Cataclysm and Ecpyrosis, two symmetrical actions of Zeus as sky-god

2016.05.19 | By Gregory Nagy

"The Great Day of His Wrath," by John Martin (1789-1854), at the Tate Britain. Photograph in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Great Day of His Wrath,” by John Martin (1789–1854), at the Tate Britain. Photograph in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. We saw in the previous posting, 2016.05.12, that the actions of Zeus as sky-god are compared in Homeric poetry to catastrophes suffered by the losing side in war. Whether it is the Trojans or the Achaeans who are losing the ongoing war at any given moment in the Iliad, their loss is systematically compared to the afflictions suffered by unrighteous mortals when Zeus punishes such mortals with either the flooding or the conflagration that results from storms caused by that god. In the present posting of 2016.05.19, I widen the focus to view such actions of Zeus in a more general context, moving beyond the epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and now including the evidence of Greek mythmaking in general. The question is: what happens when humanity itself is threatened with either flooding or conflagration on a cosmic scale? To express such cosmic afflictions in Greek terms, I have in mind here situations where all of humanity is being threatened with either cataclysm or ecpyrosis. So, to rephrase the question: what happens when Zeus or the gods in general choose to afflict humans with the alternatives of cataclysm or ecpyrosis? In what follows, I offer a brief sketch of these two symmetrical disasters.[1]

§2. In Greek mythmaking, either one of these two disasters signals the end of the world—though such an ending may become transformed into the beginning of a new world. A prime example is the story of an overpopulation of Earth personified, and of the solutions devised by the divine apparatus to remedy the overpopulation. I start with the version of the story preserved in the epic Cycle, specifically in the Cypria (F 1).[2] The divine remedy turned out to be a war to end all wars, destined to decimate the vast numbers of heroes who were overpopulating the earth, and this primal war, according to the Cyclic Cypria, was the Trojan War, precipitated by a primal quarrel that took place on the occasion of the wedding of the mortal man Peleus to the immortal goddess Thetis (F 1 pp. 117–118). In the scholia for the Iliad, the relevant verses about this primal war are actually quoted from the Cypria (F 1 p. 118), and we learn from these verses that the Trojan War was ordained by the Will of Zeus (F 1 verse 7). From these scholia we learn also that the Will of Zeus ordained not only the Trojan War but also the Theban Wars that preceded it (F 1 p. 117). And we learn, finally, that Zeus himself considered two alternative ways to depopulate the earth before he decided on the Trojan War as the final solution: these two alternatives to a primal war were (1) a primal conflagration or ecpyrosis by way of the fiery keraunoi ‘thunderbolts’ of Zeus or (2) a primal flood or cataclysm, by way of kataklusmoi ‘floodings’ (F 1 p. 118).

§3. So, whether it is war or ecpyrosis or cataclysm, all three of these themes of total destruction are treated in the Cypria as alternative manifestations of the Will of Zeus. And we can find parallel themes of total destruction in the Hesiodic and the Orphic traditions. In the Hesiodic traditions (Works and Days 156–173; also F 204.95–143), we see various references to a composite epic version involving both the Trojan War and the Theban Wars,[3] and we see also various allusions to a cataclysm and other primal disasters as alternatives to the theme of a primal war.[4] As for the Orphic traditions, we see a mediated version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.253–259), where Jupiter / Zeus first considers the alternative of ecpyrosis before deciding on the alternative of cataclysm.

§4. These mythological constructs concerning cataclysm and ecpyrosis and war as interchangeable disasters can help us see the symbolic world of the Homeric Iliad in a new light. In the Iliad, the Trojan War itself is not explicitly treated as a cosmic disaster that was meant by Zeus to depopulate the earth. This war, then, is not directly interchangeable in the Iliad with the cosmic disasters of cataclysm and ecpyrosis. Or, to say it better, the war is interchangeable with these disasters only by way of metaphor. The Trojan War is like a cataclysm or ecpyrosis, yes, but it cannot be directly identified with these disasters.

§5. Let me return for a moment to the non-Homeric cosmic models of cataclysm and ecpyrosis in Greek traditions. There are striking parallels to be found in Near Eastern traditions. In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 6:1–4, we find the familiar narrative of Noah’s Ark and the Deluge, which is closely related to Mesopotamian narratives, especially as represented by the Babylonian Atrahasis and the Enûma elish.[5] In Tablets I and II of the Atrahasis and in Tablet I of the Enûma elish, the story is told that Earth is suffering from overpopulation, and the divine apparatus provides a solution in the form of a deluge, a primal cataclysm; in the Atrahasis, there are other primal disasters, such as plague and famine, that take place as preludes to the eventual cataclysm.[6] These disasters are comparable to what we find in the Hesiodic traditions, where we see references to a primal disaster as manifested in a failure of vegetation (F 124–143); presiding over this disaster is a terrifying cosmic snake (deinos ophis: F 136). The snake is comparable to Tiamat, who is slain by Marduk in the festive context of the Babylonian New Year. In Greek terms, the snake is comparable to Typhon, slain by Zeus in his role as divine warrior.[7] Finally, the Gilgamesh narrative in Tablet XI (182–185) refers to the primal flood and to various other disasters catalogued as alternatives to the flood, such as a lion, a wolf, and a primal famine.[8]

§6. But there are also striking parallels to be found in Indo-European poetic traditions other than the Greek traditions, especially in the Indic Mahābhārata.[9] This monumental epic, comprising over 90,000 śloka-s in its Northern recensions, is pervaded by the theme of the war of the Pāṇḍava-s. This primal war is precipitated by the overpopulation of the Earth personified.[10] On the basis of this comparison, I concluded in an earlier project: “In this way the major epic narratives of the Greek and Indic peoples are inaugurated with a cognate theme, and it is hard to imagine more compelling evidence for the Indo-European heritage of the epic traditions about the Trojan War.”[11] Essential for understanding the Indo-European heritage of these epic traditions is the correlation, in both of these traditions, of the idea of a war of depopulation with the idea of demigods. In the Indic version of the myth as told in the Mahābhārata, the gods’ decision to initiate a war of depopulation is correlated with their decision to initiate the incarnation of the five heroes known as the Pāṇḍava-s. These heroes are demigods, sons of five different male immortals who mated with female mortals (the first three gods with one woman and the last two gods with another). As we will see in the Epilogue below, the idea of these heroes as demigods is cognate with the idea of hēmitheoi ‘half-gods, demigods’ as defined in Greek poetic traditions about the Trojan War.

§7. Before I proceed, I must pause to signal the appearance of the term cognate in the last paragraph. This term is used in comparative linguistics with reference to structures that derive from a common source or proto-structure.[12] Let us take for example the overall structure of a proto-language that linguists reconstruct as Indo-European. The point is, language-families that originate from “proto-Indo-European” can be described as cognate. Among these Indo-European language-families are Greek and Indic, the first of which is a relatively uniform structure, divisible into dialects, while the second of which is represented by a wide variety of distinct languages, the most prominent of which is Sanskrit. Other cognate language-families stemming from “proto-Indo-European” include Iranian as represented by Avestan, Persian, and other languages; Italic as represented by Latin and other languages; Slavic as represented by Russian, Polish, and so on; Baltic as represented by Lithuanian and Latvian; Germanic as represented by German, English, and so on. Less familiar to non-experts are such other Indo-European languages as Hittite. That said, I come to a second relevant point that I need to make here: any given structures that are genealogically related to each other in any of these Indo-European languages can be described as cognate with each other. The general procedure, then, of comparing cognate languages can be described as a genealogical approach, and the reconstruction of cognate structures as evidenced in these languages is conventionally described as etymology.

§8. Now I return to the idea of an overpopulated Earth as we find it in the Indic narrative of the Mahābhārata. In terms of my argument, this idea is cognate with a parallel idea that we find in the Greek narrative of the Cypria in the epic Cycle.

§9. Pursuing a different argument, Martin West says that the parallelisms that we find between the Indic Mahābhārata and the Greek Cypria are a case of “coincidence,” and he points to the existence of various historically unrelated myths about overpopulation and its divine remedies, such as war, flood, fire, famine, plague, noxious beasts, and so forth.[13] He adduces the existence of these unrelated parallelisms in order to back up his claim that the Indic myths about overpopulation and a resulting primal war are not genealogically related to the corresponding Greek myths. But then he goes on to argue that the Near Eastern myths about overpopulation and a resulting primal flood are the real historical source for the corresponding Greek myths, and that the Greeks borrowed these myths.[14]

§10. I must pause here again. This time, I need to highlight two additional kinds of comparison, typological and historical, to be added to the first kind I already highlighted, genealogical.

§10a. The term typological comparison applies to a method used primarily by linguists in describing parallelisms between structures that are unrelated to each other.[15] Such a mode of comparison applies to similarities between structures as structures pure and simple, without any presuppositions. Such a mode of comparison is especially useful in fields like linguistics: comparing parallel structures in languages—even if the given languages are unrelated to each other—is a proven way of enhancing our overall understanding of the linguistic structures being compared.[16]

§10b. As for historical comparison, it involves comparing parallels between structures that are related to each other by way of intercultural contact.[17] One form of such contact is a linguistic phenomenon known as Sprachbund.[18] In terms of this concept, whatever changes take place in a language that makes contact with another language need to be seen in terms of the overall structures of both languages.[19] This concept of Sprachbund can be applied to any situation where the structure of one culture is affected by a corresponding structure in another culture, whether by borrowing or by any other kind of influence. Any such contact needs to be viewed as a historical contingency, which requires historical analysis. Diachronic analysis is in this case insufficient, since it cannot predict history.[20] That is why I describe as historical the comparative method required for the study of parallels resulting from intercultural contact. As in the case of the genealogical method, the historical method depends on synchronic analysis of the parallel structures being compared. But it cannot depend—or at least it cannot fully depend—on diachronic analysis, which cannot independently account for historical contingencies.[21]

§11. The argumentation of West, as summarized in §9 above, uses typological comparisons only negatively, as a way to rule out a need for genealogical comparisons of existing Greek and Indic parallelisms. Once the genealogical comparisons are ruled out, no further typological comparisons are needed, and West now relies simply on historical comparisons, arguing that the existing parallelisms between Greek and Near Eastern myths can be explained simply in terms of one-way historical borrowings from the Near Eastern sources into the Greek. But the problem is, this argumentation cuts both ways. The worldwide attestations of myths about a primal flood caused by overpopulation could be used to argue that the parallelisms between the relevant Greek and Near Eastern myths are likewise merely typological and not historical, matching the supposedly typological parallelisms between the Greek and the Indic myths. In any case, even if the parallels between the Greek and the Near Eastern myths were merely typological, there is no need to exclude the possibility that these myths about wars and floods actually made contact with each other. Such contact would still result in mutual influences between typological parallels.[22]

§12. There is a further problem that needs to be confronted here. West’s argument that the Greek myths about a primal flood are borrowed from Near Eastern sources depends on a more basic argument, that the borrowing took place at a relatively late period, no earlier than the second half of the sixth century.[23] This basic argument, even if we accepted the questionable claim that the Cypria of the epic Cycle is to be dated to the same relatively late period, simply cannot stand. The myth of primal cataclysm is in fact deeply embedded in the overall structure of the oldest surviving epic of Greek literature, the Homeric Iliad. And the same can be said about the myth of primal ecpyrosis. A signal of these two myths is the theme of the Will of Zeus at the beginning of the Iliad (1.5), which is coextensive with the plot of the Iliad—just as the Will of Zeus in the Cypria (F 1.7) is coextensive with the plot of the entire Trojan War in the epic Cycle. As we have already seen, the Will of Zeus in the epic Cycle translates into three interchangeable divine solutions to the overpopulation of Earth: cataclysm, ecpyrosis, and war. So also in the Iliad, as we will now see, the Will of Zeus translates into cataclysm, ecpyrosis, and war, though the theme of overpopulation is absent, or at least not overt. More than that, the primal themes of cataclysm and ecpyrosis pervade the story of the war in the Iliad.

§13. Both ecpyrosis and cataclysm are visible epic manifestations of the Will of Zeus in the Iliad.[24] Let us start with the theme of ecpyrosis. The fire of the Achaeans that is destined to destroy the the city of the Trojans and, conversely, the fire of the Trojans that threatens to destroy the beached ships of the Achaeans are both pervasively compared to a primal fire of Zeus, which threatens to destroy the whole world.[25] Next, we proceed to the theme of cataclysm. In the Iliad, it is prophesied that the gods Poseidon and Apollo will one day gather all the waters of all the Trojan rivers combined and release them all at once to destroy the Achaean Wall situated on the Trojan plain, leaving no trace of that Wall—nor even any trace of the Achaean heroes who had built it to protect their beached ships (12.17–33). It has been argued persuasively that this divine flooding of the Trojan plain is described in language that evokes a primal cataclysm.[26]

§14. A related scene of primal cataclysm in the Iliad is the battle of the epic hero Achilles against the Trojan river Xanthos, where the god who personifies the waters of Xanthos is on the verge of destroying the hero in the mode of a cataclysm: at the climax of this cosmic battle, the river-god roars like a bull (21.237); so also the cosmic river-god Akhelōios assumes the form of a bull when he battles Herakles (Archilochus F 286–287).[27] Such divine theriomorphism is paralleled in Near Eastern traditions. In Canaanite narratives, for example, the Divine Warrior Baal is conventionally pictured as a bull when he battles the forces of primal cataclysm.[28] Other comparanda include the theriomorphic aspects of the Canaanite god El (‘Bull El’) and even of the Israelite Yahweh (as we see from such epithets as ‘the bull of Jacob’).[29]

Epilogue: The hero as hēmitheos ‘demigod’

§15. It has been argued, as I just pointed out, that the destruction of the Achaean Wall in a flood induced by the gods is pictured in the Iliad as a vision of primal cataclysm (12.17–33). I now highlight a word that signals this vision: it is hēmitheoi ‘demigods’ (12.23), referring to the epic heroes whose Wall will be obliterated forever by the flood. Just as the Wall will be obliterated, so also any memory of the hēmitheoi who had fought once upon a time to defend it may also be obliterated. Nowhere else in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey do we find this word hēmitheoi. It belongs not to the epic tradition of Homeric poetry but to alternative poetic traditions having to do with cosmogony and anthropogony, as we see from the attestations of hēmitheoi in Hesiodic poetry (F 204.100 and Works and Days 160); relevant too are the attestations of this word in the poetry of the Homeric Hymns (31.19 and 32.19).[30]

§16. In the Hesiodic Works and Days, the word hēmitheoi signals the last generation of heroes, who were obliterated in the time of the Theban and the Trojan Wars (161–165)—but who were preserved after death and immortalized by being transported to the Islands of the Blessed (167–173).[31] This scenario of obliteration followed by immortalization for the hēmitheoi in the Hesiodic Works and Days must be contrasted with a scenario of obliteration followed by no mention of immortalization for the hēmitheoi in the Homeric Iliad (12.17–33).[32] Matching the exceptional Homeric occurrence of hēmitheoi in the Iliad (12.23) is an exceptional shift in the Homeric narrative perspective here: instead of viewing heroes through the lens of the heroic age, seeing them as they were back then, alive and hoping to be remembered, the poetry now views them through the lens of a post-heroic age, seeing them as already dead and about to be forgotten (12.17–33).[33] So the cataclysm of the Trojan plain is primal for the world of the epic heroes who fought in the Trojan War, since it threatens to obliterate any memory of that world. A parallel idea of obliteration can be found in the language used by Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians, in inscriptions commemorating his destruction of Babylon in 689 BCE: after burning down the city, the king leveled it further by flooding it, and the inscription boasts that this leveling was more complete than the devastation that took place in the wake of the primal flood that destroyed the whole world.[34] Another parallel idea can be found in the language describing the Nephilim and the Rephaim in the Hebrew Bible. This generation of humans is literally destined for obliteration: they “exist in order to be wiped out”—by the flood (Genesis 6:4), by Moses (Numbers 13:33), by David (2 Samuel 21:18–22 / 1 Chronicles 20:4–8), and by others.[35]

§17. On the basis of the evidence presented so far, I am ready to make three points. First, the myths in the Iliad about war, ecpyrosis, and cataclysm as alternative primal disasters are evidently of great antiquity. Second, there is a corresponding degree of antiquity in the parallel Cyclic, Hesiodic, and Orphic myths about these primal disasters. And third, the very idea of these primal disasters is correlated with the idea of hēmitheoi in the sense of ‘demigods’, as we see most directly from the evidence of the Cyclic Cypria.[36] The third of these three points is essential for proving that the idea of the Trojan War as a primal disaster for the Earth’s population, correlated with the idea of heroes as demigods, is cognate with a parallel set of correlated ideas in the Indic Mahābhārata. In that epic, as we have seen, the gods’ decision to initiate a primal disaster for the Earth’s population is correlated with their decision to initiate the incarnation of the five demigods known as the Pāṇḍava-s, sons of five different male immortals who mated with female mortals (the first three gods with one woman and the last two gods with another). So I conclude that the Greek myths about hēmitheoi and the primal disasters that befell them could not have been selective borrowings from corresponding myths produced by neighboring civilizations in the Near East. Rather, these myths must derive ultimately from Indo-European traditions.

§18. Even though the word hēmitheoi is linked with non-Homeric poetry, the actual idea of a hēmitheos as a ‘demigod’ is all-pervasive in Homeric poetry. The epic heroes of this poetry can be defined as mortals of the remote past, male or female, who are endowed with superhuman powers because they are descended from the immortal gods themselves. In the Iliad, for example, the central hero Achilles is the son of Thetis, an immortal goddess with limitless cosmic powers who was forced to marry the mortal man Peleus. Achilles himself, then, can be described in non-Homeric terms as a hēmitheos or ‘half-god’. This status of Achilles is confirmed in the epic Cycle. In the Cypria (F 1 p. 117–118), the story is told about the epic occasion that precipitated the Trojan War, initiated by Zeus in order to depopulate the Earth: this occasion was a grand feast attended by both immortals and mortals in celebration of the wedding of the mortal man Peleus to the immortal goddess Thetis, which led to the birth of Achilles the demigod hero.

§19. The meaning of this word hēmitheos shows a genetic understanding of the hero. The heroic potential is programmed by divine genes, as it were. There has to be a god involved in any hero’s “family tree.” Still, the literal meaning of the word hēmitheos as ‘half-god’ does not imply an exact half-and-half distribution of immortals and mortals in a hero’s genealogy. Rather, this meaning measures the balancing of immortality with mortality in the hero’s self. In the case of Achilles, for example, the divinity of his mother is not the only ‘half’ of immortality that he inherits, since his mortal father Peleus is descended, by way of that man’s own mortal father Aiakos, from the immortal father Zeus himself. But the bitter fact remains that Peleus is a mortal. And, since Peleus as one of the two parents of Achilles is mortal, Achilles must be mortal as well, even though his other parent is Thetis, who is not only immortal but even endowed with limitless cosmic powers.[37] So Achilles, despite the limitless potential he inherits from Thetis, is subject to death. The same can be said about all other Homeric heroes: even though they are all descended in some way or another from the gods, they are all mortals. They all have to die, like ordinary mortals. No matter how many immortals you find in a heroic “family tree,” the intrusion of even a single mortal will make all successive descendants mortal. Mortality, not immortality, is the dominant gene. I have examined this theme in the posting for 2016.05.02.

§20. There is a close parallel to this Greek epic concept of hēmitheos in the Indic Mahābhārata. As we have seen, the five central heroes of this epic, the mortal Pāṇḍava-s, are begotten by five corresponding immortal gods, and each one of these heroes inherits the divine characteristics of his divine father.[38] For example, the hero Arjuna is begotten by the immortal god Indra, whose traits as the Divine Warrior are re-enacted by Arjuna throughout the Mahābhārata.[39] Nevertheless, all five Pāṇḍava-s are mortal because their shared mother is mortal. And it is the primal war of these mortal Pāṇḍava-s that ultimately fulfills the divine plan of alleviating the Earth of its overpopulation. This theme of mortality supports my ongoing argument that the Indic theme of this divine plan is cognate with the ancient Greek theme of the Will of Zeus, who ordains the obliteration of the generation of humans known as the hēmitheoi.

§21. To say that the hēmitheoi are mortal is not to say that heroes do not become immortal: they do, but only after they have experienced death. After death, heroes are eligible for a life of immortality.

§22. Here I return to the case of Achilles in the epic Cycle—specifically, in the epic known as the Aithiopis. Here the hero is immortalized after he is killed at Troy: his dead body is transported by his goddess mother Thetis to a paradisiacal realm, where he is revivified (Aithiopis Proclus summary p. 106.11–15). In this same epic, an analogous immortalization awaits Memnon, the son of the dawn-goddess Eos, after he is killed at Troy. In the Iliad, by contrast, there are references to the ultimate immortalization of Achilles, but these references are kept implicit and are never made explicit.[40] So also in the Odyssey, the immortalization of the hero is kept implicit. Throughout this epic, the theme of immortalization is expressed only metaphorically, through the theme of nostos ‘return, homecoming’, in the transcendent sense of ‘return to life and light’.[41] It all comes together in the Odyssey at the moment when the ship of Odysseus finally reaches the shores of his homeland just as the morning star signals the coming of the dawn, and the hero simultaneously wakes up from a deep sleep compared to death (13.79–95). The moment of the hero’s homecoming is here synchronized with his figurative return from darkness and death to light and life.[42]



Allen, T. W. 1912. ed. Homeri Opera V (Hymns, Cycle, fragments). Oxford.

Benveniste, E. 1966 / 1974 Problèmes de linguistique générale. I / II. Paris.

Boyd, T. W. 1995. “A Poet on the Achaean Wall.” Oral Tradition 10:181–206.

Burkert, W. 1984. Die Orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur. Heidelberg.

Burkert, W. 1992. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Translation of Burkert 1984 by M. Pinder and W. Burkert. Cambridge MA.

Cross, F. M. 1973. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge MA.

de Jong, J. W. 1985. “The Over-Burdened Earth in India and Greece.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 105:397–400.

Dumézil, G. 1968, 2nd ed. 1986. Mythe et épopée I. L’idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européennes. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1971, 2nd ed. 1986. Mythe et épopée II. Types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1973a, 2nd ed. 1978, 3rd ed. 1981. Mythe et épopée III. Histoires romaines. Paris.

Dumézil G. 1973b. The Destiny of a King. Translated by A. Hiltebeitel. = Part 3 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971.

Dumézil, G. 1975. Fêtes romaines d’été et d’automne, suivi de dix questions romaines. Paris.

Dumézil, G. 1980. Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History. Translated by A. Aranowicz and J. Bryson. Edited and with introduction by U. Strutynski. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 2 of Mythe et épopée III = Dumézil 1973, plus Appendices 1 and 2 of Dumézil 1973, plus Appendices 3 and 4 of Dumézil 1975.

Dumézil, G. 1983. The Stakes of the Warrior. Translated by D. Weeks. Edited and with introduction by J. Puhvel. Berkeley and Los Angeles. = Part 1 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971.

Dumézil, G. 1986. The Plight of the Sorcerer. Translated by D. Weeks and others. Edited by J. Puhvel and D. Weeks. Introduction by D. Weeks. = Part 2 of Mythe et épopée II = Dumézil 1971.

Dumézil, G. 1995. Mythe et épopée I, II, III. New combined and corrected edition of the original three volumes, with original paginations retained in the inner margins. Preface by J. Grisward, pp. 7–30. Paris.

Frame, D. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven.

Frame, D. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies 34. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.

Hendel, R. S. 1987a. The Epic of the Patriarch: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel. Harvard Semitic Monographs 42. Atlanta GA.

Hendel, R. S. 1987b. “Of Demigods and the Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106:13–26.

Jakobson, R. 1931. “Über die phonologischen Sprachbünde.” Jakobson 1971:137–143.

Jakobson, R. 1949. “On the Theory of Phonological Affinities Between Languages.” Jakobson 1990:202–213. For the date of the original article, see 1990:544 under RJ 1949b.

Jakobson, R. 1952. “Studies in Comparative Slavic Metrics.” Oxford Slavonic Papers 3:21–66. Reprinted in Jakobson 1966:414–463. The Hague.

Jakobson, R. 1966. Selected Writings IV. The Hague.

Jakobson, R. 1971. Selected Writings I. 2nd ed. Berlin / New York / Amsterdam.

Jakobson, R. 1990. On Language (ed. L. R. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston). Cambridge MA.

Koenen, L. 1994. “Cyclic Destruction in Hesiod and the Catalogue of Women.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 124:1–34.

Lord, A. B. 1960. 2nd ed. 2000, edited and with introduction by S. Mitchell and G. Nagy (pp. vii–xxix). The Singer of Tales. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24. Cambridge MA.

Lord, A. B. 2000. Second 40th anniversary edition of Lord 1960. Edited, with new Introduction (vii–xxix), by S. Mitchell and G. Nagy. Cambridge MA.

Mitchell, S., and Nagy, G., eds. 2000. New Introduction to Lord 1960. Lord 2000:vii–xxix.

Muellner, L. 1996. The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic. Ithaca.

Nagy, G. 1979/1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999.

Nagy, G. 1990. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca NY.

Nagy, G. 1996. Homeric Questions. Austin.

Nagy, G. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Cambridge MA / Athens.

Nagy, G. 2004. Homer’s Text and Language. Urbana and Chicago, IL.

Nagy, G. 2005. “The Epic Hero.” A Companion to Ancient Epic (ed. J. F. Foley) 71–89. Malden and Oxford. For an expanded version, see Nagy 2006.

Nagy, G. 2006. “The Epic Hero.” Expanded version of Nagy 2005.

Nagy, G. 2010. Review of West 2007. Classical Review 60:333–338.

Nagy, G. 2011. “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop.” Classics@. Issue 9: Defense Mechanisms in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Classical Studies and Beyond.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA.

Rousseau, P. 1996. Dios d’ eteleieto boulē: Destin des héros et dessein de Zeus dans l’intrigue de l’Iliade. Doctorat d’Etat thesis, Université Charles de Gaulle – Lille III.

Scodel, R. 1982. “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 86:33–50.

Slatkin, L. 1991. The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Slatkin, L. 2011. The Power of Thetis and Selected Essays. Hellenic Studies 16. Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC. Available online at

West, M. L. 2000. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford.

West, M. L. 2007. Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford.



[1] My sketch here is based on a more detailed analysis in Nagy 2006 §§58–73.

[2] I use the numbering of Allen 1912 in making citations from any fragment (indicated as “F”) of the epic Cycle—and I use his page-numbers in citing any ancient paraphrase or reference. The edition of Allen is hardly the last word, but the divergences of numberings in the important work of later editors make it easiest to use Allen’s numbering as the starting-point for cross-referencing. In a future project, I hope to help produce an online concordance of the numberings to be found in the major editions of the epic Cycle.

[3] Nagy 1990:15–16, 126.

[4] Koenen 1994.

[5] Hendel 1987b:13–17.

[6] Hendel 1987b:17–18; cf. Burkert 1992:101.

[7] Details in Koenen 1994:32–33.

[8] West 2000:491.

[9] Nagy 1990:14–15.

[10] The most relevant passage, Mahābhārata 11.8.26, is analyzed in Dumézil 1968:168–169 = 1995:196–197. Other relevant passages in the Mahābhārata and elsewhere in Indo-Iranian traditions (including the Iranian Vidēvdāt) are analyzed by de Jong 1985. The Greek poetic concept of platos in describing the ‘broad’ surface of the Earth in Cypria F 1.2 is cognate with the Indic poetic concept of the Earth personified, whose name is Pṛthivī.

[11] Nagy 1990:16, with further references.

[12] What follows is based on my formulations in Nagy 2006 §5.

[13] West 2000:482n128. He returns to this argument in West 2007:23

[14] West 2000:482, where he also claims that the theme of overpopulation in the Indic Mahābhārata must have been somehow borrowed from the Near East.

[15] What follows is based on my formulations in Nagy 2006 §4.

[16] A classic example is part III of Benveniste 1966, “Structures et analyses.”

[17] What follows is based on my formulations in Nagy 2006 §6.

[18] Jakobson 1931.

[19] Jakobson 1949.

[20] Nagy 2011 §16.

[21] Again, Nagy 2011 §16.

[22] Here I recommend the analysis of Hendel 1987b:24–26, who presents a broader perspective on the methods of typological comparison in considering world-wide myths about overpopulation.

[23] West 2000:482.

[24] Nagy 2002:66. See also Rousseau 1996:403–413, 591–592, with special reference to the flooding of the Achaean Wall in Iliad 12.17–33 and the Battle of Fire and Water in Iliad 21.211–327. For more on the Battle of Fire and Water, see also Nagy 1996:145–146.

[25] Nagy 1979/1999:333–338 = 20§§13–19; on ecpyrosis as the instrument of the mēnis ‘anger’ of Zeus, see Muellner 1996.

[26] Scodel 1982. See now also Boyd 1995, especially p. 201 on Iliad 7.461–462, where the destruction of the Achaean Wall is already being prophesied; also p. 202 on Iliad 15.381–384 and 674–688, passages where we see the attack of the Trojans against the Achaean Wall being compared to a cataclysm. The Achaean Wall threatens the epic status of the Trojan Wall, as we see in Iliad 7.451–453. I suggest that these verses point to the kleos or poetic ‘glory’ of the Iliad (as at 7.451), which is viewed as a threat to the kleos of earlier epic traditions that concentrate on the Trojan Wall.

[27] Nagy 1996:145–146.

[28] Hendel 1987a:30, 104.

[29] Hendel 1987a:58, with special reference to Genesis 49:24, following Cross 1973:4. For more on Yahweh as a Divine Warrior, see Hendel p. 30.

[30] Nagy 1979/1999:160–161 = 9§§16–17; also 1990:15–16, 54.

[31] Koenen 1994:5; Nagy 1996:126.

[32] Koenen 1994:5n12 calls this Iliad scenario “the flip side of the same story.”

[33] Nagy 1979/1999:159–161 = 9§§14–17.

[34] West 2000:378. According to West, this idea of obliteration was borrowed into Greek traditions. As I argue, however, we are dealing here with typological parallels.

[35] Hendel 1997b:21.

[36] Nagy 1990:15–16.

[37] Nagy 1979/1999:346–347 = 20§§28–29. See also Slatkin 1991 and 2011.

[38] For a thorough analysis, see Dumézil 1968; summary in Nagy 1990:14–15. On epic themes involving alternatives to the theme of semidivine parentage, see Lord 1960:218.

[39] Nagy 1979/1999:323–324 =20§7

[40] Nagy 1979/1999:207–210 = 10§§46–50.

[41] Nagy 1990:218–219, following Frame 1978.

[42] Nagy 1990:219.