SOME GREEK TERMS
important to the understanding of Homer
Arete is often translated "virtue," but this English word is more abstract and suggests to us a
Judaic-Christian ethic which is of course alien to the classical Greeks. "Excellence" is better, or
"worth." Arete conveys in one word the combination of qualities for which a Homeric hero is
admired: physical strength, courage, daring, and above all success in battle.
Time is the honor or recognition which the hero expects to receive in proportion to his "worth" (arete). The word time may be used in a fairly abstract sense, like English "honor;" it may also be used (sometimes in the plural, timai) for the gifts or prizes which are the tokens of honor--for example, the share of booty from a captured city given to each warrior who helped to take that city. The quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in Book I of the Iliad starts when Agamemnon threatens to take Briseis, a captive woman who was given to Achilles when he sacked her town. For Achilles this is an intolerable loss of time.
Kleos is the fame or renown which a hero wins when he accomplishes some great deed, like the killing of a powerful enemy or the sacking of a city. Like time, it has both an abstract sense--something like English "glory"--and a more concrete sense, for it is based in the first place on what is reported and can only survive if people, and especially poets, continue to speak or sing of it. To the Homeric heroes, who believe in a dismal and shadowy afterlife for all men, kleos is the closest thing to immortality that a human being can attain. It is thus the ultimate goal of the warrior.
Moira is an individual's "lot" or "portion;" in the distribution of booty in means a share, and in speaking of a person's life as a whole it means his or her destiny. On yet a higher level it is sometimes translated "Fate" and refers to the impersonal and inscrutable forces--beyond the control even of the gods--which impose the ultimate conditions under which men live, in particular the time and manner of one's death.
Aidos is usually translated "shame," but it covers a whole range of emotions, from simple respect to a deep-seated fear of disgrace. In every case, however, it is an emotion which is created by the anticipation of "what people will think" and is based on a sense of one's obligations to family or society. Hector repeatedly says he feels aidos toward the Trojan men and women, whose chief defender he is; and Achilles' friends accuse him of a lack of aidos when he refused to fight in their behalf.
Nemesis is the "righteous indignation" evoked by a lack of aidos in another person. The Trojans--and especially Hector, the hero of aidos--feel nemesis toward Paris when he hangs back from fighting in the war he is chiefly responsible for starting.
Ate is the "blindness," "madness" or" folly" a god can send to punish or harass a mortal. In some cases, it is actually both a punishment and a crime, insofar as it leads the mortal into further wrongdoing. But it may be inflicted for no apparent reason.
This material has been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Monmouth College in
Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Return to Top
Return to Monmouth College Classics Dept. Home Page