Homer: Heroism & Courtesy

The influence of Homer.
Iliad > Tragedy, Virgil; Alexander, Caesar; Tasso... war & chivalry
Odyssey > Pastoral, Romance/ Novel, Allegory of life

What is heroism? what is a hero like?

Before the Greek tradition: Gilgamesh: "He will not leave any son for his father, day and night his behaviour is overbearing... He will not leave the young women alone...";

Heracles (repeatedly mentioned in Iliad; cf. Odyssey 11. 601ff., Odysseus meets him): the hero as super macho. And (Aristophanes, Frogs 740), a gentleman: a man interested in nothing but drinking and sex. Killing, rape, gluttony (Euripides, Alcestis 747ff.). More women than any other man: Sophocles, Trachiniae 459f. Undignified myths: Augean Stables, Omphale, Thespius & his 50 daughters.

Also the Hesiodic tradition: no high conception of courtesy, or of women. "Even with your brother, smile, but have a witness... He who trust a woman/his wife, he puts his trust in thieves... ", (Works & Days 371, 375). > Misogyny tradition: Archilochus, Semonides...


1) Formality of address & reference; connected with the formulaic composition & consequent manner. "Son of Laertes, born of Zeus, Odysseus of the many schemes..." Even of opponents: as Il. 3. 82-3: "Stop, Argives; don't shoot, sons of the Achaeans: Hector of the flashing helmet has something to say" (Agamemnon).
"Now that godlike Achilles has returned to battle..." Il. 22. 102: and ib. 113: "Suppose I go to meet flawless Achilles..." (Hector).

This affects pace, also ethos. A hero is not to be deprived of his epithets.
Thus in the culminating scene of the poem:
"Remember your own father, godlike Achilles", Il. 24. 486 (Priam); "I have released godlike Hector to his loving father..." 24. 593 (Achilles to dead Patroclus).
NB. this scene explicitly brings out the shared humanity of enemies.
> > Shock achieved by Achilles: Il. 1. 121 "Most glorious son of Atreus - most avariciou of all men..." (To Hector): "Don't appeal to me, you dog..." 22. 345.

2) Treatment of women. Courtesy observed to Helen: Il. 3, 6, 24; 24. 767ff . "If any Trojan was unkind to me, Hector would stop them"; we see Helen in conversation only with Priam & Hector - the only two who were always nice to her.
Priam to Helen, Il. 3. 164: I do not hold you responsible; it is the gods that I hold responsible..." Even the Suitors of Penelope treat her with respect.
> The chivalrous treatment of Darius' family by Alexander; "continence of Scipio", etc.

Homeric women like gentleness in a man: Il. 24. 761ff (Helen on Hector); Briseis on Patroclus. Il. 19. 300: "That is why I weep for you - you were always gentle". Patroclus used to tell Briseis that Achilles would marry her, Il. 19. 295ff.

How Odysseus' mother died: "Of longing for you and your ways and your gentleness", Od. 11. 202-3.
What Achilles used to be like (& must become again): Il. 6.413ff., life story of Andromache: Achilles slew my father, but he did not strip his armour; he felt restraint at the thought of that: he burned his body with his armour and piled a cairn over it; and round it the mountain nymphs have planted elm trees..."

A great hero can be a good family man: Hector with his wife and child, Il. 6. 390ff.; the family of Odysseus is very close - his mother died of grief for his absence, Od. 11.202f.; his father was broken by "yearning for his son & by grief for his wife; her death broke him most & plunged him into senility; and she had died of grieving for her son - a dreadful death", 15.355ff. The Odyssey ends with the triumphant reinstatement of the nuclear family.

2a) We may note also Achilles' refusal to be angry with the heralds sent by Agamemnon: Il. 1. 318ff.: "I do not hold you responsible, but Agamemnon...": courtesy to subordinates.

3) Tact. Regular formula: "Come on: as I say, let us all do it...".
Hector to Paris: "You should not [heroically] yield to anger like this", Il. 6. 326. Iris and Poseidon, Il. 15. 201ff., ("Shall l deliver your answer to Zeus in that blunt & defiant form, or will you change something? Good men do change their minds". - "That is what it is to be a good messenger!").

Nestor avoids (just) rebuking Agamemnon in front of the Other Ranks, saves it for meeting of chiefs: contrast I1. 9. 60ff., "I shall explain it all, & nobody will fault what I say, not even mighty Agamemnon. Without kin, without law, without hearth, is the man who is fond of strife within the community", with ib. 96ff., "Agamemnon, king of men, son of Atreus. most glorious: I shall end with you, and I shall start with you, since you have the supreme command... It has all gone wrong, ever since you ignored our advice and dishonoured Achilles . . . "

Odysseus suppresses the tactless end of Agamemnon's message to Achilles, II. 9. 159-61, ("Let him give way & yield to me, as I am a greater king/ more of a king!"); 300-306. Iris, invited in to a rowdy party by the Winds - "Each one called her to sit beside him" - tells a white lie ("I can't sit down, I'm just off to the Ethiopians"), I1iad 23.200-207.

A marked feature of the Odyssey. Odysseus tells a white lie to King Alcinous of the Phaeacians, Od. 7. 298ff.: "I do blame my daughter for not accompanying you into the town"; "You are not to blame her - she suggested it, but I said No, for fear of offending you". Cf. 6. 258ff.: not what happened.

Helen on Menelaus, "The husband I inexplicably abandoned, who lacked nothing, in character or in looks", Od. 4. 263-4.
Athena to Telemachus: "Your father is prisoner on an island; fierce men have got him", Od. 1. 197-9 (whereas in reality - Calypso).
Odysseus to Calypso: "Of course my wife is not to be compared with you... but I want to get home and see the day of my return", Od. 5. 215ff.

4) Good manners. It is even possible for a hero to apologise: young Antilochus to Menelaus, I1. 23. 585ff.: "I am young, I got carried away; you know what young men are like! Let me give you something to make up for it, rather than earn your lasting ill-will"; Menelaus' anger disappears like dew, he gives him the disputed prize.
But King Agamemnon (a less charming character) has to fall back on blaming gods for his mistake, 19. 85ff.

Telemachus is to learn how to behave: > the Bildungsroman. Approaching old Nestor, he is shy: Od. 3. 16ff. Next time: delicate flattery of Menelaus: 4. 69ff.

Hospitality. The Suitors fail in courtesy: 1. 106ff. Their breach of hospitality a cause of their destruction: 23. 63ff.
2 extremes; the Cyclops; the Phaeacians. Telemachus discreetly avoids being entertained again by Nestor: 15. 195ff.

Presents are an important motif: good manners, and also basic civilisation. The Cyclops gives a perverse one: Od. 9. 368-70. Ctesippus throws a hoof at (Odysseus) as "my present", 20. 288ff.; he is reminded of it as he is killed, 22. 290-1 ("This is in return for the present you gave Odysseus").

The motif developed in the direction of comedy of manners; or of characterization - strictly "unnecessary" to the plot, & not obviously heroic/epic: Menelaus offers Telemachus an inappropriate present, 4. 589ff.; produces a better one, 15. 102ff.; upstaged by Helen and her present, 15. 125ff.: "a wedding dress for your bride, a keepsake of the handiwork of Helen". All this is developed out of the wish to include in Od. the main characters of the I1.
Natural question. What was it like, when Helen was finally taken home in disgrace?
Nb. the contrast between Helen's prominence in Sparta & affairs in Pylos, where it emerges at one moment that Nestor has a wife, but "she is a nonentity" (S.R.West on 3.452); & the rather style of bossiness of Arete, Queen of the Phaeacians, 6.310ff., 7.53-77.

5) Relations of gods and men. Athena to Achilles, "- if you will be guided by me": Il. 1. 207. Achilles replies to Athena: "The man who listens to the gods, they listen to him..." I1. 1. 217.
Zeus tells Thetis to give his order to Achilles, "Tell him we are angry with him - in case he may respect me and release Hector's body", Il. 24. 113-6. "Unexpectedly courteous", N.J.Richardson ad loc.

Hermes conducts Priam, Il. 24. 349ff., as a charming young man.
Athena shoves out the driver & drives the chariot of Diomedes herself: 5. 835ff.
She plots affectionately with Odysseus: Od. 13. 221ff. Looks after Penelope: 18. 187ff.
Tactful Hermes to Calypso: "I have had to come all this terrible long way - You know one can t cross the will of Zeus", Od. 5. 99ff.

Jasper Griffin
Balliol College, Oxford October 1998

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