The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic


Now that a connection has been established between Greek nóos and the Indo-European root nes-, it will be interesting to consider a few further instances in Greek tradition where the notion of “mind” suggests a latent connection with the notion of “return.” I shall begin with two Homeric episodes which have not figured in the discussion so far—the ransom of Hector in Iliad 24 and the night raid in Iliad 10.

The ransom of Hector is thus a journey into “darkness and death” and a “return to life and light.” In such a context it would {153|154} be natural to find the root nes-, and this is in fact the case. The root is present in the word nóos, which is used repeatedly in the passage describing the initial encounter between Priam and Hermes. From a traditional standpoint, the entrance into the underworld would have been characterized by a loss of nóos, and the return to life by a regaining of nóos. Both of these phases, however, seem to have been compressed within the initial encounter; at first Priam and his charioteer, surprised by Hermes’ approach, feel threatened, but when they realized that Hermes intends no harm, this feeling gives way to a sense of “salvation.”

In the space of twenty-odd lines the word nóos occurs four times. When the charioteer notices Hermes lurking nearby, he says to Priam (354):

φράζεο, Δαρδανίδη· φραδέος νόου ἔργα τέτυκται

Observe, descendant of Dardanus; this is a matter for an observant mind.

Priam, realizing that “real” death may be close at hand, is described as follows (358):

… σὺν δέ γέροντι νόος χύτο, δείδιε δ’ αἰνῶς.

The mind of the old man collapsed, and he feared terribly.

In this line one sees Priam’s initial loss of nóos. When Hermes reveals his friendly intentions, he reinforces the idea that to venture forth without an adequate guide will involve a loss of nóos; so, from a traditional standpoint, one may interpret his question to Priam (366–367):

τῶν εἴ τίς σε ἴδοιτο θοὴν διὰ νύκτα μέλαιναν
τοσσάδ’ ὀνείατ’ ἄγοντα, τίς ἂν δή τοι νόος εἴη;

If someone (of the Greeks) should see you bringing so many goods through the swift black night, what mind would you have then? {154|155}

When Priam realizes that Hermes will guide him to “salvation,” he himself uses the word nóos, this time in a compliment to his guide (374 ff.):

ἀλλ’ ἔτι τις καὶ ἐμεῖο θεῶν ὑπερέσχεθε χεῖρα,
ὅς μοι τοιόνδ’ ἧκεν ὁδοιπόρον ἀντιβολῆσαι,
αἴσιον, οἷος δὴ σὺ δέμας καὶ εἶδος ἀγητός,
πέπνυσαί τε νόῳ.

But some god was still holding his protective hand over me when he sent to meet me a courteous guide like you, who are marvelous in build and appearance and prudent in your mind.

The frequency and the nature of the use of the word nóos can hardly be accidental in this episode.

Given this overall context, it becomes significant that the words nóos and noéō play a prominent part in the passage in which Diomedes first volunteers for the adventure. After offering himself, he asks for a companion, giving the following explanation for his request (224 ff.):

σύν τε δύ’ ἐρχομένω, καί τε πρὸ ὃ τοῦ ἐνόησεν
ὅππως κέρδος ἔῃ· μοῦνος δ’ εἴ πέρ τε νοήσῃ
ἀλλά τέ οἱ βράσσων τε νόος, λεπτὴ δέ τε μῆτις.

When two go together one looks before the other to see what is best; but a man by himself, even if he perceive closely, has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.

Diomedes then chooses Odysseus as his companion; in commenting on the value of Odysseus’ intelligence, Diomedes provides us with a collocation of the verbs nostéō and noéō (246–247):

τούτου γ’ ἑσπομένοιο καὶ ἐκ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο
ἄμφω νοστήσαιμεν, ἐπεὶ περίοιδε νοῆσαι.

If this man followed me we would both return even from blazing fire, for he knows best how to use his mind.

In this episode once again, the choice of language must have something to do with a traditional connection between the words nóos and néomai.

With this discussion of Iliad 10 and 24 we may now leave Homer, in order to consider briefly how the same etymological connection may have survived even after Homer’s time. A natural place to begin is with the cults to Helios; unfortunately, however, these cults are for the most part as prehistoric as the connection {156|157} to be investigated. Nevertheless, one such cult survived on the island of Rhodes, and, although little is known about it, a legend has been preserved by Pindar which concerns the origins of the special honor paid to Helios on this island. Pindar gives the legend in Olympian 7. He says that the legend is old (ll. 54–55), and the main points of his account are as follows. When Zeus and the other gods first divided the earth among themselves, Helios, being absent, did not receive a lot. But when Zeus offered to reapportion the earth, Helios refused, for he had seen an island—Rhodes—rising out of the sea, and he wanted this to be his share. Thus Helios obtained Rhodes, made love to her, and sired seven sons, one of whom was to sire, in turn, the eponymous heroes of the three Rhodian cities.

With this hierarchy of generations, the legend indicates its own antiquity. What is significant for our purposes is that the word nóēma, “mind,” appears in connection with the oldest phase, the seven sons of Helios himself. Pindar says that these seven sons “inherited” from Helios “the wisest noḗmata among former men.” The passage (ll. 71 ff.) reads as follows:

ἔνθα Ῥόδῳ ποτὲ μειχθεὶς τέκεν
ἑπτὰ σοφώτατα νοήματ’ ἐπὶ προτέρων ἀν-
δρῶν παραδεξαμένους

There (Helios) once made love to the nymph Rhodes and fathered seven sons who inherited from him the wisest minds among former men.

Through the derivative form nóēma, the word nóos is thus indirectly attested in the context of a Greek cult of the sun. It also seems possible to read the meaning “return to light” of the root nes– into Pindar’s account. The very emergence of Rhodes from the sea is described as a “return from darkness to light”: at first the island lay “hidden in the depths” (en bénthesin … kekrúphthai, l.57), and it was then “sent into the radiant ether” {157|158} (phaennòn es aithéra … pemphtheĩsan, l. 67). This “return to light” provides the context in which to understand the reputation for nóos of the island’s first children.

Such is the scanty—but significant—evidence provided by Greek sun worship, which for the most part was quicker to die than the epic tradition. Where the influence of both, insofar as nóos is concerned, might be expected to have survived is in the Greek philosophical tradition. It would require another study, of another kind, to investigate the importance of sun symbolism in Greek philosophical though. Here, therefore, I wish to draw attention to only two contexts where a precise connection between nóos and néomai, both signifying “return to life and light” is suggested.

In view of this sun symbolism, it is significant that the verb used to designate the philosopher’s “journey to light” is néomai, a verb which appears nowhere else in the pre-Socratic corpus. At the gates of day and night the philosopher is greeted by the goddess Díkē, “Justice,” who says that “it is not an evil destiny that sends you forth to return along this road which lies apart from the beaten track of men” (ll. 26–27):

χαῖρ’, ἐπεὶ οὔτι σε μοῖρα κακὴ προὔπεμπε νέεσθαι
τήνδ’ ὁδόν (ἦ γὰρ ἀπ’ ἀνθρώπων ἐκτὸς πάτου ἐστίν).

The word nóos does not occur in the proem, but since the “return” is that of a philosopher, this hardly matters. Attention may be drawn to Parmenides’ use of the word “road” throughout the proem, because in subsequent fragments hodós is collocated {159|160} with both the verb noéō and the noun nóēma. Fragment 2 begins as follows:

εἰ δ’ ἄγ’ ἐγὼν ἐρέω, κόμισαι δὲ σὺ μῦθον ἀκούσας,
αἳπερ ὁδοὶ μοῦναι διζήσιός εἰσι νοῆσαι

Come now and I will tell you—and you must listen and take my word—what are the only roads of enquiry that exist for thinking,

and fragment 7 as follows:

οὐ γὰρ μήποτε τοῦτο δαμῇ εἶναι μὴ ἐόντα·
ἀλλὰ σὺ τῆσδ’ ἀφ’ ὁδοῦ διζήσιός εἶργε νόημα.

For this will never win out, that things which are not are; but you must restrain your mind from this road of enquiry.

Plato must have drawn on authentic tradition in connecting nóos with the return from the cave. But it is worth noticing the understated way in which Socrates permits the equation: oukh hamartḗsei tē̂s g’ emē̂s elpídos, “you will not miss my surmise.” This suggests to me that the equation may in some sense be real, but it also draws attention to the fact that the myth of the cave was introduced only as a comparison to the ascent of the spirit. {162|163} The gap between comparison and actual equation, which Plato to some extent blurs, nevertheless remains; I believe this gap is the gap between the classical Greek noũs and its primitive origins. {163|164}


[ back ] 1. As Priam sets forth, his people follow him (XXIV 328): πόλλ’ ὀλοφυρόμενοι ὡς εἰ θάνατόνδε κιόντα. (Lamenting for him much, as if he were going to death.)

[ back ] 2. XXIV 343 ff.: see chap. 3, sect. 4 above for the same lines in connection with Hermes’ mission to free Odysseus from Calypso.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Euripides, Rhesus 962 ff.

[ back ] 4. For the significance of this expression, see chap. 3, sect. 1 above.

[ back ] 5. See E. Havelock, “Parmenides and Odysseus,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 63 (1958): 133 ff. (discussed in end note 5; cf. also n. 9 below).

[ back ] 6. See also Havelock, p. 136: “The ‘man who knows’ who is conveyed on a ‘famous journey’ ‘through all towns’ is that Odysseus who is introduced at the opening of the Odyssey.”

[ back ] 7. Diels-Kranz. 1B 21.3.

[ back ] 8. See above chap. 3, text at n. 43 for the discussion of this line in relation to the Laestrygonian adventure in the Odyssey.

[ back ] 9. E. Havelock (n. 5), pp. 138–140, has argued that the sun symbolism in Parmenides is a direct borrowing, with modifications, from the Odyssey; while I do not doubt Parmenides’ use of literary reminiscence, I also believe that his sun symbolism has a deeper origin than this; see end note 5 for discussion.

[ back ] 10. Note also that those in the cave can only see skiaí, “shadows,” and that this word suggests the “shades” of the underworld.

[ back ] 11. Cf. the ánodos of Persephone.