Fall 2004 LA C-14 Oct - Nov Exchanges
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11-10-04: student drawing inspired by the Odyssey
Dear Prof. Nagy,
Inspired by Odysseus multiple adventures at sea, I made a drawing
four years ago. Imprisoned in Calypso’s island, he is sitting
on a rock by the sea, looking at the horizon and thinking about
his nostos. Since the original drawing is in my home in Albania,
I would like to send you a virtual copy as a sign of my appreciation
for your class and for your beautiful lectures.
Click to view a jpg image
of Bora's drawing
Dear wonderful Bora,
what a beautiful rendition! I am taking the liberty of sharing
not only with the Teaching Fellows and with our Webmaster, Mark,
but also with my colleagues at the CHS. Is there any way we could
“publish” this work of yours on our website? Anyhow,
you made your teacher very proud and happy.
agônes of athletes
Hi Professor Nagy,
I had a few random thoughts as I was watching and reading about
the World Series a while back. I hope you enjoy them:
In reading some of the journalistic reporting of the events of
these games, I was struck by the connection between the attitude
of the athletes and the audience toward the struggles of competition.
These athletes become larger than life, and the more difficulties
they have to overcome the more they are praised, and dare I say,
worshiped for their labors. I remember the 1997 Chicago Bulls
finals against Utah, in game 5 Michael Jordan was struck down
with a bout of stomach flu the day of the game, and was so weak
and dehydrated he practically had to be carried on to the court.
But as soon as he stepped onto the court he played as a man possessed,
scoring 45 points. What stayed so clear in my memory was the comment
that someone made later, with awe and reverence in their voice,
that no matter how sick he was, when he faced the opposite team
he ceased to merely an ill individual, but Air Jordan, God disguised
in baggy shorts. I also remember getting chills while watching
the game itself. I saw a direct parallel to Hero culture and cults
in the idea of becoming a quasi-supernatural force in the moment
of crisis under the stress of competition or warfare, and idea
that the labors of an athlete can become something all-consuming
and almost sacred in that moment of climax. Even the athletes
themselves unknowingly describe this moment of culmination in
their lives in terms of Greek hero culture. After Curt Schilling
delivered an amazing pitching effort with a bloody ankle that
he could barely walk on, he describes the day as “And, I
mean, I can't explain it. I wish I could explain the day I just
experienced. It's just the most amazing day of my life."
Not the most articulate expression of his feelings, but the sentiment
is clear – some force took a hold of him and carried him
through. Perhaps the reason that pro-sports, despite the sordid
scandals and materialistic excesses that often accompany them,
still can bring people to such extreme emotional highs and lows
merely through witnessing labors of these athletes in competition
because it is tapping into some deep fundamental connection we
still have with the Greek world of heroes. It is the closest to
war that most of us come close to in our lives – the kind
of war that fights for honor and kleos rather than for land or
greed, and touches a chord (pun intended) within us that goes
back to the Greek songs.
Also, I’m not sure if you mentioned the special exhibition
on Games for the Gods: The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit
at the Museum of Fine Arts in class, but in any case I’m
planning on going, it should be really interesting.
this is a beautiful formulation. I’m sharing not only with
the Teaching Fellows and Mark, our Webmaster, but also with Mary
Ebbott, a former Head TF (now a professor at Holy Cross) and a
fellow Red Sox fan. Maybe you will allow us to publish your piece
on our website?
themes in Greek and Indian epic
Hi Professor Nagy,
I'm a Senior in your Heroes class and I had a question for you
that has been on my mind for a while now. When I was reading the
Odyssey (specifically, the scene when Odysseus dressed
as the beggar strings the bow and shoots the arrow through the
line of axes), I noticed a strong parallel between it and the
Hindu epic, the Mahabharatha. There is a very similar scene in
this Hindu epic. One of the five princes, Arjuna, is disguised
as a priest because he, his brothers, and his mother are all in
exile (his father died and his evil uncle sent them away...I can
check...it has been many years since I read this). He comes to
another King's court on a day when the King is trying to choose
a suitor for his daughter, Draupadi. The king says that whoever
can string his bow and shoot an arrow into the eye of a golden
fish that is circling on the ceiling (and the archer cannot look
directly at the fish, he must look at the fish via its reflection
in a pool of water) will marry his daughter. All the suitors laugh
when Arjuna, who is dressed as a priest, goes to string the bow...in
any case, he does it and wins Draupadi's hand in marriage. I don't
have a text of the story at hand, but I just found it really interesting
that Odysseus who is also in disguise strings his own bow and
shoots through the arrows to signal his arrival and win his house/family
back. I'm sure there are further implications from both these
events on their respective storylines that are similar, but since
I don't remember a lot of the details, I can't identify them yet...however,
do you think that this is significant?
I'm so glad you pointed out this parallel. Such parallelisms
result from the fact, as I see it, that the Greek and Indic epic
traditions are actually cognate. I'm publishing in Blackwell's
Companion to Ancient Epic my basic findings on this subject, and I'm sharing with
you the latest version of my text. With your permission, we could
post this exchange on the Heroes website?
10-20-04: a question
This is Stephanie Lawrence, and I just have a question about
a point that you mentioned last night. You said that the reason
why the main character of the movie didn't tell people who he
was is because he had to test them, and also because he had to
be tested by the plot. The part that I don't understand is, why
does a main character (or hero) have to be tested by the plot?
Maybe I misinterpreted your words, or maybe I'm just not fully
understanding the concept, but I would be extremely grateful if
you could clarify this for me.
Thank you very much,
Thank you for your question!
My point was made in a larger context. I was saying that many
forms of traditional literature operate in such a way that the
character cannot be independent of the plot. We moderns often
assume that the character can indeed be independent. I hope that
helps. May I "publish" our exchange on the Heroes website?
I think it might be useful to other students.
Dear Professor Nagy,
I had just one quick thought, somewhat unrelated to the lecture:
the chariot races appear to be dangerous and potentially a cause
of death, which seems a bit ironic in light of the fact that they
are trying to remember the dead through this ritual--almost that
it would pepetuate the circle of "death, funereal remembrance,
death." Am I assuming too much about the chariot races or
is this partially true? Thank you again for the opportunity and
looking forward to Dialogue 8!
Your observation about athletic "sudden death" as a
compensation for heroic death is right on the mark (no pun intended,
Dear Prof. Gnagy,
Here's the website I found for Chunhyang: www.lot47.com/chunhyang.
If you click on Synopsis, there is a link to Multimedia files
with clips and stills! Yay!
Hope to see you Friday!
thank you so much! I'm sharing with Mark for posting. Gratefully,
General Questions about the Iliad
Hi Professor Nagy,
My name is Ben Tseng, and I'm a sophomore in your Greek Heroes
class. There are a few questions I've been meaning to ask you
about the Iliad that I never got around to. Here they are:
1) If Achilles is a derivative of "akhos" and "laos"
(sp??), does Hektor's name or Andromache's or Astyanax's name
have any special meaning?
2) I have oftentimes read Zeus described as "mighty"
or "all-knowing" or "all-seeing" -- are these
appellations meant sarcastically? Its quite apparent that Zeus
isn't so mighty that everyone always obeys him. Its also quite
apparent that he isn't all-knowing or all-seeing or else Hera
couldn't have tricked him as many times as she has (ie Herakles'
birth and forcing Zeus into sleep so Poseidon could attack Hektor)?
3) Do you think Homer was anti-war? Although the culture as a
whole values its warriors and hunters, the Iliad doesn't seem
to be very pro-war. We see that the deaths of many are subject
to the whims of both kings and Gods. We see that even heroes have
ambiguous moralities -- Achilles is a hero, but I'm quite sure
most people (even Greeks) would have found his behavior revolting
and childish at best. Diomedes for instance told some Trojan soldier
(can't recall his name) that he would not kill him, but that there
were plenty of other Greeks for that soldier to kill and plenty
of other Trojans for himself to kill as if the actual side of
the war didn't matter with regards to their individual moralities.
There is no doubt that Achilles and Hektor and Sarpedon acted
heroically by virtue of their deeds, but no so much as the side
which they were on. It is as if the war itself was ridiculous
to Homer -- where great deeds occurred, no doubt, but the slaughter
was detestable and there was substantial ambiguity as to who was
correct or "on the side of the angels"
I'd appreciate your thoughts on these subjects. I look forward
to seeing you on Monday in class.
Thank you for your time,
1) Hektor means 'he who wards off [e.g. attacking forces]': so
his name "programs" him to be a defensive rather than
offensive warrior. A question for you to ponder: how does the
meaning of his name play out in the Iliad? Astyanax means 'king
of the city' - there is an allusion to this meaning in Iliad VI.
I write about this in my book _Best of the Achaeans_. Andromache
is composed of andro- 'man' and -makhE 'battle'; the syntactical
relationship of the two compound elements is unclear, but the
name seems to convey "Amazon"-like qualities. In other
epic traditions, there is more emphasis on her knowledge of military
strategy. There is an allusion to this theme in Iliad VI.
2) The epithets of Zeus are hardly sarcastic. The characterizations
of the Homeric gods in the Homeric poems are influenced by cultural
politics. Each community had its own ways of worshipping e.g.
Zeus, and these religious differences tend to get screened out
by Panhellenic poetry. What is left after the screening is not
an accurate religious picture. Have a look at my remarks on Greek
"religion" in the five-minute Appendix.
3) The criterion "anti-war" seems to me anachronistic.
Homeric poetry is a beautiful recognition of the human condition,
I think that is what you are picking up in the examples you cite.
All of them are very interesting to me. I hope these remarks are
helpful. Would it be OK if we publish our exchange on the Heroes
Hi Professor Nagy,
I was just starting to read the Odyssey and came across something
interesting that I wanted to ask about. In Scroll iii, page 241
line 81, Telemakhos says to Nestor "I seek new [kleos] of
my unhappy father Odysseus...." I thought kleos referred
to glory/song of glory. Is this usage of the word as "news"
mean that Telemakhos is expecting to hear a song of glory about
how his father fell in battle? Or is this just another way of
translating the word? It just seems odd because it is a word with
so much power and importance in the Iliad-- especially with all
the plays on the names of Patroklos and Kleopatra. Oh incidentally,
that brings up another question I had: Kleopatra is also named
Alcyone (right?) Why do people have so many names? (Paris also
Alexander) etc. Moreover, it sometimes seems that the names are
too fittingly tailored to the disposition of the character or
to his/her place in the story (ie Patroklos and Kleopatra, Achilles).
Are names constructed after the fact (akin to the way Jesus renames
Saul Peter to be the "rock" of the church-- yes, I took
English Bible last year :) or is it just happy coincidence?
Excellent questions. On kleos in the Odyssey... Yes, there are
situations where the word seems to mean merely 'that which is
heard', that is, 'news'. But that is because any 'news' reported
within the kleos of epic is by extension kleos in its own right.
Similarly in Herodotus, where the medium calls itself apodexis
'making public', anything that is done is simultaneously 'made
public' because the things done are being reported within the
apodexis of history. The framing medium can define the media within
the frame. As for names... The characters of epic - as also most
heroes - are not "real" people. They are creations of
the song culture that are real to those who are in the song culture;
but for people like you and me, who are outsiders looking in,
as it were, on the song culture, they are "myths." This
is not a negative description: on the contrary, it is very positive.
In the song culture of the ancient Greeks, myth was a way of conveying
reality - especially moral reality - through storytelling. It's
not empirical truth as we know it, but it's notional truth.
Dear Professor, Sure, though
I guess I sound kind of silly-- of course they're mythical, I
guess I just didn't think about it. Hmmmm. It's odd, we just talk
about them so much they seem real. Isn't there that whole big
thing about trying to find where the real Troy was? Mycenae and
all the cities in the Iliad did exist though right? Did people
in Ancient Greece actually believe that Achilles et al existed?
I mean, they would have to right? Otherwise it would mean that
the gods as they knew them were fictive as well? I had this idea
from somewhere (not sure where) that the Greeks derived a lot
of what they knew about their gods from the Homeric epics but
that could probably be a completely false assumption on my part...
what was the role then of these two epics in terms of the Greek
people's understanding of the Gods?
Dear Dina, You shouldn't feel bad about your question. It was
not silly at all. And yes, Troy and Mycenae and most other places
mentioned in Homeric poetry are "real." And yes, Homeric
poetry is a primary source of mythology for the Greeks of the
Classical period. As I said at the beginning of the course, Herodotus
is on the right track when he says that Hesiod and Homer represent
for the Greeks the basic values of civilization.
signifigance of the number four
I was just wondering what the significance of the number four
is in Greek Literature – it seems that four is a very important
number in the Iliad. Patroclus is swatted by Apollo on the fourth
time that he is equal to the daimon, Hector is chased by Achilles
around the wall four times before Hector gains the composure to
meet him in battle. There is another occasion that I know I am
overlooking but has been in the reading recently. What are you
thoughts on this? Is there something special about tetaros??
Glad to hear from you. And good question. The thing about the
symbolism of numbers – even in one culture at one time and
one place – is that whatever works in one context may not
work in another. The special meanings of numbers are very context-bound
and cannot be universalized. That doesn’t mean, however,
that we can’t connect e.g. the 4x onslaught by Patroklos
with the 4x pursuit of Hektor. Very interesting. I need to ponder
I thought I'd add a few thoughts, because a lot of students often
ask about the significance of various numbers...
I totally agree with Prof. Nagy that it is almost impossible to
find any 'numerological' significance to numbers of these sorts.
The number 12 is also, for some reason, very significant in Greek
culture, but who could say why that is or what it means. As far
as the 4x pattern of repetition is concerned, I would point out
that the number 3 is extremely common in the folklore of many
cultures as the number of repetitions necessary to establish something
as a recurrent pattern. (Twice seems like just coincidence, but
the third time is the charm.) But notice that in the 4x pattern,
what is emphasized is exactly the difference of the fourth time:
Patroklos is attacked and rebuffed three times, but the FOURTH
time... So it seems to me like the 4x pattern is a way of emphasizing
the significance and singularity of whatever happens that fourth
time--in other words, it's a technique for building suspense.
(Or like the 'priamel' structure we discussed in class.)
Also, just for your own entertainment, Nick, I thought I'd add
that the number 4 was EXTREMELY important in Pythagorean numerology.
The key is that if you make an equilateral triangle out of dots
arranged in four rows, like this:
. . .
. . . .
you end up with 10 dots; that is, 1 + 2 +3 + 4 = 10, and 10 is
a perfect number in Pythagorean thinking. Pythagoras called this
geometrical pattern the "tetraktys." Those first four
integers are like basic elements of the universe, and they also
relate to musical theory. Here's a quote from the Oxford Classical
Dictionary's entry on Pythagoras which explains the whole thing:
The scientific tradition ascribes to Pythagoras a number of important
discoveries, including the famous geometric theorem that still
bears his name. Even more significant for Pythagorean thought
is the discovery of the musical consonances: the ratios 2 : 1,
3 : 2, and 4 : 3 representing the length of strings corresponding
to the octave and the basic harmonies (the fifth and the fourth).
These ratios are displayed in the tetractys, an equilateral triangle
composed of 10 dots; the Pythagoreans swear an oath by Pythagoras
as author of the tetractys. The same ratios are presumably reflected
in the music of the spheres, which Pythagoras alone was said to
Hope you find that interesting, Nick.
I hesitate to read too much into the significance of such a small
detail in a poet so long as the Iliad, but on the way to my chemistry
review session plus with the help of the internet, I thought a
few more instances where four is important in the Iliad. There
are four winds, right?? I suppose this might have some navigational
significance. There are four seasons in a year. Since opa (ora)
means the same as the hora of a hero, this might be interesting.
Another interesting angle is that there are four rivers in Hades,
right? - Styx, Acheron and another two that I cant remember. Since
the Iliad is closely related with going to the underworld, this
might be interesting. It seems that any time one of our hero does
something for a fourth time, a death is brought about, hence a
connection to the four rivers of Hades.
Just a thought,
PS Go ahead a publish this