What is on Homer’s mind?

2016.02.11 | By Gregory Nagy

"The Argo," by Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907), Konstantinos Volanakis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“The Argo,” Konstantinos Volanakis (1837–1907), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
§1. In the verbal art of Homeric poetry, we find two passages where Homer actually says that he has something on his mind. The first something is the good ship Argo in Odyssey 12.70 and the second something is the hero Odysseus himself in Odyssey 9.19. In the logic of the poetry, the master story-teller of this poetry has the Argo and Odysseus on his mind for a superficial reason: it is because all humans have the Argo and Odysseus on their minds. But there is a deeper reason to be found in this chicken-and-egg relationship between what is on the poet’s mind and what is on the minds of all humans. It is assumed that all humans have on their minds both the ship Argo and the hero Odysseus, who as we are about to see is a great admirer of the Argo and of its intrepid sailors, the Argonauts. And why do all humans have these things on their minds? It is because Homer himself has these things on his mind when he mentions them. The universalizing of the Argo and of Odysseus by Homeric poetry makes sense only because this poetry assumes its own universal appeal as a given.

§2. Here are the two Homeric passages:

οἴη δὴ κείνῃ γε παρέπλω ποντοπόρος νηῦς | Ἀργὼ πᾶσι μέλουσα, παρ’ Αἰήταο πλέουσα

The only seafaring ship that has ever yet sailed past that [rock] was | the Argo, which-is-on-the-minds-of [μέλουσα] all [πᾶσι], and this was when it sailed away from Aietes.

Odyssey 12.69–70

εἴμ’ Ὀδυσεὺς Λαερτιάδης, ὃς πᾶσι δόλοισιν | ἀνθρώποισι μέλω, καί μευ κλέος οὐρανὸν ἵκει.

I am Odysseus son of Laertes, and I, with all [πᾶσι] my acts of trickery, | I-am-on-the-minds-of [μέλω] all [πᾶσι] humans, and my glory [kleos] reaches all the way up to the sky.

Odyssey 9.19–20

I will explain in a minute why I chose the translations ‘which-is-on-the-minds-of’ and ‘I-am-on-the-minds-of’ in these two passages. But before I start the explanation, I need to make two further comments on the universalizing of ‘all’ humanity, who are ‘all’ hearing the Odyssey.

§3. In the first of the two passages I just quoted, Homeric poetry is telling a story by channeling Odysseus in the act of telling his own story, and the act of universalizing is immediately expressed. It happens at line 70 here in Rhapsody 12 of the Odyssey: the wording says right away that the ship Argo, ‘which-is-on-the-minds-of’ (μέλουσα) humans, is an all-important subject, since it is on the minds of ‘all’ (πᾶσι) humans in the universe. The sailors of the good ship Argo faced the challenge of sailing past a most dangerous rock in the treacherous seas, and now Odysseus, admirer of the Argonauts, is faced with the same challenge in his own story.

§4. In the second of the two passages, by contrast, there is a delay in expressing the act of universalizing. It happens earlier on in the Odyssey, at line 19 of Rhapsody 9, where Homeric poetry is only now starting to channel Odysseus in the act of starting to tell his own story. The wording begins by saying that I, Odysseus, am linked with ‘all’ (πᾶσι) my acts of trickery, and only then, at line 20, does the wording go on to say that ‘I-am-on-the-minds-of’ (μέλω) humans—but now the idea that these humans are ‘all’ (πᾶσι) humans in the universe has to be carried over from line 19. What we see here is a construction known in ancient rhetoric as apo koinou (ἀπὸ κοινοῦ) ‘by way of shared application’, where a word is applied consecutively to two different syntactical situations.[1] In this case, the adjective pāsi (πᾶσι) meaning ‘all’ applies first only to the noun doloisi (δόλοισι) meaning ‘acts of trickery’ at line 19, but then at line 20 it applies also—and in a different syntactical situation—to the noun anthrōpoisi (ἀνθρώποισι) meaning ‘humans’. This way, the meaning ‘all’ applies to two different words belonging to two different syntactical situations. And the application of the meaning is consecutive: first, I am linked with ‘all my acts of trickery’, and then, second, I am on the minds of ‘all humans’.

§5. That said, we are now ready to consider the meaning of the verb melein, which I translate with the wording ‘to-be-on-the-mind-of’. The subject of this verb melein is whatever is on the mind of someone. In everyday contexts, what is on the mind of someone is incidental: someone happens to be thinking about something, and so that something is on the mind of that someone. In Homeric contexts, however, whatever is on someone’s mind is special and worthy of being recorded in poetry. Here is a striking example: when Andromache in the Iliad says to Hector that she is thinking thoughts about the uncertain future that awaits her and the child they had together, he remarks that ‘all these things are-on-my-mind [melei] as well’ (Iliad 6.441: ἦ καὶ ἐμοὶ τάδε πάντα μέλει). Such things are the subject of Homeric poetry, and so Homer must have such things on his mind as well.

§6. In poetic as also in prosaic contexts, the things that are on someone’s mind may be simply things that this someone is thinking about. But they may be more than that, as in the example I just gave concerning the things that are on the minds of Andromache and Hector. These things are not just thoughts: they are caring thoughts, concerned thoughts, even worried thoughts. And the same can be said about the expression ‘to be on one’s mind’ in colloquial English. If I say that there is something on my mind, that something can be not only a thought but also a caring thought and a concerned thought and even a worried thought. And when such a thought is expressed in song, the thought itself can become the song. I think of the tune and the words of a song composed in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael (tune) and Stuart Gorrell (words). The song is “Georgia on my mind,” made famous by the recording of Ray Charles in his 1960 album The genius hits the road. Another famous version is the recording by Willie Nelson in his 1978 album Stardust. The idea of thinking as caring comes through most clearly in such lines as these:

Ooh Georgia, no peace I find
just an old sweet song
keeps Georgia on my mind.[2]

§7. And now I come to an example where caring thoughts modulate into concerned thoughts. I quote from Always on my mind, a song composed by Wayne Carson with the collaboration of Johnny Christopher and Mark James—a song made most famous by the recording of Willie Nelson in his 1982 album “Always on my mind.” The idea of expressing concern comes through most clearly in lines such as these:

Maybe I didn’t love you
quite as often as I could have
and maybe I didn’t treat you
quite as good as I should have.
If I made you feel second best,
Girl, I’m sorry I was blind.
You were always on my mind.
You were always on my mind.[3]

This kind of song, as an expression of caring and concern, reminds me of a reference, in the Hippolytus of Euripides, to a custom originating in the city of Trozen, where girls who were celebrating their coming of age are seen in the act of singing and dancing a song. Their song is described as a sad love song, ‘a troubled thought that comes along with songmaking’ (μουσοποιὸς … μέριμνα 1428–1429). The noun that I translate here as ‘a troubled thought’ is merimna, which means literally a ‘care’ or a ‘concern’. A merimna, in other words, is what you have on your mind.[4] In a song of Bacchylides (19.11), the same noun merimna, which I translate here as ‘a troubled thought’, refers to the thought-processes of the poet himself as he is pictured in the act of composing his song.[5] A merimna, then, is a song that is ‘on one’s mind’. Similarly, I argue, the noun melos in the sense of ‘melody’ is derived from melei ‘is on one’s mind’;[6] a melos is a song that is ‘on one’s mind’.[7]

§8. I see a parallel in American popular song culture. In an interview given to Jake Black, who published excerpts from this interview in Chapter 12 (p. 189) of his book Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits (BenBella Books 2014), Wayne Carson is quoted as saying about his composition “Always on my mind”:

I wrote those two verses living in Springfield, Missouri. Pretty much the first two verses with “Always On My Mind,”  and I usually write from the melody. I’ll think of the melody or the chord structure or something […]. If the melody is singable, the words are not far away. It’s only a story, you know.


§9. This essay is dedicated to my fellow Homerist Bruce Louden, who asked me recently whether I had ever published anything on the Homeric description of the ship Argo in Odyssey 12.70. My first thought was that, yes, I surely must have published something about it, since I have been talking about it for decades and decades. But then, on second thought, I reached for a different conclusion: I must have neglected any write-up of what has been on my mind for such a long time about this Homeric mention of the Argo. I am grateful to my fellow Homerist for the prompt that led me to say here what is on my mind about what Homer has on his mind.


DELG. See Chantraine, P. 2009. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: histoire des mots. Ed. J. Taillardat, O. Masson, and J.-L. Perpillou. With a supplement Chroniques d’étymologie grecque 1–10. Ed. A. Blanc, Ch. de Lamberterie, and Jean-Louis Perpillou. Paris.

HC. See Nagy 2009|2008.

HPC. See Nagy 2010|2009.

H24H. See Nagy 2013.

Koller, H. 1965. Μέλος. Glotta 43:24–38.

Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC.

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

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

PH. See Nagy 1990.


[1] My favorite example of an apo koinou construction is in Song 1 of Sappho: πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα |8 χρύσιον ἦλθες |9 ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα ‘and leaving the palace [δόμον] of your father, |8 golden [χρύσιον], you [= Aphrodite] came, |9 having harnessed the chariot [ἄρμα]’. The adjective χρύσιον ‘golden’ describes both the noun δόμον ‘palace’ and the noun ἄρμα ‘chariot’, and these two nouns belong to two different syntactical situations. The movement of Aphrodite from the palace of her father to her own chariot is attended by a blur of gold.

[2] http://www.metrolyrics.com/georgia-on-my-mind-lyrics-ray-charles.html

[3] http://www.metrolyrics.com/always-on-my-mind-lyrics-willie-nelson.html

[4] See also PH 284 and 287 = 10§16n42 and 10§20n63.

[5] H24H 20§38.

[6] I am persuaded by Koller 1965 when he argues that melos in the sense of ‘melody’ or ‘song’ is derived from the verb melei ‘is on one’s mind’. By contrast, I am not persuaded that melos in the sense of ‘limb’ needs to be derived from the same verb: see under the entry μέλος in DELG, with a list of possible cognates meaning ‘joint’ (and the like) in other Indo-European languages. Still, even if there are two distinct etymologies for melos as ‘melody’ and for melos as ‘limb’, the fact remains that the traditional poetic diction conflates the two meanings in the case of formations like lūsi-melēs (λυσι-μελής): as Koller points out, this form can refer to the loosening of limbs as well as the loosening of cares.

[7] See also PH 347–348 = 12§22, with regard to a choral leader Astu-meloisa at Alcman PMG 3 (64, 73): this girl’s generic name is actually translated in the song itself (74) as μέλημα δάμῳ ‘an object of care and affection [melēma] to the local community [dēmos]’—which is exactly what the name means. On the form Melēsigenēs as an alternative name for Homer, see HPC 136 = II §14. Such a formation is comparable to what we find in adjectives like melēsi-mbrotos (Pindar Pythian 4.15) and in names like Melēs-ippos (Thucydides 1.139.3, etc.). As I argue in HPC 56 (= I§137) n58, the syntax of Homeric Hymn to Apollo 160 re-enacts the meaning of the Homeric name Melēsigenēs.