Literature and Arts c-14

Chorus What would you do, Admetos? With such a grief Now lying heavy on you, you dare to entertain a guest [xenos

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What would you do, Admetos? With such a grief

Now lying heavy on you, you dare to entertain a guest [xenos]? Are you a fool?

If from my house or city [polis] I should drive

A coming guest [xenos], would you commend me more?

No, you would not: my affliction would not thus

Be less, but I would be more inhospitable;

And this trouble [kakon] would be added to my former troubles [kaka]

that my house would be called hostile [ekhthros] to strangers [xenoi].

I have always found him the best [aristos] of hosts [xenoi]

Whenever I go to the thirsty land of Argos.

1 This opening sentence conveys a distinction between two perspectives: (1) a long-term assessment from the standpoint of the present and (2) a shorter-term assessment from the standpoint of a historical cross-section of the ancient Greek past, focusing on the city-state of Athens around the second half of the fifth century BCE. I justify the focus on fifth-century Athens, the Classical setting of “the ancient Greeks,” on the basis of two arguments: (a) that the ultimate form of the Iliad and Odyssey as we know them was decisively shaped in Athens during various historical periods (see my books Homeric Questions [1996] 42-43 and Poetry as Performance [1996] 110-111) and (b) that one of these periods was the second half of the fifth century (HQ 75-76 n. 37 and PP 111 nn. 23 and 24). If these arguments are valid, then the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey achieved canonical status not only from the retrospective standpoint of our present but also from the contemporary standpoint of the Classical period. To this extent, I can justify my reference to the reception of Homeric poetry by “the ancient Greeks themselves.” I choose as representative of the Classical period a statement of Herodotus, which is highlighted in the discussion that follows.

2 I seek to defamiliarize, from the start, the English word “hero”, drawing it back to the semantics of Classical Greek hêrôs (plural hêrôes), as analyzed at HQ 47-48. The meaning of the Greek word has two dimensions: (1) myth and (2) ritual; the second dimension is completely absent in the English word “hero.”

3 I offer here a preliminary working definition of the hero, without as yet introducing the dimension of ritual. For the moment, only the dimension of myth is recognized. I will have more to say later on myth and ritual together. I adhere to a “genetic” definition of “hero,” introducing the symbolism of heroic potential as “programmed” by divine genes. I work in female as well as male heroes, a principle of inclusion that becomes much more clear in the dimension of ritual.

4 A basic text is Euripides’ Herakles.

5 The “mock death” of Ares has a ritual dimension. The Homeric poems are ambivalent about old-fashioned martial fury as represented by Ares. Ares is not the god of war per se but of old-fashioned war, as exemplified by martial fury.

6 Here I am thinking primarily of death in war, but we must not forget the epic theme of death at sea.

7 It is important to note the double meaning of Greek telos: (1) end of a line (2) coming full circle.

8 The bodies, not the “souls” [psukhai], of the heroes are their selves.

9 In Cypriote dialect, kharites means ‘myrtle blossoms’. - GN

10The word euphêmeô means ‘utter in a proper way’ when it is applied in a sacred context; it means ‘be silent’ when it is applied in a non-sacred context.

11An Erinys (pl. Erinyes) is a Fury, a supernatural personification of the vengeful anger stored up in those who died.

12Refusal to visualize and verbalize is what mustêrion requires when outside the sacred context.

13The Greek word translated here as ‘even so’ conventionally introduces an ainos.

14Asklepios, son of Apollo and father of the Iliadic physician Makhaon (Iliad 2.731, 4.194), in one tradition raised Hippolytus from the dead and was struck by a thunderbolt.

15Herakles once sold himself as a slave to Omphale, queen of Lydia, to purify himself of the murder of Iphitos.


17Procne served her husband Tereus the flesh of their son Itys in revenge for Tereus’ rape of her sister Philomela. Tereus pursued them, and the gods saved Procne by turning her into a nightingale forever lamenting her dead son Itys.

18Rivers of the Underworld.

19Thyestes committed adultery with Aerope, wife of Atreus.

20A serpent that can go forward or backward.

21See note 1 for euphêmos.

22Referring to the three generations of the family’s curse: Tantalus served his son Pelops to the gods and was punished as in Odyssey 11.582f.; Pelops’ son Atreus; Atreus’ son Agamemnon.

23Pleisthenes was an ancestor of Agamemnon.

24The river-god of Argos.

25In the metaphorical sense of ‘division’.


27The ear of Agamemnon.

28In the metaphorical sense of ‘division’.

29The word euphêmos means ‘uttering in a proper way’ when it is applied in a sacred context; it means ‘silent’ when it is applied in a non-sacred context.

30Althaia was the daughter of Thestios, king of Aitolia, and the wife of Oineus. When her son Meleager was a week old, the Fates appeared to her and declared that her son would die when the brand on the hearth was consumed by fire. Althaia took the brand and put it in a chest; but when Meleager, grown to manhood, slew her brothers, she threw it into the fire and her son died. (See Iliad 9.529-99 for a different version of the Meleager story.)

31Nisos was besieged in his polis of Megara by Minos, king of Crete. Nisos’ daughter Scylla, in love with Minos, cut from the head of her father the purple hair on which his life depended, and he was slain by the Cretans.

32The women of Lemnos, jealous of Thracian slave-women, killed their husbands, so that when the Argonauts visited the island they found no men.

33The inner sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was a narrow cave or vault in which, over a cleft, stood a tripod covered by a slab on which sat the Pythia, priestess of Apollo.


35Perseus, famous for slaying the Medusa, was the grandson of Akrisios, an earlier Argive king.

36The Greek admits either meaning: “the dead are killing the living man” or “the living man is killing the dead.”

37Within the sacred precinct of Delphi there was an “eternal flame.”

38The chief priestess of Apollo at Delphi was known in the fifth century as the Pythia.

39Phoibos/Phoibê (Phoebus/Phoebe) means ‘radiant like the sun’.

40Pallas is a cult-title of Athena throughout this play.

41The Athenians. Hephaistos and Earth herself were the parents of the hero Erikhthonios, in some versions identified with Erectheus, ancestor of the Athenians.

42The name Omphalos ‘navel’ was given by the Delphians to a stone in the inmost sanctuary of Apollo, which they regarded as marking the exact center of the earth.

43Hermes is the guide of the living on their journeys, and the conductor of the psûkhai of the dead on their journey to the Underworld.

44The word euphêmos means ‘uttering in a proper way’ when it is applied in a sacred context; it means ‘silent’ when it is applied in a non-sacred context.

45Where the Olympian gods battled the Giants.

46Doing some current propagandizing, Athena confirms her possession of Sigeion, near ancient Troy, which had been won from the city of Mytilene (on Lesbos), by the Athenians early in the sixth century.

47Ixion, king of the Lapiths, murdered the father of his bride, and was given purification by Zeus after having been denied by the other gods. Cf. 718.

48The word ernos ‘seedling’ here is found also in the lamentation of Thetis over the mortality of her son Achilles in Iliad 18.58: ‘and he shot up like a seedling’. See Nagy, Best of the Achaeans p.182.

49To atone for the murder of the dragon at Delphi, Apollo was compelled by Zeus to serve as a slave in the house of Admetus, son of Pheres. When it was time for Admetus to die, Apollo, in gratitude for his kindness, plied the Fates with wine (line 728) and secured their consent that Admetus should be released from death on condition that some one voluntarily die in his place. In Euripides’ Alcestis, his parents refused, so his wife Alcestis chose to die for him.

50Hermes is the god of lucky finds. The Athenians have precious metals in mind, especially silver.

51Kranaos was a mythical founder of the “rocky city” (kranaos ‘rocky’), a favorite name of Athens.

52See note 7 on euphêmos.

53Kyrnos is modern Corsica. Also the name of a son of Herakles. The men from the ship were now prisoners of war.

54The verb is enagizô ‘to make offerings to a dead hero, to participate in the pollution of’, from agos ‘pollution’.

55The verb ktizô means both ‘found a city’ and ‘institute a cult’.

56Verb enagizô.

57Such as Orpheus and Linos.

58The epic tradition that was banned in Sikyon may have been an equivalent of our Iliad and Odyssey. Or it may have been along the lines of a Seven against Thebes narrative.

59Herodotus means the corpse of the hero Melanippos.

60The equivalent of a town hall, which is being set aside here as the sacred space for hero cult.

61The story of Melanippos and Tydeus was part of the Seven against Thebes epic tradition.

62His name means ‘he who benefits the people’.

63Herodotus regularly uses this word for “taking the Persian side”, and frequently uses “Mede” for “Persian”, since the Persians took over the empire of the Medes.

64Meaning the Persians, as often in the subsequent narrative.

65The Achaemenids were the Persian royal family.

66Earth and water were tokens of submission.

67In 430, during the Peloponnesian War, 50 years later.

68Literally, “Guardian.”

69Literally, “He who has his own noos.”

70Father of Perikles.

71Tarikhos means “preserved by drying.” “Preserved” in the secular sense = “salted fish”, “preserved” in the sacred sense = “mummified corpse.”

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