Divine Humour and Disability: The Curious Case of Iliad Book One
Within Book One of Homer’s Iliad, there is a scene that has been widely interpreted as “…evidence for Greek bias against the crippled.” (Bragg: 2004 p.28) Until very recently, I had thought the same. However, having performed a closer analysis of the text, I believe that this interpretation is misguided. In the following article, therefore, I will outline the literary context ofthe scene in question, along with its current interpretation, before proposing a different reading, one which may have very little to do with disability after all.
In the concluding passage of Iliad Book One, an argument breaks out between Zeus and Hera. In an attempt to diffuse the situation, which had begun to cause anxiety amongst the gathered immortals, Hephaistos, the lame god, intervenes. First, he implores Hera not to provoke Zeus further, reminding her that it was Zeus’ temper which had driven him to disable Hephaistos, throwing him from the summit of Mount Olympus and permanently twisting his feet upon impact. Hephaistos’ story successfully dissuades Hera from further provoking the tempestuous Zeus. After this oratory success, Hephaistos concludes his achievement by serving wine to the gathering of gods who had witnessed the scene. As he does so, however, the following description appears:
Άσβεστος δ’ άρ’ ένώρτο γέλως μακάρεσσι θεοΐσιν, ώς ϊδον ‘’Ηφαιστον διά δώματα ποιπνύοντα.
And laughter unquenchable arose among the blessed gods, as they saw Hephaistos bustling through the palace. (Iliad 1:580-600)
It is this laughter, at the expense of the lame god Hephaistos, which has led scholars to label this moment as an example of Greek bias towards the disabled.
The assumption that scholars make is that the god’s laughter is a direct reaction to Hephaistos’ disability. That, having heard the origin story of Hephaistos’ impairment only moments before, the gods are then unable to contain themselves when they are presented with its supposedly hilarious visual consequences as “…Hephaestus, limping, goes on to distribute wine.” (Rinon: 2004 p. 3) The gods supposedly laugh because Hephaistos’ movement is inherently laughable, an affront to the graceful beauty which is usually expected from the immortals. (Ebenstein: 2006) However, this understanding is slightly misleading. After all, Hephaistos is not actually described ‘limping’ through the palace serving wine, as Rinon suggests. What he is actually described doing is 'ποιπνύοντα', (bustling) which, instead of indicating impaired motion, describes the energetic or busy completion of a task. This is the action which causes the gods to laugh so heartily at Hephaistos. The idea that the gods are simply laughing at Hephaistos’ impairment, therefore, is no longer so convincing. Instead, the question we ought to be asking is: why is the bustling Hephaistos so funny to the gods and what, if anything, does this have to do with his disability?
One potential explanation of the hilarity of 'ποιπνύοντα', is that elsewhere within Homeric literature, the subject of this bustling motion is always said to be an attendant. When Eurycleia orders her maidens to prepare the hall for a feast, for example, they do so by bustling. (Homer Odyssey 20: 245-60) Likewise, when Hephaistos instructs his automated handmaidens to aid him, they come busting to his call (Homer Iliad 18: 417-424). It is a motion usually consigned to the lower echelons of Greek society and is not, therefore, a befitting nor dignified activity of a god. To see the immortal Hephaistos bustling about the palace, impaired or not, would then surely arouse laughter amongst the gods that he served.
Another potential reason why the gods laugh at Hephaistos within this scene, however, is that this is the reaction Hephaistos himself wants to elicit from them. Rather than being the victim of divine laughter, he can also be viewed as its orchestrator. After all, before Hephaistos’ intervention, the gods were said to be in a state of tension. (Homer Iliad 1: 570) After his intervention, however, this tension is replaced by laughter. What was previously a scene of conflict turns to a scene of feasting and Zeus and Hera end Book One retiring to the same bed, tension forgotten. Without Hephaistos’ comic relief, it is easy to imagine Book One ending very differently indeed. When his actions are viewed as choices rather than acts of circumstance, the scene becomes less an indicator of Greek bias towards the disabled and more an indicator of the intelligence of the lame god. He acts in a way which will deliberately cause the gods to laugh. Whether or not this act plays upon his impaired movement is, of course, still ambiguous but the fact that the language is not focused specifically upon his disability leads me to speculate that it is not the sole driving force behind the comedy.
What this analysis has hopefully shown is that the comic reaction to Hephaistos at the end of Book One cannot be so simply explained as bias towards the disabled. The use of 'ποιπνύοντα'rather than, for example, a more straightforward term such as 'χωλός' (limping) makes such an assumption immediately problematic. The power that is then afforded to Hephaistos, who completely alters the trajectory of the narrative, only serves as further proof that he is no mere symbol for the ridicule of the disabled. There is much more to be unpacked within the laughter of the gods.
Bragg (2006) Oedipus Borealis: The Aberrant Body in Old Icelandic Myth and Saga (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)
Homer Iliad Translated by Lattimore (1961) in ‘The Iliad of Homer’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Homer Odyssey Translated by Rieu Revised Edition Jones (2003) ‘Homer: The Odyssey’ (London: Penguin Books)
Ebenstein (2006) Toward an Archetypal Psychology of Disability Based on the Hephaistos Myth in ‘Disability Studies Quarterly: Volume 26, No. 4’ (The Society for Disability Studies)
Rinon (2004) Tragic Hephaestus: The Humanized God in the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" in ‘Phoenix,Volume 60, no. 1/2' pp. 1-20.
Annie Sharples is a first year PhD candidate in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research interest is the study of impairment and disability within Ancient Greek culture and society. Annie is currently investigating the language of disability and how it has been used, or more often misused, within modern discussions and translations of ancient texts. Her wider academic interests include the unideal body within Greek art, aging within Greek society, and the relationship between ancient medicine and the gods.