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Panhellenistic Appropriations: The Case of Aphrodite, Diomedes’ Aristeia, and Tablet VI of Gilgamesh

Marcus D Ziemann

The Ohio State University

            It is well-established that Diomedes’ attack on Aphrodite and her subsequent complaint on Mt. Olympus in Book V of the Iliad draws on Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Gresseth 1975; Burkert 1992; Andersen 1997; West 1997; Burkert 2004; Currie 2016). However, the discussion has mostly stalled at the “parallelomania” stage, and there has been little discussion of the purpose of the adaptation (Burkert 1992: the borrowing is “without function”). Currie (2016) agrees, but he nevertheless argues that the differences between the Iliadic and Gilgamesh passages demonstrate that Homer was engaged in a complex and creative reuse of material from Gilgamesh. Building on Currie’s insight, I argue that the differences between the Greek and Akkadian passages reflect Homer’s interest in establishing the “correct” Panhellenic role for Aphrodite.

            The above-mentioned scholars have focused especially on the congruence between the two goddesses, Aphrodite and Ishtar respectively, ascending to heaven to complain to their parents, the sky-gods of their respective cultures (Zeus, Anu). Furthermore, in both cases the female sky-goddess’s name is simply a grammatically feminine version of her male counterpart’s name (Anu/Antu and Zeus/Dione). Indeed, Dione is not normally Aphrodite’s mother, which suggests that Homer has borrowed from a non-Greek source. Moreover, in both passages there is a list of mortals who are punished after interacting with the gods. However, as Currie 2016 has particularly stressed, the action of the scene in the Iliad has been shifted from the bedroom to the battlefield.

            This aspect of the Homeric appropriation is important. Ishtar is canonically a goddess of both love and warfare, but Aphrodite is normally only a goddess of love. Both of Ishtar’s aspects are present in Tablet VI: her proposal to Gilgamesh (love) and Gilgamesh’s fight with the Bull of Heaven (warfare). However, the scene in Homer revolves around the question of Aphrodite’s fitness for battle. Homer has therefore reversed his source material. Other reversals are evident in the Homeric passage: Diomedes wounds Aphrodite rather than simply mocking her; the list of mortals is used to console the goddess rather than to rebuke her; a goddess recounts the list rather than a mortal; and finally Zeus does not accede to Aphrodite’s request, unlike Anu who grants Ishtar’s. In short, Homer consistently reverses the plot and thematic elements found in Gilgamesh.

            I argue that Homer does so in order to establish the correct Panhellenic attributes for Aphrodite. Unlike her Mesopotamian counterpart, she does not belong on the battlefield. Consequently, Diomedes, who stands in as the Panehellenic hero par excellence in Achilles’ absence (Nagy 1979; Louden 2006), drives her out of battle. Furthermore, Zeus, the supremely Panhellenic god, vindicates Diomedes’ actions by telling Aphrodite that should concern herself with love, not war. Consequently, Aphrodite could possibly have taken on foreign aspects in this scene that were not accepted in the Panhellenic tradition of Greek mythology. But there is also some evidence that Aphrodite may have been a goddess of war in local Greek contexts (Flemberg 1991; Penglase 1994; Iossif/Lorber 2007; Budin 2010). Therefore, Homer introduces a potentially problematic Aphrodite who borrows warrior aspects from foreign (and maybe local) counterparts that were both love and war goddesses. He subsequently confronts her with two figures with solid Panhellenic credentials (Diomedes and Zeus) who restrict her to the realm of love.

            Diomedes’ and Zeus’ rebuke of Aphrodite for taking part in the fighting can therefore take on a metapoetic significance. Homer rejects certain facets of foreign (and local Greek?) mythology as appropriate for Panhellenic epic. However, while he rejects a Mesopotamian style Aphrodite, he does so by using one of the most famous scenes from the most famous Mesopotamian epic. In other words, a Greek can play at the same game as the older and more prestigious Mesopotamians.

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