Tuesday 28 February 2023

Homer's metre 1. Dactylic hexameter

Were you taught that the hexameter is a line consisting of six feet, each of which is either a dactyl or a spondee? If so, that was ... well, it wasn’t wrong, not in the sense of being an actual falsehood. But it certainly gave you the wrong mental model.

‘Feet’ are to Homeric poetry what roads are to geology. Handy for finding your way around, but nothing to do with the actual thing.

Let’s try a different route. Start from the basics. Dactylic hexameter is a poetic rhythm. A line of hexameter is built out of phrases of regular rhythmic shapes, which combine together to form a twelve beat rhythm. It is regularly used in ancient Greek and Latin epic poetry, such as Homer and Vergil.

1. Structure of the hexameter | 2. Hermann’s Bridge | 3. Catalogue and glossary

The wrong concepts: feet and caesuras

Yes, it’s true that ‘hexameter’ means ‘a line of six feet’ (hex- ‘six’), and ‘dactylic’ means it’s got a dum-diddy rhythm. That’s the literal meaning of the name.

They’re real words. But they’re the wrong words.

They create a mental model of ‘a sausage-string of dactyls’, as M. L. West put it fifty years ago (1973: 188). It’s a weirdly inorganic, artificial way of thinking of the hexameter. In reality it’s a very organic structure. It’s built out of phrases, not feet.

Here are some things that are traditionally taught to beginners reading ancient poetry for the first time:

  • long and short syllables
  • foot, dactyl (— ⏑⏑), spondee (— —)
  • caesura

The one about long and short syllables is fine. But the other two items are back-to-front. Feet and caesuras aren’t important for their own sake: they’re symptoms, side-effects, analytic tools. Poets invented rhythm; grammarians invented feet. And what on earth is the point of identifying caesuras if you don’t know why caesuras exist?

Here are some much more central concepts.

  • hemipes
  • colon
  • bridge

Oh, sorry, did you want to know what these are? Good luck finding an encyclopaedia that covers them! Students are traditionally taught to regard them as ‘advanced’. You won’t find an entry for any of them in The Homer encyclopedia, let alone in generalist encyclopaedias like Wikipedia. (Admittedly The Homer encyclopedia doesn’t have entries for ‘foot’ or ‘dactyl’ either. But both it and Wikipedia do have entries for ‘caesura’.)

Note. Some metricians would add ‘contraction’ to the list of central concepts: that is, the use of — to replace ⏑⏑ (or if you absolutely insist, spondees replacing dactyls). However, contraction assumes a particular set of theories for how the hexameter came into being, and there are problems. I think that genuinely is too advanced for an introduction.

I’d like to see an encyclopaedia that has no entry for ‘caesura’. Because caesuras don’t bloody matter. I want to see an encyclopaedia that does have entries for ‘colon’ and ‘Hermann’s Bridge’. Because, not only are these things integral, but also, as things stand it can be hard to find out what they actually are without resorting to some very esoteric books.

The right concepts (1): rhythm

Let’s start with just the bare rhythm, and move on to structure afterwards.

In early Greek poetry and classical Latin poetry, rhythms can be expressed in modern musical notation as crotchets (quarter notes) and quavers (eighth notes). ‘Dactylic hexameter’ is this twelve beat rhythm:

Note that we’re talking about note lengths, not stressed and unstressed syllables. Ancient grammarians did talk of epic having a downbeat and upbeat (thésis ‘putting down’, ársis ‘lifting’), but it’s specifically a musical beat, not a pattern of word stresses.

In metrical notation, the rhythm looks like this:

— ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ×

where — means ‘crotchet’, ⏑ means ‘quaver’, and × means ‘indifferent, no really I mean it, please stop marking this long or short’.

Note. The last note is neither long nor short: it is just the last note. In hexameter (though not in all metres) it’s simply wrong to pin down an anceps as long or short. See further West 1987: 5.

Just like in modern double-time music, you can usually have a single long note in place of a pair of short notes. (The reverse doesn’t happen: the long notes always stay long notes.) So the actual rhythm of the hexameter is

— ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏑⏑ — ×

Beginners usually start by working out how to know when you’re looking at a quaver or a crotchet. That is a useful skill, which applies to all ancient poetic rhythms. Here, though, we’re going to focus on the structure of the hexameter.

Some technical terms, in case you decide to look into more formal publications on the subject:

  • hemipes = the technical name for a beat. That is, the hexameter is a twelve-hemipes rhythm. (‘Hemipes’ comes from hemi- ‘half’ + pes ‘foot’, which is obviously missing the point: that’s why I’m using ‘beats’ here.)
  • mora = in metre, the technical name for the time occupied by a short syllable; that is, equivalent to a short note. (You can safely regard a long note as two morae, no matter what M. L. West says.)

No poet ever sat down and thought, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll use 2/4 time with a dum-diddy riff repeated for six measures.’ Rather, it seems what happened is that at some point, early Greek poets took a traditional three-beat unit that was very productive in early Greek music:

— ⏑⏑ —

and expanded it. This rhythm is called a choriamb. The name isn’t essential: I mention it only because it’s the reason that the — ⏑⏑ — × at the end of the line always stays the same. It’s a fossilised choriamb. Some theories are based on the idea that there’s another fossilised choriamb in the third to the fifth beats of the line — but if so, that one is better disguised.

It’s not clear how we got from choriambs to the twelve beat rhythm. The theories that have been proposed all have problems and they’re all incompatible with each other. At the end, below, you’ll find a summary of some of them.

The right concepts (2): prosodic unit, colon, flow

The building block of Homeric poetry is the phrase. Specifically, the prosodic unit, or intonational phrase. A prosodic unit is a chunk of a spoken utterance. It is distinguished from surrounding chunks by syntactical, semantic, tonal, and rhythmic contours.

In Homer, prosodic units combine to become poetry if they have appropriate rhythms. It’s a bit like the phrases you find in modern rap, except rap also uses rhyme: the strongest rhymes are at phrase-end, so it’s a bit more obvious how it’s built out of prosodic units of variegated length and rhythm. Homer’s range of rhythm shapes is more constrained.

People studying Homeric metre regularly refer to a prosodic unit as a colon, a term borrowed from rhythmic units in melic (sung) poetry. It’s been adopted for Homer because Homer’s prosodic units have regular rhythms, but ‘colon’ has a slightly different meaning in melic poetry, so here I’ll carry on using ‘prosodic unit’.

Note. On the sense of ‘colon’ and other constituent rhythmic elements see West 1987: 4–5.

Homeric poetry is built out of prosodic units with well-defined rhythmic shapes. When they’re combined into the twelve beat rhythm we looked at above, you get a hexameter verse. Here are some common combinations, expressed as a number of beats:

5 + 7
5½ + 6½
5 + 2 + 5
3 + 2½ + 6½
3 + 5 + 4
5 + 4 + 3
2 + 3½ + 6½

and so on. Homer gets flow by varying these combinations from one line to the next.

Prosodic units are frequently re-used: these combinations can be built out of identical rhythmical Lego blocks. When this happens, the re-used prosodic unit is called a metrical formula. There’s a huge amount of modern scholarship on metrical formulas and how they’re adapted and varied in different contexts. (Usually without much attention to flow.)

Here are some sample combinations of formulas, using prosodic units with the rhythms 5 + 2 + 5:

5 beats
(— ⏕ — ⏕ —)
2 beats
(⏕ —)
5 beats
(⏕ — ⏑⏑ — ×)
τὴν/τὸν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος
ἀγχοῦ δ‘ ἱσταμένη/-ος
τὴν/τὸν δὲ μέγ’ ὀχθήσας
προσέφη γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
λευκώλενος Ἥρη
πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς
πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς
κρατερὸς Διομήδης
ξανθὸς Μενέλαος
answering them
standing near
very angry at them
spoke grey-eyed Athena
white-armed Hera
cunning Odysseus
swift-footed Achilleus
strong Diomedes
brown Menelaos

Mix and match these however you want, and you’ll come up with a perfectly formed hexameter. Here are some combinations using the 5 + 7 rhythm:

5 beats
(— ⏕ — ⏕ —)
7 beats
(⏕ — ⏕ — ⏑⏑ — ×)
ἀγχοῦ δ‘ ἱσταμένη/-ος
καὶ μιν φώνησας
καὶ ῥ’ ὀλοφυρόμενη/-ος
οἴκτρ’ ὀλοφυρόμεναι/-ους
βαίνομεν/ἕσταμεν/κτλ. ἀχνύμενοι
ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα
θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσαι/-οντες
standing near
and speaking to them
and then grieving
grieving piteously
we walked/stood/etc. lamenting
they addressed winged words
shedding copious tears

Not all of these combinations work together: the first four phrases in the left column work with either of the phrases on the right, but the last one on the left only works with the last one on the right.

Homer scholars can get very preoccupied with whether a given prosodic unit should be regarded as formulaic or not. That does matter. But it matters much more whether a string of words is a prosodic unit or not. Because every Homeric line is a combination of prosodic units.

A good introduction to the topic of prosodic units and flow is in G. S. Kirk’s introduction to volume 1 of the Cambridge Iliad commentary (Kirk 1985: 17–24). Just note that he uses the term ‘colon’, not ‘prosodic unit’.

Side effects: caesura, bridge

When you’re starting to read Greek poetry and you learn to scan hexameter, you’ll generally be taught to find a caesura — literally a ‘cutting, incision’.

What you’re actually finding is the rhythms of the prosodic units in the line.

A caesura isn’t a pause. It is a word break, but that’s the least interesting thing about it. What matters is the prosodic units on either side.

You know the proverb ‘They can’t see the wood for the trees’? Well, if you’re taught to pay attention to caesuras, that’s like looking for the gaps between the trees. It’s back-to-front.

The characteristic mid-line caesura — the one in the ‘third foot’ — is simply what happens when a line is built out of a 5 + 7 combination or a 5½ + 6½ combination. 5 + 7 produces a ‘penthemimeral’ caesura — so called because it comes after the fifth (pent-) beat — and 5½ + 6½ produces a ‘tritotrochaic’ caesura. Even more confusingly, these are also traditionally known as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ caesuras.

If you find these names strange and hard to learn, that’s partly because it isn’t obvious why you’d want to learn them. They’re names for gaps between the trees. They aren’t the thing that actually matters.

A bridge is a slightly more useful concept. A bridge is a place in the twelve-beat rhythm that’s usually partway through a prosodic unit. A bridge isn’t an arbitrary rule, any more than a caesura is: it’s a side effect of prosodic units. Bridges exist because there are some rhythms that prosodic units just don’t use.

The most important bridge is in the middle of the eighth beat, called ‘Hermann’s Bridge’. Hermann’s Bridge is much stricter than the mid-line caesura. 98% of Homeric lines have a mid-line caesura; somewhere north of 99.93% of lines observe Hermann’s Bridge.

In part 2 we’ll take a dedicated look at Hermann’s Bridge. Partly to see the result of thinking in terms of prosodic units, instead of caesuras; partly because it is by far the strictest feature of Homeric prosody. Part 2 will also include a glossary.

Postlude: proposed theories for the origin of the hexameter

These are theories on the original prosodic units that combined and evolved to produce the hexameter.

  1. Witte 1913. Dactylic tetrameter + adoneus
    • — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ — ⏕ ⫶ — ⏑⏑ — ×
    • pros: accounts for bucolic caesura, Hermann’s Bridge, Wernicke’s Law
    • cons: doesn’t explain caesuras/bridges in the first three feet
  2. Fränkel 1926, Porter 1951. Four cola of variable length
    • A-caesura within first two feet, B-caesura = within third foot, C-caesura in fourth foot or at end of fourth foot
    • pros: versatile; good at incorporating attested colon-shapes
    • cons: too loose to have much explanatory power; doesn’t explain why some colon-shapes don’t appear
  3. West 1973: 187–192. Hemiepes + paroemiac
    • — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ × ⫶ ⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ×
    • explains both forms of mid-line caesura (penthemimeral and tritotrochaic)
    • doesn’t explain bridges or alternative colometries
  4. Nagy 1974: 49–102. Pherecratic with triple expansion
    • × × — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — ⏑⏑ — × (= expanded form of × × — ⏑⏑ — ×)
    • pros: can explain a range of caesuras/bridges as caused by adaptations from melic cola
    • cons: doesn’t explain why these caesuras/bridges don’t appear internally in analogous melic metres


  • Fränkel, H. 1926. ‘Der kallimachische und der homerische Hexameter.’ Nachrichten der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, philologisch-historische Klasse 1926: 1–33 (197–229).
  • Kirk, G. S. 1985. The Iliad. A commentary, vol. 1. Cambridge.
  • Nagy, G. 1974. Comparative studies in Greek and Indic meter. Cambridge, MA. [CHS]
  • Porter, H. N. 1951. ‘The early Greek hexameter.’ Yale classical studies 12: 3–63.
  • West, M. L. 1973. ‘Greek poetry 2000–700 B.C.’ Classical quarterly 23: 179–192. [JSTOR]
  • Witte, K. 1913. ‘Homerische Sprach‑ und Versgeschichte.’ Glotta 4: 1–21. [JSTOR]

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Translating gender

It’ll be no surprise that modern translations can give a slanted impression of ancient texts. This goes for gender too. (Yes, the ancient world had transgender people, non-binary people, non-gendered people, and more.)

Many people take care to use appropriate pronouns these days, but as far as I know that care hasn’t yet become a major concern in published translations. If you don’t know the languages it can be hard to see what the questions are. Here we’ll look at some relatively familiar test cases.

Athena’s pronouns in Odyssey book 1

Recently, I had a decision to make. I was writing an introduction to Odyssey book 1, one of the bits of the Odyssey where the goddess Athena appears to people as a mortal.

Specifically, as a mortal man. What are the correct pronouns to use?

Marc Chagall, ‘Athena and Telemachus’ (1975)

Is this similar to the binary gender situation that Tolkien envisages for divinities in his fictional mythology?

[T]he Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (1977)

Tolkien’s phrasing doesn’t inevitably treat gender, phenotype, and sex organs as the same thing, but it does regard gender as an essential reality, something intrinsic. Manwë is always male, no matter what he’s doing, whether he’s using a physical body or not.

On one level the Odyssey would agree. The narrator consistently uses grammatically feminine vocabulary for Athena. Here’s part of the episode. Grammatically gendered vocabulary for Athena is in bold.

ὣς εἰποῦσ’ ὑπὸ ποσσὶν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα . . .
βῆ δὲ κατ’ Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων ἀΐξασα,
στῆ δ’ Ἰθάκης ἐνὶ δήμωι ἐπὶ προθύροις Ὀδυσῆος,
οὐδοῦ ἔπ’ αὐλείου, παλάμηι δ’ ἔχε χάλκεον ἔγχος,
εἰδομένη ξείνωι, Ταφίων ἡγήτορι Μέντηι. . . .
τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής ...
So she spoke, and bound beautiful sandals beneath her feet . . .
she sped down the peaks of Olympos
and stood in the city of Ithaki, at Odysseus’ doorstep
on the threshold of the court, holding a bronze spear in hand;
she appeared like a male visitor, Mentes, leader of the Taphians. . . .
By far the first to see her was godlike Telemachos ...
Odyssey 1.96–113 (tr. Peter Gainsford)

The participles (εἰποῦσα, ἀΐξασα, εἰδομένη) and the pronoun in line 113 (τήν ‘her’) are all feminine. There’s one clash in line 105 where we’re told that she appeared (εἰδομένη, feminine) like a male visitor (ξείνωι, masculine). Overall, though, it looks like there’s an intrinsic femininity to the character.

But on another level, Athena isn’t a woman wearing drag. When Athena puts on male sexual organs, Athena intends to pass as male. Athena does pass as male. Other characters consistently identify Athena as male, and they aren’t making a mistake.

Just to give you an idea of the gulf separating a translation from Homer’s Greek, in this passage —

... καί μιν φωνήσας ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·
‘χαῖρε, ξεῖνε, παρ’ ἄμμι φιλήσεαι· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
δείπνου πασσάμενος μυθήσεαι ὅττεό σε χρή.’
... and addressing them, [Telemachos] spoke winged words:
‘Greetings, male visitor, you are welcome among us. And later,
after malely eating a meal, you can discuss whatever you want.’
Odyssey 1.122–124 (tr. Peter Gainsford)

— modern translators do the exact opposite of what Homer does. They can’t resist using gendered vocabulary in line 122, and non-gendered vocabulary in 123–124.

... and let his words fly out to her.
                    ‘Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.’
Odyssey 1.122–124 (tr. Emily Wilson)

In line 122 the narrator uses the gender-neutral μιν ‘them’; in 123–124 Telemachos uses masculine language. If the narrator had used a feminine τήν ‘her’ in 122 instead of μιν (which would be metrically equivalent), the mismatch would be more jarring: it’d be telegraphing that Telemachos is misgendering Athena. But Homer doesn’t do that. Telemachos isn’t making a mistake.

What to do? The important thing, I take it, is to avoid cisnormativity. When talking about the scene, I decided to use the non-binary singular pronouns that English has now adopted as standard — ‘they, their, them’ — and when translating, to use gendered language where Homer does.

It’s especially important to think about gender here, because in recent years Odyssey book 1 has become iconic for its portrayal of ancient Greek misogyny. The scene where Telemachos berates his mother Penelope for speaking isn’t just about depriving women of their voice: it’s also shocking for the way it ogles feminine distress. Penelope has guests in her home throw her grief in her face, she gets silenced by Telemachos, is sexually harassed by the suitors yelling about how they’d like to rape her, and finally she’s stalked by the narrator as she leaves and cries her eyes out in her room.

If we’re going to be honest and treat that scene as — to put it mildly — problematic, then we’d best be honest about Athena too.

My chapter is coming out later this year in the Oxford critical guide to the Odyssey edited by Joel Christensen.

Teiresias’ genders and phenotypes

Athena’s gender in Odyssey 1 isn’t an isolated situation. Ancient myths are full of figures and scenarios that translate into modern terms as transgender or non-binary.

In another myth, the seer Teiresias is changed from male to female by divine intervention, then from female to male. It’s quite clear that the idea is that changing phenotypes is the same thing as changing gender. When Teiresias is biologically male he’s a ‘he’, when she’s biologically female she’s a ‘she’.

For Teiresias gender isn’t a choice, it’s force majeure, as it is for most modern trans people. Note where the force majeure comes from: it isn’t Teiresias’ biology that imposes their gender changes, it’s the gods.

Literary treatments of Teiresias’ story vary a great deal in how they deal with gender. Tennyson basically ignores the gender changing: he essentially pretends it never happened. Ovid and Eliot explore the gender changes but are narrowly focused on the act of sex. Ovid equates Teiresias’ femininity with sexual pleasure; Eliot, with rape.

Note. Tennyson, Tiresias (1885); Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.316–338 (8 CE); Eliot, The waste land part 3 (1922).

Another kind of treatment, which focuses on the force majeure involved in the story, is the 2003 film Tiresia (dir. Bertrand Bonello). Tiresia (Clara Choveaux) is a MTF prostitute who gets imprisoned by a stalker, and deprived of access to her hormone therapy. As a result she develops a more masculine phenotype (played by Thiago Telès). The stalker rejects her, blinds her, and abandons her, as she begins to realise she has a gift of premonition.

Teiresias changes gender, yet in a sense they’re always cis. Their phenotype at any given moment is cis for how they identify, but from time to time the gods change both the phenotype and the gender identity. Something similar goes for Caeneus, who is FTM (again by divine intervention) and who identifies and presents as male. In supernatural scenarios like these it can be challenging to find an adequate way to talk about the relationship between sexual organs, sexual phenotype, and gender identity, in ways that are also sensitive to what the story is going to mean to modern people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Attis’ pronouns in Catullus 63

The Latin language tends to be sparser in its grammatical representation of gender. It has even fewer pronouns than ancient Greek — far fewer than modern English. Latin relies almost exclusively on participles and adjectives.

Beginners often read Catullus as their first Latin author. Poem 63 — one of his ‘long’ poems (not all that long: 93 lines) — tells the story of the semi-divine Attis, a mortal who becomes the consort of the Phrygian goddess Cybele.

Cybele and Attis (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia)

The name ‘Attis’ has a feminine ring to it: compare Ovid’s feminine Caenis, masculine Caeneus. In Greek the name varies between Áttis (sounding feminine) and Áttēs (decidedly masculine). A late poem refers to ‘half-female Attis’ using a masculine article: τὸν ἡμίθηλυν Ἄττιν (Anakreontea 11.2). Occasionally modern readers have confused Áttis with Atthís, meaning ‘Athenian woman’, and also the name of one of Sappho’s lovers.

In Catullus, Attis starts out as Greek, mortal, and male, with grammatically masculine language. He travels across the sea to Phrygia. There they castrate themself, and subsequently Attis is grammatically feminine. As the poem continues her grammatical gender switches every now and then, apparently erratically, between masculine and feminine.

But these expressions of gender aren’t omnipresent, and modern translations have difficulty representing Catullus’ usage. They often have drastic mismatches in where the gendering appears.

Here are the opening lines, along with three published translations. Grammatically gendered language for Attis is in bold type.

Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria,
Phrygium ut nemus citato cupide pede tetigit
adiitque opaca silvis redimita loca deae,
stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animis,
devellit ili acuto sibi pondera silice,
itaque ut relicta sensit sibi membra sine viro,
etiam recente terrae sola sanguine maculans,
niveis citata cepit manibus leve typanum,
typanum tuum, Cybebe, tua, mater, initia,
quatiensque terga tauri teneris cava digitis
canere haec suis adorta est tremebunda comitibus.
Catullus 63.1–11
5 devellit Kokoszkiewicz CQ 61.2 (2011): devolvit MS, devolsit Haupt
Over deep seas Attis, carried on a rapid catamaran,
eagerly with hurrying footsteps sought that forest in Phrygia,
penetrated the tree-thick coverts, the goddess’ shadowy habitat,
and there, by furious madness driven, wits adrift in insanity,
seized a keen flint, slashed away the weight of his groin’s double complement;
and when she felt the members left her shorn of all their virility
dropping still a spatter of fresh-shed blood on the ground as she sped along,
quickly with snow white hand she seized the lightweight rat-a-tat tympanum —
yours the tympanum, o Cybebe, yours, great Mother, the mysteries —
and on the hollow drum-skin beat a tattoo with delicate fingertips,
making this passionate invocation, body convulsed, to her followers.
(tr. Peter Green, 2005)
Attis had hastened across towering seas on a raft.
Eagerly setting his swift foot in the Phrygian grove,
he entered the goddess’s dark, forest-encircled domain
and there was attacked by insanity’s goad. Blinded by passion,
he lightened the weight of his loins with a sharp fragment of flint.
When she ascertained what was left of her limbs, lacking the male,
trickling blood on the ground from her wound, freshly inflicted,
she excitedly took in her white hands a petite tambourine,
Cybele’s horn, tool of your sacrosanct rituals, mother.
Striking the tight hide of the bull with her delicate fingers,
she shivered and started to sing words such as these to her friends.
(tr. David Mulroy, 2002)
Borne in his swift bark over deep seas, Attis, when eagerly with speedy foot he reached the Phrygian woodland, and entered the goddess’s abodes, shadowy, forest-crowned; there, goaded by raging madness, bewildered in mind, he cast down from him with sharp flint-stone the burden of his members. So when she felt her limbs to have lost their manhood, still with fresh blood dabbling the face of the ground, swiftly with snowy hands she seized the light timbrel, timbrel, trumpet of Cybele, thy mysteries, Mother, and shaking with soft fingers the hollow ox-hide thus began she to sing to her companions tremulously.
(tr. Francis Warre Cornish, 1913)

First, note that Catullus’ Latin has no gendered pronouns at all in this passage. Gender is conveyed by participles (vectus, stimulatus, citata, adorta) and adjectives (vagus, tremebunda). Line 6 sine viro (‘shorn of virility’, ‘lacking the male’, ‘lost their manhood’) is explicit gendering, rather than grammatical gender.

In the translations, not many of the gendered pronouns correspond to gendered language in Catullus’ Latin. The most striking mismatch is the lines when Attis castrates themself, in lines 5 and 6. The translations all pack these lines with gendered pronouns — but the Latin has no grammatical gendering at all!

Here’s my own effort, with gendered pronouns confined to places where Catullus uses gendered language.

He sailed over the deep — Attis, over the seas in a swift skiff —
touched the Phrygian grove, touched it eagerly with swiftened foot,
and entered the dark places of the woods, property of the goddess.
He was driven by raging ecstasy there, he was changeful in spirit;
tore off the weight from the groin using a sharp stone;
then felt what parts were left, without the male,
while staining the soil of mother earth with fresh blood.
She swiftly took the light drum in snow-white hands —
your drum, Cybebe, your sacred mysteries, mother —
and pulsing the hollow bull’s hide with tender fingers
she trembled as she began this song to the entourage.
(tr. Peter Gainsford)

1 vectus. Catullus introduces gendered language very early on, in the third word of the poem. Among the published translations above, only the oldest, Cornish, tries to reproduce this.

2 Phrygium ... nemus; 7 terrae sola. It strikes me that Catullus is playing with mismatches in grammatical gender, so it seems important to convey them in translation where feasible. In line 2 ‘Phrygian grove’ is neuter, but nemus has a masculine-looking ending: so my translation adds ‘it’ to make it more marked. In line 7 ‘soil of mother earth’, terrae (‘of earth’) is feminine and sola (‘soil’) is neuter: I add ‘mother’ as an indirect hint at the mismatch.

3 adiitque. Green has Attis ‘penetrating’ the grove. I find that tendentious: there’s nothing especially sexual about the Latin here.

4 vagus animis. The published translations all think this suggests impaired mental function (‘wits adrift in insanity’, ‘blinded by passion’, ‘bewildered in mind’). I disagree. vagus appears again at lines 13 and 25: it’s thematic. It indicates mobility, something shifting, without an anchor. Attis’ gender is about to change, and vagus is surely a piece of framing for that event. Later, in lines 13 and 25, vaga refers to groups who are congregating and moving towards a specific place: 13 vaga pecora (‘shifting cattle’), 25 vaga cohors (‘shifting company’). It may be significant that the word has a different grammatical gender each time: vagus Attis = masculine, 13 vaga pecora (‘cattle’) = neuter, 25 vaga cohors (‘company’) = feminine.

Monday 13 February 2023

Doctor Who, ‘The Myth Makers’ (1965)

In late 1965 Doctor Who featured a four part story about the end of the Trojan War. All four episodes are lost, though the audio track survives intact, along with a selection of photos and video snippets. In spite of that The myth makers, by Donald Cotton, is widely regarded as a highlight of Doctor Who’s early years.

My aim here is to highlight how it plays on prior models. One target is Homer, of course, but it also plays on the 1956 Hollywood epic Helen of Troy starring Rossana Podestà, as well as Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida.

Some surviving materials of The myth makers are set photos, rather than stills from the actual episodes. Notice the lighting rig overhead. (My composite of a set photo with the logo from the 1985 novelisation)

This story isn’t the Doctor’s only visit to the ancient Mediterranean world, though it is his only onscreen encounter with ancient Greeks. He has also encountered Romans in The Romans (1965), The fires of Pompeii (2008), The Pandorica opens (2010), and The eaters of light (2017); and ancient Egyptians in The Daleks’ master plan (1965–1966) and Dinosaurs on a spaceship (2012).

The first three episodes are comical in tone. Helen is conspicuous by her absence. Achilles runs away from Hector. Odysseus thoroughly enjoys competing with the Doctor’s trickery. Cassandra is a bloodthirsty executioner, Agamemnon a bully, Paris an imbecile. The fourth episode is much darker, and represents one of the very worst failures in the Doctor’s long career.

The Doctor, Vicki, and Steven land the TARDIS near Troy, interrupting the duel of Hector and Achilles. The Doctor and Steven become prisoners of the Greeks, while the Doctor’s TARDIS — with Vicki still inside — is seized by the Trojans. Vicki adopts the persona of Cressida and ends up staying behind with Troilus. Steven fights a duel against Paris. And the Doctor desperately tries to get Odysseus to adopt any stratagem except a wooden horse, because he finds the story so utterly silly.

Steven. Why not the wooden horse?
Doctor. No, my dear boy, I couldn’t possibly suggest that. The whole story is obviously absurd. Probably invented by Homer as some good dramatic device. No, I think it would be completely impractical.
[ ... ]
Doctor. Have you, ah, thought of tunnelling, hm?
Odysseus. It’s been done. What we want is something revolutionary.
Doctor. Ah yes, dear me, dear me. Well, tell me, have you thought about flying machines, hm?
Odysseus. No, I can’t say I have.
The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Odysseus (Ivor Salter) compete in outwitting each other, much to Odysseus’ delight. They’re both way ahead of Agamemnon (Francis de Wolff, seated).

Subverting Homer: Achilles and Hector

Right from the opening scene, The myth makers subverts expectations based on the Iliad. In Homer, Achilleus chases Hektor three times around the walls of Troy before he turns and fights (Iliad 22.136–207). In Doctor Who, the roles are reversed: a hulking Hector chases a relatively slender Achilles. Cotton’s 1985 novelisation of the story draws the contrast especially clearly:

They were both big men; but one was enormous with muscles queuing up behind each other, begging to be given a chance. This whole, boiling-over physique was restrained, somewhat inadequately, by bronze-studded, sweat-stained leather armour ... Seams strained and gussets gaped. ... [H]e could only be the renowned Hector, King Priam’s eldest son, and war-lord of Troy.
His opponent was a different matter; younger by some ten years, I would say, and with the grace of a dancer. Which he certainly needed, as he spun and pirouetted to avoid the great bronze, two-handed sword which Hector wielded — in one hand — ...

The story continues to poke jabs at Homer. Watching from inside the TARDIS, the Doctor points out how long-winded Hector and Achilles are:

Vicki. Doctor, be careful! They look terribly fierce.
Doctor. Oh, what nonsense. If you take notice of them, I think they’re doing more talking than they are fighting.

His reaction mirrors that of many Iliad readers. In Homer, heroes sometimes make long speeches to daunt each other before fighting. Glaukos spends 67 lines reciting his genealogy to Diomedes instead of attacking (Iliad 6.145–211).

When Odysseus arrives on the scene, a good-humoured but remorseless pirate, he makes fun of Achilles’ claim to have killed Hector. As he does so he provides cues to provide an in-story explanation for how Homer ended up making things different in the Iliad.

Odysseus. But what a year is this for plague! Even the strongest might fall. Prince Hector — hah, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
Achilles. I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
Doctor. Oh yes, it’s true.
Odysseus. And raced him round the walls ’til down he fell exhausted? A famous victory!

This, we are to understand, is where Homer gets the story of the plague in Iliad book 1, and Achilleus chasing Hektor around the walls in book 22.

Subverting Hollywood: Paris, Cassandra, and Helen

Episode 2 introduces the Trojan prince Paris (Barrie Ingham) as a purely comic character, practically out of the pages of a P. G. Wodehouse story. Paris is a boastful and bewildered Bertie Wooster without a Jeeves to guide him: desperate for his father Priam’s approval, resentful of his sister Cassandra’s superior intelligence.

Paris. I sought Achilles, father, even to the Grecian lines, but he skulked within his tent. Ha ha ha, he feared to face me!
Priam. ... (observing the TARDIS) What — what is that you have got there?
Paris. Ah! A prize, father. Captured from the Greeks!
Priam. Hah, captured, you say? I wager they were glad to see the back of it. What is it?
Paris. — what is it? Ah, well. It’s, er, it’s a, sort of a, erm — a shrine, or so it seems.
[ ... ]
Priam. ... Get back to the war!
Cassandra. And take that thing with you!
Paris. Oh, really! If you — if you knew the weight of, this, this, this — thing
Cassandra (Frances White), the distrustful high priestess of Troy. Until recently Frances White was appearing opposite another veteran Doctor Who villain, David Graham, the very first Dalek voice, in Peppa Pig (2004–2021) as Grandma Pig and Grandpa Pig.

Cassandra is his bloodthirsty sister, the high priestess of Troy. She repeatedly gives a command that the Doctor’s companions be executed, only for it to be countermanded by Priam or Paris every time. She foreshadows the future when she explains why Paris should never have brought the TARDIS into the city:

Cassandra. Why do you imagine that they allowed you to capture it? [ ... ] I dreamed that out on the plain the Greeks had left a gift, and although what it was remained unclear, we brought it into Troy. Then at night, from out its belly, soldiers came and fell upon us as we slept.

On one level, these depictions are somewhat true to Greek legend, if only as caricatures. The Paris of the Iliad has to be rescued from his duel with Menelaos, and he spends his time having sex with Helen while the Trojans are fighting for their lives. Kassandra appears only in one scene in Homer (Iliad 24.698–708), but in post-Homeric Greek legend she is a seer whose prophecies are never believed.

It isn’t Homer that’s being subverted here, but the 1956 Hollywood epic Helen of Troy. Paris in the film has nothing laughable about him. He’s a romantic hero, brave and noble; the love of Helen and Paris is pure and tragic. Cassandra is a vulnerable teenager who fears for her brother’s future, and Paris sees her prophecies as a sign of an unfortunate illness.

Paris. And I suppose that evil horse of hers will spring out and trample me. Huh, very well. Let it come, my lord. If that’s the price of living in a world of fables.
Cassandra. Do not say that, Paris. Do not seek peace elsewhere, dear brother, until first you have pacified Athena.
Paris. My little Cassandra, there can be no postponement. So come along, and give me your blessing for a happy voyage.
Cassandra. I cannot bless what I see in your future, Paris.
Helen of Troy (1956)

At the end, Paris is on the point of defeating Menelaus in a one-on-one duel when one of Menelaus’ men treacherously stabs him from behind. Cassandra is seized and (offscreen) raped by a Greek warrior in the fall of Troy. Ingham’s Paris and White’s Cassandra in The myth makers are their opposites in every way: Paris a coward and a fool, Cassandra vindictive and vicious. Both are played for laughs.

Top, Helen of Troy (1956): Cassandra (Janette Scott), Paris (Jacques Sernas), and Helen (Rossana Podestà). Bottom, The Trojan horse (1961): Cassandra (Lidia Alfonsi) and Paris (Warner Bentivegna) (and an anonymous handmaid in the background: maybe Katarina? I kid, I kid).

It’s just possible there may also be an element of parody of The Trojan horse (La guerra di Troia, 1961), a peplum film which depicted Paris as a treacherous, chinless poser who takes pleasure in betraying his family, Cassandra as aloof, and Helen as malicious and conniving. Helen of Troy was the better known film.

And that brings us to Helen herself. Helen of Troy puts Helen front and centre. It’s practically a Rossana Podestà vehicle, coming on the heels of her success as Nausicaa in another Homeric film, the 1954 Ulysses, opposite Kirk Douglas. The whole concept of Helen as a character revolves around her matchless beauty: ‘the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium’ (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus).

Priam. I don’t particularly notice good looks. Only gets you into trouble. Look at Paris. Handsome as the devil, but a complete coward.
Vicki. I thought he was rather nice.
Priam. Yes, women generally do, that's what got us all into this trouble. Oh, of course, you've not met Helen yet, have you?
Vicki. No, I'm looking forward to it.
Priam. Yes, well, she’s a — oh well never mind. If only he’d met a nice, sensible girl like you.

The thing is, of course, that we never do meet Helen. She’s mentioned three times, but she never appears: these lines are the most we get. Priam’s talk of good looks directly draws attention to Helen and her legendary beauty — and in doing so, he also underlines the failure of that beauty to actually appear. The audience, watching these characters, are denied the opportunity to see the legendary sight that the whole thing is supposedly about: Helen’s face.

This too is a dramatic subversion of Helen of Troy. The myth makers turns Paris, previously a romantic hero, into a bombastic, cowering nitwit. Cassandra, once a vulnerable teenager, becomes a snarling executioner. And Helen, the Hollywood beauty known for her appearance, becomes ... invisible.

Subverting Shakespeare: Troilus, Cressida, and Diomede

In Greek legend Troilos is a youth that Achilleus ambushes, pursues, and kills while Troilos is outside the walls of Troy, watering his horse at the shrine of Thymbraian Apollo. The Iliad mentions him once in passing, as someone who has already been killed (Iliad 24.257). His story isn’t told fully in any ancient literary work. But it was extremely popular in Greek art: 20% of all ancient depictions of Achilleus are occupied with the story of his ambush of Troilos. (See Gainsford 2015: 60–61 for further details.)

Set photo of the dungeon where Troilus visits Vicki.

In The myth makers, Troilus is Vicki’s love interest. She begins to take an interest in him at the end of episode 2. In episode 3, when she and Steven are imprisoned in a Trojan dungeon, Troilus visits and becomes friendly with her. In episode 4 she tries to save him from the destruction of Troy by asking him to go on an errand outside the city. Outside the walls he encounters Achilles, but unlike his ancient counterpart, Troilus wins the fight. Vicki finds him and remains with him in antiquity, while the Doctor time-travels onwards.

The thing is, by the time Vicki meets Troilus, she has already changed her identity. In episode 2, when she emerges from the TARDIS and Priam befriends her (much to Cassandra’s disgust), the Trojans decide that Vicki is too ‘heathenish’ a name. Priam decides to call her Cressida. Meanwhile, Steven is trying to get inside Troy to help Vicki, in the guise of a dead Greek warrior named Diomede.

Enter Shakespeare, stage left.

Cressida isn’t in any ancient source. She developed out of a 12th century French epic, Le roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Dares of Phrygia, a late antique Latin source, had made Troilus a major character in the Trojan War: Benoît added a romance with Briseida (a character with virtually no connection to the Homeric Briseis), and a love triangle with the Greek hero Diomedes (Burgess and Kelly 2017: 204–212, 216–217, 226–228, etc.).

Angelica Kauffmann, ‘Diomed and Cressida’ (1789)

150-odd years later, Boccaccio compiled the bits about Troilus and Briseida into a poem called Il filostrato (‘the one laid prostrate by love’). In Boccaccio they’re named Troilo and Criseida. This poem in turn served as the basis for various English versions: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Lydgate’s Troy book, and Caxton’s Recuyell of the historyes of Troye. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (ca. 1602) is based on these.

In Act V of the play, Diomedes tries to seduce Cressida once she arrives at the Greek camp, and Troilus spies on them and vows to seek Diomedes’ life in battle. In The myth makers, when Troilus visits Cressida in her cell, he is concerned about her relationship with ‘Diomede’ — that is, Steven —

Troilus. Look here, is this Diomede a particular friend of yours or something?
Vicki. A very good friend, yes.
Troilus. Well, I don’t see how you can be friends with a Greek.
Vicki. Oh, look, Troilus. When you come from the future you make friends with a lot of people, and he’s one of them.
Troilus. I see. But he’s not in any way special?
Vicki. No. Why do you keep on?
Troilus. Well, because that’s what I was — I mean, that’s what the others were worried about.

— and in episode 4, when ‘Cressida’ sends him outside the walls to save him from the fall of Troy, his errand is to look for ‘Diomede’, who has escaped from prison. Troilus laments over the fact that Cressida has apparently betrayed him, echoing his fury in the play.

As in the play, Troilus survives. Unlike the play, Troilus and Cressida have a happy-ever-after together.

Left: Agamemnon (Brian Cox) in Troy, 2004. Right: Agamemnon (Francis de Wolff) in The myth makers, 1965. Presumably there’s no direct influence, so it’s a little eerie how similar their designs are. The Agamemnons in Helen of Troy and The Trojan horse look very different.

So, that’s The myth makers and intertextuality. There are many other intrinsic points of interest that I haven’t touched on: the design of the wooden horse (much more interesting than the one in Helen of Troy, and infinitely better than the clumsy junkpile used in The Trojan horse); the sudden introduction of Katarina as a new companion for the Doctor; the Doctor’s convivial relationship with Odysseus. These things I’ll leave to more Whovian-focused forums.

Where to hear or read The myth makers


  • Burgess, G. S.; Kelly, D. 2017. The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Cambridge.
  • Gainsford, P. 2015. Early Greek hexameter poetry. Cambridge.