7. Conclusion

Once it appears that there are consistent symbolic connotations to the noun σφυρόν and to the epithets deriving from it, connotations that transcend poetic genre and span the course of literary development from Homer to Bacchylides, a final question remains: why should these words have the implications they do? This is the kind of question that is impossible to solve definitively, but it is nevertheless tempting to speculate about some answers.
The appearance of σφυρόν in the Iliad and the symbolic importance it has in the structure of the poem seem all the more significant and credible in light of the use of the related epithets in the same and in subsequent works. In reviewing the use of this noun it is revealing to note the other parts of the body the poet includes with the ankle in his narrative of wounding and death. In the wounding of Menelaos the blood drips on his ankle, legs and thighs; in the killing of Diores, the weapon hits his ankle and bones; and in the deaths both of Patroklos and of Hektor, the ankle and the neck are the places of mutilation. All the parts of the body with which the ankle appears have specific sacrificial connotations. The prominence of the μηρός in animal sacrifices to the gods and its consequent symbolism in archaic poetry were discussed above. [1] A comparable and equally noteworthy tradition surrounds the ὀστέα, for Hesiod explains that since the time of Prometheus men sacrifice the ὀστέα λευκά of animals to the gods. [2] And in funerary rituals there was a concern for saving the bones of the dead. [3] A blow on the back of the neck is, finally, a familiar part of the ritual killing of sacrificial animals. [4]
The head and the feet, the parts of the body attacked in the deaths of Patroklos and Hektor, appear in combination in some myths about human sacrifice as well. Herodotos reports, for example, that after Harpagos unwittingly ate his own son at a feast he is shown a basket containing the hands, head and feet of his child that were not cooked along with the rest of his body. [5] The same feature appears in the story of Lykaon, who sacrifices young boys but first sets apart their feet and their heads and preserves them. [6]
Many attested religious beliefs reflect the same practice for animals. In the temple of the Syrian goddess at Hierapolis, worshippers sacrificed a black sheep and then laid the heads and feet of the sacrificed animal on their own bodies. [7] Many inscriptions indicate the importance of the feet in rituals. [8] During some sacrifices and mysteries, the shoes had to be removed. [9] And in the Pelasgian cult of Zeus at Dodona, washing of the feet was forbidden, perhaps in the belief that feet and the dirt they touched connect men with chthonic powers. [10]
The similarity between the sacrificing of humans and the sacrificing of animals is not surprising. In the Iliad there are several descriptions and similes suggesting explicitly the parallel between a warrior’s killing and an animal sacrifice. [11] The most striking of these associations is in Book XXI, when Achilles wounds Lykaon fatally in the αὐχήν and then grabs him by the foot and throws him into the river—killing him and abusing his body in ways exactly foreshadowing Hektor’s death. Achilles then declares that it will do the Trojans no good to sacrifice animals in this same way, by casting them into the river (XXI 116–132). This passage and the association it presents lead all the more strongly to the association of Hektor’s death and mutilation with sacrificial practices.
It is not surprising that the deaths of Patroklos and Hektor, the two most important deaths in the Iliad, should have connections with sacrificial killings. The funerary practices Patroklos’ corpse undergoes are, in fact, obvious allusions to sacrificial practices. [12] Nor is this association inappropriate to the wounding of Menelaos and to the death of Diores. For these two events begin and end the first battle of the Iliad, the battle that is a symbolic re-enactment of the entire conflict. And, as Burkert points out, wars in the mythical tradition tend to be initiated and concluded by a human sacrifice. The sacrifices of Iphigeneia and of Polyxena, for example, mark the beginning and the close of the Trojan war. [13]
If sacrificial practices do somehow shape or contribute to the symbolic connotations of the noun σφυρόν, these connotations would also pass on to the epithets deriving from the noun. And the shades of meaning that the epithets acquire—associations with abduction and rape, death and rebirth—all make sense as elaborations or offshoots of an aboriginal religious association. All the female figures who receive the epithet either undergo or reflect some kind of miraculous or mystical deathlike experience, one either overt or sublimated in a sexual metaphor. Demeter and Persephone receive these epithets in connection with rape, death and then rebirth. Similarly, Hebe and Alcmene are described by all three epithets in connection with Heracles’ death, rebirth and sexual union. And Ino is καλλίσφυρος at the moment of her rebirth. The stories of a woman’s abduction by a god involve themes of sexuality, death and recovery. The Ookeanides and some of their children receive the epithets, and they mark the end of the world and the beginning of the underworld. Water and water imagery, which the Okeanides personify and which appear in many of these passages, are commonly associated with death, possibly because of connections with Minoan and Mycenaean religious practices and beliefs about the afterlife that involved the sea. [14]
The sacrificial origin of this symbolism is but a suggestion for explaining its genesis. More importantly, it is the consistent thematic connotations that these words have in the texts themselves that indicate that they have specific symbolic importance. The noun σφυρόν is much more than an anatomical reference in the Iliad; and the epithets deriving from it are much more than ornamental epithets. Their meaning transcends metrical expediency and arbitrary use. They seem to be embodiments or capsulations of traditional themes. Just as the epithets πόλυτλας and πολύτροπος evoke the entire traditions of Odysseus, even in passages in the Iliad in which the story does not appear, so καλλίσφυρος, τανίσφυρος and εὔσφυρος may be similar evocations and embodiments of traditional themes. If the epithets tend to appear in similar metrical positions, it is possible that this situation is generated by the formula, rather than that the formula is generated by the metrical position. [15] Otherwise, it is hard to explain the specific emblematic appropriateness of each of the epithets’ use.
But once this traditional significance is evident, it is above all interesting to see how each poet or each tradition adapts the epithet’s meaning to the specific context and to the specific work at hand. For although the original and essential idea of an epithet is traditional and fixed, each poet uses it in his own way, letting the tradition behind it and the various aspects of its meaning merge to greater or lesser degrees. It is, in the end, the individual poet and his original creation which determine the connotations of the epithet and which are supremely important. For this reason no epithet, no traditional formula has a cut and dry meaning. Each symbol has many nuances. [16] The recognition of a traditional motif does not reduce the creative process to an automatic exercise, but, on the contrary, serves to elucidate better the meaning and the artistry and the diction of the poetry.


[ back ] 1. See Chapter 2.
[ back ] 2. Hesiod Theogony 540–541 and 556–557.
[ back ] 3. Burkert 1972:13, 21, 24, 49,114, 117.
[ back ] 4. Hymn to Hermes 119–120.
[ back ] 5. Herodotos I.119.
[ back ] 6. Burkert 1972:121.
[ back ] 7. Burkert 1972:132.
[ back ] 8. Stengel 1910:85–91.
[ back ] 9. Ibid.
[ back ] 10. Iliad XVI 235. Eitrem 1915:92.
[ back ] 11. Iliad XVII 520; XX 403.
[ back ] 12. Lowenstam 1975 passim.
[ back ] 13. Burkert 1972:29n34, 77, 79ff.
[ back ] 14. Rutkowski 1968.
[ back ] 15. For this entire discussion, see Nagy 1976, esp. 244, 255–256. His definition of the formula is very helpful: “The formula is a fixed phrase conditioned by the traditional themes of oral poetry … Meter is diachronically generated by formula rather than vice-versa” (251).
[ back ] 16. Nagler 1967 writes: “No simple equation … will get us very far into the poetic artistry of the relevant passages. The interaction of word and context, the precise comment the motif offers upon the character or situation of the personage(s) involved, is not fixed in a single function. [A]n active symbol … can be realized with a great variety of nuance” (299).