Greek Mythology and Poetics

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Chapter 8. Sêma and Nóēsis: The Hero’s Tomb and the “Reading” of Symbols in Homer and Hesiod

The word semiotic—and se mantic, for that matter—may be perceived in a new light if we look again at its Greek origins. The basic form in Greek is sêma ‘sign’, a neuter action-noun built on a root-verb that is no longer attested in the language. There is a cognate of Greek sêma in the Indic branch of the Indo-European linguistic family. The form is dhyāma ‘thought’, a neuter action-noun, attested only in the late Indic lexicographical tradition. [1] This poorly attested noun is built on a root-verb that is well attested in early Indic. The root is dhyā– ‘think’ (variant of dhī– ‘think’). Even though the morphological relationship of dhyā– and dhyāma is transparent in Indic, and even though Indic dhyāma and Greek sêma would have to be considered cognates on the basis of their parallelism on the level of morphology, students of language are troubled by the apparent lack of parallelism on the level of semantics: how could the meaning ‘sign’ of Greek sêma be connected with the meaning ‘thought’ of Indic dhyāma? [2]

The word that conveys this basic faculty of recognition and interpretation is nóos. As the Trojan hero Polydamas says to Hektor…

οὕνεκά τοι περὶ δῶκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα,
τοὔνεκα καὶ βουλῇ ἐθέλεις περιίδμεναι ἄλλων·
ἀλλ’ οὔ πως ἅμα πάντα δυνήσεαι αὐτὸς ἐλέσθαι.
ἄλλῳ μέν γὰρ δῶκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα,
ἄλλῳ δ’ ὀρχηστύν, ἐτέρῳ κίθαριν καὶ ἀοιδήν,
ἄλλῳ δ’ ἐν στήθεσσι τιθεῖ νόον εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἐσθλόν, τοῦ δέ τε πολλοὶ ἐπαυρίσκοντ’ ἄνθρωποι,
καί τε πολέας ἐσάωσε, μάλιστα δὲ καὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἐρέω ὥς μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι ἄριστα

Iliad XIII 726-735

It is nóos, then, that enables one to ‘recognize’ (verb anagignṓskō). [

To come back to the clothes of Odysseus as a sêma for recognition (xix 250): the narrative suggests that, in order for the clothes to be a sêma, Odysseus himself has to notice them as such:

τὸν δὲ χιτῶν’ ἐνόησα

Odyssey xix 232

…and I noticed [verb noéō] the tunic…

Odysseus here is speaking in a disguised persona as he calls attention to the tunic. In his false identity, he is calling attention to his true identity by way of a sêma, and in noticing it first himself within his own narrative, he shows by example what Penelope and the Homeric audience must notice on their own. The verb here for ‘notice’ is noéō, derivative of the noun nóos.

There are several passages that show how the verb noéō conveys simultaneously the noticing of signs and the recognition of what they mean. Those in particular who have mantic powers will instantly recognize the facts of a matter simply by noticing a portent. The ultimate mántis ‘seer’ {205|206} is of course Apollo himself, and the following example of Apollo’s mode of thinking as he spots a bird flying in the sky can serve as an ideal illustration:

οἰωνòν δ’ ἐνόει τανυσίπτερον, αὐτκα δ’ ἔγνω
φηλητὴν γεγαῶτα Διὸς παῖδα Κρονίωνος

Hymn to Hermes 213-214

He noticed [verb noéō] a long-winged bird, and he recognized [verb gignṓskō] instantly
that the thief was the child of Zeus the son of Kronos.

In such contexts, the verb noéō is actually synonymous with gignṓskō in the sense of ‘recognize’. Similarly, when old Priam notices (= verb noéō: νοήσας XXIV 294, 312) a bird sent by Zeus, he implicitly recognizes the signal to approach the ships of the Achaeans. Or again, in response to such ominous signals as the uncontrollable laughter of the impious suitors (xx 346) and the ghastly suffusion of the walls with blood (xx 354), the seer Theoklymenos prudently decides to leave the banquet-hall:

…ἐπεὶ νοέω κακòν ὔμμιν

Odyssey xx 367-368

The translation ‘recognize’ for noéō here would be just as appropriate as ‘notice’. By contrast, the suitors themselves fail to recognize the many signs that signal their doom. Even when the disguised Odysseus kills their leader, appropriately named Antínoos (xxii 8-30), they still fail to have nóēsis (verb noéō: οὐκ ἐνόησαν xxii 32).

All these signs, of course, seem more or less arbitrary. A signal like “bird flying in the sky,” for example, may correspond to the declarative message “Hermes is the thief” in one context, or to the imperative message “Priam must go to Achilles” in another. But a true recognition of the sign, a true nóēsis of the sêma, can be achieved only by recognizing the internally coherent system of signals: it is not just a matter of “bird flying in the sky,” for example, but rather, of 1 2 3…n different kinds {206|207} οf birds flying α β γ…ω different ways in the sky. The bird that Priam saw was flying in a right-hand direction (XXIV 294, 312); if it had been flying in a left-hand direction, however, the signal would presumably correspond to a message such as “Priam must not go to Achilles”! To cite another example: in order to recognize the Dog Star as a sêma (XXII 30) bearing a yearly message of the parching in store for mankind (XXII 30-31), one has to know its relation to the other stellar sḗmata in the sky, and whatever messages they in turn may bear. [15] Or again, in order to recognize the baleful sḗmata that were scratched by Proitos on the tablet that the hero Bellerophon took with him to the king of Lycia (VI 168/176/178), the king has to know their relation to the other sḗmata in a system of markings and the relation of these markings to a set of meanings. Whether these markings are ideograms or runes or even letters, the point is that the king has to “read” them. And the present argument is that nóos would be an appropriate word for designating such “reading,” such recognition of the system. The code composed of elements such as А В Г … Ω could be decoded by the nóos of the king of Lycia, just as it was encoded by the nóos of Proitos.

There is a striking analog in Latin, which also has a bearing on another importam word in the realm of semiotics. The word in question is signum ‘sign’, [16] and the context in question concerns the use of the word by the Roman army in battle. In the parlance of strategy, the Latin phrase for ‘obey orders’ is signa sequī—literally, ‘follow the signs’ (e.g. Livy 3.28.3, 22.2.6, 23.35.7, 24.48.11, 30.35.6, 42.65.12). Synchronically, the word signum in these contexts refers to a military standard carried by the signifer ‘standard-bearer’. Diachronically, however, signum refers to ‘that which is followed’: if we follow Benveniste in reconstructing this noun as *sekw-nom, then it is actually derived from the verb sequi ‘follow’. [17] Thus signa sequi would be a figura etymologica that encompasses the system of traditional Roman military maneuvers:>

  • signa subsequi          ‘keep in order of battle’
  • ab signis discedere   ‘desert’
  • signa figere               ‘encamp’
  • signa mouere            ‘decamp, break up the camp’
  • signa inferre              ‘attack’
  • signa constituere       ‘halt’ {207|208}
  • signa proferre            ‘advance’
  • signa conuertere        ‘wheel, turn, face about’
  • signa conferre            ‘engage in close fight’
  • etc.

The signum in isolation is arbitrary, but each signal in the left column above is part of an internally cohesive system or code. For the Roman soldier, each signal corresponds to a message in the right column above, a particular military action. Thus when the signum ‘standard’ is planted into the ground by the signifer ‘standard-bearer’, the soldier encamps; when it is taken out again, he decamps; and so on. One might say that the Roman soldier recognizes his commands because he recognizes the system of signals. He can effectively obey individual commands because he grasps the overall code. [


Nagy, Gregory. Mythology and Poetics, Chp.8 Fig

Earlier, Nestor also tells his son that the skilled charioteer keeps his eye on the térma as he heads toward it (323), watching for an opportunity to pass a faster chariot (322-325) that is driven without such a sense of goal-directedness (319-321). Antilokhos indeed finds such an opportunity, quickly passing and almost “fishtailing” the faster chariot of Menelaos (417-441). In this context, Antilokhos himself uses the verb noéō to express what he is doing (νοήσω 415). What, then, makes Nestor’s sêma work as a key to victory? It is the ability of his son to recognize how the sêma works within its code, which is equated with simply noticing it. And the word for this noticing/recognition is noéō.

Nestor did not have to tell his son explicitly what to do and when to do it. All he did was to give him a sêma, and Antilokhos could then take the initiative by way of recognizing and interpreting it correctly (verb noéō). [21] The relationship of sêma and nóēsis is in this passage formally enacted by way of a phrase combining a negative with the verb lḗthō ‘escape the mind of’ (XXIII 326, 414-415): {209|210}

σῆμα δέ τοι ἐρέω μάλ’ ἀριφραδές, οὐδέ σε λήσει

Iliad XXIII 326

I [Nestor] will tell you a sêma , a very distinct one, and it will not escape your mind.

ταῦτα δ’ ἐγὼν αὐτὸς τεχνήσομαι ἠδὲ νοήσω
στεινωπῷ ἐν ὁδῷ παραδύμεναι, οὐδέ με λήσει

Iliad XXIII 414-415

And I myself [Antilokhos] will devise these things and recognize [verb noéō] how to pass him at a narrow pan of the road, and it will not escape my mind.

As we see in the second example, this negative phrase is synonymous with the verb noéō. This same phrase, which links the noun sêma with the verb noéō, recurs where Nestor is describing how a skilled charioteer keeps his eyes on the térma ‘turning point’ as he heads toward it:

αἰεὶ τέρμ’ ὁρόων στρέφει ἐγγύθεν, οὐδέ ἑλήθει
ὅππως τὸ πρῶτον τανύσῃ βοέοισιν ἱμᾶσιν,
ἀλλ’ ἔχει ἀσφαλέως καὶ τὸν προὔχοντα δοκεύει

Iliad XXIII 323-325

…always keeping his eye on the térma , he makes a tight turn, and it does not escape his mind,
as soon as he pulls at his ox-hide reins,
but he holds his pace steady, stalking the front-runner.

In view of Nestor’s specifically saying that the sêma ‘sign’ of victory (326) centers on the way in which Antilokhos is to make his turn around the turning point (327-345), and in view of the linkage between this sêma ‘sign’ (326) and this térma ‘turning point’ (323) by way of the formula οὐδέ σε/ἑ λήσει/λήθει ‘and it will/does not escape your/his mind’ (326/323), it is significant that the narrative raises the possibility that the térma is itself a sêma (σῆμα 331/τέρματ’ 333). But here (331) the word sêma has the specific meaning of ‘tomb’, a meaning that cannot be discussed until later. For now it will suffice to stress again the connection of the noun sêma with the verb noéō by way of this phrase combining a negative with the verb lḗthō ‘escape the mind of’. [
22] {210|211}

To take the first passage first: there are indeed sḗmata linked with the cognition of Zeus, but such sḗmata are encoded rather than decoded by his nóos. Thus, for example, a violent storm can be a sign sent by Zeus to manifest his anger against a city over the violation of díkē ‘justice’ (XVI 384-393; díkē at 388); and the most visible manifestation of violent storms is generically the lightning, which is in fact the most ubiquitous sêma of Zeus (e.g. XIII 244). [24] What humans must do is to decode the various signs encoded by Zeus, which is a hard thing to do:

ἄλλοτε δ’ ἀλλοῖος Ζηνὸς νόος αἰγιόχοιο, {211|212}
ἀργαλέως δ’ ἄνδρεσσι καταθνητοῖσι νοῆσαι

Hesiod Works and Days 483-484

The nóos of aegis-bearing Zeus is different at different times,
and it is hard to recognize [verb noéō] for mortal men.

In this very context Hesiod gives an example: when the sound of the cuckoo is first heard across the land, that is a sign for rainstorms that allow spring ploughing (Works and Days 485-492). These instructions are then summed up as follows:

ἐν θυμῷ δ’ εὖ πάντα φυλάσσεο· μηδέ σε λήθοι
μήτ’ ἔαρ γινόμενον πολιὸν μήθ’ ὥριος ὄμβρος

Hesiod Works and Days 491-492

The expression ‘and let them not escape your mind’ implies, again, that the word sêma is understood. There is in fact a parallel Hesiodic passage where the word sêma is overt: when the sound of the migrating crane is for the first time heard across the land (Works and Days 448-449), this is a sêma ‘sign’ (450) for rainstorms that allow autumn ploughing (450-451).

The message of this sêma, however, is twofold neither for the seafarers nor for the inlanders, since the former can surely distinguish oars from winnowing shovels while the latter are presented as knowing only about winnowing shovels. Rather, the message is twofold only for Odysseus the traveler, since he sees that the same signal has two distinct messages in two distinct places: what is an oar for the seafarers is a winnowing shovel for the inlanders. In order to recognize that one signal can have two messages, Odysseus has to travel through the cities of many men. In all his travels he will have come to know a wide variety of signs:

πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω

Odyssey i 3

He saw the cities of many, and he came to know [gignṓskō] their nóos . {213|214}

This verse is suitable for describing what Odysseus would have to do in following the instructions of Teiresias:

ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὰ βροτῶν ἐπὶ ἄστε’ ἄνωγεν ἐλθεῖν

Odyssey xxiii 267-268

…since he [Teiresias] instructed me [Odysseus] to go to very many cities of mortals

Moreover, the gesture of planting the handle of his oar into the ground (xi 129), which is what Odysseus is instructed to do when he reaches a place where the natives mistake his oar for a winnowing shovel, is itself the bearer of a twofold message. To plant the handle of a winnowing shovel in a heap of grain at a harvest festival is a formal act symbolizing that the winnower’s work is finished (e.g. Theocritus 7. 155-156). [
29] And to plant the handle of an oar in the ground İs to symbolize that the oarsman’s work is likewise finished—as in the case of Odysseus’ dead companion Elpenor, whose tomb is to be a mound of earth with the handle of his oar planted on top (xi 75-78, xii 13-15). [30] So also with Odysseus: he too will never again have to sail the seas. Moreover, Odysseus’ own oar planted in the ground is a stylized image of his own tomb! And yet, this “tomb” is situated as far away from the sea as possible, whereas Odysseus’ death is to come ex halós ‘out of the sea’ (xi 134). There is no need to argue on this basis that the phrase ex halós somehow means ‘away from the sea’. [31] Rather, the twofold semantic nature of the sêma for Odysseus is formalized in the coincidentia oppositorum of his finding the sign for his death from the sea precisely when he is farthest away from the sea. [32] {214|215}

The question remains to be asked: why should the sêma ‘sign’ (xi 126) given by Teiresias to Odysseus take the form of a stylized tomb? For an answer, it is necessary to reconsider the word’s meaning. The word sêma bears not only the general meaning of ‘sign’ but also the specific meaning of ‘tomb’, which is conventionally visualized as a mound of earth (e.g. XXIII 45, the sêma ‘tomb’ of Patroklos, and xi 75, the sêma ‘tomb’ of Elpenor). It has in fact already been noted [33] that the meanings ‘sign’ and ‘tomb’ can converge. When Nestor gives his son Antilokhos a sêma ‘sign’ (XXIII 326) that will enable him to win a prize in the chariot race, the message of this sign centers on the way in which Antilokhos is to make his turn around the térma ‘turning point’ (XXIII 327-345), and it is significant that the narrative itself ostentatiously raises the possibility that this turning point is a sêma ‘tomb’:

ἤ τευ σῆμα βροτοῖο πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος,
ἢ τό γε νύσσα τέτυκτο ἐπὶ προτέρων ἀνθρώπων,
καὶ νῦν τέρματ’ ἔθηκε ποδάρκης δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Iliad XXIII 331-333

It is either the tomb [sêma] of a man who died a long time ago,
or it was a turning post in the times of earlier men.
Now swift-footed brilliant Achilles has set it up as the turning point [térma plural].

Аs Dale Sinos points out, [
34] the turning points of chariot racecourses at the pan-Hellenic Games were conventionally identified with the tombs of heroes: Pausanias (6.20.15-19) reports that the spirit of one such hero was called Taráxippos ‘he who disturbs the horses’, and that the Taraxippos often causes the chariots to crash (6.20.15, 19). [35] So also with the chariot race in honor of the dead hero Patroklos: the turning point is the place where Antilokhos must take care not to let his chariot crash (XXIII 341-345).

Sinos also points out that the hero’s tomb, from the standpoint of Homeric epos, is a physical manifestation of his kléos ‘glory’ as conferred by poetry (e.g. iv 584). [36] The tomb shared by Achilles and Patroklos, which is to be visible not only for men of their time but also for the generations of the future (xxiv 80-84), along with the Funeral Games for {215|216} Achilles (xxiv 85-92), are the two explicit reasons for the everlasting kléos of Achilles (xxiv 93-94). In this context the etymology of sêma ‘sign, tomb’ can be brought to bear; as a ‘sign’ of the dead hero, the ‘tomb’ is a reminder of the hero and his kléos. Thus the sêma ‘tomb’ of ‘a man who died a long time ago’ (XXIII 331) is appropriate for Achilles to set as a turning point for the chariot race in honor of the dead Patrokléēs ‘he who has the kléos of the ancestors’. [37] This meaning of the name of Patroklos converges with the connotations of ἐπὶ προτέρων ἀνθρώπων ‘in the times of earlier men’ at XXIII 332, describing the heroic era that may have been the setting for the use of the turning point, which in turn may have been a sêma ‘tomb’ belonging to someone described as βροτοῖο πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος ‘a man who died a long time ago’ at XXIII 331. Dale Sinos has written of this passage: [38]

The sêma of the dead man will turn out to be the realization of the hint, the sêma of Nestor to his son. The latent function of sêma ‘tomb’ thus becomes overt: the ‘hint’ becomes the ‘tomb’. Likewise, the ‘tomb’ becomes a ‘hint’ of a Dead Man’s presence, invoked by Achilles. Can one connect this presence of a long-dead hero with the newly dead hero of Iliad XXIII? The very name Patrokléēs helps provide an answer to this question. Patroklos re-enacts the eternal scheme of attaining kléos, and his name provides the present epic situation with the past glories of the ancestors. The Patroklos figure validates the Iliad by establishing the link with the eternal values of kléos. From our point of view, even the name Patrokléēs is a sêma, as it were, for these eternal values. His role enacts his name, and his name is a key to the tradition which gives kléos to Achilles and marks the Iliad as the heroic present with an eternal past. Tradition is dependent on the continuation of ancestral values by their re-enactment in the present. In mythos, the ancestor functions as hero, operating as he does in a timeless scheme. From the standpoint of mythos, the Dead Man of XXIII 331 and the Patroklos of Book XXIII in toto are parallel figures with parallel functions.

The narrative of the Iliad emphatically maintains, to repeat, that the turning point for the chariot race in honor of Patroklos had been in the past either just that, a turning point, or else a sêma ‘tomb’ (XXIII 331-332). The ostentatiously presented alternative of a sêma ‘tomb’ (331), in view of the sêma ‘sign’ of Nestor to his son only five verses earlier (326), bears its own message: not only the tomb is a sign but the very mention of the tomb may be a sign. To put it another way: a sêma is a {216|217} reminder, and the very use of the word is a reminder. But the attitude of the narrative is one of “take it or leave it.” If you reject the alternative that the turning point is a sêma ‘tomb’ of a dead man, then the sêma ‘sign’ of Nestor to Antilokhos has a simplex message about how to take a turn; if you accept it, on the other hand, then the same sêma ‘sign’ has an additional message about the sêma ‘tomb’ as a reminder of kléos.

There is reason to think that Antilokhos is to recognize the turning point as both a turning point and a tomb by virtue of the sêma given him by Nestor, just as Odysseus is to recognize the oar as both an oar and a winnowing shovel by virtue of the sêma given him by Teiresias. The key is nóos. To begin, the cognition of Nestor and Antilokhos in encoding and decoding the sêma, respectively, is a matter of nóos:

μυθεῖτ’ εἰς ἀγαθὰ φρονέων νοέοντι καὶ αὐτῷ

Iliad XXIII 305

He [Nestor] spoke to him [Antilokhos], having good intentions toward him, and he [Antilokhos] too was aware [verb noéō].

The kaì ‘too’ of ‘he too was aware’ here stresses that the decoder has nóos too, not just the encoder. When the time comes for Antilokhos to take the initiative, in a situation not specifically anticipated by the instructions of Nestor, he says: ‘I will have nóos ’ (νοήσω [verb noéō] XXIII 415). Then he executes the dangerous maneuver of passing the faster chariot of Menelaos (XXIII 418-441), in an impulsive manner that is condemned by Menelaos as lacking in good sense (XXIII 420; cf. the diction of 320-321). The self-acknowledged impulsiveness of Antilokhos at this point of the action is then counterbalanced by his clever use of verbal restraint after his prize is challenged by an angry Menelaos, who is thus flattered into voluntarily ceding the prize to Antilokhos (XXIII 586-611). [
39] The impulsiveness and restraint of Antilokhos in action and in speech, respectively, as Douglas Frame pointed out to me viva voce, years ago, correspond to the speeding up and the slowing down of his right- and left-hand horses, respectively, as he rounds the sêma—which is the feat of nóos that Nestor had taught him. [40] Winning his prize, {217|218} Antilokhos then hands it over to a companion who is appropriately named Noḗmōn (XXIII 612)—a form derived from the verb noéō. Another appropriate name is that of Nestor himself, the man whose nóos encodes the message decoded by Antilokhos. As Douglas Frame has argued convincingly, the form Néstōr is an agent-noun derived from the root *nes-, just as nóos is an action-noun derived from the same root. [41] Significantly, Nestor, too, gets a prize from Achilles, even though the old man had not competed in the chariot race. And the purpose of this prize, Achilles says, is that it will be a mnêma ‘reminder’ of the funeral of Patroklos (Πατρόκλοιο τάφου μνῆμ’ ἔμμεναι XXIII 619)! Thus the narrative comes full circle around the sêma of Nestor: the encoder had given a sêma ‘sign’ to Antilokhos about the turning point, which may have been used in the chariot races of ancestral times, ἐπὶ προτέρων ἀνθρώπων ‘in the times of earlier men’ (XXIII 332), or which may have been the sêma ‘tomb’ of someone described as βροτοῖο πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος ‘a man who died a long time ago’ (XXIII 331), and this hint about Patrokléēs ‘he who has the glory of the ancestors’ is then formalized in the prize given by Achilles to Nestor as a mnêma ‘reminder’ of Patroklos’ funeral.

The question is: what do these associations of sêma have to do with the semantics of nóos? As Frame argues in the course of his illuminating hook, nóos is an action-noun derived from the Indo-European root-verb *nes- meaning ‘return to light and life’. This meaning is possibly still attested in Indic Nắsatyau, a name of the Divine Twins who bring about sunrise after the night brought on by each sunset. [42] The root-verb *nes-is attested in Greek as néomai, but in this case means simply ‘return’, not ‘return to light and life’. One derivative of néomai is nóstos ‘return, homecoming’—and another is nóos! As Frame also argues, the theme of ‘return to light and life’ is recovered by way of the pervasive interplay between the themes of nóos and nóstos within the overall framework of the Odyssey: the key to the nóstos ‘homecoming’ of Odysseus is his nóos, and the nóstos is endangered whenever the nóos is threatened by lḗthē ‘forgetfulness’, as in the story of the Lotus-Eaters. [43] There are in fact two aspects of nóstos in the Odyssey: one is of course the hero’s return from Troy, and the other, just as important, is his return from Hades. Moreover, the theme of Odysseus’ descent and subsequent nóstos ‘return’ from Hades converges with the solar dynamics of sunset and subsequent sunrise. [44] The movement is from dark to light, from unconsciousness to consciousness as expressed by nóos. In fact, the hero is asleep as he floats {218|219} in darkness to his homeland, and sunrise comes precisely when his boat reaches the shores of Ithaca (xiii 79-95). [45]

But the sêma of the chariot race in honor of the dead Patroklos is not just a ‘tomb’ that serves as a ‘reminder’ of ‘a man who died a long time ago’. It is also a ‘sign’ that was encoded by the nóos of Néstōr ‘he who brings about a return’ [47] (cf. again XXIII 305). [48] And the word nóos conveys life after death, not only by virtue of its etymology ‘return to light and life’ but also by virtue of its usage in Homeric diction: nóos is the quality that allows the psūkhḗ to be cognitive even after death, as in the case of the seer Teiresias (x 492-494). [49] In other words, nóos is the quality that reintegrates the psūkhḗ of the dead with thūmós and ménos, the physical manifestations of consciousness in the body, and in this sense nóos is the quality that can reintegrate psūkhḗ and body. [50] Thus the sêma is not just the ‘sign’ of death, it is also the potential ‘sign’ of life after death. In this light, it may be possible to interpret the Pindaric phrase above as follows: ‘Both rich and poor return to light and life by going past the sêma of Death’. In any case, the sêma is a signpost for nóos. There is, for {219|220} example, the sêma ‘tomb’ of Ilos, local hero of Troy, which is where Hektor ‘plans his plans’ (boulàs bouleúei: X 415). [51] Or there is the sêma of ‘a man who died a long time ago’, upon which Antilokhos must fix his eyes as he approaches with his chariot (XXIII 323), waiting for an opportunity to use his nóos. Or again, there is the sêma of Achilles and Patroklos at the Hellespont, which is tēlephanḗs ‘shining from afar’ as a beacon of salvation for sailors at sea (xxiv 80-84, in conjunction with XIX 374-380). [52] In the Black Figure iconography of the Münster Hydria, [53] this very sêma is visualized against a red background as a gleaming white egg-shaped mass rising out of the ground, with the psūkhḗ of Patroklos himself hovering over it (the homunculus is actually labeled in the picture, with the lettering ΦΣΥΧΕ); meanwhile, the chariot of Achilles is racing around it, counterclockwise, with horses at full gallop—and with Achilles himself running alongside. [54]

It could even be said that the aînos of Nestor is a sêma, and that poetry itself can be а sêma. [58] Homeric diction makes this clear by occasionally equaling an épos ‘utterance’ with a sêma. For example, Odysseus prays to Zeus for both a portent and a phḗmē ‘prophetic utterance’ as indications of his future success against the suitors (xx 98-101). In response, Zeus sends both lightning (103-104) and a phḗmē (105). The phḗmē lakes the form of words spoken by a slave woman who is grinding grain with her mill, and she prays to Zeus to punish the suitors, who have made her work so hard (105-119). The narrative introduces her words by calling them an épos (111), which is specifically identified as a sêma for Odysseus (same line). The poetic format of what the woman says is apparent not only from such parallels as Carmina Popularia PMG 869 but also from the use of épos, which is attested in archaic poetic diction as meaning not just ‘utterance’ but also specifically ‘poetic utterance’. [59] And again, the faculty for encoding the verbal sêma is nóos: [60] thus after Zeus expresses his Will by way of nodding his head (I 524-527) , Hera goads him for not telling what it is, that is, for not making an épos out of what he has in his nóos (verb noéō, I 543). Zeus replies that the mûthos ‘utterance’ that he has in his nóos (verb noéō; I 549) is for him alone to know. But of course {221|222} the Homeric audience knows, since the Iliad declares programmatically that its plot is the Will of Zeus (I 5). [61] In this sense the entire Iliad is a sêma reinforcing the Will of Zeus.


[ back ] 1. KEWA 2:114.

[ back ] 2. See DELG 998.

[ back ] 3. Cf. esp. Benveniste 1969 2:58.

[ back ] 4. For an attempt to outline this methodology: N 1979a.1-11.

[ back ] 5. Frame 1978; cf. pp. 92ff. and 126 above. Also Svenbro 1988a.31n79.

[ back ] 6. Cf. Svenbro 1988a, esp. p. 53.

[ back ] 7. 7 On the translation of phílos as ‘near and dear’, cf. Jones 196157-58, commenting on Aristotle’s definition of anagnṓrisis ‘recognition’ (Poetics 1452аЗО-32) as a shift from ignorance to knowledge, which matches a shift to philíā ‘nearness and dearness’ (or to its opposite). Schwanz 1982 argues that phílos is derived from locative phi, cognate of English by in the sense of ‘near’; such a notion of nearness or closeness, if indeed it is built into the word phílos, can be connected with the concept of an “ascending scale of affection,” which is a mode of self-identification discussed at N 1979a. 103-113.

[ back ] 8. In other instances the narrative may omit the intermediate stage of recognizing the sêma before recognizing the person: thus at iv 250 Helen ἀνέγνω (verb anagignṓskō) ‘recognized’ Odysseus (direct object) when he slipped into Troy in disguise. It seems no accident that this particular stretch of narrative is highly compressed.

[ back ] 9. On the semantics of amḗkhanos ‘irremediable’ and the pertinence of this epithet to the present context, see Martin 1983.18.

[ back ] 10. Hektor not only yearns to excel in boutḗ ‘planning’: he is formally a paragon of mêtis ‘artifice, stratagem’, even earning the epithet ‘equal to Zeus in mêtis’ (VII 47, XI 200). This quality, however, ultimately brings him into conflict with Athena, the goddess of mêtis incarnate. Hektor even yearns to have the same tīmḗ ‘honor’ as Athena and Apollo themselves (cf. VIII 538-541, XIII 825-828), and his mortality is thereby underscored as he falls victim to death precisely because his mệtis had in the end gone bad (κακὰ μητιόωντι XVIII 312): Athena herself takes away his senses (XVIII 311). See N 1979a.144-l47, where it is also argued that the excellence of a hero in a given pursuit is precisely what draws him into a forcefield of antagonism with a corresponding god. The excellence of Polydamas in the realm of planning and stratagem (in this passage as also at XVIII 251-252) is not central: it simply highlights, by way of contrast, Hektor’s ultimate failure as he pursues excellence in this very realm.

[ back ] 11. On the semantics of esthlós: Watkins 1972, 1982b.

[ back ] 12. For a variation on this theme, see xxi 205; Odysseus ἀνέγνω ‘recognized’ (verb anagignṓskō) the nóos of Eumaios and Philoitios. Then at xxi 217 he specifies for them the sêma of the scar. In other words, Odysseus here recognizes the nóos that is capable of recognizing the sêma.

[ back ] 13. On phrázomai as a verb that denotes the activity of mêtis ‘artifice, stratagem’: Detienne and Vernant 1974.25n32.

[ back ] 14. For the diction, cf. Solon F 13.54 W [= F 1 GP]: ἔγνω δ’ ἀνδρὶ κακὸν τηλόθεν ἐρχόμενον ‘he [= a generic mantis ‘seer’] recognizes [verb gignṓskō ] a misfortune, even as it is heading toward a man from afar’ (commentary in N 1985a.25).

[ back ] 15. Consider also the message of the constellations Arktos and Orion for Odysseus: Odyssey v 271-277, in conjunction with v 121-124 (N 1979a.202-203).

[ back ] 16. For a survey: Benveniste 1969 2:255-263.

[ back ] 17. Benveniste 1948.122-124.

[ back ] 18. Note especially the expression at Livy 23.35.7: signa sequi et in acie agnoscere ordines suos ‘to follow the signals and to recognize their positions in the battle line’. The system (or ordines) of the acies ‘battle-line’ depends on the system of the signa. To recognize (or agnoscere) the system of the signa is to recognize the ordines of the acies.

[ back ] 19. On phrázomai as a verb of mêtis: p. 205n13.

[ back ] 20. For more on this passage: N 1979a.47.

[ back ] 21. On noéō in contexts of taking the initiative, see N 1979a.51n. Cf. sêma at xxi 231 and the contexts of nóēsis at xxi 413-414, 431; xxii 129.

[ back ] 22. The negative plus the root lēth– is a litotes for the root mnē– ‘have in mind’. (On the central role of the root mnē– in Indo-European poetic diction, see Watkins 1987.270-271.) Note the collocation of noéō and mnē– at xx 204-205 (…ὡς ἐνόησα, δεδάκρυνται δέ μοι ὄσσε | μνησαμένῳ Ὀδυσῆος) Note also the contexts of lḗthē as the opposite of nóos, surveyed by Frame 1978.36-37, 75-76.

[ back ] 23. On the Indo-European heritage of the theme “Eye of Zeus,” see the discussion of West 1978.223-224. It should be noted, however, that his discussion does not cover the ethical implications of this theme.

[ back ] 24. In this passage the stylized expression ἀρίζηλοι δέ οἱ αὐγαί ‘and his flashes of light are very clear to see’ might be connected with the theme “Eye of Zeus” (as at Hesiod Works and Days 267; see the previous note).

[ back ] 25. The epithet πολιόν ‘gray’ seems to suggest ‘overcast’ (pace West 1978.279), reflecting the rainy days, as opposed to an epithet like λευκόν ‘bright’ (e.g. Theocritus 18.27), reflecting the clear days.

[ back ] 26. For further discussion: p.92.

[ back ] 27. See pp. 210-211n22.

[ back ] 28. Cf. Theognis 1197-1202: the poet hears the sound of the crane (1197-1198), which signals the season of autumn ploughing for men (1198-1199). But the poet is sad and helpless: he has lost his lands because of a sea voyage, which now weighs on his mind (μνηστῆς…ναυτιλίης 1202). In line with the present interpretation of Hesiod Works and Days 450-451/618-623, the root mnē– expressing ‘on my mind’ here (Theognis 1202) implies that the sound of the crane is a sêma ‘sign’. For more on the sound of the migrating crane as а sêma, see the commentary at N 1985а.64-68 on Theognis 1197-1202 and related passages.

[ back ] 29. Hansen 1977.38-39.

[ back ] 30. Hansen pp.38-39.

[ back ] 31. Pace Hansen pp. 42-48.

[ back ] 32. For other instances of coincidentia oppositorum as a characteristic of Odysseus stories, see N 1979a.206. Compare also the factor of coincidentia oppositorum in the latter-day Demotic stories of Saint Elias, whose shrines are in fact on tops of hills and mountains, far away from the sea, but who had lived the life of a seaman; for an acute analysis of these stories about Saint Elias and the oar, strikingly parallel to the story about Odysseus and the oar, see Hansen pp. 27—41. Hansen also calls attention to an ancient shrine on a mountain in landlocked Arcadia, said to have been founded by Odysseus in gratitude to Athena Sṓteira ‘Savior’ and Poseidon (!) after the hero returned safely from Troy (Pausanias 9.44.4). So also with Saint Elias: his chapels are built on tops of hills and mountains, the story goes, because it was on top of a mountain that his oar was mistaken for a “stick” (Hansen p. 29). On the apparently symbiotic relationship of Odysseus here with Poseidon and Athena on the level of cult, as opposed to his antagonistic relationship with them on the level of myth, cf. N 1979a.121, 142-152, 289-295. The antagonism of Odysseus and Athena is of course for the most part latent in the Odyssey, but it must have been overt in some Nostoi traditions (even reflected by the Odyssey: iii 130ff., xiii 221ff.).

[ back ] 33. See pp. 209-10.

[ back ] 34. Sinos 1980.53n6.

[ back ] 35. Rohde 1898 1:173 and n1.

[ back ] 36. Sinos 1980.47.

[ back ] 37. For more on the meaning of Patrokléēs as ‘he who has the kléos of the ancestors’: N 1979a.102-103, 111-115, 177, 319. Cf. also p. 94 above.

[ back ] 38. Sinos 1980.48-49.

[ back ] 39. Ironically it is the nóos of Antilokhos that Menelaos calls into question (XXIII 604, in response to the clever self-deprecation of Antilokhos himself at XXIII 590). I agree with Detienne and Vernant (1974.22-24, 29-31, pace Lesher 1981.19 and 24n38) that Antilokhos has succeeded rather than failed in accomplishing a feat of mêtis.

[ back ] 40. See pp. 208ff. I note with interest a parallel theme in the iconography of the Münster Hydria (published in Stähler 1967): the turn of the chariot team is counterclockwise in this Black Figure representation (on the image of the turning point, see further at p. 220), and the right-hand horses have their heads thrust farther ahead than the left-hand horses, as if the impulse and the restraint were greater on the right and the left, respectively.

[ back ] 41. Frame 1978.81-115. See also pp.225ff. below.

[ back ] 42. Frame pp. 134-152. Cf. pp. 92ff. above.

[ back ] 43. Cf. pp. 210-211n22.

[ back ] 44. See N 1979a206; cf. N 1985a.74-76.

[ back ] 45. Frame 1978.75-76, 78. Cf. Segal 1962.

[ back ] 46. N 1985a.74-81, adducing Theognis 1123-1125 and related passages.

[ back ] 47. For the active diathesis of Néstōr. Frame 1978:96-115.

[ back ] 48. As quoted at p. 217.

[ back ] 49. For a fuller discussion: pp.92ff.

[ back ] 50. See pp.92ff.

[ back ] 51. For more on the boulḗ ‘planning’ of Hektor, see p. 204n10.

[ back ] 52. See N 1979a.338-341. In this connection, we may note with the greatest interest the description of cult heroes in Pausanias 2.12.5: their gravestones are visible from afar, located on top of a hill, and before the celebration of the Mysteries of Demeter, the natives are described as specifically looking at these mnḗmata ‘monuments’, ἐς ταῦτα βλέποντες τὰ μνήματα, as they invoke the heroes to attend the libations.

[ back ] 53. Published in Stähler 1967.

[ back ] 54. See Stähler pp. 15, 32-33, 44, who argues that the represented activity of racing around the tomb of Patroklos, with the chariot rider jumping off and running alongside, can be conceived simultaneously as an athletic event and a ritual act of hero worship; cf. also p. 88n20. The athletic event, as featured for example at the Panathenaia, involves the feat of leaping in full armor from a racing chariot and then leaping buck оn again; the athlete who performs this feat is the apobátēs (cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 7.73; Harpocration s.v.; also the bibliography assembled in Connor 1987.45).

[ back ] 55. See pp. 114ff.

[ back ] 56. See pp. 114ff.

[ back ] 57. See N 1979a.235-241.

[ back ] 58. Similarly in the case of the Indic cognate dhyā-/dhī– ‘think’ and its derivative dhīyas ‘thoughts’: these words can designate the inspiration of poetry (see pp. 114ff.).

[ back ] 59. See Koller 1972; also N 1979a.236.272.

[ back ] 60. For other instances of encoding words, as expressed by noéō, see VII 358, XII 232.

[ back ] 61. On which see N 1979a.81-82n2 and the references there.

[ back ] 62. The same applies to the poetic utterances of the Orarle· of Apollo at Delphi: cf. Theognis 808 and Heraclitus B 93 DK. There is also an example where the poem seems to be implicitly a sêma not only in the sense of ‘sign’ but also in the sense of ‘tomb’: in Theognis 1209-1210 (quoted at pp. 273-274 below) the poet seems to be saying that this poetry is his sêma ‘tomb’ (commentary in N 1985а.76-81). Сf. Svenbro 1988, esp. p. 96.