaud highlights the ritual quality of the feud. In a provocative discussion of ritual (Chapter 5: 208-41), Black-Michaud is at pains to draw parallels between what we know of ritual and what we know of aggression. For Black-Michaud, the “feud is a form of communication frequently suffused with a strong admixture of ritual concommitants”; he goes on to call it a “ritual of social relations.” The ritual perspective on feud helps Black-Michaud amalgamate a distinction that is very important for understanding feud as opposed to homicide, raiding, warfare, or other kinds of social violence. Black-Michaud asks us to understand realistic conflict as that oriented toward a goal; there are specific demands, estimates of gains, and all activity is directed at an object. Nonrealistic conflict is not oriented toward the attainment of specific goals. For example, a thief is violent in a way that can be styled realistic, but one seeking to establish one’s honor is engaging in behavior that is nonrealistic. Now the ritual perspective puts feuding squarely in the heart of nonrealistic activity. In this way, Black-Michaud brings to light from his research on nomadic feuding relationships a crucial concept for our understanding of kótos. As with the feud, kótos refers to something extrinsic to the particular conflict, something not realistic. Nonetheless, we need to distinguish the télos of kótos from Black-Michaud’s notion of the goal. Rather the télos that Calchas refers to is the end of the entire process, the destruction of the feud itself. For Menelaus and Paris to try to end the kótos through a duel, only to fail, shows that no simple goal can bring the feud to its télos: kótos is fundamentally nonrealistic. It will take Zeus to exterminate the Trojan city, to bring a formal end to the kótos, as is clear from the storm simile in Iliad 16 (384-93, already discussed).

These considerations introduce the important idea that feuds provide a way for women to participate in a defining social institution (Black-Michaud 1975, 217-19), even though this participation seems passive to outside observers (Black-Michaud 1975, 218-19). As to their passivity, we can see that women are instead active in preserving the memory of the feud:

The only activity connected with feud in which women could legitimately indulge was incitement to vengeance: it was the womenfolk of the victim whose duty it was to keep his memory alive by singing funerary dirges, lacerating their faces until they bled and keeping relics such as a blood-soaked shirt, to show provocatively to the heirs of the victim when they were grown old enough to bear a rifle.

(Black-Michaud 1975, 219n)

Indeed, it seems as if the women are the keepers of the traditions of violence:

If feud expresses the varying quality of relationships between groups over interminable periods of time, the events of generations past must be remembered in order that the history of outrage and homicide may serve as a mould in which to cast the pattern of present relations. Largely preliterate feuding societies have consequently created a number of crude devices which serve to record the events of feud and to “awaken” successive generations to take vengeance for their forbears. In Somaliland, southern Greece, Albania, and Corsica it is customary practice for the women to incite the dependents and close kin of the victim to wash the stain of blood from their house by spilling the blood of the killer or his near agnates. These dirges express ferociously blood-thirsty sentiments and are frequently the work of women endowed with outstanding poetical gifts. They are remembered by the kin of the victim over whose bier they were sung and are repeated by their womenfolk for years after the event to instill into the male heirs of the deceased, who may have been infants at the time of the killing, the necessity to bring vengeance when they grow old enough to bear arms.

(Black-Michaud 1975, 78-79 [my emphases])

If these vivid passages from Cohesive Force put us in mind of the Muses keeping the memory alive, both because they were there (Il . 2.485) and because they can recall who fell first in a rout, and who fell last, Black-Michaud’s words certainly should stimulate our thinking about Helen’s weaving her robe the first time we see her, in Il . 3 (125-27):

ἡ δὲ μέγαν ἱστὸν ὕφαινε,
δίπλακα μαρμαρέην, πολέας δ’ ἐνέπασσεν ἀέθλους
Τρώων θ’ ἱπποδάμων καὶ Ἀχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων. {102|103}

She was weaving a great web, double-folded, bright, and she wove into it the numerous conflicts of horse-taming Trojans and bronze armored Achaeans.

The sublimity of this passage is often noted, [
14] but from the perspective of feuding, the sublimity is shot through with a sinister implication. Helen is the weaver of conflict in her role as the woman whose shame, in the technical sense, is the center of the conflict, so that she, as the center of the feud, also plays a role as the inciter to vengeance. There is one activity that women during a feud have as their own, the creation of narratives to emboss in cultural memory the violations that provoke revenge. To use the terms of Aristotelian rhetoric, Helen’s robe may be more deliberative than epideictic. After all, in the very middle of her speech to Paris when he returns to her chamber, after he has been rescued by Aphrodite, she gives this chilling order:

ἀλλ’ ἴθι νῦν προκάλεσσαι ἀρηίφιλον Μενέλαον
ἐξαῦτις μαχέσασθαι ἐναντίον·

(Il . 3.432-33)

But come now and challenge Menelaus, beloved to Ares, again to a duel.

This is the core of her speech, around which we have her ironic wish for Paris to have met his doom on the field of Troy that day (Il . 3.428-29) and her advice not to dare do such a foolish thing (aphradéōs, Il . 3.436). As it turns out then, her task—as the woman over whom the war is fought—is to incite the men to fight for their own honor and because of her shame.

I think here too of the moving songs—laments, after all—for Hector as his corpse is returned to Troy. Although Homer has Cassandra (Il . 24.704-6), Andromache (Il . 24.725-45), Hecabe (Il . 24.748-59), and, significantly, Helen (Il . 24.762-75) all mourn for Hector in a way that emphasizes his gentleness, this loss, as Achilles discovers, can spur on great deeds of violence, since keeping the memory of the deceased alive can easily lead to a renewal of conflict. Can sublime laments become the stuff of vigorous calls to battle?

This kind of anger, kótos, entails the social motivations for human actions, as they are seen on a grand scale. The presence of compelling parallels in cultural congeners, most securely in Indic, Celtic, Germanic, Anatolian, and Greek make it possible to suggest that the source of Greek kótos is a term designating a kind of violence comparable to the feud. In the taxonomy of violence displayed by the Indo-European languages, such a term would have constituted one word among many to indicate kinds and levels of conflict. In the Iliad, for example, kótos takes root in the source of the conflict that informs the narrative, namely, {103|104} the abduction of Helen. In Homeric practice, kótos is used much less frequently than khólos, in part for the same reason that direct view of the abduction of Helen is suppressed within the narrative. The boulḗ of Zeus, in the Iliad, works within the larger scheme of the retribution of the Achaeans against the Trojans. The Homeric poems are not about the abduction of Helen but about the world as it looks afterwards. Gazing over the expanse of the Homeric tradition, I see kótos located at the horizons that mark its limits, not on the dust and the blood of the battlefield.

For the anger that lives in that dust and that blood, I draw our attention in Part II to a study of the other element in Calchas’s definition, khólos. {104|105}


[ back ] 1. See Black-Michaud 1975 and Otterbein 1994 for overviews of the literature.

[ back ] 2. In this vein, note that neither of the recent commentaries lists “feud” in the indices.

[ back ] 3. See now the brief remarks on vendetta by Segal 1994, 218-20, with an identification of khólos and kótos at 218; and Lowenstam 1993, 101 for blood-price. For feud and Athenian culture, see Cohen 1995. Seaford (1994, 25-29) shows a connection between reciprocity and vengeance. The careful distinctions made by Black-Michaud among these various terms (feud, revenge, vendetta, and so on) need to be maintained. For the Homeric poems, not all acts of vengeance are provocative of feud, a linguistic border protected by the semantic distinction between khólos and kótos.

[ back ] 4. See, for example, Miller 1983, 1990; Byock 1982, 1993. Studies of Greek “values” or morality have tended to focus on the Homeric tradition as antedating a full-blown morality. Hence the important ways in which traditional cultures organize action and behavior tend to be placed in the background. See Adkins 1960 with the important reply of Long 1970; the well-known studies of díkē and other terms for justice certainly participate in this favoritism toward posttraditional social configurations, cf. Lloyd-Jones 1983, 1987; Gagarin 1973, 1987; Adkins 1987. D. Cohen’s work on Athenian social practices (1991, 1995) in its theoretical orientation to practices and their relation to symbolic effects holds some promise for a study of these issues in the Homeric texts. In particular the comparative method promoted by Cohen seems to me crucial for a body of work that does not have the historical controls available for Athens or other well-documented societies.

[ back ] 5. Hammond cites in particular Il . 9.448-77, Il . 23.85-90, Od . 15.272-76.

[ back ] 6. Black-Michaud 1975. For a discussion of definitions and models of the feud, see W. I. Miller 1990, 179-89; see too Cohen’s application of the feuding model to Athenian society (Cohen 1995).

[ back ] 7. Black-Michaud 1975, 19.

[ back ] 8. See Il . 18.364-67.

[ back ] 9. Compare the following statement from Cohesive Force: “Feud survives the death of both principals and continues down the generations until physical distance or extermination bring about a permanent cessation of hostilities” (Black-Michaud 1975, 74), with the deal made by Zeus and Hera at the beginning of Book 4, where the death of “both principals” is schemed for by the divinities. Cf. also Black-Michaud 1975, 78-80, where poetry and song are identified as elements in perpetuating the feud; compare Helen’s weaving the poléas … aéthlous / Trṓōn th’ hippodámōn kaì Akhaiôn khalkokhitṓnōn (Il . 3.126-27), to Hera’s comment regarding weaving evils for the Trojans at Il . 18.364-67.

[ back ] 10. It is worth remembering that kótos as an active part of the Greek vocabulary for anger all but disappears after Aeschylus.

[ back ] 11. Black Michaud on the duel (1975, 228): “Insofar as duels can be said to express the tenor of relationships by nonrealistic means, they may be described as rituals of social relations.”

[ back ] 12. As is implied by the adverbial phrase emmenés aieí, Il . 13.517. Again, remember that the meeting of Deiphobus and Idomeneus has as its counterpart and opposite number the meeting between Glaucus and Diomedes in Il . 6: feud and xenía (“guest-friendship”) turn out to be opposite sides of the same coin, one of the highest value in Homeric social currency.

[ back ] 13. Cf. Abu-Lughod 1986 and often in the literature.

[ back ] 14. On the association of Helen with textuality, see Thalmann 1984, 166, with Clader 1976. See also Segal 1994, 125, who emphasizes the particular Homeric touches that distinguish Helen from Andromache.