mênis: supernatural anger

There are three basic categories of ANGER that heroes can experience in Homeric and dramatic poetry:

A) mênis - an emotion so powerful that it becomes coextensive with the combined forces of nature in the cosmos (see kosmos, so that the hero's anger becomes a cosmic sanction: see Leonard Muellner, The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic (Ithaca: Cornell UP 1996).

B) kholos - an open-ended chemical chain-reaction; it can be visualized as yellow bile or venom; since Hera nursed Thetis who nursed Achilles, the venom of Hera is already flowing in the veins of Achilles even before he ever has his quarrel with Agamemnon: see Joan V. O'Brien, The Transformation of Hera: A Study of Ritual, Hero, and the Goddess in the Iliad (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), especially ch. 4 ("Hera's Iliadic Venom").

C) kotos - a time-bomb that ticks away until it explodes at exactly the right moment in the plot of the narrative, which is coextensive with the plotting of the angry hero who is nursing this emotion for its well-timed explosion as a theatrical climax for all to see and to sing about forever. The most celebrated kotos scene in Greek literature is the killing of the suitors by Odysseus in the Odyssey. Thomas V. Walsh is publishing a book on kholos and kotos, forthcoming in 2000 (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield).

In the Iliad, the most important of these is mênis: see Iliad I 1ff: "Sing, O goddess, the anger [mênis] of Achilles son of Peleus, which brought countless pains [algos pl.] upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul [psûkhê] did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and birds, and the Will of Zeus was fulfilled."

Another important kind of heroic anger in the Iliad is kholos. As a prime example, I cite Iliad I 188ff:

The son of Peleus [= Achilles] felt grief [akhos], and his heart within his shaggy breast was divided whether to draw his sword, push the others aside, and kill the son of Atreus [= Agamemnon], or to restrain himself and check his anger [kholos]. While he was thus of two minds, and was drawing his mighty sword from its scabbard, Athena came down from the sky (for Hera had sent her in the love she bore for them both), and seized the son of Peleus by his golden hair, visible to him alone, for of the others no man could see her.

Notice that the akhos 'grief' of Achilles here instantly metastasizes into kholos 'anger'. (Compare the reaction of Meleager in Iliad IX, when he hears the lament of his wife Kleopatra over the imagined destruction of their city. It is first grief and then anger.)

So far we have examined the contexts in which two words for 'anger' are different from each other. But there are also contexts where they overlap dramatically. The other kind of heroic anger, kotos, which is, as we said, a time-bomb that ticks away until it explodes at exactly the right moment in the plot of the narrative and results in a well-timed explosion as a theatrical climax for all to see and to sing about forever. In the Iliad, Achilles experiences all three variations on the theme of anger.

Mênis is associated above all with Zeus in the Iliad. But Apollo conceives mênis in Iliad I when his priest Chryseis is mistreated by Agamemnon, and sends a plague upon the Achaeans. The only other mortal that is said to have mênis in the Iliad is Aeneas. It is likely that the Iliad is alluding to an epic song tradition about the mênis of Aeneas. See G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, p. 73 note 2, and pp. 265-266.