Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter

Appendix A. μήδεα and ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc

Within the framework of Homeric diction, the noun μήδεα can mean either ‘thoughts, schemes’ (as in Γ 202) or ‘genitals’ (as in σ 67). There are many typological parallels to such a semantic ambivalence in μήδεα. For example, Old High German gimaht may mean either ‘faculty’ or ‘genitals’. Notice too that the Greek word for ‘sexual coming of age’, ἥβη, has a direct Latvian cognate (jẽ̦ga) designating either mental or physical faculty. [1] Or again, the Greek verb μνάομαι can mean either ‘have in mind’ (as in the Iliad) or ‘woo, court’ (as in the Odyssey); compare the Plautine expression mentionem facere de puella, meaning ‘make overtures of marriage [to the father of the girl]’. [2] The word mentiō is built on mēns ‘mind’. Another word apparently built on mens is mentula, meaning ‘phallus’. [3]

Lastly, compare Latin mēns ‘mind’ with Greek μένοc ‘power, faculty’; formally, gēns is to genus as mens is to *menus, the would-be cognate of μένοc.

In view of such formal indications that Greek μένοc is related to Latin mēns, I propose that the noun μένοc is derived from the verbal root *men- as in μι-μν-ῄcκω, just as γένοc is derived from *gen- as in γί-γν- ομαι. The actual context of μένοc in the traditional diction of Epic corroborates this proposed etymology. In order to fight bravely, the Homeric hero has to be reminded of his μένοc, or power, whence such expressions as ἀλκῆc μνηcαμένω (Ν 48). By contrast, forgetting one’s power is losing one’s power: μένεοc ἀλκῆc τε λάθωμαι (Χ 282).

On the thematic level, reminders of the {266|267} hero’s power come from the gods. For example, at the beginning of the Odyssey, Athena helps Telemachos prove his manhood by her frequent interventions. In one of these interventions she assumes the form of a person called Μέν-τηc (α 105ff). This name, from a purely morphological standpoint, should be expected to mean ‘he who reminds’. Before setting out from Olympus to help Telemachos, Athena declares her intention with these words (α 88f):

αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ʼΙθάκην ἐcελεύcομαι, ὄφρα οἱ υἱὸν
μᾶλλον ἐποτρύνω, καί οἱ μένοc ἐν φρεcὶ θείω

“I will go to Ithaca, in order to urge his son some more (μᾶλλον), and I will put μένοc in his φρένεc”

Hence μέν-οc is actually being infused by Μέν-τηc. In other words, I propose that an etymology of μένοc may be derived from the internal thematic and formulaic evidence of Homeric diction. Later on, her task accomplished, Athena flies off in the form of a bird, and we hear the following account of what she has done (α 320ff):

                                              τῷ δ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
θῆκε μένοc καὶ θάρcοc, ὑπέμνηcέν τέ ἑ πατρὸc
μᾶλλον ἔτ’ ἠ` τὸ πάροιθεν

“in his θυμόc she had put μένοc and daring; and she had reminded him of his father, more (μᾶλλον) than before”

Elsewhere, Athena encourages Telemachos by {267|268} assuming the form of Μέν-τωρ (β 268) and saying (β 270f):

Τηλέμαχ’, οὐδ’ ὄπιθεν κακὸc ἔccεαι οὐδ’ ἀνοήμων
εἰ δή τοι cοῦ πατρὸc ἐνέcτακται μένοc ἠύ

“Telemachos, you will not be weak or resourceless in the future if truly the goodly μένοc of your father has been instilled in you”

Elsewhere again, Athena in the form of Μέντωρ goads Odysseus into fighting the suitors by saying (χ 226):

οὐκέτι cοίγ’, Ὀδυcεῦ, μένοc ἔμπεδον οὐδέ τιc ἀλκή

“no longer, Odysseus, do you have your old μένοc and ἀλκή”

Of course, such chiding words are all that the old warrior needs to have his μένοc roused. Similarly, Apollo turns Hektor back from flight by encouraging him in the form of one Μέν-τηc (Ρ 73).

Faced with the ambivalence of μήδεα, meaning both ‘thoughts’ and ‘genitals’, we are led to ask which of these two basic meanings is appropriate to ἄφθιτα. From a contextual survey of verbs with root φθι- in Greek Epic, the fact emerges that nowhere are they linked with the notion of mental faculty. By contrast, verbs with this root φθι- designate the wasting-away not only of the whole person but also of various parts of the body, such as the heart (κῆρ: Α 491), {269|270} cheeks (παρειαί: θ 530), complexion (χρώc: π 145). Also, the wasting-away of wine (οἶνοc: ι 163) or of food (ἤϊα: μ 329). Also, the wasting-away of the physical faculties, μένεα (δ 363):

καί νύ κεν ἤϊα πάντα κατέφθιτο καὶ μένε’ ἀνδρῶν

“and by now all the food would have wasted away, and along with it the strength of the men”

Finally, the wasting-away of progeny (δ 740f):

                                        … οὶ μεμάαcιν
ὃν καὶ Ὀδυccῆοc φθῖcαι γόνον ἀντιθέοιο

“who hanker to destroy (φθῖcαι) his progeny [i.e., of Laertes] which is also that of godlike Odysseus”

We may conclude that μήδεα in the sense of ‘thoughts’ is inappropriate to the known contexts of φθι- in general and ἄφθιτο- in particular. From the contextual evidence of the latter, as well as from the comparative contextual evidence of Rig-Vedic ákṣita-, we may also infer that ἄφθιτα μήδεα means ‘unfailing genitals’. Yet the sense of ‘genitals’ seems inappropriate when μήδεα is in collocation with εἰδώc ‘knowing’ (Ω 88):

Ζεὺc ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc

For a solution, let us refer to the epic contexts of μήδεα and of the verb from which μήδεα is derived, namely μήδομαι ‘think, plan, devise’. {270|271}

Our point of departure is that a human can only know so much, as Hera declares in her contrast of humanity with her own divinity (Σ 363):

ὅc περ θνητόc τ’ ἐcτὶ καὶ οὐ τόcα μήδεα οἶδε

“who is mortal and who does not know so many μήδεα [as I do]”

Now if a human devises (μήδεται), his devices (μήδεα) are also human; but if a supernatural being devises, these devices are supernatural and should be respected or feared accordingly by humans. For example, we find that even though the goddess Kalypso condescends to the mortal Odysseus, he dares not accept her on human terms. She devised for him a way to return home (μήδετο πομπήν: ε 233), but when she had initially offered to do so (ε 160-170), Odysseus had refused her offer. After all, why should a goddess devise as a human devises? There must be something sinister to it all, says he (ε 173):

ἄλλο τι δὴ cύ, θεά, τόδε μήδεαι οὐδέ τι πομπήν

“when you devise this you are devising something else, and it’s not sending me on my way home”

The suspicion that Odysseus harbors towards the gods is well founded, as we latter-day humans must concede after noting all the Homeric instances of μήδομαι with a god as subject; the context is regularly sinister (for example, Β 38, Η 478, Ξ 253, γ 132, ξ 243, ω 96). The Kalypso passage at hand happens to contain the only {271|272} notable exception. All the same, the poor goddess is forced to make a declaration on her own divine terms (swearing by the Styx), rather than on human terms, before she is believed by Odysseus. After swearing by the Styx, however, she descends to the human level again (ε 188ff):

ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν νοέω καὶ φράccομαι ἅcc’ὰν ἐμοί περ
αὐτῇ μηδοίμην ὅτε με χρειὼ τόcον ἵκοι.
καὶ γὰρ ἐμοὶ νόοc ἐcτὶν ἐναίcιμοc, οὐδέ μοι αὐτῇ
θυμὸc ἐνὶ cτήθεccι cιδήρεοc ἀλλ’ ἐλεήμων.

“But I think and ponder only the kinds of things that I would devise for myself if I were in such need. I have a decent disposition and my heart is not of iron. It’s a compassionate heart.”

Of course Kalypso the goddess would never be in such need as Odysseus the human: she is simply looking for a human frame of reference. Accordingly, there is not much that is supernatural about the craft which Odysseus builds from what Kalypso supplies (ε 233ff): the material is natural, the tools are natural, even the drinks and food are natural—no nectar and ambrosia. The μηδοίμην of Kalypso is kept on human terms, with no magic. Otherwise, however, μήδομαι regularly connotes supernatural faculties in the context of the divine or even the part-divine. A case in point is the name of the witch par excellence, Μήδεια.

A dramatic example of the verb itself, μήδομαι, occurs in this passage describing the {272|273} cosmic potency of Demeter (Hymn to Demeter 351ff):

                                 … μέγα μήδεται ἔργον
φθῖcαι φῦλ’ ἀμενηνὰ χαμαιγενέων ἀνθρώπων
cπέρμ’ ὑπὸ γῆc κρύπτουcα, καταφθινύθουcα δὲ τιμὰc

“she is devising a tremendous feat: to destroy the enfeebled generations of earth-born humans by concealing Grain underground, thereby destroying the honor of the immortals”

This usage of μήδομαι corresponds with μήδεα, attested in the same context (Hymn to Demeter 452f):

                    … ἔκευθε δ’ ἄρα κρῖ λευκὸν
μήδεcι Δήμητροc

“the white Grain lay concealed by the devices of Demeter”

It is tempting to translate ‘by the magic power of Demeter’, from the human point of view. One who knows the supernatural has power over the natural. Thus Zeus has supreme power because he has supreme knowledge; the agent-noun of μήδομαι is μήcτωρ, and Zeus by his own boast is the supreme deviser, the ὕπατοc μήcτωρ (Θ 22). Zeus urges the other gods to find out for themselves, in the following test (Θ 19ff):

cειρὴν χρυcείην ἐξ οὐρανόθεν κρεμάcαντεc
πάντεc τ’ ἐξάπτεcθε θεοὶ πᾶcαί τε θέαιναι.
ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἂν ἐρύcαιτ’ ἐξ οὐρανόθεν πεδίονδε
Ζῆν’ ὕπατον μήcτωρ’, οὐδ’ εἰ μάλα πολλὰ κάμοιτε.
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ πρόφρων ἐθέλοιμι ἐρύccαι {273|274}
αὐτῇ κεν γαίῃ ἐρύcαιμ’ αὐτῇ τε θαλάccῃ.
cειρὴν μέν κεν ἔπειτα περὶ ρʽίον Οὐλύμποιο
δηcαίμην, τὰ δέ κ’ αὖτε μετήορα πάντα γένοιτο
τόccον ἐγὼ περί τ’ εἰμὶ θεῶν περί τ’ εἴμ’ ἀνθρώπων.

“Hang a golden cord from the sky and hold on to it, all you gods and goddesses. But still you could not pull Zeus, the supreme μήcτωρ, from the sky to the ground, even if you tried very hard. But when I feel like it and decide to pull, I could pull all the way, earth and all, sea and all. Then I would tie the cord around a ridge of Olympus and then everything would be in mid-air. That is how much superior I am to gods and men.”

This ultimate feat of strength is based on magical power which is based on supreme knowledge: to know is to know how, and Zeus is the ὕπατοc μήcτωρ. To be all-knowing is to be all- powerful. Zeus became supreme god because he became supreme magician. The supreme magician before him was his father Κρόνοc, with the suitable epic epithet ἀγκυλομήτηc ‘devious-minded’. How, then, did Zeus usurp the power of Kronos? Not by killing him but simply by outwitting him, as we see in Hesiod’s Theogony (464f):

οἱ πέπρωτο ἑῷ ὑπὸ παιδὶ δαμῆναι
καὶ κρατέρῳ περ ἐόντι, Διὸc μεγάλου διὰ βουλάc

“it was fated that he be overthrown, strong as he was, by his son, through the wiles of the great Zeus” {274|275}

How in turn had Kronos usurped the power of his father, Ouranos? Again, not by killing him, but, rather, by emasculating him. The potency or power of Ouranos was localized in his genitals, as the thematic structure of the Castration Myth proves. The Hesiodic tradition actually preserves not only the Castration Myth but also the inherited word for the genitals of Ouranos: μήδεα (Theogony 180, 188). In this context, the etymology of Ouranos makes sense: οὐρανόc is an agent-noun ultimately derived from a verbal root *wers-, which survives in the Indic verb várṣati ‘rain’ and the Greek verb οὐρέω ‘urinate’. [8] There is a parallel to the Greek Kronos-myth in the Hittite Kumarbi-myth. The god Kumarbi emasculates his father, the sky-god Anu; Kumarbi in turn is overthrown by the Weather-God. [9] In this context, the expression

Ζεὺc ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc

also makes sense finally: Zeus must have unfailing genitals and unfailing knowledge by virtue of having replaced Ouranos and Kronos respectively as supreme ruler. The notions of (1) generative and (2) mental power are both inherent in the ambivalent word μήδεα, but only ἄφθιτα is appropriate to the first and only εἰδώc is appropriate to the second. In Pindar, we see a simplification of this complex semantic grouping Ζεὺc ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc into Ζεὺc ἄφθιτοc, {275|276} Pythian 4.291. This same ode, however, contains an overt instance of ἄφθιτο- in a reproductive context: the magical clod of fertile earth is described as ἄφθιτοn … cπέρμα (‘seed’) in Pythian 4.42f.

Even the contexts of ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc relate to these two inherent notions of generative and mental power:

1. Hesiod, Theogony 559, Works and Days 54. In these passages alone, the epithet [ἄφθιτα] μήδεα εἰδώc does not describe Zeus. Rather, it describes the Titan Prometheus, wizard par excellence, who challenged the power of Zeus (Theogony 534):

… ἐρίζετο βουλὰc ὑπερμενέϊ Κρονίωνι

“he had a contest of wiles with the son of Kronos, who has superior μένοc”

Prometheus is regularly described by epithets connoting magical powers, such as αἰολόμητιν (Theogony 511), ποικιλόβουλον (521), δολοφρονέων (550), πολύιδριν (616), and, most important, ἀγκυλομήτηc (546). The latter epithet of Prometheus (also in Works and Days 48) is otherwise reserved exclusively for Kronos, just as the epithet ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc is otherwise reserved exclusively for Zeus. A possibly related detail: Prometheus has an unfailing ἧπαρ (Theogony 523ff).

2. Hesiod, Theogony 545, 550, 561. Zeus is ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc as he matches the wiles of Prometheus; finally, Prometheus is defeated {276|277} (Theogony 614ff).

3. Hymn to Aphrodite 43. Zeus is ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώc as he makes Hera, daughter of Kronos and his own sister, his bedmate.

5. Hymn to Demeter 321. Iris the Messenger goes to the overtly cosmic deity Demeter and announces that Zeus is calling her; Zeus had just comprehended that Demeter was suspending all fertility in the universe (313):

… Ζεὺc ἐνόηcεν ἑῷ τ’ ἐφράccατο θυμῷ

“Zeus took note and thought it over in his θυμόc”


[ back ] 1. Cf. also Lithuanian jėgà ‘physical strength’. Note that Ἥβη personified provides sustenance for the Olympian gods: she pours νέκταρ for them (Δ 2f).

[ back ] 2. Benveniste 1954:13-18.

[ back ] 3. Spitzer 1939.

[ back ] 4. For text, translation, and commentary, see Güterbock 1952:12-15.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Schmitt 1967:103ff.

[ back ] 6. Cf. Schmitt 1967:109ff.

[ back ] 7. Cf. Chantraine II/1970:457f.

[ back ] 8. Frisk 1960-1970:II, 446f.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Güterbock 1946:7, 100ff.

[ back ] 10. See West 1963.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Kretschmer 1890:571.