Saturday, April 12, 2014

TFBT: Footnotes from the Best of the Achaeans

In May participants at Hour 25 will be studying  “The Best of the Achaeans” and speaking with the author Dr. Gregory Nagy. As you probably know, Nagy is my hero and I have read the book several times.  The book rambles far beyond which was the greatest of the Greek heroes at Troy.  (Hint: Achilles!)  In hopes of adding something to the conversation that I haven’t offered before, I opened my cherished copy and began reviewing the footnotes and my personal notes in the margins.  (I remember hours of delight as a child, lost in the footnotes in the glossy pages of “Classic Myths” by Gayley!) 

So, below for you amusement are quotes and insights from the footnotes to “The Best of the Achaeans.”  Page numbers reflect the electronic version available at Hour 25. 

At preface footnote  2, the author is explaining the insertion of a new foreword in the 20th anniversary addition.  My present Foreword is a substitute for the original 1979 foreword written by James M. Redfield, which I will treasure forever. I have exchanged here the old gold for new bronze, which I need as armor for restating my own case.”  Isn’t that an incredibly gracefully explanation!  For those to don’t recognize the classical reference here, it is about Diomedes and Glaucas.  They met on the battlefield before Troy, Diomedes for the Achaeans, Glaucas ally to the Trojans.  In the usually bragging and macho displays prefacing a duel, they discovered that their fathers were friends.  In honor of the friendship, they switched armor and promised to avoid one another hence forth.  Homer and all his audience think Glaucus was crazing for giving away golden armor.  But, for the two warriors the relationship was more important concerns of  greed.

“ areas not included in the world of the Pythian Apollo correspond to the areas not included in the Homeric Catalogue of Ships in Iliad II"  “The Best of the Achaeans: Intro footnote 22.

Page 129 “2§11. In the First Nekuia of Odyssey xi, when Odysseus meets the shade of Achilles, he addresses Achilles as ‘best of the Achaeans’ . But the Odyssey then has Achilles saying that he would rather be alive and the lowliest of serfs than to be dead and the kingliest of shades ". Kevin McGarth  points out in class, (Section #7 at Harvard Extension School’s Open Learning Initiative, )   that seventy to eighty percent of the Odyssey is told by Odysseus.  Hence Homer is not reporting Achilles comment but rather that liar Odysseus.

If you are not familiar with the “duals” argument in the Embassy scene, here is a short explanation.  In English we have the word “you” it is used for the second person, singular and plural.  Sometimes for the plural, we say, “you all”.  In the Greek they had singular, dual and plural, as in “you two”.   When the two heralds and three emissaries enter the tent, he only speaks to “you two”.  On page 203 Nagy states, “Thus I am still bound to understand the dual constructions of Iliad IX 192 as referring to Ajax and Phoinix.”  I follow Nagy in this particularly in light of Achilles use of philo and presumed animosity with Odysseus. As to the heralds I would point out that in a "classed" society one does not include the "help".  For a better understanding of Achilles'/Homer's use of the dual form, try it! Talk to a group of people and by body language, eye contact and word choice  exclude someone from the conversation.
Page 283, footnote 17 “It is traditional for an archaic poem to begin with a word that names the main subject of the narrative in the manner of a title (in this case, mênis at Iliad I 1), followed by an epithet and a relative clause setting forth the relationship of the title word to the main subject (in this case, how the mênis of Achilles was baneful and caused devastation for the Achaeans, at Iliad I 2–5). Consider also the openings of the Odyssey, Theogony, Works and Days, Little Iliad, and nearly all the Homeric Hymns.”

818 “15§2. In the heat of battle, the Trojan hero Deiphobos suddenly finds that he needs help from his ally Aeneas, and he goes to look for him: ""And he found him standing hindmost in the battle for he had mênis always against brilliant Priam, because he [Priam] did not honor him [Aeneas], worthy that he was among heroes." Iliad XIII 459–461 There is a striking thematic parallelism here between Aeneas and Achilles, who likewise had withdrawn from battle because he had mênis against Agamemnon . The king had not given the hero tīmḗ 'honor'—even though Achilles is not just "worthy among heroes" but actually the "best of the Achaeans" These themes of mênis/withdrawal/ tīmḗ/excellence are not only” “present in the Iliad; they are in fact central to it, permeating the composition in its monumental dimensions.”

Menis is generally translated as wrath.  Primarily, Homer’s usage is restricted to the gods and Achilles.   Page ??? footnote 18. The only exception is the mênis of Aeneas against King Priam  which must have been the central theme of another epic tradition—this one featuring Aeneas as its prime hero.”  Generally speaking menis is anger with cosmic consequences.  Of what possible consequence to priam could Aeneas' anger be ? Priam was destined to lose everything.  How could Aeneas sitting out a battle screw that up? On the other hand how could arguing with priam screw up Aeneas' destiny as ancestor of Rome?  I didn’t see the cosmic consequences here until I realized that Aeneas being angry at Priam kept him away from the front lines and therefore alive to fulfill his destiny later on.

Page 289 “. In other words, it is untraditional, since whatever runs counter to the traditional plot of the narrative is conventionally designated as ‘beyond destiny’:”.  Page 284 foot note 6, “Poseidon personally tells Aeneas that his death at this point in the narrative would have been hupèr moîran 'beyond destiny'. In effect, then, it would be untraditional for the narrative to let Achilles kill Aeneas in Iliad XX, since there is a poetic tradition that tells how Aeneas later became king of Troy; accordingly, Poseidon intervenes in the narrative and keeps Aeneas alive for further narratives about his future.”. I love how, over reaching; going beyond your destiny, not knowing your place is being a "hyper-moron".


Achilles about to duel with Aeneas points out (page 822) “Priam will not place the géras [honorific portion] in your hand on that account. He has children,"  Nagy calls this, "An ironic understatment"

Page 436. “Moreover, the melíē functions as the word for both ‘ash tree’ (e.g., Iliad XVI 767) and "ash spear”.  Hence Hesiod Theogony 180 “all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming (bronze?) armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth.”

Page 523 “The Bronze Men are nṓnumno i 'nameless' in that their deeds cannot be glorified by poetry;”. I have no Greek, but I wonder if in addition to "nameless" nonumno could mean "unsung"?   

Page 526 footnote 38.” Note in particular that the area by the Hellespont is explicitly smoothed over by the flooding rivers . I suspect that this volunteered detail is consciously offered as a variant of the tradition that tells how the Achaeans had made a funeral mound for the dead Achilles by the Hellespont ). There is then an ironic fulfillment of the dire threat made by the river Xanthos/Skamandros to bury Achilles under a mound of silt, as if the funeral mound of Achilles were to be in the end simply a natural formation adorning the landscape of the Troad. I draw attention to the irony that the River calls this mound the sêma 'tomb' of Achilles  from which the Achaeans will not even be able to recover the hero's bones I would argue that this not irony, but an example of a divine oath being non-revocable.  For example page 501 footnote 48 “Athena was about to confer immortality upon Tydeus, father of Diomedes, as he lay dying from wounds inflicted in his duel with the Theban hero Melanippos, who had also been mortally wounded. What stopped the goddess from fulfilling her initial design was her sheer disgust at what she saw: Tydeus was eating the brains of Melanippos. Here, then, is the grisly deed that deprived Tydeus of an immortality that could have been his—but was passed on to his son Diomedes. "

Page 542 “We recall the absence and presence of díkē in Generations II/III and I/IV respectively” 

Page 578 “that the waters of the Styx are an elixir of life. The lore about the cosmic stream Styx applies commensurately to the actual stream Styx in Arcadia, and in fact the belief prevails to this day that whoever drinks of that stream's waters under the right conditions may gain immortality. ” 


Page 581 footnote 60 “We are immediately reminded of the poetic tradition that tells how Semele became immortalized as a direct result of dying from the thunderbolt of Zeus ).”   Well more specifically Dionysius rescues  Semele from Hades and snuck his mom into Olympus under the name Thyone. But that doesn't negate the law of lightning and immortality.

Page 587 “immortal and unaging, just as the gods are. (Hymn to Aphrodite 214)”.  Page 649 footnote 70. “These words are the "correct" formula for immortalization; when the words are "incorrect," as in the myth of Eos and Tithonos, then the immortalization is ruined by the failure of preservation.”

Page 690 “Here is my tentative list, surely incomplete, of alternative ways for the hero to achieve immortality:
1.Being struck by the thunderbolt of Zeus
2.Plunging from a white rock into the deep”.

(I personally would add;
3. Descendant of Gorgophone or Telephassa
4. Married to Helen or Harmonia or Calypso
5.  Defeat death

Page 657 “We may note that heroes who have been immortalized attract the epithet xanthós 'blond': e.g., Rhadamanthys in Elysium and Ganymedes in Olympus . Menelaos is the hero who attracts this epithet by far the most frequently in the Iliad and the Odyssey —and he is the only Homeric hero”

Page 677 “1. Memnon's immortalization is actually unique, to the extent that the realm in which he lived before his death as a hero is also appropriate as the setting for his afterlife. For Memnon, the afterlife is by implication a homecoming.



  1. I have the feeling that the Bronze Men are victims of injuctice: doomed first to extermination and then to oblivion.
    Unless we count Pandora and Pyrrha among them, there seems to be just one name coming from this age, Lycaon. He allegedly killed someone (in some versions, his own son) and served the cooked pieces to Zeus. Do you see there anything inferior to what Tantalus allegedly did? If the killing was a sacrifice, the allegedly superior Heroic age had Agamemnon and Kreon sacrificing their children, Neoptolemus sacrificing Polyxena, plus Makaria (Heracles' daughter) sacrificed by her hosts.
    Hesiod gives no motivation for the fights of Bronze Age men. He only says that Pandora was in the bottom of their misfortunes. Perhaps they fought for women. There were many men, and if Pandora was the first woman, the number of women would require time to catch up. The Trojan War was also about a woman. Again, it is difficult for me to see why the Bronze men should be considered inferior and unworthy of epic songs.
    I wonder, is there a chance "nameless" to indicate that they were not using names? My concept actually requires some language deficiency of this population. However, it is difficult and boring to narrate about heroes who have no names.

  2. BTW, I find it unlikely that Achilles could have been named so before his menis caused "grief" to his "tribe". However, I have not read any mention of another birth name. Have you found any comment about this?

    1. Actually, by a more detailed search I found the original name of Achilles - Ligyron, "Whiner".

  3. Maya,

    I think the bronze men were another failed attempt at creating people. Ther Heroic age was created to defeat the giants and the gods chose to seperate froom us the iron age. where did you read the alternative name for Achilles. Now, that you metion it, Heracles had a nother name at first.


  4. The Library of Apollodorus:
    "Peleus took the boy to Kheiron (Chiron), who accepted him and nourished him on the entrails of lions and wild boars and on the marrow of bears. He named him Akhilleus (his original name was Ligyron) because he had not touched breasts with his lips."
    It seems from the same sentence that "Akhilleus" can be interpreted as something like "not breastfed", but other sources do not give this etymology.
    I included the initial name in my account of events: (when Peleus sees baby Achilles in the fire): "Only now did the father realize what his first six sons had died of, and why the last one kept crying and screaming so much that they named him Ligyron."
    I think that, if this bizarre name was not meant to be just another proof of the parental incompetence of Peleus & Thetis, it could be a "protective" name. I am not sure that this is the right term in English, but at least some cultures used to give some babies names derived from "ugly", "coward" and other words with negative connotation, as protection against jealous spirits. Such names were most often given by parents who had already lost other infants, as in this case.

  5. This is also interesting: "The name of Achilles: a revised etymology" by G. Holland

  6. It is curious that Apollo, the divine antagonist of Achilles, was also not breastfed.
    Thinking of this, and of Heracles whom you mentioned, I now understand why Heracles died under so absurd circumstances. He just had to suffer and die due to an extramarital affair because his antagonist happened to be the goddess of marriage.

  7. Maya,

    You catch things I must have read a million times and missed each time. " Ligyron" I wonder if it is related to Liguria whose prince was Ligyrs.

    Thanks for the paper I look forward to finding a chance to read it.

    That's great about Apollo and Achilles neither being breast feed. Can't say the same about Heracles and Hera. You know the story about the milky way right?

    Breastfeed? Athena wasn't, Apollo wasn't, none of the elder Olympians, Nereus son of Pontus, Demophoon? Aphrodite! What an interesting list wow!

  8. Indeed, many gods were not breastfed, but as far as I remember, only for Apollo the fact was emphasized (in the Homeric hymn).
    I've read the legend of the origin of the Milky Way, I just don't understand why Hera had breast milk - all of her children seem to have been born long before Heracles. Maybe she lactated permanently?

  9. With gods it was once and for always, ifhad milk once she had it it is that whole goddess of motherhood thing