The Anger of Achilles: Menis in Greek Epic

The Anger of Achilles: Menis in Greek Epic

The Anger of Achilles: Menis in Greek Epic

The Anger of Achilles: Menis in Greek Epic

Synopsis

Leonard Muellner's goal is to restore the Greek word for the anger of Achilles, menis, to its social, mythical, and poetic contexts. His point of departure is the anthropology of emotions. He believes that notions of anger vary between cultures and that the particular meaning of a word such as menis needs to emerge from a close study of Greek epic. Menis means more than an individual's emotional response. On the basis of the epic exemplifications of the word, Muellner defines the term as a cosmic sanction against behavior that violates the most basic rules of human society. To understand the way menis functions, Mueller stresses both the power and the danger that accrue to a person who violates such rules. Transgressive behavior has both a creative and a destructive aspect.

Excerpt

The Anger of Achilles, Mē + ̂nis in Greek Epic, by Leonard Muellner, seeks to redefine mē + ̂nis, the first word of the Homeric Iliad. When Homer prays to his own Muse to sing the mē + ̂nis of Achilles son of Peleus, he sets in motion the entire story, invoking the driving theme and heading relentlessly toward the inevitable conclusion and self-realization of the story. The subject of the Iliad is mē + ̂nis. Conventionally translated as 'anger' or 'wrath', mē + ̂nis means much more. The fulfillment of the word's meaning is the teleology of the story. To understand the meaning of the Iliad, Muellner argues, is to follow the sequence of the narration, starting with the word mē + ̂nis: getting the meaning right is getting the sequence right.

The semiotic system reconstructed by Muellner as he traces the meaning of mē + ̂nis through the Iliad turns out to be typical of oral traditions. From the experience of fieldwork in living oral traditions it has become clear that meaning is ultimately determined by the rules of performance. The essence of meaning in oral traditions--to restate the formulation of Albert B. Lord--is that the process of composition takes place in performance. As Muellner sees it, the actual performing of mē + ̂nis as the first word of the Iliad drives the meaning of the entire composition. The interpretive power of Muellner's insight, in all its simplicity, is astonishing. His book rebuilds the ancient listener's cognitive process of understanding a story through its sequence.

Perhaps even more astonishing is Muellner's discovery that the patterning of mē + ̂nis in the Homeric Iliad is matched in the Hesiodic Theogony. In addition to striking parallels between the contexts of mē + ̂nis in Homer and Hesiod, he even finds an interlocking of narratives, which works both . . .

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