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  • The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic
  • Jenny Strauss Clay
Leonard Muellner . The Anger of Achilles: Mēnis in Greek Epic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. ix + 219 pp. Cloth, $39.95.

At the beginning of Greek literature, and hence the whole classical tradition, stands an enigmatic word: mēnis. Usually translated as "wrath" or "anger," mēnis constitutes the subject of the Iliad, but its precise meaning and implications remain elusive. Muellner's long–awaited study offers a wide–ranging and provocative examination not only of the word itself but of its context and the underlying conceptual universe it presupposes. Observing that words for emotions are not universal and hence must be examined from within a specific cultural milieu, Muellner acknowledges the impasse to which previous semantic and lexicographical studies have led, and he proposes a fresh approach to the study of mēnis within the context of Lord's notions of epic composition by theme. The meaning of mēnis cannot be grasped by focusing narrowly on the individual word, but can only be discovered by examining the thematic complex in which it appears—and even sometimes where it does not appear. Like Nagy and some other scholars, Muellner substantially extends the notion of theme from Lord's "repeated passage with a fair amount of verbal repetition" to a cluster of motifs. (The extension of the "strict" Parryist definition of the formula to the so–called structural formula offers a parallel; at one point Muellner even speaks of "deep structure.") But the thematic complex, whose components may never be exactly the same in its multiple appearances, implies the presence of a unified underlying concept. Muellner's goal is to go "beyond a desire to 'redefine' mēnis" and instead to rebuild "the poetic function of the mēnis theme in the epic tradition" (133).

In the first two chapters he examines the instances of mēnis in Homer, including the Homeric Hymns, but excluding occurrences in the first book of the Iliad and references to the mēnis of Achilles.Mēnis scenes do not contain easily recognizable formulas or formulaic sequences, as for instance in arming scenes or even in larger thematic patterns like "the hero returns." The remarkable variety of contexts in which mēnis appears renders the attempt to discover a common denominator elusive, especially since Muellner begins his investigation obliquely, with a scene in which the word mēnis does not even occur. In the course of his investigation, he offers a series of definitions of the compositional theme of mēnis: it involves "a cosmic sanction . . . a social force whose activation brings drastic consequences on the whole community," and it "is incurred by the breaking of basic religious or social tabus" that lead to the indiscriminate punishment of the whole community or social group (8). Even more abstract is his [End Page 631] statement that mēnis is "the irrevocable cosmic sanction that prohibits some characters from taking their superiors for equals and others for taking their equals for inferiors" (31).

The fundamental rules which govern behavior and whose violation provokes mēnis are the themistes that regulate interaction vertically between hierarchical groups (gods and men) and horizontally between, say, members of the same social group. An easily recognizable category of actions that unleash mēnis occurs when human beings try to act like gods either on the battlefield or by sleeping with goddesses. Likewise the themistes involving hospitality, ransom, supplication, or the treatment of beggars are founded on fundamental notions of status, exchange, and reciprocity, all sanctioned by Zeus. As Muellner summarizes: "when a person dies, or a hero surpasses himself, or a god ignores the rank of another god, or a goddess sleeps with a mortal, or a king rejects an offer of exchange, the value of a person and the continuity of the world is at stake because the hierarchy of persons based on the themistes of exchange is being breached" (51). Yet not all such violations elicit mēnis or indiscriminate punishment. Sometimes nothing happens: for instance, not all rejected supplications provoke mēnis. Leaving the dead unburied is clearly tabu, but Muellner's attempt...


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