Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.17

Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.   Cambridge, MA; London:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 727.  ISBN 9780674073401.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Nina C. Coppolino, University of Connecticut, Storrs (


This book is based on over a generation of Gregory Nagy’s teaching of Greek texts, first in a course called “Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization,” now renamed “The Ancient Greek Hero.” The book is organized into five parts, around the concept of the Greek hero and mortality: (I) in epic and lyric poetry; (II) in prose media; (III) in tragedy; (IV) in Plato; and (V) in salvific heroism. Each of the main sections is divided into “hours” of varying length and quantity. This review aims, in its synopses throughout, to show the gist and the virtuosity of the exegesis, first on the Homeric Iliad, with brief questions in follow-up; selectively then too on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Euripides’ Bacchae; Plato’s Phaedo, and the hero as savior.

In the introduction, Greece is characterized as a constellation of competing city-states (3), in which humans achieve their ultimate potential within society. The polis operated in the classical period under the cultural and political impulse of Panhellenism, seen already in the archaic works of Homer and Hesiod that provided, according to Herodotus, the basics of education for all Hellenes. The basics are primarily in terms of religion: practices in which myth (saying things in a sacred way) and ritual (sacred doings and sayings) interact, in the worship of both gods and heroes (5).

In Panhellenic Homeric poetry, however, where the mortality of heroes is the dominant theme, the focus is not hero worship or immortalization in ritual, which would be localized phenomena; instead Homeric poetry more broadly is understood to express deep concerns about the human condition (12), via portraits of heroes. Ultimately the song culture of the Greek world sets the hero’s prize: life eternal in the imperishable glory in song. hōrā is seasonality, which is guarded by hērā for the hērōs, who is on-time at the hour of death but unseasonal during his lifetime. The exegesis on the embedded micro-narrative on Heracles (Iliad XIX 76-138) concludes then that without the disequilibrium brought about to him by the persecution of Hera through the mere social superiority of king Eurystheus, Heracles would never have achieved the equilibrium of heroic immortality via the kleos of song (44); hence Achilles, as the greater hero in the macro-narrative, is constrained by the mere social superiority of Agamemnon to endure the taking of Briseis (39). On the empathy evoked by total recall in song, the micro-narrative on Phoenix (Iliad IX 550-605) shows that Achilles must rejoin his comrades in war, persuaded by the story of Meleagros and his wife Kleopatra to identify with those who are philoi, “near and dear” (66). The explication alternates with brief fundamentals on the master Narrator and the omniscient Muses, the form of epic poetry, the researches of Parry and Lord, and Austin’s formulation of the speech-act.

Comparative studies pepper the exegesis. For instance in the poetics of lament as both singing and crying, there is a typological comparison of laments to Kodály (78) and modern Korean film (84); and here too is Achilles as Roberta Flack (88). With reference to texts of Sappho and Pindar, as well as cognate Indic formulation, Achilles’kleos aphthiton is ultimately rendered “unwilting glory,” which results from the negation of his homecoming—the choice he makes not to return home to Phthīē (105). In the Homeric text, Achilles’ own singing of the klea andrōn holds Andromache’s pain, through the lyre of Eëtion, along with the grief of Kleopatra as halcyon, and the song of Patroklos, her name’s reverse (88-89).

When mortals become equals to the gods in Homeric poetry, in short they die from their fatal attraction. The warrior is daimoni īsos, or equal to superhuman force, at the climactic moment of death, or near-death. The discussion is focused comparatively around linkings of the doomed warrior in death with the wedded couple in lyric, and the merged identity especially of the bridegroom with Ares and Achilles, who in myth is cut down (in the Epic Cycle) by War/Ares (134), but in ritual is the eternal bridegroom in an eroticized beautiful death (140-41). The literary exegesis identifies Apollo, also Achilles’ implicit antagonist, as the embodiment of the authority of poets, transcending genres (144).

Patroklos is the other self of Achilles, his therapōn, or ‘ritual substitute,’ and as such he is doomed to die. The Anatolian origins of therapōn indicate that a ritual substitute expels pollution from the person to be purified and transfers it, in this case, to a person, who can be identified as closely as possible with the human self (150). Patroklos is the nearest and dearest comrade of the primary hero, and in a sacral context he attends or cares for Achilles (164). therapeuein is linked with philos, here at a sacral and unsurpassed level of intimacy (167). Patroklos short-circuits evil by absorbing suffering and refusing to pass it on (168).

The longest, single “hour” on Homeric poetry (169-234) is on visual as well as verbal art, as they explain the hero’s sema, or “sign” or “tomb,” embodying remembrance of cult heroes. There is a comparison of nineteen well-reproduced images, mostly on Greek vases, and most of which depict scenes from Greek myth that include the sign of the hero at a chariot race, which is both the physical marker of the turning point in the course and ultimately his tomb, here of both Patroklos and Achilles. Most of the images are said to show a consistent story about the furious retaliation of Achilles in response to the killing of Patroklos by Hector, corresponding with the retaliation as told in the Iliad, especially in that the fury of Achilles will be assuaged and he will show pity (207). The difference between the pictures and the Iliad is in the “apobatic moment” of the images, in which Achilles leaps out of the chariot and runs along side it, as the charioteer drives, unlike the portrayal in the Iliad of Achilles as the driver himself. The argument, based on the garments of the charioteers, is that the pictures showing the dragging of the corpse are really depicting an athletic event. Achilles is running like an athlete in apobatic chariot racing, which was part of the Athenian Panatheneia, except that his “event” is ultimately being polluted by his cruel behavior (211), which will need to be eternally purified by succeeding generations of ordinary humans who participate in the same seasonally recurring ritual practice, in acts of compensation (240-42).

The kleos of Homeric poetry is in its own right a seasonally recurring ritual event, since it was performed at the Panatheneia, in competitions of rhapsodic relays that are parallel to the athletic competition of the apobatai (247). In the psychology now of the hero’s sign, the “mentality of reenactments” expands this idea, in that poetry is not only myth, but ritual in the re-enactment in performance (mīmēsis), which leads to a ritual process of purification or katharsis of emotions, especially the Aristotelian pity and fear, here even in the witnessing of brutality (273). While Achilles and Patroklos share one psūkhē and sēma as each other’s selves, what is most important and what lives forever in them as cult heroes is klea andrōn hērōōn, or epic itself (264, 257); the “breath of life” or psūkhē, which after death is reunited with the body after a transition through Hades into a paradisiacal setting, is the mystical reunion that drives the idea of heroic immortalization, essential to this hero cult (250).

For this reader the incisive discussion of Homeric heroism prompts questions back upon Greek civilization and the human condition. If institutionalized practices of athletics and warfare were originally viewed as parts of one single ritual continuum (265), how might the hero’s propensity for the ordeals of war reflect society’s own propensity—for better or worse? The author, while not at all essentializing the horrors of war, observes that warfare was a fact of life in pre-modern times and was so ritualized (265); the human who fights in war is undergoing a ritual ordeal that re-enacts the mythical ordeals of heroes, and in the context of ritual and myth, there is a mentality of not distinguishing between human experience and heroic experience, in ordeals of both war and athletics (270). Fundamentally were the Greeks then in favor of war’s competitive arena for achievement here and hereafter, as much or more than they were against war’s brutality, and what might the Iliad show in this respect?

In tragedy the argument is that the audience experiences the synchronization of the world of heroes with the world of the individual’s present day society (459). In Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, concerning honor paid to a superhuman force by way of cult (484), there is crystalline insight upon the ultimate libation to the Furies of the blood of Aegisthus himself. In the Eumenides, Nagy emphasizes well the establishment of the process of justice for civil society, in the law-court instead of vendetta, and in the acculturation of the kindly ones. One perhaps asks again what this synchronization may mean about the character of justice in civilized society? If the process is the justice (493), is the basis of Athena’s specific judgment to break the jury’s tie (male is dominant) facile or irrelevant, and does this reflect upon the process? In Euripides’ Bacchae, Pentheus’ experience of suffering is in the form of dismemberment by the women of Thebes; this is his agōn (575-76), and his death leads to his kleos as the victim of his antagonism with a god (581). In connection with society, the ghastly dismemberment of the body yet holds hope for the ultimate re-assembly of the body politic (599), in beautiful membership among the near and dear to the god.

In another type of reversal, the swan-song of Socrates (Phaedo 84d-85b) is not a lament but ultimately is the living word he perpetuates by his eternal, dialogic quest for the truth (624), right into his hoped-for afterlife; moreover, in temporal society Socrates’ words, in his own heroic fight, are those that start the dialogue on truth, to be continued by others of succeeding generations, forever (638). Here the immortalization is not of the body or soul but of the living word of philosophic dialogue (646). As a hero who can promote salvation then, Socrates’ final instruction to sacrifice a rooster to the healer Asklepios (Phaedo 118a) does not mean that death is a cure for life but rather that after overnight sleep/incubation there will be an awakening call of living words (682). So too the hero Achilles, whose bones buried in a golden amphora in a tumbos on the Hellespont, will be “visible shining forth from afar for men at sea now living and those that are born hereafter” (Odyssey XXIV 83-84); showing the way to salvation is the light that emanates from the hero’s tomb, as sailors lost at sea yearn to be reunited with loved ones (672). With the idea of the hero alive, the word about him is alive, and the hero thus lives on (683).

This book is not a 24-hour crash course. Detailed arguments are shaped gradually, often with recapitulation, and with references back in the discussion and forward to awaited development. There is a core vocabulary of key Greek words, and a full bibliography of scholarly references. There is an index of cited primary texts but not a general index. In the main body, selections of Greek are rendered in English with occasional transliterations, and all original Greek is provided in accompanying footnotes; full English texts are on-line in a companion sourcebook. In sum the material is instructive, learned and vintage Nagy, in a book on the Greek hero that is worth the time.

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