Words Crush Wednesday – The Homeric Version

Published August 19, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

So last week for Words Crush Wednesday, I started quoting the first time Patroclos actually gets to do something in the Iliad.  (Tragically, he only gets a few chances to really do things, and the biggest one culminates in his death.)  This week, I’ll continue the quote; where I left off, he was running after Nestor’s chariot, to see if the injured party was indeed Machaon the surgeon, son of Asclepios.

So, from Book XI of the Iliad, W.H.D. Rouse translation:

By this time the party had reached Nestor’s hut.  They got out; Eurymedon took out the horses, and the two men stood on the beach to dry the sweat off their garments in the sea-breeze.  Then they went in and sat down, and Hecamede set about making them a posset.  She was a woman from Tenedos, the daughter of Arsinoos; when Achilles sacked the place, she had been chosen as a special prize for old Nestor, in honour of his wisdom and good advice at all times.

Hecamede set before the two men a fine polished table with feet of blue enamel, and put on it a bronze basket, with an onion as a relish for the drink, and pale honey, and ground barley-meal.

Beside them she placed a splendid goblet which the ancient man had brought from home, studded with golden knobbs; it had four ears, and each ear had a pair of doves pecking their food, one on either side.  Under it were two supports.  Another man would hardly move it from the table when it was full, but old Nestor could lift it easily.

In this goblet the woman mixed them a posset with Pramnian wine, grating in goat’s cheese with a grater of bronze, and sprinkled over it white barley-meal.  Then she invited them to drink of her posset.  So they drank, and slaked their parching thirst.

Well, that turned out to be so long that we’ll have to get back to Patroclos last week, ’cause I have to get down to campus and get my parking pass (not to mention pay my tuition!) and buy my books.

But that was quite a glimpse into a disappeared material culture, wasn’t it?  Whether some of the verses were inherited from older times and reflect Mycenaean realities or (far more likely) they reflect the Archaic Age in which the Iliad was composed, one thing is for sure:  if I ever time travel to ancient Pylos, I do not want to sample Nestor’s hospitality.  Eeew.

Oh, and according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

posset:  (noun)  a hot drink of sweetened and spiced milk curdled with ale or wine.  Origin Middle English poshet, possot.  First use:  15th century.

Since I didn’t know the word, I thought there was a chance others also wouldn’t know it, either, and thought I’d share the definition.

Anyway, disgustingness of their post-battle drink aside, the really telling part of this quote is Hecamede herself.  Nestor, too old to fight, is one of the first kings awarded a concubine.  (Tenedos, for those less familiar with the story, is an island off the coast.  They sacked it before actually arriving at Troy, and after Achilles’ death, during the Trojan Horse ploy, they hid the ships behind Tenedos so the Trojans wouldn’t see them.)   This throws a very sharp relief on the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, especially given the way the text goes out of its way to point out how early she was obtained, and by whose spear the city was taken.  (A further point is that the king of Tenedos, Tennes, was a son of Apollo, and many versions describe Apollo’s desire to slay Achilles personally as being at least in part as vengeance for Tennes.  So her presence doesn’t just recall the quarrel, but also what’s at stake for Achilles beyond his pride:  his very life.)  I’m sure entire essays have been written just on Hecamede and what she indicates about the quarrel over Briseis.  (And if there haven’t, then why not?!  Get with the program, classicists!)


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