LECTURE 2: The "total recall" of heroic song and its emotional power.

1. Key word for today: memnêmai, which means 'I have total recall' in special contexts and 'I remember' in ordinary contexts. The special contexts involve memory by way of song. I will get to the specifics later.

2. In order to understand this kind of memory, let us recall the words that ended the last lecture:

From J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is given a quotation by his teacher: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." The teacher goes on to say: "Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them...if you want to. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry." - emphasis mine.

2a. My emphasis: the idea of "keeping records." When we read the word "history" here, it means generally a record of human memory

2b. We have an interesting way of using the word "record" even in the era when audiocassettes and CD-s have replaced the old vinyl "records." We still say "record store" when we buy cassettes and CD-s. I suspect it is because of the idea of memory inherent in "record."

3. Let us pursue further the concept of "to record, to put on record." In the earliest phases of ancient Greek culture, the process of recording things that must be remembered, of putting things on the record, was not ordinarily done by way of the technology of writing per se. (Writing did not become a widespread technology in ancient Greece till around 550, and even then it was confined to the uppermost strata of society; it started to become widespread only toward the end of the 5th century.) In the Archaic period of Greek history (around 8th c. through 6th c.: for a 5-minute historical sketch, see the appendix from the first lecture), the idea of recording was mostly a matter of memory and of techniques of memory, mnemonics. In this connection, we will study the mentality of total recall.

4. "Total recall" is a special mentality of remembering, of putting things on record, common in traditional societies. In terms of this mentality, to remember is to re-live an experience, including someone else's experience, including even the experiences of heroes in the remote past of the heroic age.

5. But remembering in this song culture requires a special medium, song (which includes poetry, as we saw in the last lecture). Such song, such singing, is an oral tradition.

6. The Homeric Iliad derives from an oral tradition of singing: composition-in-performance. That is, composition is an aspect of performance and vice versa.

7. In this kind of oral tradition, there is no script, since the technology of writing is not required for composition-in-performance.

8. In Homeric poetry, the basic medium of remembering is heroic song or kleos.

The basic unit of Homeric kleos is the dactylic hexameter.

The basic rhythm of this unit is

- u u - u u - u u - u u - u u - -.

Nagy recitation of Iliad 1.1-16.


Over 15,000 of these hexameter lines make up the Iliad.

9. In ancient Greek song culture, the kleos of the Iliad is considered to be a medium of total recall. In Iliad 2.484-486, for example, the Narrator calls onthe Muses, goddesses of memory, to tell him the part of the Troy narrative known as the Catalogue of Ships. The Muses are expected to tell the Narrator exactly, and the Narrator will tell his audience exactly. This part of the Troy narrative catalogues all the important details about which warriors came to Troy in how many ships, and so on; many modern readers get easily bored when they read through the Catalogue, but it was of great cultural interest and importance to the audiences of the Iliad in the Archaic period. So important was the Catalogue that the Narrator needs special powers of memory to get it right. Accordingly, the Narrator prays to the Muses (even though he has already prayed to them at the start of the Iliad), as if he were starting the narration all over again. I give you here my literal translation of Iliad 2.484-486:

  • Tell me, Muses, you who live in your Olympian abodes, since you are goddesses and you were there and you know everything, but we [= the Narrator] only hear the kleos and we know nothing.
  • 9a. The Narrator is saying that he does not have to know anything in order to tell the narrative of the Catalogue: all he has to do is to "hear the kleos." Since the goddesses of memory were there when the heroic actions happened, since they saw and heard everything, they know everything. The Narrator needs to know nothing, experience nothing. To repeat, all he has to do is to "hear the kleos" from the goddesses of memory and then to tell his audience what he hears.

    9b. Despite our first impressions, this is not a modest statement on the part of the Narrator: just the opposite. He is boasting that his brain is directly connected to what the goddesses of memory actually saw and heard. They "tell" his brain what they saw and heard. What he narrates about heroes and even gods is exactly what the Muses saw. What he "quotes" from the spoken words of heroes and even gods is exactly what the Muses heard. The Narrator's mind is supposed to see and hear what the Muses saw and heard. His mind has the power of total recall.

    10. When there is a story-within-a-story, a narrative within the Narrative of the Iliad, then the narrator of that micro-narrative has to reassure his audiences that he has total recall, just like the Narrator of the Iliad. This is what happens when the old hero Phoenix begins to narrate to Achilles and other heroes the story of the earlier hero Meleager, in Iliad 9. Phoenix is telling this story about Meleager because he wants to persuade Achilles to accept the offer of Agamemnon. That is the purpose of this narrator. As we will see later, however, the purpose of the Narrator of the Iliad is another matter: it goes far beyond the purpose of Phoenix.

    11. The story told by Phoenix to Achilles in Scroll 9 of the Iliad is intended as a model for the story about Achilles, which is a story-in-progress. The kleos of predecessors is being set up as a model for the kleos of the main hero of the Iliad. I translate for you literally the introductory words of Phoenix's narrative in Iliad 9.524:

  • 'This is the way we [= I, Phoenix] learned it, the glories [klea] of men who were heroes of old time -- about a time when someone was roused to tempestuous fury...'
  • See Sourcebook I p. 76:

  • 'We [= I, Phoenix] have heard in song the glories [klea] of {this word is missing in the Sourcebook} heroes of old time: how they quarreled when they were roused to fury...'
  • 11a. We need to note in particular the expression klea andrôn, which I have translated as 'glories [= klea = plural of kleos 'glory'] of men'. This is how the heroic song of Homeric poetry refers to itself. In Iliad 9.189, Achilles himself is pictured as singing the klea andrôn in his tent. His only audience seems to be Patroklos. In effect, Achilles seems to be singing to himself.

    In a lecture delivered by the late Albert B. Lord about this medium of heroic song, he singles out the Homeric expression klea andrôn.

    11b. Lord is comparing the ancient Homeric medium of heroic song with media of heroic song that have survived into the twentieth century. Among these survivals is the tradition of heroic song in the South Slavic areas of the Balkans, specifically in the former Yugoslavia. It was two Harvard professors, Milman Parry (died 1935) and Albert Lord (died 1991), who pioneered the systematic study of oral traditions of heroic song in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia and parts of Serbia. Both these scholars were Classicists as well as ethnographers, and their knowledge of Homeric poetry turned out to be a valuable source of comparative insights in their study of the living oral traditions of the South Slavic peoples. For an engaging introduction to the pathfinding research of Parry and Lord, I recommend the well-known book of Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press 1960).

    11c. A case in point is the singer Avdo Medjedovic. One of his compositions, recorded by Milman Parry of Harvard, was about 12,000 lines long.

    11d. What is a "line" here? Avdo's basic medium of remembering: heroic song.

    The basic unit is the heroic decasyllable.

    The basic rhythm of this unit is

    - u - u - u - u - u.

    12. Back to the narrative told by Phoenix… The key word that introduces the narrative of Phoenix is memnêmai, which I translate as 'I have total recall, I totally recall' (in this special kind of context, the noun for the thing recalled takes the accusative case; in ordinary contexts, the noun for the thing recalled takes the genitive case, and in such cases we may translate "I have memories of"). Phoenix uses this word in Iliad 9.527-8 as he starts to narrate a story from the distant heroic past:

  • 'I totally recall [memnêmai] this event of the past--it is not a new thing--and how it happened. You are all near and dear [philoi], and I will tell it in your presence.'
  • In the Sourcebook, I have adopted this translation in place of the wording used by Samuel Butler:

  • 'I have an old story in my mind--a very old one--but you are all friends and I will tell it.'
  • Still, I like the way Butler's rendition captures the idea of "total recall" here: Phoenix has an old story not on his mind but in his mind, as if it were implanted into his brain.

    12a. Phoenix is a hero in the Iliad, which is--from the standpoint of, say, an Athenian audience of the Archaic period--a narrative about the distant heroic past. Phoenix is here the narrator to an audience of other heroes. His narrative-within-a-narrative is about the even more distant heroic past.

    12b. But he is a different narrator from the Narrator of the Iliad: he does not have to invoke the goddesses of memory, the Muses. The Narrator of the Narrative that contains the narrative of Phoenix has already invoked the Muses.

    12c. Phoenix has total recall because he uses the medium of song and his mind is connected to the power source of song; in fact, he has to use song, because he is inside the medium of song. (Remember: he is "speaking" in heroic hexameters, just like the Narrator who "quotes" him.) When Phoenix says memnêmai, he is in effect saying: "I have total recall by means of using the medium of song."

    12d. Similarly, as we have already seen in Lecture 1, kleos means not just glory but glory by means of using the medium of song. This medium is a form of saying in a special way, of special speech.

    13. Notice how Phoenix says that his audience has to be "near and dear" (my translation) or "friends" (Butler's translation): the Greek word is philoi. This qualification is all-important. As we will see in a minute, "total recall" can "work" only if the audience is emotionally connected to the narrator. The key word philos (singular) / philoi (plural) means 'friend' as a noun and 'near and dear' as an adjective.

    13a. The idea of 'dear' in philos shows that this word has an important emotional component. As we will see later, the key to the micro-narrative of Phoenix is to be found in the macro-narrative of the Iliad. As we will also see, the key theme is the power of emotions, and the key character turns out to be someone who is not mentioned a single time in the micro-narrative: Achilles' best friend, the hero Patroklos.

    {I mention, in passing, Richard P. Martin's basic finding in The Language of Heroes (Cornell UP 1989): that narratives within the Narrative of the Iliad contain markers for and about the audiences of the Narrative.}

    13b. A special way of speaking, special speech, marks what is being performed, not just said. Earlier, just a few lines earlier, at Iliad 9.524, Phoenix says (repeat from #11 above):

  • 'This is the way we [= I, Phoenix] learned it, the songs [klea = plural of kleos] about heroes of old time, about a time when someone was roused to tempestuous fury...'
  • The poetry and song of kleos is a performance.

    So, things that we do in everyday ways, like remembering, can be done by way of song in other cultures.

    That is how we get the term song culture.

    14. The narrative that Phoenix "quotes" is another beautiful example of compression (see lecture 1 again). The climax of this compressed narrative will be the words of woman who is crying. Her name is Cleopatra [= Kleopatra].

    Both these videos illustrate the idea that the musical recalling of a memory is the "same thing" as the reliving of an experience, with all its emotions. If you "recall" someone else's experience by way of song or music, then that experience and all its emotions become your own, even if they had not been originally yours.

    14a. In this connection, it is important to consider the meaning of philoi and this word's denoting of emotions:

    {For the moment, we will consider the concept of lamentation simply in terms of crying. The case in point: Cleopatra, a key figure in the Meleager narrative. Later, we will note the parallelism of "Cleopatra" with Patroklos. The hero's actions are swayed by a woman's tears.}

    To repeat: special speech marks what is being performed, not just said. Cleopatra not only cries: she is performing a lament.

    14b. The lament of Cleopatra highlights the emotion of grief. The Meleager narrative explores the combinations and permutations of emotions in a hero, especially grief and anger.

    15. The song culture of "Classical" opera, as we will see later, likewise explores such combinations and permutations of emotions. In this respect, opera derives from the song culture of ancient Greek epic and tragedy.

    16. Let me take a moment to point out some special ways of thinking about emotions in ancient Greek culture.

    16a. As we will see later, the philosopher Aristotle (4th century) is very interested in the contrast of "fear" (phobos) and "pity" (eleos) in his analysis of emotions in tragedy. See Sourcebook II. The English translation "pity" does not quite capture the range of meanings and applications. It is easier if we start thinking of the fear/pity contrast in these terms:


    fear: a feeling of repulsion when you see or hear someone else suffering (that is, you feel like getting far away from that person)


    pity: a feeling of attraction when you see or hear someone else suffering (that is, you feel like getting closer to that person).

  • 16b. When you yourself are suffering, you feel grief. When you feel fear or pity, you are repelled by or attracted to the grief.

    16c. Of course, the emotion of fear goes beyond what you feel about others' grief: you can more basically fear for yourself. But the same basic feeling is at work when you experience fear in reaction to someone else's suffering: you are afraid that something might happen to you that will make you suffer the same way.

    16d. Another point about emotions as explored in song cultures: confusion may be considered an emotion. In opera, for example (as we will see later), confusion is a mixture of other emotions. For example: grief and anger, anger and love, and so on.

    17. In ancient Greek terms: we need to sort out the emotion of pity and the emotion of fear. Compare the film Blade Runner, which is obsessed with both these emotions. An example of both pity and fear: Roy's last words, climaxing in "Time to die."