A Structural Analysis of the Meleagros Myth

[[This paper, published here for the first time, is based on a report for a seminar directed by Gregory Nagy and held at the Johns Hopkins University in the fall semester of 1973.]]

Claude Lévi-Strauss, in works like The Raw and the Cooked (1970), has shown that attempts to analyze the structure of a given myth using the themes of only one or even of a few versions is unlikely to be successful. Such attempts cannot provide an adequate means of substantiating the structure of the myth. The chances are high that one will fail to recognize structural elements of the myth that are brought into clear focus only by means of a comparative analysis of many versions.

For this analysis of the Meleagros myth, I shall use as the basis the version in the Homeric Iliad, IX 529–599. And I shall use as a supplement the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 8.260–546. Even though my analysis will be based on only two versions, it is valid because it is not based on themes alone. In Homeric poetry, themes and formulas are mutually reinforcing, and this analysis is based not only on thematic evidence found in Homer and Ovid but also on the formulaic evidence of Homeric diction. For this reason, there is a strong likelihood that a combination of theme and formula will adequately indicate, in a complementary fashion, those structural elements that theme alone does not.

In this analysis, I shall attempt to show that the Meleagros myth presents the beginning of a reconciliation of nature and culture.

The narrative that we find in Iliad IX 529–599 relates a conflict between the forces of the goddess Artemis and the forces of Oineus, King of Calydon. Because of the composition of the two opposing forces, this conflict fits into a category that Lévi-Strauss (1970) would call a conflict between nature and culture. Artemis, goddess of the wilds, leads the forces of nature. One of her chief agents, the Calydonian Boar, is a creature of the wilds. Oineus leads the forces of culture, made up of people who dwell in a city and carry on forms of agriculture, including the cultivation of the vine. The name Oineus (Οἰνεύς) means ‘he who is concerned with wine [οἶνος]’. The meaning of this name implies cultivation of the vine, an activity that is a distinctive feature of society marked by culture, by agriculture. The classification of this myth as a nature-culture conflict also receives support from the fact that the Calydonian Boar is described by the adjective ἄγριος ‘wild’ (Iliad IX 539) and from the fact that the leader of the opposing force is named Oineus, whose name is connected with agriculture, as we have just seen. The adjective ἄγριος is often used in Homeric poetry to designate a creature of nature, of the wilderness. The Cyclops Polyphemus, who is such a creature of nature, is also called ἄγριος (Odyssey ix 494).

The central character of this myth is Meleagros, son of Oineus and Althaia. In order to arrive at a proper understanding of the structure of this myth, we must see what role Meleagros plays. We will start by looking at the meaning of his name Μελέαγρος, which is disputed. By my count, four meanings have been proposed:

  1. He who will participate in a useless (or miserable) hunt (Euripides Meleagros fr. 517 ed. Nauck: Μελέαγρε, μελέαν γάρ ποτ’ ἀγρεύεις ἄγραν).
  2. The hunter of the dead (Dieterich 1893:56n2, who thinks that μέλεα means ‘the dead’).
  3. He who cares for (verb μέλειν) the *ṷagros ‘thunderbolt’ (Delbrück 1865).
  4. He who cares for (verb μέλειν) the ἄγρα ‘hunt’ (Scholia V and T to Iliad IX 543).

To these may be added:

5. He who cares for (verb μέλειν) the cultivated field.

Since theme and formula are mutually reinforcing in Homeric diction, we can be confident of a proposed meaning of a name, when the meaning is disputed, only if the proposed meaning is supported by thematic evidence. Therefore, we may rule out the first two proposed meanings, neither of which is supported by the thematic evidence of Homeric poetry.

The third proposed meaning seems at first far-fetched, since the cognate of the reconstructed *ṷagros would be Indic vajra- (also Iranian vazra-). In Indic hymns, vajra- refers to the thunderbolt of the Indic god Indra. In terms of this explanation, the element *ṷagros of Μελέαγρος should be translated as ‘thunderbolt’ (again, Delbrück 1865). The proposed meaning ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] the thunderbolt’ has been defended, however, by Watkins (1995:408–413) on the grounds that the killing of the Calydonian Boar by Meleagros matches in formulaic construction the killing of various monsters by heroes or gods in other Indo-European traditions. Particularly relevant is the comparative evidence of Indic hymns, where monsters of nature are slain by Indra as he wields the vajra-. Watkins also argues (1995:372, 409–410, 430) that the collocations of the noun vajra- with the verb vadh- in Indic hymns are comparable to the collocation of Μελέ-αγρος with the rare form ἔθω in the Iliad. Just as the Indic verb vadh- means ‘destroy’, so too does the Greek verb ἔθω, which is used in the Iliadic retelling of the killing of the Calydonian Boar by Meleagros. There is a problem, however, with this argument: Meleagros kills the wild boar in Iliad IX 543, but there the verb used to indicate the killing is not ἔθω but another verb, ἀποκτείνω. By contrast, the verb ἔθω is used earlier, in IX 540, and there it applies not to Meleagros in the act of killing the wild boar but to the boar himself in the earlier act of destroying the cultivated fields of the Calydonians.

The fourth and the fifth proposed meanings of the name Meleagros fit the thematic evidence of Homeric poetry. The fourth meaning, ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] the hunt [ἄγρα]’, corresponds with the hunting of the wild boar by Meleagros (Iliad IX 543–546). The fifth meaning, ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] the cultivated field [ἀγρός]’, corresponds with the defense of the cultivated fields of Calydon by Meleagros: first, the hero participates in the hunting down of the wild boar who is destroying the cultivated fields and, later, he participates in the war of the Calydonians against the Curetes (IX 547–552). The Curetes are described as would-be destroyers of Calydon, in formulaic langauge that is parallel to the formulaic language describing the wild boar as a destroyer of cultivated fields (IX 532).

Each of these two proposed meanings requires that μελέαγρος be a compound of μελε-, a stem of μέλω, and -αγρος. Formal parallels include Μέλ-ιππος (and a later form Μελέ-ιππος), meaning ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] horses’ (Fick and Bechtel 1894:200).

An objection can made, however, to these two proposed meanings of Meleagros. In Homeric diction, if two components are combined to form a compound word, when the first component ends in a vowel and the second component begins with a vowel, the vowel at the end of the first component regularly drops out. We would, therefore, expect a Homeric compound formed from μελε- and -αγρος to be *μέλαγρος rather than μελέαγρος.

The hiatus between μελε- and -αγρος can be explained, however, if the -αγρος of Μελέαγρος had originally been *-ṷagros. Then, after the * dropped out in the Ionic dialect as represented by Homeric poetry, Μελέαγρος could be reinterpreted in the formulaic system of this poetry as meaning either ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] the hunt [ἄγρα]’ or ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] the cultivated field [ἀγρός]’. As I shall now argue, both of these meanings are clearly attested in the thematic and formulaic system of Homeric poetry.

The meaning ‘he who cares for [verb μέλειν] the cultivated field [ἀγρός]’ accurately describes the disposition of Meleagros before his mother Althaia placed curses upon him for accidentally killing her brother (this killing is narrated in Iliad IX 566–567). Before his mother’s curses, Meleagros defends his father’s kingdom by hunting down and killing the Calydonian Boar, sent by Artemis, goddess of the wilderness, to destroy the cultivated land of Oineus and the Calydonians (IX 539–542). The wild boar was sent by Artemis, who was angry that Oineus, whose name carries the idea of agriculture, had neglected to sacrifice to her (IX 533–538). Meleagros, as the son of Oineus, is part of a society marked by culture, agriculture.

The disposition of Meleagros changes after his mother Althaia curses him. Meleagros is now angry at his mother for cursing him (Iliad IX 553–555, 566). He is also angry at his people, the Calydonians. He is now no longer someone who ‘cares for the cultivated field’. Meleagros stops defending Calydon and its cultivated fields against the enemies of the Calydonians, the Curetes, who can be considered the new agents of Artemis after the killing of the Calydonian Boar. Having stopped defending Calydon, Meleagros now stays at home with his wife Cleopatra (IX 556). His father Oineus and others, including his mother Althaia, implore Meleagros to check his anger and to return to battle, since Calydon is now losing ground in the war (IX 565–586). Meleagros is even promised a tract of choice land to be used for farming and for a vineyard, but he refuses to return (IX 576–580).

By staying out of the battle, Meleagros is assuring the defeat of Calydon. In his anger, he is in effect helping the side that is trying to destroy the society marked by culture. He is now on the side of the enemy, marked by nature, wilderness, and the goddess Artemis. The anger of Artemis and the anger of Meleagros are expressed in parallel formulas (Iliad IX 538 and 566).

Cleopatra eventually persuades Meleagros to return to battle (IX 588–599). Even if his return is interpreted as a shift, to some degree, back towards a cultural disposition, it does not change the fact that, for a time, Meleagros had completely rejected society as marked by culture.

This rejection of culture is of fundamental importance in the Meleagros myth as retold in Homeric poetry. By abandoning his efforts to defend Calydon, the hero is in effect aiding the force that threatens to destroy his father’s kingdom, and thus he is making a movement toward wilderness and nature; but he did not make this movement alone. But now I will argue that the society that represents agriculture, because Meleagros was part of it, also made a movement, although a small one, toward nature. In terms of a nature-culture conflict, as we will now see, this movement may be called a reconciliatory shift on the part of culture; and Meleagros may be called a reconciliatory agent.

The Homeric version of the Meleagros myth is silent about whether or not nature responded to this movement made by culture. Here we may turn to the version of the Meleagros myth in the eighth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This version relates two events that occur after the point where the Iliad version leaves off: the death of Meleagros and the metamorphosis of his sisters (Metamorphoses 8.515–546). Diana (Artemis) causes this metamorphosis. She observes the mourning of the sisters of Meleagros after his death and changes them into guinea fowl, releasing them from their inconsolable sorrow.

The guinea fowl is not a creature of the wilds but rather a domesticated bird. It was a domesticated animal in ancient Greece and Rome. Hesychius has two entries for ‘guinea fowl’: μ 664, μελέαγρος· ἡ κατοικίδιος ὄρνις, and μ 665, μελεαγρίδες· ὄρνεις, αἳ ἐνέμοντο ἐν τῇ ἀκροπόλει. Clytus of Miletus (FGrH 490 F 1 ed. Jacoby) describes the guinea fowl he saw at the temple of Artemis at Leros. This species of bird probably originated in Africa, where some varieties exist in the wild.

By creating an animal that is part of society as marked by culture, Diana (Artemis), who had previously destroyed culture, does something that may be regarded as a reconciliatory movement in response to the movement of culture toward nature. The guinea fowl may be regarded as reconciliatory agents.

I began this analysis of the Meleagros myth by showing that it relates a conflict that may be termed an opposition of nature and culture. We have also seen that culture makes what can be viewed as a reconciliatory movement toward nature (Meleagros’ rejecting agricultural society and abandoning its defense) and that nature makes what can be viewed as a movement in response (the metamorphosis of Meleagros’ sisters by Artemis). I now propose to show that the meaning of the name of one of the principal characters, Althaia, validates the argument so far—that this myth shows the beginning of a reconciliation of nature and culture.

At first glance, the meaning of the name Althaia (Ἀλθαίη) seems to pose a problem. Ἀλθαίη means ‘healer’, derived from the noun ἆλθος ‘healing’ (morphologically, ἆλθος is to Ἀλθαίη as e.g. κράτος is to κραταιή: see Nagy 1979:88). In line with the principle we have observed so far, that theme and formula are mutually reinforcing in Homeric poetry, we would expect the meaning of the name of Althaia to be supported by the themes of the Meleagros myth. But, at first sight, exactly the opposite appears to be true. By her curses Althaia alienates Meleagros and indirectly brings destruction, not healing, upon Calydon.

In the Meleagros myth in Homer, the only thing that Althaia does, other than to place her curses on Meleagros, is to implore Meleagros to return to his participation in the war against the Curetes. Since her efforts to get him to return to the war are ineffectual, there is no way to view them as healing actions. For Althaia to be a healer, her curses have to be healing actions in their own right.

But if the Meleagros myth presents the beginning of the reconciliation of nature and culture, Althaia may appropriately be called a ‘healer’ because of her curses. Society, as a whole, was sick because it had been ripped apart into two hostile factions, nature and culture. Although Althaia’s curses did not heal this sickness, they set off the chain of events that moved culture toward nature and reciprocally moved nature toward culture. Althaia began the healing process.

Gregory Nagy has offered me this relevant observation (per litteras 11.09.2009):

A similar point can be made about the name Μελέαγρος, if it is really derived from *melé-ṷagros, meaning ‘he who cares for the *ṷagros’ (so Watkins 1995:412). The -αγρος of Μελέαγρος, if it is really cognate with Indic vájra– and Iranian vazra-, can refer to the forces of healing, restoration, and revivifying, not only to the forces of destruction. The Indic noun vajra-, which refers to the stylized thunderbolt of the Indic god Indra, is attested in contexts where this weapon, like the hammer of the Germanic god Thor, has revitalizing as well as destructive powers (Nagy 1990:197). According to one theory (accepted by Watkins 1995:412–413), the vaj- of vajra- (as also the -αγ- of Μελέαγρος) derives from the root *ṷag– meaning ‘break’. I disagree, arguing instead that the vaj– of vajra- derives from the root *ṷeg-, as attested in the Latin verb uegeō in the sense of ‘revitalize’ (see again Nagy 1990:197). If this derivation is the right one, then perhaps the -αγ- of Μελέαγρος can be seen as an indirect derivative of *ṷeg-, and the compound formation *melé-ṷagros can mean ‘he who cares for revitalization’. By revitalization here I mean the revitalizing of vital forces, such as the forces of vegetation. Then, with the dropping out of the *-ṷ- of *melé-ṷagros in the dominant Ionic dialect of Homeric diction, the resulting μελέαγρος can be reinterpreted as meaning simultaneously ‘he who cares for the field or ἀγρός’ and ‘he who cares for the hunt or ἄγρα’. Since the Indic cognate of ἀγρός ‘field’ is ájra-, which means ‘uncultivated land’, that is, ‘fallow land’, and since the Greek derivative of ἀγρός is ἄγριος, which means ‘wild’ (also comparable is σύαγρος, meaning ‘wild boar’), I take it that the Greek contexts of ἀγρός in the sense of ‘cultivated land’ reflect a semantic shift from wilderness to cultivation, and that ἄγρα in the context of hunting in the wilderness is related to earlier contexts of ἀγρός in the sense of uncultivated land, as opposed to later contexts in the sense of cultivated land (cf. Chantraine DELG s.v. ἀγρός). Such a semantic shift is relevant to the myth of Μελέαγρος in the context of the formulaic system of Homeric poetry: in terms of this myth, Meleagros reverts from caring for cultivation to caring for the wilderness and then reverts back to caring for cultivation.

I conclude, then, that the name and the themes associated with the compound μελέαγρος go back to a time when the semantic opposition between ἄγρα and ἀγρός was not as strong as it later became in the Greek language. The Meleagros myth must go back to such an early time. In terms of the myth, though, the semantic convergence of ἄγρα and ἀγρός can be seen as an outcome instead of a pre-existing semantic fusion. In other words, the fusion can be seen as a merger, a reconciliation between nature and culture.

In terms of the myth, though, a complete reconciliation of nature and culture was still far off. This reconciliation did occur with the wedding of Ariadne and Dionysus (as in Hyginus De Astronomia 2.5), if we think of Ariadne as a hypostasis of Artemis—and of Dionysus as having a hypostasis of his own, Oineus. The Meleagros myth presents a small, but necessary, first step toward such complete reconciliation.


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