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The first seven lines of the Iliad are:

Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι· Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή·
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

I ran across an interpretation that was new to me, which was to read line 6 as modifying "Μῆνιν ἄειδε," so that the muse is being asked to start the story from a certain point in time. This is in a short translation by Hartsock of a few passages, https://exchanges.uiowa.edu/issues/traces/iliad/ (Her translation has some odd features, like the use of homophones for the sake of being homophones. See her translator's note.)

Menace – sing to us, goddess, the menacing rage of Achilles, son of
Peleus, that rained a thousand agonies down on the Achaeans, and sent
so many noble souls of heroes down to Hades, and delivered to those
noisy crows and dogs the spoils of their bodies.

And thus the will of Zeus was, as usual, fulfilled.

Start your song here, when they first stood apart in their quarreling:
the son of Atreus, lord of men, and shining Achilles.

On the other hand, Butler has:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

So here this line is taken to be a description of when Zeus's plans begin to be fulfilled. Stanley is similar, although he takes it as a description of when the plan was "decreed."

Chapman has this:

To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son.

This is pretty similar to Butler in that it refers back to Zeus's plan rather than the muse's song, but it eliminates the reference to a point in time and instead translates ἐξ οὗ as "from whom."

Yet another interpretation by Cowper:

And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.

So here, the "from" is only incidentally about time, doesn't relate to Zeus or the muse, and is simply a causal connection, saying that the interpersonal dispute was the cause of the woes. Pope gives a similar time-and-cause interpretation, but more explicitly connects the strife to both the woe and Zeus's plan.

These all seem to be variations on the same theme, except for Hartsock, whose interpretation is completely different. Is there anything that can be said objectively about the meaning of the text?

I have a hard time understanding all the nuances of many of the little particles in Homer, but it seems to me that if δὴ here means "truly" or "indeed," then it's hard to reconcile that with Hartsock's reading. It makes more sense to say, "Truly his fate was sealed when he started drinking alone..." than "Truly, start singing Happy Birthday from the second bar..." However, the commentary by Anthon says that here δὴ means "a precise point of time."

Logically, I don't see the need for line 6 under Hartsock's interpretation. In her interpretation, the poet is saying, "Sing about the rage of Achilles [which had these results according to Zeus's plan]. Sing starting when the rage began." This is sort of redundant. We're leaping into the story in the middle, so it makes sense in a preamble to explain why we didn't start earlier, at the logical beginning, with Helen's abduction. But if we've already asked the Muse to sing to us about the rage, then it's redundant to say that we can't start earlier than the rage began.

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  • Can you explain what you mean by the last sentence about δή (why it's harder to reconcile with Hartsock's reading)?
    – TKR
    Dec 5 '21 at 18:36
  • @TKR: I make some edits. Thanks for prodding me to clarify.
    – user3597
    Dec 5 '21 at 18:50
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There seem to be three possible options for syntactically connecting the ἐξ οὗ δή clause to what precedes:

  1. connecting to ἄειδε (Hartsock): "Sing the wrath ... [long relative clause, and parenthetical "Zeus's will was being accomplished"] ... starting from the time when"

  2. connecting to προΐαψεν and τεῦχε (Cowper, Anthon in the commentary you link): "Sing the wrath, which hurled heroes to Hades and made them food for dogs [parenthetical "Zeus's will was being accomplished"] from the time when"

  3. connecting to ἐτελείετο (Butler etc.): "Sing the wrath which hurled heroes to Hades and made them food for dogs; and Zeus's will was being accomplished from the time when"

(Chapman's reading is different from all of these, but isn't a possible literal interpretation of the Greek, since you can't say "Zeus from whom they first quarreled"; like many older translations, Chapman's is generally pretty loose.)

I don't see any grammatical grounds for choosing between these. One could argue that Homer's sentences are generally short and syntactically simple, which might lead you to prefer 3 to 2 and 2 to 1. But this argument may not carry much weight in a proem -- it seems plausible that the introduction to a poem would have been more complex than normal narration (especially if it was memorized rather than improvised).

δή also doesn't seem to help us much here. The pragmatic meanings of δή are an involved question which deserves its own discussion, but the "truly, indeed" gloss that dictionaries typically provide barely gets at the function of this particle. In a nutshell, δή often marks information as being in some way shared between the speaker and the addressee. Translating "as you know" would be much too clunky and won't work well in many contexts, but it gets at some part of the meaning. In this case "from that well-known event when Achilles and Agamemnon quarreled" is again a wild overtranslation but may capture what δή is doing. That seems to fit equally well with all three readings.

An argument for Hartsock's reading (which is not original to her, though I don't have other references at hand) is that it may have been traditional when beginning an epic recitation to "instruct" the Muse where to begin. When you're selecting a particular episode from a vast cycle of mythology, it makes sense to tell your listeners where you're going to start. The last line of the proem of the Odyssey is

τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.
"Of these things starting wherever you wish, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak to us also."

This is less precise than the Iliad case (in keeping with the looser narrative structure of the Odyssey?), but may serve as a parallel.

The ἐξ οὗ δή clause actually seems more informative to me under reading 1 than under readings 2-3. "Sing of the rage of Achilles" doesn't in itself specify a starting point -- you could imagine beginning that episode earlier or later than the point Homer chooses (e.g. with the capture of Chryseis, or with Achilles already sulking in his tent). Under this reading line 1 gives us the theme of the poem, and lines 6-7 set the scene for the narrative proper. But in readings 2-3 the lines seem rather unnecessary and arguably weaken the proem -- what would be lost if they were omitted, or why do we particularly need to be told a starting point for when Zeus's plan was being accomplished or for when heroes began being cast down to Hades?

So to sum up, there seems to be no grammatical reason to reject Hartsock's reading, and some good (though not necessarily conclusive) reasons to adopt it.

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I always understood these verses according to Hartsock's reading and really like TKR's comprehensive analysis of the syntactical choices and links to the Iliad, but want to supplement it with some discussion of the semantic, literary, and discourse issues involved.

I looked up ἐξ οὗ in a couple of dictionaries and found conflicting translations that both cite the verse in question.

The LSJ says: "II. [select] OF TIME, elliptic with Pron. relat. and demonstr., ἐξ οὗ [χρόνου] since, Il.1.6, Od.2.27, etc." The translation "since" seems to match the second citation, but not Hartsock's rendering of the first.

Cunliffe's A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect, p. 301, has under entry (II)(9)(b) of the second ὅς the following: "ἐξ οὗ. (α) From the time when, since (cf. ἐκ (II)(12)(a)): ἐξ οὖ διαστἠτην (taking up the tale from the point when...)." Cunliff seems to side with Harstock's rendering, though allows for the translation of ἐξ οὗ as "since" that applies to Od.2.27.

In siding between these two, we can look at the facts portrayed in the Iliad itself and the probable meaning of δὴ τὰ πρῶτα.

Bonifazi has an excellent treatment of Greek particles and address in several places. With superlatives, she gives the meaning of "very" as an intensifier, such as in Odyssey 16.468-469:

ὡμήρησε δέ μοι παρ’ ἑταίρων ἄγγελος ὠκύς, | κῆρυξ, | ὃς δὴ πρῶτος ἔπος σῇ μητρὶ ἔειπεν.

She translates this as:

"There joined me a quick messenger from among your friends, a herald, who as the very first gave word to your mother."

In the Iliad verse in question, the probably meaning of δὴ τὰ πρῶτα is then "the very first."

Looking at the poem, the woes of the Greeks do not start from the very first when Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel, eliminating this as the literary intent. While you could say that Zeus's will was being accomplished from the very first of the quarrel, this fact is effectively denied in the next verse, which blames Apollo as the son of Zeus and Leto for causing the quarrel. That leaves the Muse's song as the only thing that can qualify as starting from the very first of the quarrel.

If you can compare the first seven lines of the Iliad with the first lines of the Odyssey, they both are portrayed as invocations between the performer and the muse. The audience are by convention mere bystanders, even though they presumably know that the words are really directed at them. Both begin with a one-word statement of their theme, an invocation to the goddess, and then an elaboration couched as a clarification to the goddess about what the "song" should deal with. Both are almost concluded with a mention of another god--Hyperion in the Odyssey and Zeus in the Iliad--to reinforce that all human activities must take the gods into consideration. This is like how we use "God willing," "Deo volente" or "In sha'a Allah," as parentheticals.

After the mention of the gods' interference with mortal plans, the substance of the invocations are over, presenting three literary problems. (1) The audience expects a formal conclusion to the invocation, not just an abrupt stop. (2) The conversation between the performer and the goddess much switch to a conversation between the goddess acting through the performer and the audience. (3) There needs to be a smooth transition to the start of the story proper.

The Odyssey does number (1) by ending with a verse echoing three of the words used in line 1, signaling a ring composition that tells the audience the performer is wrapping up in the invocation. It does number (2) by switching the word μοι used in the first verse to ἡμῖν in the last verse to make the audience wake up and realize that they are now about to be addressed. It does number 3 by looking back with the vague word τῶν and the repeated words, but looking forward with a more specific request to the goddess about where to start (from some place or other), even signaling that the story will begin in medias res.

The Iliad, on the other hand, does number (1) by using οὗ as a vague word to look back with a syntactically subordinate clause that is meant to match up with the first verse, embracing in a "ring" everything in between. If we assume that such an invocation was conventional, then most of the content in lines 2-5 can be seen merely as part of the clause introduced by ἣ, leaving the request to the goddess hanging out their in the consciousness all that time.

We say that Homeric Greek has a general simple structure, but I think it is better to say that it has a flat structure, leaving clauses with more independence than they have in most modern European languages with their more hypotactic structure. That leaves οὗ free to link up with the thematically most prominent verb in the invocation, which is ἄειδε, and strongly signal to the audience that the invocation is wrapping up.

Furthermore, the Iliad delays accomplishing number (2) above by first attending to number (3) and setting up exactly where the story proper will begin, It does this by telling the goddess exactly where she is supposed to start (from the very first of the quarrel). This is quite like how Homer generally sets up direct speech.

The Iliad then accomplishes number (2) in verse 8 by starting with a startling question: "Who of the God's is responsible for the quarrel?" This is particularly apt coming from the mouth of the goddess, who will be more concerned with the actions of fellow gods than those of mortals. The audience can confirm that they are now being addressed directly because of the particle τε in τίς τ᾽ ἄρ. If I understand Bonafazi correctly, this particle signals to the audience that this is content shared outside of the text, mostly through shared cultural memory. The ἄρ brings forward the circumstance just mentioned as being the background for the statement that is to follow. The two particles act to "toss the baton" from the performer's voice to the voice of the muse. The phrase could be understood as saying something like: "Who then, as we all know...." I imagine the performer looking to the sky for the first seven lines and then dramatically facing the audience with this question, as he now speaks with the voice of the goddess.

In summary, using ἐξ οὗ gives the poet a way to signal the audience that the invocation to the goddess is closing and the story aimed at them is beginning.

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  • Lots of interesting points in this answer! Btw I think you wrote Iliad in a couple of places where you meant Odyssey. On τ' άρ it's worth checking out Joshua Katz's article "Epic Adventures of an Unknown Particle" (on phone so hard to link atm).
    – TKR
    Dec 10 '21 at 1:03
  • Thanks for pointing out the mixup and for your other comments. I have tried to make the appropriate edits and make it clearer which poem I am describing. Dec 10 '21 at 2:48
  • Here's the Katz article; he argues (following Watkins and West) that there is no τε or ἄρ in τίς τ᾽ ἄρ, but that it's a single particle ταρ: dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1426953
    – TKR
    Dec 10 '21 at 4:42

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