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 16

The Death of a Poet

§1. In the story of Thersites, we have seen that the details told about him consistently reflect his function as poet of blame.[1] As it happens, even the story of his death reflects this function. From the epic tradition of the Aithiopis, we learn that Thersites was killed by Achilles himself; the reason given for the killing is that the hero had been "reproached and blamed" by Thersites (loidorhyew ... ka neidisyew : Proclus summary p. 105.25-26 Allen). Specifically, Thersites had alleged that Achilles loved Penthesileia (Aithiopis/Proclus p.105.26-27). The killing is followed by dissension among the Achaeans, and Achilles has to atone for his deed: he sails off to Lesbos, sacrifices to Apollo and his divine family, and is ritually purified by Odysseus (Aithiopis/Proclus pp. 105.27-106.1).

§2. In these details from the Aithiopis, the figure of Thersites is parallel to that of a pharmakos 'scapegoat'.[1] We turn to an aition 'cause'[2] motivating a ritual that entails the expulsion of pharmakoi at the Thargelia, an Ionian festival in honor of Apollo. According to Istros (FGrH 344.50, ap. Harpocration, s.v.), this ritual is a set of reenactments or apomîmêmata.[3] In particular, the ritual reenacts the killing of one Pharmakos, personified, by Achilles and his men; he was stoned to death on the grounds that he stole sacred phialai 'bowls' belonging to Apollo (Istros, ibid.). Whereas this ritual of pharmakoi has the function of purifying the community (Istros, ibid.),[4] the myth of the primordial pharmakoshas the opposite function, in that his death had been the original cause of impurity and pestilence. We see this theme in another attested aition that likewise motivates the ritual. According to Helladios (ap. Photius Bibliotheca 279, p. 534a3-4 Bekker), a ritual of pharmakoi was instituted at Athens for the purpose of purifying the city, which had been afflicted by a pestilence resulting from the unjustified death of Androgeos the Cretan. In effect, then, the primordial death of the primordial pharmakos on the level of myth causes a potentially permanent impurity, which in turn calls for permanent purification by way of year-to-year reenactment on the level of ritual.[5] There is too little evidence for us to know for sure whether such reenactments could once have taken the form of real executions or whether the ritual deaths of pharmakoi were normally stylized in song and dance, as the word apomîmêmata indicates (Istros, ibid.). For now, it is more important to observe two modes of killing the pharmakos on the idealized level of myth: death either by stoning (Istros, ibid.) or by being thrown off a cliff (Ammonius 142 Valckenaer).[6] Returning to the story from the Aithiopis (in the abbreviated form that survives in the Proclus summary), we may speculate as to whether Thersites too had been stoned to death by Achilles and his men, as was Pharmakos. In this case, however, the medium of epic collapses the distinction between the perspectives of myth and ritual: the same figure who caused the impurity--Achilles himself--is also given the chance to be purified for his action.[7]

§3. Such details about the death of a pharmakos are strikingly parallel to the details about the death of Aesop at Delphi, as we find them in the Life of Aesop tradition (Vitae G+W Perry; also papyrus fragments of Vitae: Pap.Oxy. 1800 and Pap.Soc.Ital. 1094).[1] Aesop too is killed on the grounds that he stole a sacred phialê'bowl' of Apollo (Vitae G+W 127). The Delphians had deliberately hidden the bowl amidst Aesop's belongings as he was about to leave Delphi, so that they might accuse him of stealing it (ibid.). Like some primordial pharmakos, Aesop is unjustly accused and executed by the Delphians, who either stone him to death (Pap.Soc.Ital. 1094, p. 165 Callimachus I ed. Pfeiffer) or throw him off a cliff (ibid. and Vita W 142).[2] As in an aition about pharmakoi, the Delphians are then afflicted by a pestilence resulting from the unjustified death of Aesop (Vitae G+W 142).

§4. I omit here several other details that can be adduced about the death of Aesop as parallel to the death of a pharmakos.[1] I also postpone our considering how it was that the Delphians purified themselves of the pestilence resulting from Aesop's death.[2] Our immediate concern is the similarity of Aesop not just with pharmakoi in general but also with Thersites in particular. We must now consider how it was that Aesop provoked the people of Delphi to kill him. Just as Thersites had incurred death by blaming Achilles, so also Aesop incurs his own death by blaming the Delphians (cf. Aristotle Constitution of the Delphians fr. 487 Rose). And the medium of his blame is the Aesopic fable, the formal word for which is aînos.[3]

§5. Since the aînos is by nature an ambiguous mode of discourse, its effect will be praise or blame on the basis of ad hoc application--whether explicit or even implicit.[1] A story like "The Travelers and the Driftwood," one of the fables that Aesop initially tells the Delphians in our attested Life of Aesop tradition (Vitae G+W 125),[2] contains an implicit message of blame by virtue of the context set by the narrative. Aesop's explicit likening of the Delphians to driftwood, which looks from afar like a seaworthy ship as it floats towards travelers waiting on the shore (but turns out to be a piece of nothing as it comes closer into view) is actually redundant from the hindsight of all the other fables he is yet to tell--fables bearing similar implicit messages of blame against the Delphians. The blame is fulfilled through the development of the narrative, and the deployment of interlocking fables is intensified as the time of Aesop's execution draws near. Among the fables that he tells just before he dies are "The Frog and the Mouse" (Vitae G+W 133) and "The Dung Beetle and the Eagle" (G+W 134-139).[3] With each telling of each aînos, the narrative reinforces the ad hoc application of Aesop's words to the Delphians as objects of blame. Without its framing narrative, of course, the ad hoc moral of any given aînos could be lost.[4] It is highly significant, therefore, that the actual framing of an aînos like "The Dung Beetle and the Eagle" within a narrative about the death of Aesop is itself traditional. In the comedy of fifth-century Athens, there is an overt reference to this fable as one that was told by Aesop when the Delphians accused him of stealing Apollo's bowl (Aristophanes Wasps 1446-1448; cf. also Peace 129-132).[5] We have here the most compelling sort of evidence for drawing two conclusions:

  1. In particular, the Life of Aesop--as it survives in VitaeG and W--preserves a traditional context for the telling of the Aesopic aînos.[6]
  2. In general, the aînos takes on its distinct message of praise or blame only within the context of the narrative that frames it, and the Vitae are a survival of such a narrative tradition.
We may also observe again that the Archilochean Iambos is itself a medium where the words of blame can be framed within narrative.[7] Further, an aînos like "The Fox and the Eagle" (Archilochus fr. 174W)[8] is actually framed within a poem of blame against Lykambes himself (Archilochus frr. 172-181W).[9]

§6. In the Life of Aesop tradition, the various fables that Aesop tells the Delphians serve to blame them for various things. As an example, I will single out again "The Travelers and the Driftwood," for the main purpose of emphasizing that the Life of Aesop is deeply archaic in content if not in diction.[1] When Aesop narrates this fable, he concludes from it that the Delphians are inferior to other Hellenes and that their behavior is worthy of their ancestors (Vitae G+W 125). When the Delphians challenge him to say outright what he means, Aesop answers: since the ancient custom is to make one-tenth of a captured city--population and all--sacred to Apollo, and since the Delphians are by ancestry sacred to Apollo, they are therefore slaves of all the Hellenes (Vitae G+W 126). As Anton Wiechers has argued in detail, these words of reproach actually reflect the political situation of Delphi in the era of the First Sacred War (ca. 590 B.C.).[2] However, the sequence of events in the Life of Aesop tradition reverses the sequence in history:[3] Aesop's reproach-- causing his death--is based on the situation immediately after the First Sacred War, but his death--effected by his reproach--sets the stage for the events immediately before it, namely, the undertaking of a joint expedition against Delphi (Vitae G+W 142).[4] To put it another way, the Life of Aesop tradition actually presents the death of Aesop as a cause of the First Sacred War, but the institutional reality that Aesop reproaches--namely, that the people of Delphi are sacred to Apollo--is a lasting effect of the First Sacred War.[5] From the standpoint of the myth, the death of Aesop is the effect of his reproaching the institutions of Delphi; from the standpoint of these institutions, on the other hand, his death is their indirect cause. It is this sort of "cause" that qualifies as an aition.[6] Only here, the aition of Aesop's death motivates not simply one institution, such as a ritual, but an entire conglomeration of institutions sacred to Apollo-- the very essence of Delphi after the First Sacred War.

§7. We also have, in a fragment from the Life of Aesop tradition, an example of a specific description concerning one single Delphic institution, which happens to be a ritual. As before, we see this institution being reproached by Aesop. Here too, we see him killed by the people of Delphi as a result of his reproach. And again we may say that the death of Aesop is an aition, implicitly motivating the particular ritual that he reproaches. The fragment first describes the ritual in question, then tells of Aesop's death. I present the text in its entirety:

st]in d' ata toia[th]er[h]mnh:[1] pn [es]ly t[iw] t ye yusis[vn o] Delf[o] per[i]estkasi tn bvm[]n f' autow maxaraw k[o]mzontew,sfagiasamnou d to ervw[2] ka derantow t ereon ka t splgxna periejelomnou, o periesttew kastow n n sxs moran potemnmenow peisin, w pollkiw tn yusisanta atn moir[o]n pi[]nai. toto on A[s]vp[o]w Delfow nid[]zvn pskvcen, f' ow diorgisyntew o pollo lyoiw atn bllontew kat krhmno vsan. met' o pol d loimikn pyow pskhce t plei,xrhsthriazomnoiw d' atow yew nelen[3] o prteron [lj]ein tn ns[on m]xriw [n A]svpon ji[lskvnt]ai. o d peritei[xs]antew tn tpon [n k]atpesen bvm[n y' ]d[rus]menoi lutr[i]o[n][4] tw nsou, w r y[usaw] pro[s]negkan.

The cause is said to be this:[5] When someone goes in for the purpose of initiating sacrifice to the god, the Delphians stand around the altar carrying concealed daggers [makhairai]. And after the priest has slaughtered and flayed the sacrificial victim and after he has apportioned the innards, those who have been standing around cut off whatever moîra [portion] of meat each of them is able to cut off and then depart, with the result that the one who initiated the sacrifice oftentimes departs without having a moîra himself. Now Aesop reproached and ridiculed the Delphians for this, which made the people angry. They stoned him and pushed him off a cliff. Not much later, a pestilence fell upon the city, and when they consulted the Oracle, the god revealed that the disease would not cease until they propitiated Aesop. So they built a wall around the place where he fell, set up an altar as an antidote to the disease, and sacrificed to him as a hero.
Pap.Oxy. 1800 fr. 2 ii 32-63 = Aesop Testimonia 25 Perry

§8. Explicitly, the death of Aesop is motivating a specific institution, the hero cult of Aesop at Delphi. There is a striking parallel in Vitae G+W 142. As in Pap.Oxy. 1800, we see that a pestilence falls upon Delphi after Aesop's death (G+W), that the Oracle tells the Delphians to propitiate the dead Aesop (G+W), that the Delphians accordingly build a shrine and set up a stêlê for Aesop (W).[1] But the same passage in Vitae G+W 142 presents a complex aition. Aesop's death motivates not only his cult as hero but also, as we have already seen, the undertaking of a joint expedition against Delphi. The death of Aesop is thus motivating the First Sacred War and the institutional reality resulting from it, namely, that all Delphi is sacred to Apollo.[2] As we have also seen,[3] the death of Aesop in Vitae G+W 142 is thereby an aition or 'cause' that implicitly motivates the very institutions that he reproaches--from the standpoint of these institutions. From the standpoint of the myth, however, Aesop's death is the explicit effect of his reproaching these institutions. So also with Pap.Oxy. 1800: from the standpoint of its myth, Aesop's death is the explicit effect of his reproaching the ritual described. From the combined standpoints of myth and ritual, however, we may conclude by way of the comparative evidence in Vitae G+W 142 that the myth of Aesop's death is an aition or 'cause' that implicitly motivates this very ritual.

§9. Actually, we have already seen a parallelism between this ritual concerning the distribution of meat, exactly as we find it described in Pap.Oxy. 1800, and the myth concerning the death of Pyrrhos as we find it described in Pindar's Paean 6 and Nemean 7.[1] In fact, the parallelism in theme between ritual and myth is so close here that we also have considered the possibility that the death of Pyrrhos is an aition that had once explicitly motivated the ritual described in Pap.Oxy. 1800.[2]

§10. Following through on this hypothesis, we may tentatively formulate a twofold pattern wherein the deaths of Pyrrhos/Aesop are the explicit/implicit motivations for the Delphic ritual that dramatizes strife over cuts of sacrificial meat. The pattern can be extended much further. Whereas Pyrrhos is killed because he reacts to strife over meat by resorting to physical violence (Pindar Paean 6.117-120 and N.7.40-43),[1] Aesop is killed because he reacts to the institution of this strife with verbal violence: he makes oneidos against the Delphians (Pap.Oxy. 1800: nidzvn ).[2] While the hero cult of Pyrrhos is based on his death as a warrior, the hero cult of Aesop is based on his death as a poet. I say "poet" rather than "blame poet" because the word aînos, applicable to Aesop's fables of blame for the Delphians, also designates praise poetry itself.[3] In fact, Aesop's blaming the Delphic procedure of meat cutting fits the self-avowed function of the praise poet, who blames what is base while praising what is noble. Significantly, one of the main traditional targets for the praise poet to blame is phthonos 'greed'.[4] Moreover, we have seen that the phthonos blamed by praise poetry is primarily manifested in the imagery of greedily devouring meat.[5] Accordingly, Aesop's blaming the ritualized strife and greed inherent in the Delphic distribution of meat represents an archetypal function of praise poetry.[6] On the other hand, Aesop's blame takes the specific form of ridicule (Pap.Oxy. 1800: pskvcen ), which in turn is a characteristic of blame poetry.[7] I conclude, then, that the themes surrounding the Aesop figure go back to a time when the concept of a blame poet was not yet distinct from that of a praise poet--that is, to a time when the poet blamed or praised in accordance with what he saw was bad or good. The semantic range of the very word aînos reveals a parallel bivalence of blame and praise.[8]


§1n1. Ch.14§§10-14.

§2n1. Cf. Usener 1912/1913 [= 1897] 244; also Wiechers 1961.44n2.

§2n2. To be more precise: I use aition in the sense of "a myth that traditionally motivates an institution, such as a ritual." I stress "traditionally" because the myth may be a tradition parallel to the ritual, not derivative from it. Unless we have evidence otherwise, we cannot assume in any particular instance that an aetiological myth was an untraditional fabrication intended simply to explain a given ritual. The factor of motivating--as distinct from explaining--is itself a traditional function in religion, parallel to the traditional function of ritual. It is only when the traditions of religion become obsolescent that rituals may become so obscure as to invite explanations of a purely literary nature. For a particularly illuminating discussion of a specific aition as a traditional complement to a specific ritual, I cite Brelich 1969.229-311.

§2n3. On mimêsis as 'reenactment', in song and dance, of themes in myth, see Ch.13§12n3.

§2n4. For further testimonia on purification by way of pharmakoi, see Wiechers 1961.34n9.

§2n5. For more on this sort of logic in the linking of myth and ritual, cf. the discussion of the Bouphonia by Wiechers 1961.37-42.

§2n6. For further references, see Wiechers 1961.34nn7, 8.

§2n7. For a similar collapsing of myth/ritual distinctions, see Sinos 1975.131-143 on the funeral of Patroklos as instituted by Achilles.

§3n1. For the fragments, see in general Aesop Testimonia 20-32 Perry. As for the Life of Aesop as attested in Vitae G+W, Perry says (1936.1): "It is almost without parallel among the ancient Greek texts that have come down to us. For, although many popular traditions have survived concerning the doings and sayings of Homer, Hesiod, and the Seven Wise Men of Greece, yet these are either scattered and fragmentary or else, when embodied in continuous accounts such as the Contest between Homer and Hesiod, the Lives of Homer, or Plutarch's Banquet of the Seven Sages, have taken on something of the formal and learned character of the environment in which they were composed or through which, at any rate, they have been transmitted to us whatever their original character may have been."

§3n2. In Pap.Oxy. 1800, Aesop is stoned and then thrown off a cliff.

§4n1. For an exhaustive listing: Wiechers 1961.35-36.

§4n2. See §8 and n1.

§4n3. See Ch.12§18 and n2.

§5n1. Ch.12§§18-19, Ch.13§12, Ch.15§9.

§5n2. The story is also attested in the canonical corpus of Aesopic fables: Fable 177 Perry.

§5n3. The second story is also attested as Aesop Fable 3 Perry.

§5n4. When an aînos like "The Dung Beetle and the Eagle" is taken out of its narrative context, it can function simply as a nature story that explains why eagles and beetles breed in different seasons; there is a trace of this function at line 12 of Aesop Fable 3 Perry, side-by-side with the moral at lines 13-14. The moral, of course, functions as the message of the aînos in the context of the narrative, as made explicit in Vitae G+W 139. The moral attached to each aînosin the canonical collection of Aesopic fables serves as a compensation for the context that a framing narrative would supply.

§5n5. Again, the word for 'bowl' is phialê (Aristophanes Wasps 1447): so also in the story of Pharmakos (§2) and in the Life of Aesop (§3).

§5n6. Cf. Wiechers 1961.11-13. It follows that the canonical collections of Aesopic fables, presented without framing narratives, entail the truncation (sometimes even distortion) of the aînos as a traditional genre. Granted, some of the themes found in aînoi may have an independent existence in other genres such as the nature story (cf. n4 and Wiechers, p.12n13). But the point still remains that the Fables as we find them in Perry's edition do not represent the aînos in its archaic traditional form.

§5n7. See Ch.13§§4, 9, 13.

§5n8. The story is also attested as Aesop Fable 1 Perry; see Ch.12§18n2.

§5n9. See Ch.12§§18-19, Ch.13§12.

§6n1. Even in matters of language, however, we can detect archaic traces of Ionic underneath the Koine that pervades the narrative. See Wiechers 1961.9n5 on the fable about the girl without noos 'sense', who is tricked into having sex with a man whom she sees having sex with an onos 'ass' (Vitae G+W 131). The point of the whole story depends on a misunderstanding by way of metathesis: onos instead of noos, the Ionic equivalent of noûs. The form noûs, which is what we read in the Koine of our attested Vitae, conceals the play on words and in effect renders the story unintelligible.

§6n2. His argument has to be read in its entirety: see Wiechers, pp. 7-30.

§6n3. Cf. Wiechers, p. 27n45.

§6n4. The First Sacred War was actually directed against Cirrha/Crisa, which controlled and in that sense defined the sacred center of Delphi. Before Delphi was reconstituted as distinct from the defeated Cirrha/Crisa, however, the First Sacred War could be envisaged as an expedition against Delphi. See Wiechers, p. 27. On Cirrha/Crisa: Giovannini 1969.19-20.

§6n5. Before the First Sacred War, Delphi was a sacred center controlled by the polis Cirrha/Crisa; after it, the defeated Cirrha/Crisa ceases to exist as a polis. Its fertile territory and its population are now sacred to Apollo, since Delphi now controls Cirrha/Crisa. In that sense, the polis is now controlled by the sacred center. See Wiechers, p. 24, for testimonia indicating that the territory of Cirrha/Crisa became hiero- 'sacred' to Apollo; his discussion should be supplemented, however, with Benveniste's observations on the semantics of hiero- (1969 II 192-196).

§6n6. On our use of the word aition, see again §2n2.

§7n1. The lines that precede this sentence unfortunately are lost.

§7n2. Hunt corrects from ereou : Perry 1952.221.

§7n3. Maas corrects from pepen , as noted by Wiechers 1961.23 but not by Perry (ibid.).

§7n4. Reading by Perry (ibid.).

§7n5. See n1. The sense of the missing sentence that precedes would have been something to the effect that Aesop had a hero cult at Delphi. As Albert Henrichs points out to me, aitiâ 'cause' is a word used by mythographers and scholiasts as an equivalent of aition 'cause' (as defined at §2n2 and as applied at §6); cf. the scholia to the Atia of Callimachus!

§8n1. Instituting a hero cult for Aesop as purification for his death is parallel to instituting a ritual of pharmakoi. For the parallelisms between the death of Aesop and the death of a proto-pharmakos, see §3. There are also traces in Vitae G+W of a variant tradition, of Samian origin, concerning the hero cult of Aesop. The people of Samos voted tîmai for Aesop (G+W 100); one version says that they assigned a temenos 'precinct' to him (W 100), while the other adds that this precinct came to be called the Aisôpeion (G 100). At this point, while he is being honored by the Samians, Aesop himself neglects to honor Apollo (G 100); for the significance of this neglect, see Ch.17§1. (Note too the parallelism with Hesiod W&D 138-139 compared to 142: the Silver Generation get tîmai from us mortals although they themselves failed to give tîmai to the gods. Discussion at Ch.9§§1-3.) From another detail in the narrative about Aesop in Samos, we can even infer that the Samians may have believed that Aesop was actually buried on their island. When Aesop tells the Samians the story of "The Wolves and the Sheep" (= Fable 153 Perry), he gives this as the reason: "so that you may engrave it on my mnêma [memorial] after my death" (Vita G 96). This narrative device of a self-fulfilling prophecy implies that the Life of Aesop tradition had once been suitable for an inscription in a precinct of Aesop as cult hero. (Compare the Life of Archilochus tradition on the Mnesiepes Inscription in the precinct of Archilochus, the Arkhilokheion, at Paros; discussion at Ch.18§§3-5.) For traces of Samian traditions about Aesop, see also Aristotle Constitution of the Samians fr. 573 Rose.

§8n2. See §6 and n5.

§8n3. Above, §6.

§9n1. Ch.7§§10-12.

§9n2. This is a modified restatement of the hypothesis offered at Ch.7§12.

§10n1. Note the use of dêriazomai 'fight', derivative of the noun dêris 'fight', in Pindar Paean 6.119. Another derivative, dêrîomai, applies twice to the fight between Achilles and Odysseus "at a dais of the gods" (viii 76, 78), as we have observed in Ch.7§13. Significantly, this fight between Achilles and Odysseus is called a neîkos (viii 75), on which see Ch.7§17 as also the discussion of eris/neîkos at Ch.11§16 and Ch.12§§3, 6, etc. See also Hesiod W&D 27-41, a particularly explicit passage about Eris (line 28) and neîkos (the word occurs in this passage four times!); at line 33, dêris is equated with neîkos [plural]. Note too that the Strife Scene of Pyrrhos concerns his tîmai (Pindar Paean 6.118), which are formalized as portions of meat; compare the primal eris between Prometheus and Zeus, again concerning tîmai formalized as cuts of meat (above, Ch.11§§5-10).

§10n2. While the words eris/neîkos apply not only to the language of blame but also to the action of physical combat (Ch.12§8n1), the semantic range of the word oneidos and its derivatives seems to be restricted to the verbal dimension (cf. the discussion of oneidos as the opposite of kleos, at Ch.12§7; cf. also Ch.12§§6, 11). Note that Aesop's blame was provoked when the Delphians specifically "gave no tîmê to him" (odn ... tmhsan : Vita W 124).

§10n3. See §5; also Ch.12§§18-19, Ch.13§12.

§10n4. See Ch.12§§4-6.

§10n5. See especially Ch.12§5.

§10n6. The blaming of anything by praise poetry is programmatically justified as a positive social function. See esp. Ch.12§4, Ch.14§3. So also on the two occasions that Hektor justifiably blames Paris (on which see Ch.14§5): both times the words of blame are introduced by nekessen 'made neîkos' (III 38, VI 325), and both times Paris acknowledges the justness of the blame by saying pe me kat' asan nekesaw od' pr asan 'since you made neîkos against me according to aîsa, not beyond aîsa' (III 59, VI 333). Note that the word aîsa can designate not only the ordained way that things are to be--that is, 'fate'--but also 'cut of meat' (see Ch.7§21n1). Proper and improper blame are presented in imagery that connotes the proper and improper apportioning of meat. For another allusion to blame as a positive social function, see Ch.14§12n4.

§10n7. See esp. Ch.14§§7 and 13. On the word skôptô 'ridicule' (pskvcen ), see Ch.13§3 and n4; also Ch.18§3 and n4. Since the greed blamed by Aesop is ritualized (Ch.7§11), it may well be that Aesop's act of blaming is itself an aition that motivates ritualized blaming in the form of ridicule. Note too the ridiculing of the Delphians' greed in comedy--e.g., Aristophanes fr. 684 Kock, Anon. fr. 460 Kock.

§10n8. See again §5; also Ch.12§§18-19, Ch.13§12.

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