Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature

By Douglas L. Cairns | Go to book overview

I
Aidōs in Homer

In Homer the range over which aidōs is employed is at its widest, and to a great extent the subsequent history of the concept is one of refinement of its uses and diminution of its prominence. Syntactically, however, the usage of the verb aideomai is at its simplest in Homeric epic: it is followed by only two constructions, either governing an object in the accusative (which is always a personal object)1 or being followed by a prolative infinitive.

The essential, inhibitory nature of aidōs in Homer is immediately indicated by the operation of the verb, aideomai, with the infinitive. At Iliad 7. 93 the reaction of the Greeks to Hector's challenge to single combat is reported: 'they felt aidōs to refuse, but feared to accept.'2 Similarly, Telemachus explains, speaking of his mother, 'I feel aidōs to pursue her against her will from the house under compulsion.'3 In both these passages aidōs is inhibitory, it prevents the performance of the action expressed in the infinitive.4aidōs thus involves a check of some kind; it modifies the conduct of those affected.5 Its restrictive nature is recognized in those few passages in which its abandonment is advised. At Odyssey 3.14, Athena, urging outspokenness on the youthful Telemachus, tells him that he has 'not the slightest need of aidōs; later, at line 96 of the same book (= 4.326) it is recognized that aidōs may cause one to keep back information in order to spare another's feelings.6aidōs may also be disadvantageous on certain occasions: its presence in a needy man, such as the beggar Odysseus, is not good,

____________________
1
Thus this object never refers to an action; there is thus no possibility that aideomai could mean 'I am ashamed of x', i.e. of having done x; the verb is always used prospectively in Hom.
2
αἴδεσθεBν μὲν ἀνήνασθαι, δει + ̑σαν δ̓ ὑποδέχθαι.
4
Il. 21.468-9; Od 14.145-6 are similar.
5
For the inhibitory force, cf. Il. 15.657-8: the Greek warriors 'did not scatter throughout the army; aidōs and fear (deos) held them back.' Clearly, then, aidōs operates negatively: it inhibits; see Verdenius ( 1944-5), 47-8, 49 n. 2, 51. Von Erffa's insistence ( 1937:5, 40) that aidōs is positive arises from a confusion of its effects, usually beneficial, and its mode of operation.
6
aidōs of this kind is clearly altruistic; see Scott ( 1980), 25; cf 1.3.4 and 1.7 below.

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