Book Review: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours
by Gregory Nagy
The Belknap Press, 2013
Gregory Nagy is the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature at Harvard, where he’s also a professor of comparative literature, and he’s also the director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D. C. In other words, he’s been teaching things to people pretty much since he learned how to dress himself and stand upright. This is, obviously, a grievous handicap, and the marks of it are everywhere to be seen in Nagy’s massive new book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Not only is the thing littered with the terminology of the classroom (“as I’ve already mentioned,” “as you’ll remember from our last time,” or, in asides that look longingly but in vain for slides projected up on the wall for the auditorium, “as we can see in this image …”), not only is it sectioned and cross-sectioned into the ground (every paragraph is numbered!) in order to help sweat-shirted Tucker and glitter-cheeked Ariel tag along through the grit of their hangovers, but … and you must steel yourself here … there are dozens and dozens of footnotes in ancient Greek. The whole thing is hands-down the most forbidding, most recondite, most abstruse, and just plain strangest volume the Belknap Press published in 2013. Apart from Professor Nagy’s legion of present and former students, it’s hard to imagine the dreamt-of audience for this book. Virginia Woolf’s proverbial ‘common reader,’ spotting those footnote blocks of Greek, would drop the thing as though it were a curling adder.
This is a shame – there’s immense learning in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours and immense enthusiasm too – and since we can assume the good professor is too busy to be a diva, the blame must fall on the Belknap editors, who balked at the admittedly large but manageable task of pruning this text into something more readable and instead passed along a 700-page behemoth with numbered paragraphs.
Even so, there’s a vital subject at the heart of the book – more vital perhaps now than ever, since the concept of the ‘hero’ has been so overused and distorted in the 21st century that it scarcely has any meaning anymore, applying equally to Armed Services employees working in an accounting office in Qatar and elementary school teachers doing what they’d be fired if they didn’t do. Nagy exuberantly reminds his readers that heroes – mortal strivers against fate, against monsters, and, as we’ll see, against death itself – form the heart of Greek literature, the vital counterweight to the gaudy gods and goddesses who so often steal the limelight. He surveys the incredible feast of Greek literature from Homer and Hesiod to the tragedians (his extended analysis of Eurpides’ Hippolytus, for instance, is a wondrous highlight of the book’s final marches) and overlays on top of that feast a neat but thin conceit of ‘hours’ characterized by certain ancient Greek concepts like Kleos Memnemai, Akhos, Penthos, and Aphthito.
The comprehensiveness of his coverage allows him to bring in every variation on the Greek hero, from the wily Theseus to the brawny Hercules to the “monolithic” Achilles to the valiantly conflicted Oedipus, and that same sweep puts him in a perfect position to spot the linking factors and expound on them, including the most central one of all:
Mortality is the dominant theme in the stories of ancient Greek heroes, and the Iliad and the Odyssey are no exceptions. Mortality is the burning question for the heroes of these epics, and for Achilles and Odysseus in particular. The human condition of mortality, with all its ordeals, defines heroic life itself. The certainty that one day you will die makes you human, distinct from animals who are unaware of their future death, and from the immortal gods. All the ordeals of the human condition culminate in the ultimate ordeal of a warrior hero’s death in battle, detailed in all its ghastly varieties by the poetry of the Iliad.
In fact, once you get over the bizarre formatting of so much of the book (the academic-outline look of the pages had me half-expecting student-scrawled marginalia like “Hector = fate” or “Perseus rawks!”), the copious amounts of expounding going on here takes on a soothing, fascinating quality that made me very much want to sit in on one of the professor’s lectures. Even when his interpretations are deeply suspect (generally, they get shakier the farther he gets from Homer), they’re also deeply thought-provoking, as when he discusses the death of another kind of Greek hero, Socrates:
Here at the end of the Phaedo, Socrates says: sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios. As we say in Hour 20, ths hero was the son of Apollo, and he had special powers of healing. Asklepios also had the power of bringing the dead back to life. Some interpret the final instruction of Socrates to mean simply that death is a cure for life. I disagree. After sacrificing a rooster at day’s end, sacrificers will sleep the sleep of incubation and then, the morning after the sacrifice, they will wake up to hear other roosters crowing. So Asklepios is the model for keeping the voice of the rooster alive. And, for Socrates, Asklepios can become the model for keeping the word alive.
“That living word is dialogue,” Nagy writes. “We saw it when Socrates says that the only thing worth crying about is the death of the word.” That word is alive and well in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours; if you’re a fan of Greek mythology (as who in their right mind is not?), you should consider strapping on your intellectual spelunking helmet and delving into this ivory tower of a book.