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Thersitical

22 Jul 2018

A brilliantly useful little word popped up on HH this afternoon:

 

And it has an intriguing story behind it. 

 

Thersitical derives from Thersites, the name of a minor character mentioned largely in passing in Homer’s Iliad—and known by the fairly grim epithet of “the ugliest man who came to Troy”.

 

According to some versions of the tale, Thersites was one of five sons born to Atreus, an ancient king of Calydon, a city-state in western Greece. Other versions suggest he was a simple commoner, drafted into the Greek army during the Trojan War. No matter his heritage, however, Thersites is not well remembered: Homer describes him in painful detail in his Iliad, noting that he was, “bandy-legged and lame in the foot,” that his  shoulders were “rounded, hunched together over his chest,” and that “his head was warped” with merely “a scant stubble” growing on it. 

 

Not only was Thersites physically a bit of a fright, but his attitude stunk too. Among his fellow soldiers he had gained a reputation as something of a motormouth, who would rail endlessly against his superiors. But one day, he turned his bellyaching against the king, Agamemnon, and quickly found himself in trouble:

 

“Son of Atreus, what is your problem now? What do you lack? Your huts are stuffed with bronze and women, too ... It is not fair that you, our leader, have ruined things so badly for us ... But you men, you soldiers, cowardly comrades, disgraceful people, you’re Achaean women, not warriors. Let us sail home in our ships, leave this man, our king, in Troy here to enjoy his loot. That way he might come to recognize whether or not we’re of some use to him.”

Iliad, II.261–79

 

It is this vicious bad-mouthing of the king that lies behind the adjective thersitical, which has been recorded as meaning “foul-mouthed” or “scurrilous” in English since the early seventeenth century.

 

 

Did Thersites get away with his outburst, however? The short answer, rather unsurprisingly, is no. Odysseus wasn’t prepared to stand idly by and hear his king being slandered, so he promptly waded into the argument to knock Thersites back into line with an angry and exasperated speech.

 

“Take care what you say, Thersites; you’re so reckless of tongue ... None baser than you followed [us here] to Troy, so you least of all should sound a king’s name on your tongue ... Let me tell you this, and be sure: if I find you playing the fool like this again ... [I will] lay hands on you, strip you bare of cloak and tunic ... drive you from here, and send you wailing back to the swift ships, shamed by a hail of blows.”

Iliad, II.243–65

 

And with that, Odysseus cracked Thersites on the back with his staff, leaving a large, painful weal on his back; as he fell back into line, Homer delights in telling us that Thersites “shed a huge tear,” much to the hilarity of his fellow soldiers. 

 

Homer doesn’t stop there, though. Thersites survives the battle, we are told, but later goes on to mock Achilles for mourning the death of the great Amazon warrior Penthesilea. In response, Achilles knocked Thersites to the ground and brayed his head against a rock until he was dead. 

 

So in a story full of heroes, it’s fair to say Thersites doesn’t come out of things all too well.

 

 

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