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Updated: August 30, 2013 18:31 IST

Timeless Greek heroes

M. S. Nagarajan
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The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Author: Gregory Nagy.
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The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Author: Gregory Nagy.

Reading Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is like travelling on the realms of gold. This whale of a text-book running to 727 pages with twenty-one illustrations, mostly images of Athenian paintings photo-copied from various museums, is based on a course that he has taught at Harvard for four decades and more. The book is an illuminating study of the whole range of Greek literature in English translation: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides; Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannous and Oedipus at Colones; Euripides’s Hippolytus and Bachae; Plato’s Apology and Phaedo; and selections from the songs of Sappho and Pindar.

The book is classified into five parts: heroes reflected in the oldest surviving forms of ancient Greek epic and lyric poetry; heroes in prose media; heroes in ancient Greek tragedy; heroes in the dialogues of Plato; and the hero as a transcendent concept. The duration of the period extends from the eighth through the fourth century BC. The discussion is based on the classical view of the hero, not quite unlike the views held by Carlyle in his On Heroes and Hero-worship or Emerson in his Representative Men. Ancient Greece was a group of independent territories (city-states) extending along the Mediterranean region; they had a shared linguistic possession and a shared culture with Homer as the founding father of their civilisation whose work shaped their weltanschauung and informed their values. In the ancient Greek religion not only were the gods worshipped but also the heroes. In Greek history the term hero refers to one — male or female — of superhuman strength, courage or ability descending from the gods themselves. A hero is a demigod but mortal and worshipping a hero was a well-attested Greek custom. A hero who wins the honour of his countrymen becomes a cult hero and his death, generally observed by seasonally recurring rituals, is immortalised in their art and literature. “The cult hero was considered dead — from the standpoint of the place where the hero’s ‘body’ was situated; at the same time, the hero was considered simultaneously immortalised — from the standpoint of the paradisiacal place that awaited all heroes after death”. Achilles, for instance, is the archetypal cult hero.

Key concepts

Gregory Nagy offers us a perspective to the much admired ancient Greek civilisation by examining in depth the concept of the hero cult through a close reading of the texts mentioned above. He chooses 24 key concepts, one for each chapter (in this case each ‘hour’), and uses this as a corner stone — an extended metaphor — to read the texts he has chosen for the 24 ‘hours’. As an instance in point Nagy chooses the word nostos which means ‘return, homecoming; song about homecoming; return to light and life.’ Homer’s Odyssey is examined in the context of these meanings: Odysseus comes back to Ithaca after his adventures and reclaims his wife; the returning king reclaims his territory; the pilot lost at sea finds his bearings and reaches home after his vision quest retracing the correct steps that need to be taken to live life successfully and return to light and life. Likewise the term sozein meaning ‘save someone; saviour; one who brings someone back to life’ is expounded from the lives of heroes: Theseus as the saviour of Athens; the empowered Achilles who in turn becomes the saviour of his own people; the heroic salvation of the inhabitants of the island of Aegina celebrated in the son of Pindar (446 BC); and the salvation that pervades the whole of Plato’s Phaedo which dramatises the dialogue between Socrates and his followers. He asks Crito to sacrifice on his behalf a rooster to Asklepios, the son of Apollo. Socrates dies but what matters is the resurrection of his word. “So long as the idea of the hero is alive, the word about the hero will be a living word. And if the word is alive, the hero will live on”. The key word sema, meaning ‘sign, signal, symbol, tomb’ is enlightened with illustrations as to how the lives of the heroes are not terminated by death. They are still alive and always remembered; posterity would not willingly let them die.

Besides a core vocabulary of key Greek words, there is a comprehensive bibliography in which quite understandably references to Gregory Nagy loom large — sixty entries in all. By placing the lives of the Greek heroes in their historical context, he brings back to us the hidden treasures of Greek literature.

Backed by formidable learning and a vast ecumenical sweep embellished with details — yet written in a winningly readable informal style — The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours offers to us penetrating considerations of the ways in which Greek classics continue to make themselves felt in our lives even today.

(M. S. Nagarajan was formerly Head of Department of English, Madras University)


>>The title of Thomas Carlyle’s work was wrongly given as On Heroes and Her-worship in “Timeless Greek heroes” (Book Review page, August 27, 2013). It should have been On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History .

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