[b-greek] Re: A Question About PURIHKEA in Homer

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Tue Oct 24 2000 - 09:37:39 EDT

At 10:54 PM -0400 10/23/00, Ilvgrammta@aol.com wrote:
>Dear B-Greekers,
>In book IV:387-388 (J.V. Muir) of the Odyssey, we read:

I think it is Book 9 rather than 4 and it is indeed the celebrated
Polyphemus story involving the account given by Odysseus of how he and his
men put out the huge single eye of the Cyclops by means of a huge beam
sharpened at one end and with the wood hardened in fire at the point.

>My question relates to the word PURIHKEA in line 387. Richard J. Cunliffe (A
>Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect) notes that the word can mean 'sharpened by
>fire," while Muir simply lists the meaning potential of PURIHKHS as "pointed
>in the fire." Today in my class on Homeric Greek, we were trying to figure
>out what the definitions given by Cunliffe and Muir mean. I.e., how was the
>MOXLON 'sharpened in the fire"? I tried researching this term and did not
>find much that elucidated the subject any at all. So if anyone has ever read
>any information on this subject, I would like to hear what you have found.

I don't know how much of the story as a whole you or your class has read,
but it seems to me that you could read all you need about it right there in
the text of Homer. Odysseus himself presents the account of how the beam
was prepared as a "red hot poker" fit for a Cyclops:9.319-329: a huge log
of green olive wood was found by the sheepfold where it was drying out
gradually. O. says he cut out a 6-foot section of this. After his men had
taken the bark off of it, he says that he himself put a point on one end,
then put it in a blazing fire to sharpen the point: EGW D' EQOWSA
must be "turn in the fire." Later, just before the line you cite, he
describes how he retrieved the sharp-pointed stake when Polyphemus had
fallen into a drunken sleep and again put it into the fire's embers in
order to make it red hot (TON MOCLON hUPO SPODON HLASA POLLHS, hEIOS
QERMAINOITO, 375-6), then "when the beam of olive was just about to catch
in the fire, greenwood though it was--it glowed something fierce (ALL' hOTE
DIEFAINETO D' AINWS ..., 378-9), then he and his men took it and placed the
red-hot end into the eye of the sleeping Cyclops.

One of the striking features of the Polyphemus narrative in Odyssey 9 is
the recurrent thematic contrast of what to Odysseus is a "high-tech"
civilization used to tools, travel and relatively sophisticated mechanical
devices with the crude manners and methods of the Cyclopes. When he
actually plunges the red-hot olive-wood point into the eye of Polyphemus
and turns it, he describes the sound as that heard when smiths plunge hot
steel into water to temper it. Homer may even have that in mind when he
describes Odysseus' process for "fire-honing" the point on the stake, but
what he actually describes is simply sharpening one end of the stake to a
point as one would sharpen a pencil with a knife, then put the sharpened
point into the fire to burn off the rough-edged parts and harden the green
wood. I really don't think there's any need to go beyond your context to
discover the method where by Odysseus achieved his "fire-honed" point.


Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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