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 11

On Strife and the Human Condition

§1. We have by now seen that Memnon's realm, the land of the Aithiopes, has landmarks that are parallel to those of the Golden Age and the Isles of the Blessed. By virtue of this parallelism, the land of the Aithiopes in fact affords an ideal setting for the immortality in store for Memnon after he dies the hero's death.[1] In the overall myth of the Aithiopes, however, Memnon's final immortalization is not the only theme that serves as a contrast with the here-and-now of the human condition. The land of the Aithiopes is also the setting for another such contrasting theme: the communion of gods and men. This theme in turn will be a key to our understanding the social functions of praise and blame.

§2. The Olympian gods have a custom of traveling all the way to the ends of the Earth, to the banks of the Okeanos, for the purpose of feasting with the native Aithiopes (I 423-424, XXIII 205-207, i 22-26). In the spatial perspective, these Aithiopes are the eskhatoi andrôn (i 23), the most remote humans in the universe.[1] Moreover, the gods had once also feasted with the earliest humans--those most remote in the temporal perspective of mythopoeic thinking. The following story, designed as an ideal that contrasts with the human condition, emerges from two separate types of Hesiodic narrative.

§3. We begin with Hesiod fr. 1MW, the first part of a catalogue that accounts for heroes born of female mortals and male immortals. As such, it complements Hesiod Th. 965-1020, a catalogue that accounts for heroes born of female immortals and male mortals.[1] In both catalogues, the heroes born from the mating of mortals and immortals qualify as "children who look like the gods" (Th. 1020 and fr. 1.5 Merkelbach 1968.128§129).[2] Moreover, the catalogue of Hesiod fr. 1 presents its mortal mothers as parallel to such mortal fathers as we see in the catalogue of Th. 965-1020. The mortal males and females are formally correlated as aneres êde gunaikes 'men and women' at fr. 1.9, corresponding to the andrasin 'men' of Th. 967 and the gunaikôn 'women' of Th. 1021 = fr. 1.1 respectively.[3] These men and women are distinguished from mortals in the here-and-now not only by virtue of having mated with the gods but also by virtue of having feasted with them:

xunai gar tote daites esan, xunoi de thoôkoi
athanatois te theoisi katathnêtois t' anthrôpois

For at that time they had feasts [dais plural] together and they sat together,
the immortal gods and the mortal men.
Hesiod fr. 1.6-7MW

The adverb tote 'at that time' (verse 6) makes explicit the temporal remoteness of this state of affairs.

§4. There are further details about these primeval mortals: some lived for a long time (hoi men dêron ... : fr. 1.11), while others died suddenly (tous d' eith[ar] ... : fr.1.12).[1] This description is parallel to that of the Golden and Silver Generations in the Works and Days.[2] There members of the Silver Generation are set off from the Golden in that they died soon after reaching adolescence (W&D 132-133).[3] Whereas the Golden Generation "lived like gods" (hôste theoi d' ezôon: W&D 112), the men of the Silver Generation lost their heritage of a godlike existence. The reason given is that they refused to perform the proper sacrifices to the gods (W&D 136-137). As we have already seen,[4] their refusal is also defined in the same narrative tradition as their failure to give the proper tîmaito the gods (W&D 138-139). Unfortunately for us, the parallel narrative of Hesiod fr. 1 (and beyond) is not complete enough to reveal explicitly how its mortals of yore came to lose their heritage of a godlike existence. There is an important clue, however, in a detail that we have already noted: these mortals used to have 'feasts' = dais [plural] with the gods (Hesiod fr. 1.6-7). Furthermore, this detail meshes with the story of Prometheus as it is told in the Theogony.

§5. Prometheus provokes Zeus in particular and the gods in general by tricking them into accepting as their portion the bones of a slaughtered ox and by reserving the edible meat for humanity (Hesiod Th. 536-557).[1] All this is presented as happening "at a time when the gods and mortal men were having a definitive settlement":[2]

... hot' ekrinonto theoi thnêtoi t' anthrôpoi
Hesiod Th. 535

The preceding passage implies a combination that is explicit in the following parallel:[3]

autar epei rha ponon makares theoi exetelessan
Titênessi de timaôn krinanto biêphi ...

But when the blessed gods completed their effort
and had a definitive settlement of tîmai, by way of biê [might], with the Titans ...
Hesiod Th. 881-882

The key word here is tîmai, the 'honors' of cult that the Olympian gods obtain by defeating the Titans, who are rival gods (theoi, as at Th. 630, 648, etc.).[4] The primary result of their definitive settlement is a permanentseparation, with the Olympians remaining in the sky (Th. 820) while the Titans are cast down and imprisoned forever underneath the earth (see especially Th. 729-733). Similarly, there is a definitive settlement of tîmai between the gods and men when Prometheus apportions the inedibles and edibles between them. Again, the primary result is a permanent separation, in that mankind is relegated to the human condition--a theme central to the entire Prometheus story (Th. 521-616).[5]

§6. We can now see an overall parallelism with the story of the Silver Generation (W&D 127-142). There the setting is a sacrifice (W&D136-137), and the mortals fail to give tîmai to the gods (W&D 138-139). What results is the negation of their godlike existence (W&D 132-133). As for the story of Prometheus, the setting here is a feast (see especially Th. 537, 544),[1] which becomes from that time onward the basis of all sacrifice to the gods (Th. 556-557). Prometheus as the agent of mortals cheats the gods out of the edible portions (Th. 538-541), and this settlement (implicitly, of tîmai: Th. 535) leads indirectly to the evils of the human condition (Th. 570-616).[2]

§7. The Aithiopes, then, exist in a condition that serves as a foil for the condition of ordinary mortals. For the Aithiopes, having feasts with the gods is not just a privilege: it is a sign that they are not subject to being separated permanently from the gods. Again, we recall that the landmarks of their abode are parallel to those of the Golden Age and the Isles of the Blessed.[1] By contrast, the mortals of the here-and-now have sacrifices to the gods, not feasts with them. Moreover, we have seen that the story of Prometheus in the Theogony derives this continuous institution of making sacrifice from the single event of a feast shared by gods and men. Of course, this feast is not the same thing as a first sacrifice. Granted, it constitutes the definitive settlement whereby the mortals and immortals get the edible meat and the inedible bones respectively. Nevertheless, this feast is only the basis of sacrifice, whereas the act of sacrifice itself entails more. Men are to have at their disposal the distribution of edible portions not only for themselves butalso for the gods. Every city-state has its own traditions for determining what portions of the edible meat--in addition to the bones and fat--are assigned to the gods.[2] In return, the gods have at their disposal the function of alleviating in their manifold ways the manifold evils of the human condition. Of course, the gods may even grant the ultimate alleviation, immortality after death; the inedible bones that are at their disposal are in fact the very emblem of life after death.[3]

§8. There is, then, a fundamental difference between feasting with the gods and sacrificing to them. The Hesiodic story about the Silver Generation actually anticipates the human condition of these figures by describing them as men who owe sacrifice to the gods (W&D135-137). Nevertheless, the nature of their offense against the gods is parallel to the offense of Prometheus. In both instances, the afflictions of the human condition are brought about by the withholding of tîmai from the gods. In the context of a single event, a feast, Prometheus as the agent of humanity withholds tîmai from the gods;[1] in the context of a continuous institution, sacrifice, men keep restoring tîmai to them. When the Silver Generation refuses to sacrifice, the offense is the same as the primordial offense of Prometheus: the withholding of tîmai from the gods.[2]

§9. In this connection, we must reexamine the evidence of diction: the vocabulary of archaic hexameter poetry does not distinguish between the feasting of men and gods together on the one hand and the sacrificing of men to gods on the other. Both the feasting and the sacrificing qualify as a dais. For example, Zeus calls the portions sacrificed to him on the altar his dais (IV 48, XXIV 69). The very event of a sacrifice may in fact be called simply dais (iii 33), without such qualifiers as theoû 'of the god' (as at iii 420, where dais refers to the same event as at iii 33).[1] Conversely, when the gods come to feast with the Aithiopes, their mutual dais (as at I 424, i 26) has the trappings of a sacrifice: hekatombai 'hecatombs' (XXIII 206; cf. i 25) and hîra 'sacred rites' (XXIII 207).[2] This ambivalence in the meaning of dais is of course due directly to the derivation of the noun from the verb daiomai 'divide, apportion, allot'.[3] A dais, then, is a 'division' not only of meat portions (a feast) but also of the tîmai that go with them (a sacrifice).

§10. We are now ready to consider the wording that designates the primordial offense of Prometheus. In the process of cheating the gods out of tîmai that correspond to meat portions, Prometheus caused eris 'strife' and made Zeus angry. This theme of eris introduces the entire story about the deceit of Prometheus--a story that begins with the following explanation for the anger of Zeus:

hounek' erizeto boulas hupermeneï Kroniôni

because he [Prometheus] had a conflict of wills with the mighty son of Kronos.[1]
Hesiod Th. 534

§11. Here at Th. 534, both the verb erizeto 'had eris [strife, conflict]' and the noun boulas [boulê = 'will, design, plan'] designate essential themes in the story. For a better understanding, we must compare the beginning of the Cypria, where the Trojan War is motivated by the boulê 'Will' of Zeus (fr. 1.7 Allen), who wants to depopulate Earth (fr. 1.1-7); significantly, the entire war is in fact designated as eris 'strife' (fr. 1.5).

§12. Moreover, the beginning of the Cypria tells how the war actually began with the appearance of Eris 'Strife' personified (Proclus summary p. 102.14 Allen). She came to a feast shared by gods and men, the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (Cypria/Proclus p. 102.14-15), and there she caused a neîkos 'quarrel, fight' (p.102.15) involving the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite (p. 102.15-16). The eris 'strife' and neîkos 'quarrel' then extend to the human dimension, as Paris is asked to judge which of the three goddesses is supreme (p. 102.16-17). Paris of course chooses Aphrodite and wins Helen, whose abduction causes the Trojan War; it too is directly called eris in the Cypria (fr. 1.5 Allen). The reference by Menelaos to Helen's aduction in the Iliad motivates the Trojan War in this way: heinek' emês eridos 'on account of my eris' (III 100). So also when the doomed Hektor is about to be killed by Achilles, he calls the abduction of Helen neikeos archê 'the beginning of the neîkos' (XXII 116).[1]

§13. So far, we have merely noted a parallelism in theme and diction between the entire story of the Trojan War on the one hand and, on the other, a single-verse introduction to the story of Prometheus (Hesiod Th. 534). In the latter instance, the eris 'strife' between Zeus and Prometheus concerns their respective boulai 'wills, designs' affecting humanity. In the former instance, we have seen that the boulê 'Will' of Zeus is that men should have eris 'strife' and neîkos 'quarreling', which is to result in the depopulation of Earth in the form of the Trojan War. Now we are ready to observe Hesiod fr. 204.95-123MW, a text that presents an actual convergence between the main themes in the overall story of the Trojan War and those in the story of Prometheus.

§14. At line 95 of Hesiod fr. 204MW, there is a compressed mention of a traditional theme that we find developed throughout the Iliad: the division of the Olympian gods into pro-Achaean and pro-Trojan factions during the Trojan War.[1] At line 96, we are told the ultimate source of this division: ex eridos 'ever since the eris'. The reference here is to the strife in the traditional story about the Judgment of Paris; then at lines 96-123, there follows a fragmentary passage that tells about the Will of Zeus and how it had caused the Trojan War.[2] This theme is more comprehensive here than at Cypria fr. 1 Allen, where the Will of Zeus entails the deaths of heroes in the Trojan War.[3] The gaps in the text leave many important questions without answers, but one additional detail is clear: besides entailing the death of heroes in the Trojan War (see especially lines 118-119),[4] the Will of Zeus also entails thepermanent separation of gods and men. The crucial lines read as follows:

all?' o?hi m[e]n mak?a]r?es? k?[. . . . . . . ]n? hô?s? t?o? paros per
chôr?is ap' an[th]r?ôpôn? [bioton ka]i? êthe' echôsin

but so that the blessed gods ... , as before,
may have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from men
Hesiod fr. 204.102-103MW

This detail shows that the eris willed by Zeus causes not only the Trojan War in particular but the human condition in general.[5]

§15. Returning to the expression erizeto boulas 'had a conflict [eris] of wills [boulai]' at Hesiod Th. 534, we now see that the story of Prometheus here is a mythological variant of the story of Troy as told in Hesiod fr. 204MW, in that both stories are designed to explain the human condition in terms of eris 'strife, conflict'. In the story of the Trojan War, the boulê 'will' of Zeus causes eris for the gods and then for men, who had feasted with the gods. In the story of Prometheus, there is a primordial eris between the boulê of Zeus and the boulê of the deceitful Titan acting on behalf of men, men who had feasted with the gods. In both stories, eris disrupts the communication of men with gods, bringing about the human condition.

§16. Having observed the fundamental nature of eris 'strife' in these mythological visions of mankind's essence, we are ready to consider the social implications of the word itself. Our starting point will be another key word, neîkos 'quarrel, fight'. In the story about the Judgment of Paris, we have seen that the personified figure Eris had brought about a neîkos involving the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, and that Paris is then asked to judge which of the three is supreme (Cypria/Proclus p. 102.14-19).[1] From the Iliadic allusion to the story, we now see that Paris in effect rejected Hera and Athena by virtue of choosing Aphrodite and further that this rejection is presented as a neîkos against these two goddesses:

hos neikesse theas, hote hoi messaulon hikonto,
tên d' êinês' hoi pore machlosunên alegeinên

[Paris] who blamed [made neîkos against] the goddesses [Hera and Athena], when they came to his courtyard,
but he praised her [Aphrodite] who gave him the baneful pleasure of sex.
XXIV 29-30

My task now is to show that the verb neikeô (which I translate as 'blame', from the noun neîkos)[2] and the verb aineô ('praise', from the noun aînos)[3] reflect two antithetical social functions expressed in two formal modes of discourse.


§1n1. Memnon's immortalization is actually unique, to the extent that the realm in which he lived before his death as a hero is also appropriate as the setting for his afterlife. For Memnon, the afterlife is by implication a homecoming. In the diction of archaic Greek poetry, the appropriate words for this theme are those containing the root *nes-; see Frame 1978.

§2n1. See Ch.10§43.

§3n1. In fact, the text of our Theogony ends with the same two verses (Th. 1021-1022) that begin Hesiod fr. 1 (1-2). For a helpful discussion of the complementary relationship between fr. 1 and the Theogony as we have it, see Merkelbach 1968.

§3n2. Among these heroes are Memnon (Th. 984) and Achilles (Th. 1007).

§3n3. This correlation within the text of fr. 1 leads me to disagree with Merkelbach's suggestion (1968.132-133) that Hesiod Th. 965-1020 is a passage that had been inserted between Th. 964 and Th. 1021 (= fr. 1.1MW) after the verses of fr. 1MW had already been composed. The aneres of aneres êde gunaikes at fr. 1.9 presupposes the contents of Th. 965-1020.

§4n1. The text is fragmentary beyond the words quoted, but the sense seems clear; see Merkelbach's collection of restorations (1968). I should add that the antithesis hoi men dêron ... tous d' eith[ar] `some for a long time ... others suddenly ... ' (Hesiod fr. 1.11-12) is set up with the phrase oud' ara isaiônes ... `they [were] not with equal spans of life ... ' (Hesiod fr. 1.8).

§4n2. Cf. Merkelbach 1968.126, who notes a parallelism with the Golden Age. There is no mention, however, of the antithesis discussed at n1 above.

§4n3. On the prodigiously long lifespan of the Golden Generation, cf. Hesiod fr. 356MW.

§4n4. Ch.9§§2-3.

§5n1. The wording that denotes the division of meat by Prometheus is dassamenos (Th. 537) and diedassao moirâs (Th. 544). The verb here is daiomai 'divide, apportion, allot', the derivative of which is dais 'feast'; see Ch.7§14.

§5n2. For the translation, cf. West 1966.317.

§5n3. The significance of this parallel was pointed out by Rudhardt 1970.6.

§5n4. For the notion of tîmê as the `honor' conferred by cult, see Ch.7§1n2, §19nn1 and 3; Ch.9§3.

§5n5. For an illuminating commentary: Vernant 1974.177-194 (cf. also Vernant 1977).

§6n1. For the key words in these verses, see §5n1.

§6n2. For the parallelism of Th. 570-616 with the myth of Pandora (W&D 53-105), see Vernant 1974.192-194.

§7n1. See §1.

§7n2. See Puttkammer 1912.35. This fact has been generally overlooked until the appearance of an important article by Gill (1974), who documents the practice of depositing choice portions of meat on a given god's trapeza, `table', which coexists with the practice of burning the other portions (notably the bones and fat) on the god's altar. In view of the general absence in Homeric poetry of references to setting aside choice cuts of meat for the god who receives sacrifice, Gill and others infer that the practice of depositing meat on a trapeza was originally distinct from the practice of burning meat on an altar. I would argue, however, that the Homeric silence on this aspect of sacrifice is for different reasons: Homeric Epos is Panhellenic, and as such it will tend to avoid any references to localized aspects of any Hellenic institution (cf. Intro.§14). To repeat: the choice of meat portions deposited on the god's trapeza actually varied from polis to polis (Gill, p. 125; cf. also Ch.7§19n3 above). Such localized variation would make this aspect of sacrifice unsuitable for Homeric presentation. One exception to the Homeric silence on the deposition of meat seems to be Odyssey xiv 418-438 (Gill, p. 134); even here, the description is so stylized that it is difficult to imagine what, if any, regional characteristics may be revealed. On the trapeza of the Sun in the land of the Aithiopes (Herodotus 3.17-26), see Vernant 1972.

§7n3. See Ch.10§49.

§8n1. See §§5-6.

§8n2. See §4.

§9n1. See Ch.7§14.

§9n2. Cf. also Ch.7§16n1.

§9n3. See again Ch.7§14.

§10n1. On the omission of Prometheus' name at the start of this narrative: West 1966.317.

§12n1. Note the epithet of Helen in the anonymous lyric fragment 1014 Page: poluneikês. Note too the usage of archê: whereas the theme of Helen is neikeos archê 'the beginning of the neîkos', the theme of Achilles is pêmatos archê 'the beginning of the pêma [pain]' (viii 81; cf. Ch.4§6 and §7n1).

§14n1. Cf. Stiewe 1963.5.

§14n2. Cf. Stiewe, pp. 4-6. I should add that there is no need to assume that the text of Hesiod fr. 204MW is based on one or several other texts; it is enough to say that the text is based on various traditions that occur also in the Cypria and in the Iliad.

§14n3. The Will of Zeus at the beginning of the Cypria is in turn more comprehensive than at the beginning of the Iliad (I 1-7), where it entails the deaths of heroes only in that portion of the Trojan War which begins with the mênis 'anger' of Achilles. See Ch.5§25 (esp. n2), Ch.7§17, Ch.10§17.

§14n4. Note the close parallelism in diction between Iliad I 3-4 and these lines 118-119 of Hesiod fr. 204MW.

§14n5. Note the extended metaphor at Hesiod fr. 204.123 ff.MW, which immediately follows the passage about the Will of Zeus: men die much as leaves fall from trees. On this theme of mortality, see Ch.10§6.

§16n1. See §12.

§16n2. The translation "blame," like all other translations, is only partially adequate. In his suggestive discussion of the verb neikeô/neikeiô, Adkins (1960.59n17) weighs such translations as "upbraid" and "chide," finally deciding on "abuse" in order to emphasize that "in a society which does not distinguish between moral error and mistake, it is impossible to distinguish mockery, abuse, and rebuke. There is only one situation: unpleasant words directed at a man who has in fact fallen short of the expectations of society."

§16n3. I postpone any definition of aînos until later.

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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.