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

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Chapter 1. The First Song of Demodokos

1§1. Homeric Epos has the power not only to define the hero but to articulate this very power. In my search for evidence in support of such a claim—and this search will extend throughout my presentation—I will of course have to struggle with the overwhelming dimensions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is especially difficult to find an appropriate place to begin. How to approach two such monumental compositions, representing as they do the culmination of perhaps over a thousand years of performer-audience interaction? Already at this point, I stress these important factors of performer and audience, in light of the discoveries made by Milman Parry and Albert Lord about the traditional nature of Homeric composition. [1] We see at work here an inherited medium where the composition can be simultaneous with performance—or at least, where composition becomes a reality only in performance. [2] In fact, I find this factor of performance an ultimately suitable point of departure. We are about to examine Odyssey viii 72–82, the description of a poet’s performance as actually narrated by Homeric Epos. In this description we may discover a vantage point from which we are allowed an instant glimpse into the artistic unity of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.

1§2. Unlike Indic epic, where narrative is enclosed within the overall framework of dialogue or dialogue-within-dialogue, oftentimes in accretions of seemingly never-ending inner circles, [3] Greek epic de-{15|16} livers the narrative directly in the persona of the poet. The invoking of the Muses at the start of a Greek epic is the tag of the poet’s own performance. The immediacy of performance, however, is counterbalanced by an attitude of remoteness from composition. The performer feels himself distant enough to intimate that the message of his composition comes not from him but from tradition. As the poet tells the Muses before he launches into the Catalogue of Ships:

Accordingly, the poet invokes the Muses to tell him how it all happened (Iliad II 484). He behaves as an instrument, as it were, in the hands of the Muse, whose message is equated with that of creative tradition. He passes on the kléos, let us call it the ‘glory’, of heroes. And yet, the word kléos itself betrays the pride of the Hellenic poet through the ages. Etymologically, kléos should have meant simply ‘that which is heard’ (from klúō ‘hear’), and indeed the poet hears kléos recited to him by the Muses (again, Iliad II 486). But then it is actually he who recites it to his audience. Here the artist’s inherited message about himself is implicit but unmistakable. In a word, the Hellenic poet is the master of kléos. ‘That which is heard’, kléos, comes to mean ‘glory’ because it is the poet himself who uses the word to designate what he hears from the Muses and what he tells the audience. Poetry confers glory. [
5] The conceit of Homeric poetry is {16|17} that even a Trojan warrior will fight and die in pursuit of κλέος … Ἀχαιῶν, ‘the kléos of the Achaeans’ (Iliad XI 227). [6] If you perform heroic deeds, you have a chance of getting into Achaean epic. The Achaean singer of tales is in control of the glory that may be yours.

1§5. I have not yet reached the point where I can examine what Demodokos then sang. Suffice it now to observe that he performs not just one but three separate compositions in Odyssey viii, all of them pertinent to the themes of the overall Odyssey. What is more important for now, the performances of the idealized poet seem to be themselves idealized within the narrative. Outside the narrative, on the other hand, the composition of the Odyssey itself is idealized in such a way that it has become unperformable. Not only for the Odyssey but for the Iliad as well, an important aspect of idealization is amplitude and comprehensiveness. In size and in arrangement, they are truly monumental structures. Between the two of them, the Iliad and the Odyssey manage to incorporate and orchestrate something of practically everything that was once thought worth preserving from the Heroic Age. Their monumental scale, however, has far outgrown the earlier and ideal context of performance, namely, an evening’s dinner-hour entertainment as described by Odysseus himself before he begins his own narration:

The dinner-hour performer described here is none other than Demodokos himself. By contrast, the Odyssey acknowledges its own monumental scale with the narrative that Odysseus is about to perform, starting at Book ix. As the inner narrative of his own adventures by Odysseus begins to exceed—by way of its actual length—the span of an evening’s entertainment, the outer narrative has Alkinoos urge the inner narrator to continue with the following words:

What goes for the adventures of Odysseus in the inner narrative goes also for the entire composition: the Odyssey itself is here in effect jus-{19|20} tifying the evolution of its own dimensions. The idealized performances of Demodokos, on the other hand, have retained and thus in a sense compensated for this element of dinner-hour entertainment that had been lost in the idealized compositions of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Of course, it cannot be emphasized enough that both the Iliad and the Odyssey must have evolved within the medium of composition during performance, performance during composition. The paradox is that the compositions were developed to the point where they came to defy the traditional format of their performance. [

1§6. Earlier, I had referred to the “artistic unity of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.” The wording was meant to convey what I consider the ultimate token of self-reflexiveness in Homeric poetry. The Odyssey, in the words of David Monro, “never repeats or refers to any incident related in the Iliad.” [17] Denys Page amplifies: [18]

It is as if the Odyssean poet were wholly ignorant of that particular story which is told in the Iliad. Nowhere is there any allusion to the wrath of Achilles or to the death of Hector, or indeed to any other incident, large or small, described in the Iliad. Yet the Odyssey often pauses to narrate some part of the Trojan story and refers freely to a variety of older and contemporary Epic poems—always excluding the Iliad. There is Helen’s tale of Odysseus’ entry into the city of Troy in disguise (4.235ff.); there is Menelaus’ story of the wooden horse (4.266ff.); we hear of Odysseus’ valour in battle over Achilles’ corpse (5.309ff.), and of the rivalry between Odysseus and Ajax (11.543ff.); Nestor tells at some length of a quarrel between Agamemnon and Menelaus (3.103ff.); Demodocus sings of a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles (8.74ff.). Are we seriously asked to believe that a poet (or poets) who knew the Iliad might compose a poem of 12,000 lines concerning one of the Iliad‘s greatest heroes without ever showing the slightest awareness of that poem?

Page argues that the Iliad and the Odyssey are thus unconnected. And yet, it is precisely the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey that forces me to believe the opposite. [
19] Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are so ambitiously comprehensive that their sheer size would make it seem inevitable for them to overlap in their treatment of at least {20|21} some events related to Troy—unless there was a deliberate avoidance of such overlapping. If the avoidance was indeed deliberate, it would mean that the Odyssey displays an awareness of the Iliad by steering clear of it. Or rather, it may be a matter of evolution. Perhaps it was part of the Odyssean tradition to veer away from the Iliadic. Be that as it may, the traditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey constitute a totality with the complementary distribution of their narratives and, to me, there seems to be something traditionally self-conscious about all this. It is as if there were a traditional suppression of anything overtly Iliadic in the Odyssey.

1§8. There is, however, someone who could bridge the gap between past and future. The poet has such powers, granted by the Muses. The poet of the Theogony, for example, says that they breathed into him a wondrous voice:

… ἵνα κλείοιμι τά τ᾽ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ᾽ ἐόντα
… so that I may give kléos to the future and the past

Hesiod Theogony 32

It is at this point that I am at last ready to consider the first performance of Demodokos, poet of the Phaeacians. He is singing the κλέα ἀνδρῶν ‘kléos [plural] of men’ (Odyssey viii 73), and the kléos of {21|22} his song reached all the way up to the heavens (Odyssey viii 74). Perhaps this kléos also bridges the gap between Iliad and Odyssey:

αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο,
Μοῦσ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἀοιδὸν ἀνῆκεν ἀειδέμεναι κλέα ἀνδρῶν,
οἴμης τῆς τότ᾽ ἄρα κλέος οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἵκανε,
νεῖκος Ὀδυσσῆος καὶ Πηλεΐδεω Ἀχιλῆος,
ὥς ποτε δηρίσαντο θεῶν ἐν δαιτὶ θαλείῃ
ἐκπάγλοις ἐπέεσσιν, ἄναξ δ᾽ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων
χαῖρε νόῳ, ὅ τ᾽ ἄριστοι Ἀχαιῶν δηριόωντο.
ὣς γάρ οἱ χρείων μυθήσατο Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων
Πυθοῖ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθ᾽ ὑπέρβη λάϊνον οὐδὸν
χρησόμενος· τότε γάρ ῥα κυλίνδετο πήματος ἀρχή
Τρωσί τε καὶ Δαναοῖσι Διὸς μεγάλου διὰ βουλάς.
But when they had their fill of drinking and eating,
the Muse impelled the singer to sing the glories [ kléos plural] of men,
from a story-thread which had at that time a glory [ kléos ] reaching the vast heavens:
the quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles son of Peleus,
how they once fought at a sumptuous feast of the gods,
with terrible words, and the king of men, Agamemnon,
rejoiced in his mind that the best of the Achaeans were fighting.
Thus had oracular Phoebus Apollo prophesied to him,
at holy Delphi, when he had crossed the stone threshold
to ask the oracle. For then it was that the beginning of pain started rolling
upon both Trojans and Danaans, on account of the plans of great Zeus.

Odyssey viii 72–82

1§11. Marg and Rüter would argue that the neîkos ‘quarrel’ between Achilles and Odysseus in Odyssey viii is a pastiche actually based on the opening of our Iliad, where Achilles and Agamemnon {23|24} have their unforgettable neîkos. [28] To support this interpretation, they adopt George M. Calhoun’s theory of the misunderstood oracle. Agamemnon was happy, the reasoning goes, because Apollo had told him that Troy would be taken only after the “best of the Achaeans” had a quarrel; at the time, he supposedly did not realize that the oracle had meant Achilles and himself, rather than Achilles and Odysseus. [29] I agree that Agamemnon must have misunderstood Apollo’s oracle, but I disagree with Calhoun’s theory about the actual misunderstanding. I find this theory hard to reconcile with Rüter’s own reconstruction of the traditional cause for such a quarrel. As Rüter argues, [30] the thematic conventions of Epos pitted the aristeíā ‘prestige’ [31] of Achilles against that of Odysseus in the form of a quarrel over whether Troy would be captured by might or artifice respectively. The scholia to Odyssey viii 75 and 77 suggest an epic tradition that has Achilles advocating might and Odysseus, artifice as the means that will prove successful in capturing Troy. [32] We can also infer from the scholia (A) to Iliad IX 347 that Aristarchus apparently considered this Iliadic verse to be an allusion to just such a tradition. The context of Iliad IX 347 is this: Achilles is rejecting the pleas of Odysseus that he rescue the hard-pressed Achaeans; Odysseus and the other Achaean leaders, Achilles tells him, should devise a way to keep the enemy’s fire from reaching the Achaean ships. Achilles seems to be saying: “you come to me now that you need my might; well, just leave me alone and go see how far your artifice will get you!” [33] If might is more important than artifice, then Achilles is more important than Odysseus. The quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles would have centered on who is the “best of the Achaeans,” just like the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. [34]

1§13. My suspicion is that the oracle was not misunderstood in its prophecy of a quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus specifically. The reference to Achilles and Odysseus as the “best of the Achaeans” at Odyssey viii 78 may have served to reveal that the poetic repertory of Demodokos is in control of two distinct themes that permeate the Iliad and the Odyssey—themes that define the central hero of each epic.{25|}


[ back ] 1. See especially Lord 1960, The Singer of Tales. The papers of Milman Parry have been collected by Adam Parry, 1971.

[ back ] 2. In her far-reaching survey of traditional “oral” poetry as attested among the various peoples of the world, Finnegan 1977:52–87 adduces instances where composition seems to precede performance and where composer and performer are distinct (cf. Old Provençal trobador ‘composer’ compared to joglar ‘performer’). I must say that Finnegan’s synthesis (1977), much as I admire it for its breadth, cannot replace Lord’s synthesis (1960), which remains the definitive study of “oral” poetry in depth.

[ back ] 3. Part I of Dumézil’s Mythe et épopée I (1968) can serve as a convenient introduction to the nature of Indic epic.

[ back ] 4. I will consistently refer to the books of the Iliad/Odyssey in upper-/lower-case roman numerals. My translations are based on those of Lattimore 1951/1965, with adjustments.

[ back ] 5. For an extensive discussion of Greek kléos and its Indic cognate śrávas as ‘glory’ conferred by the ‘hearing’ of poetry (Indo-European root *kleu̯- ‘hear’), I cite my earlier work on the subject, hidden within a comparative study of Greek and Indic meter (Nagy 1974:231–255). See also Schmitt 1967:61–102. For a parallel semantic development in yet another Indo-European language group besides Greek and Indic, we may adduce the evidence of Slavic, where slava means ‘glory’ while slovo means both ‘word’ and ‘epic tale’. As Puhvel (1976:263) observes, both slava and slovo are independently derived from the same root *kleu̯- ‘hear’ as in Greek kléos. It does not follow, however, that slava came to mean ‘glory’ without the intermediacy of poetic tradition: compare the discussion of Slavic names with second element -slav in Schmitt, pp. 89. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the Indo-European root *kleu̯- itself had been a traditional word not only for ‘hear’ in general but also ‘hear poetry’ in particular (cf. Schmitt, pp. 90–93, 202, etc.). See now Foreword §16n16.

[ back ] 6. I find it significant that this mention of kléos comes shortly after an invocation of the Muses (Iliad XI 218). The goddesses are being asked a question: who was the first hero on the Trojan side to be killed by Agamemnon at this point in the narrative (Iliad XI 219–220)? The answer follows as the narrative resumes: it was Iphidamas (Iliad XI 221–231). And the hero’s motive for fighting on the Trojan side is indicated with these words: μετὰ κλέος ἵκετ᾽ Ἀχαιῶν, ‘he came in pursuit of the kléos of the Achaeans’ (Iliad XI 227).

[ back ] 7. Detienne 1973:9–16, 20; also Vernant 1959.

[ back ] 8. When Hektor says that there should be a mnēmosúnē ‘reminder, memory’ of his setting fire to the ships of the Achaeans (Iliad VIII 181), he is in effect saying that this moment should be recorded by epic. This is precisely what happens at Iliad XVI 112–113, where the Muses are specially invoked to tell “how it was that the fire first fell upon the ships of the Achaeans.” On Mnēmosúnē personified, who is mother of the Muses, see Hesiod Theogony 98–103 and the discussion at Ch.6§5. The word Moûsa itself (from *mont-i̯a) may well stem from the same root *men- that we find in mi-mnḗ-skō and mnē-mosúnē: Nagy 1974:249–250, 253n24.

[ back ] 9. The meaning is made explicit at Odyssey xiii 27–28, where Demodokos is described as lāoîsi tetīménos ‘honored by the people’. On the function of the dêmos ‘district’ as the social setting for the poet’s activity, see Odyssey xvii 381–387, as discussed at Ch.12§13. The poet Phḗmios also has an expressive name, derived from phḗmē ‘prophetic utterance’ (as at Odyssey ii 35). The meaning of Phḗmios is likewise made explicit, at Odyssey xxii 376: he is described as polúphēmos ‘having many prophetic utterances’ (for the semantics, compare the discussion of polúainos at Ch.12§19n70). Note too his expressive patronymic Terpiádēs (Odyssey xxii 330), derived from térpō ‘give pleasure’. This verb conventionally designates in poetry the effects of poetry (as at Odyssey i 347, where Phemios is said to térpein ‘give pleasure’ to his audience). Compare also the patronymics Polutherseḯdēs (Ch.14§11) and Harmonídēs (Ch.17§11). For more on Demodokos and Phemios, see Rüter 1969:233–234.

[ back ] 10. Bassett 1938:118.

[ back ] 11. The prehistory of the word oímē ‘story’ reveals that it had conveyed the imagery of weaving (hence ‘story thread’): Durante 1976:176–179 (pace Chantraine III 783–784).

[ back ] 12. On the implications of χαριέστερον ‘more pleasing [having more kháris]’, see Ch.2§13n40; also Ch.5§39.

[ back ] 13. On the theme of eüphrosúnē ‘mirth’ in the community: Ch.5§39.

[ back ] 14. On the dêmos as the community/audience of Dēmódokos: §4n9.

[ back ] 15. For other passages where the audience stays awake far into the night for the sake of listening to tales, see Odyssey xv 390–401, xvii 513–521, xxiii 308–309. Cf. Maehler 1963:28–29.

[ back ] 16. Kirk (1962:281) compares the size of the Homeric compositions with the “leap from the largeish pot to the perfectly colossal one” in the evolution of monumental amphoras/craters during the Geometric Period. What interests me in this comparison is that the colossal size of a utensil defies its own utility.

[ back ] 17. Monro 1901:325.

[ back ] 18. Page 1955:158.

[ back ] 19. Cf. the arguments of Kirk 1962:299–300.

[ back ] 20. Cf. Dihle 1970:159, with bibliography.

[ back ] 21. Whitman 1958 chapter IX.

[ back ] 22. See Lehrs 1882:174.

[ back ] 23. For an introduction: Pearson 1917 II:198–201 (cf. Radt 1977:425–430).

[ back ] 24. Von der Mühll 1954:1–5, Kullmann 1960:100, 272, etc. Despite my disagreements, I should note my special admiration for Kullmann’s important work.

[ back ] 25. See further at Ch.3§1.

[ back ] 26. Cf. Notopoulos 1964:33.

[ back ] 27. Marg 1956:16–29, Rüter 1969:247–254. For a guide to the recent controversies between unitarians and analysts, see Fenik 1964, esp. pp. 8–15, 30–35.

[ back ] 28. Marg 1956:16–29, Rüter 1969:247–254.

[ back ] 29. Calhoun 1937:11.

[ back ] 30. Rüter 1969:249–251.

[ back ] 31. For an introduction to the complex subject of aristeíā, the prestige that a hero gets from his grandest moments in epic narrative, see Schroeter 1950 and Müller 1966.

[ back ] 32. See further at Ch.3§§5–8. Of course, the Iliad itself acknowledges that Troy was to be captured by way of artifice, as inspired by Athena (Iliad XV 70–71).

[ back ] 33. See Rüter, pp. 250. I postpone a detailed look at the passages concerned until Ch.3§§5, 7.

[ back ] 34. See further at Ch.3§8.

[ back ] 35. I offer my own interpretation of Agamemnon’s misunderstanding at Ch.4§7.