By Thomas Van Nortwick
The story of Bellerophontes appears as a self-contained narrative inside the Glaucus-Diomedes digression, an example of what is called an “epyllion,” or “little epic.” The form itself, of which there are many examples in Greek and Latin poetry, seems to invite thought about how the inner and outer stories might be related. The Bellerophontes episode is a version of a common folktale about an amorous wife scorned and her revenge against the man (not her husband) who refuses her. Examples include Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in the Bible and Hippolytus and Phaedra in Euripides’s Hippolytus. There are several other stories about Bellerophontes elsewhere in Greek literature and myth, his capture of Pegasus, the winged horse, his killing of a family member, the cause of his exile to the court of Proitos in the first place, and his arrogant attempt to ride to heaven on the back of Pegasus, which drew the hatred of the gods and caused his subsequent wandering over the earth in exile. The absence of this material from Glaucus’s version shows how relatively elliptical Homer’s story is. The poet uses his material advisedly, picking out the parts of the myth that suit his purposes in this part of the poem, leaving the rest unsaid. So what can we discern about his purposes in this digression?
We may approach what Glaucus does tell us in two ways. First, the elements in the story of Bellerophontes of duplicity, suspicion, and malign intent, which contrasts with the openness and generosity between Diomedes and Glaucus. Though Bellerophontes is not only heroic but morally upright, he will eventually be rewarded for his goodness by exile. Seemingly victorious over those with baser motives, he wins no renown for his actions. Glaucus and Diomedes, meanwhile, though both estimable warriors, choose finally to forego the quest for glory in favor of a friendly alliance prompted by filial piety. These kinds of contrasts in tone work to keep us engaged, our imagination refreshed, always a primary goal for Homer.
At the same time, the content of both parts resonates with both past and future events in the poem. The benign conclusion of the duel will take its place alongside other events in the narrative, in particular the serene funeral of Sarpedon in Book 16 (450–57; 667–75) and Hector’s funeral in Book 24 (788–804), which form a counterpoint to the destructive violence of the dominant narrative. The treachery, erotic and otherwise, of both Anteia and Proitos looks back to the original abduction of Helen and forward to the encounters that Hector will have with Paris and Helen and then Andromache. The two relationships revealed in these latter exchanges could not be more different. One is clearly toxic, the other warm and loving. One mirrors the suspicion and betrayal of the epyllion, the other the generosity and largeness of spirit that inform its frame.
The connection between sex and war is a continuing, if muted theme in the Iliad. The more familiar notion that sex is like war finds vivid expression in the famous seduction of Zeus in Book 14 (153–351), where Hera’s toilette before approaching her husband parodies a warrior’s arming scene (14.169–86). That battle is like sex is hinted at more subtly. The verb μίγνυμι, to describe the “mingling” of bodies, is used of both sex and battle (sex: 6.165, 9.133, etc.; battle: 4.354, 5.143, etc.) A more obscure verb, ὀαρίζειν, also has a suggestive array of connotations in the poem. From the same root as the noun, ὄαρ, “wife,” the verbal form is used, as we will see, of Hector’s exchanges with Andromache in Book Six (516) and later by Hector himself in his wistful monologue before facing Achilles (22.127–28). In those cases, the verb is usually translated “to chat,” or “to gossip.” In other words, to “talk like a wife.” Two other nouns are derived from the same root. Ὀαρίστες seems to mean “dear, intimate friend,” and is used of the friendship of Odysseus and Idomeneus in the Odyssey (19.169). Ὀαρίστυς describes the power of sexuality that emanates from Aphrodite’s girdle when she seduces Zeus (14.216). But two other uses of ὀαρίστυς seem to reverse the metaphor, suggesting that battle is like sex: Iliad 13.291, where the noun is used with προμάχων, “fighters in the forefront of battle,” and Iliad 17.228, where it is limited by πολέμου, “battle.” In these cases, the poet creates a brilliant and disturbing metaphor, comparing the chaos of battle, where men mingle with their enemies, to an intimate, often sexual encounter. Finally, the scene of Paris’s eventual seduction of an initially unwilling Helen in Book Three (421–46) is followed immediately by the description of Menelaus—who was about to drag Paris off to his death in their duel when Aphrodite whisked Paris away in a magical cloud—raging around the battlefield like a wild beast, looking for his prey (448–54). It is as if the primal force that animates the tryst in Paris and Helen’s bedroom has leaked out onto the battlefield and possessed Menelaus.
The tablets sent by Proitos, with their mysterious “baneful signs,” (σήματα λυγρὰ) have been much discussed by Classical scholars. It may be that this is the first mention of writing we have in extant Greek literature, obviously important if we are trying to establish the method of composition for the Iliad itself. But the verb, γράψας (169) means “to scratch,” not necessarily “to write,” so it’s possible that the σήματα are symbols or some kind of drawing, rather than what we think of as writing.
The account of Bellerophontes’s three challenges, with triumph or death at the end, follows a familiar folktale pattern. The Chimaera appears in several other places in early Greek literature and is proverbially hard to defeat. In its tripartite form it resembles the Sphinx that Oedipus must defeat in order to enter Thebes. As a combination of three usually distinct animals, lion, snake, and goat, the creature embodies the disruption of natural categories, the kind of chaos demon often encountered by ancient Mediterranean culture heroes. The Solymoi are rather more obscure in origin. Apparently a tribe in the territory of the Lycians, they were known as fierce fighters, as were the Amazons, the third opponent.
The style of the “three labors” section is typical of folktales, the pace relatively swift, the diction relatively unadorned, the moral judgments straightforwardly black and white. All of this contrasts with the typical style of Homeric poetry, characteristically expansive, leisurely, and rich in moral subtlety.
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Hansen, W. 2002. Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature, 332–52. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 59–61. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.
Steiner, D.T. 1994. The Tyrant’s Writ: Myths and Images of Writing in Ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 2001. “Like a Woman: Hector and the Boundaries of Masculinity.” Arethusa 34.2: 21–22.