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.

Go to Previous chapter; Next chapter; Table of Contents; Information

Chapter 19

More on Strife and the Human Condition

§1. The deaths of Aesop and Thersites result directly from their engaging in blame,[1] and the result of their deaths is purification.[2] It follows, then, that their engaging in blame is itself an ultimately purifying act. Thus even in the ideology of myth, blame and the ridicule that it can bring have a potentially positive social function.[3] Moreover, among the things that Aesop actually blamed was the negative social function of blame itself, formalized in ritual as strife over cuts of sacrificial meat (Pap.Oxy. 1800).[4] The same negative social function is formalized in classical praise poetry as eris 'strife, conflict' (Pindar N.4.93), a negative foil of praise poetry itself.[5] A parallel negative foil is phthonos 'envy, greed', conventionally visualized by praise poetry as a bestially gluttonous appetite for meat (Bacchylides 3.67-68, Pindar N.8.21-25).[6] The negative social function of blame is also formalized in myth as the primal eris between Prometheus and Zeus (Hesiod Th. 534)--a conflict over cuts of meat that is the very cause of the human condition (Th. 535-616).[7] Alternatively, it is formalized as the personified Eris at the Judgment of Paris, the cause of the Trojan War in particular (Cypria/Proclus p. 102.14-19 Allen) and of the human condition in general (Hesiod fr. 204MW).[8] At the Judgment of Paris, Eris overtly takes the form of blame: as our Iliad tells it, Paris had engaged in blaming Hera and Athena, while praising Aphrodite (XXIV 29-30).[9]

§2. If there is a positive social function assigned by myth to the institution of blame, there might also be a parallel assignment to the Hellenic concept of eris 'strife, conflict', a word we have seen so far as formalizing only the negative social function of blame. The social ambivalence of Eris is in fact a prime theme of the Works and Days:

ok ra monon hn Erdvn gnow, ll' p gaan
es dv: tn mn ken painseie nosaw,
d' pimvmht: di d' ndixa yumn xousin.
mn gr plemn te kakn ka drin fllei,
sxetlh: o tiw tn ge file brotw, ll' p' ngkhw
yantvn boulsin Erin timsi barean.
tn d' trhn protrhn mn genato Nj rebenn,
yke d min Krondhw czugow, ayri navn,
gahw t' n =zsi ka ndrsi polln menv:
te ka plamn per mvw p rgon geiren.
ew teron gr tw te dn rgoio xatzvn
plosion, w spedei mn rmenai d futeein
okn t' e ysyai: zhlo d te getona getvn
ew fenow spedont': gay d' Eriw de brotosin.
ka keramew kerame kotei ka tktoni tktvn,
ka ptvxw ptvx fyonei ka oidw oid

There was not just one Eris born, but there are two
on earth. When a man recognizes one, he should praise it.
The other one is worthy of blame. The two have split dispositions.
One brings about the evil of war and fighting.[1]
It is wretched. No man loves it, but, by necessity,
in accord with the Will of the Immortals, men give tîmê to this burdensome Eris.[2]
The other one was the elder-born from dark Night.
The son of Kronos, who sits on high and abides in the aether,
placed it in the very roots of Earth. And this one is far better for men.
This one incites even the resourceless man to work--
as one man who is out of work looks at another
who is rich and busy with ploughing, planting,
and maintaining his household properly. Neighbor envies neighbor,
striving for wealth. This Eris is good for men.
And the potter is angry with the potter, and the artisan with the artisan.[3]
And the beggar has phthonos [envy] for the beggar, and the poet for the poet.[4]
Hesiod W&D 11-26

We see here the "good" Eris in her positive social function as the principle of competition, that fundamental aspect of most Hellenic institutions--including poetry itself.[5] In this connection, it is important to keep in mind that even the performance of such sublime poetic compositions as Pindar's Paean 6 took place in the framework of a competition. This song that tells about the eris of the gods (Paean 6.50, 87) in the awesome setting of Delphi's Panhellenic theoxenia is actually being performed, in the song's own words, at an agôn 'place of contest' (gna : Paean 6.60).[6] In sum, one can praise and blame the good and the evil Eris, as the Works and Days tells us, but these very activities of praising and blaming are subsumed in the principle of competition itself--that elder and hence more primordial kind of Eris.

§3. Evil or good, eris functions as a prime definition of the human condition. It comes as no surprise, then, that eris is the overt catalyst for many of the major poems of Hellenic civilization. We have already seen that eris or neîkos precipitates not only the Cypria in particular but also in general the entire mass of epic material framed by the Trojan War.[1] Moreover, the Iliad itself begins with the eris/neîkos between Achilles and Agamemnon.[2] When Achilles tells Agamemnon that the Achaeans will long remember their mutual eris (XIX 63-64), his words apply--far beyond the Achaeans of their time--to the future generations of Hellenic listeners who will ask to hear the story of the Iliad.[3] The grand Strife Scene between Agamemnon and Achilles is even recapitulated on the Shield of Achilles, in that microcosmic stop-motion picture of litigation between a defendant who offers compensation and a plaintiff who refuses it (XVIII 497-508).[4] Like its major counterpart, this minor Strife Scene is also a neîkos (nekow /nekeon : XVIII 497/498). But here the quarrel is a formal litigation, with claims and counterclaims expressed in correct legal language.[5] And the objective of the whole procedure is dikê 'justice' (dkazon /dkhn : XVIII 506/508). This quarrel is in fact strikingly similar to the one between Perses and Hesiod himself, where the objective is again dikê (dkw /dkhn ... dikssai : W&D 36/39) and where the quarrel itself is a neîkos(nekow at W&D 35; cf. also neke' /neikvn /nekea at W&D 29/30/33).[6]

§4. The neîkos of Perses and Hesiod is in fact a formal context for engaging in blame as a positive social function, as we see from the corresponding quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles. Here the words spoken by the aggrieved warrior against the king of his philoi are taken from the language of blame-poetry.[1] Achilles insults Agamemnon by calling him such names as kunôpa 'having the looks of a dog' (I 159) and kunos ommat' ekhôn 'having the eyes of a dog' (I 225)--epithets that typify a bestial degree of gluttony.[2] When blame is justified, the application of kuôn 'dog' and its derivatives is a quintessentially appropriate insult.[3] With other insults as well, Achilles attacks Agamemnon by picturing him as the ultimate glutton: most notably, he calls him dêmoboros basileus 'a king who is the devourer of the dêmos' (I 231).[4] Agamemnon is here branded as a king so greedy that he consumes his own community.[5] This insult is immediately pertinent to the neîkosof Perses and Hesiod, where the adjudicating basilêes'kings' are themselves called dôrophagoi 'devourers of gifts' on account of their lack of dikê 'justice' (W&D 38-39 and 263-264; cf. 220-221). The figure of Hesiod is engaged in making justified blame, expressed in language appropriate to blame-poetry, just as Achilles had done in his quarrel with Agamemnon. Here too we see blame-poetry in its positive social function. Moreover, this blaming of unjust kings whose injustice promotes the neîkos of Perses and Hesiod is in sharp contrast with the praising of the just kings in Hesiod Th. 80-93. A king who makes settlements with dikê (Th. 85-86) is described as one who can stop "even a great neîkos" (ka mga nekow : Th. 87). Such just kings are ekhephrones 'aware' (Th. 88) precisely because they heed what the Muses say (Th. 80 ff.)--through the intermediacy of the poets.[6] Thus only those kings who are phroneontes 'aware' can understand the message of Hesiod the poet, as he tells them the aînos of the hawk and the nightingale:

nn d' anon basilesin rv fronousi ka atow

Now I will tell an aînos for kings, aware [phroneontes] as they are.[7]
Hesiod W&D 202

In sum, the neîkos of Perses and Hesiod is a context for blaming the unjust king; it is a neîkos that can be stopped only by the just king. The blaming itself is justified so long as the injustice remains--which is hubris as opposed to dikê (W&D 213-285).[8] In this sense, the neîkos of Perses and Hesiod has the positive social function of precipitating the Works and Days. Moreover, this very neîkosmotivates the major theme that has served as our point of departure--the Hesiodic portrait of Eris as a prime determinant of the human condition (W&D 11-26).[9]

§5. The human condition is not only defined by eris; it is even caused by it. On the level of myth, this eris is formalized as one primordial Strife Scene that takes place at one primordial dais 'feast' shared by gods and men.[1] There are various multiforms of this feast, such as the one attended by Prometheus (Hesiod Th. 535 ff.) or the one celebrating the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (Hesiod fr. 204.95 ff.; Cypria/Proclus p. 102.13 ff. Allen; Pindar Paean 6.50 ff.). But, aside from such variables, there is also an essential constant: by disrupting the dais, the eris of the Strife Scene disrupts the communion of gods and men, thereby bringing to an end the golden existence of mankind.[2] Since eris is inevitable and since it also can be formalized as blame,[3] the institution of blame in general and blame poetry in particular is itself conceived as one of life's necessary evils.

§6. Ironically, the aînos as a traditional form of blame is not only an institution of eris but also an eternal reminder of what had been disrupted by eris at a primal Strife Scene, namely, the golden existence of mankind. The standard setting for the narrative of the aînos is the Golden Age itself. In the proem to the versified fables of Babrius, where the poet cites the prosaic retellings of the Aesopic tradition as his immediate source (lines 14-16),[1] we read that the Golden Age was a time when:

  1. animals had the same phônê 'power of speech' as men (lines 5-12)
  2. men and gods were one community (hetaireiê: line 13).
In other words, there had been in the Golden Age a communion of animals and men and of men and gods. In the fables of Aesop, we find animals actually communicating with men as well as one another through the power of speech,[2] and there are instances where the fable is actually introduced with an explicit statement to that effect:[3]

kay' n kairn n mfvna t za tow nyrpoiw ...

At the time when animals had the same phônê as men have ...
Life of Aesop G 99, introducing "The Poor Man Catching Insects" = Fable 387 Perry

kay' n kairn n mfvna t za ...

At the time when animals had the same phônê ...
Life of Aesop W 97,[4] introducing "The Wolves and the Sheep" = Fable 153 Perry

Ironically too, Aesop himself had no phônê'power of speech' before he received the gift of verbal skills from the Muses (Life of Aesop G 7).[5] In the beginning, he had been like an animal, doubly removed from the Golden Age. By having no phônê, he had been excluded from the community of both gods and men. We see as a permanent reminder of his primal state the simple fact that Aesop actually remains a theriomorphic figure throughout his Life.[6] In the end, however, after having died for blaming a ritualized Strife Scene (Pap.Oxy. 1800), Aesop wins immortality (Plato Comicus fr. 68 Kock).[7] It was in fact immortality that the animals had demanded from Zeus in their own Strife Scene, which had plummeted them from their own golden existence (Callimachus Iambus 2 = fr. 192 Pfeiffer).[8] In the end, Aesop transcends the condition of both animals and men. The gaps that are bridged in his aînoi between animals and men and gods are bridged in the course of his Life.


§1n1. Ch.16§4.

§1n2. Ch.16§§1-2, Ch.18§10.

§1n3. On the acknowledgment of this social function in the ideology of epic, cf. Ch.14§12 and n4.

§1n4. For the text, see again Ch.16§7.

§1n5. Ch.12§3.

§1n6. Ch.12§§4-5 and §§6-11.

§1n7. Ch.11§15.

§1n8. Ch.11§14.

§1n9. Ch.11§16.

§2n1. For more on dêris 'fighting', see Ch.16§10n1.

§2n2. For the correlation of Eris and the Dios boulê 'Will of Zeus', see Ch.11§§10-15.

§2n3. The "anger" of potter against potter and artisan against artisan is equivalent to phthonos, as we see from the parallelisms in the next verse. On the inherited parallelism of the tektôn 'carpenter' as artisan par excellence with the aoidos 'poet', see Ch.17§§10-13. On the poet as dêmiourgos, see xvii 381-387 as discussed at Ch.12§13 and nn2, 3.

§2n4. On the convention of presenting the xenos'guest-stranger' on a social scale that ranges from beggar all the way to poet, see Ch.12§§13-16.

§2n5. Cf. Pucci 1977.31-32, 130-135.

§2n6. The agôn is also the traditional context of such archaic poetic forms as the Homeric Hymns--and we can see this from the use of the word agônat HH 6.19-20. See also the Hesiodic and Homeric references to poetic contests at W&D 654-659 and II 594-600, and the commentary by Maehler 1963.16. In fact, the name of the competitive poet Thamuris at II 595 seems to be the embodiment of the social context for poetic competition. In the Alexandrian lexicographical tradition and elsewhere, we see that thamuris means 'assembly'; see Durante 1976.202 for documentation and commentary. Moreover, the word agôn itself denotes 'assembly' (from agô; cf. Chantraine I 17); the semantic extension 'place of contest' reveals that the holding of contests was a basic social function of such an 'assembly'. Compare the semantics of samaryá- 'poetic contest' in the Rig-Veda, as discussed by Durante, pp. 198-201. I disagree, however, with Durante's equating the meaning of samaryá- with that of Homêros: see Ch.17§9n2.

§3n1. Ch.11§12; also Ch.7§16.

§3n2. Above, Ch.7§17.

§3n3. For the poetic self-references associated with the theme of remembering and not forgetting a story of grief, see Ch.6§§4 ff.

§3n4. Ch.6§20.

§3n5. See Muellner 1976.100-106 on the legal use of eukheto 'claimed' at XVIII 499, for which he finds a striking parallel in the use of e-u-ke-to = eukhetoi 'claims' in the Linear B texts (Pylos tablets Ep 704 and Eb 297). Muellner (p. 104) also notes the collocation of e-u-ke-to with da-mo = dâmos (Ep 704), corresponding to the collocation of eukheto with dêmos in the Homeric passage at hand (XVIII lines 499 and 500 respectively). For Linear B dâmos as 'an administrative entity endowed with a juridical function', see Lejeune 1965.12.

§3n6. Cf. Vernant 1977. Note especially the expression diakrînômetha neîkos 'let us settle our quarrel' at W&D 35. The compound verb diakrînomaihere must be compared to the simple krînomai'have a definitive settlement' as used in Hesiod Th. 535 and 882, where the settlements lead to the permanent separation of gods/men and gods/Titans respectively. Discussion at Ch.11§5. Cf. also the semantics of the passive formation krithen'they separated from each other' in Pindar P.4.168.

§4n1. Ch.12§6.

§4n2. Ch.12§5.

§4n3. Consider again Ch.12§§5-6.

§4n4. For the semantics of dêmos in this context of neîkos, see §3n5. Since there is a traditional interplay in Homeric diction between dêmos 'district, community' and dêmos 'fat' (Nagler 1974.5-9), we may note that dêmoboros can also be understood as 'devourer of fat'. On the traditional theme that tells of dogs devouring the dêmos 'fat' of corpses (VIII 379-380, XI 818, XIII 831-832), see Ch.12§5. If this interpretation is valid, then Agamemnon is being described by Achilles with an epithet that befits a corpse-devouring dog.

§4n5. Note that Thersites himself blames Agamemnon for his greed (II 225-238). At II 236-237, he even says that the Achaeans should forsake Agamemnon, leaving him behind "to digest his geras [plural; = honorific portions]" all to himself (gra pessmen : II 237). For geras 'honorific portion' in the sense of 'cut of meat', see Ch.7§19. On the greed of Agamemnon, consider also philokteanôtate 'preeminent lover of possessions' (I 122), an epithet applied to him again by Achilles.

§4n6. Cf. Puelma 1972.97-98.

§4n7. See Ch.12§18.

§4n8. For more on dikê and hubris: Ch.9§7 and n2.

§4n9. See again §2.

§5n1. Ch.11§15.

§5n2. Ch.11§§1-14.

§5n3. §1; also Ch.11§16.

§6n1. This is not to say, of course, that the original Aesopic tradition of aînoi was not poetry.

§6n2. For an example of verbal communication between animals and men, see Aesop Fable 465 Perry.

§6n3. Cf. also Callimachus Iambus 2 = fr. 192 Pfeiffer.

§6n4. Also at G 97, where the introductory phrasing is exactly as at G 99.

§6n5. In the attested version (G 7), Isis gives Aesop the power of speech itself (phônê) while the Muses give him the power of speech skills. I believe that earlier versions had Apollo in place of Isis: see Ch.17§1n6, §2n2; Ch.18§2. Note too that the epiphany of the Muses to Aesop is in the setting of an elaborately lush garden, where the tettîx 'cicada' sings (G 6). For more on the tettîx, see Ch.18§1.

§6n6. There is a collection of epithets applied to Aesop, many of them having to do with the various grotesque forms of various animals, at the very beginning of the Life narrative (Vitae G+W 1), on which see Wiechers 1961.31-32. Throughout the narrative, in fact, the other characters keep insulting Aesop by way of appellations like kunokephalon 'dog-head' (G 11, 30; W 31). The association of Aesop with the figure of a dog is especially interesting in view of the traditional use of kuôn 'dog' and its derivatives in the language of blame; see in particular Ch.12§6 on Iliad I 159 and 225, where Achilles insults Agamemnon by calling him kunôpa 'having the looks of a dog' and kunos ommat' ekhôn 'having the eyes of a dog'. In fact, the name of Aesop himself may be a semantic parallel: Ais-ôpos may mean 'having the looks of baseness', if the element ais- can be connected with ais-kh- as in the word aîskhos 'baseness' and its family (on the semantics of which see Ch.14§13). The element ais- also may be connected with the adjective ais-ulo- 'unseemly'. Note that the speaking of aisula 'unseemly things' is equated with kertomiai 'reproaches' at Iliad XX 202 and 433. On the semantics of kertomeô 'reproach' and its family, see Ch.14§§11(n6) and 14. Questions of etymology aside, however, the strong association of Aesop with the figure of a dog seems to be connected with the function of the Aesopic aînos as blame poetry. We observe the message of Aesop's fable about "The Wolves and the Sheep" (Fable 97 Perry), as conveyed by the context of its retelling in Vitae G+W 97: just as the dogs' barking protects the sheep from the wolves, so also the fable of Aesop protects the Samians from Croesus. In connection with the Samian phase of Aesop's Life (on which see also Ch.16§8n1), I should note in passing a curious passage in Vita G 87, featuring a barrage of insulting appellations as spoken by the Samians against Aesop (the last one of which is "a dog in a wicker basket"!). The categories of these appellations are well worth careful study, since they may match some stock characters in the Aesopic fables (though their language is certainly far more picturesque than that of the rhetorical retellings in the Aesopic corpus that has come down to us).

§6n7. For a collection of other testimonia on the immortalization of Aesop, see Perry 1952.226; cf. Wiechers 1961.41.

§6n8. The contents of this Callimachean fragment can be supplemented by two paraphrases of its substance: (1) a papyrus from Tebtynis [see Maas 1934] and (2) Philo of Alexandria De confusione linguarum6-8. See Perry 1962.312-313. Significantly, this same Callimachean passage telling of the animals' loss of immortality also alludes to Aesop's death at Delphi (fr. 192.15-17 Pfeiffer).

Go to Previous chapter; Next chapter; Table of Contents; Information

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.