Some ‘anchor comments’ on an ‘Aeolian’ Homer

2016.09.07 | By Gregory Nagy

In this posting I experiment with a special feature in my ongoing comments on the Homeric Iliad: the anchor comment. The topic, this time, is the idea of an ‘Aeolian’ Homer.

Briseis (1899); sketch for a costume. Charles Bianchini (French, 1860–1905). Image via.
Briseis (1899); sketch for a costume. Charles Bianchini (French, 1860–1905). Image via.

In this posting for 2016.09.07, I experiment with a special feature in my ongoing comments on the Homeric Iliad. The experimentation already started in a previous posting for Classical Inquiries, 2016.08.12, where I used the term anchor comment in describing such a special feature. In that previous posting, the anchor comment was placed after my specific comment for I.07.015–017. So, the anchor comment there was formatted as an addition to the specific comment on verses 15–17 of Iliad 7. In that added comment, I traced a variety of expressions referring to chariot warfare, and my commentary there was meant to provide an introduction to the general topic of such warfare in the Iliad. My anchor comment needed to have a point of departure, proceeding from one specific mention of chariot warfare and then moving on from there to address the general topic. I thought long and hard about where to start with such an introduction, and I.07.015–017 seemed like the best place for such a start. The question was and still is, where to introduce a given general topic by way of an anchor comment that is added to a specific comment on an Iliadic reference to that general topic? In this posting here for 2016.09.07, I ask myself the same question—this time with reference to another general topic. That topic, this time, is the idea of an ‘Aeolian’ Homer. I will explore this idea by setting up some more anchor comments, and in each case I will contextualize these comments by first repeating some of my earlier specific comments as formulated in earlier postings. Those comments are here reformulated in the light of the anchor comments that are added. Supplementary observations can be found in the new additions to the Inventory of terms and names.


subject heading(s): Life of Homer; pempōbola ‘five-prong forks’; Aeolian, Aeolic; Ionian, Ionic; Homer the Aeolian; Homeric diction; “Aeolic default”; Homer the Ionian
definitions for Aeolic, Ionic, Aeolian, Ionian, Homeric diction, “Aeolic default”: see the Inventory of terms and names

The anonymous author of a Life of Homer (on the Lives of Homer, see the Inventory of terms and names), in Vita 1.517–537, argues that Homer, as the poet of the Iliad and Odyssey, was an Aioleús ‘Aeolian’, and, in making this argument, he cites among other facts the existence of the form pempṓbola (πεμπώβολα) in the expression here at I.01.463, νέοι δὲ παρ’ αὐτὸν ἔχον πεμπώβολα χερσίν ‘and the young men were getting ready for him [= the priest Chryses] the five-pronged-forks [pempṓbola] that they were holding in their hands’. The reasoning given by the author is this: the Aeolians, he says, are the only Greek-speaking people who roast the splánkhna ‘innards’ of a sacrificial animal by using forks that have five prongs instead of three. All other Greeks use three-prong forks. This argument, based on facts of culture, is combined here with an argument based on facts of language: the Aeolic word for ‘five’ is pémpe, as opposed to the Ionic word, which is pénte. So pempṓbola ‘five-prong forks’ must be an Aeolic and not an Ionic word. (On debates about the phonology and morphology of pempṓbola, see Nagy 2011:173–174.) In highlighting the form pempṓbola ‘having five prongs’, the narrator of Vita 1 is making the point that ‘Homer’ as a speaker of Greek defaults to Aeolic usage when he speaks about customs that are most familiar to him, as in the case of the Aeolian custom of using five-prong forks instead of three-prong forks for roasting sacrificial meat at an animal sacrifice. In terms of such an argument, that is why ‘Homer’ uses the Aeolic dialectal form pémpe ‘five’ instead of the Ionic dialectal form pénte ‘five’. This argument, combining cultural and linguistic facts, can be seen as a metaphor for explaining a linguistic process, to be defined here as the “Aeolic default.” (See also under “Aeolic default” in the Inventory of terms and names.) In terms of such a definition, Homeric diction defaults to an Aeolic dialectal form, as here, in the absence of a corresponding Ionic dialectal form. (On Homeric diction, see the Inventory of terms and names.) In general, it is this linguistic process of the “Aeolic default” that generates the Aeolic component of Homeric diction. But this component, it is essential to keep in mind, is secondary to the Ionic component of Homeric diction, which is primary. To put it another way: the Ionic component of Homeric diction is dominant, while the Aeolic component is only recessive. Such a relationship of Ionic and Aeolic components is metaphorized in myths claiming that the birthplace of Homer was the city of Smyrna, which was originally Aeolian but then became Ionian. (For historical background on Smyrna, see under Aeolian Dodecapolis in the Inventory of terms and names.) In myths about Smyrna as Homer’s birthplace, the identity of Homer as a native of Aeolian Smyrna is superseded by the identity of Homer as a native of Ionian Smyrna. (See again under Aeolian Dodecapolis in the Inventory of terms and names.) [[GN 2016.09.07 via Nagy 2011:144 and 173–174.]]

anchor comment at Ι.01.463: about Aeolians as speakers of Aeolic, vs. Ionians as speakers of Ionic
subject heading(s): Aeolian, Aeolic; Ionian, Ionic; Dorian, Doric; Thessaly; Boeotia; Lesbos; European/ Asiatic Greeks

From a purely linguistic point of view, an ‘Aeolian’ was whoever spoke a dialect known as Aeolic, which along with Ionic and Doric was a major dialectal grouping of the Greek language. From an anthropological point of view, however, there is more to it: as we see from such sources as Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, an Aioleús ‘Aeolian’ was whoever belonged to a social and cultural grouping of Greeks who distinguished themselves in their rituals and myths from other social and cultural groupings. Thus the Aioleîs ‘Aeolians’ were socially and culturally distinct from, say, the Iōnes ‘Ionians’, as we see for example from the remarks of Herodotus 1.149 about a twelve-city confederation of Aioleîs ‘Aeolians’ located in mainland Asia Minor, which rivaled a corresponding twelve-city confederation of Iōnes ‘Ionians’ likewise located in mainland Asia Minor. (See under Aeolian Dodecapolis and Ionian Dodecapolis in the Inventory of terms and names.) And these differentiated social groupings of Aioleîs ‘Aeolians’ and Iōnes ‘Ionians’—as also Dōrieîs ‘Dorians’—corresponded neatly with the linguistic groupings of the dialects spoken in Asia Minor and in its outlying islands:

  1. The Aeolian speakers of Aeolic inhabited the northern part of coastal Asia Minor together with the outlying islands of Lesbos and Tenedos.
  2. The Ionian speakers of Ionic inhabited the central part together with the outlying islands of Chios and Samos.
  3. The Dorian speakers of Doric inhabited the southern part together with outlying islands like Rhodes.

By contrast with the dialects of these Asiatic Greeks, however, the corresponding dialects of the European Greeks inhabiting the mainland and islands on the western side of the Aegean Sea are in some cases more difficult to track linguistically. Such is the case with Aeolic dialects spoken on the European mainland, notably in Thessaly and in Boeotia. In the case of Thessaly in particular, the various dialects spoken in this overall region are difficult to correlate with the dialect spoken on the islands of Lesbos and Tenedos as also on the facing Asiatic mainland, but it can be argued that both these sets of European and Asiatic dialects are Aeolic; and it can also be argued that the Thessalians figured themselves as true Aeolians in their rituals and myths. [[GN 2016.09.07 via Nagy 2011:162–167.]]


subject heading(s): homeland of Achilles

The first part of this micro-narrative, I.02.681–685, highlights various territories unified here under the leadership of Achilles, who sails in fifty ships with warriors originating from these territories, I.02.685. Relevant names of special interest here are: ‘Pelasgian’ Argos at I.02.681, Phthīē and Hellás at I.02.683, Myrmidónes and Héllēnes and Akhaioí at I.02.684. The second part of this micro-narrative, I.02.686–694, highlights the fact that the warriors who sailed on the fifty ships and were led by Achilles have lost their leader, since Achilles is now refusing to participate in the Trojan War. And a sub-part of this micro-narrative, I.02.689–694, retells the story about the anger of Achilles over the seizing of Briseis by Agamemnon. [[GN. 2016.09.07.]]

anchor comment at I.02.689–694: about Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 1
subject heading(s): Briseis the Aeolian; Chryseis the Aeolian; Andromache the Aeolian; songmaking of Sappho/Alcaeus
cross-ref. to anchor comment at I.128–131 and at I.09.270–272: about Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 2

These verses at I.02.689–694 focus on the woman named Briseis, war-prize of Achilles, who was an aristocratic lady of Aeolian origin. (For a definition of ‘Aeolian’, see the anchor comment at I.01.463.) As we see in these verses, she was taken captive by Achilles when he conquered the city of Lyrnessos, I.02.690–691. As we will see more clearly later on, this city was Aeolian, and that the poetic traditions about the destruction of this city by Achilles were likewise Aeolian. Also we see at I.02.691 here that Achilles captured not only the city of Lyrnessos but also the city of Thebe. This parallelism of Lyrnessos and Thebe is most significant: Thebe too, like Lyrnessos, was an Aeolian city, and the poetic traditions about the destruction of this city by Achilles were likewise Aeolian. And we have yet to consider a second aristocratic lady of Aeolian origin. When Achilles conquered the city of Thebe, as we see at I.01.366–369, he captured there a woman named Chryseis. This Chryseis too, like Briseis, was Aeolian. In the case of Chryseis, she was allotted by the Achaeans to Agamemnon as his very own war-prize, Ι.01.369, while Briseis had been allotted to Achilles, Ι.01.392. (For background on the Aeolian Briseis and on the Aeolian Chryseis, I strongly recommend the work of Dué 2002 and 2006, listed in the Bibliography.) And now we come to a third aristocratic lady of Aeolian origin: she is Andromache, wife of Hector. Just as Achilles captured the women Chryseis and Briseis when he conquered the Aeolian cities of Thebe and Lyrnessos respectively, so too Achilles would have captured Andromache at the same time—if she had not been already married off to Hector, who had brought her as his bride to Troy before the Achaeans ever even arrived at Troy. Andromache originated from the Aeolian city of Thebe, as we see at I.06.394–396, and we have already seen at I.01.366–369 that Thebe was the place where Achilles captured Chryseis when he conquered that city. The father of Andromache, Eëtion, was the king of Thebe, I.06.395–398, and he was killed by Achilles when that hero conquered this city of Thebe, I.06.416–420. In sum, all three of these women—Chryseis, Briseis, and Andromache—are Aeolian. And the Aeolian provenience of these ladies matches the Aeolian provenience of songmaking about them, as exemplified especially in Song 44 of Sappho about the wedding of Hector and Andromache. The poetic traditions of songs attributed to Sappho as also to Alcaeus, both of whom are dated around 600 BCE, originate from the Aeolian island of Lesbos. [[GN 2016.06.30 via HPC 243.]]


I.09.128–131 / I.09.270–272
subject heading(s): epic deeds of Achilles before the time dramatized in the Iliad; seven captive Aeolian women
cross-ref. I.02.689–694, I.11.624–627
Q&T via HPC 241

Among the prizes that Agamemnon at I.09.128–131 offers as compensation to Achilles are seven captive Aeolian women who were captured by Achilles when he conquered the Aeolian island of Lesbos. The story about these women as it is told here is then retold at I.09.270–272. The significance of the Aeolian identity of these women will be analyzed in the anchor comment that follows. The focus in the present comment, by contrast, is on the moral problems that are raised in the story about the actual capture of these Aeolian women—and of other Aeolian women in the Iliad who suffer the same fate of captivity. Two prominent examples are Briseis and Chryseis, captured by Achilles when he conquered the Aeolian cities of Lyrnessos and Thebe respectively, as noted in the anchor comment at I.02.689–694. All these Aeolian women—the seven unnamed ones and the two named ones—evidently became the common property of the Achaeans after being captured by Achilles, and it appears that Agamemnon as the Achaean over-king originally had a say, ostensibly by way of public deliberation with the rest of the Achaeans, in deciding which Aeolian woman was allotted as a war-prize to which Achaean man. Even though these Aeolian women were captured by Achilles alone, they were thereafter to be distributed as war-prizes among the Achaean men as a group. In terms of this reconstruction of the story as outlined here, the role of Agamemnon in having a say about the awarding of these captive women as war-prizes is morally problematic. Likewise problematic is this over-king’s role in the original awarding of the Aeolian captive woman Briseis, with the approval of the Achaeans, as a war-prize to Achilles—and in the parallel awarding of the Aeolian captive woman Chryseis to himself. Moreover, the seizing of Briseis by Agamemnon after his loss of Chryseis is even more problematic. Here, then, is the overriding question to be asked about the treatment of all these Aeolian women as war-prizes: is Agamemnon entitled to have a say in deciding which Achaean man will have sex with which Aeolian woman? And the question can be broadened: are the Achaeans as a group entitled to make such decisions? Such a broader question extends also to Achilles. [[GN 2016.08.26.]]

anchor comment at I.09. 128–131 / 270–272: about Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 2
subject heading(s): capture of Lesbos by Achilles; capture of Lyrnessos and Thebe by Achilles; Briseis the Aeolian; Chryseis the Aeolian; Andromache the Aeolian; charter myth; aetiology; “colonization”; “Aeolian Migration”; Lesbos, Tenedos, and the facing mainland of Asia Minor; songmaking of Sappho/Alcaeus; Aeolian poetics; Achilles the Aeolian
cross-ref. to anchor comment at I.02.689–694: about Aeolian women in the Iliad, part 1

The story that is being told here at I.09.128–131 and retold at I.09.270–272 centers on one single stunning event: Achilles captured the Aeolian island of Lesbos. The vastness of this story is even broader in scope, since we can see in the Iliad occasional references to other such conquests accomplished by Achilles. Most prominent are the Iliadic references to his capturing of two cities located on the Aeolian mainland of Asia Minor: they are Lyrnessos and Thebe. In the Iliad, the first time that (1) the conquest of Lyrnessos by Achilles and (2) his capturing of Briseis are mentioned is at I.02.690-691. What then follows at I.02.691 is a mention of his conquering the walled city of Thebe as well. Thebe is mentioned already at I.01.366: it was there that Achilles captured another Aeolian woman, Chryseis, when he conquered that city, I.01.366–369. (For background on the Aeolian Briseis and on the Aeolian Chryseis, I again strongly recommend the work of Dué 2002 and 2006, listed in the Bibliography.) Another native of Aeolian Thebe was Andromache, who had been married off to Hector at Troy before the beginning of the Trojan War: she was taken captive only later, after Troy was captured, and she was then assigned as a war-prize to the son of Achilles, Neoptolemos, as we read in the Iliou Persis, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, plot summary by Proclus p. 108 line 9 (ed. Allen 1912). The conquests of Aeolian territories by Achilles, especially his capture of Lesbos, can be interpreted as a charter myth that aetiologizes a prehistoric “colonization” of these territories by Aeolian migrants from Thessaly, situated in the European mainland, which was the reputed birthplace of Achilles. (See Nagy 2011:171–173.) The Aeolian territories were basically the islands of Lesbos and Tenedos, together with the facing mainland of Asia Minor. The “colonization” of these territories has conventionally been described as the “Aeolian Migration,” and the term ‘migration’ here corresponds neatly with the appropriate Greek word, apoikiā. (See Nagy 2011:161, with reference to Strabo 9.2.3 C401 and other related passages.) The reference at I.09.129 to the captive women from Lesbos can be correlated with the poetic traditions of Lesbos as later attested in the songs of Sappho and Alcaeus, both dated around 600 BCE. These poetic traditions, which can be described as Aeolian, derive not only from the island of Lesbos but also from the island of Tenedos and from the mainland of Asia Minor facing these two islands. (See HPC 184–185.) Traces of these Aeolian poetic traditions can be seen in the Iliadic references to such figures as Briseis, Chryseis, Andromache, and the seven unnamed captive women from Lesbos. All these figures derive from Aeolian poetic traditions, and the same can be said about the figure of Achilles himself. In terms of his poetic heritage, he is Achilles the Aeolian. (See Nagy 2011:171–172.) The difference is, Achilles is an Aeolian from European Thessaly, while the captive women are Aeolians from Asia Minor and from the offshore islands of Lesbos and Tenedos. In the Ionian poetic traditions of epic as exemplified by Homeric poetry, we can track the early influence of corresponding Aeolian poetic traditions as exemplified at a later period, around 600 BCE, by the songmaking of Sappho and Alcaeus. [[GN 2016.08.25 via HPC 149, 241; see also BA 140–141.]]


subject heading(s): beauty contest in Lesbos; the sacred space of Hera in Lesbos; songmaking of Sappho/Alcaeus; pattern-weaving

The description of the women from Lesbos as victorious over other women in their beauty can be interpreted as a reference to a local tradition at Lesbos known as the Kallisteia, which was a kind of ritualized beauty contest for girls and for women. The scholia or ‘notes’ for the Iliad (in this case, scholia D) give details, with specific reference to I.09.130: this beauty contest was a seasonally recurring event that took place in a federal space that was shared by five cities on the island of Lesbos, and this space was sacred to the goddess Hera. (See Nagy 2015 §§135–159.) There are occasional references to this space in what remains of the songs of Sappho and Alcaeus (again, Nagy 2015). Also, as we see at I.09.128, the beauty of the women of Lesbos is matched by the beauty of their handiwork, which externalizes their aristocratic charisma. Such handiwork, as we will see in another comment, comes to life in the skillfulness displayed by women in practicing their art of pattern-weaving: a prime example is Andromache the Aeolian, described at Ι.22.440–441 in the act of pattern-weaving. (See MoM 2§§§69–78.) [[GN 2016.08.25 via HPC 237, 242, 245, 302.]]


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

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.


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