Sunday, May 4, 2014

TBFT: Part I, Notes from “The Best of the Achaeans”

With delight,  many other times before I read “The Best of the Achaeans” by Gregory Nagy .  This time through I turned the post and am headed back.  (Halfway along.)  Here are some random notes from my reading.
Through out Homeric Epic metis and bia are contrasted; that is brains vs. brawn.  One of Nagy premises is that the wily Odysseus and mighty Achilles contended for the title of “Best of the Achaeans”, that is the Best of the Greeks at Troy.  One of the most famous episodes of the Iliad is Book IX, called the Embassy.  The Greeks fear that the Trojans will over run their defences in the near future.  Their only solution is to beg Achilles for help.  Nestor orchestrates the meeting.  Nagy points out at  3.7 “Ironically, Nestor's later stratagem, to send the Embassy to Achilles, is also designated in the narrative as mêtis. Ironically too, Odysseus is the one who is pleading for what the Achaeans most sorely need at this point, the might of Achilles.” In response to Odysseus’ arguments, Achilles says,
“Let him [Agamemnon], Odysseus, along with you and the other kings devise a way to ward off the destructive fire from the ships.” ( Iliad  IX 346) 
Nagy points out “In effect, the words of Achilles defiantly and ironically challenge Odysseus, Agamemnon, "and the other kings"  to rely on artifice at the very moment when they are desperately in need of his mightFor the moment, the mêtis 'artifice' of Odysseus (and Nestor) is at a loss, and the biê 'might' of Achilles is implicitly vindicated.”
An observation I never noticed before, Nagy points out in Chapter10§14 concerning a running pun in Achilles destiny.  If you don’t know the story; Achilles for various reason knew his future.  He could either die young in Troy remembered as forever young and attaining unfailing glory, kleos aphthiton or go home to Phthia and live to a ripe old as an obscure king of the place losing his kleos.  Since we are still talking about Achilles three thousand years later, he clearly chose to die young.  Here is the pun; a-phthiton means “un-failing” so Phthia would means “failing”.  Nagy explains, Achilles himself says that the way for him to achieve this kleos aphthiton is to die at Troy, and that the way to lose kleos is to live life as a mortal, at home in Phthîê’
 “Whenever the gods are away at such a (feast) with the remote Aithiopes, the efficacy of a sacrifice by the heroes in the here-and-now of the epic narrative is in question.”  Chapter 7.18  Really, so if the god isn’t in Olympus, watching from afar, at the temple or just doesn’t want to accept it, your sacrifice is for nothing.  Hm
“Achilles and Memnon respectively--are similarly transported after death into a state of immortality by their respective divine patronesses, Thetis and Eos”  Chapter 9.23 (Best of the Achaeans)  Is this another example of the animosity between the children of Hyperion and children of Nereus?
Give, friend! For you seem to be not the worst of the Achaeans, but the best, since you seem like a king.  (Odyssey xvii 415-416)  Nagy says at chapter 2.15, Noblesse oblige, but Antinoos crudely refuses. Later on in the Odyssey, he is the very first suitor to be shot dead by the arrows of an angry Odysseus  
At 5. 19 he argues, “we cannot expect any given composition within the tradition to require any alterations or modifications in the inherited phraseology of its hexameters for the purpose of accommodating the composition's sense of its own unity…The genius behind our Iliad's artistic unity is in large part the Greek epic tradition itself.”
6.9 ” the narrative of Demodokos is interrupted, before it draws to a close, by the weeping of Odysseus. The action stops just when various Achaean heroes are performing their various grisly feats during the destruction of Troy, such as …”  I would suggest the killing of Astyanax by Odysseus.  
  • Nagy points out that “Hektor is the only Trojan  who is described as "equal to Zeus in wisdom"  
  • “Hektor used to call him his son Skamandrios, but the others called him Astuanax; for Hektor alone protected Ilion. This passage is the clearest example of a traditional convention in the naming of heroes: the son is named after one of the father's primary heroic characteristics.”
  • “Hektor, who was a god among men; and he seemed to be the child not of a mortal but of a god. ..the women of Troy are described as  praying to Hektor.  This is the only place in all the Homeric corpus … not a god or a collection of gods."
Demi-Gods and Heroes
  • “In the entire Works and Days, the word “heroes”  is in fact restricted to the Fourth Generation”
  • “…where many cowhide-shields and helmets fell in the dust--as also a generation of demigods… (XII 22-23) This passage marks the only Homeric attestation of not just demigods but also boagria; cowhide shields”.
  • the word demigods occurs also at Hesiod fr. 204.100MW; the is that Zeus plans the Trojan War in order that mortals may die and thus be separated from the immortal gods .
  • the Will of Zeus also entails the permanent separation of gods and men. The crucial lines read as follows: “but so that the blessed gods ... , as before,may have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from men”
“immortal and unaging, just as the gods are. .. 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.  


  1. About the killing of Astyanax - I prefer the versions that ascribe it to Neoptolemus.
    Both Odysseus and Neoptolemus qualify for child murderers, being typical unscrupulous "destroying angels". However, Odysseus has only political motivation (to avoid Trojan remake of the Epigoni), while Neoptolemus has both political and personal motivation. He takes Andromache. So it is quite natural for him to kill her child from her previous spouse, as Agamemnon killed Clytemnestra's baby son after killing her first husband.
    Killing of young from other males before mating with the female is widespread in nature, throuthout the primate order and beyond. The cubs, if left alive, would divert resources and the mother's attention and, if she is still lactating, can even prevent new conception. Killing the young stops lactation and starts a new oestral/menstrual cycle, allowing the female to be impregnated by her new mate (as happened with Andromache and Neoptolemus).

  2. Maya,
    I often wonder if Neoptolemus had any free will. Its like the gods screwed up by killi g Achilles and couldnt fulfill the will of Zeus unless the came up eith a clone to finishthe orophecy.