A sampling of comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 18

2017.07.19 / updated 2018.10.13 | By Gregory Nagy

In Rhapsody 18, Odysseus as a make-believe beggar is challenged by a most questionable character named Iros, who figures as a real beggar. What makes Iros so questionable is his similarity to characters who figure in a poetic form that can best be described as mock epic. [[GN 2017.07.20.]]

“Ulysses Preparing to Fight with Irus” (1805). John Flaxman (English, 1755–1826) Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996.Image via the Tate.
“Ulysses Preparing to Fight with Irus” (1805). John Flaxman (English, 1755–1826) Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996.Image via the Tate.



subject heading(s): story of Iros; mock epic; īs ‘force, violence, strength’; biē ‘force, violence, strength’

This story, extending from line 1 of Rhapsody 18 all the way through line 117, shows a temporary change in poetic form. There is a sudden switch here from epic to non-epic. The character of Iros, as named at O.18.06, is non-epic, even anti-epic or, better, mock epic. We see here the story of a mock epic character who looks like an epic hero on the outside but who does not measure up, on the inside, to epic standards. In outward appearance, he qualifies as megas ‘great, big’, O.18.04, but he is ridiculously weak on the inside: that is, he lacks the epic inner quality of īs ‘force, violence, strength’, O.18.03. This quality, so blatantly lacking in the character of Iros, is also indicated by way of the word biē at O.18.04, which means the same thing as does īs at O.18.03: ‘force, violence, strength’. The action that will take place after Iros insults and even threatens Odysseus will prove that Iros is weak on the inside, and this weakness will disqualify him from surviving in epic. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 228–232.]]


Q&T, with modifications, via BA 229
subject heading(s): Iros; mock epic; margos ‘gluttonous, wanton’; language of praise/blame; blame poetry; praise poetry; Margites; Thersites; “speaking name” (nomen loquens)

|1 ἦλθε δ᾽ ἐπὶ πτωχὸς πανδήμιος, ὃς κατὰ ἄστυ |2 πτωχεύεσκ᾽ Ἰθάκης, μετὰ δ᾽ ἔπρεπε γαστέρι μάργῃ |3 ἀζηχὲς φαγέμεν καὶ πιέμεν· οὐδέ οἱ ἦν ἲς |4 οὐδὲ βίη, εἶδος δὲ μάλα μέγας ἦν ὁράασθαι

|1 Then came a beggar [ptōkhos], ranging-all-over-the-district [dēmos], who all through the town [astu] |2 of Ithaca would go around begging. He stood out, with his gluttonous [margē] stomach, |3 because of his endless eating and drinking. And he had no īs, |4 nor biē, but in appearance he was big to look at.

Here I leave untranslated the synonyms īs and biē, both of which I had previously translated as ‘force, strength, violence’ in the note at O.18.001–117. As I already observed in that note, appearances here are deceiving: Iros looks strong on the outside but he is weak on the inside, and the exposure of his weakness will prove to be something that is ridiculed in epic. The act of ridiculing is the program, as it were, of mock epic, but here the mocking is reversed: now it is epic that will be mocking mock epic. As we are about to see, epic will overcome mock epic. Odysseus, even though he looks weak on the outside, will beat up on Iros, who looks strong on the outside. The mock epic form to which the epic refers here is signaled by a most telling word: it is margos ‘gluttonous, wanton’, at O.18.002, describing the gastēr ‘stomach’ of Iros, who stands out as an ostentatiously greedy consumer of food and drink, O.18.002–003. A character who is margos is not just a negative example of lowly humans in general: in the poetic language of praise/blame, such a character is a negative example of lowly poets in particular. A lowly man who is margos ‘gluttonous, wanton’ is to be seen generically as a greedy blame poet. Such a blame poet, as we will now see, is typical of a poetic form that I describe here as mock epic. We can see the formal features of such a poetic form at the very beginning of Rhapsody 18, where the wording matches in syntax the beginning of a mock epic known as the Margites. There the main character to be introduced on stage, as it were, is described not as a ptōkhos ‘beggar’, as here at O.18.001, but as a poet who turns out to be a blame poet. I show here the actual wording that we find at the beginning of that mock epic (Margites F 1 ed. West):

|1 ἦλθέ τις ἐς Κολοφῶνα γέρων καὶ θεῖος ἀοιδός, |2 Μουσάων θεράπων καὶ ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος, |3 φίλῃς ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν εὔφθογγον λύρην

|1 Then came to Colophon some man, an old man, a divine [theios] singer [aoidos], |2 surrogate [therapōn] of the Muses and of Apollo who shoots from afar, |3 and in his hands, those hands of his, he held a lyre that made a beautiful sound.

As we see from the explicit description here, Margites is an aoidos ‘singer’: that is, he is a poet. Moreover, he is a blame poet, as we see even from the morphology of his name Margī́tēs, derived from the adjective margós ‘gluttonous, wanton’. This “speaking name” (nomen loquens) Margī́tēs is morphologically parallel to another “speaking name,” Thersī́tēs, which means ‘the bold one’ (tharsos/thersos is ‘boldness’ in the negative contexts of blame poetry). This character named Thersites is represented in the Iliad as a blame poet of the worst kind: see the comments at I.02.214, I.02.216, I.02.217–219, I.02.221, I.02.222, I.02.224, I.02.225–242, I.02.235, I.02.241–242, I.02.243, I.02.245, I.02.246–264, I.02.246, I.02.247, I.02.248–249, I.02.251, I.02.255, I.02.256, I.02.265–268, I.02.269–270, I.02.275, I.02.277. In the narrative about Thersites in the Iliad, as I pointed out in my comments on the verses I just listed, it is clear that blame poetry is antithetical not only to praise poetry but also to epic, and that epic has the power to blame, in its own right, this blame poetry. Thus, epic can defeat blame poetry, making it an object of ridicule just as blame poets attempt to make epic an object of ridicule. When Odysseus beats up on Thersites in the Iliad, epic is defeating blame poetry. Similarly, when Odysseus beats up on Iros in the Odyssey, epic is defeating blame poetry and, further, epic is also defeating mock epic. In the case of the Margites, this mock epic starts off mock seriously by describing the poet simply as a poet, though he will turn out to be a blame poet as the narrative proceeds. The metrical form of such mock epic is a combination of two kinds of verses: (1) dactylic hexameters, which are the medium of epic, and (2) iambic trimeters, which had once been the medium of mock poetry in general—the word for which is iambos (BA 243–252). A case in point is what we find in the attested fragments of the Margites: in the three verses of this poem’s beginning, already quoted above, the first two verses are dactylic hexameters, to be contrasted with the third verse, which is an iambic trimeter (Nagy 2015.10.15 §§28–29). At a later point in this same fragmentary poem, we see other such iambic trimeters, the most notable example of which is this verse (Margites F 201.1 ed. West F 4b.1):

πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

The same verse is attested in a fable, “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” which is embedded in blame poetry attributed to Archilochus (F 201.1 ed. West):

πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Such uses of fables in both poetry and prose are suitable for praising or for blaming or simply for warning (BA 280–288; Nagy 2011a §§6–7, 129, 138–146). In the case of “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” Fable 427 (ed. Perry), there is such an element of warning attested in a version attributed to Aesop by Aristotle Rhetoric 2.1393b22–1394a1, who reports that this fable was narrated by Aesop to the people of Samos on the occasion of their impending execution of a ‘demagogue’. [[GN 2017.07.20.]]

In Poetics 1448b24–34, Aristotle reconstructs an early phase of praise poetry and blame poetry where praise evolves into epic, as exemplified by the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, while blame evolves into the poetry of playful ridicule, as exemplified by the mock epic Margites, which Aristotle actually attributes to Homer. In Poetics 1448b34–1449a6, Aristotle goes on to argue that the poetry of epic evolved further into tragedy while the poetry of playful ridicule evolved further into comedy (additional comments in Nagy 2015.10.15 §§15–16). In terms of Aristotle’s terminology, then, the mock epic Margites can be described as a hybrid form of comedy. [[GN 2017.07.20.]]


subject heading(s): name of Iros; name of Iris; “speaking name” (nomen loquens); mock epic

The “speaking name” (nomen loquens) of Îros (῏Ιρος), Ο.18.006, is linked here with the name of Îris (῏Ιρις), the goddess who functions as divine messenger. On the name of Iris, see the comment on I.17.547–549. Iros too carries messages, as we see here from the use of apangellein ‘carry messages’ at O.18.008; unlike Iris, however, Iros carries messages indiscriminately: ‘whenever anyone tells him [to carry a message]’, O.18.008. Such an indiscriminate function as performed by Iros is ridiculous compared to the deliberate and serious function performed by Iris, who carries only those messages that are sent by the immortal gods themselves. Just as Iros himself has no inner ‘force’—no īs and no biē, as we saw at O.18.003 and O.18.004 respectively, so also the messages that he carries from one random person to another random person have no inner ‘force’ either. To be contrasted is the goddess Iris, who as carrier of divine messages is the embodiment of the inner ‘force’ that is contained in these messages: her name actually derives from the root *u̯ī-  as in īs ‘force, violence, strength’. Also, as I point out in the comment at I.17.547–549, the conventional association of this goddess Iris with windspeed is parallel with the association of windspeed with the words īs and biē, which both mean ‘force, violence, strength’. [[GN 2017.07.20.]]


subject heading(s): neikeîn ‘quarrel with’[; neikos ‘quarrel’]; blame poetry

When Iros ‘quarrels with’ Odysseus, as expressed by the verb neikeîn here at O.18.009, he is acting as a blame poet who is hostile not only to Odysseus but also to the epic of the Odyssey. See the comment at I.02.221, where neikeîn ‘quarrel with’ refers to the blame that Thersites aims at both Achilles and Odysseus, the main heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey respectively. On blame as blame poetry, see the comment at O.18.001–004. [[GN 2017.07.20.]]


Q&T via BA 228
subject heading(s): phthoneîn ‘begrudge’; blame poetry; olbos ‘prosperity’

|15 δαιμόνι᾽, οὔτε τί σε ῥέζω κακὸν οὔτ᾽ ἀγορεύω, |16 οὔτε τινὰ φθονέω δόμεναι καὶ πόλλ᾽ ἀνελόντα. |17 οὐδὸς δ᾽ ἀμφοτέρους ὅδε χείσεται, οὐδέ τί σε χρή |18 ἀλλοτρίων φθονέειν· δοκέεις δέ μοι εἶναι ἀλήτης |19 ὥς περ ἐγών, ὄλβον δὲ θεοὶ μέλλουσιν ὀπάζειν

|15 O you, you who must be possessed by some superhuman-force [=daimōn]! I am harming you by neither deed nor word. |16 And I do not begrudge [phthoneîn] that someone should be a giver [to you], even when someone [like you] has already been a taker in great quantities. |17 This threshold will accommodate both of us, and you should not |18 be begrudging [phthoneîn] about the property of others. You seem to be a wandering-beggar [alētēs] |19 like me, and it is the gods who are likely to grant prosperity [olbos].

(What follows is epitomized from BA 228.) The verb phthoneîn ‘begrudge’ corresponds to the noun phthonos ‘being begrudging’. To begrudge is to feel ungenerous about giving something for someone else to have, or even about accepting a pre-existing situation where someone else already has something that you don’t want for that someone to have—because you want to have it instead. In the praise poetry of Pindar, as at Olympian 8.55, phthonos conventionally applies to blame poetry. In such praise poetry, blame poets are viewed as ungenerously negative about the very thought that someone should be getting praised by praise poetry. It is this kind of phthonos ‘begrudging’ that we find encapsulated in the behavior of Iros toward Odysseus. Picking a quarrel, as expressed by the verb neikeîn at O.18.009, Iros hurls words of blame against Odysseus. In doing so, he also orders Odysseus to get out of the way, O.18.010, threatening that the present eris ‘strife’ between the two of them, O.18.013, may escalate from verbal to physical violence, Ο.18.010–013. The disguised master of the household refuses to budge from the doorway, answering Iros with the words that I have just quoted from O.18.015–019. There the collocation of olbos ‘prosperity’ at O.18.019 with phthoneîn ‘begrudge’ at O.18.016 and O.18.018 reflects a traditional way of thinking, well attested also in Pindar’s praise poetry, which teaches that prosperity is given by the gods to the righteous—and that this gift is threatened by the unrighteous, who feel begrudging about such god-given prosperity. Ironically, the prosperity of Odysseus himself is now being threatened by the suitors, whose messenger Iros, as a mock Iris, is so begrudging as to hinder our hero from even entering his own household. Without having to identify himself as the real householder, however, Odysseus warns Iros not ‘to be begrudging [phthoneîn] about the property of others’ (ἀλλοτρίων φθονέειν), O.18.018. Such a begrudging attitude on the part of Iros is directly comparable to blame poetry in its function as a traditional negative foil of praise poetry within praise poetry, where the vice of gluttony is pictured as a prime characteristic of blame poetry: hence the saying ‘words are a morsel for those who are begrudging [phthoneroi]’ (ὄψον δὲ λόγοι φθονεροῖσιν) in Pindar Nemean 8.21. In fact, we now see from the Homeric description of Iros that his role as a blame poet is manifested in precisely this sort of gluttony. And the key word is margos ‘gluttonous, wanton’. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 228–232.]]


subject heading(s): name of Iros; name of Aïros; “speaking name” (nomen loquens)

Even before the physical combat between the disguised Odysseus and Iros takes place, Iros is already losing his nerve as he sees Odysseus half-revealed in the hero’s true form through the intervention of the goddess Athena, O.18.069–071. The reaction of the suitors is to start maliciously gloating over the fear shown by Iros, and the Master Narrator quotes here at O.18.073–074 what any one of the suitors might be saying as they gloat. And what the suitors say is already mocking Iros for failing to live up to his outward appearance of manly strength: the suitors are saying derisively that Iros is really unmanly, not manly. Just as the Master Narrator had previously said—and I highlighted this already in the comment at O.18.001–004—Iros may seem to be megas ‘great, big’ on the outside, O.18.004, but he is ridiculously weak on the inside: that is, he lacks the epic inner quality of īs ‘force, violence, strength’, O.18.003. This quality, so blatantly lacking in the character of Iros, is also indicated by way of the word biē at O.18.04, which means the same thing as does īs at O.18.03: ‘force, violence, strength’. The fear shown by Iros, leading to his defeat at the hands of Odysseus, proves that he really has no īs, no bíē. Accordingly, the suitors now call him Á-īros, O.18.073, which may be reconstructed as *u̯īros and glossed etymologically as ‘he who has no force = *u̯īs’. This form serves as a comic correction for what now emerges as the sarcastically misapplied meaning of the “speaking name” (nomen loquens) Îros as *u̯īros ‘he who has force = *u̯īs’. Now we see that the form Îros seems is a play on an unattested Greek word *u̯īros, cognate with Latin vīr ‘man’, etc.  The mocking name Á-īros O.18.073 explains the sarcasm built into the mocking name Îros. This mocking name Îros in the sense of *u̯īros ‘he who has *u̯īs’ is not incompatible with the likewise mocking assocation of Iros with Iris, the messenger of the gods, as analyzed in the comment at O.18.006–007: as I argued in that comment, the name Îris itself can be derived from the same root *u̯ī– as in ī́s ‘force, violence, strength’. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 228–232, especially p. 229.]]


subject heading(s): an ominous threat for Iros

The words that Antinoos addresses to the beggar Iros here at O.18.079–087 intensify the fear already felt by this beggar at O.18.075, now that he has had second thoughts about ever having challenged Odysseus, disguised as a rival beggar. The intensification of the fear is understandable, given that Antinoos threatens to do horribly cruel things if Iros loses his upcoming fight against this rival, O.085–087. [[GN 2017.08.08.]]


O.18.085–087 / anchor comment on: extreme cruelty in Homeric narrative
subject heading(s): Ekhetos; Melanthios; Iros; Eurytion the Centaur

Here is what Antinoos threatens to do to Iros if this beggar loses the fight with the disguised Odysseus, O.18.085–087: Iros will be put on a ship and sent off from the island of Ithaca over to the mainland, and there the hapless beggar will be handed over to a mysteriously infernal figure named Ekhetos, who will proceed to cut off his prisoner’s nose and ears and then ‘pull out’ his genitals, feeding them to the dogs. I have a special reason for choosing to focus on these horrific torments in presenting my anchor comment on extreme cruelty in Homeric narrative. Here is the reason: these same horrific torments, which are imagined here at O.18.085–087 as happening only in the future, become realities later on, at O.22.474-479. But who will inflict the same torments in this later passage? Will it be the infernal Ekhetos? No, in this case, the agents of torment will be Philoitios the cowherd and Eumaios the swineherd, perhaps with the help of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. True, the person who is punished at O.22.475–477, the goathered Melanthios, is presented as a morally negative character, no better than the beggar Iros. But the persons who inflict the torments in this passage are understood to be morally positive. See the comment at O.22.437-479. So, an explanation is still needed for understanding how these supposedly righteous men could ever bring themselves to the point of inflicting horrors that were parallel to the horrors potentially inflicted by the mysteriously infernal Ekhetos. Part of an explanation can be found in another passage, O.21.308–309, where Antinoos commands the disguised Odysseus not even to make an attempt at stringing the bow: if you persist, Antinoos threatens, you will be sent off to that infernal character Ekhetos. Although the words of Antinoos leave unmentioned here at O.21.308–309 any threatened loss of nose and ears and genitals, his earlier words at O.21.300–301 have already compared Odysseus to a Centaur named Eurytion, whose ears and nose were indeed chopped off by his outraged hosts after he misbehaved at their feast. For more on the story of Eurytion the Centaur, see the comment at O.21.288–310. [[GN 2017.08.08.]]


subject heading(s): an ominous threat for Iros

The suitors as a group reinforce the threat to send Iros to the mysteriously infernal Ekhetos. See the anchor comment at O.18.085–087. [[GN 2017.08.08.]]


subject heading(s): aiōn ‘life-force, lifetime’; phthinesthai ‘wilt, perish’

See the comments at O.05.160–161 and I.01.052. [[GN 2017.07.20 via GMP 126.]]


subject heading(s): mōlos ‘struggle’

Here the reference to mōlos ‘struggle’ is comic, in that the fight between Odysseus and Iros is a mock struggle, not serious fighting that befits epic, as in the case of mōlos Arēos ‘struggle of Ares’, analyzed in the comment at I.02.401. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 332.]]


Q&T via GMP 297
subject heading(s): wishes correlated with premises

Syntactically, the premise here reinforces the probability of the wish. See also the comments on O.14.440–441 and O.15.341–342. [[GN 2017.07.20 via GMP 297.]]


subject heading(s): ‘best of the Achaeans’

The speaker here is Antinoos himself: whoever succeeds in marrying Penelope, he says, would surely qualify as ‘the best of the Achaeans’. As the narrative will make clear, however, Antinoos is the least worthy of all the suitors in pursuit of this double goal of marrying Penelope and thus qualifying as ‘the best of the Achaeans’. See also the comments at O.11.179, O.15.521–522, and O.16.076. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 39.]]


subject heading(s): blame poetry; aiskhro– ‘disgraceful, shameful’; oneideio– ‘insulting’; eniptein ‘scold’

The insults hurled by Melantho at the disguised Odysseus are replete with words indicating the language of blame poetry. For aiskhro– ‘disgraceful, shameful’, see the comments at I.02.216, I.03.038, I.06.325. For oneideio– ‘insulting’, see the comments on oneidos (plural oneidea) ‘words of insult’ at I.01.291, I.02.222, I.03.242, I.20.244–256. As for eniptein ‘scold’ at O.18.321 and O.18.326, it applies not only to unrighteous blame, as here, but also to righteous blame, as when Penelope scolds Antinoos at O.16.417. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 255.]]


subject heading(s): lōbē ‘words of insult’; blame poetry

See the comment on lōbeuein ‘say words of insult’ at O.02.323. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 261.]]


subject heading(s): blame poetry; kertomeîn ‘say words of insult’

On kertomeîn ‘say words of insult’, see the comments at O.02.323 and I.02.256. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 261.]]


subject heading(s): Hesiod and Perses

What Odysseus says to Eurymakhos here at O.18.366–386 can be seen as a poetic admonition given by the righteous to the unrighteous, especially in the wording at O.18.366–375, which is comparable to what Hesiod says to Perses in the Hesiodic Works and Days. [[GN 2017.07.20 via GMP 71.]]


subject heading(s): tharsaleōs ‘boldly’; blame poetry

The suitor Eurymakhos is stung by the words spoken to him by the disguised Odysseus. These words, spoken tharsaleōs ‘boldly’, O.18.390, can be seen as blame poetry—but here the blame is justified, unlike the blame that is hurled at Odysseus by the suitors and by the disloyal members of his own household. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 261.]]


subject heading(s): therapōn ‘attendant, ritual substitute’

In the immediate context, here at O.18.424, only the surface meaning of therapōn as ‘attendant’ is evident. [[GN 2017.07.20 via BA 292.]]


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ      = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM    = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a



See the dynamic Bibliography for AHCIP.


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for AHCIP.