23.313-319 (Nestor to his son Antilochus; tr. Richmond Lattimore):
Remember then, dear son, to have your mind full of every
resource of skill, so that the prizes may not elude you.
The woodcutter is far better for skill than he is for brute strength. 315
It is by skill that the sea captain holds his rapid ship
on its course, though torn by winds, over the wine-blue water.
By skill charioteer outpasses charioteer.
ἀλλ᾿ ἄγε δὴ σύ, φίλος, μῆτιν ἐμβάλλεο θυμῷ
παντοίην, ἵνα μή σε παρεκπροφύγῃσιν ἄεθλα.
μήτι τοι δρυτόμος μέγ᾿ ἀμείνων ἠὲ βίηφι· 315
μήτι δ᾿ αὖτε κυβερνήτης ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ
νῆα θοὴν ἰθύνει ἐρεχθομένην ἀνέμοισι·
μήτι δ᾿ ἡνίοχος περιγίγνεται ἡνιόχοιο.
Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society
, tr. Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 12-13 (footnotes omitted; non vidi; text from here
The text of Homer most suited to reveal the nature of mêtis comes in Book XXIII of the Iliad, in the episode of the Games. Everything is ready for the chariot race. Old Nestor, the very model of the Sage, the advisor expert in mêtis, lavishes advice upon his son Antilochus. The boy is still very young but Zeus and Poseidon have taught him 'all the ways of dealing with horses'. Unfortunately, his race horses are not very fast; his rivals are better equipped. The young man seems bound to lose. How could he triumph over his adversaries with their faster horses when he drives slower ones? In just such a context mêtis comes into its own. Placed at a disadvantage so far as his horses are concerned, Antilochus, as a true son of his father, has more tricks of mêtis up his sleeve than his rivals dream of. 'It's up to you, my lad', says Nestor, 'to fill your head with a mêtin pantoiên ('manifold') so as not to let the prize elude you'. Then follows a passage which sings the praises of mêtis: 'It is through mêtis rather than through strength that the wood-cutter shows his worth. It is through mêtis that the helmsman guides the speeding vessel over the wine-dark sea despite the wind. It is through mêtis that the charioteer triumphs over his rival'. In the case of Antilochus his mêtis as a driver conceives a manoeuvre which is more or less a cheat and which enables him to reverse an unfavourable situation and to triumph over competitors who are stronger than he is. Nestor puts it like this: 'The man who knows the tricks (kerdê) wins the day even with mediocre horses'. So what are these tricks of Antilochus? Following the advice of his father, the young man takes advantage of a sudden narrowing of the track, which has been worn away by storm rains, and drives his chariot obliquely across in front of that of Menelaus at the risk of causing a crash: the manoeuvre takes his adversary by surprise and he is forced to rein in his horses. Taking full advantage of his disarray, Antilochus gains the advantage necessary to outstrip him in the last stretch of the race.
However ordinary the episode may appear it nevertheless demonstrates certain essential features of mêtis. Firstly, it shows the opposition between using one's strength and depending on mêtis. In every confrontation or competitive situation—whether the adversary be a man, an animal or a natural force—success can be won by two means, either thanks to a superiority in 'power' in the particular sphere in which the contest is taking place, with the stronger gaining the victory; or by the use of methods of a different order whose effect is, precisely, to reverse the natural outcome of the encounter and to allow victory to fall to the party whose defeat had appeared inevitable. Thus success obtained through mêtis can be seen in two different ways. Depending on the circumstances it can arouse opposite reactions. In some cases it will be considered the result of cheating since the rules of the game have been disregarded. In others, the more surprise it provokes the greater the admiration it will arouse, the weaker party having, against every expectation, found within himself resources capable of putting the stronger at his mercy. Certain aspects of mêtis tend to associate it with the disloyal trick, the perfidious lie, treachery—all of which are the despised weapons of women and cowards. But others make it seem more precious than strength. It is, in a sense, the absolute weapon, the only one that has the power to ensure victory and domination over others, whatever the circumstances, whatever the conditions of the conflict.