Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Essay 10: Achilles the charioteer

2023.01.02 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 10. Achilles the charioteer

10§0. In the Odyssey, where the death of Achilles in battle is being retrospectively narrated, Homeric poetry eulogizes the dead hero for being the master charioteer that he had been in his epic lifetime. In the battle scenes narrated by Homeric poetry in the Iliad, however, we never get to see Achilles performing his deeds of bravura in charioteering. How can this be?

10§1. Toward the end of the Odyssey, the spirit of Agamemnon in Hādēs is speaking to the spirit of Achilles, and he  briefly retells the death of Achilles. Agamemnon says to Achilles in this retelling: there you lay, dead, freshly killed in battle, larger-than-life, with no thoughts any more about feats showing your mastery in charioteering. Here are the powerful words of the Homeric narration in Odyssey 24.39–40:

σὺ δ’ ἐν στροφάλιγγι κονίης | κεῖσο μέγας μεγαλωστί

There you were, lying there in a swirl of dust. | You lay there so huge in all your hugeness, and forgotten by you now were all your deeds of charioteering [hipposunē plural].

10§2. The word hipposunē here is an abstract noun that means ‘charioteering’. As in other cases where abstract nouns in the plural refer to specific examples of what is meant by the abstract noun, the plural hipposunai here means ‘deeds of charioteering’, that is, in this case, specific examples of excellence in charioteering. But Achilles does not really have a chance to show off his deeds of charioteering in the epic of the Homeric Iliad. The narrative there focuses instead on a polluted variation on the theme of charioteering: Achilles is seen dragging behind his speeding chariot the corpse of his hated enemy Hector. But the narrative also shows an ongoing purification of the pollution, since indirect interventions by Aphrodite and Apollo prevent  the mutilation of Hector’s body, thus thwarting what the vengeful Achilles had intended. In my Homeric commentary (Nagy 2016–2022), where I write an “anchor comment” on Iliad 23.184–191, I analyze there the pollution that had threatened the ultimate salvation of Hector’s body—a pollution that had also threatened the ritual correctness of charioteering as a prestigious form of warfare—and of athletics. But my purpose in bringing up here this dark moment in the epic narrative traditions about Achilles is simply to show that the brilliant moments of this hero’s charioteering are not only occluded in the Iliad: worse than that, this epic features Achilles as charioteer only in those dark moments when his own actions threaten to pollute the ritual integrity of charioteering. By contrast, the two warriors who most resemble Achilles physically—not only his best friend Patroklos but also his hated enemy Hector—are the main heroes who are highlighted as masters of charioteering in the Homeric Iliad. Here too, I ask myself the same question as before: How can this be?

10§3. In H24H Hour 7, I studied black figure vase paintings that represent the hero Achilles in the role of a charioteer. But there he is an apobatic warrior—let us call him a chariot fighter. And that role of his cannot be found in the Homeric Iliad. At first, this absence of an apobatic role may strike us as an anomaly, since, as I just said, the two heroes who resemble Achilles most closely—not only his best friend Patroklos but also his mortal enemy Hector—are prominently featured as masters of apobatic charioteering in the same epic, the Homeric Iliad.  In the case of Hector, I can even add that the Homeric reference at Iliad 8.185 to his four-horse chariot, highlighted in Essay 9§17, marks this hero’s potential role as an apobatic athlete.

10§4. But what about the representations of Achilles in the black figure paintings? Here I see a composite picturing of Achilles in two roles: he is pictured simultaneously as an epic chariot fighter and as a Panathenaic athlete participating in an apobatic competition (Nagy 2010|2009:170-177, following Stähler 1967). From the standpoint of these paintings, Achilles will keep on riding on his speeding chariot, ready at any moment to leap to the ground and rush into mortal combat on foot, so long as his heroic feats as a chariot fighter are being re-enacted again and again by competing apobatic athletes on each new occasion of the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia—and so long as his story is being re-performed again and again by competing rhapsodes at that same festival.

10§5.  In the narrative of the Homeric Iliad as we have it, by contrast, Achilles is featured only as a generic charioteer, not as an apobatic fighter or athlete. Even at the Funeral Games for Patroklos as retold in the Iliad, Achilles delegates the role of the athlete to his fellow heroes. Instead of engaging in any athletic event, Achilles now presides over all the athletic events, arranged to honor the one hero whose death must be compensated by way of athletic competitions. That one hero is the other self of Achilles, Patroklos—but also, in the long run, Achilles himself. And so Achilles becomes the ritual representative of Patroklos, his other self, by presiding over the athletic competitions at the Funeral Games for his dead friend. His chosen role as presider here is a substitute for the role that he choses in the vase paintings, where he engages directly in the athletic competition of the apobatai (Nagy 2010|2009:175-176).

10§6. No matter which hero is shown engaging in athletic events, whether it be Achilles or only his fellow heroes, the fact remains that heroes who engage in these events become models for athletes who compete in these same kinds of events. And they are models because they are shown as competing in athletic ordeals that are instituted explicitly in compensation for the death of one of their own kind, a hero.

10§7. This is not to say that the modeling is consistently positive. We have already seen in Essay 4§8 that the actions of heroes may be negative models—even when they serve as aetiologies for existing institutions like athletic festivals, as in the case of the Tlēpolemeia. Moreover, the models for heroes who compete in athletics may be their very own selves in other phases of their own lives as narrated in epic. For example, the heroes who compete in athletic events at the Funeral Games for Patroklos in the Iliad can unwittingly re-enact corresponding heroic events, either positive or negative, that they will experience at some point in their actual lives as characters in the heroic narration (Whitman 1959:169, Nagy 1990a:193 at 6§85, Frame 2009:170-172, 205-216).

10§8. I close this tenth and last essay by recalling, in the first of these ten essays, the tīmē a-phthi-tos ‘unwilting honor’ of the seasonally recurring athletic event that the hero Demophon receives as an eternal compensation for his death in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (line 263). We may now compare that seasonal recurrence with the seasonal recurrence of the kleos a-phthi-ton ‘unwilting glory’ that the hero Achilles receives as a likewise eternal compensation for his own death in the Iliad:

My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end [telos]. If I stay here and fight, I shall not have a return [nostos] alive but my glory [kleos] will be unwilting [aphthiton]: whereas if I go home my name [kleos] will perish, but it will be long before the end [telos] shall take me.

Iliad 9.410-416

10§9. Just as the tīmē a-phthi-tos ‘unwilting honor’ awaiting the hero Demophon is equated with the hero’s cult, which is understood as lasting for eternity by virtue of being renewed year after year in the form of seasonally recurring athletic competitions, so also the eternal kleos a-phthi-ton ‘unwilting glory’ awaiting the hero Achilles is being equated here with the hero’s epic, which is Homeric poetry itself, and which is likewise understood as lasting for eternity. In the case of epic, its notional eternity is achieved by virtue of being renewed year after year in the form of seasonally recurring rhapsodic competitions at the Panathenaia, which are coordinated with the seasonally recurring athletic competitions at the same festival.

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