The Best of the Achaeans
Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry
Revised Edition
Gregory Nagy

Copyright © 1980, 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. First edition 1979. Revised edition 1999. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.

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Chapter 1

The First Song of Demodokos

§1. Homeric Epos has the power not only to define the hero but to articulate this very power. In my search for evidence in support of such a claim--and this search will extend throughout my presentation--I will of course have to struggle with the overwhelming dimensions of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is especially difficult to find an appropriate place to begin. How to approach two such monumental compositions, representing as they do the culmination of perhaps over a thousand years of performer-audience interaction? Already at this point, I stress these important factors of performer and audience, in light of the discoveries made by Milman Parry and Albert Lord about the traditional nature of Homeric composition.[1] We see at work here an inherited medium where the composition can be simultaneous with performance--or at least, where composition becomes a reality only in performance.[2] In fact, I find this factor of performance an ultimately suitable point of departure. We are about to examine Odyssey viii 72-82, the description of a poet's performance as actually narrated by Homeric Epos. In this description we may discover a vantage point from which we are allowed an instant glimpse into the artistic unity of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.

§2. Unlike Indic epic, where narrative is enclosed within the overall framework of dialogue or dialogue-within-dialogue, oftentimes in accretions of seemingly never-ending inner circles,[1] Greek epic delivers the narrative directly in the persona of the poet. The invoking of the Muses at the start of a Greek epic is the tag of the poet's own performance. The immediacy of performance, however, is counterbalanced by an attitude of remoteness from composition. The performer feels himself distant enough to intimate that the message of his composition comes not from him but from tradition. As the poet tells the Muses before he launches into the Catalogue of Ships:

mew gr yea ste, prest te, ste te pnta,
mew d klow oon koomen od ti dmen

You are goddesses; you are always present, and you know everything;
but we [poets] only hear the kleos and know nothing.
II 485-486[2]

Accordingly, the poet invokes the Muses to tell him how it all happened (II 484). He behaves as an instrument, as it were, in the hands of the Muse, whose message is equated with that of creative tradition. He passes on the kleos, let us call it the "glory," of heroes. And yet, the word kleos itself betrays the pride of the Hellenic poet through the ages. Etymologically, kleos should have meant simply "that which is heard" (from kluô 'hear'), and indeed the poet hears kleos recited to him by the Muses (again, II 486). But then it is actually he who recites it to his audience. Here the artist's inherited message about himself is implicit but unmistakable. In a word, the Hellenic poet is the master of kleos. "That which is heard," kleos, comes to mean "glory" because it is the poet himself who uses the word to designate what he hears from the Muses and what he tells the audience. Poetry confers glory.[3] The conceit of Homeric poetry is that even a Trojan warrior will fight and die in pursuit of klow ... Axain "the kleos of the Achaeans" (XI 227).[4] If you perform heroic deeds, you have a chance of getting into Achaean epic. The Achaean singer of tales is in control of the glory that may be yours.

§3. As Marcel Detienne has shown in detail,[1] the verb mi-mnê-skô, designating the function of the Muses at II 492 (mnhsaat' ) and elsewhere, means not so much that the Muses "remind" the poet of what to tell but, rather, that they have the power to put his mind or consciousness in touch with places and times other than his own in order to witness the deeds of heroes (and the doings of gods).[2] He is independent of seeing the here and now; he need only hear the kleos. For him, a thing like blindness cannot help but serve as a proof, a veritable emblem, of his artistic independence.

§4. Enter Demodokos, the blind poet of the Phaeacians in Odyssey viii. This figure Dêmodokos 'received by the dêmos'[1] is an appropriate idealization of an artist by the art form of epic. Through the persona of Demodokos, the epic of the Odyssey can express many things about itself as a composition--far beyond what the medium of performance could let the poet say in his own persona when he invoked his own Muse. As Samuel Bassett has remarked in another connection, "Homer has carefully groomed the Phaeacian bard for his part."[2] After the Phaeacians have had their fill of food and drink, the time for an evening's entertainment is at hand. The Muse, or perhaps we should say "a Muse," impels the poet Demodokos to sing the "kleos [plural] of men" (kla ndrn : viii 72-73), from a story that had a kleos of great impact "at that time":

omhw tw tt' ra klow orann ern kane ...

from a story-thread[3] that had at that time a kleos reaching up to the vast heavens ...
viii 74

§5. I have not yet reached the point where I can examine what Demodokos then sang. Suffice it now to observe that he performs not just one but three separate compositions in Odyssey viii, all of them pertinent to the themes of the overall Odyssey. What is more important for now, the performances of the idealized poet seem to be themselves idealized within the narrative. Outside the narrative, on the other hand, the composition of the Odyssey itself is idealized in such a way that it has become unperformable. Not only for the Odysseybut for the Iliad as well, an important aspect of idealization is amplitude and comprehensiveness. In size and in arrangement, they are truly monumental structures. Between the two of them, the Iliad and the Odyssey manage to incorporate and orchestrate something of practically everything that was once thought worth preserving from the Heroic Age. Their monumental scale, however, has far outgrown the earlier and ideal context of performance, namely, an evening's dinner-hour entertainment as described by Odysseus himself before he begins his own narration:

toi mn tde kaln koumen stn oido
toiod' oow d' st, yeow nalgkiow adn.
o gr g g t fhmi tlow xaristeron enai
t' #frosnh mn x kat dmon panta,
daitumnew d' n dmat' kouzvntai oido
menoi jehw, par d plyvsi trpezai
stou ka krein, myu d' k krhtrow fssvn
onoxow forsi ka gxe depessi:
toto t moi klliston n fresn edetai enai.

It is indeed a good thing to listen to a poet
such as this one before us, who is like the gods in speech.
For I think there is no occasion accomplished that is more pleasing[1]
than when mirth[2] holds sway among all the dêmos,[3]
and the feasters up and down the house are sitting in order and listening to the singer,
and beside them the tables are loaded
with bread and meats, and from the mixing bowl the wine-steward
draws the wine and carries it about and fills the cups.
This seems to my own mind to be the best of occasions.
ix 3-11

The dinner-hour performer described here is none other than Demodokos himself. By contrast, the Odyssey acknowledges its own monumental scale with the narrative that Odysseus is about to perform, starting at Book ix. As the inner narrative of his own adventures by Odysseus begins to exceed--by way of its actual length--the span of an evening's entertainment, the outer narrative has Alkinoos urge the inner narrator to continue with the following words:

nj d' de mla makr ysfatow: od pv rh
edein n megr: s d moi lge yskela rga.
ka ken w dan nasxomhn, te moi s
tlahw n megr t s kdea muysasyai.

This night is very long--immeasurably so. It is not yet time
to sleep in the palace. But go on telling me about your wondrous deeds.
And I myself could hold out until the bright dawn, if only
you could bear to tell me, here in the palace, of your sufferings.[4]
xi 373-376

What goes for the adventures of Odysseus in the inner narrative goes also for the entire composition: the Odyssey itself is here in effect justifying the evolution of its own dimensions. The idealized performances of Demodokos, on the other hand, have retained and thus in a sense compensated for this element of dinner-hour entertainment that had been lost in the idealized compositions of the Odyssey and the Iliad. Of course, it cannot be emphasized enough that both the Iliad and the Odyssey must have evolved within the medium of composition during performance, performance during composition. The paradox is that the compositions were developed to the point where they came to defy the traditional format of their performance.[5]

§6. Earlier, I had referred to the "artistic unity of the Iliadand the Odyssey combined." The wording was meant to convey what I consider the ultimate token of self-reflexiveness in Homeric poetry. The Odyssey, in the words of David Monro, "never repeats or refers to any incident related in the Iliad."[1] Denys Page amplifies:[2]

It is as if the Odyssean poet were wholly ignorant of that particular story which is told in the Iliad. Nowhere is there any allusion to the wrath of Achilles or to the death of Hector, or indeed to any other incident, large or small, described in the Iliad. Yet the Odyssey often pauses to narrate some part of the Trojan story and refers freely to a variety of older and contemporary Epic poems--always excluding the Iliad. There is Helen's tale of Odysseus' entry into the city of Troy in disguise (4.235ff.); there is Menelaus' story of the wooden horse (4.266ff.); we hear of Odysseus' valour in battle over Achilles' corpse (5.309ff.), and of the rivalry between Odysseus and Ajax (11.543ff.); Nestor tells at some length of a quarrel between Agamemnon and Menelaus (3.103ff.); Demodocus sings of a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles (8.74ff.). Are we seriously asked to believe that a poet (or poets) who knew the Iliad might compose a poem of 12,000 lines concerning one of the Iliad's greatest heroes without ever showing the slightest awareness of that poem?
Page argues that the Iliad and the Odyssey are thus unconnected. And yet, it is precisely the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey that forces me to believe the opposite.[3] Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are so ambitiously comprehensive that their sheer size would make it seem inevitable for them to overlap in their treatment of at least some events related to Troy--unless there was a deliberate avoidance of such overlapping. If the avoidance was indeed deliberate, it would mean that the Odyssey displays an awareness of the Iliad by steering clear of it. Or rather, it may be a matter of evolution. Perhaps it was part of the Odyssean tradition to veer away from the Iliadic. Be that as it may, the traditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey constitute a totality with the complementary distribution of their narratives and, to me, there seems to be something traditionally self-conscious about all this. It is as if there were a traditional suppression of anything overtly Iliadic in the Odyssey.

§7. What I have offered so far, of course, is just an intuition. Perhaps I can be more convincing if I find positive rather than negative evidence. What I need is a specific instance where the Odyssey unmistakably alludes to an Iliadic scene without duplicating it. Monro's Law would be violated only by duplication, not by allusion. For example, the passing reference in Odyssey xxiv 77 to mixing the ashes of Achilles and Patroklos is not a duplication of two other references to the same mixing in Iliad XXIII 91-92 and 243-244. Even if we were to accept the argument that Patroklos had been perhaps an exclusively Iliadic figure,[1] the parallelism of references fails to overturn Monro's Law. Inside our Iliad, the references to the mixing of ashes are themselves allusions to future events that are projected as occurring outside the Iliad. One of the artistic triumphs of our Iliad, as Cedric Whitman has shown, is that it makes the painful death of Achilles ever present by allusion inside the Iliad, even though the actual death scene lies in the future, outside the Iliad.[2] The future for the Iliad is a suitable past for the Odyssey.

§8. There is, however, someone who could bridge the gap between past and future. The poet has such powers, granted by the Muses. The poet of the Theogony, for example, says that they breathed into him a wondrous voice:

... na kleoimi t t' ssmena pr t' nta

... so that I may give kleos to the future and the past
Hesiod Th. 32

It is at this point that I am at last ready to consider the first performance of Demodokos, poet of the Phaeacians. He is singing the kla ndrn 'kleos [plural] of men' (viii 73), and the kleos of his song reached all the way up to the heavens (viii 74). Perhaps this kleos also bridges the gap between Iliad and Odyssey:

atr pe psiow ka dhtow j ron nto,
Mos' r' oidn nken eidmenai kla ndrn,
omhw tw tt' ra klow orann ern kane,
nekow Odussow ka Phledev Axilow,
w pote dhrsanto yen n dait yale
kpgloiw pessin, naj d' ndrn Agammnvn
xare , t' ristoi Axain dhrivnto.
w gr o xrevn muysato Fobow Apllvn
Puyo n gay, y' prbh lnon odn
xrhsmenow: tte gr =a kulndeto pmatow rx
Trvs te ka Danaosi Diw meglou di boulw.

But when they had their fill of drinking and eating,
the Muse impelled the singer to sing the glories [kleos plural] of men,
from a story-thread which had at that time a glory [kleos] reaching the vast heavens:
the quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles son of Peleus,
how they once fought at a sumptuous feast of the gods,
with terrible words, and the king of men, Agamemnon,
rejoiced in his mind that the best of the Achaeans were fighting.
Thus had oracular Phoebus Apollo prophesied to him,
at holy Delphi, when he had crossed the stone threshold
to ask the oracle. For then it was that the beginning of pain started rolling
upon both Trojans and Danaans, on account of the plans of great Zeus.
viii 72-82

§9. These verses have been a puzzle for ancient as well as modern exegetes. The passage was already a landmark of literary controversy, a zêtêma, at the time of Aristarchus.[1] Nowhere else in attested Greek epic do we find a tradition reporting an overt neîkos 'quarrel' between Odysseus and Achilles, which is described here in words appropriate to the baneful neîkosbetween Agamemnon and Achilles in Iliad I. The only direct trace of any altercation between Odysseus and Achilles appears in surviving fragments of the Syndeipnoi "Banqueters" by Sophocles (frr. 562-571 Pearson).[2] The playwright, in the opinion of such analysts as Peter Von der Mühll and Wolfgang Kullmann, must have derived the theme of the altercation from a scene in the epic Cycle, somewhere in the middle of the Cypria.[3] The theory goes further; the neîkos in Odyssey viii is supposed to have been based on the same purported scene in the Cypria. In the middle of the Proclus summary of the Cypria (p. 104.23-24 Allen), however, we find only that Achilles had a quarrel with Agamemnon over not being invited to a feast of the Achaeans at Tenedos. Accordingly, Von der Mühll and Kullmann adjust their theory; Odysseus must have been featured in the Cypria as taking the side of Agamemnon and goading a recalcitrant Achilles to rejoin the Achaean expedition (cf. Sophocles fr. 566).

§10. It would require separate argumentation to refute the notion that our Odyssey postdated the Cypria and even derived material from it.[1] What is more important for now, the theory that the neîkos 'quarrel' scene of Odyssey viii was modeled on a neîkos scene in the Cypria fails to account for the precise manner in which the theme is treated by Demodokos. The form and content of Odyssey viii 75-81 are noticeably tailored to suit the beginning of an epic poem.[2] The unitarians Walter Marg and Klaus Rüter go even further, in pointing out that these verses in Odyssey viii are eerily reminiscent of the way in which the Iliad itself begins.[3] There too we find a programmatic correlation of the following themes: Achilles, son of Peleus (I 1 ~ viii 75); Agamemnon, king of men (I 7 ~ viii 77); the beginning of grief for Trojans and Achaeans alike (I 2-5 ~ viii 81-82); the involvement of Apollo (I 8-9 ~ viii 79-82); the Will of Zeus (I 5 ~ viii 82). If indeed verses 75-82 of Odyssey viii are based on a scene in another epic, then an incident which is supposed to occur in the middle of the Cypria does not seem a likely traditional model. At best, we can rescue the relevance of the Cypria here by imagining some lost epic tradition that began with a dispute between Achilles and Odysseus and to which both Cypria and Odyssey had alluded.

§11. Marg and Rüter would argue that the neîkos 'quarrel' between Achilles and Odysseus in Odyssey viii is a pastiche actually based on the opening of our Iliad, where Achilles and Agamemnon have their unforgettable neîkos.[1] To support this interpretation, they adopt George M. Calhoun's theory of the misunderstood oracle. Agamemnon was happy, the reasoning goes, because Apollo had told him that Troy would be taken only after the "best of the Achaeans" had a quarrel; at the time, he supposedly did not realize that the oracle had meant Achilles and himself, rather than Achilles and Odysseus.[2] I agree that Agamemnon must have misunderstood Apollo's oracle, but I disagree with Calhoun's theory about the actual misunderstanding. I find this theory hard to reconcile with Rüter's own reconstruction of the traditional cause for such a quarrel. As Rüter argues,[3] the thematic conventions of Epos pitted the aristeiâ 'prestige'[4] of Achilles against that of Odysseus in the form of a quarrel over whether Troy would be captured by might or artifice respectively. The scholia to viii 75 and 77 suggest an epic tradition that has Achilles advocating might and Odysseus, artifice as the means that will prove successful in capturing Troy.[5] We can also infer from the scholia (A) to Iliad IX 347 that Aristarchus apparently considered this Iliadic verse to be an allusion to just such a tradition. The context of IX 347 is this: Achilles is rejecting the pleas of Odysseus that he rescue the hard-pressed Achaeans; Odysseus and the other Achaean leaders, Achilles tells him, should devise a way to keep the enemy's fire from reaching the Achaean ships. Achilles seems to be saying: "you come to me now that you need my might; well, just leave me alone and go see how far your artifice will get you!"[6] If might is more important than artifice, then Achilles is more important than Odysseus. The quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles would have centered on who is the "best of the Achaeans," just like the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.[7]

§12. The disadvantages to Calhoun's theory of the misunderstood oracle become more apparent: (1) Agamemnon would be ignoring his own heroic worth if he understood Odysseus and Achilles to be the "best of the Achaeans," and (2) such a misunderstanding would result in slighting the heroic worth of Odysseus within the Odyssey itself.[1] It would then be an absurdity for Odysseus to praise the compositions of Demodokos, as he does at viii 487-488 and 496-498.

§13. My suspicion is that the oracle was not misunderstood in its prophecy of a quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus specifically. The reference to Achilles and Odysseus as the "best of the Achaeans" at viii 78 may have served to reveal that the poetic repertory of Demodokos is in control of two distinct themes that permeate the Iliad and the Odyssey--themes that define the central hero of each epic.


§1n1. See especially Lord 1960, The Singer of Tales. The papers of Milman Parry have been collected by Adam Parry, 1971.

§1n2. In her far-reaching survey of traditional "oral" poetry as attested among the various peoples of the world, Finnegan 1977.52-87 adduces instances where composition seems to precede performance and where composer and performer are distinct (cf. Old Provençal trobador 'composer' compared to joglar'performer'). I must say that Finnegan's synthesis (1977), much as I admire it for its breadth, cannot replace Lord's synthesis (1960), which remains the definitive study of "oral" poetry in depth.

§2n1. Part I of Dumézil's Mythe et épopée I (1968) can serve as a convenient introduction to the nature of Indic epic.

§2n2. I will consistently refer to the books of the Iliad/Odyssey in upper-/lower-case roman numerals. My translations are based on those of Lattimore 1951/1965, with adjustments.

§2n3. For an extensive discussion of Greek kleos and its Indic cognate srávas as "glory" conferred by the "hearing" of poetry (Indo-European root *kleu- `hear'), I cite my earlier work on the subject, hidden within a comparative study of Greek and Indic meter (Nagy 1974.231-255). See also Schmitt 1967.61-102. For a parallel semantic development in yet another Indo-European language group besides Greek and Indic, we may adduce the evidence of Slavic, where slava means "glory" while slovo means both "word" and "epic tale." As Puhvel (1976.263) observes, both slava and slovo are independently derived from the same root *kleu- `hear' as in Greek kleos. It does not follow, however, that slava came to mean "glory" without the intermediacy of poetic tradition: compare the discussion of Slavic names with second element -slav in Schmitt, p. 89. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the Indo-European root *kleu- itself had been a traditional word not only for "hear" in general but also "hear poetry" in particular (cf. Schmitt, pp. 90-93, 202, etc.). See now Foreword §16n16.

§2n4. I find it significant that this mention of kleos comes shortly after an invocation of the Muses (XI 218). The goddesses are being asked a question: who was the first hero on the Trojan side to be killed by Agamemnon at this point in the narrative (XI 219-220)? The answer follows as the narrative resumes: it was Iphidamas (XI 221-231). And the hero's motive for fighting on the Trojan side is indicated with these words: met klow ket' Axain 'he came in pursuit of the kleos of the Achaeans' (XI 227).

§3n1. Detienne 1973.9-16, 20; also Vernant 1959.

§3n2. When Hektor says that there should be a mnêmosunê 'reminder, memory' of his setting fire to the ships of the Achaeans (VIII 181), he is in effect saying that this moment should be recorded by epic. This is precisely what happens at XVI 112-113, where the Muses are specially invoked to tell "how it was that the fire first fell upon the ships of the Achaeans." On Mnêmosunê personified, who is mother of the Muses, see Hesiod Th. 98-103 and the discussion at Ch.6§5. The word Moûsa itself (from *mont-ia) may well stem from the same root *men- that we find in mi-mnê-skô and mnê-mosunê: Nagy 1974.249-250, 253n24.

§4n1. The meaning is made explicit at xiii 27-28, where Demodokos is described as lâoîsi tetîmenos 'honored by the people'. On the function of the dêmos 'district' as the social setting for the poet's activity, see xvii 381-387, as discussed at Ch.12§13. The poet Phêmios also has an expressive name, derived from phêmê 'prophetic utterance' (as at ii 35). The meaning of Phêmios is likewise made explicit, at xxii 376: he is described as poluphêmos 'having many prophetic utterances' (for the semantics, compare the discussion of poluainos at Ch.12§19n1). Note too his expressive patronymic Terpiadês (xxii 330), derived from terpô 'give pleasure'. This verb conventionally designates in poetry the effects of poetry (as at i 347, where Phemios is said to terpein 'give pleasure' to his audience). Compare also the patronymics Polutherseidês (Ch.14§11) and Harmonidês (Ch.17§11). For more on Demodokos and Phemios, see Rüter 1969.233-234.

§4n2. Bassett 1938.118.

§4n3. The prehistory of the word oimê 'story' reveals that it had conveyed the imagery of weaving (hence "story thread"): Durante 1976.176-179 (pace Chantraine III 783-784).

§5n1. On the implications of xaristeron 'more pleasing [having more kharis]', see Ch.2§13n2; also Ch.5§39.

§5n2. On the theme of euphrosunê 'mirth' in the community: Ch.5§39.

§5n3. On the dêmos as the community/audience of Dêmodokos: §4n1.

§5n4. For other passages where the audience stays awake far into the night for the sake of listening to tales, see xv 390-401, xvii 513-521, xxiii 308-309. Cf. Maehler 1963.28-29.

§5n5. Kirk (1962.281) compares the size of the Homeric compositions with the "leap from the largeish pot to the perfectly colossal one" in the evolution of monumental amphoras/craters during the Geometric Period. What interests me in this comparison is that the colossal size of a utensil defies its own utility.

§6n1. Monro 1901.325.

§6n2. Page 1955.158.

§6n3. Cf. the arguments of Kirk 1962.299-300.

§7n1. Cf. Dihle 1970.159, with bibliography.

§7n2. Whitman 1958 chapter IX.

§9n1. See Lehrs 1882.174.

§9n2. For an introduction: Pearson 1917 II 198-201 (cf. Radt 1977.425-430).

§9n3. Von der Mühll 1954.1-5, Kullmann 1960.100, 272, etc. Despite my disagreements, I should note my special admiration for Kullmann's important work.

§10n1. See further at Ch.3§1.

§10n2. Cf. Notopoulos 1964.33.

§10n3. Marg 1956.16-29, Rüter 1969.247-254. For a guide to the recent controversies between unitarians and analysts, see Fenik 1964, esp. pp. 8-15, 30-35.

§11n1. Marg ibid., Rüter ibid.

§11n2. Calhoun 1937.11.

§11n3. Rüter 1969.249-251.

§11n4. For an introduction to the complex subject of aristeiâ, the prestige that a hero gets from his grandest moments in epic narrative, see Schroeter 1950 and Müller 1966.

§11n5. See further at Ch.3§§5-8. Of course, the Iliad itself acknowledges that Troy was to be captured by way of artifice, as inspired by Athena (XV 70-71).

§11n6. See Rüter, p. 250. I postpone a detailed look at the passages concerned until Ch.3§§5, 7.

§11n7. See further at Ch.3§8.

§12n1. I offer my own interpretation of Agamemnon's misunderstanding at Ch.4§7.

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Copyright © 1980, 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.