Nemesis and Tyche
Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, body-shaming, teen-shaming, pet-shaming. In the blogging and book world I have even seen list-shaming recently. There has been an explosion of attempts in the 21st century to shame one another into appropriate behavior via social media. But what do these online exchanges really accomplish? Have they really made us a more moral and ethical society? Or is all of this shaming a badly veiled form of bullying and harassment?
It seems that we have come a very long way from the Homeric concept of shame, aidos, which was a quality a man or woman possessed that was a motivation for him or her to follow what was considered the correct behavior. Aidos is the feeling of shame, humility or modesty that is specifically related to three aspects of Homeric society: situations involving sexuality, the entertainment of guests, and standing one’s ground in battle. This last category especially pertains to the heroes in the Iliad. Aidos, or shame, is what keeps a Homeric hero on the battlefield despite the horrors of warfare. If a man flees from the battlefield due to fear or cowardice he feels great aidos, shame, in front of his fellow warriors. James Redfield in his pivotal book “Nature and Culture in the Iliad” sums up aidos and its impact on the Homeric hero: “Combat is the crucial social act, for in combat the survival of the collectivity is at stake. The aidos felt in battle is an experience of the collectivity; a man stands his ground because he shrinks from betraying his fellows.”
The exemplar of a hero with the most acute sense of aidos in The Iliad is Hector. He goes into fierce battles brought on by his brother because to hide away from war would cause him great aidos. In Book VI of The Iliad, Hector returns home in the midst of fighting the Greeks in order to speak with his wife Andromache and see his infant son Astyanax. In this beautiful yet deeply sad exchange between husband and wife, Andromache begs Hector not to go back into battle and she appeals to his sense of pity to persuade him. She argues that when Hector dies she will be a lonely widow and their son will be a fatherless orphan. Hector greatly pities his beloved wife as he contemplates with horror the aftermath of Troy’s destruction when she will be carried off as a slave to serve in a Greek man’s home. But not even the thought of his wife as a captive will keep him from rejoining the battle. What does keep him fighting and risking his life is his sense of aidos; he will die of shame, he says, if he does not return to battle and has to face the men or women of Troy who will think him a coward who shrinks from battle. As with the concept of kleos, Homeric aidos is deeply rooted within community, something that is dependent on one’s society.
Paris is a flawed Homeric hero, the antithesis to his brother Prince Hector. When Paris is saved from battle by the goddess Aphrodite, he feels no aidos at leaving the battlefield. He is happy to sit in his rooms and drink in Helen’s beauty. Paris’s sense of aidos is never fully developed and his lack of aidos makes him impervious to any nemesis he might incur.
I am disappointed that Logue did not recreate the scene in Book VI between Hector and Andromache because it is one of my favorite parts of the Iliad. Logue does, however, in his account of Iliad Books 3 and 4, approach the subject of Hector’s sense of aidos when the Prince volunteers himself to the Trojans who are trying to decide which man will fight Menelaus one on one. The Trojans say about Hector’s offer:
Hector has fought and fought, has given blood and now—
Breathtaking grace,—offers his life and his armour to end
The hostilities he did not cause.
In this simply stated line, Logue alludes to one of Hector’s primary motivations for fighting a war against men who have not personally wronged him: his sense of aidos. But the Trojans decide that it should be Paris who fights Menelaus since he started this mess in the first place. Logue primarily deals with the Homeric idea of aidos through the character of Paris as an example of how a hero ought not to behave. In Logue’s account, which is faithful to the Homeric plot, Aphrodite swoops in and saves Paris just before Menelaus is able to slaughter him. When Paris reappears back in their palatial bedroom, Helen attempts to persuade Paris to go back out onto the battlefield and fight for her. She is trying to appeal to Paris’s sense of aidos which is futile become he completely lacks this Homeric quality. He is a defective Homeric hero:
Your death will be the best for everyone
Troy will reopen. I shall sail for Greece.
And you will not survive your cowardice.
And later in Logue’s account of Iliad Books 7-9, when the Greeks are beaten back to their ships and suffer horrible loses, the heroes appeal to one another’s sense of aidos to keep them on the battlefield. The Greek men shout to one another:
Stand still and fight.
Feel shame in one another’s eyes.
I curse you, God. You are a liar, God.
Troy will be yours by dark—immortal lies!
There’s no such place!
You can’t launch burning ships.
More men survive if no one runs.
In typical, short burst, hard hitting sentences Logue perfectly captures the Homeric ideal of aidos. Logue’s last line of this quote in particular is reminiscent of Iliad V.531 and XV.563 when the Greeks and Trojans, in the midst of battle, are shouting to each other that when men feel aidos, more of them are likely to be saved in combat than perish. So the Greek heroes’ need for kleos (fame) is what made them follow Agamemnon and Menelaus across the Aegean in the first place, but aidos is what keeps them from fleeing in horror every time they take their places on the battlefield.
The Greek concept of Nemesis, “righteous indignation“ or “retribution” is closely related to aidos. If a man acts improperly then he will incur the nemesis of his community; it is aidos that keeps a man from behaving badly and attracting nemesis. Redfield says about this Homeric concept: “But nemesis is provoked by any act which is both improper and unexpected, ranging from failures of tact to cowardice and betrayal.” The outlandish behavior of the suitors, for instance, evokes nemesis in those who witness their bad manners. Paris’s lack of aidos when he is carried off the battlefield is something that brings out nemesis in Hector who tries to persuade Paris to do the right thing.
I have found Logue’s insertion of nemesis into his poem especially interesting. As Helen appears on the wall at Troy and looks down at the assembled armies, there is a hush over the warriors as they stare at her in awe. And one after the other says about her:
There is some behavior that, while not ideal, is still within the acceptable social norm. Such behavior is considered ou nemesis (ou meaning “no,” “not”). Running from mortal danger (except on the battlefield), for instance, is ou nemesis. I thought for a long time about Logue’s use of this phrase in relation to Helen and I believe it is his way of explaining the unfortunate circumstances under which Helen arrived in Troy. Logue points out that it was Aphrodite that gave Helen to Paris, so Helen herself really can’t be shamed for causing this war that was not entirely her fault. Thus, her situation is ou nemesis, even from a Greek fighter’s standpoint. It’s also interesting to note that if it were not for her, then these heroes would not have this prime opportunity for kleos (fame). So, another reason for ou nemesis.
In my next Logue post I will turn my attention to what, exactly, happens on the battlefield. What makes a fighter or a man excellent? How is honor related to a hero’s excellence?