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 18

On the Stories of a Poet's Life

§1. In the preceding chapters, I have argued that the generic warrior/poet, as therapôn of Ares/Muses, is implicitly worthy of becoming a cult hero after death. This in fact is the explicit message, I now submit, of the famous poetic declaration made by the one attested figure who boasts of being both warrior and poet:

eȚmĐ d' §g yerăpvn mąn ÉEnual€oio ênaktow
kaĐ Mous°vn §ratÚn d«ron §pistămenow

I am a therapôn of Lord Enyalios [Ares],
and of the Muses, well-versed in their lovely gift.
Archilochus fr. 1W

The poet's own words imply that Archilochus deserves a hero cult as both warrior and poet. And a hero cult is what he actually has on his native island of Paros, from archaic times onward, as we know both from the literary testimonia and from the evidence of archaeology.[1] Moreover, the Life of Archilochus tradition motivates the death of the poet as also being the death of a warrior.[2] He is killed in combat by a figure whose eponym is Korax 'Raven'.[3] Apollo is angry at Korax, who approaches his sanctuary at Delphi,[4] and he orders him to depart:

Mousăvn yerăponta kat°ktanew: ¶jiyi nhoË

You killed the therapôn of the Muses. Get out of the Sanctuary!
Oracle 4 Parke/Wormell[5]

Korax protests that Archilochus had been killed as a warrior, not as a poet,[6] but Apollo again declares that Korax has killed the therapôn of the Muses.[7] After further entreaties, Korax is finally granted an oracular directive: he must go "to the House of the Tettîx [Cicada],"[8] where he must propitiate the psûkhê of Archilochus.[9] We may detect a deeper significance in the names and themes of this story by considering the traditions of the Aesopic aînos. In the fables of Aesop, the korax 'raven' is conventionally presented as the bird of Apollo (Fable 323 Perry), endowed with powers of prophecy (Fables 125, 236); he is also a harbinger of death (Fable 162).[10] The tettîges 'cicadas', on the other hand, are creatures of the Muses (Fable 470).[11] As we turn back to the Life of Archilochustradition, we may infer that the figures of Korax and Tettîx are parallel to Apollo and the Muses respectively. More specifically, the parallelism of Apollo and Korax implies that Apollo is maleficent as well as beneficent towards the poet.

§2. Similarly in the Life of Aesop tradition, Apollo is in fact both maleficent and beneficent to Aesop. We have already examined the maleficent aspect: Apollo is angry at Aesop for his neglect of the god at a sacrifice, and he actively helps the Delphians to bring about Aesop's death.[1] Now we see that there is also a beneficent aspect of Apollo's involvement in the killing of Aesop. Surely the pestilence that descends upon the Delphians after Aesop's death is ordained by Apollo himself, and it is his Oracle that commands the Delphians to propitiate Aesop by worshiping him as a cult hero (Pap.Oxy. 1800, Vitae G+W 142; cf. Aristotle Constitution of the Delphians fr. 487). This beneficent aspect of Apollo helps account for the final gesture of Aesop, when he calls upon Apollo as "leader of the Muses" to be witness of his unjust execution by the Delphians (Vita G 142). I propose, then, that the traditional themes of antagonism between god and hero do not preclude a beneficent aspect on the god's part. There is in fact solid evidence that the ambivalence of a god in being both maleficent and beneficent towards a hero is so archaic as to have a heritage in the Indo-European traditions of epic narrative: it comes from the comparative studies of Georges Dumézil in linking the Old Norse hero Starka[[radical]]r and the Indic hero Sô'isupâlawith the Greek hero Hêrakleês '.[2] Aided by Dumézil's findings, we now know that the suckling of Hêrakleês 'by Hêrâ after his birth (Diodorus Siculus 4.9.6) and the adoption of Herakles by Hera after his death (Diodorus 4.39.2-3) are themes of beneficence that complement the prevalent themes of her maleficence towards this hêrôs 'hero',[3] and that together these themes of beneficence/maleficence constitute the traditional epic theme embodied in the very name of Hêrakleês 'he who has the kleos of Hêrâ'.[4]

§3. Whereas Apollo's relationship to Archilochus and to Aesop in the Lives is ambivalent, that of the Muses is not; rather, it appears to be one-sidedly beneficent. Having already seen the evidence in the Life of Aesop tradition,[1] we turn to another story from the Life of Archilochus--this time as preserved in section E1 col.II of the Parian Mnesiepes Inscription.[2] According to this story,[3] Archilochus received his verbal powers of poetry from the Muses, who appeared to him in disguise as he was on his way to sell a cow (E1 col.II 23-29). Archilochus thinks that they are rustic women leaving the fields and heading for the city; he draws near and "ridicules" them (lines 29-30: sk‰ptein ),[4] but the Muses respond with playful laughter (lines 30-31). They then induce Archilochus to trade them his cow for a lyre; once the transaction is made, they disappear (lines 32-35). He falls into a swoon, and when he awakens he is aware that the Muses have just given him the gift of poetry (lines 36-38).

§4. The rest of this story about Archilochus is beyond our immediate interest, except for what it says about the future. An oracle from Apollo himself at Delphi prophesies to the father of Archilochus that his son will have immortality and fame:

é]yănatÒw soi pađw kaĐ éo€dimow, ‘ Teles€kleiw,
¶stai §n ényr‰poisin

Your son, O Telesikles, will be immortal among men,
a subject of song ... [1]
E1 col.II 50-51[2]

We see here an important dovetailing of the story with the self-avowed function of the entire Mnesiepes Inscription, which is to motivate the hero cult of Archilochus at Paros. First, the inscription formally restates an oracular command by Apollo to Mnesiepês, with specific directives about the cult of Archilochus and other attendant ritual practices (E1 col.II 1-15). Then it briefly tells how the Parians complied with the Oracle's directives, instituting the cult in a sacred precinct called the Arkhilokheion (EE1 col.II 16-19). Finally, it tells the Life of Archilochus (EE1 col.II 20 ff.), in which context we find the story of the poet and the Muses (EE1 col.II 23 ff.). In other words, the Mnesiepes Inscription is itself the clearest evidence for arguing that the Life of Archilochus tradition is deeply rooted in the realia of cult. Moreover, the poetry of Archilochus and its transmission also are rooted in cult, as we have seen from the poet's traditional concept of himself as "therapôn of the Muses" (Archilochus fr. 1W).[3] I conclude, then, that the Life of Archilochus tradition is not only derived from the poetic tradition of Archilochus but also parallel to it.[4]

§5. This conclusion can be dismissed only if the Mnesiepes Inscription can be discredited as untraditional in its contents. For this to be so, one would have to argue that the commissioning of the inscription, dated as it is to the third century B.C., is coeval with the information that it contains about the oracular directives, about the cult itself, and about the Life of Archilochus. But we have in fact already seen direct evidence that the commissioning of the Mnesiepes Inscription is predated by reports about the cult of Archilochus (cf. Alcidamas ap. Aristotle Rhetoric 1398b11),[1] as also by the story about Archilochus and the Muses.[2] We may now add an interesting piece of indirect evidence from the ideology of the oracular directive about cult procedures in the sacred precinct (EE1 col.II 1-15): the cult of the main gods in the Arkhilokheion is the first element to be formulated (lines 3-6, 10-12), whereas the cult of the hero himself is the last (lines 14-15). Significantly, the listing of the main gods is headed by the Muses and Apollo Mousagetês 'Leader of the Muses' (lines 3-4). Such a grouping of Apollo and the Muses is clearly archaic.[3] Also, this grouping presents a relationship between Archilochus and Apollo/Muses on the level of cult that corresponds on the level of myth to the identity of Archilochus as poet:therapôn of the Muses.

§6. In fact, I am now in a position to offer an overall interpretation of the epithet Mousăvn yerăpvn ' therapôn of the Muses' (Hesiod Th. 100, Archilochus fr. 1W). I propose that the designation "Muses" here includes Apollo as leader of the Muses. Whereas the Muses are one-sidedly beneficent toward the poet, Apollo is ambivalently beneficent and maleficent.[1] It is Apollo who causes the impurity of a poet's death, thereby also causing eternal purification through the hero cult of this poet. If indeed Apollo is latent in the designation "therapôn of the Muses," his maleficent stance toward the poet is thereby also latent. In this line of reasoning, I can also offer an explanation for why the archaic poet invokes the Muses without mentioning Apollo:[2] in this manner, he invokes the one-sidedly beneficent aspect of his divine patronage.

§7. Throughout our discussion of the poet as antagonist of his patron deities, we have had numerous occasions to see information taken from the Lives of the poets and used as evidence. I have tried to defend the validity of such information on a detailed case-to-case basis, but the ultimate defense rests on the cumulative evidence of the patterns that have by now emerged from our collection of the details. Admittedly, the Lives are extremely difficult source material, requiring the greatest caution. It is unfortunate that they are generally attested in versions that are late or fragmentary--or both. Worse still, we seldom have historical controls. Worst of all, the Lives have no strict literary form, and they are in the course of their transmission most vulnerable to distortion at the hands of transmitting scholars of the ancient world who supplement and modify, sometimes on the basis of the poet's attested poetry.[1] To use the Lives, one must be selective and critical, since the ultimate evidence is not so much in the text but in the tradition underneath. This much said, I now offer a brief reassessment of my conclusions about the Lives.

§8. We begin with the findings of Brelich about the Life of Hesiod tradition: the themes here fit the mythology surrounding a typical cult hero.[1] From such findings, I infer that the purpose of this and other Life traditions is to motivate not so much the poet's poetry but the poet's hero cult. This purpose is actually overt in the Life of Archilochustradition as presented in the Mnesiepes Inscription, which serves explicitly to motivate the poet's hero cult.[2] The inscription also specifies that the primary gods worshiped within the frame of this hero cult are the Muses--and Apollo as their leader.[3] This symbiotic connection of Muses/Apollo with Archilochus in cult is matched by an antagonistic connection in myth: the Life of Archilochustradition implies that Apollo is ambivalently beneficent/maleficent towards the poet, whereas the Muses are one-sidedly beneficent.[4] Such an antagonistic relationship in myth is overtly attested in the Life of Aesoptradition: Apollo abets the poet's death and then makes him a cult hero.[5] Aesop's very essence as poet is defined both by the beneficent Muses and by the beneficent/maleficent Apollo as their leader.[6] These relationships of god and poet correspond to the relationships of god and hero: antagonism in myth, symbiosis in cult.[7]

§9. We continue our reassessment by summarizing the evidence of epic diction, which amplifies our understanding of the antagonistic relationship between god and hero. At the moment of his death, the hero of epic in effect loses his identity to the god who takes his life; as such, the hero qualifies as the god's therapôn .[1] A "therapôn of Ares," then, is a hero who forfeits his identification with his philos or philoi and becomes "equal to Ares" at the moment of his death.[2] On the surface, of course, the hero's death is motivated by the inherited conventions of epic narrative; underneath the surface, however, it is motivated by the requirements of ritual ideology. As the semantic prehistory of the word indicates, the therapôn has a distinctly religious function. By losing his identification with a person or group and by identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity. [3]

§10. Keeping in mind this religious dimension of purification inherent in the word therapôn, we turn from the hero as warrior to the hero as poet. From the evidence of ancient poetic diction, we know that the generic poet is " therapôn of the Muses" just as the generic warrior is "therapôn of Ares."[1] From the evidence of the Lives, on the other hand, we know that the poet becomes a hero because he forfeits his life and identity to Apollo, the leader of the Muses. The evidence is perhaps clearest in the Life of Aesop tradition, where Apollo ordains first the death and then the hero cult of Aesop.[2] In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an eternal symbiotic relationship. The clearest evidence for this sort of institutionalization is to be found in the actual cult of Apollo/Muses and Archilochus at Paros, as actually documented by the Mnesiepes Inscription.[3] Finally, we see from the Life of Aesop tradition that the poet's death results in purification. The immediate result from the death itself is impurity, but the ultimate result is eternal purification by way of propitiating the hero in cult--as ordained by Apollo himself.[4] Moreover, the mode of Aesop's death is itself a purification, in that he dies like a pharmakos 'scapegoat'.[5] His very appearance indicates a transfer of impurities upon himself: Aesop is notoriously ugly and misshapen (Vitae G+W 1), much like that other image of a pharmakos, Thersites (II 217-219).[6]


§1n1. See Kontoleon 1964, esp. p. 46, and Treu 1959.250; see now also Kontoleon 1965, esp. pp. 413-418, on the discovery at Paros of an archaic iconographical representation of Archilochus as cult hero. See now Nagy 1990b.47-51.

§1n2. The references that follow are conveniently assembled by Treu, pp. 122-124.

§1n3. Plutarch De sera numinis vindicta 560e. See also the references at nn5, 6.

§1n4. I infer that Korax does so for the purpose of purification, on account of a pestilence or the like.

§1n5. From Galen Protreptikos 23, to be read in conjunction with Dio Chrysostomus 33.12.

§1n6. Heraclides Ponticus Perì politeiôn 8 (cf. Aristotle fr. 611.25 Rose).

§1n7. Dio Chrysostomus (n5) ibid.

§1n8. Plutarch (n3) ibid.: §pĐ tÆn toË t°ttiggow oękhsin.

§1n9. Plutarch (n3) ibid.; the author also supplies an interpretation of the oracular response, suggesting why the "House of the Tettîx" should be Tainaros.

§1n10. In this fable, the korax of death turns out to be the cover of the larnax in which the overprotective mother is sheltering her child.

§1n11. This fable is transmitted by Plato Phaedrus259b-c. From Archilochus fr. 223W, we know that the poet called himself a tettîx in the context of composing blame poetry against those who harmed him.

§2n1. Above, Ch.17§1.

§2n2. Dumézil 1971.13-132; to be fully appreciated, the argument must be read in its entirety.

§2n3. For the semantic relationship of Hêrâ and hêrôs, see the important article of Pötscher 1961; cf. also Householder/Nagy 1972.770-771.

§2n4. See Dumézil, p. 120, to be supplemented by Pötscher 1961 and 1971; cf. also Davidson 1975.

§3n1. Above, Ch.17§1.

§3n2. Conveniently available in Treu 1959.40-45. Although the inscription is of a relatively late date (ca. third century B.C.), its contents are archaic in theme: see Maehler 1963.49n2, with bibliography and brief polemics.

§3n3. There is an archaic iconographical attestation of the same story (or of a close parallel) on a Boston pyxis from Eretria, dated ca. 460 B.C. (no. 37 tab. 15 Caskey/Beazley); see Kontoleon 1964.47-50.

§3n4. On the verb skôptô 'ridicule', see Ch.13§3 and n4; also Ch.16§10 and n7.

§4n1. For more on aoidimos 'subject of song', cf. VI 358 and H.Apollo 299; note the orientation of both passages toward the audiences of the future.

§4n2. The rest of the oracle (lines 51-52) links up with the continuation of the story (E1 col.II 53 ff.).

§4n3. As an indication that the transmission of Archilochean poetry was rooted in the cult of Archilochus, I cite not only the function of the Mnesiepes Inscription but also the meaning of the name Mnêsiepês 'he who remembers the words [epos plural]'. As the figure to whom Apollo ordains the cult of Archilochus in the Arkhilokheion, Mnesiepes bears a name that seems to correspond to his own function. The semantics of his name integrate Mnesiepes into the mythology surrounding the foundation of the Arkhilokheion. Compare also the mythology surrounding the Aisôpeion at Samos, as discussed in Ch.16§8n1.

§4n4. Cf. Ch.17§§7-8 on the Life of Hesiod tradition. In the case of a typical local hero who is not a poet, his life story is simply a function of his cult. In the case of the poet-hero, on the other hand, his life story is a function of his cult and of the poetry ascribed to him. I would reconstruct, then, an archaic poet's life story as a Vita tradition originally controlled both by the ideologies of his cult and by the contents of his poems. With the passing of the archaic period, however, the factor of cult recedes, and the genre of the poet's Vita becomes totally dependent on the poems themselves. Without the control of the religious ideologies conveyed by the cult, the narrative patterns of the Vita become subject to arbitrary interpretations based on the contents of the poetry. On the other hand, if indeed the traditional narrative patterns of the Vita are historically rooted in the institution of hero cults, the characters in the Vita traditions will assume the roles of heroes even when they are historical figures. Consider the Life of Pindartradition as discussed at Ch.7§9n1.

§5n1. See Treu 1959.250.

§5n2. See §3n3.

§5n3. See Ch.17§3.

§6n1. I must allow, however, that the Muses may not always be one-sided in every variant.

§6n2. See Ch.17§3.

§7n1. Cf. Slater 1971, esp. p. 150, and Lefkowitz 1976. But see Foreword §7n5 above.

§8n1. Ch.17§7.

§8n2. §4.

§8n3. §5.

§8n4. §§1, 3.

§8n5. §2; also Ch.16§8n1, Ch.17§1.

§8n6. Ibid.

§8n7. See again Ch.7.

§9n1. Ch.17§5.

§9n2. Ibid.

§9n3. Ch.17§4.

§10n1. Ch.17§6.

§10n2. §2.

§10n3. §§4, 5.

§10n4. Ch.16§8. This formulation helps account for the semantics of agos 'pollution'/'expiation' and enagizein'perform sacrifice in the cult of a hero' as distinct from thuein 'perform sacrifice in the cult of a god'. For a discussion of the formal and semantic connection between agos and enagizein, see Chantraine/Masson 1954. Nock (1944) has reservations about the god/hero distinction in thuein/enagizein, on the grounds that thuein is also attested in the context of sacrificing to heroes. Even so, I maintain that the god/hero distinction remains valid so long as enagizein is not attested in the context of sacrificing to the celestial gods. Thus, thuein/enagizeinwould be the unmarked/marked members of the opposition. For the terms unmarked/marked, see Jakobson 1971.136: "The general meaning of a marked category states the presence of a certain (whether positive or negative) property A; the general meaning of the corresponding unmarked category states nothing about the presence of A, and is used chiefly, but not exclusively, to indicate the absence of A" (italics mine). In the case of thuein/enagizein, "property A" is the factor of a hero (or of a chthonic god--where I intend "chthonic" in the sense of "noncelestial").

§10n5. Ch.16§3.

§10n6. Note the use of katharma 'purification, refuse of purification' in the sense of 'outcast' when it is applied to Aesop as a term of insult by the other characters in the Life tradition (e.g., Vitae G+W 31); cf. Wiechers 1961.35.

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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.