Douglas Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic: 7. Epilogue

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  • Douglas Frame, The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic, 7: Epilogue, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC. September, 2005

7. Epilogue

Now that a connection has been established between Greek nóos and the Indo-European root nes-, it will be interesting to consider a few further instances in Greek tradition where the notion of “mind” suggests a latent connection with the notion of “return.” I shall begin with two Homeric episodes which have not figured in the discussion so far – the ransom of Hector in Iliad 24 and the night raid in Iliad 10.

It is well recognized that Priam’s ransom of Hector in Iliad 24 is represented as a journey to the underworld and a consequent “return to life.” [1]   Priam is led into and back from this underworld by Hermes, who takes with him for this twofold mission his “ambivalent” staff, which can both put mortals to sleep and reawaken them. [2]   The place where Hermes meets Priam, furthermore, is the tomb of Ilus, and the time of day is sunset (XXIV 350 ff.); thus Priam and the psychopomp Hermes seem to follow the setting sun as they venture into the “oltretomba.” When Priam returns with the body of Hector, on the other hand, he reaches the tomb of Ilus just as the sun is rising, and at this point Hermes leaves him (XXIV 694 ff.).

The ransom of Hector is thus a journey into “darkness and death” and a “return to life and light.” In such a context it would be natural to find the root nes-, and this is in fact the case. The root is present in the word nóos, which is used repeatedly in the passage describing the initial encounter between Priam and Hermes. From a traditional standpoint, the entrance into the underworld would have been characterized by a loss of nóos, and the return to life by a regaining of nóos. Both of these phases, however, seem to have been compressed within the initial encounter; at first Priam and his charioteer, surprised by Hermes’ approach, feel threatened, but when they realize that Hermes intends no harm, this feeling gives way to a sense of “salvation.”

In the space of twenty-odd lines the word nóos occurs four times. When the charioteer notices Hermes lurking nearby, he says to Priam (354):

φρ?ζεο, Δαρδαν?δη· φραδ?ος ν?ου ?ργα τ?τυκται

Observe, descendant of Dardanus; this is a matter for an observant mind.

Priam, realizing that “real” death may be close at hand, is described as follows (358):

. . . σ?ν δ? γ?ροντι ν?ος χ?το, δε?διε δ’ α?ν?ς.

The mind of the old man collapsed, and he feared terribly.

In this line one sees Priam’s initial loss of nóos. When Hermes reveals his friendly intentions, he reinforces the idea that to venture forth without an adequate guide will involve a loss of nóos; so, from a traditional standpoint, one may interpret his question to Priam (366-67):

τ?ν ε? τ?ς σε ?δοιτο θο?ν δι? ν?κτα μ?λαιναν
τοσσ?δ’ ?νε?ατ’ ?γοντα, τ?ς ?ν δ? τοι ν?ος ε?η;

If someone (of the Greeks) should see you bringing so many goods through the swift black night, what mind would you have then?

When Priam realizes that Hermes will guide him to “salvation,” he himself uses the word nóos, this time in a compliment to his guide (374 ff.):

?λλ’ ?τι τις κα? ?με?ο θε?ν ?περ?σχεθε χε?ρα,
?ς μοι τοι?νδ’ ?κεν ?δοιπ?ρον ?ντιβολ?σαι,
α?σιον, ο?ος δ? σ? δ?μας κα? ε?δος ?γητ?ς,
π?πνυσα? τε ν??.

But some god was still holding his protective hand over me when he sent to meet me a courteous guide like you, who are marvelous in build and appearance and prudent in your mind.

The frequency and the nature of the use of the word nóos can hardly be accidental in this episode.


A second famous night-adventure in Homer is found in Iliad 10, the “Doloneia,” or “Nuktegersia.” In this episode Diomedes and Odysseus volunteer to venture into the Trojan camp by night to spy on their enemies and learn their plans. They do not do this, however, but instead slay the Thracian king Rhesus in his sleep and drive off his horses. This outcome is highly interesting in view of the fact that Rhesus, according to tradition, was a cave daimon in his native Thrace. [3]   When Diomedes and Odysseus drive off his horses, therefore, one is tempted to think of the Cyclops, his cave, and the animals Odysseus “frees.” Furthermore, when Diomedes and Odysseus, toward dawn, return with their capture, Nestor, in greeting them, says that their new white horses “are terribly like the rays of the sun” (547):

α?ν?ς ?κτ?νεσσιν ?οικ?τες ?ελ?οιο.

Another detail worth mentioning is the importance given to “returning” in this adventure. In lines 281-82, Odysseus prays to Athena for a glorious return to the Achaean ships, and in line 509 Athena herself appears to “remind” Diomedes of his “return,” with the words nóstou d? mnÊsai. [4]  


Given this overall context, it becomes significant that the words nóos and noé? play a prominent part in the passage in which Diomedes first volunteers for the adventure. After offering himself, he asks for a companion, giving the following explanation for his request (224 ff.):

σ?ν τε δ?’ ?ρχομ?νω, κα? τε πρ? ? το? ?ν?ησεν
?ππως κ?ρδος ??· μο?νος δ’ ε? π?ρ τε νο?σ?
?λλ? τ? ο? βρ?σσων τε ν?ος, λεπτ? δ? τε μ?τις.

When two go together one looks before the other to see what is best; but a man by himself, even if he perceive closely, has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.

Diomedes then chooses Odysseus as his companion; in commenting on the value of Odysseus’s intelligence, Diomedes provides us with a collocation of the verbs nosté? and noé? (246-47):

το?του γ’ ?σπομ?νοιο κα? ?κ πυρ?ς α?θομ?νοιο
?μφω νοστ?σαιμεν, ?πε? περ?οιδε νο?σαι.

If this man followed me we would both return even from blazing fire, for he knows best how to use his mind.

In this episode once again, the choise of language must have something to do with a traditional connection between the words nóos and néomai.


With this discussion of Iliad 10 and 24 we may now leave Homer, in order to consider briefly how the same etymological connection may have survived even after Homer’s time. A natural place to begin is with the cults to Helios; unfortunately, however, these cults are for the most part as prehistoric as the connection to be investigated. Nevertheless, one such cult survived on the island of Rhodes, and, although little is known about it, a legend has been preserved by Pindar which concerns the origins of the special honor paid to Helios on this island. Pindar gives the legend in Olympian 7. He says that the legend is old (ll. 54-55), and the main points of his account are as follows. When Zeus and the other gods first divided the earth among themselves, Helios, being absent, did not receive a lot. But when Zeus offered to reapportion the earth, Helios refused, for he had seen an island – Rhodes – rising out of the sea, and he wanted this to be his share. Thus Helios obtained Rhodes, made love to her, and sired seven sons, one of whom was to sire, in turn, the eponymous heroes of the three Rhodian cities.

With this hierarchy of generations, the legend indicates its own antiquity. What is significant for our purposes is that the word nó?ma, “mind,” appears in connection with the oldest phase, the seven sons of Helios himself. Pindar says that these seven sons “inherited” from Helios “the wisest no?mata among former men.” The passage (ll. 71 ff.) reads as follows:

?νθα ??δ? ποτ? μειχθε?ς τ?κεν
?πτ? σοφ?τατα νο?ματ’ ?π? προτ?ρων ?ν-
δρ?ν παραδεξαμ?νους


There (Helios) once made love to the nymph Rhodes and fathered seven sons who inherited from him the wisest minds among former men.

Through the derivative form nó?ma, the word nóos is thus indirectly attested in the context of a Greek cult of the sun. It also seems possible to read the meaning “return to light” of the root nes– into Pindar’s account. The very emergence of Rhodes from the sea is described as a “return from darkness to light”: at first the island lay “hidden in the depths” (en bénthesin . . . kekrúphthai, l.57), and it was then “sent into the radiant ether” (phaennòn es aithéra . . . pemphthe?san, l. 67). This “return to light” provides the context in which to understand the reputation for nóos of the island’s first children.


Such is the scanty – but significant – evidence provided by Greek sun worship, which for the most part was quicker to die than the epic tradition. Where the influence of both, insofar as nóos is concerned, might be expected to have survived is in the Greek philosophical tradition. It would require another study, of another kind, to investigate the importance of sun symbolism in Greek philosophical though. Here, therefore, I wish to draw attention to only two contexts where a precise connection between nóos and néomai, both signifying “return to life and light” is suggested.

The first is the famous and mysterious “proem” of Parmenides, which describes the philosopher’s own “return to light.” Two influences on this proem are distinctly noticeable: that of Greek epic, especially the Odyssey, [5]   and that of sun mythology. In the opening lines Parmenides speaks of the road (hodós) he has traveled; this road “carries the wise man through all cities” (l. 3):

. . . ? κατ? π?ντ’ ?στη φ?ρει ε?δ?τα φ?τα.

This line has a clear relation to the third line of the Odyssey: [6]  

πολλ?ν δ’ ?νθρ?πων ?δεν ?στεα κα? ν?ον ?γνω.

He saw the cities of many men and learned their minds.

The same line, however, also has to do with sun mythology, to judge from the following Orphic fragment: [7]  

?λιε Π?ρ, δι? π?ντ’ ?στη ν?σεαι.

Helios, Fire, you go through all cities.


More significant is the extent to which sun symbolism is involved in the rest of the proem. The journey “to light” begins at the “gates of the paths of day and night” (l. 11): [8]  

?νθα π?λαι Νυκτ?ς τε κα? ?ματ?ς ε?σι κελε?θων.

The goddesses who conduct the philosopher from these gates along his subsequent road are the “daughters of the Sun” (ll. 8 ff.):

                              ?τε σπερχο?ατο π?μπειν
?λι?δες κο?ραι, προλιπο?σαι δ?ματα Νυκτ?ς,
ε?ς φ?ος, ?σ?μεναι κρ?των ?πο χερσ? καλ?πτρας.

. . . when the daughters of Helios hastened to convey (me) into the light, leaving the house of Night, and pushing the veils from their heads.


In view of this sun symbolism, it is significant that the verb used to designate the philosopher’s “journey to light” is néomai, a verb which appears nowhere else in the pre-Socratic corpus. At the gates of day and night the philosopher is greeted by the goddess Dík?, “Justice,” who says that “it is not an evil destiny that sends you forth to return along this road which lies apart from the beaten track of men” (ll. 26-27):

χα?ρ’, ?πε? ο?τι σε μο?ρα κακ? προ?πεμπε ν?εσθαι
τ?νδ’ ?δ?ν (? γ?ρ ?π’ ?νθρ?πων ?κτ?ς π?του ?στ?ν).

The word nóos does not occur in the proem, but since the “return” is that of a philosopher, this hardly matters. Attention may be drawn to Parmenides’ use of the word “road” throughout the proem, because in subsequent fragments hodós is collocated with both the verb noé? and the noun nó?ma. Fragment 2 begins as follows:

ε? δ’ ?γ’ ?γ?ν ?ρ?ω, κ?μισαι δ? σ? μ?θον ?κο?σας,
α?περ ?δο? μο?ναι διζ?σι?ς ε?σι νο?σαι

Come now and I will tell you – and you must listen and take my word – what are the only roads of enquiry that exist for thinking,

and fragment 7 as follows:

ο? γ?ρ μ?ποτε το?το δαμ? ε?ναι μ? ??ντα·

?λλ? σ? τ?σδ’ ?φ’ ?δο? διζ?σι?ς ε?ργε ν?ημα.

For this will never win out, that things which are not are; but you must restrain your mind from this road of enquiry.


There could be no clearer testimony for the importance of sun symbolism in understanding the relationship between nóos and néomai than the proem of Parmenides. While Parmenides, as a philosopher, is part of the “rationalization” of this symbolism, he still plainly reveals the primitive source of the word for the rational faculty itself. [9]  

A second famous “return to light” in Greek philosophy is provided by Plato’s Republic, specifically, in the myth of the cave. What happens in this myth is well known; we are asked to imagine the joy of a man, previously chained to the wall of a cave where he could see only shadows cast in firelight, when he emerges from the cave and contemplates the light of the sun. His emergence is like a return from death. Plato does not say this explicitly, but he does say that the man involved would rather “be the serf of a poor man on earth” than return to the cave. This is a direct quotation of Achilles’ statement to Odysseus in the underworld, which concludes, however, “than rule over all the dead.” Since it is thus equated with death, Plato’s cave cannot help but remind us of – among others – the cave of the Cyclops. [10]  

The association with death becomes very significant in understanding the role of nóos in Plato’s myth. The ascent from the cave to the light of the sun is, in fact, a metaphor for the intellectual ascent from the realm of doxastá, “matters of opinion,” to the realm of no?tá, “intelligible matters.” This is clear from Socrates’ statement in Republic 7.517b:

τ?ν δ? ?νω ?ν?βασιν κα? θ?αν τ?ν ?νω τ?ν ε?ς τ?ν νοητ?ν τ?πον τ?ς ψυχ?ς ?νοδον τιθε?ς ο?χ ?μαρτ?σει τ?ς γ’ ?μ?ς ?λπ?δος

And if you assume that the ascent and the contemplation of the things above is the soul’s ascension to the intelligible region, you will not miss my surmise.

The word ánodos, “ascent,” strongly reinforces the idea that the “ascent” from the cave is a “return from death”; [11]   the fact that the ánodos is eis tòn no?tòn tópon, “to the intelligible region,” shows plainly that the “return from death” is an acquiring of nóos.


Plato must have drawn on authentic tradition in connecting nóos with the return from the cave. But it is worth noticing the understated way in which Socrates permits the equation: oukh hamart?sei tÊs g’ emÊs elpídos, “you will not miss my surmise.” This suggests to me that the equation may in some sense be real, but it also draws attention to the fact that the myth of the cave was introduced only as a comparison to the ascent of the spirit. The gap between comparison and actual equation, which Plato to some extent blurs, nevertheless remains; I believe this gap is the gap between the classical Greek no?s and its primitive origins.

 1. As Priam sets forth, his people follow him (XXIV 328):

π?λλ’ ?λοφυρ?μενοι ?ς ε? θ?νατ?νδε κι?ντα.

Lamenting for him much, as if he were going to death.


 2. XXIV 343 ff.: see chap. 3, sect. 4 above for the same lines in connection with Hermes’ mission to free Odysseus from Calypso.    back
 3. Cf. Euripides, Rhesus 962 ff.    back
 4. For the significance of this expression, see chap. 3, sect. 1 above.    back
 5. See E. Havelock, “Parmenides and Odysseus,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 63 (1958): 133 ff. (discussed in end note 5; cf. also n. 9 below).    back
 6. See also Havelock, p. 136: “The ‘man who knows’ who is conveyed on a ‘famous journey’ ‘through all towns’ is that Odysseus who is introduced at the opening of the Odyssey.”    back
 7. Diels-Kranz. 1B 21.3.    back
 8. See chap. 3, sect. 3 above for the discussion of this line in relation to the Laestrygonian adventure in the Odyssey.    back
 9. E. Havelock (n. 5), pp. 138-40, has argued that the sun symbolism in Parmenides is a direct borrowing, with modifications, from the Odyssey; while I do not doubt Parmenides’ use of literary reminiscence, I also believe that his sun symbolism has a deeper origin than this; see end note 5 for discussion.    back
 10. Note also that those in the cave can only see skiaí, “shadows,” and that this word suggests the “shades” of the underworld.    back
 11. Cf. the ánodos of Persephone.    back

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