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The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour 8 – The psychology of the hero’s sign.


Sappho Picture credit (iwu.edu)

These are my notes from hour 8 lectures and readings from The Ancient Greek Hero. Lectures and text from Professor Gregory Nagy.

The meaning of psūkhē

The key word for this hour is psūkhē, as used in the context of the key word for the previous hour, sēma. This word psūkhē can refer either to the life of someone who is alive or to the disembodied conveyor of someone’s identity after that someone dies.

Photo credit (uh.edu)

The word psūkhē is written out as ΦΣΥΧΕ in a picture painted on the Münster Hydria. The word hydria comes from the Greek word hudriā, which designates a vessel designed for holding and pouring hudōr or ‘water’. This kind of vessel could be used for the pouring of water in rituals honouring ancestors or cult heroes, and the general term for such ritual pouring – of any liquid – is libation.  It was also used for storing the bones of the dead: there is a particularly revealing mythological reference to this custom in “Dictys” FGH 49 F 7a (Tebtunis Papyrus 268): at lines 89-91, it is said that the bones of Achilles, together with those of Patroklos, were placed into a hydria and taken away for burial at Sigeion, a city situated on the Hellespont. This city was reputed to be the authentic site of the tomb of Achilles.

The word ‘spirit’ can be used in translating the word psūkhē But it has a deeper meaning. There is “a psychology of signs” not only in the picture we see painted on the body of the Münster Hydria but also in the overall narrative of the Homeric Iliad. The use of the word psūkhē in the painting, with specific reference to the ‘spirit’ of the dead Patroklos, is comparable to the use of this same word in the epic.

The psūkhē of Patroklos in the Iliad

Text A

|58 Τhe others went to their rest each to his own tent, |59 but only the son of Peleus, by the shore of the resounding sea, |60 only he amidst all his many Myrmidons lay grieving with deep groans |61 in an open place on the beach where the waves came surging in, one after another. |62 Here sleep took hold of him, releasing him from the cares in his heart. |63 It was a sweet sleep that poured all over him, since his shining limbs had been worn down |64 with chasing Hector round windy Ilion. |65Then came to him the spirit [psūkhē] of unhappy Patroklos, |66 resembling in every way the man himself in size and good looks |67 and voice. It [= the psūkhē] even wore the same clothes he used to wear over his skin. |68 It [= the psūkhē] stood over his head and addressed to him these words: |69 “You sleep, Achilles. As for me, you have forgotten all about me; |70 you used to be not at all uncaring about me when I was alive, but now that I am dead you care for me no further. |71 Bury me with all speed that I may pass through the gates of Hādēs. |72 Keeping me away from there are the spirits [psūkhai], who are images [eidōla] of men who have ended their struggles; |73 they [= the spirits] are not yet permitting me to join them beyond the river. |74 So that is how it is, and that is how I am, directionless, at the entrance to the wide gates of the house of Hādēs. |75 Give me now your hand while I weep, and I do weep because never again |76 will I return from the house of Hādēs once you all do what you have to do, which is, to let me have the ritual of fire. |77 And never again will you [= Achilles] and I be alive together as we sit around only in each other’s company, separating ourselves from our dear comrades [hetairoi], while we keep on sharing, just the two of us, |78 our thoughts with each other. My fate [kēr] has its hold on me, |79 that hateful thing. Now it has opened its gaping jaws and swallowed me. It really always had its hold on me, ever since I was born. |80 But you, Achilles, you who look just like the gods [theoeikelos], you too have a fate [moira] that has its hold on you. |81 You too are fated to die beneath the walls of the noble Trojans. |82 I will tell you one more thing, and I call on you to comply. |83 Do not let my bones be laid to rest apart from your bones, Achilles, |84 but together with them – the same way we were brought up together in your own home, |85 back when I, still a boy, was brought from Opous by [my father] Menoitios. |86 He brought me to your place because of a disastrous [lugrē] homicide. |87 It happened on the day when I killed the son of Amphidamas. |88 It was involuntary. I was feeling disconnected [nēpios].  I got angry during a game of dice. |89 But then [your father] the charioteer Peleus received me in his home, |90 and he raised me in a ritually correct way, naming me to be your attendant [therapōn]. |91 So now let the same container enclose our bones for both of us. |92 I mean, the two-handled golden vase given to you by that lady, your mother.”

(Iliad XXIII 58-92) 

Photo credit (Wikimedia)

In this text we hear that the psūkhē is as Patrokles was in life, not a small image like we saw depicted on the hydria. Achilles is surprised that he is life sized. Patrokles uses very emotional language so he still has feelings. The passage says a lot about how the two heroes had the same life and how they were brought up together showing us again how they are one person.

The sharing of one single tomb by Patroklos and Achilles in death is explicitly connected with something that they had shared in life: the experience of life itself. The shared upbringing of these two heroes is being equated with a shared life that becomes a model for their shared death.

Patroklos is not only the body-double of Achilles he is also his spirit-double or “soulmate.” Patroklos and Achilles share not only the same sēma: they share also the same psūkhē. They share not only the same meaning but even the same psychic energy that leads to the same meaning.

Text B

Hector, accompanied by all his advisors, is planning plans [boulas bouleuei] at the tomb [sēma] of godlike Ilos. (Iliad X 414-415)

Hector is at the tomb of Ilos who is the prototypical founding figure for Troy. The significance of this is that they are engaged in hero cult behavior. They are making plans at the tomb of Troy. The heroes always show the way, they are the indicators.

The use of the word sēma here is most suggestive it signals not only the tomb of a cult hero but also a sign that signals the transcendent meaning of that tomb to those who are qualified to understand the mystical language of hero cult.

The psūkhē of Patroklos in the picture painted on the Münster hydria

On this vase, the painting of the letters ΦΣΥΧΕ that spell psūkhē next to the miniature figure of Patroklos as he levitates over the sēma he will share with Achilles applies not only to Patroklos but also to Achilles, whose pose of running at ground zero alongside his speeding chariot mirrors the pose of Patroklos running in thin air above the sēma that he will share with his “soulmate.”

Achilles and Patroklos as cult heroes of apobatic chariot racing

The picture painted on the Münster Hydria represents the heroes Achilles and Patroklos in the act of engaging in the apobatai ‘those who step off’ as it took place at the Athenian festival of the Panathenaia in the latter part of the sixth century BCE. The painting on the Münster Hydria and other comparable paintings show the way for the future observance of rituals of hero cult in honour not only of Patroklos but also of Achilles.

In terms of Gregory Nagy’s argument Achilles and Patroklos presided as cult heroes over this athletic event, which is a ritual of hero cult. The death of Patroklos, which is the prototype for the death of Achilles is part of the aetiology of this athletic even. An aetiology is a myth that motivates an institutional reality, especially a ritual. So the death of Patroklos is one part of the myth that becomes the aetiology for the apobatic chariot race at the Panathenaia.

There is another part of this myth that we need to consider, the dragging of the corpse of Hector behind Achilles’ chariot. In the logic of aetiologies, a ritual practice can be polluted by a hero in myth, and then this pollution will need to be eternally purified by succeeding generations of ordinary humans who participate in that same seasonally recurring ritual practice. In the case of the chariot race the pollution was dragging Hector’s corpse. A comparable example is the case of the non-apobatic chariot race at the festival of the Olympics, where the pollution in myth was the killing of Oinomaos in the course of his fatal chariot race with Pelops, who was the cause of this death (Apollodorus Epitome 2.7).

In the vase paintings Achilles he is shown running furiously alongside a speeding chariot that is dragging the corpse of Hector. In these pictures, Achilles is polluting the athletic event of apobatic chariot racing, but he is still performing as an apobatic athlete. So when an athlete is making his own run alongside his own speeding chariot he is re-enacting the prototypical run of Achilles. That prototypical run in myth is an expression of the hero’s fury, which can now translate into the competitive “killer instinct” of the athlete when he makes his own apobatic run.

An athletic event at Eleusis

Demophon Picture credit (Wikimedia)

We focus on an aetiology for a seasonally recurring athletic event celebrated at Eleusis. This event, known as the Ballētus, was a mock battle that was evidently the ritual kernel of a whole complex of events known as the Eleusinian Games.  Here is how the athletic event is defined in an ancient dictionary attributed to Hesychius (this name is a figurehead for a vast lexicographical tradition stemming from the Library of Alexandria):

‘Ballētus is a festival in Athens, celebrated in honor of Dēmophōn son of Keleos’. 

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the athletic competition of the Ballētus is overtly described as an act of compensation, recurring at the right season into all eternity, and this competition is understood to be an eternal compensation for a primal pollution caused by human error. That pollution was the unintended death of an infant hero named Dēmophōn. The queen of Eleusis, mother of this infant hero, had unintentionally ruined the plan of the goddess Demeter to make Dēmophōn exempt from death. That moment happens when the queen interrupts Demeter in the sacred act of dipping the infant Dēmophōn into the fire of the household fireplace in order to galvanize this infant into a state of immortality (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 239-250). Here is the passage that tells about the immediate aftermath, where the goddess angrily condemns the error of the queen and announces that the infant hero Dēmophōn will now be subject to death, like all other mortals. As we are about to see, however, the dooming of the infant to death comes with compensation:

Text C

Demeter, goddess of agriculture. Picture credit (theoi.com)

|259 I [= Demeter] swear by the implacable water of the Styx, the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this: |260 immortal and ageless for all days |261 would I have made your dear [philos] little boy, and I would have given him honor [tīmē] that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos]. |262 But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom. |263 Still, he will have an honor [tīmē] that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos], for all time, because on my knees |264 he had once sat and slept in my arms. |265 At the right season [hōrā], every year, |266 the sons of the Eleusinians will have a war, a terrible battle among each other. |267 They will do so for all days to come. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 259-267)

 The goddess Demeter is the goddess of vegetation and greenness. She was trying to immortalize the baby Demephon bu the parents panicked as they didn’t understand. So now he will die which is not what the goddess wanted as she liked this baby so much.

The death of the infant will be compensated by seasonally recurring rituals of athletic re-enactment, as expressed by the word tīmē ‘honor’ (verse 263), which refers here to the honor conferred upon cult heroes in the rituals of hero cult. In this case, the rituals take the form of an athletic competition that overtly simulates warfare. It will be ‘un-wilting’ and last forever. The baby will get a hero cult.

Another example of such a seasonally recurring ritual is a mock battle of boys competing within a sacralised space known as the Platanistās ‘Grove of the Plane Trees’ in Sparta: this ritual is described by Pausanias (3.11.2, 3.14.8-9), who notes that the boys made sacrifice to the hero Achilles before they started their mock battle (3.20.8). Hero cult and epic are parallel, the identities are preserved in rituals.

Achilles and Dēmophōn as cult heroes of festivals

Text D

|410 My mother Thetis, goddess with silver steps, tells me that |411 I carry the burden of two different fated ways [kēres] leading to the final moment [telos] of death. |412 If I stay here and fight at the walls of the city of the Trojans, |413 then my safe homecoming [nostos] will be destroyed for me, but I will have a glory [kleos] that is unwilting [aphthiton]. |414 Whereas if I go back home, returning to the dear land of my forefathers, |415 then it is my glory [kleos], genuine [esthlon] as it is, that will be destroyed for me, but my life force [aiōn] will then |416 last me a long time, and the final moment [telos] of death will not be swift in catching up with me.(Iliad IX 410-416)

Runners at the panathenaic Games Picture credit (Wikipedia)

The parallelisms in the wording that we see in these two passages (C and D) highlight the parallelisms between Dēmophōn and Achilles as heroes who are linked with festivals. Just as the tīmē ‘honor’ of the hero Dēmophōn takes the form of a seasonally recurring athletic event that is aphthitos ‘unwilting’ (Hymn to Demeter 261, 263) because it will last forever, eternally recycled at the festival of the Eleusinian Games, so also the kleos‘glory’ of the hero Achilles takes the form of a seasonally recurring poetic event that isaphthiton ‘unwilting’ (Iliad IX 413) because it too will last forever, eternally recycled in the context of a festival like the Panathenaia.

It does not denote rigidity or lack of change. Plants wilt and regrow and so these festivals or rituals happen in a seasonal way. The only way to imagine eternity is through this idea of recycling. The outcome is open ended. Every spring there is new growth. There is death and regrowth. Disconnection is not permanent.

The text shows Achilles is aware of what his decision will mean. If he makes the wrong decision there will be no Iliad and he will not be immortal in rituals and epics. He chose kleos over nostos as he doesn’t see that as glorious enough. Unwilting glory [aphthiton] is a metaphor for a flower that never loses its colour or its perfume. He is aware that his legend will last forever in poetry. It is not that he wants to die, but he wants that story. He is very self-aware, the Iliad is very self-aware. It is talking in this passage about what we are doing now, reading the Homeric poetry that gives truth to Achilles’ prediction.

Achilles as a model of rhapsodic performance

There is an indirect linking of the kleos or epic ‘glory’ of Achilles with the festival of the Panathenaia: it happens at the moment when the ambassadors sent by Agamemnon to Achilles find him in his shelter, where he is singing the klea andrōn ‘glories of men (heroes)’:

Text E

|185 The two of them reached the shelters and the ships of the Myrmidons, |186 and they found Achilles diverting his heart [phrēn] as he was playing on a clear-sounding lyre [phorminx], |187 a beautiful one, of exquisite workmanship, and its cross-bar was of silver. |188 It was part of the spoils that he had taken when he destroyed the city of Eëtion, |189 and he was now diverting his heart [thūmos] with it as he was singing[aeidein] the glories of men [klea andrōn]. |190 Patroklos was the only other person there. He [= Patroklos] sat in silence, facing him [= Achilles], |191 and waiting for the Aeacid [= Achilles] to leave off singing [aeidein]. |192 Meanwhile the two of them came in – radiant Odysseus leading the way – |193 and stood before him. Achilles sprang up from his seat |194 with the lyre [phorminx] still in his hand, |195 and Patroklos, when he saw the guests, rose also. (Iliad IX 185-195)

Achilles is shown here as a model of epic performance. We may compare the evidence of the vase paintings where Achilles is shown as a model of athletic performance. In the Iliad, Achilles is not only the model subject of songs that are the klea andrōn ‘glories of men (heroes)’. He is also the model performer of such songs. The same goes for Patroklos or Patrokleēs. As we have seen, the meaning of his name, ‘he who has the kleos of the ancestors’, encapsulates the very idea of klea andrōn.

Patroklos is waiting for Achilles to stop singing so that he can have his turn. The passage illustrates relay singing. Achilles is singing of the glories of men which maybe another epic story, in lyric.

Homeric poetry was performed at the Panathenaia by rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’ (Plato Ion 530a-b, 533b-c; Isocrates Panegyricus159; and Plutarch Life of Pericles 13.9-11). The rhapsodies narrated the Iliad and Odyssey in relay, following traditions of rhapsodic sequencing: each rhapsode waited for his turn to pick up the narrative where the previous left off (“Plato” Hipparkhos 228b-c; Dieuchidas of Megara FGH 485 F 6 via Diogenes Laertius 1.57; Lycurgus Against Leokrates102).

Achilles and Patroklos as cult heroes of a poetic event

The status of Dēmophōn as cult hero of an athletic event can also be seen as a parallel to the status of Achilles and Patroklos as joint cult heroes of the poetic event of performing Homeric poetry at festivals. The parallelism is evident in the words of the goddess Thetis, when she describes Achilles as an infant hero:

Text F

|54 Ah me, the pitiful one! Ah me, the mother, so sad it is, of the very best. |55 I gave birth to a faultless and strong son, |56 the very best of heroes. And he shot up [anedramen] equal [īsos] to a seedling [ernos]. |57 I nurtured him like a shoot in the choicest spot of the orchard, |58 only to send him off on curved ships to Troy, to fight Trojan men. |59 And I will never be welcoming him |60 back home as returning warrior, back to the House of Peleus. |61 And as long as he lives and sees the light of the sun, |62 he will have sorrow [akh-nutai], and though I go to him I cannot help him. (Iliad XVIII 54-62)

Here again is the parallel with a plant, this time a seedling. Thetis is singing a lament even though Achilles hasn’t even died yet. He is laying prone on the beach and she is cradling his head. Patroklos has died and she is mourning in response to that death. This passage is evidence of song culture. These songs fit modern day laments in Greece today.

She uses the same expression as in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. We see this description of Dēmophōn as an infant hero, that of a beautiful plant.

Text G

|233 And so it came to pass that the splendid son of bright-minded Keleos, |234Dēmophōn, who was born to the one with the beautiful waist, Metaneira, |235 was nourished in the palace, and he shot up [anedrame] equal [īsos] to a superhuman force [daimōn], |236 not eating grain, not sucking from the breast. But Demeter 237 used to anoint him with ambrosia, as if he had been born of the goddess, |238and she would breathe down her sweet breath on him as she held him to her bosom. |239 At nights she would conceal him within the power source [menos] of fire, as if he were a smoldering log, |240 and his dear [philoi] parents were kept unaware. But they marveled |241 at how full in bloom he came to be, and to look at him was like looking at the gods. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 233-241)

The wording that describes the hero Dēmophōn ‘he shot up [an-e-drame] equal to a superhuman force’ (verse 235); is parallel to wording that describes Achilles in Text F: ‘he shot up equal to a seedling. These descriptions, replete with vivid imagery cantering on the wilting of plants, are typical of cult heroes who are destined to die and then receive as compensation some form of immortalization after death.

A hero is often referred to in epic as ‘a smouldering log’ . In the myth of the hero Meleager had a twin who was a smouldering log. When Meleager’s mother got angry with him she threw the log on the fire and the smouldering log went up in flames. Meleager on the battlefield goes up in flames too.

A most revealing reference in the Homeric Iliad to the general idea of Achilles and Patroklos as joint cult heroes can be found in Iliad XXIII 91-92,(Text A). In these two verses, the psūkhē of Patroklos speaks about a golden vase that will contain his own bones mixed with those of Achilles. The vase is an implicit sign of the immortalization that awaits both Achilles and Patroklos after their bones are regenerated by the power of the god Dionysus, who had originally given the vase to Thetis the mother of Achilles (there is a reference to this myth in Stesichorus PMG 234).

There is another implicit reference to the immortalisation of Achilles in Iliad XIX 418, where Xanthos the Achilles’ horse is about to foretell the hero’s immortalization, but the prophecy is silenced by an Erinys or ‘Fury’

The prefiguring of Achilles by Patroklos

Patroklos as cult hero is more clearly defined than even Achilles because he is not only his body-double but even a story-double. Things happen to Patroklos that could otherwise have happened only to Achilles.  The most central of these happenings is the ritual death of Patroklos at the hands of the god Apollo.

Another example is the story we see in Iliad XVII about the fighting between the Achaeans and the Trojans over the possession of Patroklos’ corpse. The fighting over Achilles’s corpse as we see it described in Odyssey xxiv (37-39) is directly comparable. The possession of the corpse of a cult hero is essential for the fertility and prosperity of the community that worships that hero.

Patroklos as the surrogate cult hero of the Iliad is central. It is vital to highlight his centrality in his picture painted on the Münster Hydria. The hero, imagined there as a miniature body-double of Achilles, hovers mid-air over the tomb that he will share with Achilles and he is labelled as psūkhē (ΦΣΥΧΕ). The more basic meaning of psūkhē is ‘breath of life’, which in the context of hero cults signals the vital force that departs from the body of the hero at the moment of death – only to be reunited with that body after a transition, through Hādēs, into a paradisiacal setting that transcends the temporal and the spatial constraints of mortality. There is transition of the psūkhē through Hādēs: so this realm of Hādēs is transitional, not eschatological. Eschatology has to do with thinking about afterlife – where you “end up.” From the standpoint of basic Christian eschatology, for example, the stark alternatives are heaven and hell. Homeric eschatology is different. For example, the realm of Hādēs is not “hell.”

The cult hero was considered dead – from the standpoint of the place where the hero’s sōma or ‘body’ was situated; at the same time, the hero was considered simultaneously immortalized – from the standpoint of the paradisiacal place that awaited all heroes after death. Such a paradisiacal place, which was considered eschatological, must be contrasted with Hādēs, which was considered transitional. The name and even the visualization of this otherworldly place varied from hero cult to hero cult. Some of these names are: Elysium (Ēlusion), the Islands of the Blessed (Nēsoi Makarōn), the White Island (Leukē), and, exceptionally, even Mount Olympus in the case of Hēraklēs. Many of these names were applied also to the actual site or sacred precinct of the hero cult.

Heroic immortalization and the psūkhē

The theme of heroic immortalization is implicit in the overall use of the word psūkhē in Homeric poetry. The formulaic system of Homeric diction shows the implicitness by avoiding the use of psūkhē in certain situations while substituting alternative words like thūmos and menos.

One such situation is a set of Homeric scenes where a hero swoons, that is, where he loses consciousness but does not die: in such scenes, it can be said that a hero loses his psūkhē when he swoons (as in the case of Sarpedon when he swoons in Iliad V 696), but it cannot be said that he wins back his psūkhē when he comes to. If the hero were dead, then he would not come to. This pattern of consistently avoiding references to the return of the psūkhē to the body shows a pervasive recognition of the theme of immortalization within the entire system of Homeric poetry.

A fusion of heroic myth and athletic ritual

The idea of using the tomb of a hero as the turning point in a chariot race stems from the fact that the activity of athletics, like the activity of warfare, was considered to be a ritual. Moreover, the ritual activities of athletics and warfare were conceived as parallel to the mythical deeds of heroes. The same wording was used to refer to the ordeals of athletes and warriors in the rituals of athletics and war as was used to refer to the ordeals of heroes in myth. In the ritual ordeals of athletics and warfare, real people re-enacted the mythical ordeals of heroes.

The athletic events in which the heroes participate there are a matter of ritual, but they are also a matter of myth, because it is the heroes of the heroic age who participate in the athletic events of Iliad XXIII, not the real people in the post-heroic age who re-enact the mythical ordeals of heroes.

The painting on the Münster Hydria shows Achilles as a prototypical participant in his own hero cult by way of participating in the athletic event of the apobatai. Through his prototypical participation, Achilles shows the way for future athletes to participate in this athletic event of the apobatai at the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia for all time to come.  In the Funeral Games for Patroklos in IliadXXIII Achilles is shown as a prototypical participant in his own hero cult by way of participating in the hero cult of his other self, Patroklos. In this case, Achilles does not participate he simply presides over these events as if he were already dead, having already achieved the status of the cult hero who will be buried in the tumulus to be shared with his other self, Patroklos.

Back to the glory of the ancestors

The name Patrokleēs has a special meaning for Antilokhos, the hero to whom Nestor addresses his sēma or ‘sign’ (XXIII 326) by speaking as an immediate ancestor, that is, as a father. For Antilokhos, the highest point in his ascending scale of affection proves to be his father.  Antilokhos dies in a chariot fight, giving up his own life while saving the life of his father Nestor, whose chariot had been immobilized. Once again we see the mentality of choosing to die for someone else:I will die for you.

The name Patrokleēs amounts to a periphrasis of the expression tōn prosthen … klea andrōn | hērōōn ‘the glories [kleos plural] of men of an earlier time who were heroes’ (IX 524-525), which is used in Homeric poetry to refer to epic narrative. What must mean more than anything else to Achilles is not only Patroklos himself but also the actual meaning of his name Patrokleēs, which conveys the idea of the ‘the glories [kleos plural] of men of an earlier time, who were heroes’. For Achilles the meaning of the name of Patroklos represents the epic of the Iliad itself. Achilles will ultimately die for that epic as conveyed by the name of Patroklos, just as Patroklos had died for Achilles.

The significance of the name of Patrokleēs as a sign of the ‘fathers’ or ‘ancestors’ in general is relevant to the scene near the end of the Iliad where Priam, as a father, appeals to Achilles to take pity and accept ransom for the body of Hector:

Text H

|486 “Remember your father, O Achilles, you who look just like the gods. |487 He [= Peleus, the father of Achilles] is just like me, on the destructive threshold of old age. |488 It may be that those who dwell near him |489 are wearing him down, and there is no one to keep damage and devastation away from him. |490 Yet when he hears of you being still alive, |491 he takes pleasure in his heart [thūmos], and every day he is full of hope |492 that he will see his dear [philos] son come home to him from Troy; |493 but I am the most luckless of all men, since I fathered the best sons |494 in the city of Troy, which has power far and wide, and I can now say that there is not one of them left. |495 I had fifty sons when the sons of the Achaeans came here; |496nineteen of them were from a single womb, |497 and the others were born to me by the women of my halls. |498 Many of them have been hamstrung by swift Arēs, |499but he who was the only one left, who was the guardian of the city and ourselves, |500 he has been killed by you just now, while he was protecting his fatherland. |501 I mean Hector. And it is because of him that I now come to the ships of the Achaeans |502 intending to ransom his body from you. And I bring with me great ransom beyond telling. |503 Show respect [aideîsthai], O Achilles, to the gods; and have pity on me. |504 Remember your own father. But I am far more pitiable, |505 for I have steeled myself as no one yet among earthbound mortals has ever steeled himself before me. |506 I have raised to my lips the hand of the one who killed my son.” |507Thus he [= Priam] spoke, and he stirred up in him [= Achilles] a longing to cry in lament [goos] for his own father. |508 He touched the old man’s hand and moved him gently away. |509 And they both remembered. One of them remembered Hector the man-killer |510 and cried for him, shedding tears thick and fast as he lay near the feet of Achilles. |511 As for Achilles, he was crying for his own father at one moment, and then, at the very next moment, |512 he would be crying for Patroklos. And the sounds of lament rose up all over the dwelling. (Iliad XXIV 486-512)

We see here Achilles weeping alternately for his own father Peleus and for Patroklos, whose name reflects the glory of the ‘fathers’ or ‘ancestors’. Achilles – he who has the sorrow – is a good name for him. When he grieves he does so more deeply, he is a virtuoso at grieving. The prompt that activates the hero’s emotion of sorrow here is the very act of thinking about fathers or ancestors. Achilles thinks of his own father when he sees the sorrow of another father, Priam, over the death of another son, Hector.

Here at the end of the Iliad, Achilles will now finally emerge from the depths of brutality and ascend to new heights of humanity by way of identifying with his deadliest enemy. A father’s tears are what finally moves him. He thinks of his own father and, that way, he can think more clearly about the meaning of Patroklos. He will now finally give back to Priam the body of Hector.

Back to the meaning of Patroklos

Returning to the ascending scale of affection in the compressed story about Meleagros and Kleopatra, a story described as tōn prosthen … klea andrōn | hērōōn ‘the glories of men of an earlier time, who were heroes’ in the Iliad (IX 524-525). This story, as told by Phoenix to Achilles and Patroklos and the other heroes assembled in the shelter of Achilles, was a story that was meant to be understood by ‘friends’, philoi (IX 528). Or, to put it more accurately, it was a story that was meant for an audience who are presumed to be friends, philoi:

Text I

|524 This is how [houtōs] we [= I, Phoenix] learned it, the glories [klea] of men [andrōn] of an earlier time [prosthen], |525 who were heroes [hērōes], whenever one of them was overcome by tempestuous anger. |526 They could be persuaded by way of gifts and could be swayed by words. |527 I totally recall [me-mnē-mai] how this was done – it happened a long time ago, it is not something new – |528 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 total recall here of the old man is just as legitimate of the total recall of the master narrator.

The Greek word houtōs ‘this is how’ that introduces this story about the meaning of friendship is a marker of a form of speech known as theainos. The “moral of the story” as encoded inside this ainos, is that Kleopatra as the wife of Meleagros is highest on her husband’s ascending scale of affection just as Patroklos as philos or ‘friend’ is correspondingly the highest for Achilles. These characters in the epic are highest in the ascending scales of Meleagros and Achilles not only because they are wife and friend respectively but also because their names Kleopatra and Patrokleēs mean the same thing as tōn prosthen klea andrōn | hērōōn ‘the glories of men of an earlier time, who were heroes’ in the Iliad(IX 524-525). This meaning is carried in the name of Patroklos.

As the plot of the Iliad evolves, we can see some indications of the hero’s incomplete knowledge of his own epic glory or kleos. By the time we reach Iliad IX, we can already see at least two other possible priorities for Achilles.

Firstly what matters most to Achilles is his love for a woman, Briseis. He says it in the form of a sarcastic question that sets up a contrast between his relationship with Briseis and the relationship of the sons of Atreus, that is, of Agamemnon and Menelaos, with their wives:

Text J

|340 Are the only mortal men in the world who love their wives |341 the sons of Atreus? I ask this question because any man who is noble and sensible |342 loves [phileîn] and cherishes her who is his own, just as I, with regard to her [= Briseis] |343with my whole heart did I love [phileîn] her, though she was only the prize of my spear. (Iliad IX 340-343)

The sarcasm is intense here when you think of Agamemnon’s bad marriage. The men of Atreus are not models for good marriages. Achilles shows a more sensitive side here. He is thinking though his ascending scale of affection.  Sappho certainly sees Achilles as a sensitive person as can be seen in the passages we looked at earlier.

Picture credit (stanford.edu)

This is a long way from Iliad I, where Briseis was simply the property of Achilles, and thus a mere extension of his honour. Now Briseis is to be a wife for him, just as Kleopatra is a wife for Meleagros.

Secondly is the love of Achilles for Patrokles, conceptually speaking. The words of Ajax, who is one of these comrades, show that this rival hero misunderstands Achilles’ priorities.

Text K

|622 … And then Ajax stood up among them, |623 the godlike son of Telamon, and he said:|624 “Odysseus, descended from the gods, noble son of Laertes, |625 let’s just go, for I see that there is no fulfillment [teleutē] that will come from what we say [= the mūthos]. |626 No, on this mission, there will be no action resulting from words. We must go and tell the news as soon as possible |627 to the Danaans, even though what we say [= the mūthos] will not be good for those |628 who are waiting to receive it. As for Achilles, |629 a savage feeling [thūmos] does he have embedded in his chest, which holds within it that great heart of his. |630 What a wretched man he is! He cares nothing for the love [philotēs] of his comrades [hetairoi]. |631 With that love we honored him more than all the others over there by the ships. |632 He is pitiless. If a man’s brother or son has been killed, |633 that man will accept a blood-price [poinē] as compensation for the one who was killed, |634 and the one who caused the death, having paid a vast sum, can remain in the locale [dēmos], |635 while the other one’s heart and manly feeling [thūmos] are checked, |636 now that he has accepted the blood-price [poinē]. But for you, [Achilles,] a bad and relentless |637 feeling [thūmos] have the gods put into your chest, and this, all because of just one girl, |638 just one.” (Iliad IX 622-638)

Ajax, the third of the three ambassadors to speak to Achilles, is thinking that Achilles has already made up his mind, preferring Briseis over his comrades. In the long run, however, Achilles’ main priority is neither Briseis nor his comrades as represented by Ajax. His priority will be a concept as encapsulated in the expression tōn prosthen … klea andrōn | hērōōn‘the glories of men of an earlier time, who were heroes’. He is talking about Achilles rather than to him even though Achilles is there. He has really misunderstood the relationship and the importance of Agamemnon’s snub.

He doesn’t understand why Achilles won’t accept the compensation for the loss of Briseis. This compensation is accepted for the loss of a father or a son so why not for just one girl.  This is the speech, the third of the ambassador’s speeches that Achilles takes to heart. After this he decides to stay and fight, but not until the last moment.

Picture credit (beazley.ox.ac.uk)

The concept will be represented by Patroklos, who is even more than a comrade, more than a wife. For Achilles, Patroklos is his other self. The life that Achilles shares with this other self is to be valued above everything else. Even more than that, the value of that life is beyond measure. So it becomes impossible to put a price on the value of that life, and this impossibility is summed up in a timeless scene pictured on the Shield of Achilles:

Text L

|497 Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, and there a quarrel [neikos] |498 had arisen, and two men were quarrelling [neikeîn] about the blood-price [poinē] |499 for a man who had died. One of the two claimed that he had the right to pay off the damages in full, |500 declaring this publicly to the population of the district [dēmos], and the other of the two was refusing to accept anything. (Iliad XVIII 497-500)

This is a description of the pictures on Achilles’ shield.

Achilles shield Photo credit (David Parsons)

The narrative has zoomed in on litigation between an anonymous plaintiff and an anonymous defendant. The litigation is all about the need to find the right blood-price to be paid for the loss of a life. The victim is also anonymous. The plaintiff, who can be seen as a stand-in for Achilles, refuses to accept compensation offered by the defendant, who can be seen as a stand-in for Agamemon. The defendant seeks to compensate for the loss of a human life. Maybe the life that cannot be paid for is Achilles’. After all, what matters more for Achilles than all the wealth he could possibly imagine is his own life. All the riches of Troy and Delphi put together would be inadequate as payment for this life. Here is how Achilles expresses his love for his own life.

The shield is Achilles’s second shield because Hector has his first one. When Patroclus was killed Hector took the shield. In a tragedy called ‘The Electra’ there is a choral passage where the first of Achilles’ shields is described including the pictures on it. It is not far from the traditions of the city of Argos. There are a lot of different descriptions of this shield in Greek pectoral and verbal art. The description in the Iliad is one of a picture of a sema which is like the masterpiece of all shields.

Text M

|401 My life [psūkhē] is worth more to me than all the wealth |402 that was once possessed, so they say, by that well-situated citadel of Ilion, |403 back when it was still at peace, before the coming of the Achaeans, |404 or than all the treasure that is stored inside when you enter the stone threshold of the one who shoots, |405Phoebus Apollo, at rocky Pytho [= Delphi]. |406 Cattle and sheep can be rustled in a raid, |407 and one can acquire both tripods and horses with their golden manes if he wants them, |408 but a man’s life [psūkhē] can never come back – it cannot be rustled in a raid |409 and thus taken back – once it has passed through the barriers of his teeth. (Iliad IX 401-409)

Achilles says that his psūkhē is worth more to him than all the treasures. At his moment we see how much he has to lose and how much his life means to him. He is not so much afraid of death but he loves his life so much and no material amount will compensate it.

This one life, this one psūkhē, belongs not only to Achilles, but also to Patroklos. The two heroes share one psūkhē. That is the psychology of the sign that signals their shared sēma, which is not only their shared tomb but also their shared meaning as cult heroes.

From the standpoint of this timeless picture on the Shield of Achilles, we can now reconsider the three alternative priorities we have been considering for Achilles as the main hero of the Iliad, (1) love for a would-be wife or (2) love for his comrades or (3) love for his own life. All three of these alternative priorities are merely foils for the ultimate priority for this hero, which is his love for tōn prosthen … klea andrōn | hērōōn ‘the glories of men of an earlier time, who were heroes’, which includes and transcends all the other priorities. This love is embodied in the figure of Patroklos, ritual substitute of Achilles in the Iliad. That is the meaning of Patroklos.

The mentality of re-enactment at festivals

The paintings on both the Münster Hydria and the Boston Hydria depict an athletic event that was part of the ritual program of the greatest festival of the Athenians, the Panathenaia. Both depictions show that the ritual of an athlete’s ordeal re-enacts the myth of a hero’s ordeal.

Ritual is doing things and saying things in a way that is considered sacred. Myth is saying things in a way that is also considered sacred. So ritual frames myth, the epic of Homeric poetry is a kind of myth. Like all myths, epic is framed by ritual – the ritual of performance. Performance is re-enactment.

The hydria pictures show ritual and myth together, just as poetry shows ritual and myth together in the chariot race described at Iliad XXIII.

A Greek word for the re-enactment of myth in ritual is mīmēsis. The ritual process of mīmēsis as the re-enacting of an ordeal leads to a ritual process of purification or katharsis of emotions.

Aristotle links mīmēsis and katharsis, conventionally latinized as catharsis, in his definition of tragedy. Here is how he says it:

Text N

Tragedy, then, is the re-enactment [mīmēsis] of a serious and complete action. It has magnitude, with language embellished individually for each of its forms and in each of its parts. It is done by performers [drôntes] and not by way of narrative, bringing about through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] the purification [katharsis] of such emotions [pathēmata].

(Aristotle Poetics 1449b24-28)


Aristotle Photo credit (Wikimedia)

The two emotions that Aristotle is talking about, pity and fear are purely the closest translations we can have. Phobos [fear] is closer maybe to horror than fear.  Eloes [pity] is the feeling of being attracted or drawn to the suffering of others. The word ‘poty’ sort of explains why you are drawn to the suffering and not the act Empathy might be a better word here. Aristotle use the word pathemata which is pathos or emotions. It describes a larger than life emotional experience that heroes experience. It results in purification, healing the emotions. Just as a re-enactment can evoke these feelings of the audience and lead them to feel purged, empathy and pathos through the re-enactment.


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