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  • Threptra and Invincible Hands:The Father-Son Relationship in Iliad 24
  • Nancy Felson

The Iliad calls what you gratefully give back to the parents who reared you , a shortened form of , which denotes "that system of gêrotrophia whereby sons cared for their parents in old age" (Falkner 1995.12ff.). A warrior who is short-lived, , or has a short fate, an , is unable to bestow it. Both to give back and to raise or nourish, , describe ongoing activities that determine the quality of the recipient's life.1 Their pairing and the semantics of the verb or "to give back," make the expression "to give back " doubly reciprocal. What constitutes may vary over time and place and with a parent's particular needs, but certainly it would include the necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter), as well as the preservation of honor and protection from one's enemies and detractors (cf. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 9.1165a.15-35). According to Plato, one must minister to an aged parent in regard to his property, his person, and his soul (Plato Laws 4.717b-c).2 [End Page 35]

In a number of texts of the archaic period, a gendered division of labor is evident in the rearing of a boy, with maternal care (by mother, nurse, or, in myth proper, various ) ending when he reaches the "measure of youth" (). Then, in his prime (), he embraces the male world, supervised by his father or a surrogate.3 In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter 166 (= 221), for example, Demophoon is being raised () in the megaron. If Demeter, as his nurse, should successfully rear him () "until he reaches the measure of his youth," she will receive the envy of women and ("repayment as a nurse " ). Likewise, in Hesiod's Myth of the Five Races, silver-age sons are raised () at their mothers' sides, within the household, for a hundred years; "but when they come of age and reach the measure of manhood," they live just a little (Works and Days 130-33). In the Odyssey, Telemachus is in danger of experiencing a prolonged childhood at the side of his mother and his nurse Eurycleia; but the goddess Athena (as Mentes) intervenes, and he embarks, somewhat late, on his maturation journey. During that period away from home, father surrogates contribute to his ongoing maturation and then, once he returns to Ithaca, his own father oversees him. In general, a father's supervision of his son, either directly or through a surrogate, seems to continue all through , at least in theory, until the son marries and establishes a household of his own or inherits the patrimony upon his father's death.

In the representation of masculinity in Homeric epic, a crucial ingredient for a positive father-son dynamic is the father's act of sharing center stage with his son, especially a son who is in his prime (). A gentle, loving father shows the youth how to perform male activities, as Nestor guides Antilochus in chariot racing (Il. 23.306-48), Athena-Mentes (and then Athena-Mentor) instructs the young Telemachus in the Telemachy, and Peleus advises Achilles with his parting words (Il. 9.254-59). Conversely, [End Page 36] in the negative pattern, a hostile or egocentric father tends to neglect his son's education, take a young woman for himself, and even curse his son to sterility, like Amyntor in Phoenix's autobiography (Il. 9.445-77). A hostile father invokes his son's hatred and desire for revenge, while a nurtured son yearns to repay his parent's loving care.

The term itself occurs twice in the Iliad, both times in abbreviated "obituaries" that contain the same formula (Il. 4.477-79 = 17.301-03):

    Nor could hepay back nurturance to his dear parents; he was short-  lived,conquered beneath the spear of high-hearted Ajax.4

Two victims of Telemonian Ajax, Simoeisius at 4.477-79 and Hippothous at 17.301-03, have this destiny, both struck down in their prime. Hector, who is also "short-lived" (15.612ff.), nearly falls victim to Telemonian Ajax at 14.418-20, but soon gets his wind back (14.436, 15.240 and...


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