Friday, November 14, 2014

TFBT: First Paper at the First Annual Hour 25 Symposium

  I wish to thank Maya M.  for recommending  this topic.


Proper Personal Conversation in Greek Myth

presented by William Moulton

at the First Annual Hour 25 Symposium

November 14, 2014



Nearest and dearest, this paper is inspired by the work of  Laura Slatkin, Lenny Muellner and the insufficiently known  Ian Johnston  on the topic of prayer in the epic.  My understanding is that the “typical structure of prayer” in epic is; the invocation of the divine, a reminder of the reciprocal obligations between the god and man, and the specific request. (Laura Slatkin The Power of Thetis page 62, speaking on Muellner Meaning of the Homeric EYXOMAI) 


I am proposing there is a similar structure for an idealized personal conversation;

  1. go apart
  2. touch,
  3. say a word,
  4. call by name and
  5. then speak. 


In this paper I present; examples of the proper  prayers to demonstrate my inspiration, my proposed standard for proper personal conversation , naturally there are examples of combining the two,  and finally discussion of  a famous example of an improper personal conversation.


Since this paper  focuses on “proper personal conversation” I’ve assigned related research to the  “Thetis Appendices”.  They are an “improper prayer”  and a study  of  proper personal conversation  in a non-epic example.


Proper Prayer 


Proper prayer can most famously be illustrated by Iliad 1:33.  Apollo’s priest Chryses just failed to ransom his daughter and was summarily expelled from the Achaean camps;

·        when he had gone apart,

·        the old man invoked Apollo by praying; Hear me, god of the silver bow,

·        reminded Loxias of their relationship with a if ever I roofed over a temple to your pleasing, or if ever I burned to you fat thigh-pieces of bulls and goats,

·        then requested specifically fulfill this prayer for me: let the Danaans pay for my tears by your arrows.

Many of the twenty prayers in the Iliad listed by Ian Johnston  
are performed similarly. ( Speakers and Speeches in Homer’s Iliad   by Ian Johnston Understandably, prayers in the midst of battle would be somewhat abbreviated.  One proper prayer was in the Tenth book starting at line 227 when Odysseus and Diomedes depart on their night mission.

·        they went their way and left there all the chieftains.

·        Odysseus invokes Child of aegis-bearing Zeus, untiring goddess, hear me.

·        Reminds her of their relationship, You’ve always stood beside me in all sorts of troubles. I don’t move without you watching me.

·        Then requests, Grant that we two come back to the ships
covered in glory,


Likewise Diomedes, 

·        Invoked  Child of Zeus, invincible goddess, hear me.

·        Requests Stand by me

·        And then reminds  her of her affection and relationship with his family as you did my father, lord Tydeus, at Thebes…and I’ll sacrifice to you an unbroken yearling ox with a broad head.  (Often the person praying mentions mutual obligations of the past and promises of favours to come.)


Proper Personal Conversation  


Proper Personal Conversation  involving;  go apart, touch,  say a word, call by name and then speak;    might best be demonstrated with Iliad 1:347 where a distraught Achilles is comforted by his mother Thetis.  Achilles:

·        withdrew apart from his comrades, and sat down on the shore of the grey sea,

·        His mother Thetis stroked him with her hand,

·        and spoke to him,”

·        and called him by name:”

·        Then spoke, My child, why do you weep

Another conversation that surprising follows the convention for personal conversation rather than prayer can be found in Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo around line 300 

·        Hera went apart from the gods, being very angry.

·        She said some words, that is Hera prayed,

·        She touched the goddess Gaia by striking the ground flat wise with her hand,

·        Called Gaia and wide Uranus above, and you Titans who dwell beneath the earth about great Tartarus,

·        She requested; grant that I may bear a child apart from Zeus, no wit lesser than him in strength--nay, let him be as much stronger than Zeus as all-seeing Zeus than Cronus.

Notice the lack of claim to relationship or promise of favors as in a prayer.




 This style of conversation in the Iliad that continues to follow the formula above; usually, when the approaching party needs something from the other.  For example in Iliad 14.222 after lying to Aphrodite something awful and using neither formula;

·        Hera darted down and left the peak of Olympus;

·        she clasped him by the hand,

·        and spoke

·        and addressed him: "Sleep, lord of all gods and of all men” 

At which point a standard use of another’s name became an invocations and the conversations continued in the tradition of prayer,

·        Hera created a relationship between herself and the son of Night by stating,  if ever thou didst hearken to word of mine, so do thou even now obey,  and I will owe thee thanks all my days. (And gifts will I give thee,)

·        Then asks specifically  Lull me to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus

Thetis uses a similar formula when asking of Zeus the favor that her son Achilles never quite finished formally;  Iliad 1.493

·        she found the far-seeing son of Cronus sitting apart from the rest upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus.

·        So she sat down before him, and clasped his knees with her left hand, while with her right she touched him beneath the chin,

·        and she spoke in prayer to king Zeus, son of Cronus:

·        called his name or invoked him, Father Zeus,

·        reminded him of their relationship, if ever amid the immortals I gave you aid by word or deed”  An understatement if ever there was one considering she rescued him when bound by the other gods.

·        grant me this prayer: do honor to my son, who is doomed to a speedy death beyond all other men; yet now Agamemnon, king of men, has dishonored him, for he has taken and keeps his prize by his own arrogant act. But honor him, Olympian Zeus, lord of counsel; and give might to the Trojans, until the Achaeans do honor to my son, and magnify him with recompense.

King Priam uses the same personal conversation turned prayer strategy at Iliad 24.468;

·        he found Achilles, but his comrades sat apart

·        clasped in his hands his knees, and kissed his hands, the terrible, man-slaying hands that had slain his many sons.
At this point formula for conversation or prayer would require the calling or invoking of the name of Peleus’ son.  Doomed and heartbroken, Priam might be forgiven his inability to say that terrible name.   He moves onto to the prayer formula.
·        He says Remember thy father, O Achilles like to the gods, whose years are even as mine, on the grievous threshold of old age.  Which we might understand as in “If ever you remember your father…”  Priam tries and affectively creates a relationship between Achilles a man who will never again embrace his father and the Priam who will never know his son’s embrace again. “and I bear with me ransom past counting
·        He states his specific need  I now come to the ships of the Achaeans to win him back from thee 


Improper  Conversation

An example of an improper conversation is the priest Chryses demands the return of his daughter in the name of the god Apollo.  The Priest did so publicly rather than in private, no indication that attempted to grasp Agamemnon’s knees, build a relationship of even called him by his name.  In response Lord Agamemnon  “spoke fiercely to him”, and maybe with good reason.  Based on the examples of Thetis supplication of Zeus and Priam’s of Achilles, Chryses was not supplicating  or conversing with Agamemnon  properly. 




I should mention that in my experience since working on this paper that all three styles of speaking in the Iliad are also affective in modern life. 


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The Thetis Appendices


Appendix A; Improper Prayer


An example of an “ improper prayer” is “the unrighteous prayer that Thetis had made of him, Zeus” (Iliad 15:599)  The gods can be famously fickle at ignoring prayers, such as at Iliad 6.311 when Queen Hecuba of Troy presented a great robe to Athena with a prayer “ So spoke she praying, but Pallas Athena denied the prayer” or when they are gone to the Aethiopians .  Thetis is just a mother, trying to do the best for her only child.  She is a Nereid, a gentle wave-goddess of the Mediterranean Sea.  , I was somewhat surprised to find her request characterized by “presumptuous in some translations of the Iliad (A. T. Murray)   I find “unrighteous” surprisingly judgmental for a poet so famously non-judgmental.  In the Iliad there are no bad guys, just people, some of them quite honorable, doing the best they can in a bad situation.  Her son Achilles is the greatest hero of the age and in the opening scene of the Iliad he is unrighteously insulted by Agamemnon the leader of the Greek forces at Troy.  Her request to Zeus the king of the gods, is simply that he right this wrong. 


 That doesn’t seem too “unrighteous”.  Plus, the wrath of Achilles is pretty much the story line of the Iliad.  When his wrath is quenched in mutual tears with King Priam the story ends.  The plot line of the Iliad turns on “Thetis’ unrighteous request”.  Without her request, there would be no story for Homer to sing.   


 So I decided to look at the Greek version  to better understand why Homer called her request for justice; “unrighteous”.  If I read the Greek correctly, (If!) the word in Homeric Greek is  ἐξαίσιος .   Which means; beyond what is ordained or fated.


 “Beyond-destiny”  is an event the gods cannot allow to happen for their own sakes; an event contrary to the Will of Zeus or whatever little side plot one of his kinfolks has going; or contrary to the decrees of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three Fates.  So, regardless of the English translations, Thetis’ request is not unrighteous, it is just outside the scheme of things.  


 And what is the scheme of things?  What is the Will of Zeus?  In the lost epic Cypria.  Mother Earth begs Zeus to relieve her of the burden the tribes of demi-gods living on her surface.  In answer Zeus and the goddess of order Themis, mother of the Fates conspire to wipe the heroes from the world with wars at Thebes and Troy.


 So who is Thetis to overthrow the decrees of destiny?  She is the foster  daughter of Hera, the sharp tongued Queen of Olympus.  It was Thetis who rescued King Zeus when his enemies bound him, and they dared not raise a finger to object.  It was Thetis who rescued the smithy of the gods Hephaestus when he was tossed from Olympus .  It was Thetis who rescued the wine god Dionysius.  And it was Thetis who could be mother to the next king of the gods.  Instead she was the mother of Achilles, star of the Iliad and the plot of the Iliad seemed to center on the Will of Thetis.  According to Nagy in some traditions ( The Best of the Achaeans, page 345) “Thetis figure as as a primordial goddess with the most fundamental cosmic powers”



The Gospel reading at church one rainy Sunday  was about the resurrection of Lazarus.  I was struck by the similarity of Martha’s words to Jesus and those of Achilles to his mother. 


John 11:21-22 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  Meanwhile at Iliad 1: 393 "Achilles speaking to his goddess mother Thetis says, “… Help your brave son, therefore, if you are able. Go to Olympus, and if you have ever done him service in word or deed, implore the aid of Zeus”.    I noted during the reading how both Martha and Achilles seem confident that through their divine intermediary, their prayers will be granted by the high god. 


During the sermon Father Thomas mentioned Mary, Martha’s sister,  holding Christ’s ankles and reciting the prayer that her sister prayed before.  I immediately thought of the famous painting by Ingres of Thetis kneeling at Zeus’s feet.  So, we have John 11:32 "When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Thetis similarly at Iliad 1:500 “She sat herself down before him, and with her left hand seized his knees…saying, "Father Zeus, Lord of Sky, if I ever did you service in word or deed among the immortals, hear my prayer."


In scripture; John 11: 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping; he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled."  In Iliad 1:517 "Then Zeus was much troubled and answered..."


So in summary we have both Martha and Achilles confident that through their divine intermediary, their prayers will be granted, Mary and Thetis kneeling in supplication, Thetis had to ask twice while Martha and then Mary made the same request and finally a “troubled” supplicated answers their prayers.   


What we don’t see in scripture that we do see in the Iliad is the, “if I ever did you service in word or deed” clause.  Maya M suggests this is because Mary and Martha never did anything (build a temple, burn a thigh,) for the Lord.  I would suggest that they hosted a dais for Jesus and his “hetairos”  Regardless the lack of the clause probably reflects the Christian concept of grace.

Elsewhere I’ve shared my studies on prayer in Greek mythology  and certainly others presented better findings then mine. Laura Slatkin (The Power of Thetis page 62,) speaking on Meullner’s Meaning of the Homeric EYXOMAI says the “typical structure of prayer” in epic is; the invocation of the divine, a reminder of the reciprocal obligations between the god and man and the specific request.


Thetis uses a similar formula when asking of Zeus the favor that her son Achilles never quite finished formally; Iliad 1.498.


1.     she found the far-seeing son of Cronus sitting apart from the rest upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus.

2.     So she sat down before him, and clasped his knees with her left hand, while with her right she touched him beneath the chin, and she spoke in prayer to king Zeus, son of Cronus: called his name or invoked him, "Father Zeus...

3.     reminded him of their relationship, “if ever amid the immortals I gave you aid...

4.     grant me this prayer, and Zeus nodded.


Likewise Martha and Mary used this formula for a request that they never actually verbalize.


1.     John 11:18-20 Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him and then when she told her sister, Mary left the mourners behind, she got up quickly and went to him. John 11:30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

2.     John 11:32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him; she fell at his feet and said, Lord…

3.     John 11:1-3   A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

4.     The sisters never specifically ask for their brother’s resurrection, but Jesus easily infers it; John 11: 23 Jesus said,Your brother will be raised up.”

One more similarity I ran across.  For those that don't know, the thing that Achilles wanted, the thing his mother promised him at Iliad 9:412-13was
"If I stay here and fight at the walls of the city of the Trojans, then my safe homecoming will be destroyed for me, but I will have a glory  that is imperishable."  The Gospel writer Matthew also tells the whole story of Mary massaging the Lord's feet with aromatic oils and then wiping them with her hair. of this Jesus says at 26:13 "Verily I say unto you, where so ever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done be told for a memorial of her."

In conclusion; Achilles and one of the sisters are promised endless fame. There seems to be similarity between Martha and Mary’s supplication to Jesus in John:11 and that of Achilles to his mother in the first scroll of the IliadMartha and Mary along with Achilles appear confident that through their divine intermediary, their prayers will be granted, Mary and Thetis kneel in supplication, Thetis had to ask twice as did Martha and Mary and finally a “troubled” deity answers their prayers.   The sisters use an almost “epic” formula in their request. 




Slatkin, Laura  1991, The Power of Thetis  University of  California Press, Oxford, England


Johnston, Ian  Speakers and Speeches in Homer’s Iliad


Homer  The Iliad  (Translated by A. T. Murray, 1924 Loeb)


Homer  The Iliad  (Translated by Samuel Butler Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power)


 Homeric Hymn to Apollo, (TRANS. BY H. G. EVELYN-WHITE  1914 Loeb)


Nagy, Gregory  1979,  The Best of the Achaeans  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore


The Holy Bible (King James translation)




Nearest and dearest, you know I have said this a thousand times, but I cannot express to you how much my heart over flows with affection, admiration and gratitude.  I have sought you my entire life.  When chancing upon recorded lectures by my Hero Gregory Nagy, a dream sprouted in my heart.  An impossible dream for someone living in a fishing village on an island surrounded by wilderness areas; I wanted to study under Nagy.  Along came the massive on-line, open classroom called “The Ancient Greek Heroes in Twenty Four Hours”.  It was literally a dream come true.  And then after the dream began to fade; Hour 25!  I am living beyond a dream come true!  Who does that?  And it is all because of you, nearest and dearest fellow citizen scholars.  Win or lose today; whether your palms “burn from applauding to my jests”, offer me a “coat of stones”, or whether you fling me from the virtual stage, today is one of the greatest days in my life!


Allow me here to thank  Aaron J. Atsma of Auckland, New Zealand for The Theoi Project .  It is an incomparable website I use daily for research  :


Visiting scholars, CHS staffers and unknown others; thank you for your kind indulgences.  Thank you for your inspiration; Laura Slatkin, Lenny Meullner, Maya M and the insufficiently known  Ian Johnston.


And best of all, if I have any skill at appropriately apportioning inspiration, admiration and attitude, let the biggest piece go to Professor Greg Nagy


Curriculum Vitae


When I was introduced to Greek Mythology in fourth grade my fascination for the topic was so great I threw off the grading curve.  In junior high I use to sneak into the library at recess and study hall to read Gayley because “Classic Myths” was a reference book I couldn’t check out.  I studied Greek Mythology casually and informally my entire life.  So much so that I found myself  following threads of thought that I had followed before.  At that point I began to write papers on my findings and formalizing my thoughts so I didn’t have to do the research all over again. 

A few years back I finished my second novel and visited the “Festival of Books” in Tucson, Arizona along with 250,000 other people.  I was properly introduced to one of the many publishers with booths there.  The publisher asked how many FaceBook Friends and Twitter followers I had.  “None.”  So when I got home; I remodeled my blog;, joined FaceBook as William MOulton and signed up for Twitter as @WilliamMoulton2.  I cross linked everything and began posting excerpts from my second book.  Knowing that constant new material is the secret to attaining and retaining readership I also posted essays and some of the “scholarly” pieces on Greek Mythology that had accumulated in the book shelf.    As time went on I add notes from my assignments at Hour 24 and Hour 25. 

So, guess what happen?  I was trying to build an audience for my collection of short stories and instead got a thousand hits a month from people reading my research in classical studies.  Who knew that  other people besides us wanted to read about “The Death of Structural Analysis”, “The Combatants of the Titanomachy  or “Nerites, The Father of Love   (Admittedly, is a great title.) 

Which  brings us to day, when I was asked to present a paper.  I asked “Maya M” the most active follower of my blog (Okay, the only follower of my blog.)  I asked Maya which blog post I should use for today’s paper.  She immediately responded with “Proper Prayer and Personal Conversation in the Iliad.” and a couple of other blogs that continued that line of research.



  1. Maya M.

    Here is the paper I presented this morning. It was well received I think. I got many compliments. Everyone seemed to have read the entire thing and could follow my logic when it comes to "Proper Personal Conversation" \

    I admitted in my opening remarks that I needed to study Slatkins more; she wants to differentiate between divine personal conversations and mortal. I also realized that this topic touches on supplication and I hadn't really gone there.

    Good conversation on a number of topics related to this. There is amazing serendipity in the papers being presented. Mine is on conversation. Jack's on Achilles choice, Brian's on Antigone's choice. And Sarah was stalking about superiors giving their subordinates "indications" (semanein) on what choice to make.

    It was one of the greatest days of my life! Thanks for your advise.

  2. Thank you, Bill!
    You have done a magnificent work! Those compliments are all well deserved.
    Where is your symposium's page at the CHS site? I tried to find it, but in vain.

  3. Maya M,
    the symposiom was not advertsed because it was an experiment. I pushed for a long time to allow public access to the symposium . I would have loved if you could attend. I got permisdion to invite you one minute before I was to read my paper! Ugh! There was no way I could contact you in time even if you were available! Bummer!

  4. Thank you for the wish to invite me! Anyway, I do not understand spoken English well, esp. by native speakers. I would have understood maybe 10% of the content. And with the situation I have both at work and at home, I cannot in the foreseeable future take the Hour24 and register there "legally".
    It would be good if you and the other presenters at the symposium publish their works at the CHS site, even if the page is not accessible to the public. So you'll be able to read each other's papers at any time, and maybe even some scholar may drop.
    People are often very careless with their creative work. One must:
    1. Get his ideas written, before they are forgotten.
    2. Get his writings published, as soon as they are ready.

  5. Your paper inspired me to check which Gospels are thought to have Greek authors. I thought it would be exciting if there is a correlation between Mary and Martha's "epic formula" and Greek authorship. It turned out, however, that if we believe Wikipedia, all 4 canonical Gospels are thought to have been originally written in Greek, so there is actually nothing to compare :-). I wonder what else there comes from the Greek cultural tradition.

  6. Maya M, Greekwas the universal llanguage of the educated (read upper) classes during the Roman Empire. To say, "I have no Greek" is to admit to a poor education. Their dialect was Koine. Cleopatra is a Greek name and she was decended from one of Alexander's generals.