Saturday, March 29, 2014

TFBT: Honour Xeinoi and Hetairoi, the Better

I cannot say enough good things about Adam Brown’s “Homeric Talents and the Ethics of Exchange”.   I stumbled across it while researching the prizes at Homeric funeral games.   

I started with the chariot race in Iliad 23. 262 "For swift charioteers first he set forth goodly prizes;
  • a woman to lead away, one skilled in goodly handiwork, and an eared tripod of two and twenty measures for him that should be first;
  •  for the second he appointed a mare of six years, unbroken, with a mule foal in her womb;
  • for the third he set forth a cauldron untouched of fire, a fair cauldron that held four measures, white even as the first;
  • for the fourth he appointed two talents of gold;
  • or the fifth a two-handled urn, yet untouched of fire."
Presumably the prizes from first to fifth place would be of descending value, but since I didn’t know the worth of a Homeric” talent” I was unsure.  The first article I came across was “The Homeric Talent, Its Origin, Value, and Affinities” by William Ridgeway.  Ridgeway argues that one talent of gold = one oxen.  Hmm.  When I read that, my response to myself was a commonly used Greek word in my society.   DH!

Brown flies by this minor issue and proceeds to discuss the whole mystery of a Homeric aristocrat’s attitude to wealth.  For example in the archery contest at Iliad 23.862 Meriones vows   he would sacrifice to Apollo “a glorious hecatomb of firstling lambs” if he wins the ten double bit axes.  I don’t know the value of ten axes back then, but 100 lambs would have a sizeable impact on a herd of sheep.  Plus really what would anyone do with 10 axes?  The answer to that is kleos; glory, unfailing glory.   Meriones will have a prize from the funeral of Patroclus.  He can show it off to noble visitors for years to come. And since he has ten, he can re-gift “it” to his guests for decades to come; “honour xeinoi and hetairoi, the better” 

For further discussion of archery contests see “Woman, the Greatest Prize”. 

 “As Glaucus exchanges his gold armour for the bronze armour of Diomede, the poet comments that Zeus must have taken away his wits when he swapped a suit worth a hundred oxen for one worth nine.”   Brown goes on to explain that the comment is made by a man who sings for his supper to a contemporary audience.  " The point of the episode is not that Glaucus was duped, but that because both parties behaved with exemplary chivalry, a happy conclusion was reached.”   

Brown quotes  Bourdieu saying that what distinguishes the aristocratic economy is, “ the labour devoted to form: the presentation, the manner of giving, must be such that the outward forms of the act present a practical denial of the content of the act, symbolically transmuting an interested exchange or a simple power relation into a relationship set up in due form for form's sake, i.e. inspired by pure respect for the customs and conventions recognised by the group”.  Further using this theory to explain Achilles initial rejection of Agamemnon’s gifts, because in their extravagance, Agamemnon clearly did not follow form and rather was attempting to buy Achilles. 

Brown explains all this and so much more better than I.  I highly recommend is essay to anyone with a wish for a deeper understanding of  the first best thing in the western world;  The Iliad. 



Wednesday, March 26, 2014

TFBT: Woman, the Greatest Prize

Recently  few of us on the Hour 25 forums discussed funeral games and the prizes awarded.  Last night I started gathering examples of contests and the prizes based on the examples we discussed. Using cows as a metric I tried to determine if the prizes were actually in a descending scale of value. I got hung up on the value of a Homeric “talent”. (There is actually a scholarly article which discusses that, “Homeric Talent”, but the MyJSTOR account is maxed out at the moment.) So I dropped that line of research.
I tried Sarah suggestion that maybe there were certain prizes given for certain contests. Thinking of axes as prizes in the archery contest during Patroclus’ funeral and the use of axes in the archery contest for Penelope’s hand, I started with archery contests. It looks like the prize is always a “woman”.
In Iliad 23.850 The prize —ten double bladed axes (labrys) and ten single bladed. “with a slender cord made fast thereto by the foot a timorous dove, and bade shoot thereat. Whosoever shall hit the timorous dove let him take up all the double axes and bear them home, and whoso shall hit the cord, albeit he miss the bird: lo, his is the worse shot; he shall bear as his prize the single axes… took they the lots and shook them in a helmet of bronze, “
Odyssey 21:63… “wed me and take me to wife…this is shown to be your prize. I will set before you the great bow of divine Odysseus, and whosoever shall most easily string the bow in his hands and shoot an arrow through all twelve axes, with him will I go”, Rather than drawing lots the suitors took turns “left to right, beginning from the place where the cupbearer pours the wine.”
Apollodorus, Library 2.6.1 Eurytus, prince of Oechalia, proposed the hand of his daughter Iole as a prize in an archery contest. With no further details.
Aesop reports that Apollo and Zeus competed in archery with no mention of a prize, and the lots were tossed in Ares’ helmet.
Aeneid 5: 485 No mention of prizes, but the same lots in the helmet, plus part of the contest sounds exactly like the version in the Iliad.
What we know in these references was that in two cases the prize for winning the archery contest was a woman; a wife. In the third the prize was double bladed axes called labrys. Maybe Telemachus used labrys in the contest for his mother’s hand. Now, I can’t find any primary references, but all over the internet the labrys  are claimed as ancient symbols of the feminine, based on the symbolic use of a double bladed axe in the Minoan “matriarchal” society and it ” being the Amazons’ weapon of choice.” If in fact the double headed axes; the labrys are a symbol of women throughout ancient history.
Then the greatest prize in an archery contests is a powerful woman.

image thanks to Wikipedia

Sunday, March 23, 2014

TFBT: Homer's Chorus

After completing The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours,  I came to appreciate the performance aspect of The Iliad.  In addition;  I read Tobias Anthony Myers paper "Models of Reception in the Divine Audience of the Iliad.”  As a consequence, I now envision "The Iliad" as a Broadway show on the road.   

Achilles is the star of the production.  Homer is the lead writer, director and often the onstage narrator.  The whole thing is produced by Zeus for the amusement for his overly large extended family.  They occupy the private boxes high up in the theatre.  Several of them have walk on parts.  All of them constantly comment about the action on stage, so loudly that we in the cheap seats far below can here. 

The only people in the theatre we don't hear are the general audience.  But is that right?  Admittedly, I am a Frankie Fan (Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan)and that colors my opinion of how a live performance works.  But still what pop singer doesn't ask the crowd to join in the chorus?  There are parts of the liturgy that my pastor doesn't have to actually say because the rest of us unasked are saying in along with him.  Who doesn't "hiss", "boo" and go "Awe!" at a melodrama.  How hasn't watched a friend viewing their favorite film silently voicing every moving line?  

Did the crowd sit quietly through the Catalogue or cheer for their home town?  Aristotle says the audience wept, could they have stopped themselves from lamenting?  Any chance they were Homer's chorus.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

TFBT; Diomedes, Equal to a God

Recently a co-worker at Hour 25 argued that Diomedes wasn’t “equal to Ares” because in his defeat of Ares the goddess Athena, assisted the mortal.   Diomedes was a Greek hero at Troy.  According to Homer, Diomedes drew blood on the goddess Aphrodite and war god Ares.  Here is my response.


What Diomedes isn’t equal to a god (daemon)?  I cranked up my personal computer rather than normally used iPad to defend our mortal friend.  I want to say that giving Athena the credit for Diomedes victory over Ares is “confusing the issue with facts”.  But clearly that's right.  Still, I so desperately want to believe that a mere mortal like be got the best of an Olympian.  My mind raced immediately to Heracles with his shooting of Hera and Hades, roughing up Apollo in his own temple – but Heracles was no mere mortal.


Then it occurred to me that I peered into the wrong end of the argument.  I recall Diomedes being listed as a mortal who attained godhood.  I remember the story like this; Athena obtained for Diomedes father Tydeus one of the Seven Against Thebes, the gift of immortality.  As Athena rushed from Olympus with the fateful cup of nectar Tydeus received a fatal blow.  Someone convinced Tydeus that with his dying breathe he should eat the brains of his enemy.  How often we heard that line.  Athena arrives on the scene, stumbles in shock, drops the cup and storms off the battle field in disgust.  But the promise had been made by the gods, so Diomedes received the cup when his time came.  I started looking for a source. 


Wikipedia offers this unreferenced report; According to the post Homeric stories, Diomedes was given immortality by Athena, which she had not given to his father. Pindar says that Diomedes became a minor god in southern Italy or the Adriatic. He was worshipped as a divine being under various names in Italy where Statues of him existed at Argyripa, Metapontum, Thurii, and other places.  There are traces in Greece also of the worship of Diomedes. Greek sources say that he was placed among the gods together with the Dioscuri.”

Thebaid 8:[751] “Tydeus raises himself and turns his gaze upon him, then mad with joy and anger, when he saw them drag the gasping visage, and saw his handiwork therein, he bids them cut off and hand to him his foe’s fierce head, and seizing it in his left hand he gazes at it, and glows to see it still warm in life and the wrathful eyes still flickering ere they closed. Content was the wretched man, but avenging Tisiphone demands yet more. And now, her sire appeased, had Tritonia come, and was bringing immortal lustre to the unhappy hero: when lo! she sees him befouled with the shattered brains’ corruption and his jaws polluted with living blood– nor can his comrades wrest it from him –; fierce stood the Gorgon with outstretched snakes, and the horned serpents upreared before her face o’ershadowed the goddess; with averted face she flees from him where he lies, nor enters heaven ere that the mystic lamp and Elisos with plenteous water has purged her vision

Finally, Pindar’s Nemean 10 contains the line ; And once the golden-haired, gray-eyed goddess made Diomedes an immortal god”

So, can we say that Diomedes was “equal to a god”, because in the end, he was one?










Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TFBT: The Experiences of Tiresias Part II of II

 Nicole Loraux subtitled her lovely book; The Feminine and the Greek Man  I reviewed the first half of the book previously.  Here is the second half.

Chapter Seven; The Contradictions of Heracles  

Heracles being the most popular of the Ancient Greek heroes it only follows that he would be the most sung and written about.  All those stories illustrate myriad different aspects of the ultimate male.  She warns us against discussing the characters of Greek myth Heracles as” an actual being endowed with actual childhoods” and suggests instead that,  If myth is actually something like the collective equivalent of a dream.  Heracles is not the proper object of our analysis; rather we should be analyzing the workings of the Greek imagination…”

Among the contradictions Loraux discusses is Heracles servitude to Queen Omphale.  His mistress insists the mighty hero swamp clothes with her.  This allows Loraux to touch on the hero’s homosexuality and the topic of transvestism.  As an amusing aside, Casanova has a different perspective on mutual cross dressing,“The moment we entered she bolted the door, much to my surprise. "I wish you," she said, "to dress me up in your ecclesiastical clothes, and I will disguise you as a woman with my own things.”...“Our disguise being complete, we went together to the dancing-hall, where the enthusiastic applause of the guests soon restored our good temper. Everybody gave me credit for a piece of fortune which I had not enjoyed” 

Chapter Eight and Nine; The Immortality of Socrates

These two chapters on the immortality of Socrates are, of course, a discussion on the immortality of all men.  But, now unfettered by “actual beings” she seems to leave behind the fact that the Ancient Greeks were indeed actual beings with actual childhood and actual beliefs in the world to come.  A careful reading can follow the logic of her writing to its unsatisfactory conclusion.  But along the way a careless reader or one not schooled in the classics and mythology might get lost in the labyrinth of Platonic quotes. 

  •         “…the wind literally blows  the soul to bits when it quits the body and scatters in all directions…”.  Which is contradicted by  “Socrates is leaving, going to some happy land of the blessed, the philosopher’s lot is that which Hesiod reserved for the elite of the heroes of the Trojan War and which Pindar in his second Olympian kept for the favorites of the gods”.
  •         She talks about  “Plato’s innovative theory of the immortality of the soul.” as if Homer didn’t  present the options for an immortal soul in the Odyssey
  •         She talks  of  “the imaginary journey that Socrates takes under the spell of  civic eloquence, believes himself to have made to the Island of the Blessed.”  and “Socrates, stronger than the (strength of Heracles) in the mythical accounts.”  Is she implying that the afterlife is imaginary and mythical? 
  •    And concludes with  “We have tried to read Plato’s dialogue on immortality as an argument playing on two levels; the soul is immortal, but that immortality is upheld by the memorial that was Socrates’ unforgettable body.” 
I can’t make out here what Loraux believes.  Does she think the afterlife is a fable? Does she think the ancients thought the afterlife a fable?  Is her translator true to her intent? 

But maybe there is another issue at hand here.  Not too far from Athens was the town of  Eleusis.  The first great Athenian playwright, Aeschylus grew up there.  It was famous for the Eleusisian Mysteries.  These are two great ceremonies, that theoretically taught initiates the secret to immortality.  Hercules, in  Euripides play of the same name, states that he was able to escape Hades (Death) because he had been initiated into the he Eleusisian Mysteries . The catch was that you could not reveal what you saw or heard there.   The poet Aeschylus grew up in Eleusis.  Several accounts charge him with being indiscreet upon the stage.  The audience rose up and attempted to stone him to death on the spot.  (To quote Loraux “Philosophers desire death, declares the multitude, promptly offering them the fate to which they aspire. ) A trial ensued in which he was acquitted primarily because of his and his brother’s bravery in service to the state.  Maybe Plato wanted to avoid a similar fate and consequently wrote in conflicting terms about the immortality he and his teacher Socrates were sure of. 

 Chapter 10; Delphi Revisited

For those that don’t know the stories of Delphi, I will offer a summary here.  The first thing the twin gods Apollo and Artemis did after their remarkably short childhoods was to slay the serpent Python.  Python had chased their pregnant mother across the world when it came time for their births. In revenge the godlings quickly slew the semi-divine snake.  Then just as quickly Leto’s children went across the world seeking purification for the murder.  In those days, it meant finding a piglet and a king, but for some reason the ceremony didn’t ever stick and it took some time for Apollo to get on with his life.  The first thing Apollo did was found his famous oracle.  He chose Delphi.  It was guarded by Python’s snakish spouse Delphyne.  Quite often in Greek Myth a traveling prince rescues a princess from some asymmetrical monster and as a reward gets her hand in marriage and her father’s kingdom.  You wonder if these monsters are ravaging the king’s territory or protecting his ravishing daughter.  In point of fact, the oracle belonged first to Mother Earth, then Themis, then Apollo’s grandmother Phoebe who turned it over to him.  Most mythologists consider Phoebe no more than a place name on a family tree.  Loraux agrees with all that and uses it to demonstrate that “The feminine; the primitive, the obscure, the completed, the time that has passed and therefore I always pat or better that has been assimilated by what came after 

The thing that came after in this case is the rule of Zeus and submission of the feminine to the male rule.  And yet, the first book of the Iliad proves that the will of Thetis is greater than all the gods combined.  Can the Fates now be denied?  And wasn’t it a goddess who orchestrated every revolt among the gods?

 She then argues that ” the end of the story (Apollo presiding at the Oracle on Zeus’ behalf) gives meaning to the beginning.”  Well to use an Ancient Greek word; “dh!”  Clearly that is how a story teller shares his tale.  Still can we be sure the heavy handed Fates don’t do the same.  Conversely, maybe our Dreams (which Loraux belittles), our all-powerful self-regenerating Memories and the Stories we choose to tell, all slay the alternative destinies that lay before us and drives us head long into our own self-chosen fate.

She also has some great insights on menis; a famous Greek word for wrath with cosmic consequences.  It is the first word in the Iliad.  She says, “Menis: anger as memory, the most fearsome name for fury, an ill-omened word that even the gods and Zeus himself do not dare to call by its proper name, since perhaps only the
Erinyes do not hesitate to speak of their own menis…Memory that takes the form of wrath poses a danger for all others.  It is something to be feared and avoided.”  And ends with Menis has been brought to an end.  It had to happen for the order of the world and myth has the task of telling this story.”

Chapter 11; The Contradictions of Helen

If you read about Helen, you know the wondrous mystery that is she.  If not, Loraux covers the topic wonderfully. 

 So in the beginning there was Helen…If in the beginning there is war, at the beginning of the war there is always Helen and the painful lewdness that Paris chose on fine morning in a cool vale of Ida.”  All of which reminds me HR’s comment in Helen in Egypt, “The admitted first cause of all time and all history.”

She reminds us that “Helen first appears in the poem seated at her loom and the figures that she traces in to the purple of the cloth say it all in the silent language of her weaving: There she draws the trials the Trojans and Achaians have undergone for her and the blows of Ares

Then after reciting all the contradictions that Helen can be she recalls that, “Stesichorus” speaking of Helen’s travel to Troy says, “No, it is not true that you have gone…No you didn’t got to Troy, only your double followed Paris.”  Helen was “far away in the land of elsewhere that for the Greeks is Egypt.”  And quotes Menelaus, “To have labored for a phantom made of mist, labored for wind, labored for nothing, this is more than Helen’s husband can bear after ten years of war and long wanders.  And when he cries out, the immensity of my trials here below alone convinces me and not you.

Chapter 12: What Tiresias Saw

You would think that a book about the feminine and the Greek man would use the story of Tiresias living as a woman for seven years as a key concept, but Loraux says, “Tiresias did not see the coupling of two snakes.  It  follows that he was not transformed into a woman and did not have to become a man once more, before being blinded for incautiously intervening in a dispute between Hera and Zeus concerning the intensity  feminine pleasure.”  Loraux goes with the story that Tiresias’ blindness occurred when he saw Athena nude in her bath with his own mother and then hints about bisexuality.  She mentions several other rather possibilities, each more abstract than the last.  The most solid argument being, “Callimachus’ Athena…explains that she has nothing to with this punishment which is certainly horrible but is a result of the ancient law of Cronus: one cannot behold the gods against their will.”

In short let me recommend The Experiences of Tiresias. Loraux’s dense beautiful writing evenly covers the depth and breath of Ancient Greek literature in search of what it means to be a man sharing enlightenment.  

Try the quiz on the above at

Saturday, March 8, 2014

TFBT: And Nothing Will Ever Be the Same

Hour 25 is a Community Development project sponsored by Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies.  Each Friday one of our members proposes a topic to share with the rest of the 1000 registered users.  It is a chance to get to know one another better and do a little bonding.  Hmm, bonding?  If, I may quote Detienne and Vernant, bonds are the privileged weapons of “metis”.  (That’s a little classicist humor there.  I will try to stop myself in the future!)  Anyway, the topic for this week is “milestones”.

I started to respond with a list of incredible moments in my life as sharp in my memory as a break-taking landscape in the just- risen, naked sun.  Too many came, too many moments when afterwards I can truly say like Riff Raff , “And nothing will ever be the same.”  So I skipped to the last of my milestone moments; this moment that I live right now.    

I followed Dr. Gregory Nagy for years.  First, through his articles at JSTOR and his very accessible books.  My favorite is The Best of the Achaeans.    With a shiver of anticipation I discovered his filmed lectures on-line one day.  Dr. Nagy began recording and posting his lectures and reading assignments on-line long before it was the thing to do.  I followed him and Kevin McGrath through two years of pre-recorded offerings at Harvard pretending I was in the enthusiastic audience, amongst people who shared my interest in classical studies.  Clearly my dream was to actually attend Harvard, but…

Then along came The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.  Called HeroesX for short.  It was, is and will be a massive on-line open classroom (MOOC).  The first round included 30,000 participants.  Weekly we read 4-6 hours, watched sometimes a dozen video clips, wrote essays, took tests and participated in an on-line forum.  It was literally my dream come true.  I told everyone about it.  In particular my friend Alan. 

Alan, now retired, and I attend the same church and once worked in the same office.  During Monday morning coffee breaks we would discuss the sermon and scripture readings from the day before.  One of the techniques taught in HeroesX is called “close reading”.  This form of analysis greatly improved my understanding of scripture and our conversations.  So, Alan would always ask what was happening at “Harvard”.  Alan heard about HeroesX a lot, because after the first version ended, I immediately signed up for the second version of the class.   

But all good things must come to an end.  In the fall HeroesX ended again, Alan retired, my family went to Maui for the Christmas and promptly in January I attended a professional conference I utilized for retirement planning.  As I finalized my new year’s resolutions, a letter came from the Center for Hellenic Studies.  (If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.)  It announced Hour 25; an opportunity for graduates of HeroesX to continued their studies together.

During the sharing of the peace a few Sundays ago, Alan and I finally got caught up.    I mentioned Hour 25.  “Bill” he says to me, “This is beyond a dream come true for you, isn’t it?”  Awed at the notion I numbly nodded in reply.   In regard to my retirement plans, he asked if Hour 25 would lead to a second career.  I said no, and then hesitated.  “Bill, a new door has opened in your life.  Opened just a few inches and you don’t know what fully lies on the other side.”

All I could think as I returned to my pew was; “And nothing will ever be the same.”