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 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.

The Mythological Roots of Friendships between Men

Especially on historic days is it important to keep in mind that no tree is without its roots, no mountain without its base, and no building without its foundation. In a brief concession to the genius temporis, we will consider five mythological friendships, between men and men and gods, which cleared the way for the path America continues down today. And though this article will focus on the relationships between men and men and gods, its lessons could just as easily be generalized to relationships between other genders, regardless of their constituent parts. The point of this article, and friendship, has been said best by Aristotle:

“After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk. And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-‘two going together’-for with friends men are more able both to think and to act. ” (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics BK VIII 1155a 1-8)

We will begin the day’s article with the deep and close bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumeria’s Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was himself a man who was two-thirds divine and one-third human–so powerful and strong that he required no sleep at night and was granted the divine right of primae noctis. No natural man could tame the appetites of Gilgamesh–so the Sumerian gods (Aruru in particular) created him a “second self, a man who equals his strength and courage, a man who equals his stormy heart.” (Gilgamesh, Book/Plate I, P. 73, Mitchell tr.). Their relationship was like none before–two peerless and divine men–who learned the ways of the earth, men, and themselves through their relationship with each other.

Even their manner of becoming acquainted had a physical and almost animal basis: “…they grappled each other, limbs intertwined, each huge body straining to break free from the other’s embrace. Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over…they embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers. They walked side by side and became true friends.” Through fighting each other they came to know each other in a way only they two could know. For any wrestler or grappler, this is a truth well-known–only in physical combat, does one learn another and how he relates to him fully. The two men, as best-friends, would go on to kill Humbaba, a forest-giant, and the Bull of Heaven after Gilgamesh scorned the Love Goddess Ishtar. And only through Enkidu dying did Gilgamesh learn the limits of mortality and the destiny which all men, even semi-divine men, must face. Truly, their friendship was one that led to a deeper understanding of each other, themselves, and the human condition–which, as Aristotle suggests above, are a few of the major benefits of friendship.

The next major friendship hails from a closer mythological tradition–Archaic Greece, or smiling Hellas: the ultimate warrior Achilleus and his noble, and older friend, Patroklos. We find the fullest account of the two friends in Homer’ Iliad, where no force was strong enough to bend the “Hades-like” will of Achilleus except for love of his friend and companion, Patroklos. Though Aeschylus is his play Myrmidons has a cruder portrayal of the relationship between the two, one learns in Homer’s Iliad that the two grew up together. Achilleus was always the superior, and that upon the two leaving for Troy Patroklos’ father, Menoitios, advised him always to counsel Achilleus, his superior in strength and rank, and to temper his vicious emotions as only an older and more temperate friend could. Does not this relationship resonate with every reader?

During the Iliad, as Achilleus sat out sullen and grieving for his own lost honor, Patroklos implored him to return to battle–to help their friends. Finally, while crying, Patroklos demanded that he be allowed to wear the armor of Achilleus and go fight in Achilleus’ stead. Achilleus granted his wish, and Patroklos, man that he was, pushed the Trojans back from the ships to their walls and was only stopped by the hand of Apollo, the spear of Euphorbos, and the final and finishing blow of Hektor. Patroklos, though, left the earth with a death-speech as powerful, manly, and ominous as has ever been captured in words:

“Now is your time for big words, Hektor. Yours is the victory given by Kronos’ son, Zeus, and Apollo, who have subdued me easily, since they themselves stripped the arms from my shoulders. Even though twenty such as you had come in against me, they would all have been broken beneath my spear, and have perished. No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me, and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer. And put away in your heart this other thing I tell you. You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already death and powerful destiny are standing beside you, to go down under the hands of Aiakos’ great son, Achilleus.” (Homer’s Iliad Bk XVI 844-854)

To die in such a bold and manly way is the ideal of many men. And to have one’s death be the catalyst which brings the single greatest human killing-force to have ever existed back into the battle (Achilleus had sacked 23 cities previously) both gave great meaning to Patroklos’ death and brought Achilleus back, in a way, to his humanity. Only through being stricken in such a personal way, losing his closest companion, does Achilleus re-enter the war, kill Hektor, and live-out his destiny as strongest and most glorious fighter ever to have lived. Without Patroklos, the “noble actions” which one friend is spurred on to without the other might well have been replaced by an account of Achilleus’ sullen lyre-playing, or by no account at all.

Two other major accounts of the great love shared between a mortal and immortal man are those of Zeus and Ganymede, who was so comely that Zeus, risking the hatred of his wife, Hera, took Ganymede from his royal home in Troy up to Olympos to serve forever as his cup-bearer in the place of Hera’s daughter, Hebe, Youth. A second, even more archetypal story, is that of Hyacinth and Apollo, which has become essentially synonymous with, and is generally considered the first instance of male to male love.

Both Apollo and the West Wind, Zephyros, loved Hyacinth, but as things tend to go, Hyacinth chose Apollo, the great Olympian. So, in revenge, one day while Hyacinth and Apollo were throwing the discus together, Zephyros blew the discus Apollo threw back towards Hyacinth and took his sweet life. Thus, the hyacinth plant. Though the story seems more indicative of the pitfalls of relationships between gods and men–just as Ganymede’s illustrates the potential benefits, one wonders whether Hyacinth would not have happily given up the years of his life that he did for the brief days, months (years?) which he spent in the company of a god, his friend and love.*

Next there is the example of Roman amor pius between youthful Euryalus and the hunter Nisus, whose “minds and hearts were one,” says Virgil (Aeneid Bk IX 239-240, Mandelbaum tr.). These two men were both refugees from fallen Troy, and in the absence of ruling Aeneas, they, confident in the nobility of their pursuit and the strength of their arms, set out from the wall and fortified position of Latium into the night to kill Rutulians/Latins, their enemies.

The two men, along with several other Trojans, set out on a night-raid modeled after the one which Diomedes and Odysseus more successfully carried out in Book IX of Homer’s Iliad. But Euryalus, in his youthful folly, dawns the shining helmet of Messapus, which betrays him by “flashing back moonlight across the shades of gleaming night,” (Ibid Bk IX 496-497), and Volcens, captain of the enemy Rutulians, captures “thrashing but hopeless” Euryalus.

Nisus, in horror, discovers that his closest companion is gone and from the shadows loosens arrows which fell Tagus and Sulmo. Volcens, enraged, exclaims the following ultimatum to the darkness: “yet until we find him, you shall pay…the penalties of both with your warm blood.” (Ibid Bk IX 563-564), and at this Volcens stabs Euryalus dead as Nisus watches and cries out. In response, stricken and single-minded, Nisus rushes from the shadows and through the crowd of Rutulians “seeking only Volcens, only Volcens can be the man he wants. The enemy crowd him; on every side, their ranks would drive him back, but Nisus presses on unchecked, whirling his lightning sword until he plunged it full into the Latin’s howling mouth, and, dying, took away his foeman’s life. Then, pierced, he cast himself upon his lifeless friend; there, at last, he found his rest in death.” (Ibid IX 582-590) Out of love for his noble and slain friend, Nisus gave up his own life to avenge him. Regardless of one’s particular views on justice, one cannot help but admit that tragic and beautiful sentiment of Nisus. Perhaps a certain justice requires listening to one’s heart in the moment rather than accepting a more stoic and considered self restraint?

To give one’s life in response to the death and in the service of a friend seems at least noble-minded and itself a rather heroic way to die, and it is in the deaths and lives of the men above that one sees justification, explanation, and the foundations of the friendships and relationships one sees today: “together, those in the prime of life [friendship] stimulates to noble actions,” and I will add to a pursuit of the good and a recognition of the beautiful. Such sentiments appear to be the foundations of the relationships above, and in so being, these relationships appear to partake of the good.

*One may find the Ganymede and Hyacinth stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Bk X here in full.