Sunday 31 December 2023

Percy Jackson, episodes 1 to 3

The new Percy Jackson and the Olympians series has begun to come out — three episodes, at the time of writing. It makes many changes from Rick Riordan’s book, Percy Jackson and the lightning thief (2005). It adds many new classical references, but it also begins to address some serious problems with the book. Spoilers follow.

Percy (Walker Scobell) stands in front of Antonio Canova’s ‘Perseus with the head of Medusa’ (1804–1806) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Percy Jackson and the Olympians episode 1, 2023)


One of the biggest changes is Medusa. Book Medusa is a monster through and through. As soon as she meets Percy, Grover, and Annabeth in chapter 11 she immediately tries to pose them in preparation for making them a statue group.

In the series the encounter still ends in a fight, but Medusa is a fleshed out character, with her own motivations. Her first action is to protect the three companions from Alecto, the Fury pursuing them. She makes a point of empathising with Percy’s mother, and offers him an alliance.

Her race has also changed. Book Medusa was caricatured as vaguely ‘Middle Eastern’: a loaded stereotype, four years after 9/11. Medusa’s mythological home is in Morocco or an island off the Atlantic coast (see here), and she has become a potent symbol in modern African American racial discourse. So it may be no accident that an actor of part African extraction, Jessica Parker Kennedy, has been cast to portray her.

Episode 1 laid groundwork for the encounter with Medusa, in a conversation between young Percy and his mother at the museum.

[Sally and young Percy stand in front of Antonio Canova’s ‘Perseus with the head of Medusa’ (refreshingly uncensored)]

Sally. What do you see?

Young Percy. Perseus. That’s me.

Sally. Mm-hm, that’s who you’re named after.

Percy. Is that why you named me after him? Because he was a hero?

Sally. (smiling) What makes you think he was a hero?

Percy. Because he kills monsters.

Sally. What makes you think she was a monster? ... Not everyone who looks like a hero is a hero. And not everyone who looks like a monster is a monster.

In episode 3 Medusa appears in person. After rescuing the companions, she tells them her own tragic background — to the disbelief of Annabeth, daughter of Athena. It’s only after Medusa takes Percy aside and offers to ‘help’ him by eliminating his companions — she points out, truthfully, that his friends will betray his real purpose, which is to rescue his mother — that hostilities break out.

Medusa (Jessica Parker Kennedy) smiles: ‘The gift the gods gave me is that I cannot be bullied any more.’ (Percy Jackson and the Olympians episode 3, 2023)

Medusa. Athena was everything to me. I worshiped her, I prayed to her, I made offerings. She never answered. Not even an omen to suggest she appreciated my love. (To Annabeth) I wasn’t like you, sweetheart, I was you. I would have worshiped her that way for a lifetime — in silence. But then one day another god came, and he broke that silence. (To Percy) Your father. The sea god told me that he loved me. I felt as though he saw me in a way I had never felt seen before. But then Athena declared that I had embarrassed her and I needed to be punished — not him: me. She decided that I would never be seen again by anyone who would live to tell the tale.

Annabeth. That isn’t what happened. My mother is just. Always.

Medusa. The gods want you to believe that — that they are infallible. But they only want what all bullies want. They want us to blame ourselves for their own shortcomings.

Annabeth. That is not what happened, and you are a liar.

On one level, Annabeth’s disbelief is simply because she’s in denial, or else because Medusa actually is lying. The series doesn’t pin that down.

But to someone who knows their way around the relevant ancient sources, there’s something a little more complicated going on. Medusa’s and Annabeth’s disagreement reflects different versions of her story in ancient sources.

  • Hesiodic Theogony 270–283 (Greek, ca. 700 BCE). Medusa and Poseidon have a sexual liaison in a meadow. Details aren’t specified; there’s no mention of a transformation.
  • pseudo-Apollodoros, Library 2.4.3 (Greek, perhaps 1st century BCE). ‘It is said by some’ that Athena commissioned Perseus to kill Medusa because she had dared to compare her beauty to Athena’s.
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.790–803 (Roman, 1st century BCE). Medusa is raped by Neptune (~Poseidon) in the temple of Minerva (~Athena), and in response, Minerva curses Medusa.

(There are other ancient variants: these are just the most relevant ones.)

The story Medusa tells, that she was cursed as a punishment for Poesidon’s actions, is the one invented by Ovid. Medusa’s liaison with Poseidon is present in ancient sources all the way back to Hesiod. But it’s only Ovid that casts it as rape, and it’s only Ovid that talks about her being transformed.

Myths always depend on the authors who choose to write them. But it’s especially on the nose in this case, because Ovid is so transparently interfering with an existing story, more than reimagining it. The idea that Medusa is punished for being a rape victim is, in a sense, his fan-fiction; and Ovid is particularly known for his sexism.

Then again, Annabeth insists Medusa has been cursed, and the curse is Ovid’s invention too. The scene in the series doesn’t give enough details to clarify exactly what’s going on in Medusa’s and Annabeth’s minds. But for someone who’s familiar with these variants, it does a very good job of tantalising, surrounding Medusa with open questions.

The Greek god of disappointment

Percy. Is there a Greek god of disappointment? Maybe someone should ask him if he’s missing a kid.

Chris. Oizys ... but she’s a goddess ... and her whole thing isn’t really disappointment, it’s more like failure.

Yes, this is for real. Kind of. We have a single literary source that lists Oizys as one of the children of Night: the Hesiodic Theogony, possibly the earliest work of Greek literature (ca. 700 BCE).

Chris Rodriguez (Andrew Alvarez), son of Hermes, knows his Hesiod. (Percy Jackson and the Olympians episode 2, 2023)

Νὺξ δ’ ἔτεκεν στυγερόν τε Μόρον καὶ Κῆρα μέλαιναν
καὶ Θάνατον, τέκε δ᾽ Ὕπνον, ἔτικτε δὲ φῦλον Ὀνείρων.
δεύτερον αὖ Μῶμον καὶ Ὀϊζὺν ἀλγινόεσσαν ...

And Night bore hateful Doom and dark Fate
and Death, and she bore Sleep, and she bore the tribe of Dreams;
and again she bore Blame and painful Woe (Oizys) ...

Theogony 211–212, 214
Note. Line 213 is usually transposed after line 214, because it doesn’t work syntactically between lines 212 and 214. The result makes sense, but this arrangement of the text isn’t exactly secure. See West 1966: 227.

The names in this passage are all personifications: they’re standard Greek words. Nyx means ‘night’; thanatos and hypnos mean ‘death’ and ‘sleep’; and so on. And oizys means ‘woe’.

Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep) are a famous pair, and they appeared in many other literary works, as well as in paintings and statues. But this is literally the only mention of Oizys. We know nothing about her outside these lines. Don’t go expecting temples, or paintings, or statues: there’s always a big gap between myths and actual religious practice. As with Ovid, above, mythical narratives are often more like fan-fiction than long-standing folktales.

Conspicuously non-Spartan shields

The demigods at Camp Half-blood have round shields with chevrons, obviously intended as an inverted letter lambda (Λ). This is based on the popular perception that classical Spartan aspides had a lambda on them, referencing the actual name of their city-state, which was Lakedaimōn.

Clarisse La Rue (Dior Goodjohn), daughter of Ares, prepares for war games alongside other demigods at Camp Half-blood. Notice the design on their shields. (Percy Jackson and the Olympians episode 2, 2023)

The lambda design is, uh ... problematic. In much the same way as a flag of the Confederate States of America is ‘problematic’. Its high profile stems from the film 300 (2006), where it’s carried by Spartan soldiers. Since then it has become emblematic of xenophobia and white supremacy, white Europeans fighting ‘nonwhite hordes’. (This is all total bollocks of course: apart from anything else, many more Greeks supported Xerxes’ invasion than resisted it. I discussed it a bit here a few years back; there are many other discussions out there.)

Members of an Arkansas-based Neo-Nazi group pose with ‘Spartan’ shields in 2017. (Source: ADL)

The evidence that ancient Spartan shields had a lambda on them is extremely sparse (see e.g. McDaniel 2021). On balance, though, it’s moderately likely to be true, at least sometimes. The only direct evidence is in the 9th century Lexicon of Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, who claims that Spartan and Messenian aspides had the letter, and quotes a line from a lost 5th century BCE comic play,

ἐξεπλάγη γὰρ ἰδὼν στίλβοντα τὰ λάβδα

for he was terror-struck when he saw the gleaming lambdas

Eupolis fr. 394 K-A
(= Photios, Lexicon s.v. λάβδα, p. 200,7 ed. Theodoridis)

We don’t know for sure who ‘he’ was or what the circumstances were. It could be about the death of the Athenian general Kleon at the battle of Amphipolis in 422 BCE; but there were no Spartiates at Amphipolis, only helots, so who knows.

However, there is some corroboration to be found in an anecdote related by Xenophon, which has Sikyonian troops carrying shields with the letter sigma.

When the Spartan cavalry commander Pasimachos and his few cavalry saw that the Sikyonians were hard pressed, he bound the horses to trees and took their shields from them. They advanced against the Argives with volunteers. When the Argives saw the sigmas on the shields, they were unconcerned, thinking they were Sikyonians.
Xenophon, Hellenika 4.4.10

I’d say the ‘lambdas on Spartan shields’ story may have a certain amount of truth to it, but it’s far from definite.

Regardless of historicity, the lambda logo is now a symbol of racial violence — just as much as the Confederate flag, the ‘thin blue line’, or the number 1488. The shields in Percy Jackson could have had completely unrelated designs. But the inverted lambda at least rejects its racist symbolism, rather than embracing it.

The de-whitening thief

Yes, more about race. Because there’s an important speech — an appalling speech — in chapter 5 of The lightning thief which has thankfully been completely omitted in the series.

Chiron (Glynn Turman) no longer eulogises the marvellousness of ‘western civilisation’. (Percy Jackson and the Olympians episode 2, 2023)
‘Come now, Percy. What you call “Western civilization.” Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. ... The fire started in Greece. Then ... the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. ... Did the West die? The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. ... And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States. ... Like it or not ... America is now the heart of the flame. It is the great power of the West. And so Olympus is here. And we are here.’
Chiron, The lightning thief (2005) chapter 5

The series does retain Mount Olympus’ migration to the Empire State Building — evoked by the art-deco closing credits, and we see Hermes delivering a certain package there at the end of episode 3 — but omits the colonialist and imperialist rationale. I say ‘omits’, rather than ‘rejects’, because the series hasn’t explicitly dealt with it at the time of writing.

I’d like to think this is because the author, Rick Riordan, is receptive to criticisms like that of the classicist Maxwell Paule in his 2020 essay ‘The whitening thief’.

So, we could pretend that it’s a coincidence that in a novel predicated on the Greek gods creating and shaping western civilization, the author chose as the site for one of the book’s most impressive battles a monument intrinsically linked to the concept of Manifest Destiny — that is, the notion that America’s westward expansion was divinely sanctioned. We could do that. ...

... but that would be neglecting the fact that

latent notions of white supremacy (which are everywhere) permeate modern narratives of classical antiquity, narratives which in turn justify actual goddamned Neo-Nazis who claim to be the ideological (or literal) heirs of Greece and Rome.
M. T. Paule, ‘The whitening thief’ (2020)

Paule’s words remind me of a very bad book that came out that year, by an American with a degree in classics, which referred to ‘our Greek ancestors and Founding Fathers’. (Yes, that’s a verbatim quotation.)

It isn’t that the phrase ‘western civilisation’ has been appropriated by white supremacists since 2005. It was white supremacism all along. It was just easier in the past to get away with not thinking about it.

Nowadays, if someone talks about ‘western civilisation’, and means it, look for the swastikas. You’ll find them.

I’m not aware that Riordan has ever publicly commnted on Paule’s criticisms or the substance of them. Riordan himself co-wrote episode 2. I’d like to think that his omission of the ‘western civilisation’ speech is a tacit acknowledgement. An omission, not a correction, but still. Riordan was certainly vocal, in 2022, in his own criticism of racist reactions to the casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth. (See also coverage on CNN and The LA Times.)


  • McDaniel, S. 2021. ‘Did Spartan shields really bear the letter lambda?’ Tales of Times Forgotten, 24 Nov 2021. [Internet Archive]
  • Paule, M. T. 2020. ‘The whitening thief. Latent white supremacy in Percy Jackson.’ Eidolon, 23 Jan 2020. [Internet Archive]

Thursday 28 December 2023

How fragmentary ancient texts are reconstructed (sometimes)

There’s something almost magical about how papyrologists and editors take tiny scraps of ancient papyrus and turn them into coherent texts. Here’s an example taken from the Hesiodic Catalogue of women.

P. Turner 1

Here’s a passage as it stands in one ancient papyrus, Turner papyrus 1, lines 17–24:

  ]τ̣υ̣ρωνκαιαμη . . ν̣ο̣ε̣ργ̣[
      ]ηϲετακ[. .]τ̣ι̣ν̣
P. Oxy. 2822, fr. 2

And here’s the same passage as it appears in Oxyrhynchus papyrus 2822 fr. 2, lines 1–8:

    ] . . ρει̣ . [
    ]χα̣ιονε . [
    ]ειϲε . [

There’s no overlap between these two fragments. The Turner fragment has the ends of each line, the Oxyrhynchus fragment has bits of the first part of each line.

And yet modern editors have worked out not just that these two fragments are the same passage, but also how to reconstruct the entire text!

ἐξ ὧν οὔρειαι Νύμφαι θεαὶ ἐξεγένοντο
καὶ γένος οὐτιδανῶν Σατύρων καὶ ἀμηχανοέργων
Κουρῆτές τε θεοὶ φιλοπαίγμονες ὀρχηστῆρες.
Ξοῦ]θος δὲ Κ[ρείουσαν ἐπή]ρατον εἶδος ἔχ[ουσαν
κούρ]ην καλλ[ιπάρηον Ἐρε]χθῆος θείοιο
ἀθανά]των ἰ[ότητι φίλην ποι]ήσατ' ἄκ[οι]τιν,
ἥ οἱ Ἀ]χαιὸν ἐγ[είνατ' Ἰάονά τε κλυ]τόπωλ[ο]ν
μιχθ]εῖσ' ἐν [φιλότητι καὶ εὐε]ιδέα Διομήδην.

From them were born mountain Nymphs, goddesses,
and the race of Satyrs, good-for-nothings and wastrels,
and the Kouretes gods, who love fun and dancing.
And Xouthos married Kreiousa, who possessed lovely beauty,
the beautiful-cheeked daughter of divine Erechtheus;
by the will of the gods he made her his own wife.
She bore to him Achaios and Ion, famed for horses,
having sex with (Xouthos); and also beautiful Diomede.

Catalogue fr. 10.17–24 ed. Most (my translation)
(= fr. 10(a) M-W)

And I’ll tell you right now that this reconstruction is absolutely accurate. (Well, mostly. I’m slightly doubtful about φίλην in the sixth line: we’ll come back to that.)

How on earth? What is this wizardry?

Step 1. Strabo

The key to joining the two papyrus fragments lay in an ancient book that has survived intact, Strabo’s Geography. Strabo survived by being transmitted via the mediaeval manuscript tradition.

And by good luck, Strabo happens to quote the first three lines of this passage in full.

Ἠσίοδος μὲν γὰρ ἐκ Δώρου καὶ τῆς Φορωνέως θυγατρὸς πέντε γενέσθαι θυγατέρας φησίν,

ἐξ ὧν οὔρειαι Νύμφαι θεαὶ ἐξεγένοντο,
καὶ γένος οὐτιδανῶν Σατύρων καὶ ἀμηχανοεργῶν
Κουρῆτές τε θεοὶ φιλοπαίγμονες, ὀρχηστῆρες.

For Hesiod says that five daughters were born from Doros and Phoroneus’ daughter:

From them were born mountain Nymphs, goddesses,
and the race of Satyrs, good-for-nothings and wastrels,
and the Kouretes gods, who love fun and dancing.
Strabo 10.3.19

By splicing together the two papyrus fragments and the Strabo quotation, we get the following:

ἐξ ὧν οὔρειαι Νύμφαι θεαὶ ἐξεγένοντο
καὶ γένος οὐτιδανῶν Σατύρων καὶ ἀμηχανοέργων
Κουρῆτές τε θεοὶ φιλοπαίγμονες ὀρχηστῆρες.
   ]θοϲδεκ[. . . . . . . . . .]ρ̣ατονειδοϲεχ̣[
    ]ηνκαλλ[. . . . . . . . .]χθηοϲθειοιο
     ]τωνι̣[. . . . . . . . . . .]ηϲετακ[. .]τ̣ι̣ν̣
    ]χα̣ιονε . [. . . . . . . . . . . .]τ̣ο̣π̣ω̣λ[.]ν
    ]ειϲε . [. . . . . . . . . . . .]ι̣δεαδιομηδην

But remember, editors have reconstructed the entire passage. We’ve still got a way to go.

Step 2. Word breaks, punctuation

Ancient books didn’t have word spaces, and they usually didn’t have punctuation. Actual papyrologists probably don’t really need to go adding them in for their own reading, because they’re used to how text looks in ancient copies. But it’ll still be helpful to put them in here, to show that some of the word breaks are pretty obvious to anyone who knows the language. In a couple of places, some common words and names that go over the edge of the papyrus are also easy to fill in.

ἐξ ὧν οὔρειαι Νύμφαι θεαὶ ἐξεγένοντο
καὶ γένος οὐτιδανῶν Σατύρων καὶ ἀμηχανοέργων
Κουρῆτές τε θεοὶ φιλοπαίγμονες ὀρχηστῆρες.
   -]θοϲ δὲ κ[-. . . . . . . . . .-]ρ̣ατον εἶδος ἐχ̣[-
    -]ην καλλ[- . . . . . . . .-]χθῆος θείοιο
     -]των ι̣[-. . . . . . . . . . .-]ηϲετ’ ἄκ̣[οι]τ̣ι̣ν̣
   Ἀ]χα̣ιὸν ἐγ̣[-. . . . . . . . . . . .]τ̣ο̣π̣ω̣λ[.]ν
    ]ειϲε . [. . . . . . . . . . . .-]ι̣δεα Διομήδην

Step 3. Know your mythology

Thanks to Strabo, we already know that the passage is talking about Satyrs and goddesses. We’ve also already filled in the name ‘Achaios’ in line 7, and we’ve got Diomede in line 8. If you know your Greek mythology, or if you look it up, you know that Achaios and Diomede are brother and sister, and that they have a brother Ion. We can see the passage is talking about family — line 6 has the word ἄκοιτιν, ‘wife’.

Achaios, Ion, and Diomede are the children of Xouthos and Kreiousa. It so happens that line 4 gives us the snippet

-]θοϲ δὲ κ[-

which could very easily read ‘and (Xou)thos something something K(reiousa)’. It’ll be something like ‘Xouthos married Kreiousa’, so Kreiousa will be in the accusative case,

Ξοῦ]θος δὲ Κ[ρείουσαν

The end of line 6, with the word ‘wife’, will be the bit telling us that ‘he made her his wife’:

ποι]ήσατ’ ἄκ̣[οι]τ̣ι̣ν̣

(There’s a small emendation here: the papyrus reads -ηϲετ’, which is very obviously a verb ending. -ετο is a common verb ending, but in the first aorist, -ετο becomes -ατο. Modern students learning ancient Greek make the same kind of mistake all the time. I find it strange that no critical edition reports the reading that’s clearly visible on the papyrus, though, even if just to correct the error.)

In addition we know Kreiousa is the daughter of Erechtheus. It’s hard to think of any names other than ‘Erechtheus’ that could fit the end of line 5, ]χθῆος θείοιο, so that gives us ‘daughter of divine Erechtheus’:

κούρ]ην καλλ[-. . . . . . Ἐρε]χθῆος θείοιο

beautiful (something something) daughter of divine Erechtheus

These family links also allow us to fill in one more thing: if Xouthos and Kreiousa are having children, they’re going to have to have sex, and hexameter poetry isn’t shy about mentioning that. The last line is likely to mean something along the lines of ‘she had sex with him and gave birth to Diomede’:

μιχθ]εῖσ' ἐ-. [

where μιχθεῖσα means ‘(she) having had sex’.

Put all of these additions together and we get

ἐξ ὧν οὔρειαι Νύμφαι θεαὶ ἐξεγένοντο
καὶ γένος οὐτιδανῶν Σατύρων καὶ ἀμηχανοέργων
Κουρῆτές τε θεοὶ φιλοπαίγμονες ὀρχηστῆρες.
Ξοῦ]θος δὲ Κ[ρείουσαν . .-]ρ̣ατον εἶδος ἐχ̣[-
κούρ]ην καλλ[-. . . . . . Ἐρε]χθῆος θείοιο
     -]των ι̣[-. . . . . . . . . ποι]ήσατ’ ἄκ̣[οι]τ̣ι̣ν̣
   Ἀ]χα̣ιὸν ἐγ̣[-. . . . . . . . . . . .]τ̣ο̣π̣ω̣λ[.]ν
μιχθ]εῖσ' ἐ-. [. . . . . . . . . . . .-]ι̣δεα Διομήδην

Step 4. Metre and metrical formulas

This particular passage is outstandingly lucky. It’s very rare that there are so many ways of filling in gaps. Most papyri don’t overlap with one another or with surviving texts, have no mythological content, and aren’t in verse. This one really won the lottery.

Because poetic rhythm and poetic devices are also here to help us out. Metrical formulas are one type of building block that early hexameter poets used to construct their poetry. If a modern editor knows their way around the formulaic system, they can use these building blocks too.

For example, take the partial phrase in line 4, εἶδος ἐχ̣[, where the second word is going to be a form of the verb ἔχω: ‘possessing beauty’. If you do a simple search of extant hexameter poetry for the string ειδος εχ-, you’ll find the following lines (not counting the fragment we’re looking at):

Ἑρμιόνην ἣ εἶδος ἔχε χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης
Ὠκεανοῦ κούρη πολυήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσα
Δήμητρ' ἠύκομον, πολυήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσαν
ἀθανάτην βασίλειαν, ὑπείροχον εἶδος ἔχουσαν
ἐκπρεπὲς εἶδος ἔχουσαν ἐν ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι
               ]..ν πολυήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσ[αν]
γείνατο δ' Ἰφιάνειραν ἐπήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσα[ν]
Sources: Odyssey 4.14; Theogony 908; Hymn to Demeter 315; Hymn 12 (to Hera) 2; Hymn 32 (to Selene) 16; Catalogue fr. 13.7 ed. Most; Catalogue fr. 25.39 ed. Most.

Next notice that the papyrus has the letters -ατον before the word εἶδος. Four of these results have an exact match for that, too.

The upshot is that what we’ve got in line 4 of our passage is a formulaic phrase. It’s attested in the forms πολυήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσα, πολυήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσαν, and ἐπήρατον εἶδος ἔχουσαν. The poet chooses the variant based on metrical and syntactical context: ἔχουσα when the woman who ‘possesses beauty’ is in the nominative case, ἔχουσαν when she’s accusative; πολυήρατον after a penthemimeral caesura, ἐπήρατον after a tritotrochaic caesura. (If you want an explanation of these terms, see here from earlier this year.)

Ξοῦθος δὲ Κρείουσαν has (a) Kreiousa in the accusative case, and (b) a tritotrochaic caesura. So we can reconstruct the line very confidently:

Ξοῦ]θος δὲ Κ[ρείουσαν ἐπή]ρατον εἶδος ἔχ[ουσαν

Similar considerations apply in line 5. After κούρ]ην, there are only a few words and phrases starting καλλ- that could sensibly fit before Ἐρε]χθῆος. Some formulaic words are disqualified because they can only start in the second half of a foot (καλλιπλόκαμον, καλλίσφυρον, καλλίζωνον); another is ruled out because hexameter poetry always uses it to describe horses (καλλίτριχον). The reconstruction Ἐρε]χθῆος means we’re looking for a tritotrochaic caesura, so that rules out καλλίστην and καλλίκομον. κάλλεος εἵνεκα is too long.

Ruling out all of those narrows our choices down to one: καλλιπάρηον, ‘beautiful-cheeked’. καλλιπάρηον also happens to be the right length, in terms of number of letters, to occupy the space between the two parts of the line. So the correct supplementation of line 5 is

κούρην καλλ[ιπάρηον Ἐρε]χθῆος θείοιο

the beautiful-cheeked daughter of divine Erechtheus

And we do this for the rest of the passage. In line 7, ‘she gave birth to Achaios’ is going to mean supplementing Ἀ]χαιὸν ἐγ[είνατ(ο); that leaves exactly the right amount of space for Achaios’ brother, Ion, in the accusative form Ἰάονα. At the end of the line, κλυτόπωλος is an adjective that standardly appears at line-end (3× in the Iliad). In line 8, μιχθεῖσ' ἐν φιλότητι is standard formulaic phrasing for ‘after having sex’ (4× in the Theogony, 1× in the Hymns, 4× elsewhere in the Catalogue). εὐειδέα appears a few times elsewhere.

The only bit where I have doubts is the first half of line 6: ἀθανά]των ἰ[ότητι φίλην, according to the editions of Merkelbach and West (1990), Hirschberger (2004), and Most (2007). The formulaic adjective to use before ποιήσατ' ἄκοιτιν would be θαλερήν, not φίλην (θαλερὴν ποιήσατ' ἄκοιτιν: 4× Theogony, 5× elsewhere in the Catalogue, 1× in the Megalai Ehoiai). That is in fact how some scholars have supplemented the line.

However, θαλερήν doesn’t fit West’s reconstruction of the first part of the line, ἀθανά]των ἰ[ότητι. And Hirschberger’s commentary points out that Iliad 9.397 uses φίλην ποιήσομ' άκοιτιν (‘I shall make (her) my own wife’). I think there’s still room for doubt: I can just about imagine the line going

κούρ]ην καλλ[ιπάρηον Ἐρε]χθῆος θείοιο
ἀθανά]των ἴ[σου θαλερὴν ποι]ήσατ' ἄκ[οι]τιν

the beautiful-cheeked daughter of divine Erechtheus,
equal of the gods; he made her his fruitful wife.

It’s a little strange to expand on Erechtheus like that when he’s only being mentioned in passing. I’m prepared to accept that West’s reconstruction is the more likely — but it’s the one phrase in this passage that is not quite certain.

And there we have it — a complete passage. Like I said, this passage is unusually fortunate in having so many clues that allow us to reconstruct it. It may look like papyrologists are sorcerors.

Actually on reflection I guess they are pretty much sorcerors. But it’s the mechanical kind of sorcery! It isn’t like Doctor Strange doing any random magic that the writers happen to think of. It’s more like Dungeons & Dragons magic, with strict rules.


  • Hirschberger, M. 2004. Gynaikōn Katalogos und Megalai Ehoiai. Ein Kommentar zu den Fragmenten zweier hesiodeischer Epen. Munich/Leipzig.
  • Lobel, E. 1971. The Oxyrhynchus papyri vol. 37. London. [Internet Archive]
  • Merkelbach, R.; West, M. L. 1990. ‘Fragmenta selecta.’ In: Solmsen, F. (ed.) Hesiodi Theogonia Opera et dies Scutum, 3rd ed. Oxford. 109–246.
  • Most, G. W. 2007. Hesiod. The Shield, Catalogue of women, other fragments. Cambridge (MA)/London.

Monday 11 December 2023

Ancient Greek puns

Puns may be the lowest form of humour these days, but in early Greek literature, they’re more like word magic.

... τὸν δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ θ’
Ἑλέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλέναυς ἕλανδρος ἑλέπτολις.

(Who was it that named) that spear-bride,
that bone of contention, Helen? A fitting name!
Ship-destroyer, man-destroyer, city-destroyer.

Aischylos, Agamemnon 688–690

In the last line Helen is helenaus, helandros, heleptolis. This kind of wordplay is a formidable translation problem. Later in the play, Kassandra complains that the god Apollo has destroyed her: apollōn emos, apōlesas gar ‘my destroyer, for you have destroyed (me)’ (1080–1081).

‘Greek vase’ meme. Transcription: ‘Oh you hate ancient Greek puns? My Apollogies.’

This is one of the grimmest plays in the corpus of Athenian tragedy. It doesn’t do humour. No one in the audience in 458 BCE groaned or cracked a smile at this line.

It’s about word magic. Many Greek thinkers believed there was an inherent link between language and the things it refers to. Logos literally means ‘word’, but its connotations could go a lot further. For 5th century BCE Greeks, there was a deep importance to the contrast between logos and ergon: speech and action, theory and practice, intent and outcome. The Stoics went further and used logos to refer to the principle that the universe behaves intelligibly and self-consistently.

Wordplay in Homer

So when we find wordplay in Homer, don’t assume it’s for laughs. There’s one story that explains that Odysseus’ grandfather chose his name because the grandfather was always getting people angry at him (odyss-amenos, Odyssey 19.407). That episode is memorable because it’s precisely about the wordplay.

But the most famous pun is the ‘nobody’ trick that Odysseus uses to fool the Cyclops.

Then from the cave strong Polyphemos addressed them:
‘O friends, Nobody [Outis] is killing me by trickery or violence.’
In answer they spoke winged words:
‘If nobody [mē tis] is doing violence to you on your own, —
well, there’s no way to avoid a plague sent by great Zeus!
Go and pray to your father the lord Poseidon.’
So they spoke and went away. And my own heart laughed,
at how my name deceived them, and my excellent trick [mētis].
Odyssey 9.407–414

The fake name Outis is simply the Greek for ‘no one, nobody’. Ou tis (οὔ τις) and mē tis (μή τις) are grammatical variants of ‘nobody’. And mētis (μῆτις) is the word for a cunning trick, something particularly associated with Odysseus. He even has his own stock epithet polymētis ‘full of tricks’.

I can’t say that there’s no hint of humour at all — Odysseus does mock the Cyclops at certain moments — but that isn’t what this moment is about. When Odysseus gave the fake name in an earlier scene, it wasn’t mockery, it was a meaningful statement about his own isolation.

‘Nobody [Outis] is my name. Nobody is what they always call me —
my mother, my father, and all my other friends.’
Odyssey 9.366–367

Odysseus is stuck in No Man’s Land during his ten years of wandering, isolated from the community that frames his personal identity. He’s the original Man with No Name.

Note. If he were really pushing the grammatical ambiguity the second ‘Nobody’, in the accusative form, could have been followed by a word starting with a vowel: then it’d be ambiguous whether he was saying Οὖτιν as a proper name or οὔ τιν’ meaning ‘no one’. The Cyclops does use the accusative form ambiguously in this way, at line 369. (I’m over-analysing this, I know. I’m not alone, at least: Eustathios makes similar comments.)

What, you think it’s a coincidence that the first line of the epic just refers to Odysseus as ‘a man’, without mentioning his name? Moments where Odysseus’ name is revealed are significant moments.

When Odysseus starts revealing himself to his family, the moment is packed with wordplay, as Simon Goldhill has pointed out (1991: 10). Here’s how he introduces himself to his son Telemachos:

οὔ τίς τοι θεός εἰμι· τί μ’ ἀθανάτοισιν ἐΐσκεις;
ἀλλὰ πατὴρ τεός εἰμι.

I am nobody’s god. Why compare me to the immortals?
But I am your father.’

Odyssey 16.187–188

At no point does he actually tell Telemachos his name. Just like in the first line of the Odyssey, he’s a nameless man. Instead, we get wordplay linking these two lines together: ou ... tʰeos eimi ‘I am not a god’, teos eimi ‘I am yours’. At the same time, he echoes the Outis/Nobody trick from the Cyclops episode: ou tis tʰeos eimi ‘I am Nobody-god, I am no(body’s) god.’

He goes on to say, ‘no other Odysseus is going to come’ (16.204). But he never comes out and says ‘I am Odysseus’ to anyone on Ithaca. He doesn’t say ‘Odysseus’ when he’s being reunited with anyone in his family or household, and he doesn’t say it when he reveals himself to the suitors.

An article by Norman Austin (1972) looks into how Telemachos, Penelope, and the others also avoid using his name. Austin interprets them as trying to protect Odysseus by concealing his identity; Douglas Olson (1992) shows that it’s deeper than that. It’s about ‘name-magic’.

Groaning statue meme. Transcription: ‘εἰ πυρὸς αἰθομένου μέσσην ἑκατοντάδα θείης, / παρθένου εὑρήσεις υἱέα καὶ φονέα’ ‘If you put a hundred in the middle of a blazing fire, you’ll find a virgin’s son and a murderer’ (Greek anthology 14.20). The wordplay in this riddle is in a more modern vein: it’s entertainment, not word magic. The solution is to insert the Greek numeral ρ into the word for ‘of fire’. In Greek legend Pyrrhos is the bloodthirsty son of Achilleus and Deidameia. (NB: this isn’t actually a Greek statue. It’s Henri Vidal’s ‘Cain’ (1896) in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris.)

But there’s wordplay on Odysseus’ name in the Odyssey’s very first scene, too. When Athena is trying to persuade Zeus that it’s time for Odysseus to be allowed to go home, her speech is full of his name.

‘For me it’s about Odysseus, dystroyer in battle; my heart is dystracted;
a dysolate man for dysperately long, in agony away from his family ...
Atlas’ daughter (Kalypso) holds him dystressed, so dyspondent,
constantly with soothing and seductive words. ...
By the ships of the Argives he pleased you with sacrifices
in broad Troy: why are you so dysgusted now, Zeus?’
Odyssey 1.48–62

Yes, this translation is rather contrived. The Greek is too. It’s fll of words like dysmorōi, dystēnon, odyromenon, and ōdysao, as well as a cluster of da- and dē- sounds in the first two lines.

The same wordplay turns up in the Cyclops episode, too. Straight after the mētis/outis ‘trick/nobody’ punchline, the very next line describes the Cyclops’ agony from being blinded —

Κύκλωψ δὲ στενάχων τε καὶ ὠδίνων ὀδύνῃσι ...

But the Cyclops, groaning and dystressed in his dyscomforts ...

Odyssey 9.415

There are no thorough monographs on wordplay in Homer, but there are several articles (Dimock 1956; Austin 1972; Olson 1992; Louden 1995; Ahl 2002). There’s a lot to choose from. There’s wordplay on the name of Achilleus, who brings akʰos to the laos, pain to the people, a motif echoed implicitly in the opening lines of the Iliad, and more explicitly elsewhere (e.g. 6.413–414, 16.21–22, 23.136–137). There’s play on the prophet Teiresias, whose name is evoked by the weariness of Odysseus’ men (teireto ... eiresiēs ‘(their heart) was worn by rowing’, Odyssey 10.78). Penelope’s story of the Gates of Horn and Ivory has a bundle of wordplays on elepʰas ‘ivory’ (Odyssey 19.563–565), as well as a day ‘of dysonant name’ (dysōnymos, Odyssey 19.571). And so on.

Aischylos’ heavenly pisspot

There’s a wordplay — possibly two — in two fragments of Aischylos’ lost plays, which I’m fairly sure have never been noticed in any scholarly publications. The plays are part of Aischylos’ lost Odysseus tetralogy, specifically, the Psychagōgoi and Ostologoi (‘soul-summoners’ and ‘bone gatherers’). The tetralogy as a whole related Odysseus’ consultation of Teiresias, his return home, his confrontation with Penelope’s suitors, and probably, his death.

In one fragment of the Psychagōgoi, the ghost of Teiresias prophesies the future:

For a heron flying on high
will strike you with dung, the excrement of its bowels;
after this, a sea beast’s spine
will corrupt your skin, ancient and shedding hair.
Aischylos fr. 275 Radt

There was a genre of Greek poetry in the 6th–5th centuries BCE called chresmologic poetry, or ‘oracle collecting’, which purported to consist of prophecies about the future. Only fragments survive, but those fragments are couched in enigmatic references, obscure symbolism, and sometimes, wordplay. Aischylos’ surviving plays sometimes adopt this style — notably in Agamemnon, in the opening chorus and in the Kassandra scene (especially 133–137, 147–155, 1219–1225) — and this fragment fits right in. What are the enigmatic references here?

The ‘sea beast’s spine’ is the only bit where there’s widespread agreement. This is usually thought to prophesy Odysseus’ death, killed by his illegitimate son Telegonos, using a spear tipped with the spine of a poisonous ray. The satyr play of the tetralogy is named after Telegonos’ mother, Kirke, and other sources for the Telegonos story refer to Odysseus’ extreme old age at the time, so this is a very good bet.

What about the first two lines? Some 20th century commentators were so revolted by the supposed violation of tragic propriety by mentioning faeces that they insisted they must be the kind of thing you’d find in a vulgar satyr play.

But this is chresmologic poetry. Aischylos mentions birds a lot, and they’re nearly always omens, or symbolic (Pollard 1948). There’s wordplay here — word magic. It pains me that most scholarly articles about this fragment are earnestly certain that it’s about a poisonous spine literally embedded in a literal heron’s faeces. It’s like saying that the opening chorus of Agamemnon really is just about some eagles eating a rabbit.

Note. I won’t name names. Instead, for decent overviews of the Odysseus tetralogy see Gantz 1980: 151–153; Katsouris 1982.

Here’s a fragment from a subsequent play in the tetralogy, the Ostologoi. Odysseus recalls how one of the suitors once mistreated him:

[Eurymachos] is the one who once, for a joke,
threw a foul-smelling pisspot at me.
He threw and did not miss! And about my head
it crashed and was wrecked in shards,
and it gave me a stench, the opposite of myrrh ...
Aischylos fr. 180 Radt

Fr. 179 also refers to the incident. It echoes similar incidents in the Odyssey, where various suitors throw objects at the disguised Odysseus.

Note. Threats of throwing a stool at Odyssey 17.229–246, 405–412; stools actually thrown at 17.458–491, 18.394–404; a cow’s foot thrown at 20.299–319.

The word magic is on the word for ‘pisspot’, ouranē. This must be what Teiresias is referring to when he mentions excrement coming ‘from on high’ — because ouranos is the standard word for ‘sky’.

Ouranē ‘pisspot’ and ouranos ‘sky’ aren’t etymologically related to one another. (If you’re interested, they are related to English ‘urine’ and the planet ‘Uranus’, respectively.) But obviously there’s room for wordplay. The excrement that strikes Odysseus is ‘from on high’ because it was inside an ouranē.

So Teiresias is actually prophesying two separate incidents: (1) Eurymachos throwing the pisspot — excrement coming ‘from on high’ and out of an ouranē — and (2) afterwards, Odysseus being killed by a poisonous spine in old age.

What about the heron? This is more obscure and speculative. The key, I suspect, lies in geography, though this is only an inference. My sense is that it’s related to the city of Ardea in central Italy. This is because (a) we know that by the 6th century BCE Kirke’s home was imagined as being in central Italy at Monte Circeo; (b) numerous cities in Latium and Etruria had foundation legends involving children of Odysseus, Kirke, or both, including both Telegonos and Telemachos (see Phillips 1953; the second half of this piece); (c) one of these is the city of Ardea, whose name is the Latin for ‘heron’. Ardea even had herons on its coinage.

Note. The heron–Ardea link was pointed out to me more than a decade ago by Alison Griffith. I apologise to her for still not getting it into a proper publication.

So an enigmatic reference to a heron could in principle suggest children of Odysseus and Kirke. It could also be less specific, linking these children to augury (ancient augurs saw a flying heron as a good omen). It’d be very much in keeping with Aischylos’ style to have a single passage carrying many meanings at once. Still, I’ll allow that this wordplay is less clear-cut. For the ‘excrement from on high’ wordplay, we have fragments explcitly reporting the payoff of the prophecy: we don’t have that for the heron.

Word magic and the gods

The important thing is that something like an οὐράνη οὐράνια, a ‘heavenly pisspot’, is no joke. It represents a prophet’s mastery of the relationship between language and reality. That relationship is enigmatic, and that’s why Greek chresmologic poetry is couched in enigmas. If words are linked to real objects, then wordplay is a statement about links between things in the real world.

This became important in literary criticism, and even theology, in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. There was a vogue for treating the sounds of gods’ names as meaningful.

This isn’t the space for a wide-ranging review, but we touched on it at the start with Kassandra’s wordplay on ‘Apollo’ and apollōn ‘destroyer’. The Homeric commentator Theagenes of Rhegion interpreted the battle of the gods in Iliad 20–21 in naturalistic terms, each god representing a force of nature; and for two of the gods, the symbolism lies in their name, Hera = ἀήρ ‘air’ and Leto = λήθη ‘forgetfulness’. Then there are several theological wordplays in the Derveni papyrus, which states that ‘Rhea’ and ‘Hera’ are one and the same because they contain the same letters (at least in the pre-Ionic Attic alphabet), that Demeter is also called ‘Deio’ because she was ‘torn’ (ἐδηιώθη) by sexual intercourse, and that Kronos is the personification of χρόνος ‘time’, at the same time as being a primeval ‘colliding mind’ (κρου- + νοῦς). This kind of mysticism is the proper context for wordplay in Greek literature up to the 5th century BCE.


  • Ahl, F. 2002. ‘Wordplay and apparent fiction in the Odyssey.’ Arethusa 35: 117–132. [JSTOR]
  • Austin, N. 1972. ‘Name magic in the Odyssey.’ California studies in classical antiquity 5: 1–19. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Dimock, G. E. 1956. ‘The name of Odysseus.’ The Hudson review 9: 52–70. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Gantz, T. 1980. ‘The Aischylean tetralogy: attested and conjectured groups.’ American journal of philology 101: 133–164. [JSTOR]
  • Katsouris, A. 1982. ‘Aeschylus’ “Odyssean” tetralogy.’ Dioniso 53: 47–60.
  • Louden, B. 1995. ‘Categories of Homeric wordplay.’ Transactions of the American Philological Association 125: 27–46. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Olson, S. D. 1992. ‘“Name-magic” and the threat of lying strangers in Homer’s Odyssey.’ Illinois classical studies 17: 1–7. [JSTOR]
  • Phillips, E. D. 1953. ‘Odysseus in Italy.’ Journal of Hellenic studies 73: 53–67. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Pollard, J. R. T. 1948. ‘Birds in Aeschylus.’ Greece & Rome 17: 116–127. [DOI | JSTOR]