The First Line(s) of the Iliad

Note: So, this is something I have been thinking of trying out for a while. A series of quick and dirty posts on lines of the Iliad. If I do end up continuing, I will add a meta-page listing the reasoning and the rules for what I decide to comment upon, how best to read these posts, and how I write them. For now, view this as a tester. The first post follows 1-7.

It is a staid truism – and has been since antiquity – that the Iliad starts with ‘wrath’ and the Odyssey with ‘man’. This was probably the main motivating factor for Virgil to unify both themes (‘arma virumque…’). Boring. But we do know that in general oral poems tend to function this way where the first line might function as both as title and a taster of sorts.

Openings and closings of oral poems are particularly vulnerable to contraction and expansion as the unit of measure is not the hexameter or even a thematic section, but the poet’s time with the audience. Therefore, there was ample opportunity to show off, or to have to get on with it, or link your first poem into another one.

Variations exist all over. Take this variation noted by Aristoxenus for example:

ἔσπετε  νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχουσαι​,

Tell me now, you Muses who dwell on Olympos

ὅππως  δὴ μῆνίς τε  χόλος θ᾽ ἕλε Πηλείωνα​

Such was the mania and rage which took the son of Peleus

Λητοῦς τ᾽ ἀγλαὸν υἱόν·  ὃ γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθείς

And the blameless son of Leto, for he was angry with the king

Straight away you can see the parallels with the Odyssey and Hesiod’s work. This is what I would call an example of contraction given that it saves time by adpositioning Akhilleus’ and Apollo’s wrath. Note semantic doubling (μῆνίς…χόλος). The former is more elevated, and this late performer can’t quite shake it off. Don’t be tempted to mock this proem, it’s well-wheeled and a good example of the rhapsode’s craft. It’s just that, well, compared to great Homer…

Θεά This is elevated language. It’s used over θέαινα for metrical purposes. In everyday usage we would simply expect the masc, θεός, to stand in for both god and goddess. The article would stand to differentiate where needed. This makes sense given its etymological roots which were certainly neuter, it is derived from the same PIE root as Latin fanum, temple. If you’re wondering why a neuter would eventually refer to masc and fem things well remember that the original distinction in PIE was animate/inanimate. All the daughter languages retain evidence of this ‘confusion’.

 Cf our own ‘god’ which was neutral in Old English. From an earlier form *guda/goda. This is probably from a verb ‘to revere’. i.e to revere > a revered thing > a god. A priest, the one doing the revering, was a godi. There’s a familiar semantic web here: Old Indic hotar, Old Persian zotar (Modern Persian zut), means a priest in a ritual/ablutions sense. Ultimately this comes from the PIE verb ǵʰew- (pour, shed). Readers of this blog can, I bet, readily supply the Greek version.

Fuck it. This is now a post on Germanic philology.

How common was this stem in earlier forms of Germanic? English mainly uses os (so Oscar, means god’ spear) and Old Norse as (hence aesir). Untagling Germanic religious language and attitude is difficult given the paucity and poverty of the sources. Answers on a post card. Actually, go ask @mattitiahu.

Ok. This is no longer a post on Germanic philology.

Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος When you see thistravesty, this is how you know H-daddy was the real deal. Because anybody else would have had faeces thrown at them for this metrical malapropism…in the opening line.  

Why faeces? Well, I’m not sure how ecologically common apples were at this point this far west. Nor chickens. Greeks and Romans loved cabbage so they wouldn’t waste that on a tin-eared bard. What’s logically after apples, chickens, and cabbage? That’s right, faeces.

The word order may seem illogical, though I suspect, again, that it’s for metrical convenience (and the way the sounds line up when sung in metre). There is PIE precedence in praise poetry for this word order: Old Indic stotra (praise poetry) and Middle Indic inscriptions; Germanic poetry which, again, seems to draw from a praise tradition (but the complicated role of kennings and assonance may muddle things) and; IIRC, somewhere in the Middle Welsh Triads.

In terms of traditionality we know patronymics ending in –δης are relative innovations anyway. The older PIE way of signifying a patronymic was infixing /i/ to the stem and making an adjective. So Πηλεΐων is actually the older form. Cf the Latin name Tullius < ‘descendants of Tullus’. This is borne out both by Linear B and by later inscriptional evidence.

Ἀχιλλεύςis obviously a very archaic name, as are all endings in -ευς, and its obscure etymology gave both ancients and moderns all sorts of trouble. There is no satisfactory explanation for this name’s meaning. There is no solution. You think you have a solution, but you don’t. You have nothing.

οὐλομένην the ou here is either a metrical contrivance or due to problems with transmission. I actually agree with neither but have a half-finished article I hope to one day publish (tbf a lot of this stuff is drawn from something I’m working on, but meh). Aeolic keeps the correct long vowel vs dipthong, ὠλόμενος, see also the verb ὄλλυμαι. This isn’t an interesting point, but I have a feeling I will refer to such textual/metrical chicanery later so do let’s set a precedent.

Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν Porphyry managed to get a paragraph or two out of that. Proof there is no god.

ἡρώων Always controversial how this is used, isn’t it? Are the heroes treated as a separate older race as in Hesiod? (This comes from an influential NE motif that spread west in Greece and east into Iran and India, it even turns up in the Mahabharata, book 3), is it a term of ritual obeisance? Or is just a handy referent to the foci of epic song?

The spread and development of hero cult is one of the most fascinating aspects of archaic Greek history. Bruno Currie has done excellent work on the textual evidence and Carla Antonaccio is a must-read on the archaeological evidence. I don’t have a go to for the re-use of Mycenaean sites. If you take a lot of MDMA it’s worth reading Claude Calame. If you’re more of a cocaine fiend, Irad Malkin’s stuff is good. Note: don’t mix cocaine and MDMA.

πᾶσι vs δαῖτα? 😊 😊 😊

Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή One of the most quoted lines in the PhiloCroc household. This is a very weighty hemistich. In poetic terms, it’s a self-contained bit which adds ‘weight’ to the fast-moving lines above and gives the reciter a good place to rest. I also don’t think it too contrived to say this is simultaneously looking back to the broader epic tradition where Zeus’ plans are a common theme (and for the Troy saga specifically, more on that later); and forward to the great moments in the Iliad where Zeus makes his plan known.

ἐξ οὗ…τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε etc This is more of a brief point about style, going forwards. One of the most engaging aspects of Homeric composition is its so-called speed and clarity (ἐνάργεια), which has been remarked upon since antiquity. One of the ways this is achieved is through a para-tactical style (παράταξις).

The best way, the only way, to get the sense of this is to sit back and read the text out loud and see how it paints a picture, and how successive words and clauses help build up the story by supplying (and occluding?) information.

Wrath, ok but who’s wrath? What is this story about? Peleus’ son, Akhilleus – excellent, how many such stories were there? We as an audience may know of a few differing wrath stories in general, but what about Akhilleus in particular? We know of an apparent argument between him and Odysseus (Odyssey VIII) but μῆνίς is too strong a word. Ah, it’s a terrible wrath which laid down the souls of many heroes etc. But why? Who caused this? Against whom did Akhilleus set his face? Well it was according to the plan of Zeus. It was Zeus, you see, who set them in strife. At this point we know little about the plan of Zeus, but can guess if we’re experienced listeners. The question remains, however, whom did he set to quarrelling? Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς (The son of Atreus, lord of men Agamemnon and the brilliant Akhilleus). The poem then goes on to provide further details, including Apollo’s role etc etc.

You can see how this oral style works, how the singer is able to deploy the metrical line and the formulaic system to build a story at recitation speed and how the listeners are able to comprehend. There has been a decent amount of discussion – none to my mind satisfactory – about this element of oral poetry. Exactly what are the compositional blocks? Books (or rhapsodies) are, I think, largely artificial. Groupings of books (in terms of themes) work a little better. Type-scenes don’t really seem to match any performative context I can conjure.

Some people think in terms of formula. But the formula is really just a later reification of sound patterns and common phrases, hence why comparative examination of Rigvedic verse and the Aeolic line takes us back to a predecessor which was fluid for most of the line. Hence why κλέος ἄφθιτον is the most marked phrase in PIE but not a formula.

South Slavic bards speak in terms of the rijec (lit word) which can vary from a single word to a line or two. I think this is too lose and undisciplined for the way ancient Greek versification worked, but it is an interesting comparandum.

This is where a comparative approach can get really interesting, but we need much more than 7 or 8 lines under our belts first.

ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Obviously a formula, and a pleasant and easy to use one. In the Iliad it is predominantly used of Agamemnon for the 40-50 times it occurs. Much has been made of the so-called archaism of ἄναξ. It needn’t be. We know it is a word of old, mysterious, provenance (if you think you have an etymology, please see my note above on Akhilleus). It correctly requires a digamma and is found as early as the Linear B tablets.

That it survives in this form is hardly surprising, however. It is a common onomastic component (cf Anaxagoras), was still in use in Cyprus and in cultic contexts. It was even used by the Phrygians (along with lawagetes), hence a Gordian inscription mentioning King Midas (Midai lavagetaei vanaktei). But I guess we can talk more in depth about this later. I *do* have a half finished post on that Phrygian inscription.

If we want to talk about traditionality and innovation, a much more interesting question would be why so few reflexes of PIE *h₃reǵ- made it down to Greek cf’d to…almost every other branch.

And that’s the end. My original aim was to cover around 50-60 lines in three quarters of this word count. By the by, if you feel I missed anything really interesting in these lines or want to add anything, just do so via twitter or the comments below.