Heroic virtues in the Homeric world

homeric-hero-virtues-arete-metis

The Homeric poems and some legends and myths narrated by posthumous authors are the only literary source we can rely on in order to assess the main features and events of the dawn of Greek civilisation. The lack of very organised information, rather fragmentary and only partially comforted by archaeological discoveries, still now puzzles scholars, academics and amateurs passionate about archaic Greece. Nevertheless, the attentive reading of these sources has revealed some evident characteristics and aspects of Hellenic archaic culture that can aid us to draw the basic sketch of virtues and values, of morally correct behaviour and socially accepted and praised conduct: some of the paradigmatic main lines of a civilised society.

Accordingly, hospitality can be considered the very first duty and virtue within and among the ancient tribes who populated the archaic Greek terra-firma, islands and the Ionian colonies.  Protection, hosting and gifts were rituals deeply rooted and consistently honoured for generations. An interesting instance is reported in Iliad’s dialogue between Glaucus and Diomedes:

But Hippolochus begat me and of him do I declare that I am sprung; and he sent me to Troy and straitly charged me ever to be bravest and pre-eminent above all, and not bring shame upon the race of my fathers, that were far the noblest in Ephyre and in wide Lycia. This is the lineage and the blood whereof I avow me sprung.” So spoke he, and Diomedes, good at the warcry, waxed glad. He planted his spear in the bounteous earth, and with gentle words spoke to the shepherd of the host: “Verily now art thou a friend of my father’s house from of old: for goodly Oeneus on a time entertained peerless Bellerophon in his halls, and kept him twenty days; and moreover they gave one to the other fair gifts of friendship. Oeneus gave a belt bright with scarlet, and Bellerophon a double cup of gold which I left in my palace as I came hither. But Tydeus I remember not, seeing I was but a little child when he left, what time the host of the Achaeans perished at Thebes. Therefore now am I a dear guest-friend to thee in the midst of Argos, and thou to me in Lycia, whenso I journey to the land of that folk. So let us shun one another’s spears even amid the throng; full many there be for me to slay, both Trojans and famed allies, whomsoever a god shall grant me and my feet overtake; and many Achaeans again for thee to slay whomsoever thou canst. And let us make exchange of armour, each with the other, that these men too may know that we declare ourselves to be friends from our fathers’ days.”

Recognizably in the Homeric poems physical power, bravery, strength and cleverness on the battlefield are remarkably emphasised and rewarded. The effort and commitment aimed at the conquest of eternal glory are summarised within the utmost virtue for an Homeric hero: excellenceAρετή. This is brilliantly described in this brief dialogue between Sarpedon and Glaucus during the siege of Troy:

“Even so did his spirit then urge godlike Sarpedon to rush upon the wall, and break-down the battlements. Straightway then he spoke to Glaucus, son of Hippolochus: “Glaucus, wherefore is it that we twain are held in honour above all with seats, and messes, and full cups in Lycia, and all men gaze upon us as on gods? Aye, and we possess a great demesne by the banks of Xanthus, a fair tract of orchard and of wheat-bearing plough-land. Therefore now it behoveth us to take our stand amid the foremost Lycians, and confront the blazing battle that many a one of the mail-clad Lycians may say: “Verily no inglorious men be these that rule in Lycia, even our kings, they that eat fat sheep and drink choice wine, honey-sweet: nay, but their might too is goodly, seeing they fight amid the foremost Lycians. Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle we were for ever to be ageless and immortal, neither should I fight myself amid the foremost, nor should I send thee into battle where men win glory; but now—for in any case fates of death beset us, fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us. So spoke he, and Glaucus turned not aside, neither disobeyed him, but the twain went straight forward, leading the great host of the Lycians.”

This rather complex concept of ἀρετή (arete) is not solely straightforwardly affirmed, but per contrapasso is ulteriorly stressed by the pending oppression of the shame caused by any possible display of cowardice and ineptitude – as Hector clearly states before his duel with Achilles:

“Then, mightily moved, he spoke unto his own great-hearted spirit: “Ah, woe is me, if I go within the gates and the walls Polydamas will be the first to put reproach upon me, for that he bade me lead the Trojans to the city during this fatal night, when goodly Achilles arose. Howbeit I hearkened not—verily it had been better far! But now, seeing I have brought the host to ruin in my blind folly, I have shame of the Trojans, and the Trojans’ wives with trailing robes, lest some other baser man may say: ‘Hector, trusting in his own might, brought ruin on the host.’ So will they say; but for me it were better far to meet Achilles man to man and slay him, and so get me home, or myself perish gloriously before the city.”

To exercise just vengeance to a personal or social offence is another greatly demanded virtue, unquestionably also part of the sense of honour and courage that an Homeric hero is naturally supposed to possess – as Athena warmly reminds to Telemachus:

“First go to Pylos and ask Nestor; thence go on to Sparta and visit Menelaos, for he got home last of all the Achaeans; if you hear that your father is alive and about to achieve his homecoming, you can put up with the waste these suitors will make for yet another twelve months. If on the other hand you hear of his death, come home at once, celebrate his funeral rites with all due pomp, build a grave marker to his memory, and make your mother marry again. Then, having done all this, think it well over in your mind how, by fair means or foul, you may kill these suitors in your own house. You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer Aigisthos? You are a fine, smart looking young man; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story. Now, however, I must go back to my ship and to my crew, who will be impatient if I keep them waiting longer; think the matter over for yourself, and remember what I have said to you.”

And as it is very sadly lamented by Helen when speaking of Paris’ spinelessness:

“Howbeit, seeing the gods thus ordained these ills, would that I had been wife to a better man, that could feel the indignation of his fellows and their many revilings. But this man’s understanding is not now stable, nor ever will be hereafter; thereof I deem that he will e’en reap the fruit”.

Yet warfare skills, fierce revenge and combating courage seem of course admittedly necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the excellence and the consequent of endless glory. The Homeric hero must be also a master of the dialogue, able to gain consensus with his words and submit masses with his charismatic speech, virtues highly praised in both Iliad and Odyssey:

“Then among them spoke Thoas, son of Andraemon, far the best of the Aetolians, well-skilled in throwing the javelin, but a good man too in close fight, and in the place of assembly could but few of the Achaeans surpass him, when the young men were striving in debate”.

Nevertheless when force and/or speech cannot obtain success the Homeric hero has to count on the absolute and most sophisticated virtue – Μτις (metis): a multifaceted and articulated ability implying wit, inventiveness, audacity and shrewdness, whose master of course is Odysseus. IN fact not only a mortal: king Nestor, who knowledgeably lectures his son Antilochus on how to win the cart race:

“The horses of the others are swifter, but the men know not how to devise more cunning counsel than thine own self. Wherefore come, dear son, lay thou up in thy mind cunning of every sort, to the end that the prizes escape thee not. By cunning, thou knowest, is a woodman far better than by might; by cunning too doth a helmsman on the wine-dark deep guide aright a swift ship that is buffeted by winds; and by cunning doth charioteer prove better than charioteer. ”

notwithstanding his own old age, intelligence and experience, confesses Ulysses’ artful deceptiveness superiority; but even the goddess Athena, almost proudly and appreciatively, admits Odysseus’ insuperable foxiness in conceiving and fulfilling ingenious plans:

Athena smiled and caressed him with her hand. Then she took the form of a woman, fair, stately, and wise, “He must be indeed a shifty and deceitful person,” said she, “who could surpass you in all manner of craft even though you had a god for your antagonist. Daring that you are, full of guile, unwearying in deceit, can you not drop your tricks and your instinctive falsehood, even now that you are in your own country again? We will say no more, however, about this, for we both of us know craftiness upon occasion – you are the best counsellor and orator among all humankind, while I for diplomacy and crafty ways have fame among the gods.


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8 comments on “Heroic virtues in the Homeric world

  1. lustigkulle says:

    My nephew of 6 years, who certainly knows a lot about heroes, more specifically the “Superheroes” like Spiderman and his friends, would agree with the old Greek in that a hero has to be physically strong and courageous. He also should be smart like Odysseus and of course have some extraordinary skills, I think the invincible Achilles would be accepted. But – he would not at all understand the ancient Greek version of hospitality – the duty to respect the son of a friend of ones father, even if he is on the enemy-side in the middle of a battle!

    The most important difference though, is that the superheroes of my nephew are good. They are always good and fight against evil to protect the weak and innocent ones. The Homeric heroes don’t fit in such a moral scheme. Compassion and mercy were not heroic virtues.

    Thanks for a clarifying article!

  2. Hellen Haan says:

    Hello honey, nice article as usual. Interesting quotations and hard work research. Perfect outcome.
    Love
    Hellen

  3. Holly says:

    I wonder where are these virtues nowadays??
    Very good post, Kisses, Holly

  4. Jimena says:

    Querido me encantan tus artículos. Besos – Jimena

  5. Laure says:

    It is interesting to see how things have changed and keep changing as centuries go by… chivalry, gentlemanly behavior only memories today…… I prefer the good old days.
    Laure from Cincinnati

  6. Dora says:

    Heroes and virtues, things and words practically unknown in these days. Lovely and erudite article, my compliments.
    Dora

  7. Alex Mason says:

    Invaluable for AS revision! And extremely interesting as well. Thanks so much.

  8. […] Alas, I can’t remember the name, and I think it went the way of the dodo. STOA POIKILE has a blog entry on Heroic Virtues in the Homeric World. Here is the part on metis:  Nevertheless when force and/or […]

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