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Bringing Up Achilles: Child Heroes in Homer and Pindar

Louise Pratt

Emory University

This paper discusses a critical distinction between Homer and Pindar in the way that each represents the rearing of child heroes. Though each poet presents a conception that is more idealized and imaginary than realistic, together they provide useful examples of two distinct ways that the Greeks of the archaic and early classical period were thinking about the nature of children, child-rearing and childhood that certainly influenced later representations and possibly also social practices. The paper contributes to the study of children and childhood in antiquity, building on several decades of work by scholars using various approaches (Cohen and Rutter, Evans Grubbs and Parkin, Golden, Neils and Oakley, Pache, Wörhle, and others). The contrast between Homer and Pindar enhances previous work by showing the complexity of Greek thinking about children and child-rearing, which embraces tensions that are still imperfectly resolved today.

                  The paper begins by looking at two passages, Iliad 9.485-95 in which Phoinix describes holding Achilles on his knees and cutting up food for him, and Nemean 3.43-52 in which Pindar describes the six-year old Achilles battling lions and boars and outrunning stags. It argues that these two passages represent a characteristic difference in the way that Homer and Pindar depict young heroes. Homeric epic consistently shows child heroes acting like typical children amid the comforts of civilization: crying, spitting up, at the breasts of their mothers, tended by loving parents or other human adults, fed on choice tidbits. The story told by Odysseus to Laertes at Odyssey 24.336-343 about learning as a child the names of trees in their garden provides another vivid example. This conception is consistently maintained in both poems in many passing descriptions of the childhoods of various heroes, including those fathered by gods. In Homer, childhood, even for major heroes, is a distinct life-stage in which children normally receive the protection and tender care of their parents. In contrast, Pindar, when he speaks of the childhood of heroes, stresses its exceptional nature and childhood independence from parents. When children are shown being cared for, it is by animals or animal hybrids like the centaur Chiron. Examples in Pindar include Heracles, who as a newborn strangles serpents; the seer Iamus, who is abandoned as an infant and nourished by snakes on bee venom; Jason and Asclepius, both of whom are turned over to Chiron shortly after birth to be brought up in the wilds of Thessaly; and the girl Kyrana, who like Achilles is shown wrestling lions. Thus, Homer emphasizes nurture and the realm of culture, Pindar nature and the natural world, Homer children’s dependence on adults, Pindar their independence. These two distinct ways of representing children and childhood are deeply embedded in the larger ideologies of their poetry, but may also influence Greek thinking about children and child-rearing practices.

                  Homer’s emphasis on the relative normality of the childhoods of heroes helps define childhood as a life-stage through which every human being, no matter how exceptional, must pass. Small children are not expected to behave like heroes; therefore, childish tears, like those of Astyanax in Book 6, are not treated as a harbinger of weakness to come. Close relationships with parents, both real and adoptive, are treated as critical, the most important factor in socialization. Pindar’s alternative vision raises expectations for children and diminishes them for parents, stressing children’s connection to the natural world and envisioning removal from civilization as an important part of socialization. Early separation from parents also seems to contribute to the socialization process in Pindar’s conception.

                  These two male poets, both interested in arête, thus manifest two distinct ways of imagining heroic childhoods that have broader implications for rearing (primarily male) children. Though Homer’s influence means that his version of heroic childhood was never entirely forgotten, various motifs borrowed and adapted from Pindar’s alternative model pervade later Greek literature. Both thus remained influential ways of thinking about child-rearing throughout antiquity.

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