I recently enjoyed reading “The Anger of Achilles; Menis in Greek Epic” by Leondard Muellner. I laughed when this slim volume arrived and thought to myself, “A whole book for one small word?” You are probably laughing at me right now. I joined in when I flipped to the index and saw the first and most frequent entry there was “Achilles”. Yes, we already have a book about menis; Achilles own epic the Iliad. 1
Menis as Wrath
Muellner’s subject is most finely translated in the word, “wrath” with all its violent and divine connotations. Although generally divine in nature, it is anger with cosmic consequences. “But menis is not just a term for an emotional state. It is a sanction meant to guarantee and maintain the integrity of the world order by;
1. maintaining Zeus’ sovereignty over other gods or
2. enforcing the limit that keeps mortals from becoming gods”
The consequence of menis can be “massive, indiscriminate devastation.” 3
1. Maintaining Zeus’ Hegemony
In the Iliad, one continual source of this menis with its potential for massive, indiscriminate devastation is Zeus’ conflicts with his ever feuding family. In Book I, Achilles recalls a time when Zeus was bound by his relatives. The King of the Gods is rescued by Achilles’ very mother Thetis. It is notable that in Achilles’s telling of the tale, there is no resistance to the Nereid’s attempt to rescue her foster mother’s husband. No threat or negative words is said then or ever after about the gentle sea goddess. It is as if the rebels are about to embark on some course they dread and Thetis is in fact rescuing them all. At the end of the Iliad, Apollo and Aphrodite are objecting to Achilles continued and unimpeded desecration of Hector’s body. In the grandest arc of the ring theory, Muellner points out “it is striking that the group of gods opposed to Apollo consists of the same three divinities who wished to bind Zeus…in Book 1…Thetis was instrumental in averting menis and protecting the divine order from violent disruption; here in book 24 Zeus chooses her for the same role.”4
2. The Limit That Keeps Mortals from Becoming Gods
Muellner observes that “gods and mortals are not, as Apollo said to Diomedes, the same class. The traditional role of Apollo in making just this distinction and reinforcing it…” He documents several places in epic where “…Apollo is the god who presides over the limits who transgression incurs menis”2
Zero, Once, Forever
Muellner has an interesting theory on proto-events. The first time an event happens can’t actually be the first time it happens, because there is no context, no one knows what “this” is; until it happens again there is no content. There has to be a proto-event, a prophesy or a foreshadowing. So for example; Julius Caesar was never crowned Caesar. The first “Caesar” of Rome would be Augustus, after which all sorts of princes would be Caesar all the way down to Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas till WWII. Both titles evolving from the word “Caesar”. Before I offer Muellner’s own words let me throw out a few quotes that helped with understanding;
“Chaos (the god) is a kind of tangible nullity.” This almost a Kabbalah tenet, but it helps us to acknowledge that “Chaos” the parent of the gods is not exactly a god. Certainly, not a sky god like Uranus the ancestor of the Olympic gods and celestial titans to come.
“Uranus actions towards his children are a prefiguring of death, in which created beings are relegated to the space below the earth and cannot emerge.“ But at the time he abuses his wife and children there is no concept yet of “womb” or “tomb”. It is possible that the sky hovered so low over this lover, that there was no concept of “above” or “below” the earth. It is Cronus that splits earth and sky and plunges his elder brothers beneath the earth.
Muellner writes of a “ metonymic nominalism… whereby a notion such as kingship is capable of being name on the occasion of its second manifestation … Uranus is not the King because the notion didn’t’ exist during his reign. One can see, then, that in as much as Uranus was a “zero-degree” king and Cronus a primitive one, Zeus is the “evolved” version, a true king presiding over an evolved and proliferating domain.“ 5
“Menis is the opposite of friendship”
Muellner argues convincingly that menis is generated by the breaking of the relationships and mutual obligations that define the structure of divine and mortal societies. Hence, “Heracles…liberation of Prometheus which took place not against Zeus’ desire because he had relented from the anger he had harbored since Prometheus started competing with him in trickery” So, Zeus’ anger was not due to the consequences of that contest. In the end what cares a god if mortals have the better portion of the sacrifice and fire to cook it with? Zeus was hurt by Prometheus’ betrayal.
Likewise, Achilles wasn’t hurt by the loss of Briseis. For all his protestations of love, he certainly didn’t rush to reclaim her when events allowed. He was not hurt by the loss of honor, his place in the hearts and estimation of the Achaeans and gods remained secure. Achilles was hurt by Agamemnon’s betrayal. That line of logic makes so much more sense of the Embassy scene. As Muellner explains, “The Shield of Achilles …depicts a figure in a legal dispute who is violently refusing to accept the compensation offered for a slain relative, exactly as Achilles is refusing to accept Agamemnon’s. His list of prizes is not a sign of friendship or a tangible recognition of Achilles’ value but… an assertion of the givers’ prestige. If Achilles were to accept these gifts from Agamemnon, he would effectively accept subservient to him for life. Because they are intended to be beyond Achilles’ ability to reciprocate. This why when Achilles actually does receive even a reduced portion of the gifts in Book 19, he does not receive them from Agamemnon himself. At Odysseus’s suggestion, by then he has apparently understood what is at stake, Agamemnon now brings them in to the middle of the assembly. ..so the compensation of Achilles in binds the social group as a whole to Agamemnon and then reinforces Achilles bonds to the group.
This is an amazing book full of great insights, much better explained than I have here. I recommend it highly.
-1 A little aside here; Muellner suggests that because “The explicit central theme of the Iliad is the menis of Achilles…Homeric tradition will not validate the menis of any other (mortal) hero” thus this Iliadic theme aides in “the traditional mutual differentiation process” with its Odyssean counterpart.
-2 “The divine enforcement of prohibitions is not… a moral and ethical functions to epic gods. At issue is world maintenance, asserting and preserving the prevailing order of the cosmos, not an individual’s right or wrong behavior. “ Muellner points out “that rules of morality coexist and randomly conflict” with divinely enforced taboos meant to limit humanity.
-3 Muellner restricts his analysis to Homeric epic. Leaving out the menis of Orestes of which Apollo worries in the “The Eumenides” nor does he addresses the Erinnyes, whose role in the universe is to maintain the integrity of the old world order. .
-4. Muellner's logic seems to provided even greater and broader powers to Thetis than envisioned by Laura M Slatkin in “The Power of Thetis”. Thetis; the rescuer of Zeus, the rescuer of Hephaestus (Homer, Iliad 18. 369), the rescuer of Dionysius(Homer, Iliad 6. 135) now becomes the rescuer of the integrity of the world order from the massive, indiscriminate devastation that could follow should some god exercise that menis. If Muellner’s theory about menis’ indiscriminate devastation, is accurate, I have to wonder if Thetis is rescuing Hephaestus from the wrath of Zeus or rather she is saving the cosmos from the revenge of Hephaestus the weapons maker.
-5 Jenny Strauss-Clay (The Politics of Olympus, 1989) says similarly of Apollo, “as he did the first time and as he will forever.” See also my article Once and For Always.