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September 18, 2017

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.

Hephaistos and Thetis, Foundry Painter. Attic red-Figure kylix tondo, c.490-80BC.

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 δάρένώρτο 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.


March 15, 2017

Welfare, Disability, and the Athenian Judiciary

The UK government spends roughly £13billion a year on Disability Living Allowances and Personal Independence Payments. ( 2017) These payments, claimed by over 3.5 million people, are intended to cover the extra costs incurred from living with impairments, irrespective of the claimant’s financial status.

However, the government believe that this system is being abused by fake or exaggerated claims. In a recent statement, George Freeman, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, emphasised that the payments are only intended for the “really disabled” not, as he put it, those who are “taking pills at home, suffering from anxiety.” ( 2017) Such claimants, Freeman suggested, should no longer qualify for financial assistance. These unfortunately phrased comments have since been widely condemned. Freeman stands accused of trivialising the debilitating effects of mental illness by insinuating that those who experience it are not really experiencing a disability at all but are instead abusing a system which is intended only to care for the ‘most’ impaired.

These comments are the result of an announcement that the government are planning a £3billion funding cut to the disability welfare system. As such, deciding as a society what is, and more importantly what is not, a disablement deserving of our government’s continued financial assistance appears to be an immediately pressing concern.

However, financial assistance for the impaired was not always decided upon in such medically categorising terms. The judicial system of the Athenian court, for example, took a different approach, one which should perhaps be considered again today. A law court speech from the 5th Century BCE clearly demonstrates this system but first, an ambiguity in its translation needs to be corrected. This speech, entitled “On the Refusal of a Pension”, (Rose: 2017) hinges on the following statement:

“φησὶ γὰρ ὁ κατήγορος οὐ δικαίως με λαμβάνειν τὸ παρὰ τῆς πόλεως ἀργύριον: καὶ γὰρ τῷ σώματι δύνασθαι καὶ οὐκ εἶναι τῶν ἀδυνάτων…” (Lysias 24: 4 Trans. W. R. M. Lamb: 1930)

“My accuser says that I have no right to receive my civil pension, because I am able-bodied and not classed as disabled…”

From this common translation, the approach of the Athenian court does initially appear to be identical to that of modern day. The prosecution seems to be accusing the unnamed defendant of not being ‘disabled enough’ to justify financial benefits, just as George Freeman was asserting. However, this translation of the term άδυνάτος, although widely accepted, is in fact inherently misleading. The term has here been translated as ‘disabled’ yet, objectively speaking, the term simply means to be unable to do something; to be weak, poor, or powerless. None of these definitions are, necessarily, exclusively concerned with a person’s physical inability.

By translating the term άδυνάτος as ‘disabled’ then, the modern translation focuses purely on the physical interpretation of the word, implying that physical inability was the condition for financial assistance. However, this is not the case. Unlike our modern disability welfare system, which provides benefits on the basis of need regardless of financial earnings, the Athenian judiciary required the receiver of a pension to be financially incapacitated as a result of physical inability. With this is mind, when the prosecution suggests that the unnamed defendant is considered able rather than άδυνάτος, they mean he is able, rather than unable, to function and support himself. It is his ability to support himself which, the prosecution argue, ought to preclude him from seeking financial support, regardless of his physical status.

Indeed, every argument that the defendant is forced to refute is based not on his physical ability but on his supposed financial ability. For instance, the primary accusation is that the defendant engages in a trade (τέχνην ἐπίστασθαι). The prosecution are not arguing that an impaired man would not be able to engage in a trade, but that by engaging in a trade, the man would earn a living that outstripped his need for state aid. In a similar vein, the second accusation is that he rides a horse (ἵππους ἀναβαίνω). Again, what seems to be at issue here is not that an impaired man would not be able to ride a horse but that a poor man would not be able to afford one. (Rose: 2003 pp. 95-100)

Perhaps however, the most telling indicator that this is an argument of proving financial rather than physical need, is that the defendant spends none of his speech elaborating on his physical condition. (Amundsen: 1977) In fact, beyond the knowledge that he uses two sticks to get around, we have no idea what his physical impairment may have been. If this had been a case which rested on the defendant needing to prove his disability, it would be expected that the defendant would attempt to garner pity from the judiciary by elaborating on his physical ailments and how they manifest themselves. However, this is conspicuously lacking within the defendant’s arguments. What this case helps to prove is that

in ancient Athens, the validation of inability lay not in the physical impairment but in the financial consequences that this impairment may have incurred.

In contrast to the Athenian courts then, the question our current government is wrestling with is this: Who, based solely on the severity of their physical need, is most deserving of financial assistance?

The Athenians, on the other hand, would likely have advocated a different question: Who, based upon the severity of their fiscal need due to physical impairment, is most deserving of financial assistance?

Perhaps, in the face of a struggling welfare system, this is a better question to be asking ourselves today.


D. W Amundsen (1977) ‘The Physician as an Expert in Athenian Law’ in the
Bulletin of the History of Medicine. v. 51. no. 2. pp. 202-213

Lysias Lysias Translated by W. R. M. Lamb (1930) Loeb Classical Library 244. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

M. Rose (2003) The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (London: University of Michigan Press)

M. Rose ‘Ability and Disability in Athenian Oratory’ in C. Laes (2017) Disability in Antiquity (London: Routledge)

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.


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