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 4

The Death of Achilles and a Festival at Delphi

§1. The quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus in the first song of Demodokos, viii 72-82, dramatizes the antithesis of two inherited central themes built into the Iliad and the Odyssey, namely, the qualifications of Achilles and Odysseus respectively for the title "best of the Achaeans." Their epic actions are striving to attain what is perhaps the most distinctive heroic epithet that the kleos of the Achaeans can confer upon a mortal. In the first song of Demodokos, the poet--or let us say Demodokos--comments not only on the Odyssey but also on the Iliad itself. Or better, I should say, "an Iliadic tradition" instead of "the Iliad." Moreover, Monro's Law is not overturned, in that this quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles in Odyssey viii is no playback of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in Iliad I. There are basic differences in roles as well as in characters.

§2. As we have seen, there are elements of diction and theme in the first song of Demodokos that must stem from an independent and idiosyncratic tradition and simply cannot be based on the opening of Iliad I. One of the most divergent and interesting aspects of the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus is that it took place "at a sumptuous feast of the gods" (yen n dait yale : viii 76). Besides the intrinsic meaning here, the other Homeric contexts where feasts of the gods are mentioned make it clear that this expression denotes a sacrifice.[1]

§3. By good fortune, we have indirect evidence about the nature of such a sacrifice, especially from Pindar's Paean 6. This piece was composed for performance at a Delphic festival called the theoxenia. Within the framework of this ancient festival, the gods were treated as actual participants at the sacral banquet of their worshippers.[1] The institution of theoxenia 'having a host-and-guest relationship with the gods' survives elsewhere too in the Hellenic world of the classical period,[2] and there is reason to suppose that its ritual traditions--if not the ritual itself in its attested form--were already attested at the time that our Odyssey took on its present shape.[3] Since the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey viii makes a thematic connection between Apollo's Delphi and a 'feast of the gods' attended by Achaean heroes, the preeminence of Apollo at the Delphic theoxenia[4] leads me to suspect that we are witnessing a Homeric reflex of the ritual traditions surrounding this festival.[5] Furthermore, there are ominous implications for Achilles in the lore connected with the theoxenia. It seems as if the death of Achilles were a traditional theme that is appropriate for a paean performed at the theoxenia.

§4. Pindar's fragmentary Paean 6 was evidently composed for an agôn 'contest' at the Panhellenic festival of the Delphic theoxenia; the poet describes himself as:

gna Loja katabnt' ern
n yen jen&

entering the broad contest place of Loxias [Apollo]
at the theoxenia
Pindar Paean 6.60-61SM

By the very fact that it is a paean, the poem is a glorification of Apollo.[1] In particular, it commemorates a tradition concerning a quarrel of the gods:

ka pyen yan[tvn riw ]r`jato.[2] tata yeosi [m]n
piyen sofo`[w] dunatn,
brotosin d' mxano[n e]rmen:

and from what causes the quarrel of the immortals began,
these things the skilled can ascertain from the gods,
but otherwise it is impossible for mortals to discover
Pindar Paean 6.50-53

Then the Muses are invoked to inspire a retelling (54-58). Mention of a sacrifice (62-64) is followed by a considerable lacuna, and when the text resumes we hear that Apollo in the guise of Paris has killed Achilles on the battlefield (78-80).[3] An elaboration follows concerning the consequences of Apollo's action:

Ilou d yken far
citran lvsin

and he straightway caused
the capture of Troy to happen later
Pindar Paean 6.81-82

There is further elaboration at 87-89, where we learn specifically that Apollo "had a quarrel" (rije : 87) with Hera and Athena.[4] Since this elaboration is bracketed, before and after, by a description of how and why Achilles died, the inference is that the death of Achilles had something to do with the quarrel between Apollo on one side, Hera and Athena on the other. Since the gods' quarrel involves the capture of Troy, is it parallel with the quarrel of Achilles and Odysseus over whether Troy would be captured by biê 'might' or by mêtis 'artifice'? Since the battles of heroes are matched by the battles of their divine patrons in the Homeric theme of theomakhiâ, we may expect a thematic match between heroic and divine quarrels as well. There is also a formal match that may be cited in this regard: the Muses are asked to explain the cause of the eris 'quarrel' between Achilles and Agamemnon at Iliad I 8 in much the same way that they are asked to explain the eris among the gods at Paean 6.50-61.

§5. The evidence may seem meager at this point, but there must have been something about Achilles that was particularly offensive to Apollo. Conversely, we know that Paris, the antagonist and future killer of Achilles, offended the same gods whom we now see quarreling with Apollo in Paean 6, namely, Hera and Athena. The offense of Paris was the outgrowth of a quarrel that took place at a banquet given by the gods to celebrate the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles himself. This quarrel of the gods served as the epic theme for the opening of the Cypria(Proclus summary p. 102.14-16 Allen), and there are clear references to the same epic tradition in Iliad XXIV 25-30. Moreover, the Cypria presents this quarrel as a fitting epic theme for the opening of the entire Trojan War! The grievance of Hera and Athena against Paris was that he made a choice favoring Aphrodite instead of them (Cypria/Proclus p. 102.16-19). The Iliadic allusion to this tradition, however, also alludes to a grievance of Apollo against Achilles. It seems as if the polarization of Hera and Athena on one side and Apollo on the other corresponds not only to the hostility of the first two divinities against Paris but also to the hostility of the third against Achilles.[1] The three divinities are continuing their quarrel in IliadXXIV 25-63. In the course of their quarrel, Apollo describes Achilles as a brute who is like a ravenous lion, without any control over his biê 'might' (XXIV 42).[2] In Pindar's Paean 6, at the very moment that Apollo destroys Achilles, the hero is described as biatn 'endowed with biâ [epic biê]' (line 84). One of the reasons, then, for Apollo's enmity may well have been the championing of biê by Achilles. A more general reason, however, is yet to emerge from our ongoing scrutiny of the characteristics common to the god and the hero. It is too early at this point to attempt a precise formulation, and I offer here only the essentials: the hostility of Apollo and Achilles has a religious dimension, in which god and hero function as ritual antagonists.[3]

§6. Even though the actual concept of ritual antagonism between Apollo and Achilles remains to be articulated, we can already see the stark consequences of this antagonism in the dimension of myth. In Pindar's words:

pr pnvn
d ke meglvn Dardanan
prayen, e m flassen Ap[l]l[v]n:

before the great suffering,
he [Achilles] would have destroyed Troy,
if Apollo had not been protecting it
Pindar Paean 6.89-91SM

By killing Achilles, the god Apollo postponed the destruction of Troy and thus brought about a great deal of suffering that otherwise would not have happened. In the Iliad too, there is allusion to the tradition that great suffering was caused by the death of Achilles. The death of Patroklos in the Iliad, which duplicates the death of Achilles beyond the Iliad, is announced with the following words:

fra pyhai
lugrw ggelhw, m felle gensyai.
dh mn se ka atn ٛomai esorvnta
gignskein ti pma yew Danaosi kulndei,
nkh d Trvn: pfatai d) ristow Axain,
Ptroklow, meglh d poy Danaosi ttuktai.

that you may learn
of the ghastly news, which should never have happened.
I think that you already see, and that you realize,
that a god is letting roll a pain [pêma] upon the Danaans,
and that victory belongs to the Trojans; the best of the Achaeans has been killed,
Patroklos, that is; and a great loss has been inflicted on the Danaans.
XVII 685-690

Only here in the Iliad does Patroklos get the epithet that elsewhere distinguishes Achilles, "best of the Achaeans"; the death of Patroklos is being presented as a prefiguration of the death of Achilles.[1] By dying, the "best of the Achaeans" is the source of great pêma 'pain' for the Achaeans. For the Trojans too, Achilles is the greatest pêma--in the words of Hektor and Priam themselves (XXII 288 and 421 respectively). That is, Achilles is a pêma for the Trojans so long as he is fighting against them. When he withdraws from the fighting, however, there is pêma for the Achaeans and kûdos 'glory of victory' for the Trojans (VIII 176),[2] a situation that is recognized as the Will of Zeus by Hektor (VIII 175, XII 235-236) and by the narrative itself (XII 255, XV 592-599).[3] In short, Achilles is a pêma for the Trojans when he is at war and a pêma for the Achaeans both when he withdraws from war and when he dies.

§7. With the background of these patterns in traditional diction, the words of Demodokos assume an ominous tone:

tte gr =a kulndeto pmatow rx
Trvs te ka Danaosi Diw meglou di boulw

for then it was that the beginning of pain [pêma] started rolling
upon both Trojans and Danaans, on account of the plans of great Zeus[1]
viii 81-82

When Agamemnon rejoiced at the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus, who were "the best of the Achaeans" (viii 78), he rejoiced at a sign that presaged the destruction of Troy. In his joy he was unaware of the intervening pain yet to be inflicted on the Achaeans by the withdrawal and then by the death of Achilles. His joy was justified in the distant future but unjustified in the events at hand. In Pindar's words, the destruction was not to happen pr pnvn 'before suffering' (Paean 6.89). Our Iliad presents a highly sophisticated variation on this theme, in the episode of Agamemnon's False Dream. As in the first song of Demodokos, the impetus is the boulê 'plan, will' of Zeus (II 5). As in the song of Demodokos, the promise is that Troy will be destroyed (II 12-15, 29-32). As in the song of Demodokos, Agamemnon arrives at a premature conclusion:[2]

t fronont' n yumn =' o telesyai mellon:
f gr g' arsein Primou plin mati ken,
npiow, od t dh =a Zew mdeto rga:
ysein gr t' mellen p' lge te stonaxw te
Trvs te ka Danaosi di kraterw smnaw

thinking in his thûmos about things that were not to be:
for he thought that he would capture Priam's city on that very day,
the fool; he did not know what things Zeus was planning to do.
For he [Zeus] was yet to inflict pains [algea] and groaning
on both Trojans and Danaans in battles of kratos.[3]
II 36-40

From the standpoint of our Iliad, the story to be told concerns some of those "pains" [algea] that are yet to intervene before the capture of Troy. In fact, the same word algea is deployed at the very beginning of our Iliad to designate the countless "pains" of the Achaeans (I 2), caused by the mênis 'anger' of Achilles (I 1) and motivated by the Will of Zeus (Diw d' teleeto boul : I 5).

§8. Demodokos, then, is alluding to an Iliad, but not to our Iliad. Like our Iliad, the Iliad that Demodokos could have sung would feature the mênis 'anger' of Achilles and Apollo. Unlike our Iliad, however, this Iliadic tradition would feature Odysseus, not Agamemnon, as the prime offender of Achilles. Unlike our Iliad, this Iliad would have the chief resentment of Achilles center on the slighting of his biê 'might'. An Iliad composed by Demodokos would have been a poem with a structure more simple and more broad, with an Achilles who is even perhaps more crude than the ultimately refined hero that we see emerging at the end of our Iliad. I have little doubt that such an Iliad was indeed in the process of evolving when it was heard in the Odyssey tradition which evolved into our Odyssey. Demodokos had heard the kleos and passed it on in song.


§2n1. See especially iii 336 and 420; also xiv 251. Cf. Ch.3§21.

§3n1. For a suggestive discussion, adducing the comparative evidence of other festivals parallel to the theoxenia: Gernet 1968 [=1928] 32-33.

§3n2. For a survey: Nilsson 1906.160-162.

§3n3. This supposition is developed further at Ch.7§§8-13, 17-20, 25-30.

§3n4. Apollo is preeminent at the Delphic theoxenia not necessarily because of any special affinity with the practice of theoxenia but rather simply because of his preeminence at Delphi itself.

§3n5. The citations at n3 apply here as well.

§4n1. On this function of the paean, cf. also Ch.5§9. On the Panhellenic nature of the Delphic theoxenia, consider the lines that immediately follow those just quoted, at Paean 6.62-63: yetai gr glaw pr Panel|ldow 'sacrifice is being made on behalf of splendid All-Hellas' (cf. Radt 1958.131-134). The poem goes on to say that the festival had been instituted as a result of a promise contained in a prayer offered by the community at a time long ago when it had been afflicted by a famine (lines 63 ff.); the food of the theoxenia, then, is a factor of compensation.

§4n2. For the editors' restoration of riw here at line 50, cf. rije at line 87, referring to the same quarrel.

§4n3. The Iliad itself refers to the interaction of Apollo and Paris in the killing of Achilles: see XIX 416-417, XXII 358-360.

§4n4. Cf. n2.

§5n1. For more on god-hero antagonism as a factor in determining the alignments of various gods in the Trojan War, see Ch.8§12.

§5n2. Further discussion at Ch.7§22.

§5n3. See Ch.7 (esp. §4) and Ch.8 (esp. §§1-5).

§6n1. See Ch.2§8. In this connection, the wording pma yew Danaosi kulndei 'a god is letting roll a pêma upon the Danaans' here at XVII 688 is directly comparable to txa o mga pma kulsyh 'surely a great pêma rolls down upon him' at XVII 99--words applied by Menelaos to any mortal who dares to fight Hektor and thus undertake a confrontation with Apollo himself (XVII 98-99). Patroklos had done so, but Menelaos dares not do likewise (XVII 100-101). The stance of Patroklos in his confrontation with Apollo is described as prw damona ' facing the daimôn [divinity]' (XVII 98), which conveys the theme of ritual antagonism between god and hero (see Ch.8§§3-4 and Ch.17§5). On the collocation of pêma 'pain' and kulindô 'roll' [as a rock], note also the parallel at viii 81-82 as quoted in §7 below.

§6n2. On the function of kûdos 'glory of victory' in Homeric narrative: Benveniste 1969 II 57-69.

§6n3. Further discussion of pêma/kûdos and the Will of Zeus at Ch.20§§15-17.

§7n1. The double-edged pmatow rx ' the beginning of the pêma [pain]' is a thematic germ of the Achilles figure: even his name may be explained as taking its form from the concept "grief for the people": *Akhí-lâuos. See Ch.5. Cf. also the expression nekeow rx 'the beginning of the strife' (XXII 116), as discussed at Ch. 11§12 and n.

§7n2. Cf. Ch.7§25n1.

§7n3. On the word kratos: Ch.5§25.

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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.