Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

A Night at the Opera: Dido and Aeneas

The Southern California Classical Society in conjunction with The History of Western Thought had the opportunity to send a small coterie to investigate just what San Diego State University’s first Opera of the season had to offer. Staged in their Smith Recital Hall which seats 300, but probably had about 150 tonight, the theatre is small, intimate, and lit well for the occasion. The opera, “Dido and Aeneas”, is itself a modernization by Henry Purcell of the original Dido and Aeneas account from Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid, and the opera we saw was a modernization of that 1689 riff on the classical love and loss story. The major difference between Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Vergil’s account, is that Purcell adds a sorceress who is bent on the destruction of Dido rather than unhappy fortune being the main culprit, and the SDSU opera house, and its newly appointed director, Dr. Julie Maykowsi, added a whole coven (who truly stole the show).

The original story featuring the tragic love of Dido and Aeneas was Vergils’ Aeneid from the first century BCE, one of the only written Roman epics still extant, and considered by some a work surpassing Homer and by others a rank work of imitation and political propaganda for the newly coronated Caesar Augustus. In the story, Aeneas and the Trojans have spent seven years at sea after their precious Troy has fallen by the mechanations of Minerva and Juno. After a particularly devastating storm sent by Juno, the Trojans wash up on Carthage in Northern Africa, where Dido offers them refuge. During their first night together, Aeneas regales the queen with stories of the fall of Troy and his and his people’s sufferings on the high seas. He also mentions that from three distinct and trustworthy sources (Creusa, his former wife, Helenus, the prophet (with the help of Apollo), and Celaeno the Harpy) that he must go on to Ausonia or Italy (Hesperia). One might imagine that both Aeneas and Dido would accept the overwhelming evidence of his need some day to depart, as was fated, as an intelligent reason not to enter into any sort of relationship, but unbeknownst to Dido, Venus, goddess of love, sent her son Eros/Cupid to prick her with an arrow which infatuated her with Aeneas and all things Aeneas.

Juno and Venus then conspire to “wed” Aeneas and Dido by means of causing a storm during a hunt. They cause the storm, Dido and Aeneas consummate their blooming feelings for each other, and thus begins Dido’s descent. For Aeneas is visited not once but twice telling him that he must get on with his fate and not trust in a Carthaginian woman. It may be appropriate here to list a few of Dido’s accomplishments neglected in the performance. She is no simply politician but a gallant woman whose brother, Sychaeus, killed her husband, Pygmalion, in a play for power. Learning this from the shade of her husband, she used a store of hidden and buried gold to found her own city, Carthage, with those supporters still loyal to her murdered husband. She has raised the walls and given the city laws, so she is no mean figure, and certainly no damsel in distress. Certainly, the performance does make her initially a “strong” female lead in that Dido has attained political power and at first rebuffs the advances of Aeneas, but in the wake of him leaving her, she simply dies of heart-break. She is not even granted the grand gesture of impaling herself on the very sword which Aeneas left behind, in her chambers, symbolically portraying how deeply his leaving her cut, though, seemingly, he had no choice but to leave.

So the opera’s “modernized” plot, makes an unfortunately bleak statement of feminine nature though the brochure broadly proclaims: “the intent is not to make a political statement but, in fact, the opposite.” One, however, cannot help but observe certain political ramifications of Dido, the first U.S. president, being wooed by an Italian politician and then immediately dying, by heart-break, once he leaves. She is hardly a feminist hero, or even a particularly strong woman in general. One might have imagined that in making the title “Dido and Aeneas” and giving Dido more time on the stage that the story would relate the difficulties and struggles of a modern career oriented woman balancing her personal life with her professional life–not a caricature of this resulting in a woman completely wilted, and ultimately so reliant on the love of a man–whom she had just met–to die OF HEARTBREAK when he leaves. We may leave aside, for a moment, the fact that the instigator of the violence against Dido is herself a woman, a sorceress, who for seemingly no reason hates and wishes for the destruction of Dido, thus absolving Aeneas, the man, of all his blame. One might almost imagine the sorceress to symbolize Dido’s own darker nature leading her towards her own self-destruction. Is this our modern idea of woman?! At least in Vergil’s play Dido is absolved of all blame: “For as [Dido] died a death that was not merited or fated, but miserable and before her time and spurred by sudden frenzy, Proserpina had not yet cut a gold lock from her crown, not yet assigned her life to Stygian Orcus.” (Vergil, Aeneid. 4.957-961. Mandelbaum tr.)

This bleak picture of femininity aside, a far better example of a strong woman in a leadership position comes from 5th century BCE (458) Athens. A strong contrast to the message sent by this opera is the portrayal by Aeschylus of Clytemnestra, wife and murderess of Agamemnon, in his 4th century play The Libation Bearers. Here a strong and manipulative Clytemnestra, claiming to work on behalf of justice, maneuvers her lover to kill her husband to avenge her daughter who was sacrificed due to mitigating circumstances without the consent of the mother. Though Clytemnestra is ultimately slain by her son, he now avenging his own slain father and asserting his claim to his father’s throne, she cuts a powerful and effective figure. Nowhere is the suggestion that she was incapable of ruling, simply that her right came at the cost of another’s. Dido, however, in “Dido and Aeneas” is a pale shadow of Clytemnestra, and even a pale shadow of the Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid.

The implications of the plot and its hurried construction behind us, the performances of the three leads: Dido (Stephanie Ishihara), Belinda (Amanda Olea) (Why was she not named Anna?), Aeneas (Nicholas Newton), and Sorceress (Latifah Smith). The Coven of witches also added a much needed comic and vibrant element to the story. So, just as the Sorceress and her inclusion root the performance in a squarely anti-feminine dialog with itself, so did, however, Latifah Smith completely steal the show. She had style, panache, and true verve on the stage. She was cool, and she was strong, and she sang with power and poise all the while conveying a diverting malevolence. In general, the singing was excellent by all members, and given that they practiced together for about 1/3 of the time generally considered necessary to put on a live show, the vocals were on point, and had there been no plot, or motion, and this just been a choral performance, it would have been quite good, though the words would have made little sense (which remained true with a plot, largely).

On the point that the production was rushed and thrown-together, the director herself, Dr. Julie Maykowski, admitted to being hired on to direct the show after its theme was chosen and that she only had 8 hours of rehearsals when usually she would have 30-50. She also admitted to having a vision of using ballet-performers to move the action of the play forward rather than the chorus itself, which was in constant, yet entertaining, motion. When during the question-answer period after the show I asked why they chose such an ancient theme, hoping to hear that they wanted to preserve the classics in a modern form, I was disappointed to hear that Dr. Maykowski actually entered the scene with the production already chosen. So, rather than seeing a show which represented a noble, though ultimately failed attempt, to represent ancient patrician values, and the contemporary continued struggle with relationship, emotion, and duty to family and country, we had a hodge-podge and thrown-together production with some nice singing. It was entertaining, but if you are not a student ($10 tickets for them), spend your $20 elsewhere this weekend.

*This has been a Review presented by the Southern California Classical Society together with The History of Western Thought Thinkers Group.

Conversations with Students IX: It Ends where it Begins

This is the final seminar on Homer’s Iliad for the students this year! It has been a struggle and battle through the text, but in the end, the students share an experience of the heights and depths of war, the pain and trouble unbridled emotion can cause, and just what a completed whole looks like. In addition to considering Book 24 and its nekyia-like properties, the students considered the Iliad as a whole as well.

First, we considered the fact that Hermes is sent to guide Priam to Achilleus, and what it is that Hermes, as psychopomp, represents (24.330-466), and is it not symbolically true that by killing Hektor Achilleus has sealed his own fate and is a “dead-man” walking? And also by killing Hektor, greatest hero of Troy, has Achilleus not also sealed the fate of Priam and the Trojans as well in line with Zeus’ prophecy from Book 15 (15.61-71) that Troy must fall? Hermes, then, acting as psychopomp or “guide of souls” is leading one dead-shade to another in service of the corpse of Hektor in Achilleus’ own personal Hades. They cross a river together, pass guardians whom Hermes puts to sleep, and open an impossible to open (for Priam anyway) gate–very similar to entering the underworld. And when they reach Achilleus’ structure–Achilleus, who multiple times has been called pitiless, like the death-god himself (9.630–633;16.33-35)–Achileus now appears as king of his own dark underworld full of sadness and misery, and he holds court with Priam just to cry alongside him (24.507-515) and to finally, in some small way, regain some measure of his humanity through returning Hektor for a ransom in just the way that he refused to accept Agamemnon’s ransom to return to the fighting in Book 10.

We then consider even deeper the connection between Priam and Achilleus, and more so the connection between mortals and their eventual deaths: possibly the most major theme of all Homer’s Iliad. We have seen both in Book 6 and Book 21 mortals compared to leaves which soon fall from trees, both by a mortal, Glaukos (6.145-150), and an immortal, Apollo (21.463-465), but here we see the deepest and longest exposition of just what it means to be a mortal man from a man fated soon to die himself, Achilleus.

“Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows. There are two urns that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings. If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune. But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man, and evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals. Such were the shining gifts given by the gods to Peleus for his birth, who outshone all men beside for his riches and pride of possession, and was lord over the Myrmidons. Thereto the gods bestowed an immortal wife on him, who was mortal. But even on him piled evil also. there was not any generation of strong sons born to him in his great house but a single all-untimely child he had, and I give him no care as he grows old, since far from the land of my fathers I sit here in Troy, and bring nothing but sorrow to you and your children. And you, old sir, we are told you prospered once; for as much as Lesbos, Makar’s hold, confines to the north above it and Phrygia from the north confines, and enormous Hellespont, of these, old sir, you were lord once in your wealth and your children. But now the Uranian gods brought us, an affliction upon you, forever there is fighting about your city, and men killed. But bear up, nor mourn endlessly in your heart, for there is not anything to be gained from grief for your son; you will never bring him back; sooner you must go through yet another sorrow.” (24.525-551)

This speech comes just on the heels of Priam and Achilleus’ share moment of grief and sorrow, Priam for Hektor, and Achilleus alternating between grief for Patroklos and for his own aging father. Rather than focus on the duplex nature of human existence, to be both part divine and heroic, but to be subject to nature and fate and die, the students, in all their youth, focused more on the fact that Achilleus here, in his somewhat callous philosophy, shows some measure of learning from his experience–and in having learned of the suffering he has caused, not only to Priam but to his own father (Achilleus’ name is derived from the root achos: “the grief”, interestingly enough) he sees himself and his actions for their effect on others. And in this show of empathy, he shows his ultimate return to his senses and to the consequences and “ups and downs” of human existence.

We then briefly considered why we are given Andromache, Hekabe, and Helen’s mourning speeches over Hektor’s body in succession and especially why Helen is given the last word (24.710-776). Perhaps for purposes of parallelism: just as she is the cause of the war, so is she the cause of the death of Hektor in a remote way. And just as she, in her own way, began the war, so does the Iliad end by recognizing her and her mighty influence, conscious or not, on the events which have trespassed during Homer’s Iliad. It is also directly in line with the theme that semi-divine characters, Achilleus too as written above, must feel suffering for their actions, due to their humanity, regardless of their divine heritage. Just as Achilleus must grieve for his dead friend and for the suffering he has caused his father, so must Helen grieve for the death of the only man who has been kind to her beyond Paris, and the fact that his death is in no small way connected to her presence in Troy.

We finally considered the Iliad as a whole, and the importance of the text ending with the confrontation and shared tears between Achilleus and Priam (24.507-516) and the mourning for Hektor by Andromache, Hekabe, and Helen (24.710-776). In observing Achilleus both cry and not only begin eating again (24.621-626), but argue for eating to grieving Priam (24.602-620)  (what a change from Book 21!), we see the “end of Achilleus’ rage” which was first sung of in the proem (1.1-7) come to an end. We recall in Books 19 through 21 Achilleus’ rapid loss of his humanity: his refusal of mortal food (19.200-214; 19.305-309), his likening to the consuming and devastating effects of fire (19.15-18; 19.375-380), and his fundamental lack of human empathy or sympathy in his callous murdering of Polydoros (20.407-418) and Lykaon (21.35-135)–not to mention his manic likening of himself to Zeus after he fells Asteropaios and leaves his body to be eaten by “eels and fishes”(21.184-199) [more info on these inhuman characteristics is written of here].

But why is it exactly that the story ends with the death of Hektor and the mourning and misery over Hektor’s death regardless of when Achilleus strikes down Hektor or better when Troy falls? This end diverts attention both from the glorious nature of war and the eventual glorious sack of Troy and squarely focuses our attention on the bitter consequences of human conflict. Rather than revel in the divine satisfaction of heroic deeds and impossible ends being achieved, the eventual fate of all men, hero and cowards alike, is expressed with great pathos. Very different in tone is this from Vergil’s patriotic epic from 7 centures later: the Aeneid, which will end in a blaze of fiery glory–Aeneas taking his throne and fate into his own hands through the vanquishing of Turnus in mighty battle (Virgil. Aeneid. Mandelbaum tr. 12.1265-1271). And he (Aeneas or Vergil) thus glorifies Rome’s ancient and violent heritage. Homer’s Iliad does not end with the prizes of war, but with its devastating personal consequences.

The students then shared the answer why this is: Homer’s Iliad is not simply the story of the Trojan War, nor or the greatness of heroes, but rather it is the story of Achilleus’ rage and the devastating consequences which it releases. “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians…” (1.1-3) This is a story about a man and the consequences of his emotion, unrestrained, and the suffering which ensues from it. It is only appropriate then that in the final Book of the story that his rage be spent and that he, and the man to whom he has caused the most suffering, Priam, share a moment of desolate and disconsolate sorrow together. For the story is not one that glorifies war and heroes, simply, but one which seeks to teach the full consequences of unrestrained human emotion in the service of a nearly divine but all too-human man. The story begins with rage and ends with sorrow. And in this way, so does the Iliad itself reflect the images on the shield of Achilleus, wrought by Hephaistos: the city at War and the city of Peace offering the extremes of life and all that lies between.

Conversations with Students VIII: Wrath, Tragedy, and Inhuman Cruelty

Well, the climax of Homer’s Iliad is finally reached in Books 21 and 22. We see Achilleus descend into burning fury, and become more and more an inhuman force of nature. We observe him also almost pay strongly for his delusions in both being chased by the wave of a powerful river, Xanthos/Skamandros, but also chasing down a god he thought was a man (Apollo). We see the famous theomachy or fight between the gods on Achaian and Trojan side, and even more famously we see the resolution of Hektor to stand and fight Achilleus, his moment of terror and flight, and then his deception and death–followed most famously by his being dragged behind Achilleus’ chariot in an act of unspeakable cruelty. All this was considered today during our eighth conversation with students.

During Book 21 we discover that Achilleus was once glad to catch men and ransom them into slavery (Lykaon, for example), but that now, especially in the cases of Polydoros, Lykaon, and Asteropaios (who gives his lineage in a way most similar to Glaukos from Book 6), Achilleus will spare no Trojan, especially those who are the sons of Priam. He says directly 21.99-113:

“Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny then it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend [philos], you die also. Why all this clamour about it? Patroklos is also dead, who was better by far than you are. Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal? Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also either by spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring.”

Truly, the charge made of him by both Patroklos (16.33-35) and Aias (9.630-633) of him being pitiless has become true. He is changed even in character from the sort of youthful rage he endured earlier in the text to a being consumed and represented by fire (19.15-18; 19.375-380). He can do naught but consume, ravage, and destroy–whether it be the warrior’s ethical code, funerary rites of defeated heroes, or the lives of those who knees he unstrings, Achilleus loses more and more humanity as he gives in further and further to his desperate wrath, a passion beyond belief, unchecked by the mediocrity of average human abilities. He refuses food (19.200-214; 19.305-309), eschews kingly gifts (19.146-153), and in fact likens himself to Zeus (22.186-199) and to fate (21.99-103).

There are, however, reminders of Achilleus’ mortality: Athene must infuse him with nectar and ambrosia so that he does not weaken from hunger and thirst (19.349-356); Skamandros the river god almost drowns him before Hera sends Hephaistos to Achilleus’ rescue (21.240-380), and Apollo deceives him by taking the shape of Agenor and leading Achilleus from the Trojan wall during a crucial Trojan retreat (21.590-611). As inhuman as Achilleus becomes, his mortality and human limitations are constantly present, though subtly expressed. It is a unique situation that a man with such a divine pedigree (his mother is a Nereid (sea-nymph) and his paternal great-grandfather is Zeus), and he is nearly invulnerable, has sacked 23 cities, and causes such great fear in his opponents that his mere yell can cause enough disorientation and confusion for men (12) to die. And yet as he embraces his god-like gift for killing, so does he speed his exit from the world in completely giving himself over to his fate to die a young man, full of glory. The students rightly ask, though he becomes less and less human, does Achilleus become more divine? Largely, the answer was no–though he more and more reflects a force of nature, that force is naturalistic, without conscience, and animal-like, or fire-like, as one suggested.

Although the theomachy or battle of the gods occurs in Book 21, it interestingly enough did not catch the attention of the students. Certainly, they enjoyed Hephaistos lighting Xanthos, the river, on fire and steaming his liquid body. And no student was without a smirk in reading aloud of Athene striking Ares with a stone in laying him out over seven acres, followed immediately by her striking Aphrodite on the breast. They thought Apollo refusing to fight Poseidon was “lame”, though Apollo sounds so similar to Glaukos, a mortal, from Book 6 in likening mortals to leaves: “Shaker of the earth, you would have me be as one without prudence (saophrona) if I am to fight even you for the sake of insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again fade away and are dead. Therefore let us with all speed give up this quarrel and let the mortals fight their own battles.” (22.462-467) Though, it is worth noting that the theme again of the temporary nature of human life is referenced with disparity, and that such quotes are really mounting up. Book 15, too, Athene, reminds us of the mortal nature of man: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) And Hera to Zeus in Book 16.440-442: “Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him?” The students are getting the point: all mortals, including them, must some day die, and they see Achilleus, consumed by rage and fiery emotion, hurtling helter-skelter towards his end, they have also seen him for the divided and pensive man his was in Book 9. Ultimately, the answer of how to live with the knowledge of death is not solved for the students by Achilleus, but the question, at least, is asked so that they know even the most divine of men was faced with the deepest existential question we know: “how should we then live?”

We then come to the stunning climax or anti-climax of the whole poem in Book 22: the death and desecration of Hektor. The moment is climactic in that all the story, at least since Book 16 (and really even the prophecy in Book 15.62-70), has been leading up to a battle between Hektor and Achilleus, never mind the fact that Aias has thoroughly thrashed Hektor twice already (7.244-276 ;14.409-420). The fight, too, is strange in that it is intricately set up. It is not, like the one on one combats between Paris and Menelaos or Hektor and Aias set up from the beginning, but rather comes about “naturally” but also with great interference from Athene. Hektor first chooses, finally, to stand and fight against Achilleus, but upon seeing Achilleus up close, he runs (22.131-167), and perhaps the most beautiful simile of the poem follows after several others: “As in a dream a man is not able to follow one who runs from him, nor can the runner escape, nor the other pursue him, so he could not run him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.” (22.199-201) This is hardly Hektor’s finest moment; nor is it highly courageous when Athene tricks him into standing alone against Achilleus by likening herself to Hektor’s brother Deiphobos, so that Hektor need not fear fighting Achilleus alone. Nor, yet, is it Hektor’s finest moment either when he tries to barter with Achilleus that whoever wins return the body of the fallen to his side (22.251-259). Hektor is no coward, but when Achilleus says “Hektor, argue me no agreements. I cannot forgive you. As there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions, nor wolves and lambs…” (22.261-263) one sees just how terrifyingly predatory Achilleus has become. He is divine in his strength and pitiless in his aspect. Even the great Trojan hero, perhaps in a moment of sobriety, knowing there is no escape for him, finds himself, like a lamb, attempting to reason with what was once a man, but is now something vastly different.

The fight itself is short. Achilleus throws and misses with a spear-cast which Athene returns to him (22.275-278) (why she finds this necessary to do is beyond the students and me). And Hektor then strikes the shield of Achilleus, but like Aineias before him, the great shield Hephaistos wrought for Achilleus turns the spear away. Hektor then experiences his moment of ultimate doom in turning to Deiphobos for his spear just to realize that Deiphobos is not there and that he must have been tricked by a god. (22.293-305) He faces death admirably, at last: “But now my death is upon me. Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it.” (22. 303-305) Hektor, like Patroklos and Sarpedon dies honorably in the eyes of the students.

The students, then, are far less forgiving of Achilleus’ stringing “thongs of leather” through the heels of Hektor and dragging him through the dust behind his chariot in front of the city he loved and defended as his horrified people and family watch. There is some evidence that Hektor would have despoiled the body of Patroklos, however, and the students did notice that in Book 17.125-128: “But Hektor, when he had stripped from Patroklos the glorious armour, dragged at him, meaning to cut head from his shoulders with the sharp bronze, to haul off the body and give it to the dogs of Troy;” So, sagaciously, the students suggested that Achilleus had a similar intention to Hektor, but he simply had the means necessary to carry out his malicious wish. This certainly says something strong for the benefits of having normal human limitations. But a counter, if not a strong one, is that Achilleus almost certainly did not know the intent of Hektor to despoil Patroklos’ body, and even if Hektor did so, it would not be out of pure avarice and inhuman anger, but as a tactic motivated to attack the morale of the Achaians while rallying the battle spirit of the other Trojan men fighting for the protection of their home. So while the battle itself is somewhat anticlimactic (I do tell the students that the battle between Achilleus and Memnon, at least as told by Quintus of Smyrna in his Posthomerica, goes all day), it does bring Achilleus’ inhuman passion to the fore. He is unlimited by the wills and morals of other men, and ultimately, he uses this not to help others, but to tarnish his own image and the body of a beloved hero. In this moment, Achilleus becomes impossibly distant and unsympathetic to us. Perhaps in Book 24 he will find some redemption, in his own self-made underworld.

Conversations with Students VII: a Bounded Eternity

Last Tuesday’s seminar essentially covered Homer’s Iliad Books 18-20, but it also constantly referenced back to Book 16 and the death of Patroklos–which has become something of a lynch-pin for the thinking of this group of students. The main questions considered on Tuesday follow below:

1) What a world without strife look like? Achilleus suggests that he wishes strife would disappear from all the world, but would that world be a better world than, say, sort of utopia/dystopian world without emotions and strife like in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which the students read in 8th grade, the year before my course. Later on in their careers they may consider the implications of these questions in relation to say A Wrinkle in Time, 1984, and Brave New World, and if they want a headache, perhaps even Anthem. The operant quote where Achilleus states this position comes in Book 18 in conversation with his mother after his dearest friend Patroklos has fallen to his fated death:

“Now, since I am not going back to the beloved land of my fathers, since I was no light of safety to Patroklos, nor to my other companions [is this grief for his actions?!–my add], who in their numbers went down before glorious Hektor, but sit here beside my ships, a useless weight on the good land, I who am such as no other of the bronze-armoured Achaians in battle, though there are others also better in council–why, I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and glass, which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.” (18.101-110, Lattimore tr.)

The students became divided, then, on the issue of what a world without strife caused by emotions would be. For here Achilleus demonstrates his usual clear-minded perception of the case: had he not become angry, his friend and many other Achaians would not have died. And he does this in language which is rather damning of himself, calling himself a “useless weight” though “no other of the bronze-armoured Achaians” are his equal in battle. The students on one side claimed that one’s humanity is directly tied to one’s capacity to feel emotion, and some suggested that one’s emotions themselves make one a human, while other more sapient students suggested that the complexity of emotion, like compassion, mixed with one’s decisions based on how to express and deal with such emotion are what makes one a human. In either case, simply restraining emotion with a pill, like in The Giver or the movie Equilibrium, would strip one of his or her essential humanity, and would essentially replace one tragedy, loss, especially of loved ones, due to one’s own emotional decisions with the greater tragedy of denaturing and neutering mankind’s essential humanity. It does seem clear that one’s mistakes are an essential part of being human, and that living with them is just as much a part of being human as trying to rectify them (as the constant examples of Herakles in the text invoke).

There was, however, also a small contingent of students who maintained that emotions do cause all strife and that because of that they ought to be expunged from all human decision. While the point has a sort of pristine edge, it lacks philosophical depth in the wake of considering humans and their essential differences from machines: if a human were meant simply to be an object with purpose which carried it out with ruthless efficiency, would not a human be somewhat poorly adapted to this purpose through its emotions and the complexities which arise due to them and their relationship to personal and societal ethics? Tragic as the consequences of strong emotions and heated decisions may be, they are as dear and essential to human nature as any sophisticated teleological point about human end. In fact, it is the fact that some humans live out their purposes, in particular Achilleus, in the wake of such emotion, which is so impressive.

2) Is the shield significant? What about the cities of war and at peace? What about the heavens in the middle and ocean along the edge? This question could be answered for days, but essentially it considers the body of text between 18.474-616. In a way, all things in life and the world are represented on this shield. In its middle are the sources of all life and that which guides it, the sun and moon and earth and sea. And around these are five constellations strewn throughout the heavens. There are then two cities, one at peace, complete with a marriage, an act of ultimate union occurring, and one at war, complete with Athene and Ares and Hate, Confusion, and Death. There are then singing and playing youths, working women, cattle, dogs, and even a dancing floor like the one “Daidolos built for Ariadnes” where young men and women, in utter elegance, are dancing in finery. Around all this, as limit to both shield and world, lies Okeanos, mighty, large, and both beginning and end to all the world and every story regarding it. Naturally, we discussed all this, but for those seeking further depth of insight, I would only say that we determined through a clever syllogism that all things must exist within the shield because even an Xbox may be perceived within it. How one asks? Well, when the students are asked what an Xbox is used for, the response is for entertainment, often by means of video games. What sorts of video games? They suggested “Call of Duty”, a game which features modern warfare–and as it features warfare, and so does the shield, so must the shield comprise the Xbox as well. Such reasoning is at best entertaining, but the point is clear that the shield does run a wide gamut of major themes, celestial, natural, human, ordered, and chaotic which form and destroy this world periodically while encompassing the lion’s share of all our human experiences.

3) A question that invoked fire-like passion was whether Patroklos died a hero, a fool, or a man in love with honor. Some students, one in particular, were of the opinion that Patroklos simply disobeyed orders and fought beyond the Achaian wall because either a) he wanted to do himself honor, or b) because Zeus had placed bravery within him/besotted his wits. A cabal of other students, however, insisted that the very reason that Patroklos fought in the first place was out of care and concern for the Achaians–because he, unlike Achilleus, could be moved to pity–especially as he had just seen the injured Machaon and Eurypylos–and been in conversation with Nestor who related the injuries of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Diomedes to him as well.

The question of whether Patroklos died honorably/nobly was most notable for not only its spirited nature, but also for its excellent references to the text in Books 15 (the prophecy of Zeus of Sarpedon, Patroklos, and Hektor’s deaths (15.64-76) and Book 16 where Patroklos chooses, seemingly of his own volition to fight–he comes crying to Achilleus, but that when he gets beyond the ships, there Zeus’ “mind” drives him on towards his doom (16.685-689). In any case, the issue remained unresolved, though generally more from a logical rather than emotional point of view. Few if any of the students truly doubted whether Patroklos, man with three slayers, who died boasting of the looming death of his third slayer died as a hero with great honor.