Home » The Ancient Greek Hero » The Ancient Greek Hero -Hour 4 – Achilles as a lyric hero

The Ancient Greek Hero -Hour 4 – Achilles as a lyric hero

In this section we are looking at Achilles as a lyric hero in the songs of Sappo and Pindar moving from Epic to Lyric and back again. Sappo was a song writer of the late seventh and early sixth century BC where as Pinderwas a lyric master more that a century later.

The Education of Achilles (ca. 1772), by James...

The Education of Achilles (ca. 1772), by James Barry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this picture we can see  Achilles and the lyre. The lyre is a seven stringed musical instrument from the classical period. It is from this instrument or the concept of the instrument  we get the word  “lyric.”

Key words

aphthito meaning imperishable and also, in some specialized contexts, unwilting. We saw this word in hour one in the first reading.

kleos aphthiton – imperishable kleos or glorious, conferred by song.

phthi-n-ein the word for the death of Achilles. This word that comes up again in the adjective that describes the clothes of Achilles in Iliad 9, 413.  The word can also mean perish but in a more specific way.

A. The imperishable glory of Achilles in a song of Pindar 

Text A.

Even when he died, the songs did not leave him. But the maidens of Helicon, the Muses, stood by his pyre and his funeral mound, and as they stood there they poured forth a song of lamentation that is famed far and wide. And so it was that the immortal gods decided to hand over the man, genuine as he was, even after he had perished in death, to the songs of the Muses. And this, even now, wins as a prize, the words of song, as the chariot team of the Muses starts moving on its way to glorify the memory of Nikokles the boxer. Pindar Isthmian 8.56-62

A representation from the 1500s of the Muses d...

A representation from the 1500s of the Muses dancing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This reading is taken from a 5th century choral lyric by Pindar, using the medium of singing, dancing and musical accompaniment. The song is for an Aeginian athlete named Kleandros. The name immediately tells us that he was meant to be celebrated in glory. He lived up to his name through his success as an athlete. The song also honours his cousin Nikokles.  It honours Achilles as an ancestor of the Aegina not as the hero of  a lyric which  is far more compressed than the many verses this would take in an epic. The Muses (goddesses of total recall) are singing songs of lament about Achilles, while he is displayed on his funeral pyre.  The physical reality of where where rituals of making contact with the dead happen, especially dead heroes, is important. The Muses also  sing, in “Odyssey” 24. They transform the song of Achilles into the eventual epic that we find in Homeric poetry.

The metaphor of comparing song to the momentum of a chariot team, that is to say, a chariot pulled by racehorses, four in number in the classical period, that metaphor is going to be one of the driving themes for expressing how the hero gets to have kleos, that is  imperishable.

Klea Andron

Text B.

This is how we learned it, the glories of men of an earlier time, who were heroes, whenever one of them was overcome by tempestuous anger. Iliad IX 524-525

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Text C.  

The two of them reached the shelters and the ships of the Myrmidons, and they found Achilles diverting his heart as he was playing on a clear sounding lyre, a beautiful one of exquisite workmanship. And its crossbar was of silver. It was part of the spoils that he had taken when he destroyed the city of Ietion. And now he was diverting his heart with it, as he was singing the glories of men. Patroclus was the only other person there. He sat in silence, facing him and waiting for Achilles to finish singing. Meanwhile, the two of them came in, Odysseus leading the way, and stood before him. Achilles sprang up from his seat with the lyre still in his hand, and Patroclus, when he saw the guests, rose also. Iliad IX 185-195

We saw these two texts before in hour two. They are here again to stress the klea andron, the glories of heroes as conferred by song  both epic and  lyric. By looking at them again we start seeing the deeper meanings and understanding that there’s a system that generates these gems of verbal art. Here Achilles is playing the Lyre which was part of the spoils of the battle with the father of Andromache. What is important here is the lament and the link with Andromache who sings one of the greatest laments in The Iliad when she laments for Hector.

  The imperishable glory of Hector and Andromache in a song of Sappho.

By workshop of Johann Heinrich Tischbein d. Ä. (http://www.bassenge.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Text D.

…and the rest of Asia…imperishable glory. Hector and his comrades led her, the one with the glancing looks. From holy Thebe and Plakia they led her, the lovely Andromache, in ships  over the salty sea. Many golden bracelets and purple robes, intricately worked ornaments,countless silver cups and ivory.Thus he spoke. And the dear father quickly leapt up.  And the news reached the dear ones throughout the broad city. And the Trojans yoked to smooth-running carriages the mules. And the whole ensemble climbed on, all the women and the maidens, looking just like the gods, holy, set forth into Troy. And the sweet song of the pipe mixed, and the sound of the cymbals, and then the maidens sang a sacred song. And all the way to the sky travelled the wondrous echo. And everywhere through the streets, mixing bowls and cups, and myrrh, and cassia, and frankincense were mingled. And the older women cried out, ‘Elelu.’ Meanwhile, all the men sang  out in a lovely, high-pitched song calling on Apollo of Paon, the far-shooter, master of playing beautifully on the lyre. And they sang the song of Hector and Andromache, both looking just like the gods.  from Song 44 of Sappho (“The Wedding of Hector and Andromache”)

Sappho, arguably the greatest woman poet of European poetic tradition, is from Lesbos, an island populated by an Aeolic-speaking population. Aeolians are representatives of a phase of the Greek language, as it feeds into Homeric poetry, that is earlier than  that which eventually crystallizes in the formation of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” as we know them.  Sappho’s medium is related to the Homeric medium in that they have joint inheritance of very old storytelling patterns.

This is a passage from a larger composition of one of Sappho’s songs that is quite fragmentary. Sometimes it is refereed to   as ‘Fragment 44 of Sappho’. In the first line we see  “kleos aphthiton,” “imperishable glory.” which is the same expression that we see in “Iliad” 9, line 413. Here, “kleos aphthiton”  doesn’t apply to Achilles, but to the person that Achilles hates more than anybody in the whole world,  Hector and Hector’s wife, Andromache, whom Achilles hurts indirectly, because of the suffering that Andromache goes through as a result of the death of Hector.
This couple are made famous by their beautiful farewell scene in Iliad 6. Here the still happy bride and groom are described as “ikeloi theois,” “looking just like the gods,” and again on the last line as  “theo-eikeloi” which also means “looking just like the gods.” In the “Iliad” the only character who is described by this epithet, “theo-eikelos,”  is Achilles. The couple’s song is referred to as kleos aphthiton, unwilting glory.

The word numphē, means both ‘bride’ (as in Iliad XVIII 492) and ‘goddess’, that is, ‘nymph’ (as in Iliad XXIV 616)

Achilles as a Bridegroom

Text E.

Himerius (Orations 1.16) says,” Sappho compared to girl to an apple [..] She compared the bridegroom to Achilles, and likened the young man’s deeds to the hero’s.”  Sappho Fragment 105b

By Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sappho was famous for her wedding songs. In this one the bride is compared to an apple the bridegroom to Achilles. She likened the young man’s deeds to the deeds of  the hero – Achilles.We have Achilles as the star of lyric traditions and not just epic traditions.  People in the ancient Greek song culture not only liked Achilles, they loved him. Sappho, as a woman, is a representative of two aspects of ancient Greek song culture singing laments and singing love songs.  Laments and love songs are so closely related in ancient Greek song culture that they’re even interchangeable.

Achilles as the focus of lament.

Text F.

To what shall I liken you, dear bridegroom, to make the likeness beautiful? | To a tender seedling, I liken you to that most of all. Sappho Song 115

This is another fragment from Sappho and we can see the metaphor of the seedling .  Unfortunately these songs are only very fragmentarily transmitted from the ancient world to our time but it is a  good guess that this fragment is in the context of a wedding.

Achilles’ mother Thetis, when she laments Achilles prematurely in Iliad 18, actually compares Achilles to a tender young plant, to a beautiful growing flower that is cut off in its prime.  We can see then that Sappho  likens the bridegroom to Achilles and makes the likeness beautiful.

Text G.

Ah me, the pitiful one! Ah me, the mother, so sad it is, of the very best. I gave birth to a faultless and strong son, the very best of heroes. And he shot up [anedramen] equal [īsos] to a seedling [ernos]. I nurtured him like a shoot in the choicest spot of the orchard, only to send him off on curved ships to Troy, to fight Trojan men. And I will never be welcoming him  back home as returning warrior, back to the House of Peleus.  And as long as he lives and sees the light of the sun,  he will have sorrow [akh-nutai], and though I go to him I cannot help him. Nevertheless I will go, that I may see my dear son and learnwhat sorrow [penthos] has befallen him though he is still holding aloof from battle.  Iliad XVIII 54-64

When you hear in a song somebody compared to a plant, the most likely context is a love song including wedding songs and laments. The singer is most likely to be female, a mother in the case of a young warrior who’s cut down at the peak of his beauty and is being compared to a flower that has been cut down in its own prime. Or, it could be a lover comparing her lover to a flower. Or, it could even be a lover-to-be who never gets to consummate her love with the bridegroom because the bridegroom dies in war.

At the moment of wedding, in the ritualized world of ancient Greek song culture, the bridegroom would morph into a god and the bride would morph into a goddess in the imagination of those celebrating not something that had to be forced upon the happy couple. The traditions of song culture, make that possible. If a bridegroom is compared to a god, and a bride is compared to a goddess, how is that similar to the way heroes are compared to gods or female heroes compared to goddesses?

Text H.

Standing around you were the daughters of the Old One of the sea [= Nereus], weeping piteously, and they [= the Nereids] clothed you [= the corpse of Achilles] in immortalizing [ambrota] clothes. The nine Muses also came, all of them, and sang antiphonally with a beautiful voice, singing their song of lament [thrēneîn]; you could not spot a single person who was not shedding tears, of all the Argives [= Achaeans], so loudly did the piercing sound of lament rise up. Days and nights seven and ten we mourned you, mortals and immortals alike.  Odyssey xxiv 58-64

Antiphonally” is a different way of translating the back and forth. The original Greek does really make it clear that it’s a back and forth motion. The idea is that people take turns in who says something first, and then who follows up with more personalized emotions. The “immortalizing clothes” is a different kind of metaphor. In the original Greek it is “ambrota,” which is usually translated as “immortal.” That doesn’t give the sense that it has a power within it to spread the immortality around, to confer immortality. There’s a charisma within this powerful word that causes somebody to be immortal.

There are two groups singing  the Nereids and  the nine Muses. Moving out of the scene we then see the larger group of the Argives, and then finally the mortals and the immortals. The Nereids are the next of kin,  the mother and the aunts of Achilles. The Muses correspond to professional singers of sad songs. At the funeral of Hector in Iliad 24, it’s stated explicitly that the next of kin sing one kind of lament.  The  professional singers, who are, in that passage, called “aoidoi,” sing a special kind of lament. There, too, the word is “threnos,” which we see here, with reference to the performance of the Muses. In a sense, the nine Muses are the professional component of this very complex system of how to sing laments with both professional and non professional participation. The Muses are closer to the kind of professional medium that Homeric poetry itself represents.

Text I. 

Thetis  comes with the Muses and her sisters and makes a lament [thrēnos] for her son.  After that, Thetis snatches him off the funeral pyre and carries her  son over to the White Island [Leukē]. Meanwhile the Achaeans  make [for Achilles] a tomb [taphos] and hold funeral games. plot-summary by Proclus of the Aithiopis by Arctinus of Miletus p. 106 lines 12-16

Here the technical word threnos is used for lament. This is the word for lament as performed by professional singers, and here, the Muses are the professional singers.  Thetis, the mother of Achilles, snatches his body off the funeral pyre and carries him to the White Island. We don’t see this highlighted in The Iliad where heroes do not get immortalized after death, at least not explicitly. Meanwhile, the others there build his tomb and hold funeral games.

Achilles doesn’t die or get buried in The Iliad. No one sings laments  for him after his death only before as we see described in the lament of Thetis. We see other rituals through the death of Patroclus. We can interpret this as related to the  untimeliness of heroes. Nothing is on time during his lifetime, even the rituals marking the sadness of Achilles’ death are mistimed because they’re happening before they should be happening.

The unfailing glory of Achilles

Text J.

Briseis Mourning Patrokels

Then Briseis, looking like golden Aphrodite, saw Patroklos all cut apart by the sharp bronze, and, when she saw him, she poured herself all over him in tears and wailed with a voice most clear, and with her hands she tore at her breasts and her tender neck and her beautiful face. And then she spoke, weeping, this woman who looked like the goddesses: “O Patroklos, you have been most gracious to me in my terrible state and most gratifying to my heart. You were alive when I last saw you on my way out from the shelter  – and now I come back to find you dead, you, the protector of your people – that is what I come back to find. Oh, how I have one misfortune after the next to welcome me. The man to whom I was given away by my father and by my mother the queen – I saw that man lying there in front of the city, all cut apart by the sharp bronze, and lying near him were my three brothers – all of us were born of one mother – they are all a cause for my sorrow, since they have all met up with their time of destruction. No, you [= Patroklos] did not let me – back when my husband was killed by swift-footed Achilles,  killed by him, and when the city of my godlike Mynes [= my husband] was destroyed by him  – you did not let me weep, back then, but you told me that godlike Achilles  would have me as a properly courted wife, that you would make that happen, and that you would take me on board the ships, taking me all the way to Phthia, and that you would arrange for a wedding feast among the Myrmidons.  So, now, I cannot stop crying for you, now that you are dead, you who were always so sweet and gentle.”  So she [= Briseis] spoke, weeping, and the women kept on mourning in response. They mourned for Patroklos, that was their pretext, but they were all mourning, each and every one of them, for what they really cared for in their sorrow.  Iliad XIX 282-302 

While Achilles grieves over the death of his best friend and his knowledge that he himself will die the way Patroclus does,  Thetis sings her lament for Achilles before he dies as she knows  that he will die.  She uses this occasion to lament him as if he were dead. Her words evoke  the beautiful image of a tender young seedling that is cut down in its prime, before it
reaches its full potential. She describes the sorrow that she has in just thinking of a dead Achilles, this premonition that is being sung, as a penthos, as a sorrow.

Embedded songs in Homeric poetry are publicly performed songs as epic itself is publicly performed. Here we have a beautiful lament embedded within the narrative of epic.  And we have to understand it as a performance. Just as epic itself, the master story is a performance. The mother of Achilles, Thetis, snatches him off the funeral pyre and carries her son over to the White  Island, which is Achilles’ personalized paradise

A lament performed by one of the most beautiful and accomplished women in the Iliad, but one who is often in the background, Briseis, a war prize of Achilles. The woman who is treated more like property at the beginning of the Iliad. You don’t really get a sense of who she is until the character develops, and that development is only visible as we go further into the plot of the Iliad. By the time we get to this beautiful passage and Iliad 19, where Briseis, the war bride of Achilles, is mourning Patroclus, you see one of the most effective re enactments of what a lament in ancient Greek song culture really is like. You can very clearly see that the expression of sorrow, grief, as sung, by Briseis,  is not only a full fledged lament, but it’s something that activates the emotions of everybody who attends this performance by Briseis. The captive women who accompanied Briseis are so affected emotionally that, just as Briseis as a soloist sings her song of lament the rest of the women as a song and dance back up, as a chorus. These other women they have their emotions all brought into the beautiful performance of Briseis herself. So you can start seeing that when you’re dealing with lyric, it’s not just personal, it can be communal at the same time. Even though something is deeply private and can be applied, we think, only to one person, there are ways of applying those same deeply personalized feelings to everybody who’s part of the event. That’s the beauty of lament, and that’s the beauty of lyric, which then deepens our perception of epic.

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