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

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Chapter 11. On Strife and the Human Condition

11§1. We have by now seen that Memnon’s realm, the land of the Aithiopes, has landmarks that are parallel to those of the Golden Age and the Isles of the Blessed. By virtue of this parallelism, the land of the Aithiopes in fact affords an ideal setting for the immortality in store for Memnon after he dies the hero’s death. [1] In the overall myth of the Aithiopes, however, Memnon’s final immortalization is not the only theme that serves as a contrast with the here-and-now of the human condition. The land of the Aithiopes is also the setting for another such contrasting theme: the communion of gods and men. This theme in turn will be a key to our understanding the social functions of praise and blame.

11§5. Prometheus provokes Zeus in particular and the gods in general by tricking them into accepting as their portion the bones of a slaughtered ox and by reserving the edible meat for humanity (Hesiod Theogony 536–557). [10] All this is presented as happening ‘at a time when the gods and mortal men were having a definitive settlement’: [11]

… ὅτ᾽ ἐκρίνοντο θεοὶ θνητοί τ᾽ ἄνθρωποι

Hesiod Theogony 535

The preceding passage implies a combination that is explicit in the following parallel: [

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥα πόνον μάκαρες θεοὶ ἐξετέλεσσαν
Τιτήνεσσι δὲ τιμάων κρίναντο βίηφι …
But when the blessed gods completed their effort
and had a definitive settlement of tīmaí , by way of bíē [might], with the Titans …

Hesiod Theogony 881–882

The key word here is tīmaí, the ‘honors’ of cult that the Olympian gods obtain by defeating the Titans, who are rival gods (theoí, as at Theogony 630, 648, etc.). [
13] The primary result of their definitive settlement is a permanent separation, with the Olympians remaining in the sky (Theogony 820) while the Titans are cast down and imprisoned forever {215|216} underneath the earth (see especially Theogony 729–733). Similarly, there is a definitive settlement of tīmaí between the gods and men when Prometheus apportions the inedibles and edibles between them. Again, the primary result is a permanent separation, in that mankind is relegated to the human condition—a theme central to the entire Prometheus story (Theogony 521–616). [14]

11§7. The Aithiopes, then, exist in a condition that serves as a foil for the condition of ordinary mortals. For the Aithiopes, having feasts with the gods is not just a privilege: it is a sign that they are not subject to being separated permanently from the gods. Again, we recall that the landmarks of their abode are parallel to those of the Golden Age and the Isles of the Blessed. [17] By contrast, the mortals of the here-and-now have sacrifices to the gods, not feasts with them. Moreover, we have seen that the story of Prometheus in the Theogony derives this continuous institution of making sacrifice from the single event of a feast shared by gods and men. Of course, this feast is not the same thing as a first sacrifice. Granted, it constitutes the definitive settlement whereby the mortals and immortals get the edible meat and the inedible bones respectively. Nevertheless, this feast is only the basis of sacrifice, whereas the act of sacrifice itself entails more. Men are to have at their disposal the distribution of edible portions not only for themselves but also for the gods. Every city-state has its own traditions for determining what portions of the {216|217} edible meat—in addition to the bones and fat—are assigned to the gods. [18] In return, the gods have at their disposal the function of alleviating in their manifold ways the manifold evils of the human condition. Of course, the gods may even grant the ultimate alleviation, immortality after death; the inedible bones that are at their disposal are in fact the very emblem of life after death. [19]

11§11. Here at Theogony 534, both the verb ἐρίζετο ‘had éris [strife, conflict]’ and the noun βουλάς [boulḗ = ‘will, design, plan’] designate essential themes in the story. For a better understanding, we must compare the beginning of the Cypria, where the Trojan War is motivated by the boulḗ ‘Will’ of Zeus (fr. 1.7 Allen), who wants to depopulate Earth (fr. 1.1–7); significantly, the entire war is in fact designated as éris ‘strife’ (fr. 1.5).

11§13. So far, we have merely noted a parallelism in theme and diction between the entire story of the Trojan War on the one hand and, on the other, a single-verse introduction to the story of Prometheus (Hesiod Theogony 534). In the latter instance, the éris ‘strife’ between Zeus and Prometheus concerns their respective boulaí ‘wills, designs’ affecting humanity. In the former instance, we have seen that the boulḗ ‘Will’ of Zeus is that men should have éris ‘strife’ and neîkos ‘quarreling’, which is to result in the depopulation of Earth in the form of the Trojan War. Now we are ready to observe Hesiod fr. 204.95–123MW, a text that presents an actual convergence between the main themes in the overall story of the Trojan War and those in the story of Prometheus.

11§14. At line 95 of Hesiod fr. 204MW, there is a compressed mention of a traditional theme that we find developed throughout the Iliad: the division of the Olympian gods into pro-Achaean and pro-Trojan factions during the Trojan War. [27] At line 96, we are told the ultimate source of this division: ἐξ ἔριδος ᾽ever since the éris‘. The reference here is to the strife in the traditional story about the Judgment of Paris; then at lines 96–123, there follows a fragmentary passage that tells about the Will of Zeus and how it had caused the Trojan War. [28] This theme is more comprehensive here than at Cypria fr. 1 Allen, where the Will of Zeus entails the deaths of heroes in the {219|220} Trojan War. [29] The gaps in the text leave many important questions without answers, but one additional detail is clear: besides entailing the death of heroes in the Trojan War (see especially lines 118–119), [30] the Will of Zeus also entails the permanent separation of gods and men. The crucial lines read as follows:

ἀλλ̣᾽ ο̣ἳ μ[ὲ]ν μάκ̣α]ρ̣ες̣ κ̣[. . . . . . . ]ν̣ ὡ̣ς̣ τ̣ὸ̣ πάρος περ
χωρ̣ὶς ἀπ᾽ ἀν[θ]ρ̣ώπων̣ [βίοτον κα]ὶ̣ ἤθε᾽ ἔχωσιν
but so that the blessed gods … , as before,
may have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from men

Hesiod fr. 204.102–103MW

This detail shows that the éris willed by Zeus causes not only the Trojan War in particular but the human condition in general. [

11§15. Returning to the expression ἐρίζετο βουλάς ‘had a conflict [éris] of wills [boulaí]’ at Hesiod Theogony 534, we now see that the story of Prometheus here is a mythological variant of the story of Troy as told in Hesiod fr. 204MW, in that both stories are designed to explain the human condition in terms of éris ‘strife, conflict’. In the story of the Trojan War, the boulḗ ‘Will’ of Zeus causes éris for the gods and then for men, who had feasted with the gods. In the story of Prometheus, there is a primordial éris between the boulḗ of Zeus and the boulḗ of the deceitful Titan acting on behalf of men, men who had feasted with the gods. In both stories, éris disrupts the communication of men with gods, bringing about the human condition.


[ back ] 1. Memnon’s immortalization is actually unique, to the extent that the realm in which he lived before his death as a hero is also appropriate as the setting for his afterlife. For Memnon, the afterlife is by implication a homecoming. In the diction of archaic Greek poetry, the appropriate words for this theme are those containing the root *nes-; see Frame 1978.

[ back ] 2. See Ch.10§43.

[ back ] 3. In fact, the text of our Theogony ends with the same two verses (Theogony 1021–1022) that begin Hesiod fr. 1 (1–2). For a helpful discussion of the complementary relationship between fr. 1 and the Theogony as we have it, see Merkelbach 1968.

[ back ] 4. Among these heroes are Memnon (Theogony 984) and Achilles (Theogony 1007).

[ back ] 5. This correlation within the text of fr. 1 leads me to disagree with Merkelbach’s suggestion (1968:132–133) that Hesiod Theogony 965–1020 is a passage that had been inserted between Theogony 964 and Theogony 1021 (= fr. 1.1MW) after the verses of fr. 1MW had already been composed. The ἀνέρες of ἀνέρες ἠδὲ γυναῖκες at fr. 1.9 presupposes the contents of Theogony 965–1020.

[ back ] 6. The text is fragmentary beyond the words quoted, but the sense seems clear; see Merkelbach’s collection of restorations (1968). I should add that the antithesis οἱ μὲν δηρὸν … τοὺς δ᾽ εἶθ[αρ] ‘some for a long time … others suddenly …’ (Hesiod fr. 1.11–12) is set up with the phrase οὐδ᾽ ἄρα ἰσαίωνες … ‘they [were] not with equal spans of life …’ (Hesiod fr. 1.8).

[ back ] 7. Cf. Merkelbach 1968:126, who notes a parallelism with the Golden Age. There is no mention, however, of the antithesis discussed at above.

[ back ] 8. On the prodigiously long lifespan of the Golden Generation, cf. Hesiod fr. 356MW.

[ back ] 9. Ch.9§§2–3.

[ back ] 10. The wording that denotes the division of meat by Prometheus is dassámenos (Theogony 537) and diedássao moírās (Theogony 544). The verb here is daíomai ‘divide, apportion, allot,’ the derivative of which is daís feast; see Ch.7§14.

[ back ] 11. For the translation, cf. West 1966:317.

[ back ] 12. The significance of this parallel was pointed out by Rudhardt 1970:6.

[ back ] 13. For the notion of tīmḗ as the ‘honor’ conferred by cult, see Ch.7§1n2, Ch.7§19n55 and 57; Ch.9§3.

[ back ] 14. For an illuminating commentary: Vernant 1974:177–194 (cf. also Vernant 1977).

[ back ] 15. For the key words in these verses, see §5n10.

[ back ] 16. For the parallelism of Theogony 570–616 with the myth of Pandora (Works and Days 53–105), see Vernant 1974:192–194.

[ back ] 17. See §1.

[ back ] 18. See Puttkammer 1912:35. This fact has been generally overlooked until the appearance of an important article by Gill (1974), who documents the practice of depositing choice portions of meat on a given god’s trápeza, ‘table’, which coexists with the practice of burning the other portions (notably the bones and fat) on the god’s altar. In view of the general absence in Homeric poetry of references to setting aside choice cuts of meat for the god who receives sacrifice, Gill and others infer that the practice of depositing meat on a trápeza was originally distinct from the practice of burning meat on an altar. I would argue, however, that the Homeric silence on this aspect of sacrifice is for different reasons: Homeric Epos is Panhellenic, and as such it will tend to avoid any references to localized aspects of any Hellenic institution (cf. Introduction §14). To repeat: the choice of meat portions deposited on the god’s trápeza actually varied from pólis to pólis (Gill, pp. 125; cf. also Ch7§19n57 above). Such localized variation would make this aspect of sacrifice unsuitable for Homeric presentation. One exception to the Homeric silence on the deposition of meat seems to be Odyssey xiv 418–438 (Gill, pp. 134); even here, the description is so stylized that it is difficult to imagine what, if any, regional characteristics may be revealed. On the trápeza of the Sun in the land of the Aithiopes (Herodotus 3.17–26), see Vernant 1972.

[ back ] 19. See Ch10§49.

[ back ] 20. See §§5–6.

[ back ] 21. See §4.

[ back ] 22. See Ch.7§14.

[ back ] 23. Cf. also Ch.7§16n45.

[ back ] 24. See again Ch7.§14.

[ back ] 25. On the omission of Prometheus’ name at the start of this narrative: West 1966:317.

[ back ] 26. Note the epithet of Helen in the anonymous lyric fragment 1014 Page: poluneikḗs. Note too the usage of ἀρχή: whereas the theme of Helen is νείκεος ἀρχή ‘the beginning of the neîkos’, the theme of Achilles is πήματος ἀρχή ‘the beginning of the pêma [pain]’ (Odyssey viii 81; cf. Ch.4§6 and §7n17).

[ back ] 27. Cf. Stiewe 1963:5.

[ back ] 28. Cf. Stiewe 1963:4–6. I should add that there is no need to assume that the text of Hesiod fr. 204MW is based on one or several other texts; it is enough to say that the text is based on various traditions that occur also in the Cypria and in the Iliad.

[ back ] 29. The Will of Zeus at the beginning of the Cypria is in turn more comprehensive than at the beginning of the Iliad (Iliad I 1–7), where it entails the deaths of heroes only in that portion of the Trojan War which begins with the mênis ‘anger’ of Achilles. See Ch.5§25 (esp. n. 36), Ch.7§17, Ch.10§17.

[ back ] 30. Note the close parallelism in diction between Iliad I 3–4 and these lines 118–119 of Hesiod fr. 204MW.

[ back ] 31. Note the extended metaphor at Hesiod fr. 204.123 ff. MW, which immediately follows the passage about the Will of Zeus: men die much as leaves fall from trees. On this theme of mortality, see Ch.10§6.

[ back ] 32. See §12.

[ back ] 33. The translation ‘blame’, like all other translations, is only partially adequate. In his suggestive discussion of the verb neikéō/neikeíō, Adkins (1960:59n17) weighs such translations as ‘upbraid’ and ‘chide’, finally deciding on ‘abuse’ in order to emphasize that “in a society which does not distinguish between moral error and mistake, it is impossible to distinguish mockery, abuse, and rebuke. There is only one situation: unpleasant words directed at a man who has in fact fallen short of the expectations of society.”

[ back ] 34. I postpone any definition of aînos until later.