Oinops and Oxen

~ A guest post by Sarah Scott & Jacqui Donlon and the Oinops Study Group ~

Hellenic Navy_trireme

…and aboard each vessel crowded full Arcadian companies skilled in war. Agamemnon himself, the lord of men had given them those well-benched ships to plow the wine-dark sea, since works of the sea meant nothing to those landsmen.  Iliad II [1]

We had seen in ‘Oinops and the Wide Open Sea’ that most of the examples of oinops occurred with pontos, and many of them had to do with that dangerous stretch of water that had to be crossed.

But there were some passages that seemed to be rather different in nature, and when we initially started to look at them it wasn’t clear how they were going to fit into the picture. That is when the comparisons started to help us to find the themes (see ‘Connecting with Oinops’).

However, there were two occurrences of oinops with the word βοῦς [bous], meaning ‘ox’. How could an ox be ‘wine-dark’? But as we have seen, the word can mean ‘wine-faced’.

The Two Ajaxes Pulling the Plow

The first passage we discussed was a passage from Iliad:

“Swift Ajax son of Oïleus never for a moment left the side of Ajax son of Telamon, but as two wine-faced [oinops] oxen [bous] both strain their utmost at the plow [pēkton arotron, well put together plow] which they are drawing in a fallow field, [705] and the sweat steams upwards from about the roots of their horns – nothing but the yoke [zugon]  divides them as they break up the ground till they reach the end of the field [telson, related to telos] – even so did the two Ajaxes stand shoulder to shoulder by one another.”
(Iliad  XIII 702–708, modified from Sourcebook[2]).

This passage reminded me (Sarah) of Kleobis and Biton, in the narrative by Herodotus:

Kleobis_and_Biton_statue-cropped“the youths themselves took the yoke [zugon] upon their shoulders under constraint of time [hōrā] and started pulling the wagon, with their mother riding on top of it….until they arrived at the sacred precinct [hieron] [of Hērā ]….the youths went to sleep right then and there in the sacred precinct [of Hērā]. And they never got up again, but were held still in this fulfillment [telos]”
(Herodotus 1.31.1–5, modified from Sourcebook)

In the Iliad passage about the two Ajaxes there is also the concept of reaching the end of the field: τέλσον [telson, related to telos], and this word, which also denotes fulfillment, is a key concept in the myth of Kleobis and Biton (H24H 13§19), where it is associated with an epithet of Hērā — and another of her epithets is βοῶπις [boōpis, ‘ox-eyed’].

I also wondered if the sweat steaming up from the oxen’s horns is significant: it could relate to the agōn of a contest — which, as we know, is associated both with the ritual funeral games and with the ordeal of battle.

Oxen are mentioned 67 times in Iliad alone, and a quick search for collocates (using the techniques mentioned in Oinops and the Wide Open Sea’) revealed that one of the more frequent associations is with Helios, i.e. the Cattle of the Sun in Odyssey, so we flagged that bous could form the subject of future research to explore the oral poetics of these passages and of those in which other words occur that are frequently associated with oxen.

Although sometimes Ajax Telamon fights alone or alongside the archer Teucer, the two Ajaxes are often mentioned together as a pair almost as if they were a single entity, for example:

“he [Agamemnon] came upon the two Ajaxes arming themselves amid a mass of foot-soldiers.” (Iliad IV 274)

“the two Ajaxes, attendants [therapontes] of Ares” (Iliad VIII 79)

“the two Ajaxes clothed in valor as with a garment”
(Iliad VII 164; VIII263; XVIII 159) — all from Sourcebook

Claudia pointed out that in our passage the words βόε οἴνοπε [boe oinope, ‘wine-faced oxen’] were in the dual form, which is a special form of nouns and adjectives used specifically to refer to two (rather than singular or plural).  We also noticed that, just before this passage about the Ajaxes as the wine-faced oxen, the Iliad narrative talks about another pair of men who were also fighting very closely together:

“Medon and staunch Podarkes led the men of Phthia. Of these, Medon was bastard son to Oïleus the godlike [695] and brother of Ajax, but he lived in Phylake away from his own country, for he had killed the brother of his stepmother Eriopis, the wife of Oïleus; the other, Podarkes, was the son of Iphiklos son of Phylakos. These two stood in the van of the great-hearted Phthians, [700] and defended the ships along with the Boeotians”
(Iliad XIII 693–700, from Sourcebook)

They come from another part of the family of Ajax Oïleus — and there are here several twin-like pairings.

And all four of them (the two Ajaxes, and Medon & Podarkes) are defending the ships. So there is proximity of the word ‘ships’ even though the passage takes place in a field.

They are leading the Phthians: so there is a connection here with Achilles (and with the word aphthiton).

Jacqui reminded us that Podarkes was the younger, good-but-not-so-good brother of Protesilaos (who was the first onto the beach and the first killed); that Iphiklos was the person whom Nestor beat in a running contest in his youth. She also suggested there was a connection with other cattle — there is a reference to the cattle of Iphikles in Phylake (so presumably the same one) in Odyssey xi, 291 during the catalogue of women relating to Khloris and Neleus.

Claudia pointed out that the oldest attested occurrences of the word oinops form an association with cattle rather than with the sea. For example, there is a text in Linear B (a pre-Homeric Greek syllabic script associated with Mycenae) that uses an early version of this word as the name of a cow: wo-no-qo-so. Although this word does not look much like oinops at first glance, the word oinops (in common with a number of other Greek words) would originally have had an initial letter called digamma, which had approximately the sound of ‘W’, and which had later been dropped; and the ‘Q’ sound in earlier forms of Greek and other Indo-European languages often becomes ‘P’ later.

Janet had recently been looking at a passage that occurs earlier in Iliad Scroll XIII, where Poseidon comes across the sea (thalassa in this case — see ‘Oinops and the Wide Open Sea’) and smites the two Ajaxes with his staff to put fighting spirit into them. And now here they are described with the term oinops which in Homeric poetry is more often associated with the sea. Since Poseidon is god of the sea this could be an allusion to this earlier passage? But she pointed out that one of Poseidon’s epithets is ‘earthshaker’ so he is connected to the land as well as the sea, and the Greeks’ livelihood also came from both land and sea. It may also be significant here that the bull is sacred to Poseidon.

Odysseus as a Plowman

The other passage in which oinops is associated with bous is when Odysseus is longing to leave Phaecia, and he is described like a plowman who is weary in the legs and just wants to go home to eat.

[20] Alkinoos, the hallowed prince, went on board and saw everything so securely stowed under the ship’s benches [zugon] that nothing could break adrift and injure the rowers. Then they went to the house of Alkinoos, the hallowed prince, to get dinner, and he sacrificed a bull for them [25] in honor of Zeus, the dark-clouded son of Kronos, who is the lord of all. They set the meats to grill and made an excellent dinner, after which the inspired bard, Demodokos, who was a favorite with every one, sang to them; but Odysseus kept on turning his eyes towards [30] the sun, as though to hasten his setting, for he was longing to be on his way. As one who has been all day plowing [pēkton arotron, ‘well put together plow’]  a fallow field with a couple of wine-faced [oinops] oxen [bous] keeps thinking about his supper and is glad when night comes that he may go and get it, for it is all his legs can do to carry him, [35] even so did Odysseus rejoice when the sun went down, and he at once said to the oar-loving Phaeacians, addressing himself more particularly to King Alkinoos, pre-eminent among all others: “Sir, and all of you, farewell. Make your drink-offerings and send me on my way rejoicing, [40] for you have fulfilled [telos, verb] my heart’s desire by giving me an escort, and making me presents, and may the gods grant that I turn those things into blessed [olbia] possessions; may I find my admirable wife living in peace among friends, and may you whom I leave behind me give satisfaction to your [45] wives and children; may the gods grant you every kind of good accomplishment [aretē], and may no evil thing come among your people.”
(Odyssey xiii 20–46, modified from  Sourcebook)

Alkinoos has arranged for the boats to be loaded with gifts of tripods and cauldrons — under the benches: the word for a bench is ζυγόν [zugon] which is also the word for a yoke, or a pair, as we had been noticing in the Ajaxes passage.

There has been a sacrifice and a feast, and there is also that reference to fulfillment, from the keyword telos, and the passage ends with a ritual.

The wine-faced oxen in this passage, as with the Iliad passage, are in a section that employs a simile, and again the words are in the dual form. There are similarities with the fallow field — in fact, in both passages the line that includes βόε οἴνοπε [boe oinope, ‘wine-faced oxen’] ends identically: πηκτὸν ἄροτρον [pēkton arotron, ‘well put together plow’].

There seems on the surface to be something prosaic here: Odysseus is being compared to somebody who is thinking about going home for his dinner!

But even this is a form of homecoming, and that is what Odysseus is really thinking about; Claudia pointed out the emphasis in this passage on joy and rejoicing both in the simile and in the main narrative. The whole scene takes place when Odysseus is waiting for the sun to go down — after which he will get his sunrise moment as his nostos. And that sunset/sunrise duality — the man with the oxen is described as having weak or tired legs — reminded Sarah of those solar myths in other traditions (alluded to in Gawain and the Green Knight, for example) where a hero’s strength wanes during the evening and waxes in the morning.

In contrast to the two Ajaxes in Iliad, who were being compared themselves to the oxen, Odysseus is being compared to the plowman.  So is there also the equivalent of a plowman being a sort of helmsman? The word ‘plowman’ isn’t used in the Greek, only ἀνὴρ (anēr for ‘man’ — the same word for man as at the very opening of the Odyssey), but I wondered if the sense of a plowman or helmsman is implicit here. Maybe that description of a fallow field is a metaphor for the sea? And we have a similar metaphor in English: we talk about ships ‘plowing across the ocean’.

greek motif 2

When Sarah noticed the connection between plowing the sea and plowing a field, I (Jacqui) was intrigued.  In the texts there are references to black warships and dark-skinned oxen. Both carry cargos, both are strong, resilient and reliable. Ships plow the ocean as oxen transverse a field. Vessels are hollow or well-benched just as oxen carts can be empty or filled — and they both have eyes! More important, both ships and oxen teams have similar dynamics when turning. Could this be the connection between the wine-faced sea and those wine-faced oxen?

Yokes and Steering Oars

Ships are stabilized by a keel that extends into the sea. They
are navigated by a helmsman in stamnos-vaserear of boat using a steering oar, most often two, one on either side of the ship.  The two steering oars, independently mounted, need to act in conjunction when changing or maintaining course, or making a tight turn. This is especially critical for warships.  Keeping the oars operating together is facilitated by a crossbar or steering bar which joins the pair of steering oars affixed by oar locks on outer sides of the ship. This allows the pilot to adjust both steering oars manually at the same time, thereby allowing each individual unit to act as a unified larger unit.  The oarsmen have a similar need for unison. When making a turn, each of the oarsmen on the turning direction side must row slower or even row backwards, while the oarsmen on the other side have to row faster.  It is the helmsman that directs and coordinates this action making him the most important and skillful [mētis] crew member on board. He sits higher up and is the one who has the ability to see in all directions.

Oxen 8An oxen team uses similar processes. A farmer uses a plow pulled by yoked oxen to plow up his field. The farmer like the helmsman is the coordinator of all movements. The goal is to keep the plow straight, moving forward and upright as a boat needs also to do so. Each animal is a separate unit yet when yoked together they also need to operate in unison, each with a specialized function. The yoke sits across the backs of the two oxen locking them into place often with the aid of a ‘bow’, the straps or pieces of wood that extend down each side of the shoulders. This technology is also similar to that of a ship – thole pins. The thole pins (oarlocks) kept the oars in place just as the bow or straps would have kept the yoke secure on the ox. Ox-hide leather was used on both the yokes and the ships (steering oar lasts).  The Greek word for thole pins of Homer’s time was kleis because then thole pins were shaped like an inverted ‘L’, the shape of a key. Yokes, straps and pins serve to keep things functioning in their proper alignment while each animal operated at different speeds– a necessity for a successful turn. The farmer directs one ox to walk faster, while the other walks slower, and then the turn is tight and efficient, the same as ships powered either by steering oars and sails, or rowers.

The Field, the Pontos

The act of plowing, going back and forth across a field is a parallel action to a ship crossing back and forth over the pontos. The system of writing “boustrophēdon”  from βούς, [bous, ‘ox’] + στρέφειν, [strephein, ‘to turn’ (cf. strophe)], meaning writing forwards and backwards, is called this because the hand of the writer goes back and forth like an ox drawing a plow across a field and turning at the end of each row to return in the opposite direction. It was a common way of writing in stone, or included within images on vases. But whether journeying over a field plowing, or plowing the sea, a journey – if successful – must reach an end point. For both journeys, the mid-point is not an option if one wants to reach their destination — home and hearth,  safe harbor, telos. For a successful turn, we need to again consult Nestor, Iliad XXIII (Sourcebook):

 “Get as close to it as you can when you drive your chariot horses toward it, [335] and keep leaning toward one side as you stand on the platform of your well-built chariot, [336] leaning to the left as you drive your horses. Your right-side horse [337] you must goad, calling out to it, and give that horse some slack as you hold its reins, [338] while you make your left-side horse get as close as possible [to the turning point]”

Nestor is describing how to achieve a winning turn in a chariot race, a necessity if one is to make it to the finish line. Like turning a ship, or an oxen team, different actions in tandem or harmony are needed. We also can apply this thinking of a successful team back to the two Ajaxes in Iliad XIII (modified from Sourcebook), the passage Sarah discusses above:

 “Swift Ajax son of Oïleus never for a moment left the side of Ajax son of Telamon, but as two wine-faced [oinops] oxen [bous] both strain their utmost at the plow which they are drawing in a fallow field” [705]

Here the passage is relating the two Ajaxes to an oxen team; they operate as one but each has to do their utmost of their own particular skill set.  Ajax son of Telamon is noted in the Iliad as being second only to Achilles in warrior skills – close fighting.  However Ajax son of Oïleus is noted in Iliad II (Sourcebook) as:

“He was a little man, and his breastplate was made of linen, [530] but in use of the spear he excelled all the Hellenes and the Achaeans.”

His linen breastplate indicates that he is a far-fighter — a spear thrower or archer.  It also indicates that he is skilled at far-seeing. So like a chariot team or an oxen team, we have this combination of needed skills and turning points. Ajax Oïleus is the far-fighter, the slack outside rein, the ox who needs to walk faster.  Ajax Telamon is the close-fighter, the one with biē, the ox or horse that holds back and keeps closest to the turning stone.  A successful matched team whether horses, oxen, or men, needs to execute restraint and incitement at the proper time all the while pursuing a higher goal [aretē] — be it turning a fallow field into a fertile one, or winning the race. As a paired team, both Ajaxes are keeping their eyes on the trophy, the finish line.

The Circuit

Oxen and ships have a symbiotic relationship. Oxen pull ships in and out of the water.  Oxen transport over land the cargo to be loaded onto ships.  Ships carry the oxen’s cargo to the next destination to be then unloaded and re-loaded onto ox carts. However it is also true that the end of this particular destination maybe only one completed circuit of a longer journey, and so as in epic song, there can be a relay. Ship and ox-cart take turns bringing the cargo “prize” yet another leg of the journey until final destination. But getting back to the question of oinops — is this the connection between wine-faced and oxen? What do you think? Let’s talk in the forum! In the end I feel that it is all a beautiful metaphor but not the full answer. We are getting closer because now I can see that the passages seem to be about relays and precision timing — seasonality.  But for more insight, we need to look further into the poetry itself, particularly the songs of Hesiod, as he seems to know…..

It is a fearful thing to die among the waves. But I bid you
to take note of all these things in your phrenes, as I tell you.
Do not put all your means of livelihood inside hollow ships.
Leave the greater part behind, and put the lesser part in as cargo.
It is a fearful thing to happen upon a disaster among the waves of the pontos.
Just as it is a fearful thing to put too great a load on your oxcart,
thus breaking the axle and spoiling your haul.
Take care to keep things moderate. Timing [kairos] is best in all things.
(Hesiod Works and Days, 680–694, Sourcebook)

Coming up next: Hesiodic Advice on Oinops


[1] Fagels, R. The Iliad II, 703-707, Penguin Classics, 1990 [note: line counts tend to differ from other sources, In the H24H Sourcebook, this excerpt falls at lines 610–614 .]

[2] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor.

Image credits

Trireme: Courtesy of www.hellenicnavy.gr

Kleobis and Biton, Creative Commons 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Stamnos Vase, Odysseus and the Sirens, c.480–460 BCE, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Oxen: By written permission from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation