The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic

  Use the following persistent identifier:

Introduction: Approaching Anger

[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]

The subject of the Iliad is the anger of Achilles, not Achilles himself. But what is this anger of his? It is a fair question, since few terms are more complex than those for strong emotions like anger. In fact, the study of emotional terms in modern American English makes it clear that as children acquiring a language we also acquire an elaborate, internally consistent, and widely held set of conventional metaphors to describe emotions. [1] Nor are these metaphors innocent. They embody implicit moral messages from society about the content, differentia, and expression of emotions, and we acquire these embedded messages along with the language itself whether we want to or not. One society may share some of its elaborate metaphors and moral rules with other societies, but there is no reason to assume that the metaphors, the rules, and therefore the emotions that they represent and that we tend to experience as inherent in human nature are actually universal.

Consequently when we read the first book of the Iliad, it is possible or even likely that we are “recognizing” manifestations of Achilles’ anger, consistently named with the word mênis, that in their proper cultural setting have nothing to do with his anger or are at best tangential to it. Correspondingly, features that are central to the epic notion of anger may in fact be invisible to us. Furthermore, the moral rules about the expression of {1|2} anger that are built into our language may well be inappropriate to the poetic “society” of the Iliad, which is more than likely to abide by rules that are probably more conventional and widely held than those embedded in our own conventional social discourse, given the traditional nature of epic poetry and the society in which it arose.

Rather than enter this debate on the limited terms that have long since defined it, I choose to make a fresh start. The extent of the disagreement among scholars points to a crisis in methodology. The problems are harder than the tools being used to chip away at them. Yet none of those who have taken up the study of mênis recently has explicitly invoked and employed the results of the most important research on Homeric language in this century, the contributions of Milman Parry and Albert Lord to our understanding of the compositional technique of Greek epic. [7] The conventional nature of epic diction, in which the tendencies of natural speech have become the constants of a high style, is an especially rich and relatively unexploited resource for the study of the meaning of epic words in general. It is also essential that a semantic analysis take account of the formal features of the verbal behavior it is investigating. [8] My primary goal is to use the insights of Albert Lord on epic themes, compositional units on a higher level than the verse constituents known as formulas, to arrive at a more rigorous and sustainable notion of the word’s meaning. [9] To understand the function of a word within a given traditional theme is to discover the contextual consistency (or, it may be, inconsistency) that is built into its use by the poet and its apprehension by the audience. Doing so considerably {3|4} broadens the task of semantic analysis, and necessarily so, nor have I shrunk from the need to test the results of my research on the meaning of mênis by applying them to an interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

In addition, I wish to put to use the perspective that an anthropology of emotions affords, specifically, to view emotional terms not as universal pure feelings but as culture-specific social concepts with no necessary relationship to what we may intend and comprehend by a word like anger. A basic principle of this approach is to try to avoid imposing analytic categories and distinctions from without on terms for emotions and, insofar as possible, to define them from within their cultural context, in terms of each other, as parts of a coherent and articulated set of ideas about the world. Ultimately, a wide-eyed journey into the world of epic and its mightiest feelings stands to benefit both heart and mind. {4|}


[ back ] 1. See Lakoff and Kövecses 1987 on anger (thanks to Charles Stewart for this reference). They have contributed an effective way of presenting the systematic, culture-specific metaphorical components of emotional terms, and their work implies an anthropology of emotions. For a study of the complexity and diversity of another emotional term in Greek epic, see Latacz 1966 on Homeric words that we translate as “happy” or the like.

[ back ] 2. Cited in the first- or second-century A.D. Homeric Dictionary of Apollonius Sophistes (Bekker) 112, 24. The A scholia to the first line of the Iliad present Aristarchus’s etymology in the form of an analogy: as ménō ‘remain’ is to mênis, so énos ‘year’ is to ē̂nis ‘yearling.’ The ancient lexicographic testimonia are accessible in Ebeling 1885, 1:1095-96 s.v. μῆνις.

[ back ] 3. Eustathius Commentary on Homer’s “Iliad” 1.13.10 (Van der Valk).

[ back ] 4. Schmidt 1879, 3:142, 565, 566; Ebeling 1885, 1:1095 s.v. μῆνις.

[ back ] 5. For a more detailed discussion of modern scholarship on these issues, see the Appendix.

[ back ] 6. Calvert Watkins (1977a) suggested that the word was tabu, but all subsequent treatments (Considine 1986; Redfield 1979; Turpin 1988; Shell and Meier-Brügger 1993, s.v. μηνιθμός) known to me except my own (1991) disagree. As an index of the general disagreement on all the issues, the articles by W. Beck on mênis and its derivatives published in the 1993 fascicle of the monumental Lexicon der frühgriechischen Epos list fourteen works of scholarship on the words since 1932 (even so, the list is incomplete, missing Turpin 1988); those works advance no less than four different etymologies and almost as many views on the meaning and usage of the word as there are authors. Beck himself tries to take a position on the question of the distribution of mênis between gods and Achilles, but in the end he cannot decide and simply asks, What other word for anger could be used to begin the Iliad? His rhetorical question is a counsel of despair.

[ back ] 7. The forthcoming work of Thomas Walsh based on his dissertation (1989) on anger words other than mênis is exemplary for its concern with the traditional nature of epic diction. The basic works on epic composition are Parry 1971; and Lord 1960, 1991.

[ back ] 8. For a statement of the principles and issues involved, see Muellner 1976, 12-16.

[ back ] 9. On the notion of theme, see Lord 1960, 68-98; Nagler 1967, 1976; and Nagy 1990b, 18-35.