The Linus Song in Homer's Ecphrasis on the Shield of Achilles

This is an essay I wrote as an undergraduate.  For some reason the Greek typeface cannot be displayed in most cases.

“And in the midst of them, a boy was playing yearningly on a clear-toned phorminx, and to its accompaniment, he sang a beautiful Linus-song with a delicate voice.”[1]  Thus speaks Homer in the eighteenth canto of the Iliad.  The context is the famous ecphrasis on the shield of Achilles, which Hephaestus has wrought for the hero at Thetis’ behest.  The shield is richly adorned by the divine smith, and the bard expresses the god’s handiwork in vivid language.  The earth, the sea, and the heavenly spheres are the centre of the shield,[2] the ocean is its outer rim,[3] and scenes of civilised life and peace and conflict adorn the rest of it.  The Linus-song arises amidst the grape harvest, and the merry-hearted youths[4] stamp their feet in sympathy with the music.[5] 

The curious reader who peruses the Greek lexicon in search of the Linus-song will be puzzled at the result of his effort, for this word λινος, or αἰλινος as the later authors use it, describes a song of lament.  Why (the student asks himself) are the youths dancing merrily to a woeful dirge amidst a scene of rustic gaiety?  Something is amiss. 


A description of the ancient authorities.

Homer records the first appearance of the Linus-song in Greek literature, and this ‘plaintive dirge’[6] occurs later in the tragedians.[7] None of these authors refers linoj to a person, and this, we may fairly conclude, represents the original understanding of the word.  But Herodotus, the travel literature of Pausanias, and the mythographies of Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus, connect the Linus-song to a demigod of that name.

Pausanias reports many divergent and incompatible anecdotes on the Linus story.  Linus’ parentage and other details of his life are so variously reported by this author, that the historian must concluded that no authoritative version of the myth ever existed.  Linus is the son of Apollo and Psamathe,[8] and he is the son of Urania and Amphimarus,[9] who was the son of Poseidon.  In one version Linus, whom Pausanias also calls Coroebus, is exposed at birth by Psamathe, fearing the wrath of her father,[10] and this drama of the young god’s life is immortalised on his grave in elegiac couplets.[11]  The Megarians possess his tomb in their agora,[12] and Linus is also buried in Argos before a temple to Apollo.[13] 

These useless details[14] prove nothing more than a fusion of the name ‘Linus’ with various local stories, and no light is shed on the origin the word itself.  Pausanias, however, yields some valuable information when tells us that Linus was a poet, and a skilled musician, who met his end by arousing Apollo’s jealousy,[15] and a yearly sacrifice, he assures us, is made to Linus before one is made to the Muses.[16]  He is universally mourned, and he is called Maneros in Egypt.[17]  Furthermore, Pamphus, the earliest Athenian hymnode, knew the Linus story, but called him Oetolinus.[18]  Sappho also acknowledged him under this name, and the Lesbian poetess was the first to link the word with the myth of Adonis.[19]

The myth of Linus has been embellished in the accounts of Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus.  Calliope is Linus’ mother, who mated with either Oeagrus or Apollo, Linus is Hercules’ lyre teacher[20] and Orpheus’ brother.[21]  Diodorus attributes to Linus the discovery of “rhythms and song,”[22] and affirms that both Hercules and Orpheus were among Linus’ pupils.[23]  Linus punished Hercules for not learning his lessons, and the pupil killed the master. 

The most curious ascription to Linus, however, is the naming and shaping of the letters of the Greek alphabet.[24]  When Cadmus, says Diodorus, had brought the alphabet from Phoenicia to Greece, Linus adapted the letters for use in his own language.  The Greeks themselves had always supposed a Phoenician origin of their letters, and we now acknowledge the truth of this claim, long doubted by scholars.  Linus’ involvement in this story, however, does not move Linus out of the fog of obscurity and into the light of history, but it does link him with Phoenicia, and all signs point to an oriental origin of this god.

Herodotus says that the Egyptians have a Linus song, which is also sung in “Phoenicia and Cyprus and elsewhere.”[25]  Each country, says the Halicarnassian, calls this song by a different name: what Greeks call Linus the Egyptians call Maneros,[26] and this last identification is repeated, as we have observed, by Pausanias.  Maneros was the only son of the first king of Egypt (says Herodotus), whose untimely demise is mourned by the Egyptians’ earliest and only chant.[27]  This last claim is clearly a fiction, since we can hardly believe that, for thousands of years, the Egyptians possessed only one song, but we may readily believe that Herodotus has represented a common interpretation of an ancient song called Maneros, and that he has also recognised a real similarity between it and the Linus song.


The opinions of Sir James G. Frazer.

Reviewing the details supplied by the classical authors, however, the historian must sweep away much rubbish to reveal the truth.  Sir James G. Frazer was the first in the English-speaking world to discuss the Linus song, and his weighty Golden Bough offers to the present subject some interesting, though doubtful, and often erroneous, insight.  Citing Mannhardt, whose premature death prevented the publication of a massive work on comparative folklore, Frazer explains the Linus dirge as a Greek rendering of the Phoenician ai lanu, “woe unto us,” which (as Frazer alleges) was the chorus of a Phoenician lament for Adonis.[28]  I will state now that I would very much like to see this lament, for Frazer does not explain whether this “ai lanu” is attested in any Phoenician, or any other, literature, or whether it is merely his own or Mannhardt’s conjecture.[29]  Frazer quite rightly pursues the obvious link with the Maneros song, which he also explains on dubious grounds by a “misunderstanding” of a series of syllables alleged to be an Egyptian phrase meaning “Come thou back.”[30]  By analogy to the Maneros song, Frazer concludes, the Linus song was a lament on the death of the spirit of the corn, sung during the reaping season.[31]

More recent authors; their errors and omissions.

A more recent author has disagreed with Frazer, has offered a lacklustre, but likely more correct, etymology of ‘Maneros’.  Mr. G. D. Hornblower reports that a certain Prof. Cerny has correctly explained ‘Maneros’ as a name or title meaning ‘goose-herd’.  Accordingly, a person of this name (of royal rank, Hornblower assures us) composed a lament on the death of Osiris, and in time “the song came to be popularly known by its composer’s official name.”[32]  We may accept the etymology of the name, at least as a deduction better than Frazer’s, but I cannot hesitate to express my surprise: on what grounds do we suppose that the Maneros song was named after its author, or that it had anything to do with Osiris?  This is Frazer’s thesis, and as I have observed, there are no good reasons to believe him. Mr. Hornblower, alas, has taken over Frazer’s claim unquestioningly, and reinforced it with his absurd conjecture.  If, as seems likely, ‘Maneros’ is the name of the song’s subject, as Herodotus says, and not a refrain (a claim advanced only by Frazer, and supported by no ancient author whatsoever), we may confidently reject the idea that there is any link between Maneros and Osiris.[33]  Frazer reasoned inaccurately, and perhaps dishonestly, and the Linus-song fell victim to his absurd corn-god thesis.

In the middle of the last century Dr. Robert Eisler offered a learned explanation of the Linus-song.  First, this author places much faith in the Hesiodic fragment (no. 97), which declares that all singers and lyre-players recite the Linus-song “at banquets and dances.”[34]  Likewise, Eisler observes, an Euripidean chorus exclaims ai0 linon in a context that cannot be construed as mournful.[35]  Eisler then connects Linus not with the Semitic ai lanu, but with the Indo-European word for “flax,” common to Greek, Latin, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and Illyrian.[36]  Accordingly, Eisler suggests some kind of “Passion of the Flax” as the origin of the Linus-song, as he adduces many learned parallels in the world’s folklore, and collective song book.[37]  To summarise his argument is not easy, but the details are as follows: the Linus-song is the story of the planting, growth, harvesting, and eating of flax.  An ancient taboo, which predates the foundation of agriculture, connects the flax-story with various religious ideas, which agree in some significant ways with the theology and rites described by Frazer in his weighty tome.  Eisler’s thesis is a refreshing contrast to that of Frazer, for the myth of the vegetation god is justly omitted from latter’s argument.

If Eisler is even partly correct, he has proven that the Linus-song was part of the archaic tradition of the Greeks and the other Indo-Europeans, and was not imported from Asia.  Nevertheless, his hypothesis accuses the Greeks’ own interpretation of the song’s meaning: why would the Greeks have invented a series of incompatible and foreign explanations for a native tradition?  Furthermore, if the Linus-song is about flax, why in the shield ecphrasis is it sung at the grape harvest?

Some implications of the forgoing facts.

Before I answer this question, let me state emphatically that neither Frazer’s nor Eisler’s hypothesis can be verified.  The two scholars have used the “comparative method”[38] to deduce form recent customs the meaning of ancient rites: why?  There is no reason to believe that this method produces the truth, and anthropologists using this technique have always presupposed its infallible utility on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.  The student’s scepticism is well advised, and not even the best efforts of the arm-chair anthropologists (or any anthropologist irrespective of his home-furnishings) has cleared the fog that hangs over archaic religion.[39]

My opinion is as follows.  The origins of the Linus-song were so ancient that not even the Greeks of Hesiod’s day knew them.  As both Frazer and Eisler have demonstrated, harvest songs of various sorts are common to many, and perhaps all, societies, and we may fairly suppose that the earliest Linus-song among the Greeks was of this sort.  This is the song to which Homer and Hesiod refer.  It was called ‘Linus’ because its ancient, and long forgotten, subject was flax.

Nevertheless I cannot discount the evidence of the Greeks themselves: Linus has some connection to Asia, some relationship to Egypt, and some affiliation to music and the alphabet.  I suggest a far-fetched explanation, in which I have no vested interest, nor do I intend to exalt the Semites above the inferior Greeks.

Expanding international trade forced the Phoenicians to develop an alphabet in c. 1000 B.C.  Phoenicians settling in Crete mingled with the native Greeks, and the Oriental alphabet began its spread throughout Europe at this time.  Consequently, it is very likely that the Greeks were introduced to the Oriental religion at the very moment when they encountered the Asiatic alphabet.  It was at this point that the Greeks heard the lament ai lanu, a very common utterance in Semitic poetry,[40] and began to repeat it in their own language.  By Sappho’s time, the two Linus-songs had been confounded, and the origin of Phoenician dirge became garbled and combined with the aetiology of the alphabet.[41]  Linus’ position as a musician and poet commemorates the influence of Asiatic culture upon the primitive Greeks, and Hercules’ murder of his teacher—I might press the point further—signifies the Greeks’ early struggles with such refinements.  I reiterate that this is pure conjecture, and rereading it, I am overcome by doubt.

Such is the extent of my investigations into the origin of the Linus-song, and I lament that I have built a house without a foundation.  The musings of the historian, the critic, and the student will have no support but the doubtful literary evidence, and these three camps will rejoice to see the happy day on which an archaeological discovery[42] is made to settle this issue.



1. Apollodorus, The Library, v. I.  Loeb Classical Library, James G. Frazer, F. Bd., F. R. S. etc.   Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass: 1921.


2. Diodorus Siculus, v. II.  Loeb Classical Library, trans. C. H. Oldfeather.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass: 1935.


3. Eisler, Robert.  Folklore, vol. 61, No. 3. (Sep., 1950) pp.114-133.  The Passion of the Flax. 


4. Frazer, James G., M. A.  The Golden Bough &c.  Avenel Books, New York: 1981 (1890).


5. Herodotus. v. I.  Loeb Classical Library, trans. A. D. Godley.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass: 1946 (1920).


6. Homer, Iliad.  Oxford Classical Texts, ed. Munro and Allen.  Oxford Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1902.


7. Hornblower, G. D. in Man vol. 47: October, 1947.  The Ancient Egyptian Word ‘Maneros’.


8. Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece.  Loeb Classical Library, trans. W. H. S. Jones, Litt. D.  v.v. I, IV.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass: 1918.



[1] toisin d’en messoisi paij formiggi ligeihi

i9meroen kiqarize, linon du9po kalon a0eiden

leptalehi fwnhi… (Iliad, xviii, 569-571).

[2] ll. 483-489

[3] l. 608

[4] parqenikai de kai h0iqeoi atala froneontej (Ibid., l. 567)

[5]toi de r9hssontej a9marthi

molphi ti0ugmwi te posi skairontej e9ponto (Ibid., ll. 571-572).

[6] The immortal words of the Intermediate Liddell and Scott, s.v. ai0linoj.

[7] Cf. Sophocles, Ajax, l. 627; Æschylus, Agamemnon, l. 121; Euripides, Orestes, l. 1395.  In these contexts the exclamation ai0linoj evokes the cruellest woe.

[8] legousin Yamaqhn tekein paida e0c  0Apollwnoj (Paus., 1. xlii, 7).

[9] Paus., 9. xxix, 6-9.

[10] He says that yamaqhn e0xomenhn i0sxurwj tou patroj deimati ton paida e0kqeinai (Paus., 1. xliii, 7).

[11] gegraptai de e0legeia ta e0j Yamaqhn kai ta e0j au0ton e0xonta Koroibon (Paus., 1. xxli, 8).

[12] (Ibid.).

[13] Paus., 2. xix, 9.

[14] At one point Pausanias seems to distinguish between one Linus who was the son of Psamathe and Apollo and another who “made poems” (2. xix, 9).  Elsewhere, he seems to introduce a third Linus, whom the Thebans call “Ismenian” (9. xxix, 9).

[15] Paus., 9. xxix, 7.

[16] toutwi kata e0toj e9kaston pro thj qusiaj twn Mouswn e0nargizousi (Paus., 9. xxix, 6).

[17] a0poqanontoj de tou Linou to e0pau0twi penqoj dihlqen a0ra kai a0rxri thj barbarouj pashj, w9j kai Ai0puptioij a0isma genesqai Linon: kalousi de to a0isma Ai0guptioi thi e0pixwriwi fwnhi Manerwn (Paus., xxix, 9).

[18] Paus., 9. xxxix, 8.  I will address the two additional syllables below.

[19] Sapfw de h9 Lebia tou Oi0tolinou to o0noma e0k twn e0pwn twn Pamfw muqousa 0Adwnin o9mou kai Oi0tolinon h0isen (Ibid.).

[20] Apoll., 2. iv, 9.

[21] Apoll., 1. iii, 2.

[22] fhsi toinun par’9Ellhsi prwton eu9rhthn genesqai Linon r9uqmwn kai melouj (Diod. 3. xlvii, 1).

[23] Diodorus declares that linon maqhtaj e0xein pollouj e0pifanestatwj de treij, 9Hraklea, Qamuran, 0Orfea (Diod., 3. lxvii, 2).

[24] e0ti de Kadmou komisantoj e0k Foinikhj ta kaloumena grammata prwton ei0j thn 9Ellhnikan metaqeinai dialekton, kai taj prothgoriaj e9kastwi tacai kai toij xarakthraj diatupwsai (Ibid.).

[25] toisi a0eisma e9n e0sti, Linoj, w9sper e0n te Foinikhi a0oidimoj e0sti kai e0n Kuprwi kai a0llhi (Herod. 2, 79).

[26] e0sti de Ai0guptisti o9 Linoj kaleumenoj Manerwj (Ibid.).

[27] e0fasan a0oidhn te tauthn prwthn kai mounhn sfisi genesqai (Ibid.).

[28] Frazer, v. i p. 365.

[29] …the name Linus or Ailinus appears to have originated in a verbal misunderstanding, and to be nothing more than the cry ai lanu…which the probably uttered in mourning for Adonis (Ibid.).  The key words are appears and probably.  My confidence in Frazer here is also undermined by a solitary footnote in which a single page of Mannhardt is summoned to bolster so diffuse an argument.

[30] It appears that the name Maneros is due to a misunderstanding of the formula mââ-ne-hra…which has been discovered in various Egyptian writings, for example in the dirge of Isis in the Book of the Dead (Frazer, v. i, p. 364).  Frazer cites a scholar named Brugsch, whose works are unknown to me, and absent from Robart’s library.  There is so need to connect the Egyptian phrase with the word ‘Maneros’, since 1. it is utterly incongruous with Herodotus’ explanation of the song, and 2. transliteration of Egyptian vowels must always be doubted, since they were never represented in the written character of that language, and the vocalisation offered is likely to have been influenced by a desire (conscious or unconscious) to make the phrase accord with ‘Maneros’!  I need not also observe that there are many so-called Books of the Dead (all of them are of various antiquity and theology), and it is not clear which ‘edition’ Frazer implies.

[31] Frazer, v. i, p. 399.

[32] Hornblower, Man, v. 47 (October, 1947).  This article is in fact a response to a previous publication by the same author; he laments his former dependence on the incorrect conclusions of Frazer in an article written ten years previous to his discovery of the work of Cerny.

[33] It is dangerous to generalise about the Egyptian religion, which was both long-lived and various.  Furthermore, until the Late Period, cemeteries, private tombs, and cenotaphs provide the majority of archaeological data for the Egyptian historian, and absence of anything resembling theology should disturb both the over-zealous anthropologist and the prophet of the New Age.  The Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Books of the Dead, of course, do address the worship of Osiris and the other gods, but (as I myself can confirm) these works are little more than lists of useless spells, whose meaning is at best obscure, and at worst incomprehensible.  My own psychoanalytic essay on the Pyramid Texts seemed to bring some order to the confusion of images, but I must stress that anyone’s guess is as good as mine.  Investigations into the rites of Osiris, similarly, must be conducted with caution.

[34] Eisler, p. 117.  Hesiod’s relevant words are e0n ei0lapinaij te xoroij te.  And we are led to believe that the poet could not have understood the Linus-song as a dirge of any kind.  This is, at least, as Eisler has represents it: but if the entire fragment is read, one finds pantej men qrhneusin e0n ei0lapinaij te xopoij te, and this portion of Eisler’s argument is exploded.

[35] ai0 linon men e0p’eu0tuxei

molpai Foiboj i0axei

tan kallifqoggon kiqaran

e0launwn plhtrwi xrusewi (Raving Heracles, vv. 348 ff.).  This is quoted in Eisler (p. 118). 

[36] Eisler, p. 119.  Latin: linum; Gothic: lein; Old German: lin; Albanian: l’ini; Old Slavonic: linu; Lithuanian: linai.

[37] Among these are puss in boots (p. 122), the stories of Hans Christian Andersen (p. 119), a German papermaker’s song (p. 120), and the song “John Barleycorn must die” (p. 122).  I have heard of all of these, but John Barleycorn is the only example that I have actually heard.  This song was immortalised in 1969 by the band Traffic, and has been recorded by the famous duo of Bert Jansch and John Renbourne, perhaps the two greatest acoustic guitarists that England ever produced.  The song is indeed a poetic description of the life-cycle of barley: it is full of violent and arresting imagery which depicts man’s resolve to destroy John Barleycorn, who proves in the end to be immortal.  It is as entertaining as any college drinking song, without the slightest expression of woe.  The parallel is just.

[38] This very same method is used in the memorable work of Marcel Detienne, Les Jardins d’Adonis, which rejects Frazer’s opinions utterly.  The author supposes instead that the symbols of vegetation represent the growth of cities and various psycho-sexual motifs.  The “facts” cannot be considered unequivocal, and it seems that an author will understand the ancient religions in whatever way seems to support his axe-grinding best.  The strangest assumption that underlies every page of Frazer’s book is that the vegetation-god was the invention of the so-called Aryans, who invaded Egypt and the Levant.  The religion of Osiris, therefore, represented Egyptian accretions to the native religion of the Aryans.  I am happy to say that Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, the second most famous crackpot Englishman of the nineteenth century, was a life-long opponent of this thesis.  Moreover that Egyptologist was the only scholar in the world who believed that the religion of Osiris was native to Africa—and we now know that this is true.  I think that Frazer’s underhanded objective was a debunking of Christianity, which in fact he wrote in an unpublished chapter of The Colden Bough, but I will say no more on this issue.

[39] Nevertheless I find Eisler more convincing than Frazer.

[40] For examples of this in the Old Testament see 1 Samuel 4:7-8; Jeremiah 4:13, 6:4; and Esther 5:16.  “Woe unto us” is also found in the Coran in surah 27:14.  Doubtless I could adduce other parallels if I knew Babylonian, Ugaritic, Sumerian, or Akkadian—but alas! my education has been impoverished.

[41] This is to say that both subjects were confused by a mutual association with Phoenicia.

[42] If shields were normally adorned with harvests and the Linus-song, a discovery of such an object might explain much.