Chapter 4: The Authority of the King


The Greek kraínō is used of the divinity who sanctions (by a nod, kraínō being a derivative of kára ‘head’) and, by imitation of the divine authority, also of the king who gives executive sanction to a project or a proposal but without carrying it out himself. Kraínō thus appears as the specific expression for the act of authority—divine in origin and subsequently also royal and even susceptible of other extensions in given contexts—which allows a word to be realized in action.


If we study the vocabulary of royalty in Greek, we observe that there is a unilateral relationship between the verbs and nouns relating to the concept of “ruling.” The principal verbs are derived from nouns and not vice versa. Thus basileúein is a denominative verb from the noun basileús, just as anássein is based on ánaks. It follows that by themselves these verbs add no new element to what is already known from the basic noun.
However, we have an important verb which does not appear as a derivative from a living substantive. At least from a synchronic point of view, in Homeric Greek it is a primary verb. In the epic language it has the form kraiaínō, which is contracted to kraínō.
This verb, which is exclusively poetical, is frequent in Homer; it is widely attested in tragedy in the sense “to reign.” But in the majority of Homeric examples kraínō means “execute, accomplish.” At least this is how it is everywhere translated. Let us compare two Homeric formulas to measure the range of sense of which this verb is capable in the same language: krḗēnon eéldōr ‘fulfill this desire’; but also basilē̂es kraínousi ‘kings reign’. How can we reconcile these two senses? We do not know. It would, however, be relevant to see what was the basic idea which gave rise to a certain concept of (royal) power.
From the morphological point of view, kraínō is a denominative derived from the name of the “head.” The Homeric present tense kraiaínō goes back to *krās o n-, which is based on the Indo-European stem represented in Gr. kára, Skt. śīrṣan, etc., “head.” What is the relation of sense between the basic noun and the derived verb? It will be the same as that between French chef and achever. We can cite a parallel from Greek itself: kephalaióō. The ancients themselves had the same idea when they said that kraínein is “to put the head on something.”
But these connections solve nothing. The relation in French is of quite a different order: achever is “to bring to a head.” The chef is certainly the “head,” but understood as the final stage of a movement, whence the sense “to bring to the limit, extremity.” Now the word for head in Greek, whether it is kephalḗ or kára, evokes quite different images, those of the initial point, the source and origin. So we cannot group it with caput in Late Latin or with chef in French, where it designated the “ultimate point, the extremity.” As for kephalaióō, it means not “to finish” but “to sum up, bring under one head” (kephalḗ) or, as we say, to give the heads of the chapters (donner des têtes de chapitre).
Thus these parallels do not illuminate the formation of kraínō and the explanation given by the ancients falls to the ground. Only a complete study of the Homeric usages can enlighten us. We propose to review them in order to site the verb in each instance in its context. Nearly all the Homeric examples of kraiaínō and of epikraiaínō will be contained in our list.
In the Iliad (1, 41 = 504, cf. Od. 20, 115), tóde moi krḗēnon eéldōr is a prayer formula addressed to a god which is translated “fulfill my wish.”
If we now read Il. 2, 419 hṑs éphat’, oud’ ára pṓ hoi epekraíaine Kroníōn (ὥς ἔφατ᾽, οὐδ᾽ ἄρα πώ οἱ ἐπεκραίαινε Κρονίων), we see that the god has not strictly to “fulfill” this wish; he does not execute it himself. He may accept the vow, and only this divine sanction enables this wish to be realized. The action designated by the verb is always exercised as an act of authority, applied downward. Only the god has the capability of kraínein, which indicates not the actual execution but (1) the acceptance by the god of the wish formulated by the man, and (2) the divine authorization accorded to the wish to reach accomplishment.
These are the two components of the sense. The process referred to by the verb always has a god as its agent or a royal personage or some supernatural power. And this process consists in a “sanction” and in an act of approval, which alone makes a measure capable of execution.
The god in the passage cited (Il. 2, 419) has therefore refused this sanction, without which the wish remains nothing more than a form of words, something empty and of no effect. In Il. 5, 508 toû ď ekraíainen ephetmàs Phoíbou Apóllōnos (τοῦ δ’ ἐκραίαινεν ἐφετμὰς Φοίβου Ἀπόλλωνος) can we understand that the commands of Apollo are “accomplished” by Ares? But the verb, we repeat, is only used of a god. In fact, and this is shown by the context, Ares does not here carry out an order. He sheds a cloud over the combatants; he acts in such a way that the wish of Phoebus can be fulfilled. But the execution falls to the combatants themselves. They could do nothing if this sanction had not been granted to them, which comes by divine authority. Here we may give precision to the explanation simply by considering the circumstances and the persons concerned.
Another passage (9, 100ff.) had already attracted the attention of the ancient commentators:
τῶ σε χρὴ περὶ μεν φάσθαι ἔπος, ἠδ’ ἐπακοῦσαι,
κρηῆναι δὲ καὶ ἄλλῳ, ὅτ’ ἄν τινα θυμὸς ἀνώγηι
εἰπεῖν εἰς αγαθόν.
This is a speech by Nestor addressed to Agamemnon with the purpose of urging him not to disregard the opinions expressed to him. Responsible for numerous men by virtue of his royal authority, he ought to listen to the wise counsels that can be given to him. “You more than others it behooves to speak and listen and at need act according to the opinion of another when his heart has impelled him to speak for the good of all.” This translation is in need of some revision. We must first elucidate the construction krēē̂nai dè kaì állōi. It is to be explained by the ellipsis of the direct object, which is épos and is to be understood from the preceding line: “pronounce and listen to the word (épos)” and from eipeîn in the following line. The construction is therefore to be understood as follows: krēē̂nai (épos) állōi and so is exactly symmetrical with krē̂non kaì emoì épos (Od. 20, 115). We may thus translate “You more than anyone should speak, lend your ears to, and ratify (krēē̂nai) the word of another if his spirit prompts him to speak to good purpose.”
In Achilles’ reply (9, 310) ᾗπερ δὴ κρανέω τε καὶ τετελεσμένον ἔσται, two verbs are coordinated: kraínein and teleîn. The translation “I must tell you bluntly how I intend to act and how it will come to pass” does not bring out the logical relation between kraínein ‘to sanction’ and teleîn ‘to accomplish’. We translate “I must make plain my intention, how I shall confirm it and how it will be accomplished.”
After the refusal of Achilles to lend aid to the Achaeans, Ajax says “Let us go, it does not seem that the accomplishment of our plan is sanctioned (kranéesthai) by this journey” (9, 626). The embassy to Achilles will thus not be followed by any success. It has failed.
We can go a step further in this analysis if we consider the opposition between noē̂sai and kraínein in the Odyssey (5, 169). Calypso undertakes to do everything in her power to help Odysseus return home “if that is pleasing to the gods, who are superior to me both in planning (noē̂sai) and in execution (krē̂nai).” Here the notable fact is the absolute use of kraínein and that the act of kraínein is also credited to the gods. These “accomplish,” but always in their proper sphere: kraínein is never used of accomplishment by a human individual. From this moment we observe an evolution of meaning which produces different senses according to the construction of the verb. We have the transitive construction (notably with eéldōr), of which we have seen some examples above; and the intransitive construction which must now be illustrated by means of a few examples.
It already appears in the Odyssey and gives to kraínein the sense of “to decide by supreme authority.” In this way it comes about that Alkinoos can say: “twelve kings kraínousi” (8, 390) among the Phaeacians. This is equivalent to “rule,” but without implying that this verb is necessarily bound up with the exercise of the royal function. It always signifies the capacity to give effect to an authoritative decision. After Homer the intransitive construction of kraínein retains this sense; e.g. in Aeschylus épraksan hōs ékranen ‘They fared as Zeus in his authority had decided’ (Ag. 369). Furthermore we have an epigraphic passage of particular interest, because it is unique among its kind, in the oath formula of the ephebes [1] “I shall obey those who exercise authority (tō̂n krainóntōn) with wisdom,” with reference to the supreme magistrates of the city.
The transitive construction of kraínein in tragedy usually is found in the passive; it serves to announce the things effected by great sovereign powers: “More than once my mother predicted to me how the future would be accomplished” (kraínoito) (Aeschylus Prom. 211); “It is not fated that Moira should accomplish (krā̂nai) these things in this way” (ibid. 512); “The curse of his father Kronos will be accomplished then entirely” (kranthḗsetai, ibid. 911); “In such a way is a unanimous vote accomplished (kékrantai), decided by the people” (Suppl. 943).
It is also invariably the case that the negative Homeric adjective akráantos ‘not effected’ (Il. 2, 138), classical ákrantos, later “vain,” refers to the action of a supra-individual power. It has this full sense in two passages of the Odyssey; in one it applies to a prophecy which is not fulfilled (2, 202). The other is the celebrated passage on dreams (19, 564). Here we must recall the Homeric distinction between the ónar, the dream which may be merely an illusion and the “good húpar, which shall be accomplished” (ibid. 547). Dreams have a reality of their own order independent of human reality. It is within the framework of this dream world that we must place the relationship between the two varieties of dream: some (we disregard the play of assonance in the Greek text) come by the ivory gates and deceive, “bringing words not to be fulfilled (akráanta)”; others come by the horn gates, those which give the sanction of fulfillment (kraínousi) to true things (étuma). The sovereign power of dreams is the condition of their truth, already established, which is perceptible only to the seer and will be confirmed by events. Thus the two adjectives correspond: akráanta denotes the things which will not come to pass as opposed to the étuma, the things which will be revealed as true.
Finally, to complete this review, we cite some more difficult uses of kraínein: the three examples in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes which we take in their order of occurrence. “Hermes raises his voice as he plays the cithara harmoniously, the lovely song of which accompanies him as he ‘celebrates’ (kraínōn) the immortal gods as well as the dark earth” (l. 427). The proposed translation of kraínō as “celebrate” is taken from the ancient commentators. The use of the verb seemed so different from those of Homer and even those encountered in later texts that the usual translation was regarded as inadmissible. So scholars have fallen back on a gloss of Hesychius, who translates kraínōn as “honoring, celebrating” (timō̂n, geraírōn). It is highly probable that the gloss applies to the passage in question; it simply indicates the embarrassment felt by ancient commentators in the face of a usage apparently so aberrant. Others have suggested translating kraínōn by apotelō̂n ‘performing the song until the end’, which is certainly extremely artificial. In our opinion kraínō is to be interpreted here in the same way as in the Odyssey. The god is singing of the origin of things and by his song the gods “are brought into existence.” A bold metaphor, but one which is consistent with the role of a poet who is himself a god. A poet causes to exist; things come to birth in his song. Far from disrupting the history of the word, this example illustrates its continuity.
The state of the text in l. 559 makes the problem somewhat more complex but this does not alter its character. The poet alludes to the Moîrai ‘Fates’, who are invested with prophetic powers and give instruction in the art of divination. They are the Thriaí, “bee-women.” Apollo refuses to divulge to Hermes the secrets of his mantic art but offers him the Thriaí, who taught him a part of this art while he was still a child: “ … three virgin sisters taught me the arts of divination, which I exercised while still a child tending my cattle; my father made no objection. Thence they take flight hither and thither to feed on wax, bringing all things to pass (kraínousin).”
These bee-women who, taking flight, go and feed on wax and then kraínousin hékasta could hardly “bring all things to pass.” They do not possess the more than divine power which this would require, but simply the gift of prophecy, which is their sole capacity. It follows that the meaning of kraínein is here the same as in the preceding passage. It is the power of making effective, but within the field of prophecy. The meaning is not “cause to be realized” but “to predict” the things or, as is said later in the passage (561), alētheíēn agoreúein ‘tell the truth’, in explanation of kraínein. Prophetic pronouncement calls things into existence.
Finally we come to the most difficult example, in line 529 of the hymn. Apollo refuses this prophetic gift to Hermes, which is the exclusive privilege of Zeus and has been conceded to Apollo alone. But to console Hermes Apollo grants him certain minor powers and an attribute described in these terms: “a wand marvelously rich and opulent, made of gold, three-leafed: it will protect you against all manner of dangers by bringing to pass (epikraínousa) favorable decrees, words and deeds, which I declare that I know from the lips of Zeus.”
There are textual difficulties, to be sure: the manuscripts give the accusative theoús ‘gods’ as the complement of epikraínousa, which makes no sense and this has been corrected to themoús ‘decrees’. If this emendation is accepted, the line becomes intelligible and epikraínein recovers the sense which it has in the epic. The wand “gives the sanction of accomplishment” to the counsels of Apollo which he knows from the lips of Zeus, that is, to his oracles. In this passage, too, there is nothing which obliges us to translate kraínein in a different way from what we have done elsewhere.
We can now review the meaning of kraínō as a whole. The first idea is that of sanctioning with authority the accomplishment of a human project and so according it existence. From this proceed the other usages which we have reviewed: to reach in an authoritative way a political decision, exercise an authority which sanctions and ratifies decisions already taken, and in general to be invested with executive authority.
Given this single and constant meaning, if we now look for the connection between kraínein and kára ‘head’, we can see it in a different light from previous proposals. The act of sanctioning is indicated by a movement of the head. Approbation is declared by a sign of the god’s head (Gr. neúō, Lat. ad-, in-nuo, nutus). In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite we read in line 222: “Zeus gave a sign with his head (epéneuse) and ratified (ekrḗēnen) his wish.”
Whether this was the intention of the poet or not, this passage may well serve to illuminate what could be the proper sense of kraínō. And if at a later date Sophocles uses kraínein to denote power over a country (kraínein gā̂s, khō̂ras), we see that this human power is defined by the gesture which indicates divine assent.
It is this divine sanction, the sign from the head of the god, which transfers a word into the order of reality. This is why the royal power indicated by the verb kraínein proceeds from the gesture by which the god gives existence to what would otherwise be nothing more than words.


[ back ] 1. A text discovered and published by Louis Robert, Etudes épigraphiques et philologiques, 1938, p. 302.