Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad

  Garcia, Lorenzo F., Jr. 2013. Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 58. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_GarciaL.Homeric_Durability_Telling_Time_in_the_Iliad.2013.

Epilogue: Homeric Durability; Concluding Remarks

Homer presents other, more stable objects—the defensive walls of the Achaeans and the Trojans as well as the various burial mounds and grave markers erected in honor of the dead. These objects are very durable, and remain in place far longer than the human bodies that built them; yet they too are temporally conditioned within the epic. The very tradition of the Iliad depends on the destruction of the Trojan wall and the sacking of the city. Though still standing at the end of the Iliad, the Trojan wall that Poseidon built ‘so that the city would be unbreakable’ (ἤτοι ἐγὼ Τρώεσσι πόλιν πέρι τεῖχος ἔδειμα | εὐρύ τε καὶ μάλα καλόν, ἵν’ ἄρρηκτος πόλις εἴη, XXI 446–447) will eventually be broken. So too {231|232} does Homer represent the eventual demise of the tombs of heroes, made to outlive their frail bodies: markers can be moved (XXI 403–406) or misinterpreted (XXIII 326–333), they can be destroyed by human hands or forces of nature (XXI 316–323, xxiv 80–84; cf. Nagy 1999:160n1, Ch. 9§16n1 ), or they can be forgotten altogether (II 811–814).

Homer presents all these objects as existing within time; they are of our world, and as such, they are subject to the decaying forces of time that work against the integral essences of bodies and of memory itself. But we find evidence of still another dimension of time in the Iliad, namely the experience of time by the various characters of the epic. In an important article first published in 1931, the German Classicist Hermann Fränkel looked at the use of the word χρόνος ‘time’ in Homeric epic, found it to be very restricted in use, and therefore argued that Homer must be indifferent to chronology and temporal sequences. [2] Fränkel traced the usage of the word χρόνος in Homer, arguing that it is restricted in sense and usage: it always indicates ‘duration’ as opposed to a ‘point in time’. [3] Homer never uses χρόνος as the subject of a verb, but only in adverbial phrases like ἐπὶ χρόνον or πολὺν χρόνον ‘for a long time’, [4] and such expressions are often replaced by adverbs of extent, such as δήν ‘long’ and μίνυθα ‘short’. Based on his findings, Fränkel proposed that “Homeric man” only experienced time while “waiting.” [5] In other words, Homer represents his characters as “experiencing” time, chiefly, as Fränkel argues, as duration: characters wait, and in their waiting they suffer impatience and boredom (cf. II 291–298); they must “endure” time (cf. II 299–300). Throughout this study I have tried to build on Fränkel’s insight by adding other occasions when characters “experience” time—namely in the experience of physical pain and emotional distress. Recent studies on the phenomenology of physical {232|233} pain [6] and emotional distress [7] have demonstrated the temporal dimension of these experiences. As Thomas Fuchs has noted on his study of the temporal experience of a body in pain, “In pain and suffering we experience the temporality of our existence in an exceptional, interesting way. One could even say that it is by unpleasant and painful experiences that time as such comes to our consciousness” (Fuchs 2003:69). Pain breaks through the continuity of our experience, and with its knife-like blow it divides our experience of the present “now” of our pain from a “no longer” when we were not in pain: we experience time as such. [8] Pain makes us feel time with its own rhythm of aches and throbs; we feel pain not merely as intensity but as duration—how long between attacks, how long an attack lasts, how long until we can be free from its oppression. Indeed, modern medical diagnostic tools, such as the McGill Pain Questionnaire, use groups of adjectives such as “flickering,” “quavering,” “pulsing,” “throbbing,” and “beating”—the very terms patients themselves often use to describe their pain—to aid caregivers in diagnosis and treatment (Scarry 1985:7–8, Toombs 1992:28): as Elaine Scarry points out, these terms “express, with varying degrees of intensity, a rhythmic on-off sensation, and thus it is also clear that one coherent dimension of the felt-experience of pain is this ‘temporal dimension’” (Scarry 1985:7).

We endure pain, and in our endurance we experience the temporality of the “not yet”: a possible future of being pain-free lies open to our consciousness. We are hard pressed, but we can endure, for we have hope that our afflictions will pass. But if the pains increase such that we can no longer endure them, then the future itself can seem to close off:

The taken-for-grantedness of everyday life is disrupted, not only in the sense that routine activities and involvements are disturbed (and become “problematic”), but additionally in the sense that the usual experience of time and space undergoes a significant change. The unavoidable preoccupation with pain, sickness, or incapacity, grounds one in the present moment. Illness truncates experiencing. The future (long or short-term) is suddenly disabled, rendered impotent and inaccessible.

Toombs 1992:97; emphasis added {233|234}

Trapped in an enduring present moment without access to a future horizon, a patient is caught up in a temporality of the “no longer”; there is only an unrecoverable pain-free past and an unendurable present of world-shattering pain.

Drawing on the insights of such phenomenological approaches to physical and emotional pain, I investigated the most durable entities represented in Homer’s Iliad, namely the gods and goddesses themselves who are regularly designated as ‘immortal and ageless for all days’ (ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀγήρως ἤματα πάντα, VIII 539, v 136, vii 257, xxiii 336, cf. vii 94). Unlike men, Homer’s gods generally ‘live easily’ (ῥεία ζωόντες: VI 138, iv 805, v 122) and ‘exist continually’ (θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες: I 290, 494, XXI 518, XXIV 99; v 7, viii 306, xii 371, 377; Hesiod fr. 296.2 M-W; cf. Hymn to Demeter 325). Nevertheless, Homer’s gods feel pain. They suffer at the hands of men and other gods, and in their suffering, they come to experience human time and dis-ease. They also suffer grief and sorrow for humans: gods grieve for their mortal children and for their devout attendants. According to Heidegger, ‘entanglement’ is the essential human experience: we become ‘entangled’ (verfängt) in our ‘care’ (Sorge) for ourselves, for others (Fürsorge), and for being-in-the-world itself (Besorgen). [10] We must consider Homer’s gods as essentially human, then, for the gods become entangled in their care for mankind. Zeus himself explains that mortal creatures are a “care” to him, in spite of their mortal nature (μέλουσί μοι ὀλλύμενοί περ, ‘they are a care to me, even though they are dying’, XX 21). Though Homer’s gods do {234|235} not die, though they do not grow old, they do “endure” time in their pain, care, and grief, [11] they get “worn down” by their sufferings, [12] and they come to experience the downward drag of weight and exhaustion. [13]

What does it mean for an analysis of the Iliad and its representation of time and temporality that the gods themselves experience time? If Homer’s gods are essentially “men” who do not die and do not age—as suggested by their formulaic epithets ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀγήρως ‘immortal and ageless’ which posit the gods’ status as the negated condition of the quintessential mortal experiences of aging and dying—then what does it mean for the gods to experience human time and suffer everything but age and death in the Iliad? This question, I have argued throughout this study, is of great significance for our understanding of the poetics of the Iliad itself, for Homer presents the project of the Iliad as a kind of “immortalizing” of the hero through the preservation of his fame. Achilles chooses to stay and fight in Troy, where he is guaranteed a quick death, but in compensation will have ‘unwithered fame’ (μοι … κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται, IX 413). How are we to determine the durability Homer envisions for his poetry when every other entity in his work is depicted as temporally conditioned, such that even the gods themselves appear as caught up in mortal temporality?

Throughout this study I have tried to emphasize the temporal aspect of the narrative and tie it to the temporary nature of the poetic medium itself. In spite of any tradition of ‘heroic fame’ that Homer may have inherited, I have argued that the formulation of μοι … κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται ‘I will have kleos aphthiton’ (IX 413) indicates a specifically time-bound conceptualization of the poetic tradition itself. Margalit Finkelberg has drawn attention to the temporal nature of κλέος in Homeric epic:

Note now that κλέος οὔποτ᾿ ὀλεῖται, ‘kleos will never be lost’, the only Homeric formula making provision for the perpetuation of kleos, is actually formulated so as to exclude the idea of its imperishability: if anything, it implies that one’s kleos is normally expected to perish. The same conclusion follows if we analyze the supplementary expression ‘kleos may be inextinguishable’ (ἄσβεστον κλέος εἴη) … In both cases, {235|236} rather than being taken for granted, the imperishability of one’s kleos is predicated on something else: Agamemnon’s kleos will be inextinguishable if Menelaus builds a tomb for him; Alkinoos’s kleos will be inextinguishable if he helps Odysseus to return home—the alternative is the extinction of kleos, which is obviously envisaged as the norm.

Finkelberg 2007:343

The very phraseology describing the perpetuation of “fame” indicates that, generally speaking, “fame” does not last—it is a temporal and temporary object, destined to fade over time as memory and the various mnemonic devices—graves, tombs, and the oral tradition itself—fade into oblivion. So in those cases when the durability of κλέος is emphasized—when it is claimed that it will never be lost, that it will be inextinguishable, that it will be imperishable—we can only measure that durability with the scale Homer provides elsewhere in the epic. The adjective ἄφθιτος ‘unwithered’ in κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται is otherwise used for the marvelous: grapevines that do not fade in their bounty (ix 133), Zeus’ divine counsels (XXIV 88), and the material craftwork of Hephaistos, including Agamemnon’s σκῆπτρον ‘scepter’ (II 46, 186), Hera’s θρόνος ‘throne’ (XIV 238), the rims of the wheels of her chariot (V 724), and the homes of Poseidon (XIII 22) and Hephaistos himself (XVIII 370). These divine objects are durable and certainly long lasting—though Homer elsewhere shows us divine craft that does break in spite of its being created to be ἄρρηκτος ‘unbreakable’ (XXI 446–447). Hephaistos’ other “immortal” craftwork—namely the armor he makes for Achilles (cf. XIX 3, 10–11) [
14] —cannot preserve his life (cf. XVIII 464–467). Zeus’ divine counsels are themselves only “imperishable” so long as he remains king of the pantheon. It is worth considering the distribution of the formulaic Ζεὺς δ’ ἄφθιτα εἰδῶς in early Greek poetry: it appears once in the Iliad (XXIV 88) when Zeus summons Thetis to talk about the return of Hektor’s corpse, but three times in Hesiod’s Theogony (545, 550, 561), significantly all in context of Zeus’ struggles with Prometheus. In other words, Zeus’ counsels are emphasized as ἄφθιτος only in contexts where there is a real question of whether he will be obeyed.

These arguments, which I have detailed in the pages above, have led me to emphasize the temporally bound nature of the tradition itself. Homer depicts his own poetry as possessing great durability—but that durability is not meant {236|237} to imply any concept of the “eternal.” In his discussion of the Indo-European tradition of “heroic fame” inherited by Homer, Martin West has noted,

The evidence is perhaps too thinly scattered to warrant the conclusion that this was an Indo-European trope, especially as parallels can be found in the Near East. But we have seen enough to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the idea of posthumous fame was a pervasive theme of Indo-European poetry. Its predicates—good (or bad), great, wide, high, unfailing—may almost be said to form a formulaic system, not in the Parryist sense of being metrically complementary, but in the sense of being semantically complementary. The hero whose feats achieved acclaim and renown in his lifetime could hope that after the death of his body his name would remain: not perhaps explicitly “to the end of the world,” but indefinitely.

West 2007:410; emphasis added

Achilles’ κλέος ἄφθιτον is not ‘imperishable fame’, for there is nothing in the world of the Iliad that would allow us to comprehend what ‘imperishable’ means. Instead, we should interpret it as ‘unwithered fame’, fame that is temporally conditioned, though projected into an indefinite future.

I have invoked Heidegger’s concepts of ‘Being-toward-death’ (das Sein zum Tode) and ‘Being-toward-the-end’ (das Zu-Ende-sein) to help understand both Achilles’ decision to stay in Troy and fight and die, as well as Homer’s representation of the temporally conditioned nature of his poetry and its orientation toward its own end as encapsulated in the concept of κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται, a fame which has not yet, but will eventually fade. Achilles’ Being-toward-death enables him truly to become the hero he is meant to be: it is only when Patroklos has died and he has acknowledged his own death (XVIII 98–116) that he can say: ‘But now I wish to take up noble fame’ (νῦν δὲ κλέος ἐσθλὸν ἀροίμην, XVIII 121). As for the tradition itself, its claim to preserve Achilles’ κλέος ἄφθιτον is likewise oriented toward the future possibility of its own end. This Being-toward-the-end is determined as its own Being-toward-decay. Within the form and semantics of the adjective ἄφθιτον the tradition signals its own end within its very being—its project of preserving Achilles’ fame is itself an acknowledgment of its own mortality. Homer’s poetry represents itself as being-toward-its-end: as a temporal object existing in mortal temporality, the durability of the Iliad itself can only last as long as the process of Achilles’ κλέος ἄφθιτον—celebrating and listening to Achilles’ fame so that it remains unwithered—is repeated. Like its hero, it is beautiful in its very fragility that must be the object of our continued care. {237|}


[ back ] 1. On “lived time” see Minkowski 1970, Straus 1960, 1966, Fuchs 2001a, 2003, 2005a, 2005b, Wyllie 2005a, 2005b.

[ back ] 2. Fränkel argues (1968:1), “Bei Homer finden wir eine fast völlige Indifferenz gegenüber der Zeit” [‘In Homer we find an almost complete indifference with regard to time’].

[ back ] 3. Fränkel 1968:1–2, “Das Wort χρόνος hat bei Homer einen genau begrentzen Sinn und Gebrauch. Es bezeichnet immer eine Dauer, nie einen Punkt; es gibt also kein ‘zu dieser Zeit’ oder ähnliches” [‘The word khronos (‘time’) in Homer has a restricted sense and usage. It always indicates a duration, never a point in time; there is also no ‘at this time’ or the like.’] However, see Smith 1969 for an argument that Greek thought actually distinguishes between these two uses of ‘time’, and has a separate lexical unit for designating ‘the conception of a special temporal position’, namely καιρός (Smith 1969:1).

[ back ] 4. Fränkel 1968:2. The expressions in Homer containing χρόνος ‘time’ are: χρόνον ‘for a period of time’ (iv 599, vi 295, ix 138), δηρὸν χρόνον ‘for a long time’ (XIV 206, 305), ἕνα χρόνον ‘in a single moment’ (XV 511), ἐπὶ χρόνον ‘for a while’ (II 299; xii 407, xiv 193, xv 494), ὀλίγον χρόνον ‘for a little while’ (XXIII 418), οὐκ ὀλίγον χρόνον ‘not for a little while’ (XIX 157), πολὺν χρόνον ‘for a long time’ (II 343, III 157, XII 9; ii 115, iv 543, 594, 675, v 319, xi 161, xv 68, 545, xvi 267, xxi 70, xxiv 218), τόσσον χρόνον ὅσσον … ‘for so long a period of time, as long as …’ (XXIV 670; xix 169, 221), χρόνιον ‘for a period of time’ (xvii 112).

[ back ] 5. Fränkel 1968:2. For discussion, see Bakker 2002:11–13.

[ back ] 6. See, for instance, the studies by Kestenbaum 1982, Schrag 1982, Leder 1984–1985, 1992, Scarry 1985, Toombs 1990, 1992, and Fuchs 2003 building on the work of Husserl 1962, 1981, 1991, Heidegger 1962, Sartre 1956, and Merleau-Ponty 1962.

[ back ] 7. See, for instance, the studies by Minowski 1970, Straus 1960, 1966, Fuchs 2001a, 2001b, 2005a, 2005b, Wyllie 2005a, 2005b, building on the work of Bergson 1910a, 1910b, 1990, Sartre 1956, and Merleau-Ponty 1962.

[ back ] 8. Fuchs notes that “pain plays a particular role in the constitution of reality and self-awareness. It wakes us from the dream of an undisturbed identity with our environment” (Fuchs 2003:70).

[ back ] 9. See especially Minkowski 1970:64–78, Straus 1960, 1966, Fuchs 2001a, 2005b, Wyllie 2005a.

[ back ] 10. See Inwood 1999:35–37 on Heidegger’s Sorge, Besorgen, and Fürsorge.

[ back ] 11. Compare Dione’s soothing words to Aphrodite: ‘Endure, my child, and bear it, although you are troubled’ (τέτλαθι, τέκνον ἐμόν, καὶ ἀνάσχεο κηδομένη περ, V 381). See my discussion of *τλάω ‘endure, suffer’ in the Introduction and chapter 5 above.

[ back ] 12. Compare Ares already worn out (ἤδη τειρόμενον, V 391), overcome by his thirteen month-long incarceration in a bronze jar (χαλεπὸς δέ ἑ δεσμὸς ἐδάμνα, ‘the hard bondage conquered him’ V 391).

[ back ] 13. Compare Aphrodite ‘weighted down by her pains’ (ἀχθομένην ὀδύνῃσι, V 354), and explaining to Ares that ‘I am weighed down too much by my wound’ (λίην ἄχθομαι ἕλκος, V 361) to return to heaven on her own.

[ back ] 14. Achilles first set of armor—a wedding gift for Peleus made by Hephaistos (XVIII 83–85)—was ‘immortal’ (ἄμβροτα τεύχεα, XVII 194, 202); presumably the second set made at Thetis’ request is also ‘immortal’. Its divine manufacture is emphasized at XIX 3, 10–11, and its fine quality is emphasized as ‘beautiful’ (καλά: XVIII 466, XIX 11), ‘shimmering’ and ‘bright’ (μαρμαίροντα, XVIII 618; ἀγλαὰ, XIX 18), emphasizing its metallic construction.