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NEW! Extra video lectures for those whose equipment can handle longer videos.

The following lectures were taped during Greg Nagy's "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization" course in Fall 1998. They touch on similar points as the video clips provided for this series, but also make use of parallels in modern media, such as film clips that have been incorporated into the lectures. Each lecture is about an hour long.

Bonus Video 1

Bonus Video 2

Bonus Video 3

Bonus Video 4

Bonus Video 5

 

Unit I: Odyssey scrolls i-iv

1) Required reading for this unit is scrolls i-iv of the Odyssey. A key word in the Odyssey is nostos, which means 'homecoming', and it is what Odysseus is trying to achieve. Another is kleos, 'fame, glory; that which is heard; fame as conveyed by song'. As you read, look for how these two central concepts are connected in the narrative.

Our focus passages from Scrolls xix and xxiv connect both Penelope and Laertes to the garden imagery that is also part of the imagery of hero cult (as we heard in the lecture). As you read the story of Telemakhos in the first four scrolls, see if you can find any plant imagery connected to Telemakhos. What does the imagery say about him?

Many of the questions we start with are not fully 'answered' in the first four scrolls, so we ask that you keep them in mind as you read further. We will return to these themes in the units to come.

2) View the RealVideo of Greg Nagy's introductory lecture on hero cult and the image of the beautiful garden. A supplementary video gives an introduction to one of the most important aspects of Homeric poetry - the fact that it was composed orally, in and for performance.

 

Lecture I: The King in the Garden: Symbol of the Cult Hero
(If you do not have RealVideo installed, go to Getting Started.)

 

LECTURE I NOTES

A. Here is an essential fact about ancient Greek religion (for a working definition of this general term, see item B): not only were the gods worshipped. Heroes too were worshipped. The worship of heroes was very much like ancestor worship. (Compare similar customs in other traditional societies, including the Japanese.)

A1. Besides the word worship, we may use the word cult. As in the expression hero cult. Other relevant concepts: cultivate [as in "cultivating" a field / garden / grove / orchard / vineyard / etc.] and culture [as in the opposition of "cultural" vs. "natural," that is, "artificial" vs. "natural"].

A2. It is a historical fact that the ancient Greeks worshipped heroes.

A3. Even if we had no epic (Homeric Iliad and Odyssey) or drama (tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) surviving from the ancient Greek world, we would still be fairly well informed, on the basis of non-poetic evidence (prosaic references, inscriptions, archaeological remains of cult sites, etc.) about the historical existence of hero cults in the period extending from (roughly) the eighth century BCE through the third century CE and even beyond.

A4. The 1979 book The Best of the Achaeans was the first book in Classical scholarship to argue, as a central thesis, that the non-poetic evidence about the religious practice of hero-cults can be systematically connected with the existing poetry and with what that poetry says - directly or indirectly - about this religious practice. The book was meant to demonstrate that such non-poetic evidence enhances our appreciation of the poetry, especially the epic traditions of Homer (and the dramatic traditions of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides). Another central thesis of the book was that the poetry itself provides additional new evidence about the practice of hero cults.

B. For a working definition of ancient Greek "religion," I suggest simply: the interaction of ritual and myth. For a working definition of ritual and myth, I suggest the following:

B1. Ritual. In small-scale societies, what you do in sacred space is marked activity, any kind of marked activity, most obviously worship (cult) and sacrifice, but also including: hunting, athletics, regulated sexual relations, even warfare.
B1a. Specially difficult for us to understand: sacrifice (killing animals, cooking by fire, and distribution in community) and warfare. Sacrifice is a ritualized admission of human guilt about the human capacity to kill other humans, as in warfare. This formulation was developed by Walter Burkert in a book about the anthropological background of sacrifice: Homo necans (as opposed to Homo sapiens).

B1b. Working definition of "sacred space": whatever is set aside by society for communication with the world beyond our everyday world. It is marked space vs. unmarked space. "Sacred" is the best way to describe "marked" in the smallest-scale societies. I try to stay away from words like divine, even supernatural.

B2. Myth. In small-scale societies, what you say in sacred space is marked speech, any kind of marked speech, most obviously worship (cult) and prayer, but also including: oaths, wagers, promises; these are typical speech-acts. In ancient Greece, there were other kinds of speech-acts that we ordinarily would not think of as speech-acts: laments, insults, praise, instruction; in other words, anything formal that is on record, as it were; to say on the record as opposed to off the record; marked vs. unmarked; marked speech is automatically witnessed by the gods or whatever is out there beyond the everyday world, in the sacred world. Myth explains the way things are. In some song cultures, it has maximum truth-value.

B2a. An illustration of the power of the speech-act... "The phrase is a holy being. You see, these songs, when they were turned over to the Earth People, were to be used in a certain way. If you leave out those words, then the holy beings feel slighted. They know you are singing, they are aware of it. But if you omit those words, then they feel it and they are displeased. Then, even though you are singing, whatever you are doing ... has no effect." - from an interview with a Navajo shaman.

B3. One of the most fundamental facts about ancient Greek religion is that it tends to be local and localized. For myth to be delocalized, as it tends to be in Homeric poetry (also in most archaic and classical poetry), it has to be separated from ritual.

B4. Everything that you have read so far about ritual and myth involves heroes as well as gods in ancient Greek religion.

C. Fifteen basic facts about hero cults.

#1. Hero cult was a fundamentally local practice, confined to a specific locale. There were literally thousands of hero-cults throughout the locales of the ancient Greek-speaking world. Every locale had its own set of local heroes. (For example, in the "demes" or local districts that constitute the urban / rural complex of Athens, each "deme" has a variety of local cult heroes.) Some of these heroes are well known to us through epic (every hero - major or minor - mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey was potentially a local hero) and tragedy, while others are never mentioned in any poetry known to us. The local hero of hero cult could be male or female, adult or child. (On the cult of baby heroes and its significance, see the 1999 Harvard Ph.D. thesis of Corinne Pache.)

#2. Ordinarily, the hero cult was based on the presence of the sôma 'body' (corpse) of the hero in the "mother earth" of the given locale. (Occasionally, the presence was limited to only a part of the body - like the head.) Whatever we may think scientifically about the identity of the given corpse in any given case, the locals understood that body (or body-part) to belong to the hero. The practice of venerating bodies or body-parts (or, metonymically, various objects associated with the bodies) continued beyond ancient Greece; an aspect of continuity is the Christian practice of venerating the relics of saints.

#3. The sôma of the dead hero was considered to be a talisman of fertility and prosperity to the community that worshipped the hero. The fertility was viewed in terms of plant life (especially the harvests from the fields, gardens, groves, orchards, vineyards, and so on), animal life (both domesticated and hunted animals), and human life (literally, sexuality and the producing / nurturing of children).

#4. The "marker" of the sôma was the sêma, which ordinarily took the physical shape of a 'tomb'.

#5. The "marking" of the sôma could also be a sign or signal or token or picture; the word for such a "marking" was also sêma.

#6. The "marking" would be a sacred secret in some situations. The local details of ritual and myth surrounding a given hero cult were held to be sacred in any case; as such, they tended to be considered secret as well. Or, at least, some of the sacred details were screened by the locals as secrets that must not be divulged to outsiders. The "outsiders" were not only the non-locals: they were also those of the locals who had not yet been initiated - the word for which is muô - into the secrets - the word for which is mustêria 'mysteries'. In Latin, the word for 'uninitiated' is profanus 'profane' (= 'standing in front of [= not inside] the sacred space').

#7. When locals sacrificed to a hero, they would kill a sacrificial animal (victim) and then divide its meat among the participants in the sacrifice, keeping the choice cut of meat, called geras, as an offering to the hero. To give heroes their proper geras was to give them their proper timê 'honor'. For more on timê, see also below.

#8. Another aspect of sacrificing to the hero was the ritual pouring of liquids, that is, libations; besides such liquids as water, wine, oil, milk, emulsified honey, and so on, the actual blood of the sacrificial victim could also count for the pouring of certain special kinds of libations. For example, the pouring of blood into the earth in order to make physical contact with the corpse of a hero below (sometimes a tube was connected to the mouth of the corpse) was thought to activate the consciousness of the hero, so that the hero could then give advice (= give a diagnôsis) from down below concerning questions of fertility and prosperity. The hero was sometimes given the euphemistic name of 'healer' (Iatros, Iasôn = Jason, etc.).

#9. When worshippers sacrificed to a hero, the perspective was directed toward the earth (khthôn); when they sacrificed to a god, the perspective was directed toward the sky (ouranos), except for a special category of gods called "chthonic" (khthonioi), who likewise required the downward perspective. Note the Heroikos of Philostratus: at the beginning, we see how the Phoenician has his gaze fixed upward toward the sky, while the vineyard-keeper has his gaze fixed downward toward the earth under his feet.

#10. When one sacrifices to a hero or a god, the generic term is thuô. When one sacrifices to a hero, the specific term is en-agizô. When one sacrifices to a god, there is no specific term, unless the god is "chthonic" (in which case, en-agizô is the appropriate term). The word en-agizô means literally 'I take part in the pollution'. In poetry, thuô 'sacrifice' is equivalent to the process of giving timê 'honor' to a given hero or god. A classic example of timê in the context of hero cult is Homeric Hymn to Demeter 261; see Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans p. 118.

#11. The most common sacrificial animal to be killed and cooked in the cult of a male hero was a ram.

#12. In any sacrifice to a hero, the process was usually visualized as happening beneath earth-level (the sacrifice is directed toward a depression in the earth, as into a pit or bothros). In any sacrifice to a god (with the exception, again, of the chthonic gods), the sacrifice was visualized as happening above earth-level (the sacrifice is directed toward an elevation from the earth, as on an altar or bômos). A classic example is the ritual involving the sacrifice of a black ram at the Pit of Pelops during the night before the Olympics begin and the boiling of mutton at the Altar of Zeus on the next day; see Nagy, Pindar's Homer pp. 123-124 on the testimony of Philostratus, On Gymnastics 5-6.

#13. The sacred space assigned the hero in hero-cult could be coextensive with the sacred space assigned to the god who was considered the hero's divine antagonist. A classic example is the location of the body of the hero Pyrrhos in the sacred precinct of Apollo at Delphi; see Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans ch.7 ("The Death of Pyrrhos").

#14. The hero was considered dead in terms of the place where the hero's corpse was situated; at the same time, the hero was considered immortalized in terms of the paradise-like place that awaited all heroes after death. Such a paradise-like place, which was considered eschatological, must be contrasted with Hades, which was considered transitional. The name and even the visualization of this otherworldly place varied from hero cult to hero cult. Some of these names are: Elysium, the Islands of the Blessed, the White Island, and so on. Many of these names were applied also to the actual place of the hero cult. For an extended discussion, see Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans ch.10 ("Poetic Visions of Immortality for the Hero").

#15. Heroes were thought to be capable of coming back to life (anabiônai) not only eschatologically, in their timeless paradise-like abodes, but also sporadically in the present time of their worshippers. Such sporadic "live" appearances were considered to be epiphanies. At the moment of worship, the sacred precinct of the cult hero could become notionally identical to the paradise-like abode of immortalization from which he or she returns to his worshippers. Metonymically, the sacred precinct of the cult hero needed to be a place of cultivation, such as a cultivated field / garden / grove / orchard / vineyard / etc.

Key word: dikê 'justice' (long-range), 'judgment' (short-range); vs. hubris 'outrage'. The three categories of hubris: (1) human, e.g. Antinoos, (2) animal, (3) plant (undergrowth or overgrowth, such as excessive wood / leaf production). Metaphors of dikê: (1) straight line and (2) thriving cultivation = cultivated field / garden / orchard / grove / vineyard / etc.; hubris is the opposite, that is, (1) crooked line and (2) failing cultivation = desert or overgrowth.

This word, with its two primary metaphors of (1) the straight line and (2) the thriving cultivation, is basic to the concept of the cult hero.

A perfect example of dikê is focus passage "A,"from Odyssey xix:

"Lady;" answered Odysseus, "who on the face of the whole earth can dare to chide with you? Your fame [kleos] reaches the firmament of heaven itself; you are like some blameless king, who upholds righteousness [= good dikê], as the monarch over a great and valiant nation: the earth yields its wheat and barley, the trees are loaded with fruit, the ewes bring forth lambs, and the sea abounds with fish by reason of his virtues, and his people do good deeds under him.

2. This epic image of the just king as an exponent of dikê, standing in his blooming garden, corresponds to the religious image of the hero in hero-cult, "planted" in the local "mother earth" as a talisman of fertility and prosperity for the community that worships him or her. It corresponds also to this image from Odyssey xi:

"As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, and your life shall ebb away very gently when you are full of years and peace of mind, and your people shall be prosperous [olbioi]. All that I have said will come true."

Here we see the mystical word olbios, which means 'prosperous' on the surface but also 'blessed' underneath the surface. The deeper meaning has to do with the hero's achieving an afterlife, rendering him 'blessed', while his corpse renders the local population 'prosperous'. There is a built-in metonymy in the reciprocal relationship linking the 'blessed' heroes and the 'prosperous' population that worships them.

3. In the Homeric tradition, references to hero cults tend to be implicit, not explicit. That is because the religious practice of hero-cult is fundamentally a local phenomenon while the Homeric tradition is non-local or "pan-Hellenic"

(that is, common to a majority of Greek speaking locales). Homeric references to olbioi people whose local earth is in contact with the dead hero imply hero-cult without really revealing the mysteries of the hero cult.

Another example is focus passage B, from Odyssey xxiv:

As he went down into the great orchard, ... he found his father alone, hoeing a vine. He had on a dirty old shirt, patched and very shabby; his legs were bound round with thongs of oxhide to save him from the brambles, and he also wore sleeves of leather; he had a goat skin cap on his head, and was looking full of grief [penthos]. When Odysseus saw him so worn, so old and full of sorrow [penthos], he stood still under a tall pear tree and began to weep. He doubted whether to embrace him, kiss him, and tell him all about his having come home, or whether he should first question him and see what he would say. In the end he deemed it best to be crafty with him, so in this mind he went up to his father, who was bending down and digging about a plant.

[244] "I see, sir," said Odysseus, "that you are an excellent gardener&endash;what pains you take with it, to be sure. There is not a single plant, not a fig tree, vine, olive, pear, nor flower bed, but bears the trace of your attention."

Odysseus' father is the most difficult character for the hero to "read" or "recognize" - even more difficult than Penelope. In terms of the sequence of narration, the placing of Laertes' recognition after that of Penelope suggests that the patêr 'father' (the plural pateres means 'ancestors') is even higher in Odysseus' ascending scale of affections than the wife.

 

Reading for Unit I: Odyssey scrolls i-iv

We would like you to begin the series by reading the following two passages very carefully. They will serve as the starting point for our discussions and they are the focus passages on which "Homeric Odyssey and the Cultivation of Justice" is built. After you have read them begin reading the Odyssey from the beginning, scrolls i-iv. An on-line translation of the Odyssey is available here.

A) Odyssey xix: "Lady;" answered Odysseus, "who on the face of the whole earth can dare to chide with you? Your fame [kleos]1 reaches the firmament of heaven itself; you are like some blameless king, who upholds righteousness [= good dikê],2 as the monarch over a great and valiant nation: the earth yields its wheat and barley, the trees are loaded with fruit, the ewes bring forth lambs, and the sea abounds with fish by reason of his virtues, and his people do good deeds under him.
(1) kleos 'glory, fame, that which is heard'; OR, 'the poem or song that conveys glory, fame, that which is heard'. This word was used in ancient Greek poetry or song / music to refer to the poetry ["epic"] or the song / music ["lyric"] that glorifies the heroes of the distant heroic past.

(2) dikê 'justice' (long-range), 'judgment' (short-range); vs. hubris 'outrage'. The three categories of hubris: (1) human, e.g. Antinoos, (2) animal, (3) plant (undergrowth or overgrowth, such as excessive wood / leaf production). Metaphors of dikê: straight line = thriving or blooming field / garden / orchard / grove / vineyard / etc.; hubris is opposite, crooked line = desert or overgrown jungle. So: blooming garden (or field) is the opposite of desert or excessive wood/leaf production

B) Odyssey xxiv: As he went down into the great orchard, ... he found his father alone, hoeing a vine. He had on a dirty old shirt, patched and very shabby; his legs were bound round with thongs of oxhide to save him from the brambles, and he also wore sleeves of leather; he had a goat skin cap on his head, and was looking full of grief [penthos]1. When Odysseus saw him so worn, so old and full of sorrow [penthos], he stood still under a tall pear tree and began to weep. He doubted whether to embrace him, kiss him, and tell him all about his having come home, or whether he should first question him and see what he would say. In the end he deemed it best to be crafty with him, so in this mind he went up to his father, who was bending down and digging about a plant. "I see, sir," said Odysseus, "that you are an excellent gardener&endash;what pains you take with it, to be sure. There is not a single plant, not a fig tree, vine, olive, pear, nor flower bed, but bears the trace of your attention."

(1) penthos 'grief' OR 'song of grief' = 'lament'

 

Now read Odyssey scrolls i-iv.

 

Discussion Questions

1. The Odyssey is Odysseus' story, yet it starts with the story of Telemakhos (the first four scrolls are sometimes even referred to as the "Telemakhy"). Why start with the Telemakhos' journey? We have said that the journey of Odysseus is a metaphorical 'journey of the soul' - can we see a similar progression for Telemakhos already in these four scrolls? One way to think about this is to examine his interactions and relationships with others: his mother, the suitors, his nurse, Athena disguised as Mentes vs. as Mentor, Nestor, Menelaus, etc.

2. In scroll ii, Telemakhos convenes an assembly (the first one since Odysseus has left!) to ask for help with the suitors and the problems they are causing in his home. How is the state of law/justice in the community presented in this scroll? What are the arguments made on both sides about the situation? How do Mentor's words to the assembly (see below) relate to the metaphor of the righteous king in our central passage?

scroll ii 229ff: [Mentor - the man, not Athena in disguise]: "Hear me, men of Ithaca, I hope that you may never have a kind and well-disposed ruler any more, nor one who will govern you equitably; I hope that all your chiefs henceforward may be cruel and unjust, for there is not one of you but has forgotten Odysseus, who ruled you as though he were your father. I am not half so angry with the suitors, for if they choose to do violence in the naughtiness of their minds [noos], and wager their heads that Odysseus will not return, they can take the high hand and eat up his estate, but as for you others I am shocked at the way in which you the rest of the population [dêmos] all sit still without even trying to stop such scandalous goings on - which you could do if you chose, for you are many and they are few."

3. As Telemakhos is preparing for his journey, he prays to Athena, who then appears to him in the form of Mentor (scroll ii 262 ff.):

[262] "Hear me," he cried, "you god who visited me yesterday, and bade me sail the seas in search of the nostos of my father who has so long been missing. I would obey you, but the Achaeans, and more particularly the wicked suitors, are hindering me that I cannot do so."

[267] As he thus prayed, Athena came close up to him in the likeness and with the voice of Mentor. "Telemakhos," said she, "if you are made of the same stuff as your father you will be neither fool nor coward henceforward, for Odysseus never broke his word nor left his work half done. If, then, you take after him, your voyage will not be fruitless, but unless you have the blood of Odysseus and of Penelope in your veins I see no likelihood of your succeeding. Sons are seldom as good men as their fathers; they are generally worse, not better; still, as you are not going to be either fool or coward henceforward, and are not entirely without some share of your father's wise discernment, I look with hope upon your undertaking. But mind you never make common cause [noos] with any of those foolish suitors, for they are neither sensible nor just [dikaioi], and give no thought to death and to the doom that will shortly fall on one and all of them, so that they shall perish on the same day.

What are the father/son dynamics set up not only in this passage, but in the first four scrolls as a whole? (We will continue to think about this throughout our reading!) How has Telemakhos fared without a father all his life, and how will going to inquire about his father's nostos make a difference?

Also, why does Athena have to warn Telemakhos not to join in with the suitors? Why would he? And from the characterization of the suitors as 'neither sensible nor just', how can we begin to define justice at this point in the narrative?

 

Additional video:

Oral Poetry: This 8 minute segment was recorded during one of Casey's sections of the undergraduate course entitled "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization" (Harvard University, Fall, 1999). In it she gives an introduction to one of the most important aspects of Homeric poetry - the fact that it was composed orally, in and for performance.

Oral Poetry

ORAL POETRY NOTES

In the early 1930's Milman Parry and his assistant Albert Lord went to Yugoslavia to study the South Slavic oral epic song tradition, which was still very much alive at the time. While there, they interviewed singers, transcribed their songs, and with the aid of the latest technology were able to record live performances on aluminum disks. This collecting resulted in over 3,500 double sided aluminum disks and 800 notebooks of transcriptions, now housed in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature in Widener Library at Harvard University. Through their revolutionary comparative field work they were able to show that the Homeric poems were not only traditional but oral.

Milman Parry died shortly after his second trip to Yugoslavia. Before his death he wrote a number of papers which demonstrated that their was a traditional oral formulaic system in which the Homeric poems were composed. His analysis of epithets like "swift-footed Achilles" or "long-suffering Odysseus" showed the economy of the system which evolved in response to the need to compose in performance at high speed. The poets of the ancient Greek epic tradtion, like those in the South Slavic tradition, did not memorize their songs. Each performance was a new composition. This kind of high speed composition is made possible by the special poetic language in which the poets composed.

This language consists not of words but of formular units. The units are as small as a noun epithet combination and as large as whole type scenes such as arming or feasting. Theses units fit the specific metrical pattern of the verse, which in the ancient Greek epic tradition is the dactylic hexameter:

-vv -vv -vv -vv -vv --

The economy of the system is such that rarely are there two units which express the same idea for any one metrical configuration.

This system developed over thousands of years. As a result the language of the Homeric poems cannot be pinned down to any one time or place. There are some extremely old elements and some considerably newer. Likewise the dialect of the poems is an artificial mixture of dialects from around the Greek-speaking world. It was never actually spoken in one period of time or location.

After Milman Parry's death his assistant Albert Lord continued the work they began. His groundbreaking book, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA, 1960; second edition, which includes a multimedia cd, available Spring 2000) describes in detail how oral poetry works on the basis of his unparalled fieldwork in Yougoslavia. He also applies what he learned from the South Slavic tradition to the Homeric poems and the song traditions of other cultures.