BMCR 2001.02.02

Immortal Armor. The Concept of alke in Archaic Greek Poetry

, Immortal armor : the concept of Alkē in archaic Greek poetry. Greek studies. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. 137 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0847688208 $21.95.

Studies which make one word the prime focus of their attention come with their own particular advantages and disadvantages. While a number of insights can be had from detailed analysis of particular terms in varying contexts, at times there can be a tendency to over-emphasise the significance of the term in question to the exclusion of other relevant considerations. Sometimes we are also confronted with an excessive willingness to see the underlying presence of the key word where it might at best only be implied, if indeed it is relevant at all to the passage at hand. As a result of this kind of approach our view of the larger picture can become somewhat more skewed than it need be. To varying degrees, these symptoms—along with many intelligent readings—are evident in this short and generally lucid monograph by Derek Collins [henceforth C.]. This work goes some way to furthering our understanding of certain heroic concepts in the Iliad but leaves much unsaid about other related ideas within Homeric epic and Archaic poetry generally which, despite the book’s sub-title, hardly receives attention.

The ‘immortal armor’ of the title is dealt with in detail only in the first of the book’s three chapters. Here C. examines Patroklos’ aristeia in Iliad 16 and sees the hero’s actions as embodying aspects of alke in two important ways. Firstly, C. claims, alke is related to a literal possession by Ares which takes effect on the donning of Achilles’ armour. Secondly, alke manifests itself in an uncontrollable rage for slaughter, and for Patroklos this is most evident in his unquenchable desire to take Troy (or, as it turns out, die in the attempt). To deal with this latter point first: the argument here largely rests on similes comparing warriors to a lion (Patroklos at 16.752-3) and a leopard (Agenor at 21.576-8) where the alke of each animal is presented as a force that drives the animal to kill or be killed (pp.33ff).1 This has resonance for Patroklos’ famously doomed attempt on Troy, and C. brings out nicely this feature of alke that can make it an ‘all or nothing’ type of heroic energy. But alke is not the only self-destructive martial impulse in the Iliad that is clearly uncontrollable in the eyes of Homeric characters. Andromache’s famous speech to Hektor in Iliad 6 begins by warning him that his menos will destroy him (6.407)—a remark as memorable as it is prophetic. Similarly, Achilles fills his own thumos with raging menos as he charges Hektor (22.311-15) in the climactic encounter of the epic that brings not only kudos to the Greek warrior but also ensures his own death as he himself has realised earlier (18.88-126; cf. 22.356-66). Here again menos may be seen to have significant self-destructive ramifications. Later C. discusses extensively the links between menos and alke, so often coupled within the Iliad as they are (pp.83ff, esp.103ff), yet overlooks this important feature they apparently share.

C. claims (pp.15ff) that both Hektor and Patroklos become literally possessed by Ares when each dons the armour of Achilles. While this is to some extent plausible for Hektor (at Iliad 17.210-12), who becomes filled with alke and strength as a result, the same cannot be said for Patroklos, whose arming scene (16.130-144) makes no mention of Ares or alke. C.’s attempts to support his interpretation by invoking Eustathius (pp.21-2; 36) lack conviction; indeed, Van der Valk’s view that the Byzantine patriarch had erred in substituting Patroklos’ name for Hektor’s (ad 17.210-12), noted by C., deserves more credit than he gives it (p.21, n.20). If even Homer nods, then should we exclude this possibility from the works of his commentators, however learned they may be? C. rightly notes that the word entheos occurs nowhere in the Iliad, but he tries to uphold the notion of possession by Ares by comparing most notably Aeschylus’ description of Hippomedon in the Septem (497-8). There the warrior is seen as a bacchant possessed by Ares and raging pros alken. This encapsulates for C. a number of issues which he sees as implicit in Homer’s descriptions of Hektor’s donning of Achilles’ armour and Patroklos’ aristeia while wearing such armour (pp.31-2).

But is literal possession the only way to interpret Homer’s account of Hektor at Iliad 17.210-12? I think not. To clarify the issue C. could have incorporated some mention of other arming scenes in the Iliad which involve some sort of transformation of the warriors concerned without necessarily involving direct possession by a god. Agamemnon becomes a blustering figure of violence (11.17-45) as he dons his armour with its monstrous imagery and receives good omens from Hera and Athena; Achilles seems to gain a cosmic radiance and power during his arming scene (19.367-91). The most specific parallel to Hektor’s experience occurs when Ajax arms himself for his duel with the Trojan prince in Iliad 7 (206-16). Here Ajax is compared to —but not said to be possessed by—Ares once his armour is on; he cuts a terrifying figure unlike before when he, like all the Greeks, initially cowered in fear in the face of Hektor’s challenge of a fight to the death. These scenes are unfortunately neglected by C. altogether perhaps because there is no mention of alke in either. But important themes are surely evident here for heroic concepts and military apparel in Homer. One could note, for example, that Agamemnon grabs alkima doure on the way to his aristeia in Iliad 11, just as Patroklos does in book 16; while C. sees significance in the latter instance (p.36), he says nothing about its possible importance for the Mycenaean king. A hero’s armour in the Iliad frequently carries connotations of talismanic or transformative power, and it may be that Hektor’s experience is couched in figurative language for his heightened confidence and bloodlust, rather than presenting us with an unparalleled instance of literal possession by a god in the Iliad. 2 C. correctly observes that alke could function as a kind of armour itself as warriors are sometimes said to enshrouded in it (pp.63-4), so a fuller treatment of heroic armour in the Iliad was warranted.

Considerably different aspects of alke are brought out by C. in the second chapter, which stresses the idea of alke as a divinely sanctioned concept coming directly from Zeus whereby the hero on whom it is bestowed will enjoy kudos. Two Iliadic examples are discussed in detail—Nestor’s response to the lightning bolt (8.139-44) and Hektor’s recognition of divine will behind the breaking of Teukros’ bowstring (15.486-92). This leads to a discussion of subjective inferences made by certain characters in response to particular events (pp.57ff.) and raises further issues of possible contradictions in the way Homeric figures attribute the same phenomena to different deities, such as Zeus or an unnamed theos or daimon. By invoking Lord’s theories of oral poetics, among others, C. explains such ‘inconsistencies’ as reflecting diachronic and synchronic levels underlying the broader poetic tradition behind the Iliad, especially apropos of the ‘evolution’ of the alke that comes from Zeus. This is an interesting speculation but seems to me unnecessary. The entire Iliad is part of the will of Zeus— Dios boule —as Homer tells us at the outset ( Il. 1.5), and we need not see a ‘contradiction’ in references being made to different putative divine causes for the same events.3 An important feature of alke well brought out by C. is its link to kleos and its concomitant exclusion of flight from battle or return home (nostos), at least for Achilles (pp.66ff.). As C. notes, the idea that flight precludes alke and kleos applies more widely to the Greeks as the exhortations of Agamemnon (5.529-32) and Ajax (15.561-4) show. But what are we to make of the famous withdrawal from battle by Menelaos (17.91-112) where discretion is presented as the better part of valour? In fact no less a warrior than Ajax himself backs off from fighting with no condemnation from the poet or anyone else (16.114-21). The ‘ideology of alke‘ (if one can speak of such a thing) seems under strain in these instances, which seem worthy of fuller analysis.

C.’s final chapter develops more fully an idea he alludes to earlier, namely that alke is a mental activity related closely to the concept of memory or intent. A number of passages C. adduces (pp.79ff, 109-110.) bear this out clearly as medomai and mimneskomai (or ‘not forgetting’ [ ou lanthano ]) are often enough used by warriors as a way invoking alke in themselves and others. Much of C.’s argument here involves the coupling of alke with menos, which he claims underlines the memory-based function of alke. C. relates menos (and cognates) etymologically to mimneskomai and memona and allows this etymology to dominate his treatment of the term (pp.81ff). This link, however, is pushed beyond plausibility in many cases and is clearly inadequate to describe the well-known aspects of menos as a form of powerful martial rage that are more consistent with its cognate mainomai, as LSJ note,4 and to which C. pays too little attention (pp.83-4). C.’s example of the simile comparing Idomeneus to a wild boar with bristling back, eyes blazing fire, and teeth grinding (13.469-75) is reduced to bathos in his translation which ‘climaxes’ in the animal being described as ‘mindful of warding off the dogs and men’ (p.83). On etymological and other grounds C. is right to point out instances where menos is memory-based (p.105). But there is no need to assume that this underlies all the appearances of menos. Indeed, there are numerous times when a god endows a warrior with menos which instantaneously manifests itself in a burst of physical strength and desire for battle where the idea of memory is quite out of place.5 C.’s attempt to see menos as the mental counterpart to alke is also problematic (p.106), as it is far from clear that the two are differentiated thus. With characteristic practicality and earthiness both Diomedes (9.705-6) and Odysseus (19.161) recognise sleep, food and wine as the source of man’s menos and alke; no mental or physical divide is implied in their statements. C.’s remarks on the role of alke in the Odyssey (pp.109-125) suggest that this poem modifies the Iliadic concept to make it more suitable to a civic environment rather than rejecting it entirely. The death of Agamemnon, says C., is due to a lack of alke, as he fails to remember it on his homecoming (cf. Od. 4.526-7); but this may be seen as a symptom rather than a cause of the doomed king’s fate. C. also makes alke (sometimes coupled with menos) central to the ‘progression’ of Telemachos as he acquires something of heroic status through the guidance of Athena in the form of Mentor/Mentes—names which, for C., carry great etymological significance apropos the idea of memory. C.’s view that Telemachos’ attainment of alke leads him to excessive violence is interesting, although it need not explain everything in his development.

In sum, C. has given us a clear and often valuable account of an important term in Homeric epic. However, the narrow focus of his approach tends to neglect significant related issues and themes, particularly the rather lopsided treatment of menos. Some overall conclusion to balance the admirably clear introduction would have been helpful in synthesising the various interesting levels of alke that C. has unearthed—not least to address certain questions that arise along the way. For instance, is there a contradiction or paradox in the status of alke as an arbitrary bestowal from Zeus, as opposed to its memory-based function, or indeed its purely physical aspects (that make it traceable to food and drink)? The useful insights that C. offers into alke could have been extended further—and its implications more satisfyingly dealt with—if breadth as well as depth of reading had been more in evidence in this monograph.


1. There is no simile comparing Patroklos to a leopard at Il. 16.576-78, as C. says (p.40). A couple of other mistakes need correction. C. is wrong to say that Eris is not related genealogically to Ares (p.33); she is his sister ( Il. 4.440-5). Nor is Diomedes part of the embassy to Achilles in Iliad 9, as C. implies (p.44).

2. Cf. also the cholos —heroic anger—that descended ( edu) on Achilles when gazing on his newly-made divine armour (19.14-19) which echoes the verb to describe the influence of Ares on Hektor ( du).

3. For Zeus as a transcendent, inscrutable figure elsewhere in Greek poetry cf., for instance, Aeschylus Ag. 161ff, and the final line of Sophocles’ Trachiniae.

4. LSJ s.v. menos, III, and s.v. memona 1.

5. Examples of gods ‘throwing’ or placing menos in a warrior: Iliad 5.125, 136, 15.262, 16.629, 21.145, etc. For menos as a physical force in animals see Il. 23. 468; in inanimate objects, see 17.565; in periphrasis to denote a powerful warrior 14.418, 23.837, etc. It is no big step for Archilochus to treat the word as a form of sexual energy (fr. 196a.52 West)