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The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour Two


Achilles as epic hero and the idea of total recall in song.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow...

Achilles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The key word for this hour is memnēmai, which means ‘I have total recall’ in special contexts and ‘I remember’ in ordinary contexts. The special contexts involve memory by way of song.

We looked again at a story within a story. This time the one told by Phoenix. There were five slow readings for this hour that we looked at in detail.

There were also three books or scrolls of the Iliad to read. I am not sure why III, VI and IX and not some in sequence. I read scroll II and it is mainly a list of all the Argives’ ships and who lead them and where they had come from. There was one story in there though that told of the prophesy of Kalkhas. He interpreted a snake eating nine sparrows as the nine years they would fight at Troy before taking the town. There is also the story of Zeus sending the false dream to Agamemnon which incites him to turn back and attack Troy. I thought that was worth reading and put some parts into context for me.

Text A

I totally recall [me-mnē-mai] how this was done – it happened a long time ago, it is not something new  recalling exactly how it was. I will tell it in your company – since you are all near and dear [philoi].
Iliad IX 527-528

Total Recall Source : imbd.com

This passage is important as it tells us about the medium of the Iliad. It is a medium of total recall in poetry, song and story that people are willing to die to be in the medium. The reason Achilles chose to die young was because he wanted to be in an epic that, as he predicted, would last for ever. The last word that is highlighted defines the audience  Those who are near and dear will understand the tale more deeply, more meaningfully than others.

The professor mentions the film ‘Total Recall’ which was loosely based on the book Philip K Dick in explaining why he used the term ‘Total Recall’. It is not just that the narrator remembers the story but that he remembers it perfectly. The book was called ‘We can remember it for you wholesale’.

Text B (which includes Text A)

This is how [houtōs] we [= I, Phoenix] learned it, the glories [klea] of men [andrōn] of an earlier time [prosthen],  who were heroes [hērōes], whenever one of them was overcome by tempestuous anger. They could be persuaded by way of gifts and could be swayed by words.  I totally recall [me-mnē-mai] how this was done – it happened a long time ago, it is not something new –  recalling exactly how it was. I will tell it in your company – since you are all near and dear [philoi].

Iliad IX 524-528
The same idea of Total Recall, of having these perfect memories that are not from actually having lived something, is used in the film The Blade Runner where Runner tries to persuade Rachel that her memories are not real but implants.

Although Rachel’s memories of her piano lessons are not her own when she plays the piano she becomes the music. It is her playing. Just as the story becomes the story of the teller and the memories become visual for the audience.

Text C

 And now, tell me, O Muses, you who live in your Olympian abodes,  since you are goddesses and you were there and you know everything, but we [= the Narrator] only hear the kleos and we know nothing – who were the chiefs and princes of the Danaans [= the Achaeans]?
Iliad II 484-487
This is part of Scroll II which details the “Catalogue of Ships”. It wasn’t part of the required reading for this hour but it shows just how important all the little details are to the story.
It this text we can see that the narrator refers to the Muses who were goddesses. They are guaranteed to remember everything perfectly.  He tells his audience that it was they who told him so that story is perfect and now he is telling us so that is perfect also. It is as if we are hearing it from the mouths of the gods themselves.
We have seen this telling and retelling and the thought that it comes directly from the gods earlier in Scroll  II when Zeus sent a false dream to Agamemnon. The same words were told exactly first by Zeus tot he dream then by the dream to Agamemnon and then by Agamemnon to his people.
He then sat down, and Nestor the prince of sandy Pylos with all sincerity and goodwill addressed them thus: “My friends,” said he, “princes and councilors of the Argives,  if any other man of the Achaeans had told us of this dream we should have declared it false, and would have had nothing to do with it. But he who has seen it is the foremost man among us; we must therefore set about getting the people under arms.”

Text D

 The two of them reached the shelters and the ships of the Myrmidons,  and they found Achilles diverting his heart [phrēn] as he was playing on a clear-sounding lyre [phorminx], a beautiful one, of exquisite workmanship, and its cross-bar was of silver. It was part of the spoils that he had taken when he destroyed the city of Eëtion, and he was now diverting his heart [thūmos] with it as he was singing[aeidein] the glories of men [klea andrōn].  Patroklos was the only other person there. He [= Patroklos] sat in silence, facing him [= Achilles],  and waiting for the Aeacid [= Achilles] to leave off singing [aeidein].  Meanwhile the two of them came in – radiant Odysseus leading the way –  and stood before him. Achilles sprang up from his seat with the lyre [phorminx] still in his hand, and Patroklos, when he saw the guests, rose also.
Iliad IX 185-195
The importance of this passage is that it again tells us more about the medium. There wouldn’t be just one person telling the tales or singing the songs but many people taking their turns. This illustrates that as Achilles is singing and  Patroklos is waiting for his turn. The singing and music show another medium of the epic tale and the importance of these tales to the heroes within the tale and those to be in the tales of the future.

Text E

This was the longest of the readings and I won’t duplicate all of it here. The text is the tale that Phoenix tells of Meleagros and Kleopatra.

Meleagros Source : Wikipedia

Meleagros was angry at his mother Althea. He was laying down ‘nursing his anger’   “and he was lying around, next to his wife, whom he had courted and married in the proper way. She was the beautiful Kleopatra,”  He was angry with his mother because she had been praying and ‘making curses in her sorrow over the killing of her brother by her son Mereagros. She prayed for the death of her son and her prayers were heard by a Fury and so battles broke out around the city walls.  The elders of the city called out to Meleagros to come out and rescue them. Everyone was begging him to come out and help them including his sisters and his mother but he kept saying no. They promised him gifts but he still said no.

Then his chamber suffered a direct hit and the Kouretes started to set fire to the city. His wife Kleopatra then begged him to help and told him stories of what would happen if the city were taken. SO he put on his armour and went to help . He rescued the Aetolians but they then didn’t give him the promised gifts. But he protected them anyway because his wife had begged him to do so.
As for you [= Achilles], don’t go on thinking [noeîn] in your mind [phrenes] the way you are thinking now. Don’t let a superhuman force [daimōn] do something to you  right here, turning you away, my near and dear one [philos]. It would be a worse prospect  to try to rescue the ships [of the Achaeans] if they are set on fire. So, since the gifts are waiting for you,  get going! For if you do that, the Achaeans will honor [tīnein] you – same as a god.  But if you have no gifts when you do go into the war, that destroyer of men, you will no longer have honor [tīmē] the same way, even if you have succeeded in blocking the [enemy’s] forces of war.
We see here again the them of a small story within the big story. It repeats the them of the Iliad and we see that it is Kleopatra who is the most near and dear to Meleagros. In the same way Petrokles is the nearest and dearest for Achilles. The most dear is the person with whom the hero most identifies. The meaning of the name Kleopatra is the same as the meaning of the name Petrokles ‘the one who has the glory of the ancestors’.
We see the parallels here with the anger that Meleagros has and that of Achilles. It is an anger which ‘brings pain to the heart’.  Meleagros is begged by the elders, priests  his sisters, his mother then his comrades – this is the order of importance to him until the most important his wife asks him. The comrades of a hero are always important  We see with Achilles the three comrades who visited him to ask for his aid.
Meleagros misses out on getting the ‘honor’ or tīmē that he deserves: so, what  happens with the ‘honor’ or tīmē that Achilles deserves will depend on his self respect.


  1. […] The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour Two (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] the Ancient Greek Hero course we looked at the second clip (above) of this film and the idea that having total recall in […]

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