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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: September 2009

Chapter 8 - “Your mother nursed you with bile”: anger in babies and small children


Achilles was convinced that one of his Myrmidons, chafing at absence from the battlefield, muttered behind his back, “Your mother used to nurse you with bile” (ϰόλῳ ἄρα σ ἔτρεϕε μήτηρ, 16.203). The anger displayed by Achilles over Agamemnon's behavior in Iliad 1 and the failure of the embassy in Book 9 to persuade Achilles to rejoin his fellow Achaeans in the fighting against Trojans occasioned the Myrmidon's remark. Yet the action of the story was already taking a new turn, for Achilles heeded Patroclus' plea that he go out in Achilles' stead, dressed in Achilles' armor, and Achilles was ranging his men in battle order to accompany Patroclus at the very moment when he recalled the blame that he supposed some Myrmidon earlier heaped upon him. Late-antique commentators to the line suggested that the remark might be taken literally: scholia glossed it with “in exaggeration, not with milk, but with bile,” and “[it was] because of the excessiveness of his wrath,” while Eustathius in his Commentary paraphrased, “You used to suckle bile in place of milk and due to this your body has been compacted from bile.” Such explications no doubt gained conviction from the Iliad simile of the snake, said to draw cholos from the evil plants on which it fed, for this too was a nutritional explanation for the venomous malevolence of snakes.