Mērionēs Rides Again: An Alternative Model for a Heroic Charioteer

2015.05.01 | By Gregory Nagy


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Rev. Dr. Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, Professor of Religious Studies (2004–2014) and Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies (2007–2014) at McGill University. [Image: William Porter]

§0.1. The date for my putting together a posting for this week, 2015.04.30, coincides with the date of a special day set aside for celebrating the life and accomplishments of Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, whose premature death on 2014.06.14 deeply saddened me as her friend, colleague, and former teacher. But this day of celebration, at McGill University in Montréal, gives me the happy opportunity to tell about Professor Aitken’s research. In telling my story, I will speak about her as Ellen, not as Professor Aitken, recalling those many happy times when I could talk to you directly, dearest Ellen. That said, let’s get started. I concentrate here on Ellen’s discoveries and discovery procedures concerning the topic of charioteering in Homeric poetry. Ellen’s research on this topic goes all the way back to 1982, when she was a senior at Harvard College, studying in the program of the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology. That year, she submitted an honors thesis entitled “ὀπάων [opāōn] and ὀπάζω [opazō]: A Study in the Epic Treatment of Heroic Relationships.” The thesis, combined with all her other stellar work as a young student at Harvard, earned her a baccalaureate degree summa cum laude. Then, more than thirty years later, Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies initiated a plan to publish a second edition of this masterpiece in Homeric research. Ellen’s untimely death has not thwarted this plan, and an annotated version of her original work is about to appear. I have volunteered to produce my own annotations for this online work, and what I present now is one part of those annotations. I focus here on a Homeric hero who had particularly interested Ellen: he is Mērionēs the Cretan, who fought in the Trojan War as an opāōn or ‘follower’ of the hero Idomeneus, king of all the Cretans. This Mērionēs was also a charioteer who competed in the chariot race organized by Achilles in Iliad 23 to compensate for the death of Patroklos.

§0.2. I used to joke with Ellen by predicting that, as soon as the second edition of her 1982 thesis is published online, Mērionēs the charioteer will ride again. Now that we her many fellow researchers can no longer work with Ellen directly, it is all the more important, vitally important, for us to make sure that this magnificent chariot ride gets under way. So, let the wheels of the chariot start rolling again.

Ellen Aitken’s pathfinding insight about the hero Mērionēs

§1. In her 1982 thesis, Ellen noted that the heroic pairing of Achilles and Patroklos is parallel in two significant ways to the heroic pairing of Idomeneus and Mērionēs. First, just as Patroklos is the nearest and dearest hetairos ‘companion’ of Achilles, so too is Mērionēs the correspondingly closest hetairos of Idomeneus. Second, just as Patroklos is a therapōn of Achilles, so too is Mērionēs a therapōn of Idomeneus. In her analysis of the second parallelism, Ellen supports my argument that this word therapōn, besides meaning ‘attendant’ on the surface, carries the deeper meaning of ‘ritual substitute’ under the surface.

§2. In the case of Patroklos, what happens to this hero as a ritual substitute of Achilles is that he gets killed in the Iliad. Patroklos dies for Achilles. And here, as Ellen argues most effectively, is a big difference between Patroklos and Mērionēs. Though Mērionēs as a therapōn of Idomeneus is a ritual substitute for that king of all the Cretans, this recessive member of the pair does not die for that dominant member. Mērionēs stays alive, destined to become a dominant hero in his own right. And a dress-rehearsal, as it were, for this status of eventual dominance is the role of Mērionēs as a competing chariot driver in the chariot race of Iliad 23. It is Mērionēs who competes in that race, not Idomeneus.

§3. And there is a word applied to Mērionēs that distinguishes him as a ritual substitute who will not die for Idomeneus but will survive to become, in his own right, a virtual Idomeneus. That word is opāōn, the etymological meaning of which, as Ellen explains, is ‘follower’. To put it another way, Mērionēs is the would-be ‘successor’ of Idomeneus.

Odysseus as a would-be Mērionēs

§4. Here I find it relevant to consider a verse in the Odyssey, xiii 265, as I analyze it in the book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (2013), at Hour 6§22 and §§50–52. In this verse, which is from one of the “Cretan tales” told by the disguised Odysseus in the Odyssey, Odysseus is impersonating a character who matches the Cretan hero Mērionēs. In this Cretan tale, an upstart Cretan refuses to serve as therapōn to Idomeneus.

§5. With reference to the same verse in the Odyssey, Ellen cites a book by Steven Lowenstam, who had argued persuasively that the upstart Cretan in the story told by the disguised Odysseus in Odyssey xiii is a stand-in, as it were, for the Cretan hero Mērionēs.[1] In H24H 6§52, with reference to the same argument of Lowenstam, I describe this pseudo-Mērionēs as a ritual substitute who refuses to “take the hit,” as it were, for the over-king of the Cretans, Idomeneus.

§6. Such a description, I now argue further, applies to a remarkable moment, narrated in Iliad 17.610–611, where a ritual substitute “takes the hit” for Idomeneus. Here is what happens at this moment: Hector is throwing a spear at Idomeneus, who is standing on the platform of his chariot (609), but the spear hits and kills the charioteer instead (610–612). And who is this charioteer who is standing next to Idomeneus on the platform of the royal chariot? It is not Mērionēs, whom we would expect to be standing there, but a hero named Koiranos (611), who is described as the opāōn ‘follower’ and hēniokhos ‘chariot-driver’ of Mērionēs himself (610).

§7. There is a problem here: how come Koiranos gets killed, even though he is an opāōn? After all, as Ellen shows in her thesis, an opāōn is the kind of ritual substitute who does not get killed but survives. Ellen solves the problem: Koiranos gets killed because he is the opāōn not of Idomeneus but of Mērionēs, who is the rightful opāōn of Idomeneus. Although the opāōn of Idomeneus should not get killed in this situation, Koiranos is not exempt here from death by substitution, since he is the opāōn of Mērionēs, not of Idomeneus. And, since he is now acting as a charioteer for Idomeneus, not for Mērionēs, he can “take the hit” for the king, though he could not have “taken the hit” for Mērionēs.

A further problem, calling for further investigation

§8. After Koiranos the charioteer of Idomeneus is killed in Iliad 17.610–612, an even more remarkable set of events happens at verses 620–625. Mērionēs suddenly appears, as if out of nowhere, and he grabs the chariot reins dropped by the mortally wounded charioteer. He hands the reins to Idomeneus, who is still standing on the chariot platform, and instructs the king to whip the horses and drive the royal chariot back in retreat to the headquarters of the Achaeans. Idomeneus complies, and he drives away in the chariot (624–625). But what about Mērionēs? Is he too riding on the chariot that the king himself is now driving? No: Mērionēs stays on the battlefield and fights on.

§9. What we see here, as I will try to show in the next posting, is a variation on a theme centering on a division of roles in charioteering: someone has to drive the chariot, and someone has to leap off the chariot and fight on foot. These roles, as we will see in the next posting, are re-enacted in an athletic event that I call apobatic chariot racing.[2]


Lowenstam, S. 1981. The Death of Patroklos: A Study in Typology. Beiträge zur Klassischen Philologie 133. Königstein/Ts.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. Berkeley and Los Angeles.


[1] Lowenstam 1981:136–140.

[2] For a preview, I cite my analysis in H24H 7b§1–7d§2, based on earlier research in Nagy 2010|2009.

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