Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Epilogue

2023.01.02 | By Gregory Nagy


§0. The book had started with Hippolytus the Charioteer and now ends with Achilles the Charioteer. By now we have seen the supreme prestige of charioteering as a primary form of athletics at the Olympics and at other Panhellenic festivals—most notably at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens, where the charioteering event of the apobatai was especially designed to show off both the political and and the cultural prestige of Athens as the would-be primary city-state of the entire Panhellenic world. The athleticism of the apobatai was an ideal way for Athenians to claim ownership of the grandeur that was Homeric poetry—and thus to lay claim also to their own grandeur. What more is there to talk about, then, in the “epi” of this “Epilogue”?

§1. One last thing for me to talk about in this book about heroes, athletes, and poetry is a most powerful poetic retelling of an athletic event experienced by a hero. Before I name names, I will talk first about the poetic retelling itself, which centers on an idea that transcends all other kinds of prestige, even Panhellenic prestige.

§2. A hero is retelling, in the poetry, the event that he experienced in the role of an athlete. This athletic event is grand, most grand, but it is not Panhellenic in grandeur. Or, at least, it seems to be non-Panhellenic. I can say it more starkly: this athletic event is ostentatiously featured as something that cannot be Panhellenic. Instead, the hero who is speaking in the poetry here says that the athletic event that he experienced took place at some local festival. The athletic event was local, not Panhellenic. And, by clear implication, local events are not expected to be as prestigious as Panhellenic events.

§3. Worse than that, there seems to be—at first sight—negligible prestige involved in any competition that would take place at this particular local athletic event, since the place where the event did take place is not even given a name. If a place has no place-name, how can it be prestigious?

§4. Now I will start to name names. First, I name Euripides as the poet of the poetry here. He is a master of what I would describe as a poetry of “local color.” We can see this kind of poetry on display in his drama, the Hippolytus, which I analyzed in Hour 20 of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Nagy 2013). In this kind of poetry, Euripides was intimately concerned with the anthropology of local rituals and myths, and I already analyzed in the Introduction to my book here this poet’s profound knowledge of local traditions centering on Hippolytus, which I compared with the added knowledge of the traveler Pausanias concerning the hero Hippolytus as the celestial Charioteer, the Auriga of the night sky.

§5. Next I name the drama of Euripides, the Alcestis, where the poetry features a retelling, by the hero whom I have not yet named, about his experience as a competitor at a local athletic event. The hero involved is seeking to compensate for the death of Alcestis, a queen who has just given up, out of love, her life for her husband, the king Admetus.

§6. And now I name the hero, so involved in a death motivated by a woman’s love for a man. The involved hero is none other than Hēraklēs, who had been generously favored as an honored guest at the palace of Admetus and who is now eager to return the favor to the king. Once again, one last time in this book, we see the forceful presence of Hēraklēs, that supreme athlete and life-saver of humanity. Except, this time, we will see Hēraklēs going beyond even Hēraklēs.

§7. The aim of Hēraklēs in this drama is to return the favor of the king’s generosity by undertaking the task—the ordeal—of trying to save the life of the queen. But how can this be? That life has already been lost to death.

§8. But Hēraklēs knows what to do. Once again, as so often in his heroic past, he will engage in an athletic feat. But, this time, the feat will not be a Panhellenic Labor. No, it will be, instead, local labor, which will take place in a place that does not seem to have enough prestige even to be mentioned by name. At that place, Hēraklēs will engage in a wrestling match that will decide whether Alcestis will come back to life or stay dead. But how can such a match be decisive about a matter of life and death? The answer is, it can happen only if the opponent of Hēraklēs in such a wrestling match is Death personified, Thanatos. If Hēraklēs wins in a wrestling match with Thanatos, then he wins life back for Alcestis. If he loses, then Alcestis stays dead—and Hēraklēs himself loses his own life.

§9. Hēraklēs succeeds. He defeats Thanatos and thus wins back the life of Alcestis. But then, in retelling his victory over death when Hēraklēs delivers a living Alcestis as a new bride for Admetos, the hero disguises the generic and universalized meaning of his victory over death by describing his heroic experience as a localized athletic event—as a wrestling match held at a local athletic festival. Here is the wording of Hēraklēs in referring to his struggle with Thanatos: ἀθληταῖσιν ἄξιον πόνον ‘a worthy exertion [ponos] for athletes [āthlētai]’ (Euripides Alcestis 1027).

§10. In the retelling of his victory, the wording of Hēraklēs does not reveal that he has struggled with Thanatos. Instead, he pictures his life-and-death ordeal as simply a wrestling match that took place in a ‘competition’ at a ‘local’ festival, that is, as an agōn pan-dēmos (ἀγῶνα πάνδημον, Alcestis 1024). In earlier comments of mine about this expression (Nagy 1990a:138–139 at 5§4; also H24H 22§30), I compared the wording of Euripides here with the folkloristic idea of heroic wrestling with Death incarnate, common in Modern Demotic Greek folklore (Alexiou 1974:37–38); and, in view of the fact that Hādēs, not Thanatos, was the Panhellenic manifestation of the death god in ancient Greek traditions, I found it most telling that the scholia introducing the whole drama of the Alcestis (at line 1) described the myth of this drama as ἡ διὰ στόματος καὶ δημώδης ἱστορία ‘the story as it was passed on by word of mouth—the popular [dēmōdēs] story’ (comments also by Alexiou, p. 5). The translation I give here for the adjective dēmōdēs, ‘popular’, requires further comment: this adjective is derived from the noun dēmos, the most general meaning of which was not only ‘population’ but also ‘local population’—a meaning that can be traced all the way back to the language of the Mycenaean Empire as reflected in Linear B texts, where the earlier form is dāmos (Nagy 1990a:347n51 at 12§22 and p. 422 at 14§20; more at p. 56n24 at 2§12 and p. 251n10 at 9§2 on the specialized legal implications in Mycenaean contexts). Despite such implications of “local color” here, however, the localism of the local festival is too generic to be really “local.” After all, we see no naming here of the locale for the local festival. So, maybe I should have translated pan-dēmos not simply as ‘local’ but rather as ‘shared by all the locales [dēmoi]’, where the dēmoi ‘locales’ or ‘local districts’ all have something in common, something they all share. And what can be shared by all populations, by all people? Evidently, it is death itself. So, this ordeal of Hēraklēs in his struggle with Death personified is even more universalized than a Panhellenic Labor. More than Panhellenic, this labor is shared by all humans in all locales. This labor is all-human, all too human. The labor of Hēraklēs here transcends his Panhellenic Labors. Hēraklēs here is going beyond Hēraklēs, that famed founder of the Olympics and model for Panhellenic athleticism. After his victory over Death personified in a primal wrestling match, the festive mood that Hēraklēs displays in celebrating this victory reflects what can best be described as the truest of all epinician celebrations. His heroic song, mediated by the poetry of Euripides, is an athlete’s song of victory over death.

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