The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry

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Foreword to the 1999 Second Edition

F§2. This book is about how to read Homerboth the Iliad and the Odyssey—and various related forms of Greek poetry in the archaic period, most notably the Hesiodic Theogony and Works and Days and the Homeric Hymns, especially the Apollo, the Demeter, and the Aphrodite. Other related poetic forms include the praise poetry of Pindar and the blame poetry of Archilochus. The readings are infused with references to non-canonical traditions as well, especially women’s laments and the earliest attested versions of Aesop’s fables.

F§3. The object of all the readings is to understand simultaneously the form as well as the content of a wide variety of traditional media conveying various basic concepts of the ancient Greek hero. The most basic of all these concepts is a single all-pervasive historical fact of the archaic period and beyond: the cult of heroes. Heroes were not only the subjects of narrative and dramatic media but also the objects of worship. This book integrates heroic song, poetry, and prose with the ancestral practices of a wide variety of hero-cults (Introduction §§16–19). More generally, it explores the heroic tradition within the cultural context of Panhellenism, to be defined as an early form of Hellenism that eventually became the nucleus of Classicism (Introduction §§13–15).

F§4. The Best of the Achaeans was completed in 1978 and first published in 1979. Now, twenty years later, I have a chance to revisit. The present foreword highlights the specifics of what has changed and what remains stable.

F§5. I start with the main points of consistency. This 1998 edition is “archaeological,” adding to the general argumentation only the essentials for supplementing what I knew twenty years ago. I have preserved the original text and page-numbering of the 1979 edition for the introduction and for all the chapters as well as the appendix. The Bibliography has been updated with additions. Here too, however, I have maintained an “archaeological” stance, concentrating on research that directly follows up on the arguments made in the 1979 edition. The addenda in the text proper of this second edition, which are mostly cross-references to new points raised in this Foreword or to new entries in the Bibliography, have been inserted at the ends of the 1979 footnotes. The corrigenda in the text proper of this second edition, mostly minor, have been entered without further comment.

F§9. Debate persists, however, on various levels. Some of it goes back to negative reactions at the time of initial publication. The sheer animosity of a few of the criticisms directed at my work surprised me at first. After all, I consistently avoid personal polemics in Best of the Achaeans. Why, I asked myself, has this book made some critics so angry? One answer, shaped by years of retrospection, is that it all comes down to assumptions that I challenge in the book. As I look back at the subtitle of my introduction, “assumptions, methods, results,” I now see in this wording a clue to a source of provocation.

F§14. My reading of Homer, especially of the passages in Odyssey viii and Iliad IX, has occasionally been disputed on the grounds that it gives the impression of literary rather than oral poetics. Such an impression, however, stems from unjustified negative assumptions about oral poetics. There is no evidence for assuming that oral poetry is by nature unsystematic. The results of my readings, which add up to show that Homeric poetry is indeed a system, cannot be used as ammunition for claiming that Homer is therefore not “oral.”

F§20. Even more generally, it is possible to argue that all forms of archaic Greek poetry complement each other. Cases in point are the relationship of epic and praise poetry (Ch.12), of praise and blame poetry (Ch.14). The patterns of complementarity emerge from reading the ipsissima verba, the words of the tradition themselves. That is how Milman Parry and Albert Lord, my teacher, have read Homer. At the very start of my book, I invoke their favorite words for form and content, “diction” and “theme” (Introduction §1), in arguing that the diction of archaic Greek poetry is a most accurate expression of its themes. The Introduction goes on to describe this fundamental stance ironically as “literal minded” (§7). The irony has been lost, I notice, on a few literal minded critics.

F§21. What has given my book its staying power is that it strives to achieve a coherent picture of a coherent system of ancient Greek poetics, to the degree that each detail of my analysis is meant to stay true to each constituent detail of that system. The coherence of the book results not from the sequencing of contents page by page but from the coherence of the system that emerges cumulatively from an overall reading.

F§24. Applying these premises, I argue against the assumption that the Homeric text of the Iliad and Odyssey, as reconstituted in various editions both ancient and modern, can be viewed synchronically as a cross-section that represents a single real composition or performance. In other words, the Homeric text (or texts) is not the same thing as Homeric poetry.

F§31. To “return to the time-frame introduced by the earlier temporal adverb” is a matter of performance, not just composition. That is, the cross-reference represented in this story-within-a-story is performative as well as compositional. The blind singer is here being represented as cross-referring by way of performance.

F§32. Contact is being made between the micro-narrative of Odyssey viii 72–83 and the macro-narrative of the Iliad. A key is the word pêma ‘pain’ in Odyssey viii 82. This “pain” signals an Iliadic theme, which can be summarized as follows: Achilles is a pêma for the Trojans when he is at war and a pêma for the Achaeans both when he withdraws from war and when he dies (Ch.4§6). In our Iliad, this ‘pain’ is realized in the death of Patroklos, which foretells the death of Achilles himself:

Come, so that you may learn
of the ghastly news, which should never have happened.
I think that you already see, and that you realize,
that a god is letting roll [kulíndei] a pain [pêma] upon the Danaans,
and that victory belongs to the Trojans; the best of the Achaeans has been killed,
Patroklos, that is; and a great loss has been inflicted on the Danaans.

Iliad XVII 685–690

Like some colossal boulder that has just broken loose from the heights above, the pain is now rolling precipitously and inexorably downward, heading straight at the doomed Iliadic warriors down below. This powerful metaphor of epic doom, resonating through the fine-tuned words of Homeric song, evokes the grand images that link the first song of Demodokos with the ultimate song of Achilles, the Iliad.

F§33. I can only repeat a conclusion reached twenty years ago (Ch.4§8), but this time with a pronounced shift in emphasis, highlighted by underlines [in bold]:

An Iliad composed by Demodokos would have been a poem with a structure more simple and more broad, with an Achilles who is even perhaps more crude than the ultimately refined hero that we see emerging at the end of our Iliad. I have little doubt that such an Iliad was indeed in the process of evolving when it was heard in the Odyssey tradition which evolved into our Odyssey. Demodokos had heard the kléos and passed it on in song.


[ back ] 1. By “archaic” I mean the historical period extending roughly from the second half of the eighth century B.C. up to the second half of the fifth. As for “Homer”, I invoke the name as a metonym for “Homeric poetry.”

[ back ] 2. My present Foreword is a substitute for the original 1979 foreword written by James M. Redfield, which I will treasure forever. I have exchanged here the old gold for new bronze, which I need as armor for restating my own case.

[ back ] 3. Nagy 1990a (hereafter PH) as listed in the updated Bibliography of this second edition. Note too the electronic edition of PH, as also indicated in the Bibliography below. Another book supplements the 1979 edition: Nagy 1990b, (hereafter GM) especially Ch.2 (“Formula and Meter: The Oral Poetics of Homer”), Ch.3 (“Hesiod and the Poetics of Pan-Hellenism”), and Ch.5 (“The Death of Sarpedon and the Question of Homeric Uniqueness”).

[ back ] 4. Nagy 1996a and 1996b in the updated Bibliography, hereafter PP and HQ respectively. Although HQ covers the earlier phases of the Homeric tradition and PP the later, HQ is marked 1996b in the bibliography because it was published several months after PP, which is marked 1996. HQ cross-refers extensively to PP, while the first edition of PP has no direct cross-references to HQ as a book version.

[ back ] 5. One such topic, which is vitally important for my overview of archaic Greek poetry, is the genre of “lives of poets,” on which see below at Ch.7§9n28, Ch.13§13n44, Ch.16§§5–6, Ch.17§§7–8, and all of Ch.18 (especially §4n23 and §7). My approach to the “vita” traditions of poets is meant as an alternative to the outlook represented by Lefkowitz 1981. See also PH 80, 322–326, 333, 363–365, 392, 395–397, 412, 419–423.

[ back ] 6. The updated Bibliography below tracks some of the progress in reception: see for example Bakker 1997, Burgess 1996, Calame 1995, Detienne 1993, Dumézil 1982, Easterling 1989, Hainsworth 1991, Janko 1992, Koenen 1994, Loraux 1994, Lord 1991 and 1995, Martin 1983 and 1989, Morris 1986 and 1993, Muellner 1996, Palmer 1980, Pinney 1983, Pucci 1998, Seaford 1994, Segal 1994, Slatkin 1991, Snodgrass 1987, Svenbro 1993, Vernant 1985.

[ back ] 7. Patterns of avoidance persist in the publications of a few Classicists. At times the avoidance takes the shape of shifting the point of reference from my initial observation to someone else’s restatement.

[ back ] 8. Separate bibliographies of various polemics, along with my counterarguments, are offered in PP 13 and HQ 129145 (with pp. 1927). For a different set of polemics, see also GM:294301.

[ back ] 9. For comparative perspectives drawn from a variety of non-Greek cultures, see HQ Ch.2.

[ back ] 10. HQ 31.

[ back ] 11. HQ 910; also GM:1835.

[ back ] 12. PP 107152, with full argumentation.

[ back ] 13. Redfield 1979:vii. The phenomenon of poetic variation is in fact the central topic of one of my books (PP).

[ back ] 14. GM 717. Also part of the system are compositions like the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (see Introduction §13–15). On the cultural construct of Homer as author of this Hymn, see PH 375377, PP 8182.

[ back ] 15. I find it absurd that some Homeric bibliographies classify my book as if it concerned only the Iliad, not the Odyssey.

[ back ] 16. On kléos ‘glory’ as conferred by poetry, see Ch.1§2n5. Some critics undervalue the traditional poetic implications of this word: for further argumentation and select bibliography, see PH 3n10 and 244245n126. For a similar semantic pattern, where the overall concept of the medium subsumes individual contexts within it, see PH 218219 on the usage of apo-deík-numai in the sense of ‘perform’.

[ back ] 17. A key to the epic success of Odysseus is his wife, Penelope. At Ch.2§13n44, I argue that the ultimate referent of kléos at Odyssey xxiv 196 is the song of Odysseus, the Odyssey, even if the immediate referent is Penelope. The relationship between the kléos of Odysseus and the kléos of Penelope is metonymical and reciprocal. See also Raphals 1992:206.

[ back ] 18. Iliadic themes are a threat to Odysseus in the Odyssey: see Ch.20§4 on the nightmarish Iliadic implications of Odyssey x 198–202. See also Ch.15§7n30 on the Song of the Sirens in Odyssey xii 189–191: when they tempt Odysseus by promising songs about the Tale of Troy, they speak the language of Muses. If Odysseus were to fall permanently under the spell of such Iliadic songs in his own Odyssey, he would forfeit his nóstos and thereby his only remaining access to kléos. For more on the Iliadic implications of the Sirens, see Pucci 1979 and 1998.

[ back ] 19. The ironies of kléos in the Odyssey are developed explicitly in Best of the Achaeans (especially in Ch.2§11). There is a great deal of further elaboration by Segal 1983. See also Ch.6§9 below on the simile of the lamenting captive woman in Odyssey viii 523–531: this passage is crucial for my overall argumentation about Iliadic resonances in the Odyssey.

[ back ] 20. Slatkin 1987 and Muellner 1996:45 (also all of his Ch.4). I offer a general introduction to Hesiodic poetry in GM Ch.3 (“Hesiod and the Poetics of Panhellenism’; see especially pp. 53n54).

[ back ] 21. See GM:126n17 on the interpretation of the pivotal word mén in Works and Days 166 as parallel to mén at lines 122, 137, 141, 161, not to mén at line 162 (pace West 1978:192; more on mén in Bakker 1997:80–85, especially pp. 81).

[ back ] 22. See PH 215215. For more on Homeric and Hesiodic complementarity, see also PH 73n106 and GM:1516 on Hesiod fr. 204 (cf. Finkelberg 1988).

[ back ] 23. PP Ch.57.

[ back ] 24. PH Ch.23, GM Ch. 1 and 3. On models of Panhellenism extending to modern times, see Leontis 1995.

[ back ] 25. I spell out my reasons in PH 5354. For a model of intertextual approaches to Homer, see Pucci 1995 and 1998.

[ back ] 26. HQ Ch.2 (“An Evolutionary Model for the Making of Homeric Poetry”); also Ch.3 (“Homer and the Evolution of a Homeric Text”). See below at Ch.1§§6–7 (“evolved”/”evolving”). See also Seaford 1994, especially pp. 144. My evolutionary model differs from various specific “dictation-theories,” most notably those of Janko (1982:191), Jensen (1980:92), and West (1990:34). It is not at odds, however, with the more general dictation theory of Lord 1953 (reprinted 1991). For further bibliography on dictation theories, see Nagy 1997d.

[ back ] 27. HQ 4142, with details in HQ Ch.3; also PP 110, with details in PP Ch.57. The HQ and PP discussions emphasize respectively the earlier and later phases of my evolutionary model. See also Sherratt 1990, especially pp. 817821.

[ back ] 28. See also PP Ch.5 (“Multiform epic and Aristarchus’ quest for the real Homer”); Ch.6 (“Homer as script”); Ch.7 (“Homer as ‘scripture'”). On hermeneutic models of “transcript,” see PP 110113 and Bakker 1997:208n3.

[ back ] 29. Saussure 1916:117. See GM:20

[ back ] 30. Saussure 1916:117: “De même synchronie et diachronie désigneront respectivement un état de langage et une phase d’évolution.”

[ back ] 31. PP 50.

[ back ] 32. HQ 17, 20.

[ back ] 33. PH 21n18, following Jacopin 1988:35–36, who adds: “Both synchrony and diachrony are abstractions extrapolated from a model of reality.”

[ back ] 34. In this book, a model for linguistic research in etymologies is Benveniste 1969. See below at Ch.6§13. See also in general GM:12.

[ back ] 35. HQ 9. See especially Ch.5 below, “The Name of Achilles,” including the supplement at pp. 8393, “The Name of the Achaeans.” See also the Appendix, concerning the morphological parallelism Akhaió– / krataió-. I argue there that this parallelism, linking the name of the Achaeans with a word conveying the “zero-sum” mentality of heroic victory or defeat, is crucial for understanding the epic themes linking the hero Achilles with the host of warriors who claim him as one of their own. See now also Nagy 1994:5, with further elaboration on combining methods of etymological and formulaic analysis.

[ back ] 36. HQ 15n8, with bibliography.

[ back ] 37. HQ 15. Also PH 5761, 7072 (cf. also pp. 349, 411). At HQ 15n8, I add: “there can be different levels of rigidity or flexibility in different traditions, even in different phases of the same given tradition.”

[ back ] 38. HQ 82.

[ back ] 39. HQ 82n53.

[ back ] 40. For the inner logic of reference and cross-reference in the “embassy scene,” see in general HQ 138145, especially pp. 144n133 (pace Griffin 1995:52). In the French edition of Best of the Achaeans (Nagy 1994b:75), I added the following remarks at the end of §11 in Ch.3, (where I mark the point of addition with an asterisk in the margin): Earlier, before Odysseus had taken the lead, the dual construction could still imply Ajax and Odysseus (IX 182): “And the two were going by the shore of the much-roaring sea.” At this point, a dual reference to Ajax and Odysseus would pick up the reference to these two heroes at Iliad IX 169, where the leadership of Phoinix is still presupposed (Iliad IX 168).

[ back ] 41. On the metaphorical world of oímê, which I translate here as ‘story-thread’ see PP 63n19–20.

[ back ] 42. Pelliccia 1985 (185186) collects evidence to show that tóte ‘then’ in such contexts as Odyssey viii 81 serves “to return to the time-frame introduced by the earlier temporal adverb.” In this case that temporal adverb is pote ‘once upon a time’ at verse 76.

[ back ] 43. On the essential notion, inherent in oral poetic traditions, of a total and continuous narration, of which any given performance is but a part, see HQ 7782. For comparative evidence on the notional totality of epic performances, see Flueckiger 1996:133134. See already Ch.1§6 below: “the traditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey constitute a totality.”