Crying at sunset on the eve of the Olympics

2020.08.28 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. What we see here in the photograph I show for the cover of Classical Inquiries 2020.08.28 is a sunset at Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics. Backgrounded by the sunset and facing the camera stand three of a group of travelers who had accompanied me on a travel study program in March 2018, extensively documented in Classical Inquiries. I still remember, with fondness, the festive merriment of the moment when the photograph of our three travelers was taken, which I show here with their cheerful permission. The cheer of that moment in the world of today—as of over two years ago—is counterbalanced, however, by the heroic grief signaled by the setting of the sun on the eve of the Olympics in the ancient Greek world. At the precise moment of that sunset, before the Olympic festival could get underway every four years, the local women of the environs would customarily perform a lament—that is, they would cry while singing and dancing/swaying—and their lament was a song of sorrow for Achilles. But why would you cry for this hero at sunset?

Sunset, viewed from an olive grove at Olympia, March 2018. In the foreground of the photograph, shared here with their kind permission, stand Sarah Scott, Audrey Tam, and Yvonne Yee Wing.

§1. The first part of my answer to this question has to do with two matters of primary importance to the ancient Greeks: I have in mind, on the one hand, the festival of the ancient Olympics, held every four years at Olympia, and, on the other hand, the heroic bivalence of Achilles, who was well known not only as an epic hero, celebrated for his primary role in the Homeric Iliad, but also as a cult hero. In my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Nagy 2013), abbreviated hereafter as H24H, I try to explain fully what I mean here when I say cult hero, and I analyze there in some detail the historical evidence for the traditional practice of worshipping heroes—a practice to which I refer short-hand as hero cult. And, in the same book, I argue that the hero cult of Achilles is actually linked with the festival of the Olympics, in that the lamentations performed for Achilles on the eve of the Olympics can be seen as an aspect of this hero’s status as a cult hero.

§2. Here is how I introduced the argument, already at the very beginning of my book (H24H 0§37):

To say that an epic like the Iliad is about the Greeks and what it is to be a Greek is not far from saying that the Iliad is about Achilles. [… This hero is] a focal point of Greek civilization. Just how important he is, however, can be illustrated beyond the testimony of Homeric song. Let us take for example an inherited custom connected with the premier social event for all Greeks, the festival of the Olympics. We know from ancient sources that a traditional ceremony inaugurating this seasonally recurring Panhellenic festival centers on Achilles: on an appointed day when the Games are to begin, the local women of Elis, the site where the Olympics were held, fix their gaze on the sun as it sets into the Western horizon—and begin ceremonially to weep for the hero.

§3. The ancient source for this piece of information is the traveler Pausanias, who lived in the second century CE, and who refers in passing to the custom of lamenting Achilles on the eve of the Olympics. Here, for the record, is the wording of Pausanias 6.23.3 in the original Greek, followed by my working translation:

Ἀχιλλεῖ δὲ οὐ βωμός, κενὸν δέ ἐστιν αὐτῷ μνῆμα ἐκ μαντείας· τῆς πανηγύρεως δὲ ἀρχομένης ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ῥητῇ περὶ ἀποκλίνοντα ἐς δυσμὰς τοῦ ἡλίου τὸν δρόμον αἱ γυναῖκες αἱ Ἠλεῖαι ἄλλα τε τοῦ Ἀχιλλέως δρῶσιν ἐς τιμὴν καὶ κόπτεσθαι νομίζουσιν αὐτόν.

[In Olympia] Achilles has no altar [bōmos], but he does have a tomb [mnēma] that is empty [kenon = having no body in it], in accordance with an oracular-pronouncement [manteiā]. When the festival [panēguris] [of the Olympics] begins, on an appointed day, at the time when the sun, in the course-of-its-[daily]-run [dromos], is sinking toward the west, the women of Elis have-the-custom [nomizein] of doing-ritual [drân], in various ways, for the purpose of giving honor [tīmē] to Achilles, especially by way of bewailing [koptesthai] him.

§4. I return to my original question: why did the women of the region that controlled Olympia, site of the festival known as the Olympics, lament the hero Achilles at sunset on the eve of that festival? So far, I have offered only the first part of my answer, arguing that the importance of the Olympics as the primary festival of all ancient Greeks was correlated with the importance of their primary hero, Achilles himself, in his role as a cult hero whose death must be mourned, lamented, as a temporal recurrence. But now I turn to the second part of my answer. Such a temporal recurrence, as I just called it, is I think not just a matter of solar symbolism, where the death of the sun at sunset is metaphorically being linked with the lamented death of the hero Achilles. There is also something deeper going on here, and I think it has to do with the psychology of weeping, crying, lamenting.

§5. To elaborate on this thought, I offer three images as examples:

Statue of two women during sunset. Image via Pikrepo.
Statue of woman during sunset. Image via Pikrepo.
Despair (1892), by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§6. In a separate essay, listed as Nagy 2018.10.28 in the Bibliography, I delve into the psychology, as I called it just a moment ago, of feeling a profound sadness at sunset—a sadness that makes you want to cry. In that essay, I highlighted the relevance of one particular scene in a film directed by Éric Rohmer, Le Rayon-Vert, which originally appeared in 1986. Leaving my present essay open-ended, I will stop now and suggest an immediate viewing of that scene, a “clip” of which I show here together with some brief comments that I have embedded inside the “clip”:

§7. In the separate essay that I already cited in §6, I analyze the relevance of this scene that I show here, showing the same “clip”—but only after further exploration of the underlying mythology.


Bibliography

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.

Nagy, G. 2018.03.22. “A plane tree in Nafplio: decorating a reader for travel-study in Greece, March 2018.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-plane-tree-in-nafplio-decorating-a-reader-for-travel-study-in-greece-march-2018/.

Nagy, G. 2018.10.28. “About the Green Ray of Jules Verne and Eric Rohmer. Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/about-the-green-ray-of-jules-verne-and-eric-rohmer/.



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