In this post we present an original analysis of the dialogue between Thersites and Odysseus, appearing in the Second Rhapsody of Homer‘s Iliad.
Ancient Greek: Ὣς ὅ γε κοιρανέων δίεπε στρατόν· οἳ δ᾽ ἀγορὴν δὲ αὖτις ἐπεσσεύοντο νεῶν ἄπο καὶ κλισιάων ἠχῇ, ὡς ὅτε κῦμα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης αἰγιαλῷ μεγάλῳ βρέμεται, σμαραγεῖ δέ τε πόντος.
Ἄλλοι μέν ῥ᾽ ἕζοντο, ἐρήτυθεν δὲ καθ᾽ ἕδρας· Θερσίτης δ᾽ ἔτι μοῦνος ἀμετροεπὴς ἐκολῴα,
ὃς ἔπεα φρεσὶν ᾗσιν ἄκοσμά τε πολλά τε ᾔδη μάψ, ἀτὰρ οὐ κατὰ κόσμον, ἐριζέμεναι βασιλεῦσιν, ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τι οἱ εἴσαιτο γελοίϊον Ἀργείοισιν ἔμμεναι· αἴσχιστος δὲ ἀνὴρ ὑπὸ Ἴλιον ἦλθε· φολκὸς ἔην, χωλὸς δ᾽ ἕτερον πόδα· τὼ δέ οἱ ὤμω κυρτὼ ἐπὶ στῆθος συνοχωκότε· αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε φοξὸς ἔην κεφαλήν, ψεδνὴ δ᾽ ἐπενήνοθε λάχνη. ἔχθιστος δ᾽ Ἀχιλῆϊ μάλιστ᾽ ἦν ἠδ᾽ Ὀδυσῆϊ· τὼ γὰρ νεικείεσκε· τότ᾽ αὖτ᾽ Ἀγαμέμνονι δίῳ ὀξέα κεκλήγων λέγ᾽ ὀνείδεα· τῷ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ ἐκπάγλως κοτέοντο νεμέσσηθέν τ᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ. αὐτὰρ ὃ μακρὰ βοῶν Ἀγαμέμνονα νείκεε μύθῳ·
«Ἀτρεΐδη τέο δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἐπιμέμφεαι ἠδὲ χατίζεις; πλεῖαί τοι χαλκοῦ κλισίαι, πολλαὶ δὲ γυναῖκες εἰσὶν ἐνὶ κλισίῃς ἐξαίρετοι, ἅς τοι Ἀχαιοὶ πρωτίστῳ δίδομεν εὖτ᾽ ἂν πτολίεθρον ἕλωμεν. ἦ ἔτι καὶ χρυσοῦ ἐπιδεύεαι, ὅν κέ τις οἴσει Τρώων ἱπποδάμων ἐξ Ἰλίου υἷος ἄποινα, ὅν κεν ἐγὼ δήσας ἀγάγω ἢ ἄλλος Ἀχαιῶν, ἠὲ γυναῖκα νέην, ἵνα μίσγεαι ἐν φιλότητι, ἥν τ᾽ αὐτὸς ἀπονόσφι κατίσχεαι; οὐ μὲν ἔοικεν ἀρχὸν ἐόντα κακῶν ἐπιβασκέμεν υἷας Ἀχαιῶν. ὦ πέπονες κάκ᾽ ἐλέγχε᾽ Ἀχαιΐδες οὐκέτ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ, οἴκαδέ περ σὺν νηυσὶ νεώμεθα, τόνδε δ᾽ ἐῶμεν αὐτοῦ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ γέρα πεσσέμεν, ὄφρα ἴδηται ἤ ῥά τί οἱ χἠμεῖς προσαμύνομεν ἦε καὶ οὐκί· ὃς καὶ νῦν Ἀχιλῆα ἕο μέγ᾽ ἀμείνονα φῶτα ἠτίμησεν· ἑλὼν γὰρ ἔχει γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπούρας. ἀλλὰ μάλ᾽ οὐκ Ἀχιλῆϊ χόλος φρεσίν, ἀλλὰ μεθήμων· ἦ γὰρ ἂν Ἀτρεΐδη νῦν ὕστατα λωβήσαιο·»
Ὣς φάτο νεικείων Ἀγαμέμνονα ποιμένα λαῶν, Θερσίτης· τῷ δ᾽ ὦκα παρίστατο δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς, καί μιν ὑπόδρα ἰδὼν χαλεπῷ ἠνίπαπε μύθῳ· «Θερσῖτ᾽ ἀκριτόμυθε, λιγύς περ ἐὼν ἀγορητής, ἴσχεο, μηδ᾽ ἔθελ᾽ οἶος ἐριζέμεναι βασιλεῦσιν· οὐ γὰρ ἐγὼ σέο φημὶ χερειότερον βροτὸν ἄλλον ἔμμεναι, ὅσσοι ἅμ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδῃς ὑπὸ Ἴλιον ἦλθον. τὼ οὐκ ἂν βασιλῆας ἀνὰ στόμ᾽ ἔχων ἀγορεύοις, καί σφιν ὀνείδεά τε προφέροις, νόστόν τε φυλάσσοις. οὐδέ τί πω σάφα ἴδμεν ὅπως ἔσται τάδε ἔργα, ἢ εὖ ἦε κακῶς νοστήσομεν υἷες Ἀχαιῶν. τὼ νῦν Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι ποιμένι λαῶν, ἧσαι ὀνειδίζων, ὅτι οἱ μάλα πολλὰ διδοῦσιν ἥρωες Δαναοί· σὺ δὲ κερτομέων ἀγορεύεις. ἀλλ᾽ ἔκ τοι ἐρέω, τὸ δὲ καὶ τετελεσμένον ἔσται· εἴ κ᾽ ἔτι σ᾽ ἀφραίνοντα κιχήσομαι ὥς νύ περ ὧδε, μηκέτ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ Ὀδυσῆϊ κάρη ὤμοισιν ἐπείη, μηδ᾽ ἔτι Τηλεμάχοιο πατὴρ κεκλημένος εἴην, εἰ μὴ ἐγώ σε λαβὼν ἀπὸ μὲν φίλα εἵματα δύσω, χλαῖνάν τ᾽ ἠδὲ χιτῶνα, τά τ᾽ αἰδῶ ἀμφικαλύπτει, αὐτὸν δὲ κλαίοντα θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας ἀφήσω πεπλήγων ἀγορῆθεν ἀεικέσσι πληγῇσιν.»
Ὣς ἄρ᾽ ἔφη, σκήπτρῳ δὲ μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμω πλῆξεν· ὃ δ᾽ ἰδνώθη, θαλερὸν δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε δάκρυ· σμῶδιξ δ᾽ αἱματόεσσα μεταφρένου ἐξυπανέστη σκήπτρου ὕπο χρυσέου· ὃ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἕζετο τάρβησέν τε, ἀλγήσας δ᾽ ἀχρεῖον ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ. οἳ δὲ καὶ ἀχνύμενοί περ ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ ἡδὺ γέλασσαν· ὧδε δέ τις εἴπεσκεν ἰδὼν ἐς πλησίον ἄλλον·
«ὢ πόποι ἦ δὴ μυρί᾽ Ὀδυσσεὺς ἐσθλὰ ἔοργε βουλάς τ᾽ ἐξάρχων ἀγαθὰς πόλεμόν τε κορύσσων· νῦν δὲ τόδε μέγ᾽ ἄριστον ἐν Ἀργείοισιν ἔρεξεν, ὃς τὸν λωβητῆρα ἐπεσβόλον ἔσχ᾽ ἀγοράων. οὔ θήν μιν πάλιν αὖτις ἀνήσει θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ νεικείειν βασιλῆας ὀνειδείοις ἐπέεσσιν.»
English: Thus masterfully did he range through the host, and they hasted back to the place of gathering from their ships and huts with noise, as when a wave of the loud-resounding sea thundereth on the long beach, and the deep roareth.
Now the others sate them down and were stayed in their places, only there still kept chattering on Thersites of measureless speech, whose mind was full of great store of disorderly words, wherewith to utter revilings against the kings, idly, and in no orderly wise, but whatsoever he deemed would raise a laugh among the Argives. Evil-favoured was he beyond all men that came to Ilios: he was bandy-legged and lame in the one foot, and his two shoulders were rounded, stooping together over his chest, and above them his head was warped, and a scant stubble grew thereon. Hateful was he to Achilles above all, and to Odysseus, for it was they twain that he was wont to revile; but now again with shrill cries he uttered abuse against goodly Agamemnon. With him were the Achaeans exceeding wroth, and had indignation in their hearts.
Howbeit with loud shoutings he spake and chide Agamemnon: “Son of Atreus, with what art thou now again discontent, or what lack is thine? Filled are thy huts with bronze, and women full many are in thy huts, chosen spoils that we Achaeans give thee first of all, whensoe’er we take a citadel. Or dost thou still want gold also, which some man of the horse-taming Trojans shall bring thee out of Ilios as a ransom for his son, whom I haply have bound and led away or some other of the Achaeans? Or is it some young girl for thee to know in love, whom thou wilt keep apart for thyself? Nay, it beseemeth not one that is their captain to bring to ill the sons of the Achaeans. Soft fools! base things of shame, ye women of Achaea, men no more, homeward let us go with our ships, and leave this fellow here in the land of Troy to digest his prizes, that so he may learn whether in us too there is aught of aid for him or no — for him that hath now done dishonour to Achilles, a man better far than he; for he hath taken away, and keepeth his prize by his own arrogant act. Of a surety there is naught of wrath in the heart of Achilles; nay, he heedeth not at all; else, son of Atreus, wouldest thou now work insolence for the last time.”
So spake Thersites, railing at Agamemnon, shepherd of the host. But quickly to his side came goodly Odysseus, and with an angry glance from beneath his brows, chid him with harsh words, saying: “Thersites of reckless speech, clear-voiced talker though thou art, refrain thee, and be not minded to strive singly against kings. For I deem that there is no viler mortal than thou amongst all those that with the sons of Atreus came beneath Ilios. Wherefore ’twere well thou shouldst not take the name of kings in thy mouth as thou protest, to cast reproaches upon them, and to watch for home-going. In no wise do we know clearly as yet how these things are to be, whether it be for good or ill that we sons of the Achaeans shall return. Therefore dost thou now continually utter revilings against Atreus’ son, Agamemnon, shepherd of the host, for that the Danaan warriors give him gifts full many; whereas thou pratest on with railings. But I will speak out to thee, and this word shall verily be brought to pass: if I find thee again playing the fool, even as now thou dost, then may the head of Odysseus abide no more upon his shoulders, nor may I any more be called the father of Telemachus, if I take thee not, and strip off thy raiment, thy cloak, and thy tunic that cover thy nakedness, and for thyself send thee wailing to the swift ships, beaten forth from the place of gathering with shameful blows.”
So spake Odysseus, and with his staff smote his back and shoulders; and Thersites cowered down, and a big tear fell from him, and a bloody weal rose up on his back beneath the staff of gold. Then he sate him down, and fear came upon him, and stung by pain with helpless looks he wiped away the tear. But the Achaeans, sore vexed at heart though they were, broke into a merry laugh at him, and thus would one speak with a glance at his neighbour: “Out upon it! verily hath Odysseus ere now wrought good deeds without number as leader in good counsel and setting battle in army, but now is this deed far the best that he hath wrought among the Argives, seeing he hath made this scurrilous babbler to cease from his prating. Never again, I ween, will his proud spirit henceforth set him on to rail at kings with words of reviling.”
(Source: HOMER, ILIAD)
NovoScriptorium: Thersites is one of Homer’s ‘counter-examples’. He is a bawler without measure; in his brains (‘φρένες’) he has indecorous/improper words
(‘άκοσμα έπη’); sillily (‘μαψ’ from the verb ‘μαπέω’, which means ‘I catch vehemently, hastily, rashly’). That is, he is a perfunctory/frivolous/superficial badmouth chatterbox. He likes to argue with kings, saying whatever was coming to him, in order to provoke laughter among the Argives. It is clear that Homer rejects laughter produced from people with the intentions and style of Thersites. Homer demonstrates here that even in laughter, in banter, there must be some short of measure. Moreover, he tells us that Thersites had been the most obscene/outrageous/shameful/disgraceful man (‘αίσχιστος ανήρ’) that went to Ilion (Troy). He argued with the kings ‘for fun’, i.e. not for proper reasons as, for instance, to check power/authority. So, clearly, this is something which Homer condemns.
Not coincidentally, Homer also offers us an external description of this Thersites:
‘φολκός’ (‘knock-kneed, bow-legged, bandy-legged’), lame on the other foot, with curved/crooked shoulders, with an oblong head, and sparse hairs. Physiognomics apparently has -among many other things- its roots in Homer. Physiognomics accepts/ed as a rule that the psychic and mental condition of a person is accompanied by a similar bodily condition, i.e. ‘what’s inside shows outside‘ and the opposite. It is also probable that Thersites acts in the way he does exactly because of his bad external condition in an attempt to attract attention. This is a ‘timeless pattern’ among Humans. In this case, Homer is simply recording here a common mental disorder. The fact that he is said to be the ‘most worthy of hostility‘ (‘έχθιστος’) for Achilles and Odysseus* implies that a person who is close to proper spirituality not only does not look like Thersites, but is hostile, too, against all the corresponding situations which Thersites personifies.
*Necessary explanation: Achilles and Odysseus are referred to as ‘δίοι’ in the text various times. The prevailing interpretation of the word ‘δίος’ means ‘divine’ or ‘of the divine/of god’. There is another, secondary, interpretation that denotes the ’eminent’. Mostly though, the first one is accepted. A deeper study of the two epics reveals, beyond any doubt, that through the -majority of- words and actions of both Achilles and, mainly, Odysseus, a multitude of theological, philosophical and ethical doctrines are transmitted. Hence, taking this in account, when Homer tells us that these two -who personify a multitude of divine, virtuous and ‘proper’ things- considered Thersites as ‘the most worthy of hostility’, it’s like telling us that Thersites’ behavior stands against the Divine, against all that is considered in Homer’s work as ‘proper’, divine and virtuous.
Naturally, a ‘Thersites’ type of person seeks quarreling with those who are spiritually prudent, in order to scandalize. Notice his behavior: ‘yelling loud, he was saying things to reproach’ (‘οξέα κραυγάζων έλεγε ονείδους’). People of the ‘Thersites type’ ‘make noise’ and provoke. Homer, however, adds that this behavior made the Achaeans as a whole angry and displeased. It is an indirect way to inform us that the whole polity was trained/educated in a different direction and that Thersites constitutes only an exception in it.
Among Thersites’ words we read: ‘it is not appropriate, for an archon that you are, to throw the sons of the Achaeans into calamities’. This is a ‘political’ thesis. A leader must always try to avoid throwing his people into calamities. In the next verse he identifies cowardice with the female sex by saying: ‘cowards, badly ashamed, Achaean-women, no more Achaean-men’ (‘Αχαιΐδες, ουκέτ’ Αχαιοί’).
In Thersites’ words about ‘returning home’ (‘οίκαδε’) the timeless stance of ‘incapable to fight’ people is reflected. And they may be ‘incapable’ for two basic reasons:
a) internally coward, or b) bodily incapable to fight.
[We must not forget that the ‘fight’ can always be equally ‘internal’ or/and ‘external’. Homer works with allegories very much, and as we have already explained in our so-far analyses, he may refer to several different things (even epochs) at the same time. Let’s not also forget that from the ancient writers we know that Homer’s work was considered/believed to be ‘a treatise on nature and polity’. Let’s not forget that the dialogues we examine here take place in the Argives’ Agora, in their ‘forum/parliament’, and hence, in everything said we must attribute some socio-political importance and interpret likewise]
This type of person tends to present his/her ‘ideas’ dressed with apparent reason and base, in an attempt to drift everybody else around them into their own weakness. So that their weakness doesn’t show. It’s a ‘classic’ really among humans of all Time: try to make everybody around me look ugly so that my ugliness doesn’t show much.
Thersites uses here a standard and timeless practice; Let’s refer to someone (or an Institution) who is important and deeply respected among the people (here in the text, Achilles), so that the ideas and actions we propose can be more easily heard. In other words, first caress the audience’s ears and then say something, especially if you are about to provoke with your words.
Then, the words of Odysseus follow. He accuses Thersites of being ‘ακριτόμυθος’, i.e. that he ‘speaks rashly’. Indirectly, Homer tells us here that our speech must have measure and judgement. We should not speak without order and rules and, moreover, say whatever comes in our mind.
Then, he calls Thersites as ‘χερειότερον βροτόν’ ( = the worse mortal) of all that went to Ilion (Troy) with the son of Atreus (Agamemnon). And indeed it appears to be like this, as Thersites attempts to drift all of the Achaeans, in an act of cowardice and shame.
And Odysseus adds “In no wise do we know clearly as yet how these things are to be, whether it be for good or ill that we sons of the Achaeans shall return“, which accords to what Homer teaches in many other parts of the epic; that only god ( =Zeus) knows exactly the end of things, and that god is the one to bring them to this end. As Homer clearly states in the very beginning of the Iliad ‘Διός δ’ ετελείετο βουλή’ (the will of Zeus/Deus was taking place).
Odysseus ends up threatening Thersites with public humiliation and stripping (‘ἀπὸ μὲν φίλα εἵματα δύσω, χλαῖνάν τ᾽ ἠδὲ χιτῶνα, τά τ᾽ αἰδῶ ἀμφικαλύπτει’). Indirectly, we are informed that the non-covering of the genitals (‘αἰδοῖα’) in public view was considered an act of great shame among the Achaeans. He also threats him with physical violence/beating. In fact, immediately after finishing his speech, he does strike Thersites’ shoulders with his sceptre. We are allowed to interpret that nudity in a polity, as a social behavior, would not conform much with the Homeric ideals.
Odysseus calls Thersites ‘αφραίνοντα’ (‘without wisdom/prudence’) for all he does. Therefore, what Homer teaches here is that injudiciousness/nonsensicalness, i.e. unwise and imprudent acts, must not only be condemned by the individual, but also from the polity. The polity should act in the direction of preventing the emergence of such acts, even if this means the use of violence.
Once Thersites was beaten, he ‘cowered down’ sniffling, watched around him with embarassement/awkwardly, and then sat down.
Homer places every Achaean saying to his neighbour that what Odysseus did to Thersites was ‘μέγ᾽ ἄριστον’ (‘great and excellent’) among the Argives. And what he did? ‘τὸν λωβητῆρα ἐπεσβόλον ἔσχ᾽ ἀγοράων’, i.e. ‘he prevented the loose-tongued/foul-mouthed from speaking’. But the impressive thing is that before saying this, they remember all the past deeds and behavior of Odysseus. And then, in their mental perception scale, what he did to Thersites is judged as superior to anything he has done before!
Why? Because ‘Thersites-like’ behavior is a poison that when diffuses inside a polity, destroys it. Homer presents his Argives to care for the whole of the polity and not for the individual self. While it is very important to promote exemplaries, model personalities and paragons of virtue, it is equally, or even more, important to prevent the downward distortion of the polity’s civilians in its very beginning. If a polity showily rejected the unwise/imprudent (the ‘Thersites-like’ people), then they would remain isolated, in their corner, furthermore receiving the mocking of all the rest.
Research-Analysis for NovoScriptorium: P.D.K.