Ἀχαιοί, Ἀργεῖοι, Δαναοί: Revisiting the system of denomination of the Greeks in the Homeric epics

Androniki Oikonomaki

Persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:OikonomakiA.Achaioi_Argeioi_Danaoi.2018

My aim in this project is to examine the system of the denomination of the Greeks within the epic’s plot from a contextual point of view and call into question the general assumption of a haphazard use of the three terms in the Homeric epics. The question if the poet uses the three ethnic names simply as metrical equivalents and formulaic variants or as differentiated terms within the epic context is seeking an answer. Gladstone had already discussed it as early as 1858 and Miller (2014, 109-115) discusses briefly the use of the three names in their context examining the case of Achilles and concluding that the early epic tradition was aware of the technical distinction between these terms. However, recent archaeological and epigraphical finds along with new narratological approaches to the Homeric epics bring the issue back again.

Methodologically, I started with the detailed and systematic recording of all the references of the three names in the Iliad and the Odyssey creating a database. The detailed recording of these names in regard to the context, namely the use of the epithets ascribed to each term, the unique expressions and formulas, the similes related to the three names, the classification of all the speakers in different categories (poet, gods, heroes, men or women) may outline the function of the “ethnic” names. At this point I have worked only with a part of these results, but this statistical analysis could provide further information and shed more light on this topic.

Given that the poet applies these collective terms to ethnic groups, either historical or fictional, a brief examination of the historical background is needed for exploring the contextualization of collective identity, which is partly, within the universe of epic diction, audience-determined. The Homeric poems undoubtedly preserve memories of an earlier age and they are our earliest testimony for these ethnic collective terms, as no Linear B tablets preserve any of these names. This epic invention can probably be explained as a part of the emergence of the Greek ethnicity and the upcoming formation of ethnic identity in the eighth century BCE. Within this “ethnogenesis process” these ethnic names along with other collective terms, as Panhellênes and Panachaioi, were created possibly to describe the Greek-speaking population of the Hellenic world. The context of the Iliad, in which the Greek ethnic groups were participating in a war against Troy, was the ideal literary background for the formation of a common ethnic identity as a combination of tribal and local identities. These ethnonyms could trace back to the Late Bronze Age as relics of a much earlier period, which the poet adapted to his imaginary heroic world. Many scholars associate the Homeric Achaeans with the Ahhiyawans mentioned in the Hittite tablets and recent studies may elucidate the Ahhiyawa hypothesis due to the new archaeological finds and the decipherment of Hieroglyphic Luwian inscriptions. In the West Anatolian coast already in the Late Bronze Age local legendary stories based on a mythical ancestral Anatolian or Mycenaean past were being used in a process of the establishment of local identities. These stories may have survived in the social collective memory until the re-settlement of the coast (1050 BCE) by Greek-speakers.

In the Homeric epics the term Achaeans may denote a tribe in Thessaly, the Greek army in Troy or the inhabitants of different Greek regions and the poet uses the term Ἄργος Ἀχαιϊκὸν to denote the whole of Greece. As for the name Argeioi is the only term of the three that refers to a specific toponym, although Argos may denote the city of Argos, the broader region of the Argive plain and finally southern Greece. But, mostly, as Drews (1979) suggests, the Iliadic Argos must be taken as a term for the ‘heroic Greece’, the place of origin of the warriors who participated in the Trojan War.  Finally, Danaoi, the most puzzling of the three terms, occurs only as a noun in the plural and it refers always to the Greeks in general, but it does not correlate with any specific city or region in the Greek world. However, a monumental hieroglyphic inscription of c. 1390-1352 BCE found in the Egyptian Thebes mentions the word Danaja (tnjw) as a region of political significance for Egypt and probably places the Danajan Empire in the plain of Argos.

In the Homeric epics although it is not always easy to discern their different use and function within the text and sometimes overlap each other, it seems that Achaioi, Danaoi, and Argeioi are not identical terms and the poet sometimes intentionally ascribes to each term different qualities in a different context in order to produce meaning. The detailed recording allows us to contextualize the use of these terms in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Iliad the Greeks are presented as a coherent group of warriors with common language, who share a heroic past and show their virtue following a code of decision making and acting according to specific heroic deeds. Interestingly, the poet emphasizes the language differentiation and heterogeneity of the Trojans and their allies and there is not a similar ethnic name to encompass all the enemies, even though all the non-Greek fighting allies of the Trojans are represented by the term ἐπίκουροι, “fighters alongside” and sometimes Trojans and Dardanians appear to be synonymous terms. This deliberate differentiation between Greeks and Trojans probably reveals a poet’s intention to construct ideologically “Greekness” in contrast with the ‘otherness’. We can observe this contrast between the Trojan praise culture with its private and poetic speech which is focusing on oikos, and the Achaean blame culture with its public speech where the city is predominant.

Along with this ethnic identity, the poet possibly intends to create a poetic identity for each of these groups of people ascribing to them separate functions and connotations. In the Odyssey the more general unmarked term Achaioi denotes not only the warriors of the Iliadic past, but also the population of specific Greek regions of the Odyssean present, as Ithaka, Argos, Iason Argos, Zakynthos, and Crete. In the ‘peaceful’ world of Odyssey, where the war is a memory, Danaoi and Argeioi signify the besiegers of Troy, since they are never acting characters, but rather the people of a distant past and the poet incorporates them in the stories about the Trojan War as part of the narration, of the speeches of heroes, and of songs.

In this contextual approach we could not overlook the significance of the formulaic diction in the Homeric epics. The ethnic names are often combined with specific epithets usually in the noun-epithet type of Homeric formula. Interestingly, the term Argeioi is almost never accompanied by epithets. The rare epithet ἰόμωροι (Iliad IV 242, XIV 479) as an exclusive epithet of the Argives and the formulaic expression αἰδὼς Ἀργεῖοι can be explained within the context of ‘blame-culture’, in which the Greek heroes “constantly contend for excellence by insulting one another and competing for the title ‘best of the Achaeans’”.

The very few epithets of the Danaans in the Iliad emphasize their warlike character as skillful close-fighters, while their most common exclusive epithet ταχύπωλοι reveals probably an intentional connection with the Trojans, who are also presented as ἱππόδαμοι and their city as εὔπωλον. The Δαναοὶ are also characterized as μάκαρες (an epithet usually related to the gods) because of their glorious death in the battlefield which gave them the immortal kleos, in the context of Odyssey, where the field of their glory is already part of the epic narration and songs.

If the names Danaoi and Argeioi have warlike connotations, the name Achaioi acquires a more general meaning. Achaioi from the very beginning of the poem are connected with the main topic and the central hero of the Iliad. The personified cursed wrath of Achilles, cause of much pain (ἄλγεα) for the Achaioi, relates them to the Homeric akhos of which algos is a formulaic complement. Accordingly, Achilles, the only human who inflicts ἄλγεα upon humans, will later ascribe to himself the title of the best of the Achaeans. The Achaeans as a ‘quasi-generic term’ open the epic poem as the people devastated by Achilles’ anger and also close it as epic warriors, accompanied by their typical warlike epithet ἐϋκνήμιδες.

In addition to their warlike epithets, the Achaeans are also presented as κάρη κομόωντες and ἑλίκωπες, two epithets focusing on external characteristics with possible ethnic connotations. Moreover, only the Achaeans are named κούρητες, a term with tribal or ritual connotations, which evokes the Κουρῆτες in the story of Meleager, a narrative which reflects the poetics of the Iliad.  Other formulaic expressions as κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν and υἷες Ἀχαιῶν are used to denote the young warriors who are responsible for the continuity of the ancestral glory. The epic poet presents Panachaioi as responsible in the Odyssey for the construction of the hypothetical tomb of Odysseus as a tangible proof of his kleos at the war. Similarly, in the Iliad the formulaic expression ἀριστῆες Παναχαιῶν  indicates a close connection of Panachaioi with the heroic deeds and the aristeia of the best of the Achaeans.  The poet links the Panachaioi in the Iliad, where the warriors are about to gain their glory by fighting, with kudos, while in the Odyssey, where the war is over and kudos must have been already gained, associates them with kleos, the commemoration of their glory through the speeches of the heroes and the epic songs.

To sum up, the terms Achaioi, Argeioi, and Danaoi certainly have a historical and mythological background of which the poet is fully or partly aware. Their place of origin, their legendary ancestors, and their wars, travels, and settlements not only within the borders of the Greek world but also out of them, in Anatolia and eastern Mediterranean, have survived as communal memory and probably many elements within the poems are preserved as relics of this history and myths. These memories partly explain why he poet uses three separate terms as ethnic collective names for the Greeks in an early period of identity construction, in which the existence of different local identities and legendary ancestors are combined with the emerging ethnic identity. The first results of this study show that the poet decided to ascribe a different meaning to each term regarding to the particular context and to the broader scope of each poem and to create not only an ethnic but also a literary identity for each of these groups.

Selected Bibliography

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Bryce, T. 2006. The Trojans and Their Neighbours. London.

Cartledge, P. 1993. The Greeks. A Portrait of Self and Others. Oxford.

Cook, E. F. 2003. “Agamemnon’s Test of the Army in Iliad Book 2 and the Function of Homeric akhos.” AJP 124:165–198.

De Jong, I. J. F.  2001. A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge.

Dougherty, C. 2001. The Raft of Odysseus. The Ethnographic Imagination of Homer’s Odyssey. Oxford.

Drews, R. 1979. “Argos and Argives in the Iliad.” Classical Philology 74:111–135.

Finkelberg, M. 1988. “From Ahhiyawa to Ἀχαιοί.” Glotta 66:127–134.

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Thessaloniki, 05/20/2018


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