Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society by Marcel Detienne and Jean Pierre Vernant (Harverster Press,) is a deeply researched and innovative book.

In Book XXIII of the Iliad, towards the end of the funeral period for Patroclus, it concludes with a chariot race. One of the contestants is the relatively young and inexperienced Antilochus, son of the wise Nestor.

Nestor says to his son, …these are slow horses, and they may turn-in/ a second-rate performance. The other teams/ are faster. But the charioteers/ Know no more racing strategy than you do./ Work out a plan of action in your mind/ dear son, do not let the prize slip through your fingers. (translation Robert Fitzgerald).

So what he does is, up to the home straight, he managed to hold on with the others; in fact he was neck and neck with Menelaus in joint second position. Then they came upon a narrowing of the track where a landslide had encroached. Antilochus would not rein in, which caused Menelaus to do so, and so gave Antilochus the chance he needed and he pulled ahead.

He came second.However, Menelaus would not let it go at that: Antilochus, you were clear-headed once./ How have you acted now?….

Antilochus, to maintain amity split his winnings with Menelaus.

Another version of this is, Antilochus drove his chariot with a clear plan, which was to force the brinkmanship with Menelaus. This he did successfully: he had inspected the course, found the narrowing, and planned around it.

His error was to be too obvious; he should have got away with it by making it look as though his horses had run away with him. He would have had to prepare for this, though, by surreptitiously displaying moments of loss of control earlier in the race. He would have won the same, but also kept his prize, and his prestige.

This second version is the way of the true cunning.

With this version the book says, we begin to notice clusters of words, phrases that occur again and again. In Greek we have

Metis – informed prudence

Dolos – cunning

Kerde – tricks

Kairos – ability to seize the opportunity

Pantoie – multiple

Poikile – many coloured

Oiole – shifting

They all describe the polymorphic, polyvalence of wily intelligence

The most important is Metis. She was once a goddess, first wife of Zeus. She helped him in the fight to dethrone his father, Chronos. Her reward? To be swallowed by Zeus. After all, he cannot have such an unruly presence in his ordered realms. Swallowed she gave him the power to foresee events.

Such is the fate of all who help a dictator to power: we saw it in Soviet Russia, where Stalin cleared away all the old, original Bolsheviks from government. Do we also see here the terrible Year Zero experiment of Pol Pot?  It is indeed everywhere to be seen still.

The book also calls upon the work of Oppian, second century AD Latin writer of hunting and fishing treatises.

Hunting and fishing are worlds of duplicitous dealings, he says. To be good at either craft, art, one must have the ability to appear to be/do one thing whilst being/doing another. One must be a master of camoflage, subterfuge.

He wrote, ‘In this world of hunting and fishing, victory is only to be won through metis.’ That word again.

There are a number of essential qualities one must have.

1 – Agility, suppleness, swiftness, mobility

– one must move as swiftly as one’s prey; be able to ‘leap from stone to stone’ etc

2 – Dissimulation

– one must be able to lie in wait whilst appearing not to do so etc

3 – Vigilance

– one must be sleepless, untiring; or, appearing to sleep whilst being fully alert, watchful

One must be, in essence, ‘a master of finesse’: polupaipalos. One must be a master of cunning and multiplicity.

There are a number of animals highly regarded for their metis, their cunning:

The wily fox

A master of strategy and cunning. His den is underground; it has innumerable exits.

He knows how to make his body itself a trap: when stalking, birds say, he can lie as if dead for hours in order to disable their vigilance.

In fables, the book notes, the fox’s words ‘are more beguiling than those of the sophist.’

Anything shifting, scintillating, that shimmers, beguiles the senses: one is no longer fully alert but distracted, lulled even. One then, is prey to the master of metis.

The octopus

The octopus ‘is a knot made up of a thousand arms, a living, interlacing network.’ And, just as the fox’s den has innumerable exits, so does the octopus have innumerable means of escape and capture.

It is like the snake, and thereby we see Typhon here.

It is also like the labyrinth – this is the fox’s den again.

For Oppian, the octopus is ‘as a burglar… under the cover of night.’

We see in this the octopus and its use of its ink to cover its escape, but also to hide in it in order to capture prey.

For the master of cunning this is the smokescreen he/she uses to gain the required object.

‘…like the fox, the octopus defines a type of human behaviour…’ that one must ‘present a different aspect of oneself to each of your friends…’ like the octopus that can change colour to fit in with its environment, background.

The book also notes: ‘The octopus-like intelligence is found in two types of man’: the sophist, and the politician.

Each is an apparent contrary of the other. Contrary, and yet complementary.

And here lies another aspect of cunning: as well as appearing as one thing whilst being another, he must also use both qualities where and when necessary.

The octopus is supple enough to squeeze through a chink to escape, but also solid enough to hold its prey in a hard and fast clutch.

This is known as ‘the bond and the circle’: the circular reciprocity ‘between what is bound, and what is binding’. This can be seen in the use of the fishing net; the more one struggles, the more one becomes ensnared.

Ten centuries separate Homer from Oppian – throughout this period can be cited a number of examples of this complex of ideas.

The underground den of the fox, and the sea environment of the octopus, throw up a metaphysic where gods and goddesses rule mankind’s fortunes.

The fox is decidedly chthonic, he has the qualities of the old gods of the race of Chronos, the Giants/Titans etc, the pre-Olympians. He is a emissary from Chaos, where ‘there is no up, or down, no side to side’: the unformed space, brimming with potential, but not active as such. This is the state of mind of the master of metis: all awaits its birth in the intent, concentration and single-mindedness of the hunter/master of cunning.

The octopus lives in the sea, medium of the goddess Thetis. She has similar properties to those which Metis had.

The fate of Metis may also answer what happened to the biblical  Lilith; they did seem to share many qualities, and most of these centred around closeness of identification with animals. The realm of Middle-eastern demons does not seem to have its counterpart in Greek culture.

It also answers the question why: why Aeschylus fell foul of the Orphics for supposedly betraying their secrets in his play Agamemnon. For Cunning was claimed by the later Orphics as theirs. I would suggest it has a kindred spirit in Bacchus.

You know what that means! Now I am going to have to dig out Euripedes’ The Bacchae from about thirty years ago, and re-read it in this light!

I would suggest the violation ofOrphic secrets was in Aeschylus’ use of the net:

Agamemnon returned home after ten years at Ilium. In the meantime his wife, Clytemnestra, had taken another lover. Not only that, but in order to gain a favourable wind to take their ships across to Ilium in the first place, Agamemnon was advised to make a personal sacrifice to the gods. He chose his own daughter Iphigenia.

Quite rightly, Clytemnestra was inconsolable. And so the consequences would be terrible.

When he arrived home after ten years Clytemnestra was well prepared – she had made ready a pathway strewn with royal purple. He walked over this, in effect insulting the gods by setting himself on their level.

This was planned. His next error was take the obligatory bath prepared for him as all weary travellers of renown did. In the bath she snared him with a net, and then he was killed.

There began a terrible period of retribution we know as The Orestia.

Clytemnestra was a master of cunning: she planned this long in advance; she made it look as though Agamemnon had violated honour to the gods (the purpled path), and she used trickery to ensnare him with the net, used honeyed words to lure him. The deed, though, was committed by Clytemnestra. Cunning specifies that a third person should do the deed, whilst the possible suspect, herself, gives herself a solid alibi: the hacker who ricochets his signal throughout the world communication system is a modern practitioner of cunning.

It is these lapses from the absolute that Greek drama is all about.

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Comments
  1. shhhhhhhhhhhhhh… i’m trying to leave behind an air of mystery……………..hushhhhhhhhhhhhhh

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