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Humourism and Heroes: A Comparison of Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf

Updated on November 6, 2017

“It is the stars, the stars above us, govern our conditions; Else one self mate and mate could not beget such different issues.”— Shakespeare (King Lear 4.3)

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (400 BCE) reworked the theory of classical elements—earth, air, fire, and water—that was originally developed in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia civilizations nearly 2,500 years before by corresponding the four elements with four bodily fluids or humors—black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood (Benson et al, 2012). The Roman philosopher and physician Galen (200 CE) took Hippocrates’s theory of humorism and applied it to medical practices to understand differences and similarities in human temperaments (Benson et al, 2012). This belief that the four humors of the body determined human’s personality had been a dominant practice up to the seventeenth-century (Sommerville, 2013). Furthermore, Aristotelian science established that the four elements were in a continual state of flux because the movements of the planets and stars; thus, as the earth swayed with water, and water with the air, and air with fire, and fire with the earth, and these elements reflected human humors, then human personality was directly influenced by the movements of the stars (Sommerville, 2013). Since the ancient gods and goddesses of ancient, classical, and medieval cultures in the Western world were intimately connected with celestial movements and bodies, perhaps the divine interventions of Hera and Thetis in Achilles’ arguments in book one of Homer’s “Iliad” is merely a flux in Achilles’ melancholic black fluid, and when Aeneas travels on the river of Styx, he is experiencing a surplus of phlegmatic fluid. An in-depth analysis using humorism may explain the differences between ancient, classical, and medieval heroes such as Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf because humors, elements, and the celestial bodies were all central concepts to their cultures’ understanding of the world and the temperaments of humans.

A Brief Explanation of the Relationship between Elements, Humors, and Astrology

The four classical elements – earth, air, fire, and water – correspond respectively to the four humors of the body – black bile (melancholic), blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), and phlegm (phlegmatic). The classical elements and humors also shares physical qualities, such as earth and black bile are cold and dry, air and blood are warm and moist, fire and yellow bile are warm and dry, and water and phlegm are cold and moist (Benson et al., 2012). Thus, the flux of human temperament is directly correlated with the climate conditions. Furthermore, because Aristotelian science distinguished the superlunary sphere (above the moon: fixed stars and constellations) and the sublunary sphere (under the moon: meteorites, asteroids, earth, solar-system planets) that ultimately suggested that the celestial bodies controlled the elements on earth, which ultimately influence the attitudes and behavior of humans (Sommerville, 2013).

The Effects of Humor Imbalances in the Body

It was once a common belief that a melancholic person had an excess of black bile in his or her body. This excess of black bile, according to Galen, made people sad, fearful, depressed, sleepless, irritable, poetic, or artistic. A sanguine person had an excess of blood in his or her body. This excess of blood made them cheery, optimistic, confident, courageous, hopeful, or selfish. A choleric person had an excess of yellow bile in his or her body, which made them fiery, energetic, easily angered, and passionate. Lastly, a phlegmatic person had an excess of phlegm, which made him or her slow, quiet, calm, rational, unemotional, and consistent (Benson et al., 2012). Comparing these humors to their corresponding classical elements is interesting because choleric people are energetic and restless like fire, and the earth is cold and dry like the behavior of a melancholic person that is depressed or irritable.

Humorism and Our Heroes

Achilles, the Achaean war hero from Homer’s ancient epic the “Iliad,” comes from a pagan Greek culture. His character traits show that his body tends to swing from extremes in black and yellow bile: melancholic and choleric temperaments. The classical elements that correspond with these humors highlight Achilles’s heroic powers and flaws. His powers lie in the element of fire; he brings energy, passion, and violent temper to battle and rages like a wildfire against the Trojans. Homer recognizes that his character Achilles embodies the physical elements fire and earth and imbues them with the humors in Book 20 when Achilles returns to battle:

An inhuman fire sweeps on in fury through the deep angles

Of a drywood mountain and sets ablaze the depth of timber

And the blustering wind lashes the flame along, so Achilles

Swept everywhere with his spear like something more than a mortal

Harrying them as they died, and the black earth ran blood. (Damrosch et al., pp. 140-166)

Notice Homer’s emphasis on the elements and physical qualities of the environment. In this passage, Homer metaphorically compares Achilles to fire, which corresponds to a choleric humor; he essentially is so excessive in his yellow bile and fiery in temper that he becomes a wildfire. Furthermore, the wind or air element, which corresponds to Achilles’s sanguine humor, emphasizes Achilles’s courageousness, which is ultimately fueling his energy like fanning a fire. Lastly, when Homer says the ‘black earth ran with blood,’ ultimately Achilles drops his melancholic demeanor that was so prevalent in his attitude over half of the epic and overcomes it with this burst of passion on the battlefield. Even so, his melancholy is his tragic flaw because it directly is linked with the earth. According to the “Achilleid” by Statius, Achilles’s mother Thetis dipped him into the river of Styx and burned his body to make him immortal, only to miss his heel; the only part of his body that was still earthly and uncleansed (Dilke, 1954).

While Homer’s “Iliad” and main hero Achilles were predominantly characterized by earth and fire elements, and melancholic and choleric humors, which are two dry traits, Virgil’s classical imitation of ancient epic poetry the “Aeneid” and its main hero Aeneas are characterized by two moist traits: air and water. According to humorism this major difference makes sense because the “Iliad” is about purging Troy and bring about an end or figurative death to the conflicts between the Achaeans and Trojans whereas the “Aeneid” is about the visions of future Rome, Aeneas’s travels, and the establishment of a new-blood or royal line. Essentially, this ‘moist’ physical quality is an important difference between the “Iliad” and “Aeneid” because moist represents birth and regeneration whereas dry signifies dying and decaying. For instance, when Aeneas travels on the Styx, which is also known as alpha, meaning ‘the one that gives birth to all that follows,’ is important symbolism in conveying Aeneas’s phlegmatic temperament because phlegm is linked to the element water, which in turn is linked with birth (Nozedar, 2008). Furthermore, when Aeneas enters the Elysian Fields to speak to his father, Anchises, the air and water combine to create a humid, foggy, and misty scene. This combination or balance of phlegm and blood in Aeneas allows him to see visions of future Rome. The symbolism continues because this new-blood line represents the new life and vitality of the surviving Trojans. Essentially, the sack of Troy was a figurative baptism by fire because it cleansed the blood Troy, and in the “Aeneid,” the surviving Trojans must embark on a new life by establishing Rome, a figurative second birth. Thus, it is quite fitting for the differences in the prominent humors and elements displayed in the heroes of Achilles and Aeneas because their temperaments and environments changed according to their circumstances; Achilles’s heroics required him to be fiery and dry to purge Troy, and Aeneas’s heroics required him to be rational and confident to create a new-blood line in Rome.

Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic hero from the anonymously written “Beowulf,” vastly differs from his ancient and classical predecessors, Achilles and Aeneas. Beowulf’s characteristics show that he is a dominantly phlegmatic warrior that fluxes slightly in sanguine qualities during battle because he is mostly calm, rational, and confident. The physical qualities that align with excessive phlegm are cold and moist, and the element is water. Interestingly, Beowulf’s temperament reflects the cold and moist climate of the seafaring nations of Scandinavia, the setting of this epic poem. Furthermore, the element water is highly expressed several times throughout the epic. For instance, Beowulf sails to reach Hrothgar, he tells a tale of how he battled sea-monsters in a swimming match, and he dove to the bottom of a lake to conquer the monster, Grendel’s mother. Furthermore, the Christian author of Beowulf certainly must realize the important symbolism behind water in regard to baptism; while Beowulf is portrayed as a Christian warrior surrounded by pagans, he demonstrates many of his heroic deeds submerged in water. Perhaps Beowulf fights in water to cleanse himself and counterbalance his sanguine pride—acting on behalf of the medieval Christian belief of baptism. Symbolically this is important to Beowulf because if his blood is clean for battle, God will always be on his side.

The development of the hero from the ancient Achilles to the classical Aeneas differs little other than in circumstances because Virgil and Homer shared virtually the same gods and goddesses, climate, and customs; the Roman’s had a fascination for ancient Greek culture. Comparatively, the Greco-Roman heroes Achilles and Aeneas differ vastly from the Scandinavian hero Beowulf. Many of these differences are in belief systems and climates, which according to humorism is substantial because the elements are so closely linked to heroic characteristics. Readers can see this important relationship in the figurative language of Homer, Virgil, and the poet of “Beowulf.” Even though the temperaments these heroes show as they perform heroic deeds are different, they all demonstrate some common qualities such as exceptional fighting skills, showing remarkable awareness of Aristotelian virtues like courage, enjoying lines of royalty, possessing strong leadership qualities, and having a thirst for glory and immortality in battle.

Conclusion

Using humorism as a tool for critic of ancient, classical, and medieval literary works is effective because humors, elements, and celestial bodies were central to the lives of individuals and functioning of societies. This essay aimed to illuminate some of the similarities and differences between the well-known heroes Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf in regard to their differences in humors and elements and how they affect each of their temperaments. Further research to build upon this essay would be to further highlight the role of the gods and goddesses, climate, and the movements of the celestial bodies in humorism in regard to heroic characters and circumstances.

References

Benson, N., Collin, C., Ginsberg, J., Grand, V., Lazyan, M., & Weeks, M. (2012). The psychology book big ideas simply explained. (1 ed., pp. pp. 12-13). New York, NY: DK Publishing.

Damrosch, D., Alliston, A., Brown, M., duBois, P., Hafez, S., Heise, U. K., et al. (2008). The Iliad. In The longman anthology of world literature (2 ed., vol. a, pp. 140-166). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.

Dilke, O. (1954). Statius achilleid. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press.

Nozedar, A. (2008). The element encyclopedia of secret signs and symbols. (1 ed.). London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Sommerville, J. (2013). Astrology; Astrological foundations; Astrology’s social functions. Retrieved from http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/367/367-121.htm

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