Language, Truth, and the Homeric Origins of Western Idealism
By C.B. Robertson
Artword (c) Seweryn Jasinski
Table of Contents
- Homer: Heart of the West
- The Hero in Homer’s Iliad
- The Man in Homer’s Odyssey
- The Hero and the Man in Cult Religion
- The Chorus: Hero as Adolescent
- Heroic Idealism and the Language of the Hero
- Dike: Heroic Truth and Justice
- The Tragedy of Heroism
- Ainos and the Language of Man
- Memory and Returning Home
- Heroism as the Savior of Man
- The Masculine Legacy of Homer
- The Ascendance of Logos: Socrates
- The Ascendance of Aletheia: Jesus
- Ecce Homo? Jesus and the Archetype of the Man
- The Ascendance of History: Hegel
- Hero Cult vs The Cult of Heroism
- Thersites and the Choice of Man
- The Last Man
- The Return of Man
The book before you now is not the book I intended to write.
I have loved and studied Homer for the better part of a decade now. I remember going to school to be a truck-driver in the Fall of 2013, camping during the week, biking seven miles to and from class, and reading a pocket-sized Lang translation of the Iliad in the evenings. I kept that copy with me at all times, and never got tired of reading it. Like many young men, I was inspired by the vivacity of the story. It was a feeling of connection with a kind of grandiosity that seems stifled in our day and age.
I began exploring the topic of heroism in greater depth with the intention of writing a polemical defense of the heroic mindset, grounded in Homer’s Iliad.
But as I dug deeper into the stories—stories which I had already read a dozen times each, in multiple translations—my views began to shift. The Heroism I discovered upon this closer reading was no less beautiful than it had always felt, but what Homer described was not so simple as it first appeared to a spirited young man looking upward for some source of inspiration.
This deeper understanding changed my own life.
In 2013—the same year I quit college to become a truck-driver—I had been fired from the school’s paper, in no small part because I had become something of a nuisance in my campaign for free speech on campus. I was a fanatic on the subject, and remained so for years afterward.
But in 2019, I began to question this long-held value. Upon closer examination, there seemed to be philosophical criticisms of free speech which simply could not be answered—namely (1) the argument that speech was a kind of action, and could not be distinguished as “just words” and therefore in a separate category from other actions which every civilized nation regulates, and (2) the argument that free speech is completely bereft of benefit without some reasonable expectation of being accurately understood, and that in our increasingly interconnected world, the deep connections required to understand each other are growing thinner and shallower – as are the kinds of speech and arguments that thrive in the era of the internet. In such a context, free speech just spreads distrust and confusion faster, even if everyone involved has the best of intentions.
I came to distance myself from free speech, and even challenge it.
But as I came to understand Homeric Heroism and the more mysterious character of Odysseus, I found myself circling back towards the value of “free speech.” Understanding the relationship of language to the values we hold permitted me to see the limitations of words to convey what the Founding Fathers were attempting to protect with the first amendment… or to convey what any law-giver, poet, or philosopher is trying to convey.
Free speech is a phrase, a condensed reminder of a certain way of being and of governing, one which necessarily permits laws against certain kinds of speech (namely, libel), but which is marked by a certain character that distinguishes the citizens of America from the citizens of other European nations. That distinction is a frank and open manner of conversation and argumentation, and often, faith or skepticism that punctures the polite sensibilities of aristocrats.
“Free speech” cannot be understood literally today, since the technical meaning of the term has changed from its 18th century legal meaning (a prohibition on prior restraint—one could be arrested for saying something, but not prevented from saying it). But by making a mental connection with the Founders who drafted the constitution, we can see through the imperfection of conveying ideas with language that grows stale and obsolete with time, and see the spirit behind the words. This spirit is not stale or obsolete, but is still alive and thriving today.
It is why Americans still can speak more freely than most Europeans (much to the consternation of some).
My primary goal with this book is to help others enjoy Homer in the way that I have. But there are also practical takeaways to be had. If this deeper understanding of language and the history of our values can help people feel less pessimistic, feel less despairing of the apparently fallen and degenerate world they find themselves inhabiting, and able to embrace virtues and values of which they were beginning to feel uncertain, then it will have been successful on a deeper and more spiritual level.
And if our shared perception of the brilliance hidden in the past inspires us to rise up to be worthy of that inheritance here in the present, so much the better.
-C.B. Robertson, August 14, 2021
 “Speech vs Inquiry: Or Why I Am Against Free Speech.” Aug 2019. https://caffeineandphilosophy.com/2019/08/22/speech-vs-inquiry-or-why-i-am-against-free-speech/
Chapter 1. Homer: Heart of the West
All of Western Civilization flows from the words of Homer.
His epic stories – the Iliad and the Odyssey – shaped the stories, art, and thought of Greek culture and all subsequent cultures that sprang from the Greek foundation. Homer’s stories united all of Greece as Greece; Homer defined what it meant to be Greek. And Greece ultimately built the Western world.
We can see it in our architecture and in our language. In fact, “architecture” is Greek in origin, stemming from ἀρχι (archi) meaning “first, who commands,” and τέκτων (techton) meaning “builder.” Less visible—but no less present—is the Greek influence on our philosophy and religion. Homer gave birth to our aesthetic ideals, especially our ideals regarding how men ought to be.
It would behoove the Western man, then – perhaps in pursuit of Socrates’ advice to “know thyself” – to come to understand Homer.
Among writers, poets, classicists and theologians, this opinion about the influence of Homer is not much debated, but taken as a kind of given. Yet the precise nature of this influence seems less clear. Critics praise different aspects of his significance: his clarity, his energy, his directness and objectivity, the beauty of his depictions, the moral values conveyed in his stories, or simply his longevity:
The first teacher and beginner of all these beauties of tragedy.
— Plato (on Homer)
Homer’s poems were writ from a free fury, an absolute and full soul; Virgil’s out of a courtly, laborious, and altogether imitatory spirit: not a simile he hath but is Homer’s; not an invention, person, or disposition but is wholly or originally built upon Homerical foundations, and in many places hath the very words Homer useth; … all Homer’s books are such as have been precedents ever since of all sorts of poems; imitating none, nor ever worthily imitated of any.
— George Chapman (1598)
But when to examine every part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
— Alexander Pope (1711)
But what lies, as the womb of the Hellenic, behind the Homeric world? In the latter, by the extremely artistic definiteness, and the calm and purity of the lines we are already lifted far above the purely material amalgamation: its colours, by an artistic deception, appear lighter, milder, warmer; its men, in this coloured, warm illumination, appear better and more sympathetic–but where do we look, if, no longer guided and protected by Homer’s hand, we step backwards into the pre-Homeric world? Only the night and horror, into the products of a fancy accustomed to the horrible.
— Friedrich Nietzsche (1872)
It was Homer who gave laws to the artist; it was Homer who inspired the poet.
— Francis Wayland (1922)
“But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.”
— G.K. Chesterton (1925)
It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for Western Literature of the Iliad’s demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet’s vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires the authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order.
— Northup Frye (1957)
What a broad divergence in appreciated merits! But what is it really that sets this blind poet apart and has made him so influential to our world? What is the nature of that influence?
As these critics and classicists describe, Homer was a truly original artist. He usually wrote from an objective perspective, which seemed to lend a truthful and even divine feeling to his epics. And Homer’s technical use of language inspired generation after generation of subsequent poets and storytellers. But his originality, objectivity, and vivacity of description are not the only reasons we care about Homer.
We might care about Homer because of his association with the intriguing transition from the oral tradition of storytelling to the written word.
Dating to sometime around the 8th century BC, the Iliad and Odyssey are not the oldest written stories in existence. The Epic of Gilgamesh predates Homer by almost a thousand years, and some parts of Gilgamesh are hundreds of years older still. But for Greece, and for the cultures influenced by Greece, Homer marked that transition for themselves. While retaining the style and structure of the verbal format, Homer’s epics paved the way for storytelling which no longer needed generations of memorization and retelling to survive. This transition in mediums changed the nature of the stories told, making Homeric epic a piece of living history, a moment in our past frozen in writing for the first time. Perhaps Homer shows us a glimpse of how we once spoke – or at least thought – and how we might have once related to each other prior to writing.
Aside from being a living threshold between the preliterate world and the literate, Homer also bridges a cultural gap between East and West. As Adam Nicolson observed in Why Homer Matters, Homer’s descriptions of the ocean convey an unfamiliarity with the sea, using adjectives and analogies specific to chariots and the steppe to describe the motions of boats and the water. This indicates the arrival of some new peoples to the shores of the Mediterranean:
More intriguing still is the geographic reside in Homer’s language. The sea has no place in the most ancient layers of Greek. There is no Proto-Indo-European word for the sea, beyond a root that means something like “pond” or “lake.” Thalassa, the Greek word for sea, has no reliable etymology. It may have come from the language spoken in Greece before the Greeks arrived there. The sea was an alien environment and when Homer speaks of it the only way he can treat it is as a steppeland. The phrase that recurs repeatedly in both Homeric poems, neatly filling the second half of a hexameter, is ep’ eurea nota thalasses, meaning “on the broad backs of the sea” or “on the sea’s broad ridges.” Warriors set out across the sea’s broad ridges for battle or for home. The ships drive like horses across them…
Homer’s stories live at the collision-point between the Proto-Indo-European speaking peoples of the Eurasian steppe and the more civilized city-people of ancient Anatolia. Modern European man is the product of the bloody merging of these peoples.
The technological, linguistic, and cultural snapshots provided by the Iliad and Odyssey seem to be the primary source of interest for classicists and historians in Homer; why his works might be considered “foundational to Western Civilization.”
But this does little to explain the popularity of Homer in his own time.
We do not know much for certain about Homer’s life. But we know that the poetic competition between Homer and Hesiod was a controversial event even in their own time. Homer seems to have been popular enough that jokes were made using his poetry as early as 750 BC—this was the case with “Nestor’s cup,” a small wine-glass discovered in Ischia and apparently named after a drinking vessel supposedly so large it was immoveable to most men. And when the Panathenaic Games began in 566 BC, it was Homer who the competing rhapsodes recited to open the event.
The historical significance of artistic innovation and medium transition don’t explain this kind of veneration. Nor would we expect artistic excellence alone to be elevated to such heights by the Athenian state that the performance of his work to be compelled with the force of law:
I wish to adduce for you Homer, quoting him , since the reception that he had from your ancestors made him so important a poet that there was a law enacted by them that requires, every fourth year of the Panathenaia, the rhapsodic performing of his poetic utterances —his alone and no other poet’s. In this way they made a demonstration, intended for all Hellenes to see, that they made a conscious choice of the most noble of accomplishments.
There is a dimension of Homer’s influence which might explain both his ancient and modern influence. This dimension is more controversial, more personal, and perhaps more relevant to the modern reader: that of aesthetics and morality. In addition to all of the historical, cultural, and linguistic treats for academics, Homer has left a lasting impression on our view of what is beautiful, good, and true.
The Iliad, more than any other book before or since, distilled and elevated the concept of the “hero.” In its wide-reaching scope, it cast all of human civilization – perhaps all of human life – on the back of heroism, elevating the hero to nearly Godlike status and venerating the hero as both the destroyer and salvation of cities. This concept of the hero was, at that time, already an important religious feature in Greek culture, but Homer’s Iliad generalized and deepened the idea of the hero into something that united Greece and which spoke to all Greek peoples, and even to others beyond.
And where is the Odyssey in all of this? One arguably cannot properly interpret the significance of the Iliad without some familiarity with its sequel, one which is not about heroism, but about homecoming. Yet when discussing influence on Western civilization, the Iliad is treated as the foundation, while the Odyssey seems to be appreciated from a distance, as if it were a pretty but unnecessary addition. The Iliad was once the Bible of the pre-Christian West; the Odyssey was treated as a kind of novel—excellent in its own way, but ultimately inferior to its prequal.
In this book, I argue that the Iliad and the Odyssey are complimentary opposites, each requiring the other for completeness and understanding. Perhaps the foreignness and distance of Homer has made it difficult for us to understand this; to see the spiritual significance of the difference between Achilles and Odysseus, and to understand that we need not choose between them, but that they are both good, and indeed mutually necessary.
Achilles and Odysseus represent two different aesthetic ideals for how a man might wish to be. Achilles is the embodiment of the archetype of the Hero. Odysseus, by contrast, embodies an archetype which I shall call the Man.
I derive these two names from the first lines of their respective stories:
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν ἡρώων
many strong souls untimely sent to Hell, who were heroes…
— Iliad I:3-4
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
Man, tell me Muse of that much-turning one, who wandered…
— Odyssey I:1
These archetypes will require further explanation and differentiation from the modern connotations of these words. Yet despite these potential confusions, I believe the choice of terms are warranted because of what they tell us about what heroes and men are, even in the modern understanding. Like the Greek word “hero,” our modern Western conceptions of what heroes and men look like are ultimately derived from these very Homeric archetypes, even if the meanings have morphed across the centuries.
David Hume famously argued that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Statements of fact cannot tell us anything about what should be. And yet what should be is the fire that motivates action, the desire to change what is not into what is.
Where does this desirous “ought” come from?
I believe that this “ought” comes from art and from religion. Art and religion, each in their own way, depict visions of what might be, of what is good, what is beautiful, and what might be worth striving toward. Though many different religious and artistic movements in the Western tradition have created and transformed our ideas of what our “oughts” and “ought nots” ought to be, beneath all of them waits Homer. He is the primordial priest and poet, the voice of art and religion itself which future generations of writers and prophets all descend from in spirit, and often even in substance. To be ignorant of Homer is to be ignorant of the “oughts” that drive our history and culture. To be ignorant of Homer is to be ignorant of our own context, and by extension, of ourselves.
And yet most Westerner men are, in this manner, ignorant.
What if some of the pathologies of the modern age can be traced all the way back to this primordial root?
I believe that this is the case.
The purpose of this book is to outline the symbiotic relationship of the archetypes of the Hero and the Man, constructed in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey respectively. This is the subject matter of Part 1.
In this book, I will also demonstrate an imbalance in our modern values, an idealistic, Heroic tendency that has rejected the virtues of the archetypal Man as if the two were mutually exclusive, rather than mutually necessary. This is the subject matter of Part 2.
If I were to ask a hundred people which story they preferred – the Iliad or the Odyssey – which resonated more with them, there would probably be about fifty on each side. We might even see sixty on the side of the Odyssey. Among the lay public, the Odyssey is the story that gets retold again and again: Watership Down, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Ulysses.
But among classicists and theologians, if I were to ask which story was more culturally and spiritually influential, the answer would be overwhelmingly the Iliad. The Heroic ideal of Achilles dramatically outshines the Manly ideal of Odysseus in our present moral landscape.
This discrepancy between the laity and the clergy comes from a misunderstanding of Greek Heroism, of its tragic nature, and a comparative denigration of the value of the Man. The Hero is a role and a persona which a culture needs to survive, but which has very little value without a contingent of more balanced, less tragic Men behind him.
People today may feel an affinity for Men like Odysseus, but in our own lives – when making tough calls and hard decisions – we tend to default towards our cultural ideals. Those ideals are chosen for us by our priests and poets. In the West, our priests and poets since Homer have elevated the Hero and denigrated the mere Man by comparison.
My aim is not to denigrate Heroism in turn, but to appreciate the value of Heroism in its proper context, and to explore the nature of these two Homeric archetypes as they relate to each other.
This book is an attempt to flesh out a more balanced, more complete depiction of Western masculinity from its source-text. By looking at Homer’s understanding of language, I believe that this view might dispel the illusion of pathological Heroic idealism and lead us to a more complete understanding of Homer and of Heroism.
My belief is that a deeper understanding of Homer will help us connect to the very roots of the context that has made us into who we are. This connection with our past and with our identity is not some tool for returning to the past but rather to venture forward into the future with greater knowledge of who we are, as men have done since the days of the Bronze Age and beyond.
 Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters
 Modern Europeans are also descendant from indigenous European hunter-gatherers further north, though these also collided with the Proto-Indo-European horsemen and adopted many religious and mythical attitudes from their steppe-dwelling invaders.
 “An average man would strain to lift it off the table when it was full, but Nestor, old as he was, could hoist it up with ease.” Iliad XI:751-753.
 Lycurgus, “Against Leokrates.” Translated by Greg Nagy.
 I am using my own translations for these individual lines; all subsequent Homer translations used will be Robert Fagles.
 Henceforth, references to the archetypes “Hero” and “Man” will be made with capital letters, while references to colloquial usage will be made with lower case “hero” and “man.”
Chapter 2. The Hero in Homer’s Iliad
To begin exploring the concept of the Hero in Homer’s Iliad, let us first begin with the text itself—specifically, the first seven lines:
- μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
- οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
- πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
- ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
- 5οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
- ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
- Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
- Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
- Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
- Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
- Great fighters’ souls [“heroes”], but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs
- And birds, and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
- Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed
- Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
I have highlighted particular words (μῆνιν, “rage” or “wrath”; ἄειδε, “sing”;οὐλομένην, “disastrous” or “doomed”; ἡρώων, “…who were heroes”; ἐτελείετο, “purpose,” “end,” or “will”), because of their thematic importance in understanding the story of the Iliad. We have good reason to believe that these first lines are important because of the way epic poetry was constructed at the time. According to Harvard philologist Gregory Nagy, ancient bards composed their stories in a manner not unlike modern newspaper copywriting, with the headline describing the entirety of the story in a word or two, with subheadings and opening paragraphs providing more precise but still generalized descriptions of the story as a whole, and only then giving a more detailed, chronological account:
The singer was following the rules of his craft in summing up the whole song, all 100,000 or so words, in a single word, the first word of the song. So also in the Odyssey, the first word, Man, tells the subject of the song.
We see from the beginnings of both the Iliad and the Odyssey that the rules of the singer’s craft extend beyond the naming of the main subject with the first word. In the original Greek of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the first word announcing the subject—Anger, Man—is followed by a specially chosen adjective setting the mood: disastrous anger, versatile man. This, in turn, is followed by a relative clause that frames the story by outlining the plot—the disastrous anger that caused countless pains, the versatile man who wandered countless ways.
In the Iliad, the first seven lines summarize and thematically frame the entirety of the story, and give us some notion of the poet’s intentions and beliefs about what is most important.
While “Hero” is mentioned, it is clearly not the first word, nor even the second word of importance. Μῆνιν (“menin”) opens the story, a complex concept usually translated as “wrath,” “anger,” or “rage,” but which also connotes divine sanction, an indiscriminate culling from heaven enacted to correct some grievous fault:
Mênis is an emotion, but it is not some pure feeling distinct from the specific actions that it inevitably entails. In fact, it is nothing less than the nomen sacrum for the ultimate sanction that enforces the world-defining prohibitions, the taboos that are basic to the establishment and perpetuation of the world of Zeus and the society of mortals he presides over. Like the offenses that provoke it, mênis may once have been a taboo word to utter.
The “wrath” of Achilles is not caused directly by Achilles, who incurs Heaven’s vengeance against the Achaean forces by appealing to Zeus via his mother Thetis. The wrath is caused by Achilles, but the causation is indirect, and the “disastrous” (οὐλομένην) outcome which follows causes the suffering not only of the Achaeans as a group, but of Achilles chiefly among them. Philologist Leonard Muellner says that the effects of μῆνις are not separate from the feeling described by the word, but the disastrous effects of the “wrath” incurred by Achilles were not intended by him—rather, they were intended by divine forces.
It is this divine wrath that results in the death of Achilles’ best friend, Patrokles.
When all is said and done, it becomes clear that the “wrath” incurred could hardly be described as Achilles’ at all, especially since the fifth line tells us exactly whose purpose (τέλος) was accomplished: the god Zeus:
The willof Zeus was moving toward its end.
— Iliad 1:5
The “wrath” belonged to Achilles only insofar as Achilles caused this force to be unleashed, though he did not understand what the outcome would be.
The story of the Iliad is about this heavenly wrath, this divine righting of wrongs that is so terrible to invoke because of the indiscriminate suffering it entails.
Meanwhile, the story of the Iliad itself is the singing ἀείδε (“aeide”)—the second word in the first line.
What then is the relation between this wrath and the Hero? And what of that between the Hero and this song?
The fourth line identifies who are Heroes ἡρώων (“hero’on”) in relation to this wrath: strong souls killed before their time and devoured by animals on the battlefield, long ago. A tragic and unfortunate fate! Nevertheless, it seems to be a fate inextricably tied to that of the Hero, perhaps even by definition.
It is impossible to talk about Homeric Heroism without talking about the mode of Homeric poetry (ἀείδε), since the medium of Homeric poetry is interwoven with the essence of Heroism.
With Achilles as the model for the Homeric hero – who is himself soon to die violently shortly after the conclusion of the Iliad – I want to begin by exploring the nature of Heroism in Book IX, the “Embassy to Achilles.”
In this scene, Odysseus, Ajax, and an old man named Phoenix are sent to the Myrmidon camp to attempt to appease Achilles’ anger and bring him back into the fight against the Trojans, the fight from which he withdrew in vengeance against Agamemnon’s slight against his honor.
So Ajax and Odysseus made their way at once where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag, praying hard to the god who moves and shakes the earth that they might bring the proud heart of Achilles round with speed and ease. Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships, they found him there, delighting his heart now, plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre—beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm—he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city. Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now, singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes…
— Iliad IX:217-228
Here we find Achilles playing the lyre and singing about heroes of the past.
At the time that the Iliad was written down, the Trojan War was already ancient history. The war itself is believed to have happened sometime in the late 13th or early 12th century BC, so when the epic poems were finally transcribed, the characters therein had all been dead and gone for at least 400 years. A modern-day Homer might be describing to a 21st century audience the Wars of the Three Kingdoms—a series of British civil wars in the early 17th century that spanned roughly the same time-span as the siege of Troy (20 years).
These are the men who are heroes, men who are not merely dead, but long-dead. This meeting of Achilles in fact represents the retelling of a Hero from ages past, who is himself reciting the tales of Heroes from ages further past.
Heroes always live in the past.
We see this theme reiterated in the writings of a contemporary of Homer, the only one considered to be his equal in story-telling. In Works and Days, Hesiod described the first – and therefore the most ancient and most distant in the past – generation of men as a “golden” generation, one which characterized a golden age:
First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods.
— Works and Days, II:109-120
This golden generation was followed by a silver generation, a bronze generation, a nameless generation, and then finally an iron generation who live in the present.
The silver generation were a simple and foolish people; the bronze, cruel and violent. The nameless generation is described as noble and righteous, a race of demigods, partially destroyed by war, but granted eternal life on the Islands of the Blessed. This nameless generation, along with the golden generation, are the generations of Heroes. And both of these times are in the past.
As for the present Iron-Age, Hesiod describes it in this way:
For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils. And Zeus will destroy this race of mortal men also when they come to have grey hair on the temples at their birth. The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another’s city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.
— Works and Days, II: 172-201
What Hesiod describes is, of course, not specific to a particular age. Within the Greek tragedies and the myth surrounding the story of the Trojan War, we see these very behaviors. In fact, each of Hesiods’ complaints may be found within the Iliad itself, a story set in a Heroic era (“many strong souls untimely sent to Hell, who were heroes…”).
Returning to Gregory Nagy’s analysis, what we see here is not a historical description of actual generations, but a breakdown of different aspects of every generation:
…we have already seen what happened to the epic heroes who died in Generation 4: they become cult heroes by way of becoming immortalized after death in a paradisiacal setting that matches the Golden Age. And if he had been born in the next generation, which is the other one of his two alternative wishes, he would have found himself in the paradisiacal setting of the Golden Age of Generation 1, who are the cult heroes to start with, just as Generation 4 are cult heroes to end with, though they had started off as epic heroes. So the two alternatives in the riddling wish of Hesiod are really one and the same thing, which is, to be in the Golden Age.
Not only are the end of Generation 4 and the beginning of Generation 1 the same thing. We can also say that Generations 1 and 2 are the same thing, which is, the positive and the negative sides of cult heroes; and that Generations 3 and 4 are the same thing as well, which is, the negative and the positive sides of epic heroes. We can even say that Generations 1 and 2 are the same thing as Generations 3 and 4, since epic heroes do become cult heroes at the end of 4 in the cyclical logic of 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 back to 1 and so on. And this cycle is the same as the present, which is the quintessential here-and-now.
This idea that the past is superior to the present can be seen in Book I of the Iliad, when Nestor—a King who is described as having lived two generations and now ruling in a third—attempts to intervene in the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles:
You are both younger than I, and in my time I struck up with better men than you, even you, but never once did they make light of me. I’ve never seen such men, I never will again… men like Pirithous, Dryas, that fine captain, Caeneus and Exadius, and Polyphemus, royal prince, and Theseus, Aegeus’ boy, a match for the immortals. They were the strongest mortals ever bred on earth, the strongest, and they fought against the strongest too, shaggy Centaurs, wild brutes of the mountains—they hacked them down, terrible, deadly work. And I was in their ranks, fresh out of Pylos, far away from home—they enlisted me themselves and I fought on my own, a free lance, single-handed. And none of the men who walk the earth these days could battle with those fighters, none but they…
— Iliad I:304-318
The ancient past is always described as superior to the present—the past is where the best men live; where the heroes live. I emphasize “live” in the present-tense, rather than the past-tense “lived,” because as today’s present moves into the past, it becomes the Golden Age of the future-present, and the Heroes of this past achieve a new life in the minds of those who hear their story. Achilles’ present – as he argues with Agamemnon and is lectured about the better men of the past by Nestor – becomes the heroic past of Homer’s time, four centuries or so later.
Implicit in this interpretation is the idea that all generations are in fact more or less equivalent to each other. Yet if the generations are comparable in this way, why do heroes always live in the past and not the present?
For the answer, we may return to Achilles singing about the famous deeds of fighting heroes. Rhythmic song is a medium for memory, and the songs that aid in the remembrance of men from the past are reserved for the best and greatest men—those who were Heroes. As living memory fades with the passing of generations, the best of each generation is sifted from the forgotten silt of history and comes to characterize the entirety of their age. Bronze-Age Greece becomes “the time of Achilles.”
The Hero lives in the past because he is remembered after he dies. Being remembered long after death is what it means to be a Hero.
Being in the past, and being remembered after death, it follows then that the hero must also be dead—and most likely made feasts for dogs and birds.
In this way, the distant past is always “the time of Heroes.”
The hero is one who died long ago, and is remembered after his death.
But there is more to a hero than his fate alone. There is a spirit of Heroism which drives the Heroic archetype, a kind of personality or motivation that pushes him towards this fate.
We can see this motivation illustrated in the character of Achilles when he describes the two paths presented to him by his mother:
Mother tells me, the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet, that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies… true, but the life that’s left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.
— Iliad IX:497-505
At the time of the embassy to Achilles, the Hero is feeling torn. He states that he feels more inclined now to sail home and live a long life surrounded by his family, rather than to die in pursuit of glory on some foreign shore. Yet this stated feeling is colored by the acute insult of Agamemnon, which threatens the very glory promised in the Heroic choice of the shortened life. Achilles now balks at the first path not because he deems it inferior, but because the glory which makes it superior is now in question.
Achilles still came all the way to Troy, sacking nearby cities and fighting at the front, in pursuit of immortal glory. To the Hero, the idea of immortality in song and story seems preferable to a long life.
Certain qualities emerge from this desire, qualities which come to characterize all Heroes as a result of this Heroic motivation.
First, the Hero is extreme in some capacity, through his extremity becoming the memorable embodiment of a particular feature, be it strength, speed, intelligence, anger, or some other positive or negative quality.
Second, the Hero is a “protector” of someone, some group, or some value.
And finally, the Hero suffers. He suffers immensely, often willfully, and endures through this suffering even if it kills him.
It is important to emphasize that these qualities do not define the Hero, but the Hero naturally manifests these traits as a result of his aim — immortality in song. As Achilles explains to the embassy of Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix, he has no personal quarrel with the Trojans, nor does he care more for the honor of Helen than he cares for his own woman, be it Briseis or some other girl at home:
Why must we battle Trojans, men of Argos? Why did he muster an army, lead us here, that son of Atreus? Why, why in the world if not for Helen with her loose and lustrous hair? Are they the only men alive who love their wives, those sons of Atreus?
— Iliad IX:409-413
In Achilles’ mind, the risk of life and limb is an acceptable exchange for the promise of glory. But if that glory is snatched away, and if he is in fact dishonored for his troubles, then he believes that the man who would willfully accept the risk of death for this dishonorable King is foolish for taking a fraudulent deal.
The Hero’s primary purpose is not to protect others for wholly selfless, moralistic reasons, nor is it to suffer and die needlessly. Extremity, protecting others, and suffering are merely means to this immortal aim and not the ends themselves.
From the opening summary of the story, we can already ascertain a blurry picture of what Heroism means in the Iliad, with Achilles as an archetypal stand-in for all Heroes. One who is a Hero (ἡρώων) seeks immortality through song (ἄειδε), even though it proves disastrous (οὐλομένην) because it invokes the wrathful sanction of heaven (μῆνιν), and because ultimately the end (ἐτελείετο) of the story of which he is a part is not his own, but the Gods’.
 Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. This work by Nagy will be referenced extensively throughout this book, and is worth reading in full.
 Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic
 Most translators interpret this line as Zeus’ will being accomplished, rather than moving towards, but not reaching, completion.
Chapter 3. The Man in Homer’s Odyssey
Set against the archetype of Heroic Achilles is that of Manly Odysseus. As with the Iliad, we can get a summary of what this is all about in the opening lines of the Odyssey:
- ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
- πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
- πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
- πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
- ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
- ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
- αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
- νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
- ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
- τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.
- ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες, ὅσοι φύγον αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον,
- Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
- Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
- Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
- Many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
- Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
- But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
- The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
- The blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
- And the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
- Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
- Start from where you will—sing for our time too.
While the elements of song and suffering remain stable between the Hero and the Man, the cause of the suffering and the nature of the song has changed. We see ἔννεπε (“ennepe”) instead of the ἄειδε of the Iliad, conveying a mode of communication that is more like prose than verse. The poet is asking the Muse to “tell” him the story of Odysseus, more than he is asking her to “sing” the story. This conveys a difference in language between the worlds of the Hero and the Man.
Whereas the source of the οὐλομένην disaster of the Iliad was the Gods themselves, the ἄλγεα (“algea”) suffering of Odysseus does not seem to have a clearly stated cause. In fact, the source is a God, Poseidon. But Poseidon is not treated as an initiator of this suffering, but rather as a kind of force of nature which punishes Odysseus for a moment of ἀτασθαλίῃσιν (“atasthaliesin”) recklessness when he needlessly reveals his true name to Poseidon’s son, a cyclops named Polyphemus whom he has just blinded.
This difference in approach is emphasized in the very first book of the Odyssey, when Zeus complains to the other Gods of the way in which mortals blame heaven for their own poor judgment:
Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share.
— Odyssey I:37-40
But even in his recklessness, Odysseus is moderate—unlike the extreme Hero—and his moderation saves him from certain death. Because he only blinded Poseidon’s son and did not kill him, Poseidon does not kill Odysseus and merely delays him and causes him to suffer.
Odysseus’ moderation is not the result of some moralistic pacifism. Rather, it is a side-effect of his distinguishing feature and primary epithet: πολύτροπον (“polytropon”), which Fagles translates as “of twists and turns,” and could also be translated as “of many wiles” or as “of many paths.” The term connotes a multifaceted nature which defines the Man as an archetype, distinguishing him from the single-faceted Hero.
This complexity is a great strength of the Man, allowing him to succeed in finding solutions to problems that a single-focused mind might miss. Rather than looking for the most glorious action no matter the cost, the Man strategizes a solution to his problem, drawing from his extensive experience.
In order to escape Polyphemus’ cave with his men, Odysseus did not need to kill the cyclops—indeed, killing him would have trapped his men inside the cave with no way to move the boulder from the entrance and escape. Blinding him was a better solution to Odysseus’ problem.
When we return to the opening lines, we see that Odysseus’ main suffering is heartsickness. He is longing to return home, and is longing for this return because he remembershome. He has a mental connection with his home and his family. It is this connection, and his remembrance of this connection, that ultimately defines the Man, as opposed to the Hero who is defined by his extreme traits as an individual, developed in pursuit of glory in song.
I highlighted the word νόον (“no-on”) which means “mind” in the opening lines because it is a defining trait of Odysseus. Yet this “mind” is not merely a matter of mental competence and sound judgment; it does describe mental competence and sound judgment, but these are the results of mental connection with others:
Many cities of men he saw and learned their [νόον] minds,
— Odyssey I:3
The source of the strength of Odysseus – of the archetype of the Man – is his mental connection with others, especially those of his family and tribe. While νόος literally means “mind,” the power of Odysseus’ νόος comes specifically from a mental connection. This power is symbolically captured in depictions of physical transformation.
The entire Odyssey is framed by two descriptions of visible strengthening as a result of such a mental connection being made: first, of Odysseus’ son Telemachus, and then of Odysseus’ father, Laertes.
In the first instance, Athena, disguised as a man named Mentes, speaks to Telemachus and instructs him to seek out news of his father. After they finish speaking, Athena departs, leaving Telemachus different than how she found him:
…off and away Athena the bright-eyed goddess flew like a bird in soaring flight but left his spirit filled with nerve and courage, charged with his father’s memory more than ever now. He felt his senses quicken, overwhelmed with wonder…
— Odyssey I:67-71
Awareness of this change is not confined to Telemachus alone. His mother and the suitors notice that something is different about him, after this mental reconnection. His mother complains about the bard’s music, but Telemachus rebukes her, taking charge as the man of the house and instructing his mother to return to her room. He then turns on the suitors and berates them for their insolent behavior, surprising them with his boldness and self-control.
In the second instance, Odysseus has just made himself known to his father in an orchard. Laertes is weeping, weak and disheveled in appearance. But after a meeting and speaking with his son, whom he had believed to be dead, Laertes goes and takes a bath:
Before they ate, the Sicilian serving-woman bathed her master, Laertes—his spirits high in his own room—and rubbed him down with oil and round his shoulders drew a fresh new cloak. And Athena stood beside him, fleshing out the limbs of the old commander, made him taller to all eyes, his build more massive, stepping from his bath, so his own son gazed at him, wonderstruck—face-to-face he seemed a deathless god… “Father”—Odysseus’ words had wings—“surely one of the everlasting gods has made you taller, stronger, shining in my eyes!”
— Odyssey XXIV:404-415
There are other similar transformations which occur to Odysseus himself, all of which are facilitated by Athena. But the bookending transformations of Telemachus and Laertes indicate by their location in the text that these transformations are thematically significant. And in each case, they are instigated by connection.
While individual virtues are the defining qualities of the Hero, mental connection is the defining quality of the Man. His skill and cunning in his ability to navigate life is the result of this connection. This is why many of the dangers Odysseus and his men encounter on their way home are threats not to their bodily person, but to that mental connection.
The most explicit of all of these dangers is the island of the Lotus-eaters:
I sent a detail ahead, two picked men and a third, a runner, to scout out who might live there—men like us perhaps, who live on bread? So off they went and soon enough they mingled among the natives, Lotus-eaters, Lotus-eaters who had no notion of killing my companions, not at all, they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead… Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit, lost all desire to send a message back, much less return, their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters, grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home dissolved forever.
— Odyssey IX:99-110
The adjective used in the opening lines to describe these forgetful men – some of whom eat the lotus, others achieve the same result through other means – is νήπιοι (“nepioi”). Fagles translates this term as “blind fools,” while Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library translates the term as “infant” or “child.” Gregory Nagy translates this term as “disconnected.” None of these terms are likely to be precise, but by looking at all of these translations together, we get a picture of what a νήπιοι looks like: a young and naïve man, a man whose arrogance leads to his downfall in a way that he himself cannot perceive. He is reckless (ἀτασθαλίῃσιν) because he cannot see; cannot see because he is young and inexperienced. Or perhaps he cannot see because he has offended the Sun whose illumination permits him to see: “…and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.” In either case, he is blind and disconnected. In his youthful energy, he is striving to separate himself as an individual apart from others. This separation means disconnection, disorientation, blindness, and forgetfulness.
In short, the νήπιοι is a man who is not yet a Man.
The Man is the opposite of this νήπιοι, and Odysseus is an exemplar of this ἄνδρα (“andra”) – Man. Odysseus is not blind, nor is he young, nor is he disconnected. Instead, he is perceptive, experienced, and mentally connected with others, especially with home. He succeeds in achieving his homecoming (νόστος) because he retains his mental connection (νόος). These two terms are etymologically related, as they are to the Phoecian King who helps Odysseus, “Alci-nous,” and to the chief suitor who wants to kill Telemachus, “Anti-nous.” Alcinous mean “facilitates mental connection” while Antinous means “opposes mental connection.”
If the promise of immortality is the spiritual foundation which gives strength and motivation to the Hero, then it is the mental connection with those near and dear to the Man that gives him his strength and motivation. These most important of connections give him an identity, even if he has many faces and has traveled many paths. His identity is no longer primarily defined by what he does, but whom he acts in relation to.
These connections are his “home,” and it is the mental ability to return home that defines the archetype of the Man.
Although the multifaceted nature of the Man is a great strength, it is also a great danger, and creates the essential challenge faced by Odysseus: if the Man has many sides, then who exactly is he? If he does not know who he is, then it will be hard to remember home… and to forget home would make a νόστιμον (“nostimon”) – day of return – impossible.
To illustrate how the text highlights this problem, let us explore the story of Odysseus’ encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus in greater depth
In Book IX of the Odyssey, Odysseus describes to King Alcinous his encounter with the cyclops. In Odysseus’ telling, it is as if he already knew something was afoot when he first finds Polyphemus’ cave:
Here was a giant’s lair, in fact, who always pastured his sheepflocks far afield and never mixed with others. A grim loner, dead set in his own lawless ways. Here was a piece of work, by god, a monster built like no mortal who ever supped on bread, no like a shaggy peak, I’d say—a man-mountain rearing head and shoulders over the world.
— Odyssey IX:208-214
The name “Polyphemus” literally means “many songs” or “many legends,” which I believe corresponds with the aim of the Hero: to be remembered in song. That he has one eye symbolically depicts the singular focus of Heroic desire. His solitude matches the individuality of the Hero; it recalls Achilles alone on the shore, having withdrawn from the fighting, brooding about his lot. Even Polyphemus’ enormous stature is associated with the Hero, who is often depicted as “larger than life”:
And the ghost of Atrides Agamemnon answered, “Son of Peleus, great godlike Achilles! Happy man, you died on the fields of Troy, a world away from home, and the best of the Trojan and Argive champions died around you, fighting for your corpse. And you… there you lay in the whirling dust, overpowered in all your power [μέγας μεγαλωστί] and wiped from memory all your horseman’s skills.”
— Odyssey XXIV:37-43
This phrase that Fagles has translated as “overpowered in all your power” is μέγας μεγαλωστί (“megas megalosti”). The root μέγα meant exactly what it has come to mean in English: “mega” simply means “big.” Gregory Nagy has even translated this line as “you lay there so huge in all your hugeness.” In death, Achilles comes to seem physically enormous, “larger than life.” This achievement is related to his lonely solitude, his single-minded focus on glory, and his achievement of glory in song – namely, the song of the Iliad. The attributes of Heroism are the means by which a Hero comes to be perceived so clearly, and to appear so enormous in the consciousness of others. This is why they are remembered.
Polyphemus is not a Hero; he is Heroism itself. The man-eating ruthlessness of the giant corresponds with the warfare that hurls sturdy souls down to the House of Death. And perhaps there may be some relation between the blind bard – Homer – and the blinded giant whose name means “many songs.” Epic poetry, after all, is the siren’s song that lures men to their doom in pursuit of eternal glory.
The focus and extremity of the Hero’s life establishes his identity. The stories can easily tell who the Hero is, and the Hero can be sure of himself in his heroic identity. His extremity lends him a simple concept of self: “I am the man who is extreme in this capacity.”
But the Man cannot rely upon this simple concept of self-identity. His multifaceted nature defies Heroic extremity, and this creates the danger of forgetting himself.
In his plan to escape Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus gives his name as Οὖτις (“Outis”), meaning “no man.” This strategy helps Odysseus escape undetected — Polyphemus is asked by other giants who blinded him, and he says “No man has done this!” But this clever discarding of his own name comes at a price. Perhaps it is because he understands the value of identity that he shouts out from his ship:
Cyclops—if any man on the face of the earth should ask you who blinded you, shamed you so—say Odysseus, raider of cities, he gouged out your eye, Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca!
— Odyssey IX:558-562
This urge to self-identify comes from the needful heart of the complicated man, and is perhaps the same feeling as the desire to return home. One can imagine how easily Odysseus might have slipped away in silence, remaining “no man” from the island of the cyclops all the way to Ithaca. But would he have ever arrived? Might he not have become one of his crew who lost themselves among the Lotus Eaters, or even forgotten his humanity and become a pig on Circe’s island? Odysseus “outing” himself cost his crew and himself greatly, but psychologically speaking, that seemingly reckless shout symbolizes the one necessary virtue for returning home: remembering who he is.
In the next chapter, we will see how the Man creates and retains this identity by way of the Hero in cult religion.
 The un-conjugated noun form is νόος (“no-os”), which will be used henceforth in discussion of “mind.”
Chapter 4. The Hero and the Man in Cult Religion
With a rudimentary understanding of the Hero and the Man as archetypes, it may be tempting to ask “which is better?”
Homer wrote both the Iliad and the Odyssey. In these stories, both Achilles and Odysseus have their shortcomings, yet both are positive characters, even role-models. In this chapter, I want to argue that asking this question – “which is better?” – is to misunderstand the relationship between these two archetypes and the religious context in which the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey emerged.
Ancient Greek religion was complex. It was highly localized and though many worshipped Gods that were represented among the “Greek” pantheon, different locales had patron deities. Athens, for instance, had a preference for the Goddess Athena, after whom the city was named. Sparta, on the other hand, held a reverence for Ares—God of War—not widely shared by other Greek tribes.
But these locales also had cults dedicated to regionally-specific heroes. These hero-cults had their own ritual celebrations and games which more precisely defined the values and ideals of a particular people.
In Athens, one of the preeminent heroes was Theseus, a young man who defeated the Minotaur of Crete. He was an intelligent and perceptive hero, and this intelligence and perception – in addition to his courage – were elevated as ideals in Athens. This idealization of intelligence was uniquely Athenian, and it is little wonder that it was Athens which subsequently became the birthplace of philosophy.
Meanwhile, Sparta honored the God-hero Herakles. Herakles was not an intelligent and perceptive hero like Theseus. In fact, his lack of perception and self-control often got him into trouble. But he was always willing to make amends, and to correct injustices (even his own). He was loyal to a fault and he was incredibly strong. This value of loyalty and strength came to define the culture of Sparta, the nation which created perhaps the finest soldiers in all of human history.
These heroes were extreme and idealistic in their extremity. They suffered for this imbalance. Yet even in their extremity – and their subsequent suffering – they were venerated by their respective people because the virtues that they demonstrated with such absoluteness came to define the people who venerated them. Athenians saw themselves as a people with a particular kind of intelligence, an intelligence embodied in their chosen hero and founder. So too did the Spartans see themselves as a people of a unique strength, a strength descending from Herakles.
The Man is made by his mental connection with others, specifically with his family and his tribe. Yet if there is to be this connection, there must be a means for connection. There must be some shared vision, shared value, shared experience, shared ancestry, or some other point of commonality which facilitates connection.
We can see the Hero serving this role in the Iliad, in a tale of connection that happens on the battlefield – between two enemies no less. Those two enemies are Diomedes and Glaucus, and they are united by a shared ancestral relation with the Hero Bellerophon. Diomedes asks Glaucus of his lineage, because he has not seen this Trojan warrior before. Glaucus says he is the son of Hippolochus, who was the son of the great Hero Bellerophon.
In excited response, Diomedes recalls that his grandfather had once hosted Bellerophon, and this point of connection shifts their dynamic from mortal enemies to friends:
When he heard that, Diomedes’ spirits lifted. Raising his spear, the lord of the war cry drove it home, planting it deep down in the earth that feeds us all and with winning words he called out to Glaucus, the young captain, “Splendid—you are a friend, my guest from the days of our grandfathers long ago! Noble Oeneus hosted your brave Bellerophon once, he held him there in his halls, twenty whole days, and they gave each other handsome gifts of friendship. My kinsman offered a gleaming sword-belt, rich red, Bellerophon gave a cup, two-handled, solid gold—I left it at home when I set out for Troy. My father, Tydeus, I really don’t remember. I was just a baby when father left me then, that time an Achaean army went to die at Thebes. So now I am your host and friend in the heart of Argos, you are mine in Lycia when I visit in your country. Come, let us keep clear of each other’s spears, even there in the thick of battle. Look, plenty of Trojans there for me to kill, your famous allies too, any soldier the god will bring in range or I can run to ground. And plenty of Argives too—kill them if you can. But let’s trade armor. The men must know our claim: we are sworn friends from our fathers’ days till now!”
— Iliad VI:254-277
Though Bellerophon suffered as a noble, ill-fated Hero, these two Men on the battlefield reap the rewards of his actions and the hospitality of their ancestors. The virtues of the Hero unite the men who uphold those virtues and strongly unite the men who descend from – or are said to descend from – those Heroes.
This illustration is an introductory glimpse of the way in which Heroes facilitate the mental connection that is the strength of the Man. But we cannot truly understand this relationship without an understanding of the role of initiation in the making of a Man.
Initiation is an important feature of all cults, including hero-cults. Broadly speaking, initiation is any process of facilitated entry into some identity, usually involving some sacrifice or symbolic death. Initiation rituals have defined the transition from adolescence into manhood in almost all societies across all time.
If Odysseus is the prototypical Man, then we would expect him to undergo such an initiation, which would correspond with his re-assimilation with his house, family, and homeland.
In Book XI of the Odyssey, we find exactly this initiation.
Book XI describes Odysseus’ descent into Hades. He has been instructed by the sorceress Circe that he must consult the dead seer Tiresias for the best way to return home, and so he and his men sail to the ends of the Ocean. They eventually descend to the underworld, where they make sacrifices of milk, honey, wine, water, and barley for all of the dead, and then sacrifice a black ram for Tiresias alone.
This descent into the underworld is a common theme in many initiation rituals. In Christian baptism, the descent into the water is a symbolic death, a descent into death. I have personally had the privilege of witnessing a modern neopagan cult initiation, which took place several miles deep in a cave-system. But more relevant to Homer’s time, the account of Greek geographer Pausanias (110-190 AD) describes a real initiation into the Hero-cult of Trophonios, an initiation which involves a literal descent down a shaft into the earth:
The oracle is on the mountain, beyond the grove. Round it is a circular basement of white marble, the circumference of which is about that of the smallest threshing floor, while its height is just short of two cubits. On the basement stand spikes, which, like the cross-bars holding them together, are of bronze, while through them has been made a double door. Within the enclosure is a chasm in the earth, not natural, but artificially constructed after the most accurate masonry.
The shape of this structure is like that of a bread-oven. Its breadth across the middle one might conjecture to be about four cubits, and its depth also could not be estimated to extend to more than eight cubits. They have made no way of descent to the bottom, but when a man comes to Trophonius, they bring him a narrow, light ladder. After going down he finds a hole between the floor and the structure. Its breadth appeared to be two spans, and its height one span.
The descender lies with his back on the ground, holding barley-cakes kneaded with honey, thrusts his feet into the hole and himself follows, trying hard to get his knees into the hole. After his knees the rest of his body is at once swiftly drawn in, just as the largest and most rapid river will catch a man in its eddy and carry him under. After this those who have entered the shrine learn the future, not in one and the same way in all cases, but by sight sometimes and at other times by hearing. The return upwards is by the same mouth, the feet darting out first.
— Pausanias, Description of Greece (2nd Century AD)
The value of this descent is the symbolic proximity it gives the initiate to the dead. This proximity permits the possibility for mental connection with the dead, be this through conversation or through some other mystical means, such as a vision or a sign.
It is for this reason that Odysseus descends into Hades.
In addition to the dead seer, Odysseus also meets his dead comrade Elpenor, and his mother Anticleia (among many others). These are further points of connection which strengthen him for his journey home, arming him with the necessary knowledge and understanding to achieve his ends successfully.
In order to return home, the Man must remember home. He must remember who he is. While the future-telling of Tiresias appears to provide valuable strategic intelligence which arms Odysseus with the precise knowledge of what is ahead of him, perhaps the greater value is in the knowledge of who he is that contact with dead compatriots and family provided.
Tiresias’ prophecy is very important to this book, and will be explored in greater detail later on.
Mental connection with others does not always require a descent into the underworld or some other religious initiation. People connect interpersonally all the time. But the most important people to connect with may not be nearby. They may not be alive. And connection with other, less important people may even distract us from our true identity, weakening us by making us forget home.
This is where the value of initiation and trans-generational Hero-cults shine.
Heroes, in their extremity, represent the best of people, as measured by the values held dear by the society from which they originate. These values and qualities may be something simple, like the strength of Herakles; sometimes they are more complex – a certain spirit which cannot be easily conveyed by descriptive words alone but require entire stories. In either case, the shared values and personality of dead Heroes are the bridge that makes the mental connection of the Man possible.
The bodies of Heroes – rotting and eaten by vultures on the gory field of battle – are the blood and spirit that makes a Man’s connection meaningful. Without Heroes of the past and Hero-cults which immortalize their memory, there is little in the way of mental connection to strengthen the Men in a society.
A male who has never connected with great Heroes of the past can hardly become an archetypal Man.
The life of a Hero is tragic, painful, and often naïve, but their death is not in vain. Their bodies fertilize the soil of future generations and civilizations. Like Bellerophon steeling Glaucus for battle, or Herakles molding the warlike city-state of Sparta, adolescent males become Men in the shadow of Heroes. Yet the Hero’s glory and value is contingent upon Men who are not Heroes carrying their spirit forward. The connection of the Man, after all, is the lifeline of the story that immortalizes the Hero. A dead warrior, unremembered by future Men, can hardly be called a Hero.
Chapter 5. The Chorus: Hero as Adolescent
Initiations can happen at a variety of different stages in life. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argued that initiation rituals exist in myth for every transition, from birth (initiation into life) all the way to our final hours (initiation into death). But for men, perhaps the most important initiation is the one which separates boys from men; the process through which adolescent young males enter as boys and emerge recognized as Men among their tribe.
In order to become Men, these adolescent young men must become mentally connected with their tribe, which means they must be mentally connected with the Heroes who define their tribe.
In the Greek tradition, one of the tools of this initiation was participation in the dramatic chorus.
The chorus that we are familiar with today is a component of song, usually characterized by repetition, or being sung by many people at the same time (as in “choir,” which is etymologically derived from “chorus”). In modern music, the chorus is traditionally the easiest part to sing along with and this is not incidental. Historically, the function of the chorus was participatory, not as a means of enjoying the song; rather, the song existed to facilitate the existence of the chorus, whereby the members of the chorus could ritualistically partake in the drama depicted in the song.
Friedrich Nietzsche – in his capacity as a philologist more than philosopher – described the Greek function of the chorus in terms of its ability to transform the experience of the participatory audience. Rather than as individuals with attachments to particular social ranks and civic identities, the drama creates a window which permits them to see themselves as mythic participants in the story of their society:
The Dionysian excitement is able to impart to a whole mass of men this artistic faculty of seeing themselves surrounded by such a host of spirits, with whom they know themselves to be inwardly one. This function of the tragic chorus is the dramatic proto-phenomenon: to see one’s self transformed before one’s self, and then to act as if one had really entered into another body, into another character. This function stands at the beginning of the development of the drama.
The emphasis is on the point that the chorus was not a dispassionate observer in the way that a modern movie-goer might experience a movie, as an observer. The chorus participant was experiencing the drama depicted as if they were there themselves, in the first person. The chorus functions as a tool of transformation, a simulacrum of experience through ritualized re-enactment in the medium of song. And this transformation permits the participant to come to know the mind (νόον ἔγνω, Odyssey I:3) of the characters they are engaging with – perhaps even engaging as.
Yet if those who have not yet undergone initiation are “boys,” and those who have emerged from initiation, with the mental connection facilitated therein are “Men,” what are the Heroes? And what are those males who are in the midst of this initiation process?
To answer these questions, I turn northward, to another Proto-Indo-European-descendant tradition of initiation: Odin and the Germanic Mannerbünde:
PIE *koryo-no-s is attested in Homeric Greek as κοίρανος, as both title and PN. The existence of a *koryonos presupposes a *koryos, the troop which the *koryonos leads, represents, and embodies […]
Gothic harjis was the tribal army. When the Goths are fighting an all-out war, i.e. with the Romans, “the number three thousand appears almost as a rule.” (H. Wolfram 1987: 97) The *koryos is a much smaller unit. For example, under Bavarian law forty-two thousand men constituted a heri, under Anglo-Saxon thirty-five, under Danish five, and under Lango-bardic law four (Schlesinger 1959: 109). These are clearly not tribal armies but raiding-parties.
Razzias were the business of the adolescent boys, who functioned as highly mobile guerilla bands and at the same time learned hardiness, self-control, stealth and strategy, and other warrior qualities […] The *koryos was the band of these warrior-novices (McCone 1987: passim). It was a cultic warrior brotherhood, that is, the youths’ formation was as much religious as it was martial, and the ties that bound them were as strong as blood. The commonly used term for the cultic band is Männerbund, and this is the term we will use in this study. This is the herr of which Óðinn Herjann is the projection or personification, and of which his Einheriar are the mythical paradigm.
Despite their similar sounds, the etymological relation between the Greek “chorus” and the Proto-Germanic “*koryos” is tenuous. But what is important is the functional similarity between these two groups: the chorus and the *koryos.
Kershaw describes the *koryos as composed of young men in a liminal state. They are not yet fully-fledged men, but they are no longer mere boys either. They are in the process of initiation, their raiding parties an opportunity to develop their skills and to demonstrate their qualities, to earn a reputation. But perhaps even more importantly, it is an opportunity to develop that mental connection with their compatriots.
We can see exactly this “youthful raider” persona in the characters of Homer’s Achaeans in the Iliad, most notably of all, in Achilles. He is the preeminent raider; his glory and reputation rests upon the cities he has sacked. But to the Hero himself, most important of all is his friend Patrokles.
Kershaw emphasizes that this identity-formation is religious and cultic in nature, which brings us back to a key element of her thesis: that the leader of this *koryos is the God Odin. As participants in Odin’s army, the young men take on the identity of the dead, literally becoming their deceased ancestors, and in doing so, facilitating a mental connection with the lineage of their tribe which opens the path to becoming a fully-fledged Man.
Kershaw describes this dynamic in the context of battle, where Germanic youths fought at night, painted head-to-toe in black, as if they were ghosts or phantoms:
Tacitus’ informants evidently took the Harii to be a tribe. It is far more likely, however, that they were the shock troops, the her κατ’ έξοχήν, of the Lugii. Their name certainly suggests this: they are the men of the her (Chap. 2). The last line implies that Tacitus, or his source, believed the blackness of their bodies, their weaponry, and the nights they chose to attack, were a trick, a form of psychological warfare. In fact, from what we have discussed in the preceding section, we can conclude that these warriors are the dead. To a Roman they would have appeared frightening, and it would have been logical to assume that the purpose of the masquerade was to inspire terror; but the practice is presented not as a sometime ruse, but as custom. Yet one could hardly hope to scare an enemy more than once or twice by such a trick. No, like our Yule maskers, they believed that they were the Ancestors: an army of immortals, the dead heroes of the tribe.
The Proto-Germanic *koryos, as a part of their initiation, take on the identities of the dead Heroes of the past. This is exactly the function of the Greek chorus, where – in song, instead of in war – the youths (and even the adults) of the city participate in the dramatic reenactment of the dead Heroes of the past. Experientially, they become Heroes – both the raiding *koryos and the singing chorus.
If the life of the Hero is reenacted by adolescents in a liminal state, then this tells us that the Heroes themselves are not Men, but adolescents in a liminal state.
The Heroes of the Trojan War are fiery and emotive, idealistic and sometimes naïve. Achilles is the most extreme in all of these regards, explosively angry, and yet noble in his expectations of honesty and honor. They behave as prototypical young men.
But the bigger clue to their age is the social role that these warriors are fulfilling in the Iliad itself. They are participating in a raiding party, not merely against Troy (the ostensible purpose of the army), but against a host of nearby cities as well. The Achaeans are an army composed of a host of different *koryos, Achilles being the leader of the Myrmidons. These raiding parties are fulfilling the expected transitional role of young men undergoing the initiation into Manhood, but they have not fulfilled that initiation just yet. To die in this initiation means to die a Hero; to survive to one’s “homecoming” – the return to society proper from this liminal state – is to return as a Man.
This means that the Hero is by nature an adolescent. He is a male, a beautiful specimen in the prime of his youth, but not fully a Man. They die before their time, unseasonal. Etymologically, this unseasonality in fact is a defining feature of what it means to be a Hero:
…hōrā (plural hōrai), ‘season, seasonality, the right time, the perfect time’. This word stood for natural time in a natural life, in a natural life-cycle. The English word hour is derived from ancient Greek hōrā, as in the expression ‘The hour is near.’
The goddess of hōrā was Hērā (the two forms hōrā and Hērā are linguistically related to each other). She was the goddess of the seasons, in charge of making everything happen on time, happen in season, and happen in a timely way.
Related to these two words hōrā and Hērā is hērōs (singular) / hērōes (plural), meaning ‘hero’. As we will see, the precise moment when everything comes together for the hero is the moment of death. The hero is ‘on time’ at the hōrā or ‘time’ of death. Before death and in fact during their whole lifetime, however, heroes are not on time: as we will see, they are unseasonal. The Hero becomes seasonal in death as a Hero, because his aim was this very immortality. Death is the fulfilment of his Heroic purpose. Death immortalizes the Hero prior to Manhood, an eternal youth, no longer a boy, but not a Man either. The Hero is an adolescent, an inspiration and gathering place for future generations of young, aspiring Men who seek initiation, who are the next participatory chorus/*koryos. Their ritual participation in the lives of ancient Heroes connects them with those Heroes, whose tragic extremity represents the spirit of their ancestors and tribe.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
 Kris Kershaw, The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbunde
Chapter 6. Heroic Idealism and the Language of the Hero
The purpose of the Hero is to be remembered forever in song. To achieve this end, the Hero must sacrifice himself. He must die.
For most people, this seems like a poor trade. In fact, it may even appear like a bad deal to the Hero himself:
I say no wealth is worth my life! Not all they claim was stored in the depths of Troy, that city built on riches, in the old days of peace before the sons of Achaea came—not all the gold held fast in the Archer’s rocky vaults, in Phoebus Apollo’s house on Pytho’s sheer cliffs! Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding, tripods all for the trading, and tawny-headed stallions. But a man’s life breath cannot come back again—no raiders in force, no trading brings it back, once it slips through a man’s clenched teeth.
— Iliad IX:488-497
At a time when material representations of honor were more or less synonymous with honor itself, Achilles’ rejection of the value of such wealth is tantamount to rejecting the value of honor itself against the weighed value of life.
Nevertheless, Achilles and the various other Achaean warriors came. They risked their lives to win honor on the battlefield—honor in the form of cups, tripods, horses, chariots, and women. And many of them, including Achilles, died on the battlefield, never to claim the honor they had hoped for in this life.
What must be believed for such a sacrifice to be worthwhile? What would be the value of this kind of honor—cups, tripods, horses, chariots, and women—if you are dead?
There are two answers to this question.
First, death is by no means guaranteed to the raiding warrior. It is a risk, true, but there is also risk in staying home—an opportunity cost in glory and fame, in the initiation into the higher orders of society offered by the warrior’s path. The Hero may never return home to his family, but the man who never risks a Hero’s fate may never get to have a family in the first place, since he is not mentally connected to his society in the way that the initiated warrior is.
This answer comes from the mindset of the aspiring Man, one who seeks power and success in this world through mental connection.
The second answer is this: that the world of stories and ideas is more real than the real world. To live in stories is in fact greater than to continue living as a living, breathing, biological creature, and so to lose one’s life to become a Hero is, in fact, a good trade.
This answer comes from the mindset of the aspiring Hero.
The logic of this worldview is rather straightforward: even if one does not die young, we are nevertheless all still fated to die someday. Yet if we live on – in any capacity at all – through stories of our lives, then there is a chance that our story will be told and retold indefinitely, perhaps forever. Therefore, it makes sense to take the risk, to sacrifice the remainder of one’s one’s earthly life for a glorious, deathless life in song.
To borrow words from the North again:
deyr sialfr it sama;
ec veit einn
at aldri deýr:
domr vm dꜹþan hvern
|Cattle die, kinsmen die,|
one day you die yourself;
I know one thing that never dies:
the dead man’s reputation.
— Havamal 77
Whether he realizes it or not, the Hero is a philosophical idealist. Underneath the ebb and flow of the ever-changing reality we live in appears a more stable world, a world of stories, ideas, and reputation which transcends and outlasts the physical world. To the Hero, this means that the world of stories and of words is, in a literal sense, more real than the world of matter.
What is Homeric epic, if not the living proof of this world? What human life has outlasted the story of Homer?
One might rightfully ask whether prolonging life through story is actually a desirable aim, and if the pursuit of this goal might lead to unforeseen second- and third-order effects. But the more important and direct problem facing the would-be Hero is more technical in nature: how can one ensure the reliability of language?
People lie and no one hates a liar more than the Hero, because the existence of lies and liars threatens the integrity of words and language itself. A lie may last years, generations even, and these long-lasting lies can erode our trust in the very idea of the Truth. Given this threat, is it any wonder that Achilles might equate the pollution of language with death?:
I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart.
— Iliad IX:378-379
The Hero lives in song and poetry; in word. If the integrity of this word is corrupted with deceit, then so too is the life of the Hero corrupted. His story may become altered, transformed into something else, something different, something no longer himself. He may be used for some nefarious end, some purpose that he himself would not have endorsed, but to which his name is now forever attached.
In Holy Nihilism, I wrote that the Heroic Bronze-Age was the birthplace of testimonialism due to the material incentives of the horseback-raiding lifestyle:
Heroic quests had to be undertaken with groups of men under circumstances where high degrees of trust were mandatory. If someone was promised a certain portion of the treasure taken or glory earned as a reward for their participation in the heroic undertaking, the promise had to be kept or the promise-breaker’s reputation would be destroyed. In such a heroic, militaristic society, your reputation was your life — was arguably greater than your life, for it would influence how others viewed your children as well.
This analysis gets the conclusion right, as far as the relation between Heroism and truth-telling, but for the wrong reason. Your life wasn’t dependent upon your reputation—if you were a Hero, your life was your reputation. The value of the Hero’s reputation after his bodily death wasn’t important because of its effect on his children, though this was no doubt also the case. Rather, its value was intrinsic, because the stories of his life maintained his life.
So the first key to the language of the Hero is that it must be honest.
There is a second danger to the Hero’s immortality however, one far greater than the corrosion of lies and deception: even with the most earnest of intentions, language can simply be misunderstood.
In order to attain the immortality he desires, the Hero’s story must be comprehensible, must be reasonably free from the dangers of corruption that arise from misunderstanding the meaning of the language used.
This is a serious challenge. The use of language is not merely a matter of accurately identifying and interpreting the literal meanings of words. Language is inherently metaphorical in nature: all words refer to things in terms of other things. These things may be primary (i.e., arbitrary sounds, like calling air “air”) or composite (i.e., referring to things in terms of other things, like a particular component of human anatomy as an “air-way”). These metaphors are layered upon each other, and at each point, communication is likely to fail if an assumed reference-point – which may be a common experience, common value, or even the simple knowledge of another word – is not actually shared.
The bard who recites the stories of Heroes of the past may seek to bypass this as best he can by speaking as objectively as he knows how—by speaking in such a way in which his words are precise, and almost impossible to be misunderstood. But such a manner of speech has the downside of being dull, and therefore, unmemorable. It may even tarnish the image of the Hero, making him appear boring through the use of boring language! If the purpose of Heroism is to be remembered in story, then unmemorable language is as dangerous as dishonest language, perhaps even more so.
It is to Homer’s credit that he does not speak in such an atrocious and boring fashion. But Homer does adopt an objective view, speaking as an omniscient observer, invoking the Gods of music to speak through him, and seeming to favor no party as the story-teller in the recitation of his tale. And—importantly—this divinely omniscient and objective frame is established in the first lines of each epic:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…
— Iliad I:1
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…
— Odyssey I:1
In order to use language suitable to the purpose of a Hero, the bard of Heroic epic must be objective in his frame, as well as honest. But this leaves the difficulty in interpreting the words themselves. Given that this entire book has been an exploration and analysis of two words—“Hero” and “Man”—and has likely already gone beyond or even defied the conventional explicit understanding of the meanings of these words as used today, it should be easy to see how dangerous a misunderstanding of a single word might be.
Recall from Chapter 2 the discussion on mênis, the first word of the Iliad which thematically summarizes the purpose of the story:
Mênis (μῆνιν) opens the story, a complex concept usually translated as “wrath,” “anger,” or “rage,” but which also connotes divine sanction, an indiscriminate culling from heaven enacted to correct some grievous fault…
Imagine simply translating mênis as “anger!” And yet that is precisely what many translators have done, as if it was the will of Achilles, and not the will of Zeus, which was accomplished as a result of this “wrath.” Our ability to understand the entire story of the Iliad hinges upon our ability to understand this single word, and yet not a single translation adequately conveys the meaning of mênis. And this is not necessarily the translators’ fault: a single-word translation of mênis into English is impossible.
The Hero’s tale may be conveyed by a skillful bard in a way that is honest and objective in its perspective. But there seems to be no way around the danger of misunderstanding language at the level of the word itself, and this threat of misunderstanding threatens not only the Hero’s linguistic legacy, his bodily person as well.
We will return to this subject in Chapter 9.
 Testimonialism is a term coined by Curt Doolittle. It describes a culture in which the truth of speech is typically warrantied (as in court testimony, where falsehood carries material consequences) and in which speech is conventionally tested for falsehoods.
 C.B. Robertson, Holy Nihilism: The Moral and Spiritual Case Against Christianity
Chapter 7. Dike: Heroic Truth and Justice
A language conducive to the Hero’s desired end must be honest and objective. This language seems possible because it appears to have been achieved by Homer in the Iliad. Recall Northup Frye from Chapter 1:
It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for Western Literature of the Iliad’s demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet’s vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires the authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order.
— Northup Frye (1957)
With his comparison of Homer’s poetry to science, Frye describes Homer’s work as truthful and objective. Perhaps it was the first of its kind in this regard. This honesty and objectivity in language are intimately tied up in the project of Heroism.
These two aspects – truthfulness and objectivity – have a common descriptor in ancient Greek: dikē, meaning “justice.”
As with mênis, the English translation of dikē does not fully capture the texture of the term as used. The term can also refer to a particular “judgment” (as in “decision”), and is layered with horticultural associations related to “straightening” plants by way of pruning and training:
[A] primary metaphor for dikē in the sense of ‘justice’ is a flourishing field or garden or orchard or grove or vineyard or any other such place where vegetation is cultivated. And now we see that hubris, which is the opposite of dikē, is a negative force that counteracts the flourishing of vegetation: hubris results in vegetal overgrowth and undergrowth. From a mythological point of view, the extreme landscapes of hubris are a wildland and a desert.
Plants that are wild and unrestrained behave with hubris, the classical term for arrogance, especially arrogance in the face of the Gods. But in this case, hubris – juxtaposed with dikē – refers to an unstraightforward path, full of twists and turns. The plant grows wild and wayward. Correcting this hubris is accomplished by straightening them.
In the Iliad, dikē means straightforwardness, both in judgment and in speech. Straightforward judgment is associated with Justice, while straightforward speech is associated with Truth.
It would be presumptuous and perhaps self-defeating for a Hero to describe his own words as dikē, but Achilles seems to approach this in his rejoinder to Odysseus in the embassy scene:
I must say what I have to say straight out, must tell you how I feel and how all this will end—so you won’t crowd around me, one after another, coaxing like a murmuring clutch of doves. I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart. I will say it outright. That seems best to me.
— Iliad IX:374-380
My previous focus on this passage was on Achilles’ emphasis on truthfulness—or the lack thereof implied in Odysseus’ speech. One let us now focus on how he juxtaposes Odysseus’ speech with his own. He promises to speak bluntly and directly, because to him this seems best.
This preference for straightforwardness reflects an idealization of Truth and Justice which are intimately connected with the concept of the Hero.
To say that the Hero idealizes Truth and Justice is not to say that the Hero necessarily achieves these aims. As we have already seen, the Hero is extreme in some capacity, and extremity can lead to hubris. Achilles himself, though honest, is sometimes wrong, and wrong speech is not true speech, no matter how honest or straightforward the speaker may be:
Ah but now, since I have no desire to battle glorious Hector, tomorrow at daybreak, once I have sacrificed to Zeus and all the gods and loaded up my holds and launched out on the breakers—watch, my friend, if you’ll take the time and care to see me off, and you will see my squadrons sail at dawn, fanning out on the Hellespont that swarms with fish, my crews manning the oarlocks, rowing out with a will, and if the famed god of the earthquake grants us safe passage, the third day out we raise the dark rich soil of Phthia.
— Iliad IX:432-441
This promise of Achilles is never fulfilled; the Myrmidons do not sail home, and eventually, Achilles returns to the fight. Moreover, his assertion that his honor has been stolen from him is also proven to be false in the end.
But this does not negate the Hero’s idealization of Truth and Justice, nor does it make him a hypocrite (holding a high ideal and failing to achieve that ideal is not hypocrisy). Rather, the Truth and Justice idealized by the Hero are themselves philosophical ideals. The Truth – which I refer to with a capital-“T” – is not “true speech” or “facts” per se, but the idea of there being Truth itself. Similarly, the ideal of Justice is not necessarily sound judgment, but belief in the ideal of an objective order, maintained by the Gods perhaps, which can and will punish the injustice of individuals who behave improperly.
To draw the connection between the Hero and these twin ideals of Truth and Justice, I return once more to the first and most important summarizing word of the Iliad: mênis.
We have already explored how mênis is not merely anger, but a divine sanction that corrects egregious hubris. Already, mênis seems to be an act of “straightening,” of justice, making the assertion of mênis an assertion of the existence of Justice existing as a higher ideal. The indiscriminate destruction wrought by correcting mênis may seem unjust to modern moral sensibilities, but what the indiscriminate disaster indicates is the absoluteness of the order which mênis protects. And mênis does protect an order:
An irrevocable cosmic sanction that prohibits some from taking their superiors for equals and others from taking their equals for inferiors—this abstracted definition implies a rigid hierarchical structure and a predictable punitive response to violations that belie the richness and flexibility of Greek epic.
The summarizing word of the Iliad is an assertion that the story that follows is a story of mênis in action; that this mênis exists, and that therefore, Justice exists. And if this Justice exists, then words which accurately convey this Justice are True. If such a Just order can be described at all, then Truth must also exist.
But in the world of the Hero, Truth exists prior to the belief in a Just universe, because the very notion of Truth as an ideal is the idea that words – or the ideas conveyed by words – exist in the world independent of our minds. This idealism is the foundational belief behind Heroism, how the Hero is somehow more real in story than he is in flesh. If this belief can apply to people, why would the metaphysics of idealism stop there? Could not words themselves also be more real as words, rather than as attempts to describe things which are not words?
Might the poetry of Homer be more real than life itself?
To the Hero, the answer to these questions is ‘perhaps.’ But if the idealism of the Hero which is the basis of his hoped-for immortality is to have any hope, then Truth and Justice must exist. The Hero might not be truthful or just himself (the death he suffers for his own flaws may, in fact, fast-track his remembrance if he is sufficiently gifted in other ways). Nevertheless, his hope rests upon the existence of absolute Truth and an objective, self-correcting cosmic order. But since the Hero himself exists primarily in story, his hope is not for the reality of this Truth and Justice, but for their idea. The concept of a singular Truth and the idea of cosmic Justice are what is necessary.
We see how these concepts of Truth and Justice are depicted and venerated in the Iliad, in one of the most celebrated and famous images in the entire epic.
After Achilles has lent his armor to his friend Patrokles, Patrokles is killed by Hector. In preparation for battle, Achilles is gifted a new set of armor crafted by the smith-God Hephaestus himself, including a glorious shield.
The description of the shield itself is 151 lines long, and the wrought-metal design decorating its face essentially depicts the world—the sky and ocean, the sun and moon, cities and farms, war and peace. Among the designs embedded in its surface is a scene of a trial going on in a city:
And the people massed, streaming into the marketplace where a quarrel had broken out and two men struggled over the blood-price for a kinsman just murdered. One declaimed in public, vowing payment in full—the other spurned him, he would not take a thing—so both men pressed for a judge to cut the not. The crowd cheered on both, they took both sides, but heralds held them back as the city elders sat on polished stone benches, forming the sacred circle, grasping in hand the staffs of clear-voiced heralds, and each leapt to his feet to plead the case in turn. Two bars of solid gold shone on the ground before them, a prize for the judge who’d speak the straightest verdict.
— Iliad XVIII:580-592
What is described is not justice, but Justice; not the outcome of justice, but the idea of Justice. The depiction is of the process in a most idealistic manner, where objective elders contemplate the matter and speak in turn. Gold incentivizes Truth, which will – in this idealized world, as in the world of mathematics – correspond with what is simplest and most straightforward. All of this is captured in the design of a shield, and this shield is described to us in the medium of epic poetry: a representation of a representation. Only through the lens of idealism does such a telescoping perspective distill and purify – rather than distort – the subject in question.
The Hero requires the ideals of Truth and Justice, for his own story (his life) to be both everlasting and believable. One might even say that Heroic idealism is identical with belief in these abstract ideals and with living in tragic accordance with their spirit, no matter how painfully they are proven to be insufficient and incomplete by the physical world. The consequences of such painful refutation exist only on the mortal plane of this existence, and that is not where the hope of the Homeric Hero lies.
This is why Truth and Justice are reflected in the values of the Hero, in the Heroic world he exists within, and in the language which conveys this Heroic reality.
Chapter 8. The Tragedy of Heroism
Heroism is tragic in two senses: first, it is tragic in the technical and original Greek sense of the word. But second, heroism is also “tragic” in the modern and conventional sense, and was so even in the early Greek stories, including those of Homer.
Let us clarify these two senses of “tragedy.”
When we look up the word “tragic,” among the first given synonyms is “disastrous” – that descriptor given to the entire story of the Iliad by οὐλομένην. The modern use of “tragic” describes something unfortunate, sad, or deplorable, usually for achieving the opposite outcome of what was desired or intended. We think of a movie with a sad ending as a tragedy – as opposed to a comedy. Given that a Hero must die in order to achieve his end and will invariably suffer on his path toward this death, Heroism is tragic in this modern sense.
The ancient conception of tragedy is more complicated and relates specifically to the theater. Tragic theater first arose as an elaboration around the chorus, which we addressed earlier; the chorus is a form of initiation by way of reenacting Heroic myth.
The choral tradition which gave rise to tragedy centered around the god Dionysus, in whose honor competing participants sang hymns. The winner was traditionally awarded a goat, and it is from this tradition that we get the name τραγῳδία “song for the goat” from tragos (goat) and oidos (song). It is from this tragos-oidos that “tragedy” emerged, and eventually developed its sad and “tragic” quality from the nature of the God Dionysus whom the participants were praising. What originally began as a single choral performance – called a “dithyramb” – gradually grew in complexity, likely thanks to the competitive nature of the performance.
Dionysus – the god of theater, intoxication, the harvest, sex, and nature’s fertility – only appears clearly once in all of Homeric epic. In Patroklus’ funeral, when the men speak of the origins of the urn in which Achilles’ and Patroklus’ remains are placed: “Your mother gave us a gold two-handled urn, a gift from Dionysus, she said” (Odyssey XXIV:80-81).
We could make a case that Dionysus is vicariously present in Odysseus’ travels. We see Odysseus meet Circe in Book 10 of the Odyssey, a sorceress skilled in the use of intoxicating drugs, perhaps of the kind later associated with Dionysus. She even uses a wand, presumably one similar to the thyrsus wands used by priests of Dionysus:
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs, then she mixed them a potion—cheese, barley and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine—but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs to wipe from their memories any thought of home. Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties, all of them bristling into swine—with grunts, snouts—even their bodies yes, and only the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.
— Odyssey X:256-265
There is a sexual connotation in the idea of men turning into pigs and forgetting home, one which is implicit in the case of Odysseus’ comrades but is made explicit in the case of Odysseus, who sleeps with Circe after forcing her to turn his men back into humans at sword-point.
The sexuality and the bestial transformations fit with the character of Dionysus. Dionysus himself is said to transform into the form of a lion or a bull, and one of Dionysus’ epithets is χοιροψάλας (choiropsulas) “pig-plucker.” (Another of his epithets is λίκνιτες, “he of the winnowing fan,” a possible connection to Tiresias’ prophecy to Odysseus and further connection with the Odyssey in general; more on this later). So perhaps Circe represents a pseudo-Dionysian character, or even a manifestation of Dionysus himself.
But let us return to the gift of Dionysus: the urn in which the Hero is to be interred after death. Why would such an urn be related to a god of sexuality, intoxication, and the theater? The answer lies in the nature of tragedy: the participatory reenactment of Heroic stories. The urn visually represents death, but in this death lies the possibility of periodic revivification through reliving the stories of the dead. This revivification is accomplished by the chorus (see Chapter 5), and Dionysus is the leader – or, rather, the conductor – of this chorus, just as Odin is the leader of the participatory, reenacting *koryos.
The recurring competition within which the dithyramb grew into tragic theater is a strikingly similar setting to the recurring athletic competitions arranged in honor of (or “in compensation for”) dead Heroes. It seems possible that Dionysus, like Herakles – the prototypical Hero – was once a mortal, and became elevated to godhood after his Heroism became immortalized in recurring ritual reenactment in song: the dithyrambic hymn, which became the chorus out of which tragedy emerged.
But whether or not Dionysus himself was a Hero, we can see the connection between Dionysus’ urn and the hoped-for immortality for the Hero: in an oral culture (rather than a writing culture) drama and theater are the mediums of story-telling. Consequently, drama is the medium of Heroic immortality, which makes Dionysus – the God of theater – also the God of immortality.
But this immortality requires death. The Hero must be torn apart like Dionysus himself if he is ever to return to life on the stage. The morbid necessity of death for the continuation of life is a recurring theme in the stories of Dionysus and of the pastoral world he is associated with. It is also an important feature of Heroes, who must die in the flesh in order to live in story. This lends tragic theater a bittersweet feeling that has come to define the genre all the way to the present.
The trouble with this form of immortality is the nature of language itself.
Recall the two challenges to the longevity of meaning in language brought up in Chapter 6: dishonesty and ambiguity. But there is a third and even greater challenge the hero must contend with, made all the more difficult because the Hero cannot be aware that he even faces it: the Hero’s own understanding of his situation.
Classical tragedy is defined by two moments in the arc of the story: first, a reversal in fortune (περιπέτεια) brought on by some tragic flaw. Second, a moment of recognition (ἀναγνώρισις) wherein the protagonist recognizes the true nature of his situation, which he had not seen before.
Although the Iliad is not itself a formal tragedy, we can nevertheless trace this tragic narrative arc clearly in the Iliad. The fortune of Achilles reverses itself with the death of Patrokles. Achilles is taken aback by this. The emotional impact of his friend’s death draws him back into the fight, moving him from the position of control in his dispute with Agamemnon and sweeping him up into a grander narrative over which he has no control, and within which he is but a pawn, pushed by the hands of forces he cannot see: chiefly, Zeus, Apollo, and Homer himself.
Heroism is driven by the desire for immortality, and the mechanism for achieving this immortality is language. But does language have the ability to deliver this immortality, even in principle?
The Heroic idealist holds that words can be more real than the very things that they describe—not merely because words can last well beyond material beings, but because words can have some causal effect on reality; they seem to have the power to create. But if words can have multiple meanings, if words can be ambiguous or unclear depending on the language-game one is playing, then the Hero will eventually be forced to recognize that language has power only insofar as a greater context permits it to have meaning. This context is given shape by the medium of language (e.g., Greek or English, song or writing, etc) and by the connection that exists between the deliverer and recipient.
With this in mind, we should consider the possibility that the feeling we get of Achilles—when we read an English translation of Homer—may be so different from a sung recitation of the same story in Mycenean Greek that he resembles a completely different person. If this is the case, then in what meaningful sense was Ἀχιλῆος really immortalized?
The individualistic Hero is forced by his desire to extreme focus in pursuit of his goal, but this very focus prevents him from seeing the sources of motion around him. His blindness prevents him from seeing peripherally; he does not notice his broader context, be it the larger forces at work, or the broader language-game he may be participating in. Because of this, the one-eyed focus of the Hero guarantees misunderstanding, perhaps including misunderstanding the very nature of the aim that he is pursuing.
We see two moments of tragic recognition in Achilles, which reveal to us an initial misunderstanding or blindness. First, at the end of the Iliad, when Priam – guided by Hermes, the psychopomp – meets with Achilles, and in the most climactic scene of the entire story, the Hero finally sees the broader context around him:
So Achilles marveled, beholding majestic Priam. His men marveled too, trading startled glances. But Priam prayed his heart out to Achilles: “Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles—as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age! No doubt the countrymen round about him plague him now, with no one there to defend him, beat away disaster, No one—but at least he hears you’re still alive and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day, to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy. But I—dear god, my life so cursed by fate… I fathered hero sons in the wide realm of Troy and now not a single one is left, I tell you. Fifty sons I had when the sons of Achaea came, nineteen born to me from a single mother’s womb and the rest by other women in the palace. Many, most of them violent Ares cut the knees from under. But one, one was left me, to guard my walls, my people—the one you killed the other day, defending his fatherland, my Hector! It’s all for him I’ve come to the ships now, to win him back from you—I bring a priceless ransom. Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right, remember your own father! I deserve more pity… I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand he gently moved him back. And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching before Achilles’ feet as Achilles wept himself, now for his father, now for Patroclus once again, and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.
— Iliad XXIV: 567-599
This passage is worth including at length not only because it is described at length, but because it demonstrates the power of a greater context—his connection with his father—diminishes the Heroic motivation that had preoccupied his attention in the first half of the epic. Even after Patrokles dies and he is overcome with anger and sadness, he still does not see this context: one overpowering and extreme emotion is replaced by another.
But here, confronted by grieving Priam, he remembers his own father – much as Odysseus always remembers home – and this remembrance brings him back to Patrokles. The recognition of connection with these two separate people demonstrates a generalization, the wider view of a Hero who has just taken a step back from his Heroism and noticed something which had until that moment escaped his attention.
By killing Hector, Achilles sealed his own fate as his mother had prophesized, and even as Hector had prophesized:
“…But now beware, or my curse will draw god’s wrath upon your head, that day when Paris and lord Apollo—for all your fighting heart—destroy you at the Scaean Gates!”
— Iliad XXII:422-424
Achilles happily accepted his Heroic fate in that moment. But after meeting with Priam, his perspective changes—not so much a shift as a broadening. He is no longer angry with Agamemnon, nor does he seek to prove himself against the other warriors in the games put on for Patrokles’ funeral. And then, in the Odyssey, we hear what may be his final feelings, after the seeds of Priam’s reminder have taken root, but too late for him to go back and re-choose his destiny:
“But you, Achilles, there’s not a man in the world more blest than you—there never has been, never will be one. Time was, when you were alive, we Argives honored you as a god, and now down here, I see, you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting, “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather be a slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
— Odyssey XI:547-558
Instead, Achilles asks about his son and his father.
What Homer illustrates is the inherently tragic nature of Heroism: to be a Hero is to seek immortality in song. But this immortality is not what it appeared to be, is not worth what it appeared to be worth, because language itself – the hero’s phylactery – is not what the Hero believed it to be. Words are only permitted meaning within a greater context, and once this greater context is perceived, the desire for Heroic immortality and the belief in Heroic idealism seem to fade away, in favor of fostering the connections which create the context which permits words meaning in the first place.
And so the adolescent young man is in a paradox, wherein the Heroic tradition on which his society is based lure him towards an illusion, but connection with that society may not be possible without initiation built on the back of Heroism. Seeing this context destroys the illusion of Heroic idealism, but without the tragic recognition of the Hero’s experience, he cannot grasp this broader context.
The Homeric “naïveté” can be comprehended only as the complete triumph of the Apollonian illusion: it is the same kind of illusion as Nature so frequently employs to compass her ends. The true goal is veiled by a phantasm: we stretch out our hands for the latter, while Nature attains the former through our illusion.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
 A thyrsus was a fennel stalk wrapped with ivy, often topped with a pine-cone.
Chapter 9. Ainos and the Language of Man
We have already seen Odysseus chastised by Achilles for speaking in a deceptive manner. There is no way around it: Odysseus often speaks deceitfully. His tales to Alcinous about the cyclops and the sirens and the other wild adventures at sea are presumably true in some regard, but seem like they might be exaggerated, or perhaps metaphorical – and in his own telling, he misleads the cyclops Polyphemus. He even conceals his identity from his wife and father when he returns to Ithaca.
His words are not straightforward. They are – like his epithet and his journey home – full of twists and turns. And yet in the end he is successful. His craftiness pays off, while the straightforwardness of the straightforward Hero seems to result only in a straightforward death. And to add insult to injury, Odysseus is remembered in poetry just as well as the Hero Achilles.
How do we make sense of this?
I want to begin with a more contemporary story that will appropriately frame our approach to language as it pertains to the Hero and the Man.
In 1921, Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein published Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an investigation of the relationship between philosophy and language. Among its assertions was the so-called “picture-theory” of language, which held that words have meaning insofar as they corresponded with some image or picture of the world. Words which did not so correspond were – strictly speaking – meaningless. His famous assertion – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – is best read not an imperative but a claimed description of fact. One may attempt to speak on what one cannot convey pictorially but this attempt is doomed to failure.
This point of view corresponds with the Heroic ideal, wherein particular words correspond with their own particular meanings. A “chair” is always a four-legged implement for sitting; a “camel” is always a desert-dwelling ungulate with peculiar humps. Such speech is direct, which corresponds with what the Hero believes to be right and just:
I hate that man like the very Gates of Death who says one thing but hides another in his heart. I will say it outright. That seems best to me.
— Iliad IX:378-380
But Wittgenstein grew older and wiser.
Like Homer, he wrote a second book, published about thirty years after his first (1953). Called Philosophical Investigations, his second work was, in many ways, a repudiation of the conception of language argued for in the Tractatus. In Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that language was not really a matter of painting pictures after all—at least not exclusively.
Rather, language could be understood within the context of a variety of different games that we play with language (of which painting mental pictures was one).
By “game,” Wittgenstein is not referring to sociopathic games of manipulation which we might imagine when we hear the phrase “language game.” Rather, these “language games” are the spontaneously negotiated sets of rules that govern many other social systems, like the way children come up with variations of “tag” or “lava monster.” The rules of these games are almost never handed down, but instead emerge as the game progresses and the participants run into new situations. According to Wittgenstein, the meaning of words and of language in general emerge in the same manner as these childhood games.
These language games apportion meaning to language within the game being played; their coherence was dependent not upon some external, objective standard, but upon internal consistency within the particular game, and the “players” knowledge of the game.
In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, we can find examples of two distinct language-games being played: the Heroic, direct and honest truth-telling on one hand, and the more diplomatic, twisting and turning speech of Odysseus on the other.
The Heroic language-game is called “logos.” The Manly language-game is called “ainos.”
There is precedent for language-games besides direct and honest truth-telling played in Homer – even in the Iliad. The medium of both the Iliad and the Odyssey is epic poetry, which itself may or may not be directly or literally true. But within the story, different characters speak in different manners. Gregory Nagy identifies a mode of communication which he calls “ainos,” which has the following features:
The ainos as told by Phoenix, to which he refers as klea andrōn [“undying Glory”] at Iliad IX 524 as quoted in Text B, connects with the overall klea andrōn as told by the master Narrator. The connection is made by way of poetic conventions distinguishing the ainos from epic. One of these conventions is a set of three features characterizing the rhetoric of the ainos. Unlike epic, the ainos requires three qualifications of its listeners in order to be understood:
- The listeners must be sophoi, ‘skilled’, in understanding the message encoded in the poetry. That is, they must be mentally qualified.
- They must be agathoi, ‘noble’. That is, they must be morally qualified.
- They must be philoi, ‘near and dear’, to each other and to the one who is telling them the ainos. That is, they must be emotionally qualified. Communication is achieved through a special sense of community, that is, through recognizing “the ties that bind.”
Each of these three features of the ainos is made explicit in the song-making medium of Pindar, whose songs date back to the first half of the fifth century BCE. The medium of Pindar actually refers to itself as ‘ainos.’
Of what value is encrypting the meaning in this way, such that only certain people may understand it? Why would anyone speak such that the unskilled, ignoble, or unfamiliar would not understand? We can answer these questions and come to understand the value of the ainos as a language game by contemplating the challenges of speech which attempts to be direct.
When we consider plain and direct speech – logos – we may observe the following:
- A listener will not understand us if they do not know the words we are using.
- A listener will not understand us if they misinterpret words.
- A listener will not understand us if they have no reason to listen to us carefully.
The impositions of the ainos – as articulated by Gregory Nagy – define that particular mode of speech, but address challenges which are not unique to that mode. We cannot escape the challenges of communicating our knowledge to others merely by speaking directly and clearly; to make that assumption is to fall into a Heroic, tragic way of thinking.
There are kinds of experience which no words seem equipped to convey directly. Having a child and watching them grow up is often described in cliches: “they grow up so fast.” These cliches are true to experience, but have no meaning or weight to someone who has themselves not already experienced it. Homer spends endless pages of the Iliad describing in morbid anatomical detail the killing of men, but no amount of rereading Homer will convey the significance and experience of actually participating in a war – of killing someone, or watching someone die. And if anyone were capable of doing so, it would be Homer.
Here is one example of the horror conveyed in the Iliad:
Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus, who was the first to go up against King Agamemnon, who of the Trojans or famous Trojan allies?
Iphidamas, the rough and rangy son of Antenor bred in the fertile land of Thrace, mother of flocks. Cisseus reared him at home when he was little—his mother’s father who sired the fine beauty Theano—but once he hit the stride of his youth and ached for fame, Cisseus tried to hold him back, give him a daughter’s hand but warm from the bridal chamber marched the groom, fired up by word that Achaea’s troops had landed. Twelve beaked ships sailed out in his command, trim vessels he left behind him in Percote, making his way to Troy to fight on foot and here he came now, up against Agamemnon, closer, closing…
Atrides hurled and missed, his spearshaft just slanting aside the man’s flank as Iphidamas went for the waist beneath the breastplate—he stabbed home, leaning into the blow full weight, trusting his heavy hand but failed to pierce the glittering belt, failed flat-out—the point, smashing against the silver, bent back like lead. And seizing the spearshaft, powerful Agamemnon dragged it toward him, tussling like some lion and wrenching it free from Iphidamas’ slack grasp he hacked his neck with a sword and loosed his limbs. And there he dropped and slept the sleep of bronze, poor soldier, striving to help his fellow Trojans, far from his wedded wife, his new bride… No joy had he known from her for all his gifts, the full hundred oxen he gave her on the spot then promised a thousand head of goats and sheep from the boundless herds he’d rounded up himself. Now the son of Atreus stripped him, robbed his corpse and strode back to his waiting Argive armies, hoisting the gleaming gear.
— Iliad XI:253-286
For all of that detail, for that repetition of greater context and the often brutal descriptions of the deaths themselves, Homer cannot impart to us the real experience of war. Clear and direct language simply isn’t enough.
The “ainos” more closely contours the way that an archetypal Man will speak. In the Iliad, the two most prominent ainos identified by Nagy are told by wise old men – by Phoenix in Book 9, and by Nestor in Book 23. Both are cases of old men instructing young heroes in wisdom, each attempting to convey by indirect language what a direct approach would likely fail to communicate. Phoenix attempts to persuade Achilles to let go of his anger towards Agamemnon, which has already been described. Later on, Nestor instructs his son Antilochus on how to approach the tomb of some old hero – to approach the life of the Hero, but without touching it – and in this way, to round the far-off corner of the chariot-race and then to return back again. Here is the relevant passage of Nestor’s ainos to Antilochus:
“Now, the turn itself—it’s clear, you cannot miss it. There’s a dead tree-stump standing six feet high, it’s of oak or pine, not rotted through by the rains, and it’s propped by two white stones on either side. That’s your halfway mark where the homestretch starts and there’s plenty of good smooth racing-room around it—it’s either the grave-mound of a man dead long ago or men who lived before us set it up as a goal. Now, in any event, swift Achilles makes it his turning-post. And you must hug it close as you haul your team and chariot round but you in your tight-strung car, you lean to the left yourself, just a bit as you whip your right-hand horse, hard, shout him on, slacken your grip and give him rein. But make your left horse hug that post so close the hub of your well-turned wheel will almost seem to scrape the rock—just be careful not to graze it! You’ll maim your team, you’ll smash your car to pieces. A joy to your rivals, rank disgrace to yourself… So keep your head, my boy, be on the lookout.
— Iliad XXIII:370-389
Given the stone used to build Patrokles’ barrow-mound only a few paragraphs before (XXIII: 292-295), and the goal of immortality in song that defines the Hero’s essence, it actually doesn’t matter whether the white stones referenced by Nestor are a tomb or a goal—both correspond with the nature of the Hero. Even in the context of sport, Heroes were often made by athletic participation, and Hero-cults were often perpetuated by recurring athletic events; a sporting goal is still a reminder of Heroism.
That Nestor mentions both possibilities may make the literal identity of the stones in question ambiguous, but actually clarifies their deeper, latent meaning within the context of an ainos.
But why speak so indirectly? Why not say it outright, as seems best to thumotic young men, when speaking to young men like Achilles or Antilochus?
The answer may lie in whether or not the listener can be persuaded in the moment of conversation.
I have listed the features of ainos as a mode of communication, but Nagy gives a concise definition which may give us some insight into its true purpose. He defines it as follows:
A performance of ambivalent wording that becomes clarified once it is correctly understood and then applied in moments of making moral decisions affecting those who are near and dear.
From this, we might conclude that the ainos serves as a kind of time-delay, a seed planted in the mind of the listener to be discovered later and not in the moment of conversation.
With this assumption in mind, let us return to that class of experience that cannot be directly conveyed with words.
Ainos conveys an interpretation of an experience in advance such that when they undergo this new and perhaps life-altering event, the default path of interpretation and action has already been set. It primes the listener to interpret an experience in a particular way. It is a mode of wisdom speaking to innocence or naivete, one which seeks to get ahead of the conscious awareness of the listener; one which understands that directness simply results in rejection. When confronted with a perspective which contradicts his own view, the spirited man digs in his heels.
If the wise Man’s mode of speech were to be visualized metaphorically, we might envision it as a Trojan horse, of the kind Odysseus conceived of which succeeded in conquering Troy. This can be juxtaposed with the naïve Hero’s approach: the direct assault which fruitlessly drew out the conflict for nine years.
This metaphor throws a malicious tone on the ainos as a mode of speech, but as we saw earlier, the ainos can be used benevolently – indeed, ainos almost always will be benevolent since to be understood, the listener must be near and dear to the speaker.
It also must be noted that direct speech can be malicious too.
The fundamental difference between the logos of the individualistic Hero and the ainos of the connected Man lies in the person-in-focus. The Hero self-expresses, broadcasting himself to the world. The Man reads his audience, tries to gauge their mind, and only then delivers his words—cautiously to strangers, informatively and with great value to friends.
Perhaps this is why to reach the city of the horse-taming Trojans, Odysseus chose a horse as his medium of entry. Only the empathy of the archetypal man could identify the correct metaphor to “get through” to his audience.
The language of Man recognizes what Wittgenstein recognized in his later years: that the direct speech is a legitimate language game, and often has its place, but it is not the only legitimate language game… nor is it the most common, nor the most relevant, nor the most important.
The successful use of language does not lie in how directly one speaks – this would naively presuppose the nature of the language-game one is playing, as well as the metaphorical foundation which gives meaning to words in the mind of one’s audience. Rather, it begins by assessing one’s context – the audience and the game – and speaking skillfully in accordance with this context.
This is what Odysseus teaches us about the use of language – in all of his conversation with Athena, Circe, Polyphemus, Alcinous, Telemachus, Eurylochus, Euryclea, and Penelope.
Perhaps the most developed example of this language we find in Book 11 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus receives a prophecy—delivered in the form of an ainos—from the dead seer Tiresias. After pronouncing that “a sweet smooth journey home” is what Odysseus desires, Tiresias admonishes Odysseus not to eat the cattle of the sun, or else his ship and his men will be destroyed and he will return home a broken man. And then Tiresias says the following:
But once you have killed those suitors in your halls—by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze—go forth once more, you must… carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign—unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon—a ram, a bull and a ramping wild boar—then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order. And at last your own death will steal upon you… a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you.
— Odyssey XI:136-156
For evidence that this is, in fact, an ainos, Nagy points to the distinctive formulation of the phrasing: ‘here is a sign, you can’t miss it.’ As we saw earlier, Nestor used the same phrasing in his ainos instructions to Antilochus, where the sign was the tomb of the ancient Hero.
There is a further symmetry between Nestor’s instructions to Antilochus and Tiresias’ instructions to Odysseus: we do not see the conclusion, as far as whether or not the man being instructed fully realizes the deeper layer of meaning.
In the case of Antilochus, we see him complete the chariot race, where he comes in second place, seemingly only a partial success, but it is left open-ended to the audience as to whether he internalized the deeper meaning of the ainos.
Likewise, we never see Odysseus make this oar-carrying journey. The story ends before we find out whether or not Odysseus acted upon this cryptic instruction.
But what is the meaning of this imperative for Odysseus to carry his oar until it is mistaken for a winnowing fan? As we saw with Antilochus and Nestor, the latent meaning of the ainos is not necessarily the same as the manifest content.
The manifest content of Nestor’s instructions was how to win a chariot race, but the latent content was how to live in relation to Heroism.
If the manifest content of Tiresias’ instruction was how to make peace with Poseidon, then the we might presume that the latent content involves how to live in relation to the archetype of the Man.
This symmetry can be seen in the visual conceptions of life captured in the imagery of the respective ainoi. Nestor’s instruction teaches Antilochus how to continue turning, to continue revolving, to participate in Heroic immortality through recurring revival yet without becoming the Hero who dies and then must be immortalized. This is itself a depiction of the mechanism of Heroic immortality, occurring in the context of a funeral for a dead Hero who is to become an immortal cult-hero by way of recurring funeral games in honor of the Hero.
Conversely, Tiresias instructs Odysseus in how to achieve a good death – a linear end-point. Odysseus receives this instruction in the underworld itself, from a seer who is already dead. To the connected Man, the ghostly immortality of the Hero is not the aim. His aim is a good death – a death preceded by connections that permit him to die with satisfaction, “with all your people in blessed peace around you.”
The ainos is a cryptic mode of communication, and the prophecy of Tiresias is arguably the most cryptic of all passages in Homer. This prophecy also deals explicitly with symbols—i.e., the oar which means one thing to sailors, but which appears to mean something else to farmers who know nothing of the sea. Elsewhere in the Iliad and the Odyssey, we see Homer sing about his own craft—about Heroism and the stories which drive it. Structurally, it appears that this cryptic passage is actually about language itself. It is advice on how to speak in the mode of the ainos, which is also the path of returning home and connection with others.
Let’s unpack the latent meaning.
Odysseus is instructed to carry his oar until he reaches a place where people mistake it for a winnowing fan. In terms of communication, he is being told to work backwards to where people have no preconceptions of what they are about to see, to present his symbol prior to their understanding of its meaning and any baggage they may have associated with it.
Of course, one cannot remove baggage from a symbol. But the message represented by a particular symbol – say, an oar – can be conveyed through the use of other symbols which carry different or fewer connotations – say, a winnowing fan.
Odysseus’ oar is his way of life, a symbol of travel and war, and the stories and wisdom earned by the oar itself. Planting the oar bears a symmetry with the tomb erected for Elpenor:
Perform my rites and plant on my tomb that oar I swung with mates when I rowed among the living.
— Odyssey XI:85-86
The oar is a symbol of death, but in the case of Odysseus, it is a positive symbol of death: it is the death that is to be desired, rather than the early death that leaves Achilles longing for life, even if only as a slave. When Tiresias says that Odysseus seeks a “sweet, smooth journey home,” perhaps this also refers to a sweet, smooth death—a life which permits a sweet, smooth death when death finally comes.
The oar is a symbol of death, but the mistaking of the oar for a winnowing fan (a shovel used to toss grain such that the wind separates the lighter chaff from the heavier grain) seems to describe Odysseus himself. Odysseus is forever mistaken in identity, appearing at last at his own home disguised as a beggar. He himself – the oar-wielding, city-sacking man of war – is mistaken for a harmless old man. Perhaps the kind of harmless old man one might expect to be found winnowing grain somewhere. The symbol of the winnowing fan itself never appears elsewhere in the story of the Odyssey, and so the manifest content of Tiresias’ ainos appears cryptic and confusing. But insofar as the latent meaning is conveyed allegorically, by the relationship between concepts which are only symbolically depicted in the manifest content, then the relationship between the oar and the winnowing fan is as clear as that between the chariot-rider and the turning-stone: in order to achieve his homecoming, Odysseus must take action only when he is in the correct position to do so: when he, the oar, is mis-identified as something harmless. As, for example, a wooden horse. Or an old beggar.
The Hero strives for recognition, for identification and immortality through this recognition. But the Man achieves success not merely through anonymity, but misidentification, misidentification that he himself engineers. This misidentification serves to protect him from the eyes and devices of foreign powers that he himself cannot control, or perhaps even foresee. The disguise, the acceptance of being misunderstood by strangers, is the tool of the man to achieve his aim. That aim is the legacy symbolized by his father’s orchard:
You want no skill, old man, at tending a garden. All’s well-kept here; not one thing in the plot, no plant, no fig, no pear, no olive, no vine, not a vegetable, lacks your tender, loving care.
— Odyssey XXIV:270-273
This orchard is itself a symbol, the parallel of the language used to describe the “unwilting” glory of the Hero, which is his immortality. Unlike the individualistic Hero, the immortality of the Man is not his alone. Rather, it is continued life for the legacy that is symbolized by the orchard, and by the bed made from a living olive tree, but which only he and those near and dear to him can recognize.
 Nagy, 66
Chapter10. Memory and Returning Home
The achievement of Achilles in the Iliad is κλέος (kleos), “glory,” specifically glory in song. This song is the Iliad itself, and its ritual recurring recitation is society’s compensation for the tragic fate of the Heroes who sacrifice themselves, dying without truly understanding why they are doing so. In this context, Achilles serves as a stand-in for all Heroes because our Heroes have been formed in his likeness, initiated into the linguistic and cultural context of the Western world which was shaped by Achilles. These are the adolescent young men who, striving on their journey to becoming fully-initiated Men, only make it half-way.
The achievement of Odysseus in the Odyssey is νόστος, “return” or “homecoming.” It is the completion of the journey of initiation, which Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey,” and which for our purposes we might think of more precisely as the “Man’s Journey,” given the Greek understanding of Heroism we are using here. Joseph Campbell’s depiction of the hero’s journey is circular, and ends with the hero returning to where he began; geographically unmoved, but inwardly transformed. This transformation is the achievement of connection with the Man’s greater context—his family, his culture, his language—and this connection is what gives him power and happiness.
But a return cannot happen without a departure. True connection does not happen for men by remaining at home. Their fathers became men by going out, beyond the security of the perimeter, for the benefit of their society. The man who never leaves will never be able to connect with the men who have left. And since their society was built by the men who left and came back, the man who never leaves can never truly connect with or have an honorable place within that society.
We see this depicted when Athena urges Telemachus to reconnect with his father not by staying in Ithaca, but by leaving, as his father did:
For you, I have some good advice, if only you will accept it. Fit out a ship with twenty oars, the best in sight, sail in quest of news of your long-lost father. Someone may tell you something or you may catch a rumor straight from Zeus, rumor that carries news to men like nothing else.
— Odyssey I:320-326
Athena knows with her divine foresight that Telemachus will not hear any relevant news, but it is the act, and not the information, which is important. The departure allows Telemachus to return, and return more connected with his father by way of having done as his father did.
By way of counter-example, the suitors led by Antinous are all men who did not sail for Troy with Odysseus. They never left, and they behave as gluttonous man-children would be expected to, devouring the goods of others without thought. They have no connection to the source of their society’s own success, because they never went out and acquired it themselves.
Yet as the fate of the Hero shows, departing is not enough to achieve a meaningful νόστος. While Telemachus does return home, his homecoming is not as significant as Odysseus’ because his troubles were not as significant. Meaningful journeys are difficult and interesting, and on such journeys, it is easy to forget home or die. If there is one resounding and explicitly repeated theme of the Odyssey, it is the importance of memory: one cannot return to where one does not remember.
But one cannot return from the Heroic journey of initiation without first departing.
Νόστος is more than merely the homecoming. As with κλέος, νόστος is also a song—in the case of νόστος, a song about homecoming (though we should remember that the song of νόστος is ἔννεπε “told” rather than ἄειδε “sang”). This is conveyed explicitly in Book 1:
Amidst them still the famous bard sang on, and they sat in silence, listening as he performed The Achaeans’ Journey Home (νόστος) from Troy: all the blows Athena doomed them to endure.
— Odyssey I:374-377
As the glory of Achilles is conveyed through the medium of song, so is the homecoming of Odysseus conveyed through the medium of song. But in both cases, the songs are not merely means for conveying the story after the fact: they are, in the past’s present, means for the Hero and the Man to achieve their own ends.
In Book 9 of the Iliad, we see Achilles “singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes” (Iliad IX:228). This song augments memory, and reciting the song reminds the singer and the audience of the subject of the song. By reciting the songs of Heroism, Achilles reinforces his own Heroic motivation. Insofar as κλέος refers also to “songs that convey glory” in addition to the glory itself, we might therefore come to understand κλέος in another way: a song which motivates the listener toward Heroic glory.
What then is the νόστος, the song about homecoming, as it relates to Odysseus himself?
Odysseus’ most prized possession is his unique νόος, which is not merely “mind,” but in this case, a mental faculty and skill which is strengthened by connection. But if songs of glory encourage and facilitate the pursuit of glory for the Hero, then we might predict that songs of homecoming encourage and facilitate mental connection and homecoming for Man.
Insofar as νόος facilitates νόστος by way of connection, then νόος is—at least in part—an ability to retain focus in the face of all variety of distractions. This mental faculty is metaphorically illustrated in all variety of ways, but some are so clear that they border on breaking the mode of metaphor and into explicit parable. Such is the case with the Sirens in book 12, whose allure is thwarted with beeswax in the ears of his crew, and by Odysseus having himself physically restrained to the mast of his ship. These preparations are indicators of Odysseus’ νόος, steps taken to maintain memory of home so that the Man may return home.
But perhaps the greatest facilitating tool of νόος is νόστος—the song about homecoming.
Nagy tells us that Homer’s prayer to the Muses—those goddesses of music appealed to in those critical first lines of each epic—grant the rhapsodist with perfect memory:
What he quotes from the spoken words of heroes and even of gods is exactly what the Muses heard. The Narrator’s mind is supposed to see and hear what the Muses saw and heard. His mind has the power of total recall.
The music is, in fact, a medium of memory, in the way that pneumonic devices serve as memory augmentation tools today. Words are easier to remember when set to music. In order to recall something as complicated and detailed as—for instance—the catalogue of ships we find in Book 2 of the Iliad, the speaker would have to use a device like song in order to remember with precision.
Extrapolating from Homer’s own use of song as an aid to memory, would we not assume that Odysseus himself utilizes song (νόστος) to fortify his mind (νόος) in order to achieve his homecoming (νόστος)?
There is at least one possible example of this in the Odyssey: while among the Phoecians, the blind bard Demodocus sings of the events of Troy, and Odysseus weeps when he is made to remember it all… just as Achilles wept when Priam’s lamenting appeal made him remember his own father.
In Buddhist meditation, concentration is kept on the breath, not with the intention of never losing focus, but as a means of practicing returning one’s focus to the breath after it is lost. Losing focus is not failure, but an opportunity to practice returning one’s attention to the breath.
Returning momentarily North, I am reminded of the two ravens, Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory,” or “mind”) that fly out each day, but then return to Odin each night. It is this return, or “recall,” that defines memory. Indeed, “music,” the “Muses,” “Muninn,” and Athena’s two forms in the Odyssey—“Mentes” and “Mentor”—all share the same Proto-Indo-European root *men-, which meant “to think.”
The νόστος “return” of Homer seems to be a return of this kind: augmenting one’s memory by reminder in the form of song. The Man faces distractions, and can address them, adapting himself in order to overcome them, but never losing his mental ability to return his focus back again. He has the mental power (νόος) to return his attention to what is important, to not be distracted and to forget home: by this power, he is able to see clearly, and by sight, return home.
 Henceforth referred to with a lower-case h, to distinguish it from the archetypal Heroism this book is using elsewhere.
Chapter 11. Heroism as the Savior of Man
The Man is defined by his ability to return—physically and mentally. Yet in the constraints of a world governed by higher forces beyond one’s control, the Man may find himself in a world where his home is doomed, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.
Such is the case with the greatest archetypal Man in the Iliad, who is not Odysseus but Hector—the Trojan warrior-prince.
The story of the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ return and transformation by way of his return. But in the Iliad, Hector is already at home—initiated into his society sufficiently that he is respected by all within, and is the greatest warrior in all of Troy. We can see him depicted as a fully-integrated Man through the lens of Joseph Campbell, who describes the man at the end of the “Hero’s Journey” as the “master of two worlds:”
Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by the virtue of the other—is the talent of the master.
Hector departs the city of Troy for the last time in Book VI of the Iliad, being sure to say goodbye to his wife Andromache and his son Astyanax. In this meeting, Andromache begs Hector to stay within the walls, and not to go out and meet the Greeks on the field of battle. Hector’s reply is not purely practical but is not entirely heroic either – it is a blend of the two. Hector says that he shares his wife’s concerns, but that he has been raised not to be a coward, and that he cannot abandon this spirit of courage. Further, he says that there is a possibility that the city is taken, and after contemplating what would happen, declares that he would rather be dead than alive to witness that reality:
And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing: “All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman. But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from the battle now, a coward. Nor does the spirit urge me on that way. I’ve learned it all too well. To stand up bravely, always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers, winning my father great glory, glory for myself. For in my heart and soul I also know this well: the day will come when sacred Troy must die, Priam must die and all his people with him, Priam who hurls the strong ash spear… Even so, it is less the pain of the Trojans still to come that weighs me down, not even of Hecuba herself or King Priam, or the thought that my own brothers in all their numbers, all their gallant courage, may tumble in the dust, crushed by enemies—That is nothing, nothing beside your agony when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears, wrenching away your day of light and freedom! Then far off in the land of Argos you must live, laboring at a loom, at another woman’s beck and call, fetching water at some spring, Messeis or Hyperia, resisting it all the way—the rough yoke of necessity at your neck. And a man may say, who sees you streaming tears, ‘There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter they could field, those stallion-breaking Trojans, long ago when men fought for Troy.’ So he will say and fresh grief will swell your heart once more, widowed, robbed of the one man strong enough to fight off your day of slavery. No, no, let the earth come piling over my dead body before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away.”
— Iliad VI:521-555
Hector declares his desire for glory, which is a Heroic motivation. But he also declares his identification with his father, even the connection between his own actions and his father’s glory. This is motivation we would expect from an archetypal Man. In his speech, he references the social threat of shame for cowardice, which he says runs counter to his own spirit. He is the most dangerous warrior in Troy, and yet he laughs when his helmet scares his son, takes it off to hold him one last time, and prays that his son be remembered as a better man than his father. This demonstrates the completion of his initiation as a Man—his spirit is connected to the spirit of his city and his people, and his status as a respected and loved prince reflects the success of this initiation as a Man.
Yet in this moment, Hector the Man is contemplating the possibility of his home being destroyed. If there is no “home” to return to, what then can the Man do?
When Hector decides to go out and fight, he goes out knowing that his own days are numbered, much like those of Troy itself. Like Achilles, he chooses death. He—a man—chooses the path of the Hero.
The name “Hector” comes from the verb ἔχειν “héchein” (PIE root *seĝh-) meaning “to hold.” Hector is the man who keeps everything together. He compels his soldiers to hold the line, and he, in his own courage, is the sort of man who will “hold fast.” But as a Man, he is pitted against powers far greater than his own. The home he is trying to hold together cannot stand. At the very least, its survival is beyond his control. Connection with others and self-knowledge can only do so much.
The Man is not a God. He lives in a world influenced by Gods and forces even more powerful than the Gods. He is not impotent, but his strength and knowledge are limited. Sometimes, his best is not enough.
If the purpose of the man is earthly strength through mental connection, then what is the purpose of the Man who realizes he is doomed?
In the process of becoming an integrated and archetypal Man, the young man passes through Heroic initiation. Just as the Man returns home, the initiated Man has the power to return to that Heroic mindset as well. It is in this return that Heroism redeems even the doomed man. The possibility of embodying the highest ideals of one’s ethos grants the possibility of immortality and meaningful existence even after death. Unlike the naïve Hero, the Man understands that the nature of this immortality will likely not be as he imagines it, and its existence is uncertain at best. But his initiation, and his connection with the cult into which he was initiated, prohibits him from the skeptical cynicism which would reject the possibility of continued existence in some form as impossible.
When Hector speaks of standing up bravely and always fighting in the front ranks, he is not simply talking about maintaining utilitarian reputation, of the kind that would make enemies think twice before attacking. In the face of extinction, that kind of reputation irrelevant. Rather, he is talking about maintaining a certain spirit for its own sake.
Hector died asking that his body be returned for a proper burial. While his final words were a threat, his request for respect was sworn not on his own life, but on the life of the very man trying to kill him, as if he hoped that Achilles might live through the ordeal:
Struggling for breath, Hector, his helmet flashing, said, “I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents—don’t let the dogs devour me by the Aregive ships! Wait, take the princely ransom of bronze and gold, the gifts my father and noble mother will give you—but give my body to friends to carry home again, so Trojan men and Trojan women can do me honor with fitting rites of fire once I am dead.”
— Iliad XXII:398-405
The visual juxtaposition between Hector’s desired death and the death of Heroes portrayed in the opening lines of the poem conveys a care and thoughtfulness which separates him from the extremes that define the archetypal Hero:
…great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds…
— Iliad I:4-5
But this care does not negate the Heroic motivation of his choice. In the face of a realistic impossibility, Hector the Man made the idealistic choice of the Hero.
Though his city was destroyed and his son thrown from the ramparts, it might still be said that Hector lives on. He survives in the story of the Iliad, and was venerated as an icon of chivalry for thousands of years after his death. He is included among the “Nine Worthies,” those who embody the spirit which European knights aspired to emulate. His legend was such that Durendal, the sword of the famous French paladin Roland (8th century AD), was rumored to have once belonged to Hector.
Though Hector died sometime in the 12th century BC, his name and spirit have carried on in a fashion, perhaps creating the very concept of the European knight. His stories certainly influenced the second of the “Nine Worthies”: Alexander the Great kept a copy of the Iliad with him at all times, and Julius Caesar’s Rome claims mythic descent from the survivors of Troy itself.
Hector was a Man. But faced with a threat to the existential purpose and identity of the Man, he was able to return to his Heroic identity. In this return, he achieved immortality of a kind. But more importantly, he achieved excellence in the moment, of which immortality was only the proof and not the aim.
Hector was the master of two worlds – the world of the Hero and also of the Man. While his aim was earthly prosperity and connection with his family and city, he was able to act and to live Heroically even when his aims as a Man were denied him.
The naïve Heroism of adolescence is a means of integration with the tribe and transformation of the boy into the Man. But Heroism is more than the naïve conceptions of adolescents. It is not cast off when one becomes a Man, but remains as an influence on the spirit of the Man. And in this capacity as a source of that spirit, Heroism waits as salvation for the upright Man in the face of doom.
 Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
 Iliad VI:556-574
 There is some doubt as to whether or not the Trojans were actually a Proto-Indo-European people or not. Denys Page hypothesizes that Hector may have been a Greek interpretation of a foreign name they did not accurately interpret, but from the perspective of mythic epic, that kind of detail is relevant than the meaning of the character conveyed by the story, which may be understood even by a completely fictitious name.
Chapter 12. The Masculine Legacy of Homer
To summarize what has been argued so far: the Iliad presents an archetype known as the Hero, who seeks immortality through individuation and extremity, memorable enough to be immortalized in glorious song. The prototypical Hero is Achilles. But this Heroic aim is naïve, depending upon language which cannot actually convey this immortality with integrity unless the recipients of the language are mentally connected with the Hero and also the singer. But this tradition uses Heroism – specifically, connection with dead Heroes of the past – to create Men out of would-be Heroes. The archetype of the Man is presented in the Odyssey, especially in the character of Odysseus. The Man is defined by his mental competence and skill, which is a byproduct of his mental connection with others. This mental connection is achieved when young men pass through a ritual reenactment of values distilled from the lives and actions of Heroes of the past who embodied the spirit of their culture. Through this connection with Heroes, the young man becomes connected with society itself. Heroes are those young men who go out, and who—because of their extreme virtue—don’t make it home. Men are those who—on the backs of Heroes—have the focus and skill to return home… and who then, once home, revive Heroes through songs of their glory.
These connected Men have the ability to maintain, revive, or even create legacies, the reality of what was only dimly glimpsed and conceptualized by the individualistic Hero. This legacy lives in the real world, not in the imaginary world of language, and instead uses language in all of its forms to disguise and protect this living legacy… yet the skillful man can do so even while transmitting the tools of continued life to those near and dear to him.
This argument paints a symbiotic picture of the Iliad and the Odyssey as a pair. Together, they depict a singular process of transformation from the youthful ideal of the Hero to the more mature ideal of the Man—each antagonistic towards the other, but in the end, mutually necessary, for each other and for the sustenance of their world.
Throughout all of time, and even before the speciation of humans, males have been expected to fight, to sacrifice themselves for the protection of their group. They have been expected to understand their group—its needs and nature—in order to better facilitate its prosperity. And as these primordial tribes of humans became more complex, they have been expected to demonstrate loyalty; to return to their people.
Homer did not invent these expectations. What he did was distill them, depict them with a unique set of characters that described these masculine expectations in a manner that either appealed to or created Western taste – morally and artistically. But most importantly, he imparted these expectations with existential significance that reached beyond the biological imperatives served by them. Heroism is no longer merely about protecting others: it is now protecting one’s society, perhaps by protecting the values of that society, and achieving immortality. The concept of Heroism has transcended its functional and social origins. But then it is re-grounded by its archetypal opposite, which has similarly transcended its origin. Being a Man is no longer merely about providing and coming home: it is now about “returning home” in the mystical sense, to one’s own mind and inner nature. Layers of meaning are folded into the older, simpler role, layers which strengthen and deepen our attachment to it, but only insofar as we remain connected with the mind of the speaker—Homer.
But from the Roman times forward, our connection with Homer – the artist who dreamed us into existence – has dwindled and distorted. Homer was replaced with Virgil, a Romanized repurposing of Homer, and all the traditional scholarship surrounding the Mythological and Ritual traditions inherited from the Homeric world were abandoned and destroyed. The Library of Alexandria – where Homeric scholarship soared to heights never seen before or since – became neglected and dwindled to disrepair. Its heir, the Serapeum of Alexandria, was destroyed by a new religious cult, one whose influence continued to grow and expand in tandem with the decline of Homer.
Homer did not die. The ripples of his work are felt even by those who have never heard the name “Homer” before, like a ship rising and falling on waves whose origins it knows not. Nevertheless our disconnection from Homer has led to a fracturing of our understanding of his work. This is what we must assume to be the case – what we may assume that Homer would have believed to be true – if the interpretation of Homer’s use of language thus far is correct. Our disconnection will make it harder to connect with and understand Homer, and, by extension, to understand ourselves.
Perhaps a perfect connection is not possible. But given our history, perfect separation is equally impossible. And along the continuum between total alienation and total unity, it is clearly possible to move from the former in the direction of the latter.
In Part II, we will explore our collective separation from the mind of Homer—of our perceived separation between the two halves of the mind of Homer itself.
Chapter 13. The Ascendance of Logos: Socrates
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
— Alfred North Whitehead
For the cutting of Homer in two, and for the elevation of the Iliad over and above the Odyssey, we have Plato to thank.
The case may still need to be made that the Iliad and the Odyssey have in fact been separated and judged against each other in the mind of our collective culture. I hope to prove this case definitively over the next several chapters.
To begin with, I present the following quote from Paul Cartledge, A.G. Levantis professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge:
Let’s say I’ve got two hours with you, and I’m going to tell you the story of the duel between Hector and Achilles. Fine! How do you get from that to the Iliad? which is a selection from lots and lots of stories added together with a theme. And it starts out, the theme is announced in the very first line: Menin, the anger of Achilles. Now that’s brilliant! That’s why it doesn’t end with the siege of Troy, because Achilles’ anger is assuaged — as Adam poetically, brilliantly puts it — by the reconciliation scene with Priam. The conquest of Troy is for him secondary. But who thought of that? I think it takes an individual genius.
The travels of Odysseus are much easier for a lesser intellect to conjure up, because it’s one damn thing after another. It’s a guy traveling from A to B via C, D, E, F, G, and having extraordinary adventures. Now that doesn’t take so much of a brain to think up.
Even as an off-the-cuff remark, it is hard to overstate how dramatically backwards such an interpretation is. It is the Iliad, in fact, which is a linear sequence of events; the Odyssey begins roughly in the middle, jumps backwards and tells the tale forward again, and only then proceeds forward to its conclusion. The Odyssey is also thematically summarized by the first word, and is not only more intellectually developed and complex than the Iliad, but happens to be literally about the intellect (νόος).
We need not pick on a particular individual. Cartledge himself is an excellent scholar, especially in the study of Ancient Sparta. But such a bewildering misunderstanding of Homer, coming from such an eminent Greek historian, speaks to the degree to which Homer has been divided, and to which the Iliad has been elevated among academics and scholars, indeed, by our religious and cultural values in general. This division of Homer, and the elevation of his first epic over his second is not recent, but goes back a long way – almost back to the days of Homer himself.
To be precise, it begins with Plato’s Socrates.
In Socrates, we see a conception of morality and goodness never seen before: in order to be good, something must be known. To Socrates, ignorance was not ideal, but knowledge of one’s own ignorance was superior to total ignorance, which would be ignorance of one’s own ignorance.
But why would Socrates strive for knowledge in this way?
In short: Socrates was a Hero.
We ordinarily think of Heroes as adolescent young men, warriors in their youth, for this is the phase of life suited to the Heroic view. But Socrates was old, and by all accounts ugly; how can this old philosopher be a Hero?
To begin with, we may observe that Socrates seemed to believe himself to be a Hero by comparing himself to Achilles during his trial:
Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when his goddess mother said to him, in his eagerness to slay Hector, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself – “Fate,” as she said, “waits upon you next after Hector”; he, hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonor, and not to avenge his friend. “Let me die next,” he replies, “and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a scorn and a burden of the earth.”
Socrates is making the case that it is better to die with integrity and virtue than it is to live dishonorably. But this opinion is not merely aesthetic; it is informed by a Heroic idealism which holds that death is not the end. This belief is hedged with Socratic skepticism, but comes through clearly in Socrates’ hope that he might continue to carry conversing and speaking after death. This is made explicit later on in the Apology, after his conviction and sentencing, when he references Homer by name, as well as the Homeric characters Ajax, Agamemnon and Odysseus:
But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old, who have suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs. Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.
What we see here is a reiteration and distillation of Heroic idealism—the belief that words and ideas can be more real than the matter which they describe, and that through this, immortality through the spoken word is possible. This belief is derived from Homer, but carry the distinctive approach to language conveyed in the Iliad, and not the Odyssey.
Odysseus, in fact, is grouped in with King Agamemnon (“the leader of the great Trojan expedition”) and Sisyphus. Agamemnon was famous for killing his own daughter, Iphigenia, and for his poor judgment during the siege of Troy. Sisyphus was a trickster, who was ultimately punished by Zeus for the crime of hubris, believing himself to be cleverer than the gods themselves, and sentenced to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill. By grouping Odysseus in with these two, rather than with the Heroic Palamedes and Ajax, Socrates is characterizing Odysseus as an undesirable model to follow, even if he would nevertheless be an interesting object for questioning.
This negative interpretation of Odysseus is compatible with the Iliad, but is not compatible with the Odyssey, where Odysseus is not only successful in achieving his return, but in which Achilles states his regret in dying prematurely. This is a view which Socrates rejects outright.
Instead, Socrates believes that death is not such a bad thing because there will be life after death. Further, he believed that the nature of this life will be determined by how one lived during his earthly life. As with Homeric Heroes of the Iliad, immortality as envisioned by Socrates is accomplished through the word, but Socrates cuts out the middle-man of warfare and athletic competition—the action that once characterized Heroism. Instead, he holds philosophy to be the best way of life in preparation for immortality—an immortality which Socrates is less hesitant about in Phaedo than in Apology:
Therefore the soul, Cebes, is most certainly deathless and indestructible and our souls will really dwell in the underworld.
Philosophy cuts straight to the language, the medium through which Heroes of the past were always immortalized. For language to have immortalizing power, it had to be true, and it is this question of truth that dominated all of Socrates’ efforts.
Homeric Heroes may have given oaths and speeches, but ultimately it was the song of the bard which granted them the immortality they sought. No bard was going to sing an epic for a wandering old man asking questions, but Socrates had an alternative medium to song: λόγος (logos) the “argument.”
Variously translated as “word,” “plea,” “speech,” “reason,” or even “discourse,” λόγος was the spirit of Socrates conceptualized. We can see the root of this word used in the Apology:
οὗτοι μὲν οὖν, ὥσπερ ἐγὼ λέγω, ἤ τι ἢ οὐδὲν ἀληθὲς εἰρήκασιν, ὑμεῖς δέ μου ἀκούσεσθε πᾶσαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν
So they, as I say, have said little or nothing true, while from me you will hear the whole truth
λόγος derives from λέγω, meaning to speak or say—a word which also gave us “lexis” (word) and “lexicon.” All of these are derived from the Proto-Indo-European *leg-, meaning “to gather” or “to choose.” For Socrates, λόγος is a certain kind of speech that corresponds with knowledge.
We see this correspondence imperfectly captured in the term ἀληθὲια (aletheia), which is often translated as “truth,” but more precisely means “unconcealed.” When Socrates says that he speaks ἀληθὲια, he is claiming that his speech is direct and open, that it conceals no tricks or traps, but is direct. As we saw in Chapter 7, it is assumed that such direct speech corresponds with truth:
In the Iliad, dikē means straightforwardness, both in judgment and in speech. Straightforward judgment is associated with Justice, while straightforward speech is associated with Truth.
But the truth described here is not “truth” as in the veracity of a statement, but Truth, as in the idea of objectivity and reality itself.
It is this latter concept of Truth with which λόγος is associated. Argumentation is a means for ascertaining the truth of a claim, but as a way of life and as an aesthetic, Socrates valued λόγος as a means towards this higher ideal. We see this Truth depicted in Plato’s allegory of the cave (Book VII of The Republic), wherein the Truth is depicted as the light of the sun, while the reality we experience in our day-to-day lives is described as being like shadows of puppets cast by flickering firelight. The Truth is an entirely different world, set apart from the world we experience, one that is more real than reality. This is the higher meaning of λόγος,, and the significance of λόγος to Socrates, the Hero who set Heroism against, rather than symbiotic with, the physical ideal of the Man.
Socrates’ life and work established a new aesthetic, one that represented the separation of the ideal of the Hero from the ideal of the Man, and which pursued the ideal of the Hero as expressed in Homer at the expense of the Man. This aesthetic was described by Friedrich Nietzsche as “aesthetic Socratism,” wherein knowledge is not a tool to pursue other good ends, but is the good end in and of itself:
Accordingly, if we have perceived this much, that Euripides did not succeed in establishing the drama exclusively on the Apollonian, but that rather his non-Dionysian inclinations deviated into a naturalistic and inartistic tendency, we shall now be able to approach nearer to the character of æsthetic Socratism, the supreme law of which reads about as follows: “to be beautiful everything must be intelligible,” as the parallel to the Socratic proposition, “only the knowing is one virtuous.”
This aesthetic is achieved in life through Σωκρατικὸς λόγος: “Socratic dialogue.” This dialogue brings about knowledge, and the value of this knowledge is not instrumental, but Heroic: it carries with in the seeds of immortality, in dialogue (λόγος) as once in song (κλέος).
 Hay Festival, “Why Homer Matters.” 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhXTEETdkmk
 Translation by Thomas G. West.
 Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Chapter 14. The Ascendance of Aletheia: Jesus
If Socrates took the first step in cutting apart Homer and elevating the Hero as superior to the Man, then the person who solidified that separation in a trans-millennial, culture-defining leap was not a Greek at all, but a Jewish religious leader who emerged about 400 years after the death of Socrates (who himself appeared about 400 years after Homer). This Jewish religious leader we know as Jesus of Nazareth.
The religious tradition from which Jesus emerged was not Homeric, but Hebrew. The Old Testament had heroes, but not archetypal Heroes of the Homeric archetype, who longed for personal immortality through heroic action. The Biblical warriors like Joshua, Samson, and David were not like Achilles in their motivation. Immortality was not a driving desire, but moral righteousness in the eyes of their God. Achilles sought immortal glory, and asked the Gods for aid. Odysseus sought to return home, and asked the Gods for aid. The Hebrews of the Old Testament asked what God wanted; to even begin with their own desires was, in their view, a misstep.
But the view of the Old Testament was fundamentally a realistic one, and not an idealistic one. God gave and took away, giving and taking material in the physical world, and men thrived or perished physically. Death was burial in the ground: nothing more. The idea of Heroic immortalization, and Heroic idealism, was foreign:
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
— Ecclesiastes 1:11
Not so with Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was not merely a teacher of Heroism: he was, himself, perhaps the most perfect distillation of the Homeric Hero ever.
At first glance, this is obvious on its face. If the goal of the Hero is to be remembered through word (and through song), then Jesus is the most successful Hero by metric of memory. No one in human history is more famous. There is no single person in history who even comes close to Jesus when it comes to the volume of music written in his honor. By metric of the aim of the Hero, Jesus is already head and shoulders above the rest.
But this success is not incidental, somehow apart from the other patterns that defined Heroism in the time of Homer. Jesus signifies a Homeric shift, a Heroic movement that builds upon the Iliad and aesthetic Socratism. This connection can be traced to particular patterns in symbolism shared by the Iliad and the story of Jesus in the Gospels. I will highlight three of these critical connections, and then explain a fourth connection which pertains to the language of Truth which unites Jesus with Homeric Heroism.
First, Heroes of old were usually held to be of divine lineage. Achilles, the ultimate Hero of the Iliad, was a son of the sea-goddess Thetis. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is repeatedly referred to as the Son of God:
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
— Matthew 16:16-17
Being the son of a God is a classical sign of a Hero, so Jesus – being called the Son of God – is classically qualified to be a Hero.
Second, the significance of the tomb of Jesus corresponds with the significance of the tomb of the Hero that we find in the Iliad. As mentioned in Chapter 9, the tomb of the Hero serves simultaneously as a goal and as a sign of past Heroes. Nagy argues that this connection applies even more broadly:
The use of the word sēma here is most suggestive: as we have seen in Hour 7, with reference to the instructions given by Nestor to Antilokhos, this word sēma in Homeric diction signals not only the tomb of a cult hero (as in XXIII 331) but also a sign (as in XXIII 326) that signals the transcendent meaning of that tomb to those who are qualified to understand the mystical language of hero cult.
The meaning of the sign of the Hero – the tomb – is the immortality offered by Heroism.
In Christianity, this symbolism is no longer mystical and confined to those initiated into particular hero cults, but is made explicit. Jesus promises eternal life, and his empty tomb—with the giant stone rolled away—is the sign of the truth of the eternal life he promises. This eternal life is explicitly linked with the word (λόγος) by the medium of truth (ἀληθὲια):
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth [ἀλήθειαν] comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
— John 3:16-21
Truth is the source of life because to the Hero, the word is the medium of life after death, and the word cannot guarantee this life unless it is true. Truth and light are connected, as are light and life. This connection is alluded to in both of Homer’s epics, where the sun deities Apollo and Helios play a determining role in the fate of the protagonists. Odysseus’ shipmates do not respect the cattle of the Sun, and so they are metaphorically blinded, and their life is wiped away. Agamemnon offends Apollo, and so Apollo casts a plague upon the Achaeans, and it is this plague which creates the rift in the Achaean army. Light and truth are associated in Homer, and truth is a necessary vehicle for Heroic immortality. In this way, Jesus’ promise of immortal life is fundamentally Heroic in nature, and the empty tomb of Jesus is the sign of this immortality, just as the sign of the Hero in the Iliad is a sign of Heroic immortality in poetry like that of the Iliad itself.
Third, and finally to make this point, the role of Jesus as “savior” corresponds with the most ancient meaning of the Hero as protector and savior, as well as the Homeric, more mystical meaning of “savior” as one who can bring others back from death.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that such concepts of savior and salvation are not borrowings from Christian discourse. The fact is, Christian discourse inherited the words sōzein, ‘save’, and sōtēr, ‘savior’, from pre-Chrisstian phases of the Greek language.
Achilles is a savior in the literal sense for protecting the Achaeans against the Trojans when the Trojans were approaching the ships. But Achilles was also a savior in this more mystical sense of showing a path to immortality, modeling the Heroic life. The proof of this immortality was the poem itself which conveyed the story of Achilles. The antecedents of this sort of immortality existed in Bronze-Age hero cults, where the body of a Hero was believed to possess powers of fertility and fortune to those who possessed the remnants—thus, the Hero could be a “savior” as a source of health, wealth, and life even in death.
Jesus also offered salvation and immortal life, through mystical connection with himself or signs of himself, including his name alone. But this salvation was no longer literal: Jesus was not fighting off soldiers on the battlefield. Rather, he saves the souls of those who believe in him. He offers spiritual (zoë) life.
As the concept of Truth is both a distillation of the quality of something being true, while also being something separate from true-ness in its idealization, we can think of the Christian concept of the “soul” as similarly related to the physical, living body. The soul is essentially the idea of a person, which means that in philosophical language, the soul is an individual person’s ideal. This philosophical ideal of a person is a natural fit for immortalization through the medium of the word.
But Jesus progresses this Heroic idealism one step further. Homer used the medium of the word to immortalize Heroes, and Socrates idealized the medium of the word to pursue immortality for himself. But Jesus simply identified as the word, which was itself immortal:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word
— John 1:1
This is not just the opinion of the Apostle John, but the words of Jesus himself:
Λέγει αὐτῷ ‹ὁ› Ἰησοῦς Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή· οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν Πατέρα εἰ μὴ δι’ ἐμοῦ.
Jesus said to him “I am the way and the Truth and the life. No one comes to the Father if not by me.”
— John 14:6
Here we see Jesus use this term ἀλήθεια (aletheia), which translates not as “word,” but as “truth”. It is also this term that Jesus uses before Pilate, both to describe the nature of his mission and the identity of his followers:
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth [ἀληθείᾳ]. Everyone on the side of truth [ἀληθείας] listens to me.”
“What is truth [ἀλήθεια]?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
— John 18:33-38
By describing his purpose in terms of this concept of ἀληθείᾳ, Jesus is idealizing the concept of truth. His kingdom is not of this world. It is a higher world of the Word, and the immortal word – as discussed in Chapter 6 – must be true. But now “true” as a quality is no longer the focus: it is the idea of the true word – the Truth – that is packed into this Greek word ἀληθείᾳ. This word defines the nature, mission, and promise of Jesus. Because Jesus built upon Homeric Heroism so perfectly and advanced the metaphysics of Heroic Idealism to its logical endpoint, Jesus lived the life of a Hero (the Son of a divinity), died the painful death of a Hero, and received the verbal immortality awarded to Heroes, beyond any other Hero in history.
For this reason, it makes sense to think of Jesus as the ultimate end-point of Iliadic Heroism. It seems probable that it is because of this relation, and not merely incidental to it, that Jesus went on to be the most influential person in the West since Homer.
But at the same time, and for the same reasons, Jesus represents the furthest a man can depart from the archetype of the Homeric Man.
 ἀλήθεια is derived from the Proto-Indo-European *leh2-, meaning “to hide.” This became the basis for the Greek λήθω, “I escape notice,” “I am hidden.” Affixed with the negating a-, the term meant exposing to sight, especially by removing from hiding.
Chapter 15. Ecce Homo? Jesus and the Archetype of the Man
Christian theology strongly emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. This does not inherently imply that he fulfills the Homeric archetype of the Man that we see in Odysseus, but it is nevertheless a potential association worth addressing, since the Hero is in many ways the human seemingly on a trajectory towards Godhood. If Jesus is both God and Man, it implies a symmetry which we might expect to see in relation to the twin Homeric archetypes of the Hero and the Man. This seems especially important, given how perfectly Jesus embodies and even expands upon the ideal of the Hero.
To begin with, there are four powerful symbolic similarities between Jesus and Odysseus, all of which exist in the stories of their respective lives.
First, there is a meandering path that both Jesus and Odysseus follow. Odysseus recounts his various journeys to the Phoecians after being rescued by Nausicaa, in the following order:
- Cicones’ stronghold
- Land of the Lotus-eaters
- Polyphemus’ cave
- Land of the Laestrygonians
- Aeolian Island
- Circe’s Island
- Charybdis and Scylla
- Island of the Cattle of the Sun
These are the stories that Odysseus recounted to Alcinous and the Phoecians. Across the entire Odyssey, we could include Calypso’s island where he is introduced, his arrival on the coast of the Phoecians, and his arrival home in Ithaca.
Catholics venerate what is known as the “stations of the cross,” a fourteen-part sequence used to break down the story of Jesus’ death. It goes as follows:
- Garden of Gethsemane
- Betrayal of Judas
- Condemned by Sanhedrin
- Peter’s Denial
- Pilate’s Judgment
- Crown of Thorns
- Carrying the Cross
- Simon Assists Jesus
- Women of Jerusalem
- The Good Thief
- Mary and the Disciple
- Death on the Cross
- Placement in Tomb
The geographic breadth of this meandering does not compare to Odysseus, but that is arguably less comparable than the variety of suffering imposed by this sequence. It is in this variety that the two seem more comparable.
There is also a meandering journey implied in Jesus’ journey into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), where Jesus – like Odysseus – is invited to forget his home and his purpose.
Second, Jesus descends into Hell after his crucifixion, and then comes back from the dead after three days. In a similar fashion, Odysseus descends into the land of the dead and returns again.
Finally, Odysseus returns to Ithaca and slays the suitors in a bloodbath. After effortlessly stringing his bow, passing the axe-test, and then promptly slaying Antinous, the other suitors thought the stranger had made a mistake:
“Stranger, shooting at men will cost your life!”
“You’ll never escape your own headlong death!”
“You killed the best in Ithaca—our fine prince!”
“Vultures will eat your corpse!”
Groping, frantic—each one persuading himself that the guest had killed the man by chance. Poor fools, blind to the fact that all their necks were in the noose, their doom sealed. With a dark look, the wily fighter Odysseus shouted back, “You dogs! You never imagined I’d return from Troy—so cocksure that you bled my house to death, ravished my serving-women—wooed my wife behind my back while I was still alive! No fear of the gods who rule the skies up there, no fear that men’s revenge might arrive someday—now all your necks are in the noose—your doom is sealed!”
— Odyssey XXII:27-42
Odysseus is later described like a bloody lion:
…splattered with bloody filth like a lion that’s devoured some ox of the field and lopes home, covered with blood, his chest streaked, both jaws glistening, dripping red—a sight to strike terror. So Odysseus looked now…
— Odyssey XXII:427-430
This is not a picture we are used to associating with Jesus. Yet this is exactly the kind of Jesus we see in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus returns in a more ferocious form:
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
— Revelation 1:12-18
Later, in Revelation 5, Jesus is described as the “Lion of Judah.” This description is later matched with bloodshed of unparalleled scale:
I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested.
Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.
— Revelation 14:14-20
Finally, the Homeric Hero derives his power from connection, especially connection with family. Jesus, though he is presumed to be immensely powerful, always defers to his Heavenly Father. His absolute trust and relentless focus upon his mission corresponds with Odysseus’ remembrance of home, which permits him to return home.
As a wandering man who descends into the underworld and returns victorious, connected with home and family, there is certainly grounds for comparison between Jesus and the Homeric Man.
Nevertheless, the comparisons ultimately come apart because of the dramatically different ideas about the nature of the world inherent in the archetypes of the Hero and the Man. The viewpoint of the Man is realistic. He dives into transcendent realms of ideas for whatever value they may provide to him, but then returns home to reality, in the physical world. The Hero does not return in this way; he is transformed from something of flesh into something of spirit, and perceives the world differently—in terms of this spirit:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
— John 3:3-6
Jesus is not connected with his earthly father—Joseph—who is not even considered to be Jesus’ “real” father. Whether this is because of infidelity, or because Jesus was born from birth into the spirit, and not into the flesh, and was thus disconnected from Joseph at birth, is a question for theologians. But in either case, Jesus’ whole ministry centered around connection to the Heavenly Father, who is the Ideal Father—the idea of “father” instead of the real person.
This is idealistic worldview of the naïve Hero, preferring the ideal concept of the thing to the thing as it exists. This is also the worldview of Jesus.
Whereas Achilles is promised undying glory, Odysseus is promised a sweet and painless death in his old age. These differing desired end-points illustrate the divergence in worldviews inherent in the Homeric archetypes, and despite symbolic similarities to Odysseus, Jesus falls clearly and unambiguously into the archetype of the Hero.
The dissimilarities extend beyond eschatology and metaphysics. Most importantly, Odysseus is a trickster and sometimes deceptive, while Jesus is unwaveringly honest, even truth itself. This is also a key difference between Odysseus and Achilles, and a similarity between Achilles and Jesus. This relation to honesty further portrays the relation of Jesus to language itself, and the role that language plays in the Christian conception of immortality. The less rigorous adherence to truthful speech we see in the archetype of the Man does not convey malicious intent, but a different view of language—of how it works, and what it can do for human beings. The Man does not believe that immortality is possible through words, because the Man understands the arbitrary and contextual nature of language, and that language is an imitation of life, not the other way around. His speech reflects this belief. No man would identify as the Word, or as Truth itself. If the Man appears anywhere in the New Testament, it is most prominent in the man who questioned even his own ability to understand the language of those foreign to him:
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
— John 18:35
Pilate famously asked “and what is truth?” after Jesus claimed that everyone on the side of truth listened to him. This is firmly aligned with the worldview of the Homeric archetype of the Man, who does not disbelieve in the distinction between true and false as such, but disbelieves in the higher ideal of Truth which transcends the truth-quality of discreet statements. Pilate first attempts to have the Jews judge Jesus among themselves, but then announces that he sees no basis for a charge against the Nazarene. These actions convey an understanding of the contextuality of language and of law which conforms to the understanding of Man, and to which the Iliadic Hero has no answer other than to allude to the idea that an ultimate answer exists in concept, and to depict this idealization as an emblem in bright gold across his shield. To conclude, it is neither Herod nor Judas who is singled out for condemnation in Christianity. In the Apostle’s Creed, it is Pontius Pilate—and only Pontious Pilate: the archetype of the Man. Jesus before Pilate is a scene that depicts the clash between the archetype of the Man and the perfected archetype of the Hero separated from the Man in the form of Jesus. Jesus may be called fully human, and the “Son of Man,” but he is not a Man in the Homeric archetypal sense. If Socrates signaled the estrangement of the Hero from the Man from their previous symbiotic unity, Jesus heralded the completion of their divorce.
 Nagy describes at length the pattern of Heroes becoming equal to the Gods in Hour 5 of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.
Chapter 16. The Ascendance of History: Hegel
Socrates divorced Heroic idealism from the conventionally heroic behavior of the warrior, and took to the word directly. Jesus refined and perfected this new conception of Heroic idealism, personifying not merely the practice of argumentation (λόγος), but the idea of truth itself (ἀλήθεια). Though neither man was a “hero” in the ancient sense of physical protector, both were Heroic in the Homeric sense, and seemed to know it. Both pursued immortality through the word, died Heroic deaths, and have been remembered through the word ever since.
The idealism beneath Homeric Heroism grew legs and walked away from the role of the pre-Homeric Hero, and even the identity of a Homeric Hero like Achilles. What Homer built in the Iliad seemed to stand alone and apart from the men he had lifted up with this construct of Heroism. Though Jesus and Socrates both were heroes, the Heroic idealism of the Word made it possible that the Heroic tradition might carry on and progress without Heroes at all. At the very least, a Hero may not be required to take this idealism to its next logical step. The Hero was immortalized by way of idealism because the Hero was worthwhile. But after centuries of thought—after the separation of the idealistic Hero from the realistic Man—the idealism no longer needed the Hero. It had become the end, rather than a means.
This is how things appear to have transpired, through a German academic named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
By the late 18th century, a particularly German school of idealism had already emerged in the wake of Immanuel Kant. This school was, itself, deeply influenced by the philosophy of Christianity, and – as philosophy – by Socrates. But Hegel represented the culmination of this idealism.
Hegel […] undoubtedly summed up the entire philosophy of the logos.
— Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology
Hegel is most famous for his theory of dialectic, whereby a state of being (thesis) generates its own opposite (antithesis), which eventually merge into a new state of being (synthesis). This process is, in Hegel’s view, the logical procedure by which the world spirit proceeds towards self-knowledge.
It is also the process by which history progresses.
According to Hegel, history does not “repeat itself,” nor does it even “rhyme” as is so often claimed, because each historical moment is new and distinguished from others often by large details, and even small differences can make a world of difference. But we may still learn from history because by observing history, we may see a pattern in the process by which history progresses. Hegel’s philosophy of history is an attempt to describe this process.
In The Philosophy of History, Hegel gives us a view of his conception of this world-spirit, as well as its relation to Truth, Heroism, and the naivete of the Hero who works as an agent of this greater force:
In this sphere are presented those momentous collisions between existing, acknowledged duties, laws, and rights, and those contingencies which are adverse to this fixed system; which assail and even destroy its foundations and existence; whose tenor may nevertheless seem good — on the large scale advantageous — yes, even indispensable and necessary. These contingencies realize themselves in History: they involve a general principle of a different order from that on which depends the permanence of a people or a State. This principle is an essential phase in the development of the creating Idea, of Truth striving and urging towards (consciousness of) itself. Historical men — World-Historical Individuals — are those in whose aims such a general principle lies.
Such are all great historical men — whose own particular aims involve those large issues which are the will of the World-Spirit. They may be called Heroes, inasmuch as they have derived their purposes and their vocation, not from the calm, regular course of things, sanctioned by the existing order; but from a concealed fount — one which has not attained to phenomenal, present existence — from that inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface, which, impinging on the outer world as on a shell, bursts it in pieces, because it is another kernel than that which belonged to the shell in question. They are men, therefore, who appear to draw the impulse of their life from themselves; and whose deeds have produced a condition of things and a complex of historical relations which appear to be only their interest, and their work. Such individuals had no consciousness of the general Idea they were unfolding, while prosecuting those aims of theirs; on the contrary, they were practical, political men. But at the same time they were thinking men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time — what was ripe for development.
What we see here is a top-down description of two critical elements of Homeric Heroism: Truth in its idealized form, and the defining of the Hero as the suffering man whose naïve greatness moves the world forward. Hegel goes on to assure us that these great men do in fact suffer like their Homeric ancestors:
They attained no calm enjoyment; their whole life was labor and trouble; their whole nature was nought else but their master-passion. When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel. They die early, like Alexander; they are murdered, like Caesar; transported to St. Helena, like Napoleon.
But the Hegel’s most powerful advancement of Heroic idealism is his definition of “Spirit.” Both Socrates and Jesus repeatedly juxtaposed the flesh with the spirit in mystical language, each favoring the purity of the spirit over the transient and burdensome nature of the flesh. Hegel makes this case ontologically by defining matter as constrained by nature, and spirit as free by nature:
The nature of Spirit may be understood by a glance at its direct opposite — Matter. As the essence of Matter is Gravity, so, on the other hand, we may affirm that the substance, the essence of Spirit is Freedom. All will readily assent to the doctrine that Spirit, among other properties, is also endowed with Freedom; but philosophy teaches that all the qualities of Spirit exist only through Freedom; that all are but means for attaining Freedom; that all seek and produce this and this alone. It is a result of speculative Philosophy that Freedom is the sole truth of Spirit. Matter possesses gravity in virtue of its tendency toward a central point. It is essentially composite; consisting of parts that exclude each other. It seeks its Unity; and therefore exhibits itself as self-destructive, as verging toward its opposite. If it could attain this, it would be Matter no longer, it would have perished. It strives after the realization of its Idea; for in Unity it exists ideally. Spirit, on the contrary, may be defined as that which has its centre in itself. It has not a unity outside itself, but has already found it; it exists in and with itself. Matter has its essence out of itself; Spirit is self-contained existence.
When Hegel argues that the world spirit is attempting to become conscious of itself, this is – to him – synonymous with the pursuit of freedom. There appear to be echoes of Socrates and Jesus, who advocated that we know ourselves and be free like the invisible wind.
Hegel does not seek to condemn matter or flesh. His efforts are in fact to provide a theory which explains the unification of spirit and matter that we see in history, their interaction, and their ultimate end. This process is the “progress of history,” which is the generalized pursuit of freedom and self-consciousness—these two being definitionally identical. Heroes are those men who unknowingly push the world itself further towards this end, and all such pushing is necessarily painful, even violent, because self-knowledge only emerges from conflict.
This self-knowledge gained by studying the patterns of history requires looking back in history. This task is both the purpose and nature of Hegel’s The Philosophy of History, as well as what he advocates therein. By studying history, we act on behalf of the world spirit. We become conscious of our past, and of the process we are a part of. This process is moved forward by Heroes, and so Hegel tells us to turn our eyes on these Heroes in order to participate in the eternal spirit that seeks greater degrees of self-consciousness.
Where Hegel diverges from Socrates and Jesus in his argument for Heroic immortality through the word is only in the degree of individuality. The great historical men are individuals only insofar as they are naïve in their personal and political pursuits. Their greatness derives from their advancement of the process—in other words, of their unity with the greater whole of the world itself. This unity is immortal. So the Hero is immortal by virtue of his unity with the immortal whole that he has participated in, and by the historical attention he has, and will retain, as the world comes to perceive itself more clearly.
If there is any doubt as to the Homeric roots of Hegel’s idealism, they are removed by Hegel’s repeated references to the Iliad:
The highest form that floated before Greek imagination was Achilles, the Son of the Poet, the Homeric Youth of the Trojan War. Homer is the element in which the Greek world lives, as man does in the air. The Greek life is a truly youthful achievement. Achilles, the ideal youth, of poetry, commenced it: Alexander the Great, the ideal youth of reality, concluded it. Both appear in contest with Asia. Achilles, as the principal figure in the national expedition of the Greeks against Troy, does not stand at its head, but is subject to the Chief of Chiefs; he cannot be made the leader without becoming a fantastic untenable conception. On the contrary, the second youth, Alexander — the freest and finest individuality that the real world has ever produced — advances to the head of this youthful life that has now perfected itself, and accomplishes the revenge against Asia.
Homer gives a noble description of the games conducted by Achilles, in honor of Patroclus; but in all his poems there is no notice of statues of the gods, though he mentions the sanctuary at Dodona, and the treasure-house of Apollo at Delphi. The games in Homer consist in wrestling and boxing, running, horse and chariot races, throwing the discus or javelin, and archery. With these exercises are united dance and song, to express and form part of the enjoyment of social exhilaration, and which arts likewise blossomed into beauty. On the shield of Achilles, Hephaestus represents, among other things, how beautiful youths and maidens move as quickly “with well-taught feet,” as the potter turns his wheel. The multitude stand round enjoying the spectacle; the divine singer accompanies the song with the harp, and two chief dancers perform their evolutions in the centre of the circle. These games and aesthetic displays, with the pleasures and honors that accompanied them, were at the outset only private, originating in particular occasions; but in the sequel they became an affair of the nation, and were fixed for certain times at appointed places. Besides the Olympic games in the sacred district of Elis, there were also held the Isthmian, the Pythian, and Nemean, at other places.
Achilles, as remarked above, begins the Greek world, and his autotype Alexander concludes it: and these youths not only supply a picture of the fairest kind in their own persons, but at the same time afford a complete and perfect type of Hellenic existence.
Granted that the Indian Epopees might be placed on a level with the Homeric, on account of a number of those qualities of form — grandeur of invention and imaginative power, liveliness of images and emotions, and beauty of diction; yet the infinite difference of matter remains; consequently one of substantial importance and involving the interest of Reason, which is immediately concerned with the consciousness of the Idea of Freedom, and its expression in individuals.
This is a relatively small selection of Hegel’s references to the Homeric world from The Philosophy of History. They provide us with a glimpse into the significance which Hegel ascribed to Homer, and therefore into the influence of Homer upon Hegel himself. Not only does Hegel’s concept of Heroism coincide with Homer’s, but his idealism follows naturally from it: Hegel directly tells us of the Homeric origins of his own thinking here.
It is worth taking a moment here to return to the νόος of Odysseus, and to see if this “spirit” (or, sometimes, “mind”) of Hegel is in any way related to this Homeric concept. Recall that νόος is sometimes translated as “mind” or “consciousness.”
When we look at the νόος of Odysseus, it is indeed, self-knowledge, but self-knowledge by way of external connection—more akin to contingency of matter than the self-centeredness of spirit. Odysseus’ νόος is strongest when he is reminded of externalities—of his home, his wife, his son, even of his comrades. The mind of Odysseus is integrated in its context, whereas the idealized mind defined by Hegel, is by its nature divorced from such a context, even though history is a process of interaction between spirit and matter. By the story of the Odyssey and of the way that νόος is used in reference to Odysseus, it is clear that Homer’s second epic is as ignored by Hegel as by other philosophers since Socrates, and that there is no relation between Hegel’s concept of spirit and Homeric νόος.
In this way, History became the new medium for Heroic immortalization—synthesizing quasi-Christian conceptions of God with the Socratic impulse to self-knowledge in some of the most imposing arguments in the history of Western philosophy.
It also became a critical component to the ideas of Hegel’s most famous student, and perhaps the most influential man in the last 200 years: Karl Marx. We will dive more deeply into Marx and his Homeric nature in Chapter 18.
To bring us closer to modern times, it is almost certainly this Hegelian idea of idealistic History which, in 1935, brought a new phrase into our political language: those who stand opposed to the natural progress of history are not “progressives,” but are instead on “the wrong side of history.” What is meant is that the progress of history has a natural dialectical logic to it. History is an unstoppable force that will advance according to this logic, regardless of human desires. Further, those who are used by history to achieve its own ends are “Heroes,” and those who are at least on the winning side of this fatalistic destiny will be – if not immortalized as “Heroes” – at least remembered favorably by history itself, and subsequent generations. This is the true meaning of “progressive,” in the political context. Those who stand opposed to this force of history, those on “the wrong side of history,” are doomed to lose and will therefore be remembered forever as the villains, as the antiheroes of History itself.
 Ontology is the philosophical study of being. Ontological arguments attempt to deduce knowledge about a thing (often merely its existence or non-existence) from its nature alone. This is often done via definitions.
Chapter 17. Hero-Cult vs the Cult of Heroism: Superheroes and Superstars
Homeric Heroism and the religious traditions of Homer’s time and place revolved around the Hero-cult. They worshipped Gods and various minor deities, but Heroes stood as the physical embodiments of the values of their society. The cult of a particular Hero was the ritualistic medium by which that society could revivify those values, coming closer to the Hero by reenactment and, in doing so, closer to each other.
In Athens, for instance, Theseus was the most famous Hero. After defeating the minotaur in Crete, he returned home and the ship he sailed in on was preserved in the harbor for centuries. The Ship of Theseus was used annually for a special envoy to the island of Delos, where a sacrifice to Apollo was performed. The worship was of Apollo, but it was Theseus whom the Athenians were emulating (the journey reenacted the departure and return of the Hero) and the worship was as much of Theseus – the Hero of Athens – as it was of Apollo.
This process was the means by which society maintained its identity, and also the means by which the adolescent became a Man.
Achilles represents the archetype of the adolescent undergoing this process—the Hero. Odysseus represents the archetype of the Man who emerges on the other side of this initiation. As has been argued to this point, each of these archetypes also represent different approaches to language, reality, and identity. The Hero sees approaches literally. He believes that there is a higher world, more real than this existence. And he sees himself as an individual.
The Man sees language as something more slippery. Because of this, he does not think in terms of “higher worlds” that rest upon the word. His power derives from his connection with others, and so his identity is less individualistic, but derived from those connections.
These two archetypes worked symbiotically in the ancient Hero cult. The tragic Hero embodied the spirit of a people by carrying their values to the limit. The compensation for his tragic death was a story, one which unified his people. Indeed, the Heroic story makes the integrated Man possible, and the man reenacts and retells these stories in turn. The connection and legacy of the Man gives credible hope of immortality to the suffering Hero.
But since the time of Homer these archetypes have been separated. Socrates, Jesus, Hegel, and their students have divorced the Hero from the Man in their symbiotic roles. The Hero was elevated as the higher ideal, corresponding to his fame, beauty, and his inevitably tragic fate. By lifting up Heroes above Men, the language and metaphysical worldview of the Hero was also elevated—mental connection (noos) was set aside in favor of “truth” (logos), and the connective, transgenerational identity of the Man was dismissed in favor of the individuality of the Hero.
All of Western thought since Socrates reflects this Heroic idealism.
With this change in the relationship between the Hero and the Man comes a change in the aspirations of young men. No longer are they guided toward becoming initiated and integrated Men; instead they aim at becoming their own Heroes.
We need stories—without stories provided for us, we must write our own.
If we all must become Heroes, then the Hero is no longer a rare and venerated exception to the preferred aim of the integrated Man. Heroic immortalization becomes the preferred goal—perhaps the necessary goal. Anyone can become a Hero, and everyone seeks the role of the Hero:
There goes my hero,
— Foo Fighters, “My Hero”
Stories of Heroes must feed into a new democratized kind of Heroism, one which rejects the worship of old Heroes because to do so would be to reject one’s own potentiality for unique Heroic status. In a phrase, the Hero-cult of the past has been replaced by a cult of Heroism. The participants are not bound together by the character and nature of particular Heroes, but by the shared desire to become Heroes, and in the belief that such an accomplishment is both possible and desirable.
If this divorce of the Hero from the Man and the subsequent elevation of Heroism holds, we would predict that a new Heroism would emerge. This Heroism must have its own Heroes, at least as examples that demonstrate the possibility of becoming one. But these new Heroes must seem to be plausibly “normal.” They must not be too geographically or culturally specific, and they must give the appearance that anybody might be this new kind of Hero.
Exactly such a new kind of Hero emerged in the early 20th century: the superhero.
The word “superhero” is usually believed to be a derivative of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “übermensch”, which is usually translated as “over-man” or “super-man.” The etymological connection to the superhero becomes more obvious in the form of “Superman,” perhaps the most popular superhero of all time. This conceptual connection between superheroes and Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch seems dubious at best, but the connection is nevertheless significant because it speaks to the role that superheroes fulfill in our society. Like the Homeric Hero, they seem to speak on behalf of the consciousness of their society, uniting that society.
One superhero who performs this role in America is “Captain America,” who summarizes both this role and the American moral consciousness:
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.
This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.
When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell the whole world—“no, you move.”
— Captain America, “Civil War” (2007)
The extremity in devotion to principle is a hallmark of the Hero. This passage emphasizes the importance of Truth with a powerful metaphor: this also corresponds with the Heroic elevation of Truth as an ideal.
Finally, Captain America is killed shortly afterwards. The Heroic arc is complete and his role—in defining what it means to be an American through his own, shortened life—is fulfilled.
Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man all die as well.
The superhero clearly fulfills the archetypal role of the Homeric Hero, but does so with a distinction: the superhero almost always wears a mask of some sort.
“The Phantom,” created in 1936 by Lee Falk, is usually believed to have been the first “superhero”. The Phantom wore a kind of hood with a dark eye-mask, of the kind later sported by Wolverine and Robin. Batman wore a cowl that covered the top part of his face. Spiderman wore a full face-covering. Iron-Man’s mask occluded his face. And Superman, though undisguised in his “Hero-form,” wore glasses to conceal his identity as Clark Kent.
The mask serves to make the identity of the superhero plausibly ambiguous. Often times, this ambiguity is purely symbolic (the idea that a pair of glasses could sufficiently obscure Clark Kent’s identity as superman is absurd, as nearly everyone has observed at some point). But symbolism is powerful enough in its own right to perform the role of ambiguation. After all, as we saw in Chapter 5, painting a face black was sufficient to get a Harii youth into the mindset of the dead ancestors. He may not have believed this literally, but the suggestion made through symbolism was sufficient that the performance of initiation with the *koryos nevertheless facilitated psychological connection with the tribe, and integration through Heroism into the role of the connected Man was made possible. Painting of faces is a form of masking, and masks were used in other forms of initiation, including the Greek theater that gave us the chorus.
Where superheroes are concerned, however, the mask is not placed on the initiate. Instead, the mask is placed upon the Hero, symbolically obscuring the Hero’s identity—almost as if the superhero is a vicarious initiate, in place of the viewer. This ambiguity permits the initiate to imagine themselves in the Hero’s place, or to imagine that anyone in their society might secretly be a superhero. This belief is certainly not held consciously, but illustrates and perpetually re-authors the central idea behind the modern Cult of Heroism: anyone can be a Hero, and achieve their own immortality in story. Heroism is no longer a thing tragically fated by the Gods, but rather a “call to adventure” which might strike anyone—and indeed, most likely will come to you someday.
Finally, where Heroes of the past were (or were inspired by) real historical people, the superhero is an entirely fictional being. This fictional existence reinforces the idealism of the Heroic world, where the silver screen is mystically “more real”—and certainly “more just”—than reality itself.
In short, the superhero is the Hero that unites the Cult of Heroism. This cult is not a path of the integrated Man; rather, it is a path of the perpetual Hero – the cult of Heroism rather than the Hero cult of Homeric times. It comes complete with its own reenactors (cosplay), destinations for pilgrimage (conventions), and even carries harbors more localized sub-cults, (colloquially, “sub-cultures”): Star Wars or Star Trek; Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones; DC or Marvel.
So far we have looked at the social value of the cult Hero in terms of the social cohesion that his nature provides. By shared veneration of a Hero, a society knows its own identity and values. But the value of the Hero was not limited merely to acknowledging this role. The Hero held a kind of power, especially fertility, which could be accessed by proximity to his remains:
[…] the cult hero is olbios, ‘blessed’, after he or she dies, and the worshipper of a cult hero can become olbios, ‘blessed’, by making mental contact with the hero—which can be achieved by way of physical contact with the earth that contains the corpse of the hero or even with a relic or simulacrum of the hero.
The tombs of Heroes were historically considered to be sources of great power and common destinations for pilgrimage. There are few surviving accounts of localized Hero-cult practice, but Pausanius’ description of descending into a tomb-like hole to consult Trophonius indicates the prevalence of this kind of contact with artifacts or tombs of dead Heroes.
The most famous Hero, Jesus provides a living example of this today: every year, thousands upon thousands visit the city of his birth (Bethlehem) and the location of his death (Golgotha). Throughout the centuries, artifacts like “pieces of the cross” were venerated as sacred and thought to have healing powers. Conversely, when the British executed the prolific guerilla fighter William Wallace in 1305, they made sure to cut his body into pieces and hide the pieces throughout England so that his body would not be intact for veneration. In more modern times, when Marvin Heemeyer died in 2004 and his two-hour armored-bulldozer rampage came to an end, the town of Granby, Colorado decided to cut the bulldozer into pieces and disperse it to various scrapyards so that they “don’t end up with a bunch of souvenirs going out in the world…”.
The Hero imparts power and fertility by proximity. This proximity can be physical, or it can be mental. In Christianity, it is believed that merely the name of Jesus has immense power because it creates proximity by way of invoking his presence and reminding the Christian of their God. Similarly, the tomb of a Hero like Achilles has great power because it visually reminds us of the Hero:
Over your bones we reared a grand, noble tomb—devoted veterans all, Achaea’s combat forces—high on its jutting headland over the Hellespont’s broad reach, a landmark glimpsed from far out at sea by men of our own day and men of days to come.
— Odyssey XXIV:87-91
(Ghost of Agamemnon speaking to the Ghost of Achilles)
Traditionally, the connection between the realistic Man and the idealistic Hero meant that the Heroic graves and artifacts facilitated initiation into and connection with one’s culture. They gave spiritual life and power to the world. They were physical places that could be visited, or objects that could be held and touched. The grave of an ancestor, a particular boat, a mighty sword, or perhaps a famous stone, all connected the mythical, heroic past to the real present.
But even after the separation of the Hero and the Man, and after moving into the cult of Heroism, the power of Heroic proximity still carries psychological power. Superheroes impart their influence in the way that Heroes once did. But how can they do this if the Superheroes do not, themselves, exist in reality?
To understand how this can occur, we must first observe the transition in medium between Homer’s time and ours.
Homer existed in an oral culture. His epics were among the first stories to be written down. From Homer’s time to around the 15th century, the West was a writing culture. The Gutenberg press ushered in a printing culture. But in the early 20th century, a new medium emerged: film.
In film, characters are portrayed by real people, actors who play the part of the Hero—or Superhero—of the film. The actor becomes the Hero and takes on perceived power and fertility that was once associated with the Hero cult of old. The actor is no longer merely the actor, but also the character they portray. Robert Downey Jr. becomes Iron Man. Christian Bale becomes Batman. Henry Cavill becomes Superman. Tobey Maguire becomes Spiderman. Chris Evans becomes Captain America.
(Indeed, superheroes develop their own pantheon of actors who portray them, actors who bring their power to the character as much as the character imbues their power to the actor. Would Superman have been as compelling were it not for the gravitas brought by Henry Cavill?)
This new medium changed the nature of Heroism further even than Socrates, Jesus, and Hegel. Heroic immortalization had been separated from heroes in the ancient sense—“guardians”—and as a result had become about immortality. But this immortality lacked a defined role, of the kind that “warrior” had fulfilled in ancient times. Who was this immortality for? For philosophers like Socrates? For priests and religious men like Jesus? Or for the pawns of history as described by Hegel?
Film has given us an answer to this question; a new role for the Heroes of society. That role is the actor. As a Hero, the actor becomes a superstar, whom we shall define as an actor who has achieved Heroic status in his society because of his acting.
Sometimes this is taken to such an extreme that actors are awarded military titles for their theatrical success. Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Ian McKellen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, Christopher Lee, Charlie Chaplin, Kevin Spacey, and Anthony Hopkins have all been knighted, along with many more. Gone are the days where the title of “knight” invoked images of warrior-lords or kings, like Arthur, or Richard the Lionhearted—instead, our most famous knights are the actors who portray these things.
Sean Connery played both roles, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and First Knight (1995), respectively.
The degree to which we know about our warriors at all is often the degree to which they have been captured in film. Many Americans know of Marcus Luttrell only courtesy of Mark Wahlberg—of Medal of Honor recipient Michael Murphy thanks to Taylor Kitsch.
In the age of the medium of film, the virtues of the actor are elevated—much as the virtues of the warrior were once elevated in a time when the Hero was necessarily a protector, and the Hero and the Man were connected archetypes. As a means of maintaining social cohesion and the integrity of inherited cultural values, this film medium and its Superstars can only be partially successful. The ancient epics venerated the actions of Heroes, and rewarded the bards and rhapsodes who retained and recounted their exploits incidentally. The action-movies of today pay tribute to the values of ancient Heroism, but only as a means to the end of Heroic immortalization, and now we know who is being immortalized. The audience understands that the people being venerated are actually actors. It is as much Chris Evans being venerated as it is Captain America.
But this medium cansucceed in leaving the viewer with the impression that he too can achieve heroic status, precisely because the actor is notactually superhuman like Herakles, Theseus, or Achilles. They are essentially ordinary people, raised up to the heights of fame and fortune, and immortalized for generations to come in the stories they portray, by virtue of their ability to put on the mask and portray somebody else.
In an age where the ancient Hero-cults have slipped away, passively forgotten or actively torn down, the appeal of Heroic immortalization draws us in again. Divorced from the stories that remind us of its naïve and tragic nature, we long to become our own Heroes. The actors of film provide the example, the role, and the virtues for the path of this new Heroic endeavor, which beckons us with the allure of simplicity—how much easier it is to pretend than it is to do! Film is the medium of democratized Heroism. It is the medium of the Cult of Heroism that has replaced the ancient Hero-Cult, as its actors and superstars have replaced the warrior-heroes of old.
It could be said that because of the direct portrayal of characters, film may actually be closer to the original oral medium of Homeric epic than reading books. Harmar Brereton suggests that Homeric rhapsodes likely used voices to differentiate and impersonate different characters, making the story more engaging, even humorous. For this reason, the acting out of characters by actors might make film a partial return to Homeric tradition, rather than a further iteration away—at least relative to the written and printed mediums.
But this partial return has only happened after the banishment of the Man from the Heroic ideal. The Hero is re-realized in the physical world after an ideological separation, and re-connects with reality in a different form and with a different character. The Superstar who plays the part of a Superhero is not a “hero” in the ancient sense—a guardian and protector. They are the culmination of the character suited to Heroic immortalization through language and linguistic reenactment, which is no longer a reward reserved as unique compensation for the tragic sacrifice of warrior-heroes.
So the Superstar is venerated in place of the warrior, as a Hero who might achieve immortality. They symbolize a form of Heroism that is universal and democratic, offering the promise of Heroism for everyone—the promise that the viewer might become their own Hero. Adolescents seeking acceptance and status in their society follow and ritually reenact the behavior of the Superstar, in the vain hope that others might be looking for Heroes, rather than seeking to become their own Heroes as well. The character and values of society shift accordingly, and those who represent the means of Heroic immortalization—rather than those who embody the values that a society might wish to revere—become the new Heroes of the cult of Heroism.
 First coined in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883).
 Nietzsche’s übermensch had overcome the constraints of morality, while Superheroes in comics and film generally embody the moral frame of their audience. In this way, the übermensch transcends Heroism, whereas the Superhero is a new form of the classical Hero.
 “Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America” (2007)
 The first usage of the word “Superhero” appears to have been in 1917.
 See Chapter 4
 “The Healing Properties of the True Cross in Constantinople” by John Sanidopoulos. 2014. https://archive.is/zCRUI
 As of this writing, Wikipedia lists 81 actors who have been knighted.
 “Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: Class 1”. The University of Scranton. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVobvfJk4xA
Chapter 18. Thersites and the Choice of Man
We have come to the present moment, where actors and superstars have replaced the God-like Heroes of old. We look up and see professional pretenders.
At some point, the entire project of Heroic immortalization becomes questionable. It seems inauthentic. Actors lean into their own human frailties and failures in their “ordinary” lives in a desperate bid to recapture the “realness” behind their fame. But this only makes their fame look less desirable, and less deserved.
At some point, the backwardness of it all may cause us to question the very values that our society seems to venerate.
At some point, it may become tempting to bitterly reject one’s society and its ideals as absurd and ridiculous, to become an aloof observer and comedic commentator who watches from the sidelines, rather than be made a fool by pursuing self-contradictory and ridiculous notions of “the good,” as built up by foolish poets who “say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them”.
The Iliad itself presents us with a character who embodies this skepticism in the form of Thersites.
He appears only briefly, in Book II, but his personality and even his name have echoed well into modern times. His physical ugliness is described at length, as is his unpopularity among the soldiers. As a character, he is devoid of all virtue except for a kind of loquacity with words which makes him unbearable to others, but a strangely difficult foe in a world that is dominated by words:
Achilles despised him most, Odysseus too—
he was always abusing both chiefs, but now
he went for the majestic Agamemnon, hollering out,
taunting the king with strings of cutting insults.
The Achaeans were furious with him, deeply offended.
But he kept shouting at Agamemnon, spewing his abuse:
“Still moaning and groaning, mighty Atrides—why now?
What are you panting after now? Your shelters are packed
with the lion’s share of bronze, plenty of women too,
crowding your lodges. Best of the lot, the beauties
we hand you first, whenever we take some stronghold.
Or still more gold you’re wanting? More ransom a son
of the stallion-breaking Trojans might just fetch from Troy?—
though I or another hero drags him back in chains…
Or a young woman is it?—to spread and couple,
to bed down for yourself apart from all the troops?
How shameful for you, the high and mighty commander,
to lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter!
Sons? No, my soft friends, wretched excuses—
women, not men of Achaea! Home we go in our ships!
Abandon him here in Troy to wallow in all his prizes—
he’ll see if the likes of us have propped him up or not.
Look—now it’s Achilles, a greater man he disgraces,
seizes and keeps his prize, tears her away himself.
But no gall in Achilles. Achilles lets it go.
If not, Atrides, that outrage would have been your last!”
— Iliad II:245-261
The railing of Thersites captures a moral absurdity in the Greek situation. He is pointing out an apparent hypocrisy—the Greeks value courage and justice, yet here are their leaders, acting unjustly, and the greatest of the warriors—Achilles—won’t even defend himself!
We have explored the relationship between the archetypes and language, how the Hero identifies the words with thing being described, while the Man sees words as tools which can be used skillfully or ineptly to convey things, but which are not the thing. If we accept that words really are imperfect analogues for the world, then what happens when someone becomes enamored with a concept in its idealized verbal form? What happens when they recognize reality’s inevitable failure to embody this imprecise ideal?
Thersites presents us with one possible answer: disillusionment.
Thersites is described by Odysseus—a gifted speaker himself—as “fluent and flowing” in his words. And yet he is bitterly hated by the men. He is resentful—perhaps a kind of personification of resentment expressed in humorous diatribe—“anything to provoke some laughter from the troops”. And yet his provocations never truly connect with the other men, even if he may get a few laughs, and his resentment is exacerbated by his persistent rejection:
The Thersites of Homer who abuses the kings is a standing figure for all times. Blows — that is beating with a solid cudgel — he does not get in every age, as in the Homeric one; but his envy, his egotism, is the thorn which he has to carry in his flesh; and the undying worm that gnaws him is the tormenting consideration that his excellent views and vituperations remain absolutely without result in the world.
— Hegel, The Philosophy of History
The blows referenced by Hegel describe the conclusion of Thersites’ short part in the Iliad: after he finishes his rant, he is rebuked and soundly beaten by Odysseus, which incites laughter and mockery from the troops.
Thersites represents a kind of over-development of linguistic ability. Like a Hero, he leans into the power of words. But with his experience with words, he comes to see the disconnection between the words and the world. Everything that is ascribed positive attributes is easily punctured with language, and appears ridiculous.
What the character of Thersites represents is the dangers inherent in the Heroic approach to language. When taken too rigorously and literally, language becomes a corrosive agent, and makes people suffering from linguistic hypertrophy into grotesque and ugly creatures like Thersites.
This corrosion was a subject of exploration by a Japanese classicist named Yukio Mishima.
Mishima was a formidable scholar of Greek heroism in his own right. A student of Nietzsche, Mishima wrote a number of Greek-inspired novels and plays, including Lioness (based on “Medea” by Euripides), The Sound of Waves (based on “Daphnis and Chloe” by Longus), Tropical Tree (based on the “Oresteia” by Aeschylus), The Decline and Fall of Suzaka (based on “The Madness of Heracles” by Euripides), and others.
In 1968, Mishima published Sun and Steel, an autobiographical essay relating his relationship with words and with his body. In Sun and Steel, he says:
In its essence, any art that relies on words makes use of their ability to eat away—of their corrosive function—just as etching depends on the corrosive power of nitric acid. Yet the simile is not accurate enough; for the copper and the nitric acid used in etching are on a par with each other, both being extracted from nature, while the relation of words to reality is not that of the acid to the plate. Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words themselves will be corroded too. It might be more appropriate, in fact, to liken their action to that of excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself.
Mishima connects his own experience as a writer to a kind of nocturnal existence, one which he only rejected later in life. This nocturnal existence also corresponded with ugliness, and with a hatred of the sun:
The men who indulged in nocturnal thought, it seemed to me, had without exception dry, lusterless skins and sagging stomachs. They sought to wrap up a whole epoch in a capacious night of ideas, and rejected in all its forms the sun that I had seen. They rejected both life and death as I had seen them, for in both of these the sun had had a hand.
In the Iliad, the sun shines as a light that exists prior to words. No language is necessary to feel its warmth.
The first lines of the Iliad describes Achilles as δῖος (“dios”), meaning “shining” or “heavenly,” even “god-like.” The epithet conveys a greatness that can be perceived without words. It is this kind of greatness that Thersites—dependent upon words—resents. And this resentment is born of a crisis that is better grasped when we zoom out and look at the choices presented across the Heroic landscape from a higher vantage point.
The trajectory of the Hero and the Man could be described by the following path:
(1) An adolescent male is presented with the opportunity to become initiated into the values of his society. He may accept this offer, or he may refuse. The model for this adolescent male in Homeric epic is Telemachus, who – when presented with the suggestion to go out and search for news of his father – must decide whether to stay home or venture out, away from the security of his home. The model for those who did not initiate is that of Antinous, the leader of the suitors.
(2) The initiating young man is in a Heroic phase, and learns the language of the values of his tribe. He learns the words that describe the virtues that his people venerate, and he seeks to embody and to champion those virtues. Diomedes stands out as an example of this stage, a warrior doing his best to obey his superiors – mortal and divine – and to embody what is expected of him.
(3) But then is a crisis that emerges when the meanings of the virtue-words which were taught to the initiating Hero do not correspond with what actually works, practically or socially. The world appears unjust, hypocritical—unworthy of the tragic and beautiful heroes that breathed life into those virtues in the first place. Achilles is the representation of the Hero in this crossroads, where everything he believed about Justice is being undermined by the reality that presents itself before him, leading him to the very brink of disillusionment and simply sailing home, bitter and resentful of the whole affair. The example of the fully disillusioned man is Thersites.
(4) But there is an alternative to disillusionment. By mental connection (noos) with those who gave names to the virtues and values learned by the young initiates, the Man can come to understand the true meaning intended behind the word. In effect, he hears through the word, and perceives the intended meaning. In terms of the Hero Cult, he perceives the true value which crude and absolute virtue-words only point towards; a certain way of being that is balanced but characterized by distinctive features which mark one as belonging. These words—excluding the balance and relationships between other character qualities—necessarily mislead the aspiring Hero into an extremity of virtue, which in turn leads to a tragic downfall.
(5) The Man who can achieve this noos gains the power of true understanding of his own society and the wisdom it has to offer. It permits him to succeed in the world, and to win glory and respect among his own people. He achieves his triumphal return. The example of the successfully returning Man is—of course—Odysseus.
Achilles is uniquely tragic because he is the most extreme of all the young Greek Heroes (and therefore, the most extreme in virtue), making his disillusionment also the most extreme in potential. Yet Achilles – coming face-to-face with King Priam – has a moment of connection and understanding which purges him of his bitter disillusionment. He is no longer concerned with Agamemnon’s slight, nor is he consumed with vengeance over the death of Patrokles. He perceives what was actually meant by the Greeks when they spoke of “justice,” but only caricatured when they attempted to describe or define the concept. Achilles achieves noos, but is denied his triumphal return by the very act which permitted him to come through his own crisis over the cosmic injustice of the world.
This theme is matched in another Proto-Indo-European story. In the Bhagavad Ghita, the warrior-prince Arjuna is the most dangerous soldier on the battlefield, but he finds himself lined up against friends and family members. Finding the prospect of killing them repulsive, he prefers to withdraw, even at the cost of being killed himself:
I don’t desire victory, Krishna, nor a kingdom or pleasures. What use is a kingdom to me, Govinda? What is enjoyment or life? For precisely those whose sake we desire a kingdom, enjoyment, and pleasures are standing in line to do battle against us, giving up their lives and riches.
In the end, Arjuna overcomes this feeling when Krishna reveals his true nature to Arjuna.
The inevitability of disillusionment is built into every value system that is described by language. Overcoming this disillusionment is the process of transitioning from the archetype of the Hero into the archetype of the Man, and it is intertwined with a reconceptualization of what language is.
But in a world that rejects the archetype of the Man and elevates Heroic idealism, there is no path to overcoming this disillusionment. There is only ressentiment towards life and also towards death; towards those in power and the sun they are associated with. The culmination of the idealistic Hero divorced from the Man was in Homer right from the beginning: he is Thersites, the ugly, nocturnal creature armed only with corrosive words by which he attempts to demoralize the world and bring it down to his own feeling of disillusionment.
Yet this is the world we have moved toward, perhaps even the world we occupy, which brings us back to a student of Hegel mentioned earlier.
Karl Marx was a voracious reader and writer, and a skillful wordsmith. And to Marx, Thersites was a character of familiarity and some admiration. Responding to a critic who “expected to be felled by a communist Achilles, but found himself attacked by a communist Thersites instead,” Marx replied by taking on the character with a quote from Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s adaptation of the Trojan story:
I had rather be a tick in a sheep than such a valiant ignorance.
Thersites remains an explicitly positive figure in Marxist literature, and Marxism itself remains a powerful philosophical force. But beyond the name of Thersites, Marx took on exactly this approach demonstrating a fluent and flowing literary prowess to match his critical eye which attacked everything it could see:
Up to now the philosophers had the solution of all riddles lying in their lectern, and the stupid uninitiated world had only to open its jaws to let the roast partridges of absolute science fly into its mouth. Now philosophy has become worldly, and the most incontrovertible evidence of this is that the philosophical consciousness has been drawn, not only externally but also internally, into the stress of battle. But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing.
There is a poetical flourish in Marx’s use of language, a delight in the language for its own sake which is often used elsewhere to glorify beauty and to praise. Such praise comes from a different spirit, one which we might observe in Homer himself—particularly in his delight in anything done with skill. It is an upward-looking use of language, one which spends special attention upon the birds, on rosy-fingered dawn and the gods in the sky.
But when this delight in flowery language is applied to criticism, is seems to come from an entirely different kind of person, one who looks down on the world as inferior—ridiculous even. Such a world is beneath argumentation, and only merits condemnation:
This state of affairs is beneath the level of history, beneath all criticism; nevertheless it remains an object of criticism just as the criminal who is beneath humanity remains an object of the executioner. In its struggle against this state of affairs criticism is not a passion of the head, but the head of passion. It is not a lancet but a weapon. Its object is an enemy which it aims not to refute but to destroy. For the spirit of this state of affairs has already been refuted. It is not, in itself, an object worthy of our thought; it is an existence as contemptible as it is despised. Criticism itself has no need of any further elucidation of this object, for it has already understood it. Criticism is no longer an end in itself, but simply a means; indignation is the essential mode of feeling, and denunciation its principal task.
When men become locked into a literal understanding of language, it can become all too easy for them to believe that they have “figured it all out,” to look down on the world and its occupants as foolish, stupid, and hypocritical.
And these men remain baffled and frustrated that no one listens to their clever words.
Among Marxists, there is a belief that Thersites’ criticisms are in fact Homer’s true beliefs, which Homer masks with ugliness and unpopularity to disguise his own antiauthoritarian feelings. But this fails to account for the similarities in Achilles’ own criticisms, which are treated with deference and respect by all but Agamemnon:
“Staggering drunk, with your dog’s eyes, your fawn’s heart! Never once did you arm with the troops and go to battle or risk an ambush packed with Achaea’s picked men—you lack the courage, you can see death coming. Safer by far, you find, to foray all through camp, commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you. King who devours his people! Worthless husks, the men you rule—if not, Atrides, this outrage would have been your last.”
— Iliad I:264-271
Thersites is not hated and ignored for what he says; he is hated and ignored for who he is—or, more precisely, for overstepping his place. His preoccupation with words prevents him from grasping the true things of value behind the words, which dictates who fits where in the hierarchy of Heroes, Gods, and Men. He is a lower man, and so his speech – otherwise comparable to Achilles – rises above his station. Achilles, by contrast, is speaking to an equal, an inferior even, though Agamemnon does not recognize Achilles’ greatness because he too is disconnected from the values of his people.
The menis of the Iliad—the divine wrath upon violations of the right order—is humorously reenacted by Odysseus’ rebuke of Thersites. Heroic initiation is the first step in rising upwards in that hierarchy. But so long as the Hero’s understanding of his society’s value-words is purely linguistic, he will always be limited in how high he can go. He will be forever confused by incongruities between what is said and what is.
We live in a world now where much our personality is affected in a digital space—much like the screen actor. There is no risk of being beaten for our ranting. We can imitate the sharp-tongued wise-cracks that our superstars portray in film—online, and even in our day-to-day lives. Team-rallying criticism can be a quick way to get high-fives, or their digital equivalent. But no minds are changed, and in the end, these excellent vituperations have no effect. Worse, the world retains the appearance of a ridiculous, unjust, and stupid place. We look down upon the world, criticizing reality itself for its failure to conform to the words which were once crafted to describe it.
But this disillusionment is not the only option.
The Hero in this crisis of faith can look past the words.
Like a finger, pointing toward the moon.
He can seek to understand language as one hears ainos, looking for the cues in one’s surroundings rather than searching for some wisdom hidden within the words themselves. As such, the words we use to connect with each other—“courage,” “freedom,” “beauty,” “virtue,” “strength,” “justice”—are not absolute distillations of True things in the world; treated as such, they would only lead to despair and bitterness as conflicting values cancel each other out. Rather, they are descriptions of human experiences, more amorphous and, by virtue of their subjectivity, more attainable, in a variety of beautiful and creative forms.
Such is the understanding of the Man who, by twists and turns, manages in the end to shoot straight. Like an arrow flexing in flight, the language of the Man actually hits the target only aimed at by Heroes… and in the face of which, the uninitiated and the disillusioned cannot even string their bow.
So they mocked, but Odysseus, mastermind in action, once he’d handled the great bow and scanned every inch, then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—who strains a string to a new peg with ease, making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow […] Setting shaft on the handgrip, drawing the notch and bowstring back, back…right from his stool, just as he sat but aiming straight and true, he let fly—and never missing an ax from the first ax-handle clean on through to the last and out the shaft with its weighted brazen head shot free!”
— Odyssey XXI:451-471
 Socrates, Apology.
 Iliad II:286
 Iliad II:249
 Mishima, Sun and Steel. 1968.
 Bhagavad Gita, 32-33
 “The Voice of Thersites: Reflections on the Origins of the Idea of Equality” by Siep Stuurman, 2004. Stuurman also wrote Capitalism and the bourgeois state: an introduction to Marxist political theory in 1978.
 Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” 1843.
 Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” 1844.
Chapter 19. The Last Man
In a culture where the archetypes of the Hero and the Man are separated; where Heroism is elevated at the expense of the Man, rather than as a prelude to Manhood; where the new Heroic model lives in a medium of pretense and imitation; where an idealistic relationship with language cannot help but lead men to bitter disillusionment… is there any doubt that we would expect a decline in masculinity?
The Homeric archetype of the Man is not exactly the same as the masculine man. The Iliadic Heroes of Homer’s first epic appear quite masculine: they are direct, violent, and loyal. In the Iliad, women are essentially narrative furniture in a story about men interacting with other men. One might argue that the platonic love between Achilles and Patrokles is greater than any love shown between man and woman in the story—certainly not between Paris and Helen, the relationship which purportedly started the war, nor between Achilles and Briseis, the relationship which started the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, and which marked the beginning of the story of the Iliad itself.
By contrast, Odysseus’ journey is profoundly influenced by women such as Calypso, Circe, Nausicaa, Penelope, and the Goddess who started it all: Athena. Even the monsters are feminine. Scylla, the many-headed monster high up on the cliffs that snatches men off the boats, was once a woman. Charybdis was believed to be a daughter of Poseidon, and sucked sailors who came too close and enclosed them in her watery depths. The sirens lured men in with their feminine song.
The Odyssey itself is not a direct and straightforward account, and Odysseus often speaks indirectly, unlike his compatriots from the Iliad.
On the surface, the Odyssey almost feels like a more feminine story. The Iliad comes across as a story about men, for men, by men.
And yet there is a certain passionlessness that comes along with the linguistic certainty of the Hero. There is a trajectory in the story arc with a moral that does not necessarily match the content. The Iliad begins with war, but concludes with peace and reconciliation. The all-encompassing language unified Greece and gave birth to Socrates and Jesus, both of whom accepted their death as martyrs. They were living for another world, without blood in this one.
The culmination of the Socratic philosopher, the Christian, the Hegelian historian, the Superstar, and the Marxist was anticipated by Friedrich Nietzsche in the personality he dubbed “the Last Man.”
The Last Man is a passionless utilitarian. He is a small-minded creature with a small conception of the world—a world that is easy to look downward upon. He believes he knows it all. He has no conception of awe, of grandiosity, of sacrifice; instead, he is pre-occupied petty pleasures and with the maintenance of his health:
“Formerly all the world was insane,”—say the subtlest of them, and blink thereby.
They are clever and know all that hath happened: so there is no end to their raillery. People still fall out, but are soon reconciled—otherwise it spoileth their stomachs.
They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.
“We have discovered happiness,”—say the last men, and blink thereby.—
The Last Man is not a heroic figure, but is the inevitable conclusion of Heroic idealism and the illusion of knowledge that comes along with it. Language becomes a net with which he believes he captures the world. It becomes a phylactery by which he immortalizes himself. A static set of meanings by which he may arrive at certainty. Whether or not this certainty corresponds with any skill in the world—with the actual ability to create things, which Homer so eloquently praises—is of less importance to this last man. He has become his own Hero… which, incidentally, happens to look a lot like everyone else as their own Hero.
The masculine virtues exhibited in the Iliad only express themselves with the fuel of passion. A man might be as strong, as courageous, as skillful, as loyal as any other man alive. But if he has no reason to employ these—no vision that might inspire him to risk his own skin for something worthwhile—then he may as well not possess them at all.
Heroic idealism is the prime mover that inspires the acquisition of masculine virtue. Yet when it is separated from the connections that bind us to this world, Heroic idealism leaves no motivation to put these virtues to use.
Why risk your neck?
Why fight over a woman?
Why do anything at all?
The power of language to motivate action lies in the esteem we hold in the opinion of others.
If there are no Men left to retain the spirit of ancient Heroes, then we must become our own.
But Heroism is no longer what it was in the Bronze Age. If we are to be our own Heroes, then there is no reason to care what others think of us. The constructs of words have become sufficient.
In a world of Last Men, caring about what others think of you means not being too annoying. It means being nice, and getting along. There is no passion, no drive for earth-moving love or world-shattering hatred.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama argued that the Hegelian progress of history would not culminate in Marxist communism, but rather in capitalist liberal democracy—the sort of society that prefers ambiguously democratic Superheroes to geographically and nationally distinct cult-Heroes. The “end of history” he prophesized would be marked by an end of struggle over political ideology, and therefore, an end to widespread conflict of the sort which required masculine men guarding the perimeter:
In particular, the virtues and ambitions called forth by war are unlikely to find expression in liberal democracies. There will be plenty of metaphorical wars—corporate lawyers specializing in hostile takeovers who will think of themselves as sharks or gunslingers, and bond traders who imagine, as in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, that they are “masters of the universe.” (They will believe this, however, only in bull markets.) But as they sink into the soft leather of their BMWs, they will know somewhere in the back of their minds that there have been real gunslingers and masters in the world, who would feel contempt for the petty virtues required to become rich or famous in modern America.
We may take refuge in the knowledge that at least we still worry about what the Heroes of the past might think of us. The Last Men have no concept of obligation to meet some standard of virtue founded in ancient times. They have no fiery impulse to achieve status and recognition among their peers—they are above such things.
Fukuyama goes on to describe how—according to Hegel—it is just such an impulse that drives the world:
Hegel’s understanding of the Mechanism that underlies the historical process is incomparably deeper than that of Marx or of any contemporary social scientist. For Hegel, the primary motor of human history is not modern natural science or the ever expanding horizon of desire that powers it, but rather a totally non-economic drive, the struggle for recognition.
This struggle for recognition was once the underlying motivation that drove adolescent young men to protect and provide for their tribe. Heroes made history happen. But armed with language that transcends reality itself, young men no longer need to pursue the heroic lifestyle of the warrior, athlete, or the explorer to gain the recognition they desire.
It is tempting to wonder if the promise of immortality or enlightenment purges that desire altogether. When Odysseus’ comrades ate the lotus flowers on the Island of the Lotus-Eaters, they forgot all desire for everything, other than to continue grazing on the lotus flower. In Hindu and Egyptian religion, the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment and rebirth.
Forgetting Odysseus, and forgetting our connection with our earthly home, the Heroic idealism of the Iliad kills the passions themselves. Even the passionate resentment of Thersites is looked down upon by the Last Man, the culminating spirit of History.
The Iliad comes across as a more masculine story, but it is the story of Odysseus and his deep connection to the things of this world that maintains the motivation to exercise the virtues of masculine. Masculinity is a character born of real-world demands. The νόστος of Odysseus is not just a return home: it is a return to reality from the lofty ideals of Heroic thought—ideals which exist far from the perimeter that organically forge masculine character.
In a Western civilization which ignores the connected and returning Man and prefers the transcendent Hero, there is no connected “home” to return to. Rather, home is in the ethereal realm of language, apart from the world and its troubles.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
— Matthew 6:19-21
Such a culture must inevitably culminate in a civilization of Last Men, who are Men neither as fulfillments of the Homeric archetype of the Man, nor as the masculine men who were guardians and heroes in the ancient days before Homer, whose strength and courage inspired us to tell tales of their exploits.
Without the archetype of the Man, we walk down the road toward the Last Man…which is to say, to no men.
 Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
 The Way of Men by Jack Donovan goes into greater detail explaining the link between masculinity and the tactical virtues of strength, courage, mastery, and honor.
 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man
Chapter 20. The Return of Man
It would be ridiculous to think that Homer somehow predicted the separation of his works and the rise of Heroic idealism over the last two millennia. Such things cannot be known, and Homer was not a prophet. The stories he told were not of the future, nor even of the present, but of the distant past (there is good reason to doubt Homer’s historical accuracy).
The value of this exegesis of Homer is not based upon an assumption of his profound knowledge of the past, of Gods, nor even of human nature. Rather, it comes from one area of skill in which Homer was – and remains – unsurpassed: language.
Our philosophy and religion are formed by our language and also shape our language. The unique feeling of Western culture is a byproduct of this language, and it is through language that non-linguistic aspects of our past maintain a connection with our present. The relationship between language and reality has not fundamentally changed in 2,800 years. And if anyone understood that relationship, it was Homer.
Language is a key feature of human life and a key distinctive feature of the human animal. Certain things can be learned about human relationships and experiences based on knowledge of language alone—specifically, knowledge of the nature of misunderstandings and their consequences, and the kinds of speech likely to result in genuine understanding.
It is this kind of wisdom that we find in Homeric epic.
Homer is not skeptical of the power of language—far from it. The Iliad and Odyssey are themselves testament to the power of language, and their content conveys the power of language in the context of their stories. Odysseus displays all manner of craft in his use of language, and Achilles embodies all the eloquent directness and honesty of the adolescent idealist. Homer’s perfect blend of fresh-metaphor and familiar repetition, rhythm and imagery, has become the hallmark of good writing and good story-telling. Or perhaps his works embodied the rules of good speech that have existed since the first days that mankind learned to represent the world through sound.
When it comes to language, the problems of Homer’s time are also the problems of our time. People misunderstood each other in Mycenean Greece, and tragedy ensued.
People misunderstand each other today too.
Homer gives us every reason to believe that in his own time, well-meaning, Heroic misunderstanding reigned, just as in ours:
…murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds…
— Iliad I:2-5
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all.
— Odyssey I:7-8
But the fact that we are likely in no worse of a position than Homer’s Heroes does not mean that our genealogy of Heroic idealism is in vain. On the contrary: it arms us with the very kinds of tools we need to identify and combat the dangers of misunderstanding and of overly-idealistic or overly-cynical thinking. It gives us the tools to think about how to connect with others and how to avoid getting trapped in a world created by our own language apart from—and above—the real world. And yes, it can even give us the tools to change the world, though this very desire may be a byproduct of the Heroic mindset which seeks to save others who we have neither the right nor the ability to save from themselves… and the change is likely to be different than what was intended.
Many young men task themselves with “saving the world.” This is a Heroic instinct which is not unique to today, though our modern challenges may be different than those of the past. As we learned from Hesiod in Chapter 2, the belief in the degradation of the morals and quality of mankind has been held for at least 2,800 years. It is a cynicism born of the Heroic mindset. But if we can graduate to a more mature understanding of our language, we use to judge the world, we will find that the world doesn’t need to be saved. It has problems to be addressed, but chief among them is our own relationships with each other, and the language we use to navigate those relationships.
To build these relationships along the path of the Man, we are better served by rejecting the modern Cult of Heroism, and embracing the Hero-cult. We are better off remembering and connecting with the great men of the distant past than by trying to “become our own heroes” in the eternally-recurring present. Indeed, if we value Heroes for their inspirational virtues, then the characters of Thersites and the Last Man show us by juxtaposition how the way of the Hero Cult is necessary to emulate that Heroic spirit.
The Cult of Heroism leads somewhere else—somewhere less beautiful and connected, less passionate, and more bitter.
The archetypes of the Hero and the Man are entire personalities, but these personalities are mutually necessary, not mutually exclusive. When grounded in a connection with our own local families, societies, and nations—with the things of this world—the naïve idealism of the Hero does gradually move toward the more refined realism of the Man… and yet it is by regenerating the generations of Men that the Heroes remain alive, their spirit and virtues carried on in their home cultures. And only by Heroic initiation can the adolescent young male become a Man.
The literalism of the Heroic approach to language grounds and enforces the coherence of language as used by the more pragmatic Man, and the functionality of the language of the Man is what gives the Hero’s naïve literalism hope of ever being useful for genuine understanding. Symbolically, the shield of Achilles depicts for us the totality of Truth—the very idea of Truth and its manifestation in speech as a protection against death. The oar of Odysseus is the symbol with two meanings. Its very existence destroys the illusion of Heroic immortality through language by exposing the slippery foundation of language itself—one man’s oar is another’s winnowing fan. This wisdom is catastrophic to the worldview of the optimistic Hero. But just beyond that disillusionment is the recognition that language was what the Hero had imagined it to be in the first place. With that mental shift, the Hero transforms into a Man—connected to his world by the very Heroic furniture he once sought to embody and champion. The Man finds home again in this new understanding—and genuine appreciation for once having been an aspiring Hero.
He could never have become a complete and integrated Man otherwise.
The world of Homer is a reminder that the νόστος “return” of the Man after his Heroic journey is possible, and that we need not worry about facilitating this return for others. It is a challenging enough undertaking for ourselves. The survival of Western culture does not depend upon correcting historical currents, like some Odysseus attempting to “correct” the wrath of Poseidon; rather, it depends upon our individual connection with that history, with the language of Homer and his cultural descendants. This language gives the ability to connect with others, if we have the wisdom to grasp its nature. But more importantly, it gives us the power to understand ourselves—our history, our nature, even our destiny.
It gives us the power not merely to forgive Homer for misleading Heroes with the promise of immortality, but perhaps even to thank him. After all, we require the Heroic myth to transform into connected Men, rather than disconnected idiots or disillusioned cynics. And it was Homer who warned us too of the uncertainty of Heroic immortality, from the mouth of dead Achilles.
Perhaps, armed with this power, we may have the hope of returning home, where we might participate both as Heroes and as Men in the undying glory of life in our world.
Start from where you will—sing for our time too.
— Odyssey I:12
This Post Has One Comment
marfinch4 Sep 2022
It will take me a while to read through this, but looking forward to it. I did gloss it, and it looks really interesting.
Based on my gloss, I’d like to recommend a podcast to you if you don’t listen to it yet: SHWEP – The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast. He’s going from pre-Socratic to modern times in chronological order. You can pick episodes out of order and they make sense, but I went back to the beginning. It touches on all of history, philosophy, and theology, gods, beliefs, rituals, etc. Hope you find it interesting.