Thursday, February 13, 2014

TFBT: Muellner’s Menis

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

Leonard Muellner writes five chapters in his book. Like Hesiod’s five metallic ages of man interrupted by the “Heroic Age”, Muellner’s five chapters on menis are interrupted by an appropriate one on metis.  His enjoyable narrative and frequent quotes from source materials are peppered with key words in the original Greek and inline definitions.   

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. 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.



  1. I am not sure that Olympians had no hard feelings towards Thetis. We know nothing about their immediate reaction after she botched their revolution attempt. If, however, we count the absence of evidence as evidence of absence of reaction, then it is noteworthy that no one objects when Zeus wants to rape Thetis, when he marries her off to a human against her wish, when her wedding is ruined by the apple affair, or when a war is arranged in which she must "see her son die". At the end of the Iliad, Hera wants Achilles to be let to desecrate Hector's corpse as he wishes because he is "a son of a goddess". However, this predisposition to Achilles is a result of Hera's hate to the Trojans, not of any good feelings to Thetis. Because, at the beginning, the same Hera is against any favors to Thetis and Achilles that could also benefit the Trojans.

  2. I would disagree also about Zeus’ reaction to the sacrifice trick.
    Zeus had no reason to feel betrayed by Prometheus, because he had no reason to expect loyalty. Aeschylus states that the two had once been allies, but he totally suppresses the Mecone episode; while Hesiod, who tells this episode, never hints that relations between the two gods had been good at any moment. On the contrary, Zeus says, “So you have not forgotten your tricks?” – an allusion to earlier, unidentified conflicts. And Muellner rightly remarks that Greek gods, like Greeks themselves, hated their cousins.
    I also think that it mattered much to Zeus which portion of the sacrifice would be used by humans, and whether they controlled fire. In the Hymn to Demeter, Zeus is worried that if humans are all starved to death, there will be nobody to offer sacrifices. I cannot help thinking of the Fertile Crescent mythology, where gods design humans solely to obtain toil-free food from the sacrifices. So I suppose that, ambrosia aside, meat from human sacrifices is very important food for the gods. This idea is supported by at least three later sources: Aristophanes’ Birds, Plato’s Symposium and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
    So we can regard the god-human relation as one between slave-holders and slaves. And let’s remember that humans look like gods, freely interbreed with gods, occasionally defeat gods by injuring or binding them, and repeatedly prove superior abilities in contests, forcing gods to resort to brutal force to bring the “correct” outcome. This shows that humans are almost as dangerously close to gods as human slaves are to human slave-holders. It is hardly trivial to any slave-holder if his slaves obtain a technology as important as fire.

  3. Maya,

    As to the rebels attitude towards Thetis, note Iliad 24. "(Iris and Thetis) flew up into the heavens, where they found the all-seeing son of Kronos of the wide brows with the blessed gods that live for ever assembled near him. Athena gave up her seat to her, [100] and she sat down by the side of father Zeus. Hera then placed a fair golden cup in her hand, and spoke to her in words of comfort" Rather a forgiving band of rebels. But, maybe that's because they owe Thetis everything. She saved them from the civil war that would have erupted with the binding of Zeus, she saved them from strife when none of them can agree what to do about Hector's body and she saved them from a violent over throw of Zeus by marrying a mortal.

  4. Of course, by this time they should have forgiven her everything, if they have even a minimal sense of decency. And besides, they are relying on her to solve the little problem with Hector's body without a big scandal. (BTW I wonder why she doesn't solve the problem even before being petitioned. Doesn't she find anything wrong in her son's behavior? Some scholars claim that, according to Homer's heroes and Homer himself, there was indeed nothing wrong in it - but I think this would make the ending of the Iliad meaningless.)
    I would expect gods to be trying to keep or restore good relations with each other because they have to look at their same old faces age after age. So I am somewhat puzzled by Achilles' death at the hands of Apollo. It is rare for a god (esp. other than Zeus) to kill another god's child, isn't it? Whatever thorn in the ass must have been Achilles for Apollo, he (Achilles) was mortal anyway, and I don't see why his killing was so urgent. By doing the dirty job, Apollo subscribed for eternal enmity with a fellow god. And sources do not even give consistent and serious motivation for the killing!

  5. Maya,

    Apollo had several reasons for killing Achilles as soon as the Fates allowed.
    1) The son of Thetis (sired by a Cronide) was destinied to overthrow the Olympians. You know the oracles weren't overly particular about the technicalities of their predictions. When Achilles sulked in his tent, the gods could not give the Achaeans victory nor snatch a body. It was nice that they all pretended this was the Will of Zeus, but the fact is Achilles got his way and none of the gods could over throw his will Achilles, genetically speaking was such a threat that Apollo butchered Achilles son inside the temple at Delphi. (Sounds kind of desperate.)
    2) Achilles wasn't a mortal; he was a demi-god. And according to the Cyrpia, that was the point of the Theban and Trojan war, to kill all the demi-gods.
    3) Achilles was a demi-god. . Let's do the math. Giants are greater than gods. Demi-gods were great that giants. Hence demi-gods were great than gods. That makes our mythical seni-divine ancestors a threat to Zeus.

  6. Thank you very much!
    I did suspect that Zeus was at the bottom of this, but I needed confirmation by an independent source. Because my Zeus is becoming too negative, like a cartoon villain. I almost start to pity the poor thing.
    I imagined a scene after the murder of Achilles - Thetis going to Olympus, accompanied by one of her sister. Zeus hides, but they meet Apollo. The sister, a lady with sharp mind and sharp tongue, asks, "Why did you kill Thetis' son? Were you off your pills again and just looking for someone to murder?" Apollo says that he had every reason to kill Achilles after the latter had killed a boy inside his temple, but for the sake of Thetis was restraining himself up to the moment when Achilles repeatedly attacked him. "It was self-defense. Had I not killed him, I would lose an eye or an arm." However, the sister is not so easily manipulated. She asks, "Wasn't this an order by Zeus?" Apollo remains in stunned, meaningful silence.

  7. Maya,

    The "sister" is the Oceanid Eurynome.

    Hera foresees Achilles doom in the Iliad. At one point she calls Apollo a liar for his false prophecies at Peleus and Thetis' wedding.

    Lastly, don' forget it was Gaea who asked Zeus and Themis to come up with a plan to relieve the earth of the burden of the tribes of demi-gods.

  8. I was actually thinking of the Nereid Cymothoe, mentioned by Quintus Smyrnaeus.
    Don't tell me there is indeed an ancient source describing a similar episode, with Eurynome in this role!

  9. Maya,

    See Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 41. 4 - 6 "Eurynome was a daughter of Okeanos (Oceanus), whom Homer mentions in the Iliad, saying that along with Thetis she received Hephaistos (Hephaestus) . . . If she [Eurynome] is a daughter of Okeanos, and lives with Thetis in the depth of the sea