Leonard Muellner

Eins ist keins, zwei ist eins, drei ist alles: A Metonymic Interpretation of the Rule of Three in Epic[1]

My subject is the rule of three, a convention or trope that is common in folktales, proverbs, and jokes as well as myths and Epic narratives. We all know of characters who come in threes, the Three Little Pigs, the Three Fates or the Three Gorgons, and they usually do things in threes — they get three wishes, they build three houses, or they each see a tiger in the street. Here’s an example, a joke about three Irishmen stranded on an island. A fairy appears and offers to fulfill a single wish for each. The first Irishman wishes for intelligence, whereupon the fairy turns him from an Irishman into a Scotsman, and he swims from the island to the mainland. The second one, now that it’s his turn, wishes to be more intelligent than the first, whereupon the fairy turns him from an Irishman into a Welshman, and he builds a sailboat that he then sails from island to mainland. The third Irishman’s wish is to be still more intelligent, whereupon the fairy turns him into a woman, who promptly finds the bridge to the mainland and walks across it.

There’s a beguiling but deceptive simplicity to this sequential structure. A pattern of some sort is initialized by the first item, clarified by the second, and then the third one caps the previous two either by confirming or overturning the pattern or doing both at once. This sort of sequential structure flourishes on a microcosmic level as well. In all sorts of rhetorical contexts, the so-called tricolon crescendo is a model for how to compose a beautiful line or sentence. In Greek epic poetry, examples of it usually consist of names of gods, heroes, or cities. Such catalogues or lists are an essential feature of Homeric and Hesiodic epic poetry. Here are some examples from the beginning of the Iliad:

Α 264 Καινέα τ᾿ Ἐξάδιόν τε καὶ ἀντίθεον Πολύφημον
Kaineus and Exadios and godlike Polyphemus (Lapiths)

Α 400 Ἥρη τ᾿ ἠδὲ Ποσειδάων καὶ Πάλλας Ἀθήνη
Hera and Poseidon and Pallas Athena (Olympian gods)

Β 497 Σχοῖνόν τε Σκῶλόν τε πολύκνημόν τ᾿ Ἐτεωνόν
Schoinos and Skōlos and mountainous Eteōnos (cities in Boeotia)

Such is the standard form, two names without an epithet followed by a third with an epithet, the whole filling one datcylic hexameter verse, no more, no less. I will return to the significance of naming names within this sequential structure, but I note that we again see the same sequence strategy in these lines as in the joke about the Irishmen: a pattern established by the two names without epithet that is then capped and tweaked by a third name with epithet.

There are also other contexts in which the constraints of the rule of three surfaces, like the following one, in which Patroklos, Achilles’ best friend, who is at this point in the narrative dressed in Achilles’ own armor, tries to scale the walls of Troy in a way which he has been explicitly told not to, which the poem defines as transgressive,[2] and which we know from other sources was the way that Achilles met his death:

τρὶς μὲν ἐπ’ ἀγκῶνος βῆ τείχεος ὑψηλοῖο
Πάτροκλος, τρὶς δ’ αὐτὸν ἀπεστυφέλιξεν Ἀπόλλων
χείρεσσ’ ἀθανάτῃσι φαεινὴν ἀσπίδα νύσσων.
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ τὸ τέταρτον ἐπέσσυτο δαίμονι ἶσος,
δεινὰ δ’ ὁμοκλήσας ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·
χάζεο διογενὲς Πατρόκλεες· οὔ νύ τοι αἶσα
σῷ ὑπὸ δουρὶ πόλιν πέρθαι Τρώων ἀγερώχων,
οὐδ’ ὑπ’ Ἀχιλλῆος, ὅς περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
ὣς φάτο, Πάτροκλος δ’ ἀνεχάζετο πολλὸν ὀπίσσω
μῆνιν ἀλευάμενος ἑκατηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος.

Iliad 16.703-711

Three times he went at the angle of the high wall
Patroklos did, and three times Apollo drove him away violently
denting his shining shield with his immortal hands.
But when he rushed at it for the fourth time, equal to a god (daímoni īsos),
calling him off in a frightening way, he [Apollo] addressed him winged words:
“Withdraw, Zeus-born Patroklos; it is not your destiny
for the city of the proud Trojans to be overthrown by your spear,
nor even by Achilles’, who is much better indeed than you.”
So he spoke, and Patroklos withdrew far back,
shunning the wrath (mênis) of far shooter Apollo.

It is important to grasp the ambivalence being expressed here about Patroklos’ fourth attempt to assail the angle of the wall. As the fourth after three it is a critical moment that can be either wonderful or terrible; at the same time as he is told by Apollo to retreat, the narrator gives Patroklos the epithet daímoni īsos ‘equal to a god,’ an epithet of praise restricted to heroes in their most significant and impressive moments as warriors. When Apollo warns him off, he does so by stating that he is trying to do what is not his destiny or even Achilles’ destiny, in other words, by drawing metaphorical lines that Patroklos should not and cannot cross — though he later does so, at the expense of his life. So a group of three attempts stands as a unit of behavior which should be complete in itself, and that is already something with a line drawn around it; an attempt beyond the third one is bound to be either exceptional or terrible or both at once. In rushing ahead for a fourth time, Patroklos has surpassed himself to an extent that is both very admirable and very dangerous.

There are other ways in which Homeric epic plays with the rule of three and patterns variations upon it, but I wish to focus on a rarer and perhaps older form of the rule of three. This distinctly different sequential structure is encapsulated by the German proverb in my title, which is at the same time an example of the familiar, rhetorical use of the rule of three, though it turns it on its head: Eins ist keins (in other words, 1=0), zwei ist eins (in other words, 2=1), und drei ist alles (3=all). The arithmetic is certainly very strange, and its relationship to the rule of three makes it seem even stranger, but I here offer an illustration of it by briefly retelling the story of how Zeus became king of the gods as it is told in the Hesiodic Epic Theogony. This poem about the creation of the world is a catalogue or poetic list of the names of all the divine beings that emerged into the world — naming is its primary function, and naming naturally coincides with birth, so the catalogue is on occasion interrupted with stories, especially when the creation of divinities (and therefore their naming) is interrupted — something that happens three times in the course of the poem. The list or catalogue of names begins with the creation of an empty space called Chaos (=Gap), and then Earth is born, then the lower world, Tartara, and then Eros, the principle of sexual procreation that makes the generation of one divine being from another possible. So Earth (female) gives birth to starry Sky (male), and the two as a couple generate a group of twelve gods called the Titans, along with the three Cyclopes, and three monsters, each monster having fifty heads and one hundred hands — three groups in all are generated by the primordial couple. At this point (Theogony 154) the listing stops because Sky, the father of these children whom the narrator qualifies as deinotatoi ‘most terrifying’ children, hates them all and keeps them from emerging from Mother Earth — how he keeps them from emerging is not explained, but presumably he does so by continuing to “cover” earth and not letting them escape. But Earth and the youngest of these children, Kronos, conspire to release them. She creates a sickle, a harvesting tool, from an unbreakable metal within herself, and gives it to Kronos with instructions about what to do when his Sky father comes (sic: in both senses of the word): in order to release his brothers and sisters from within their mother, he harvests Sky’s genitals with the sickle, and he throws the genitals behind his back and into the sea, where foam collects around them. From the foamy genitals emerges, on the island of Cyprus, the goddess of sex and fertility, Aphrodite herself. One could not imagine a clearer statement of the triumph of the feminine prerogative at the complete expense of the male one than Aphrodite’s birth from the castrated genitals of a divine being who attempted to suppress a key female part of the procreative process, namely, giving birth.

This episode takes place in lines Theogony 154-210, over 55 verses, whereupon the listing of names resumes for 244 verses. At line 454, the huge task of listing the names of gods as they are created is once again brought to a halt. At that point we return to Kronos, the castrator of Sky, and his consort, his sister Rhea, and their children, namely, a group of the familiar Olympian gods, Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and lastly Zeus. At this point we learn that to prevent anyone else from having the βασιληίδα τίμην ‘the divine sphere of kingship’, Kronos drank down (in other words, did not chew up) every last one of them except for Zeus, the youngest. We had not been told before that Kronos even was a king; it only comes to the surface when he is in danger of losing his kingship because Earth and Sky had told him that he was destined to be subdued by his own child. Kronos’s technique of swallowing the children, or as the Greek text puts it, “placing [them] inside his own womb” (Theogony 487) as each was born from their mother’s womb, is doing Sky one better: Sky had prevented their birth by keeping them within their mother’s womb, but Kronos allows them to be born but then puts them back in his own womb, which is clearly to be understood as equivalent to his stomach because he swallows the children to get them there. This trick turns out not to work, because his consort Rhea along with Earth and Sky conspire to undo it: when the last child, Zeus is born, they give him a stone wrapped up like a baby to swallow, and they transport the real baby Zeus to be reared within his grandmother — Earth. Then in some way (the text is inexplicit, except to say that it was a combination of violence and cunning) Zeus got Kronos to vomit up his siblings and last of all the stone.

This episode concludes at Theogony 506, but the words for ‘rule as king’ and ‘king’ are not applied to Zeus until lines 883 and 886, 360 verses later, when Zeus is himself in danger of being replaced as his father and grandfather had been. There we learn that in order to prevent someone else from having the ‘divine sphere of kingship,’ Zeus put into his womb not his children once they were born, as Kronos had done, but the whole pregnant mother, Mētis, whose name means ‘cunning.’ So he did Kronos one better than Kronos had done Sky, and the ultimate result was the birth from Zeus’ head of the goddess Athena. As a female goddess born from him, the only male in the Theogony to “give birth” to a child, she does not replace Zeus the way that a male born from a female consort would. Furthermore, Zeus is endowed by his grandmother Earth with the most powerful of weapons, the thunderbolt, and in addition, he has swallowed (and not regurgitated) Mētis (=Cunning) herself. The result is that the kingship of Zeus is in principle immune to the threat of replacement from any quarter, since he has absolute superiority in the two traits that overthrew his predecessors, namely, violence and cunning, separately or in combination. From this perspective, looking back at the whole myth, we can see that the goddess Athena, who was born from Zeus’ head, is a sterile goddess of both violence (Greek biē) and cunning Greek mētis),[3] is the counterpoise to Aphrodite, goddess of female fertility and sexuality, born from the castrated genitals of Sky. The circle of the myth is complete.

More importantly, this tale illustrates the German proverb I spoke of earlier: the first father, Sky, who sought to prevent the birth of his children is never called a king, but he is, in effect, the ZERO version of kingship, a father who lost his maleness at the moment that his children were born. The second father, Kronos, who let his children be born but put them back into his own pseudo-womb, is the FIRST king, even though his kingship is only spoken of when he is about to lose it. The third father, Zeus, becomes the king of the gods as well as the god of kings, the embodiment of sovereignty. So we have a three-part sequence that goes from zero-degree king, to first king, to the king of the gods forever, with none, in theory at least, able to succeed him. Zeus has ended the pattern by giving birth, in effect combining maleness (defined by violence and destructiveness) and femaleness (defined by cunning and creativity) in such a way as to dominate both procreation and destruction, so he is equipped to withstand all challengers, of which there will be many. Just as Athena is a counterpoise to Aphrodite, so Zeus ‘whose genitals are unfailing’ (ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδώς, Theogony 545) is a counterpoise to the castrated Sky.

The sequence here is less strange than it appears: the key concept is that each of the three steps in the sequence of the myth builds upon the previous one in a way that both incorporates and surpasses it. This is a kind of metonymic logic that we see expressed in folksongs, where each succeeding verse repeats all the previous ones and adds a new one; ii also occurs in the joke about the three Irishmen, where the sequence of increasing intelligence goes from three Irishmen who are stranded on an island to a Scotsman swimming to the mainland, then a Welshman sailing his own boat to the mainland, then the woman who simply walks to the mainland over a bridge. Although the middle term has been expanded to two steps, one Scot and the other Welsh, so that there is actually a sequence of four rather than three, in each episode the character with the wish displays more intelligence than the previous one, and the absoluteness of the most intelligent, the woman who may or may not be Celtic in the last episode, corresponds in an interesting way to the completeness and absoluteness expressed by Zeus in the Greek theogonic myth.[4]

Here is my final example. In the 9th scroll of the Homeric Iliad, the Greeks make three attempts to get their greatest hero, Achilles, to return to the fighting that he has shunned since the beginning of the poem, when Agamemnon took away his prize woman. First the hero of the other epic, Odysseus, makes a long speech (Iliad 9.225-306) offering Achilles, on Agamemnon’s behalf, a long list of valuable objects, cities, and women, along with the prospect of killing the greatest of the Trojan hero, Hector. Achilles (Iliad 9.8-429) violently refuses every aspect of this attempt and in fact says that he is going to go home the next morning (9.355-363), whereas before he was at least staying put in Troy (this is the ZERO point in the sequence). Then Achilles’ old teacher Phoinix makes a long speech (Iliad 9.434-605) telling the story of a hero of old, Meleager, who also stopped fighting for his side and resisted a series of attempts by his friends and relatives to reward him and persuade him to return to battle. Finally, Meleager’s very dear wife, Kleopatra, at the very last moment, as his city was about to be burnt to the ground, convinced him to return. Phoinix tells Achilles not to be like Meleager, because he forfeited all the rewards, and because Achilles will have less timē, less respect or prestige (Iliad 9.605) than if he returns to battle now. Achilles’ response (9.607-619) is to deny that he needs more timē, since he has more than enough from Zeus himself. In fact, what timē he has he wants to share with Phoinix, his dear friend. In the end, though, Achilles’ response is that the two of them, he and Phoinix, can decide in the morning whether or not Achilles should leave Troy.

The achievement of Phoinix, then, is minimal, but it is a small step forward compared to the utter refusal that Odysseus received. Though it is the second item, it qualifies as the FIRST or starting point in the sequence. Finally (9.624-642), Ajax, the second best of the Greek warriors after Achilles and his very dear friend, addresses first Odysseus, not Achilles, whom he describes as agrion ‘savage’ and inattentive to his philoi, the near and dear friends who are there asking him to return. Then he literally turns to Achilles and makes a direct plea to him for help on the basis of their friendship. This time Achilles responds with agreement and a statement that effectively makes Phoinix’s negative model, Meleager, his model: he will not return to the fighting until Hector sets fire to the ships, and at that point he will restrain Hector from setting fire to his own shelter and ships (Iliad 9.650-655). In sum Achilles’s responses go from returning home, doing the opposite of what he was asked by Odysseus, to doing exactly what he was advised not to do, namely, to wait until the last possible moment before returning to the fight, with an intermediary step towards simply remaining in order to decide what to do.

Again, we see the pattern: a first response establishes a zero point, in its negativity; then, building upon it, the second response moves forward a step from there; and then a third solution is posed that brings the discussion to a definitive close. It as though two forms of binary opposition, the opposition between zero and one and the opposition between all and nothing, have been superimposed on one another and logically related to each other to produce a sequence:

(0 vs. 1) + (all vs. nothing) ➜ 0→1→everything

Perhaps we should think of this form of the rule of three, then, as the successor to the logic of the merism, which one might describe as the rule of two, whereby two characters (like alpha and omega, or Achilles and Odysseus) or two poems (like the Iliad and the Odyssey) exist in a contrastive, complementary, non-overlapping relationship that embraces everything in between. The rule of three is not an oppositional but a progressive, additive process of naming or defining a term or concept, and the result is a definition of kingship, or of intelligence, or of the ultimate hero’s decision about when to return to battle and save his peers. The contrast between this way of thinking and the all-encompassing contrast of a merism may explain one of the most puzzling moments in Iliad 9: when Odysseus returns from Achilles’ shelter and reports to Agamemnon and the other Achaeans how Achilles has responded (Iliad 9.677-692), he only reports the totally negative response that his speech received. He tells them that Achilles is leaving for home in the morning, and he ignores completely the progressive changes in Achilles’ responses to Phoinix and Ajax. It is as though Odysseus can only think in terms of the mutually exclusive merism that distinguishes him from Achilles, so that the progressive thinking in his three responses, in which he changes his mind and takes account of the passionate words of both Phoinix and of Ajax, are invisible to Odysseus’ intelligence. In my experience as a teacher of Homeric poetry, the same thing usually happens to students reading the Iliad in English: they take away only Odysseus’ report of Achilles’ first response and ignore the climactic sequence of three of which it is merely the first. So the thoughtful, complex, progressive logic of this form of the rule of three can easily escape us, too — though perhaps we would be better off if we make the effort to perceive and grasp it.


Jacopin, Pierre-Yves. 1988. On the Syntactic Structure of Myth, or The Yukuna Invention of Speech. Cultural Anthropology 3: 131-159.

Muellner, Leonard. 1996. The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic. Ithaca.

Nagy, Gregory. 1979, rev. ed. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.


[1] I offer the present work as a small recompense to the joy in the life of the mind that Holly has always radiated and that has brightened my days for many years.

[2] On the transgressive nature of this event, see Muellner 1996: 10-18.

[3] The significance of these terms for the study of Greek epic was brought to light in Nagy 1979/1999, in reference to the quarrel between Odysseus and Agamemnon on how to capture Troy. The actual concepts in conflict have been bowdlerized in modern reference works that define Athena’s sphere as ‘war and wisdom.’

[4] For more details on this metonymic principle, see Jacopin 1988 and Muellner 1996: 52-91.