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.


Dead or Dying: Are the Great Books still Relevant as a Medium?

The unfortunate answer to this question appears to be yes, but not for cynical reasons. If one is considering the general medium of the Great Books a hardback or paperback book filled with words, then yes, the medium is certainly dated, and not necessarily because “people” are losing their imaginations and intellects. In the following essay, we will consider the artistic and intellectual options one has besides books now, and whether in this age of digital supremacy, the simplicity of a book, and its abstract expressions, still have a place in our education and entertainment.

We begin with the example of the graphic art medium, comics: one now has the opportunity not only to include a specific image with the text, and to order those images in sequence with the artist’s intent, but the artist may also offer the focal points of each image to more clearly direct the thought of his reader/viewer. What this gives up in descriptive depth from reading pages on end, is covered by the fact that the reader gets “the summary” or the definite perspective of the writer and artist. This is another unique aspect of the comic: one has at least two minds representing the world one encounters–the illustrator and the writer–two imaginations blended as one, and there are some very innovative uses of this technique now being experimented with. But that said, is there not a closing off of perspectives in being shown one perspective and his or her desire to show his or her respective at all?

Let us examine the question like this: if a comic-book artist is capable of presenting a situation with full imaginative detail, does not the comic book artist close off the creative process of a reader to “add” his own take to the situation? Beyond this, is not part of the purpose of reading a work testing and expanding one’s imagination not only by envisioning what a writer intends, but also in adding or subtracting in accordance with one’s own personal predilection? Perhaps that is just an error of the reader and the comic-book artist corrects the imaginative attempts of the reader.

Let us now imagine a situation, then, for a moment, and how a comic book might represent it as opposed to a book. The situation is that a mother has just discovered that her child who has been very sick has died. In the graphic novel, perhaps an entire page is dedicated to the look on her face, and panel by panel, it zooms in, effectively showing the stunned since of loss, but more, of the emptiness and shock the mother feels–precisely because the news has hit her so hard that she is incapable of even feeling. Now compare what you imagined to an image of a sorrowful or shocked mother–perhaps this one. Was not your imagination just as vivid? Let us move on from such macabre examples.

It is also argued, particularly the example above, that use of “graphic arts” is more long-standing and has “deeper roots” than use of pure-written language. And though this argument makes a claim to more “natural” language, by its own reasoning, it also suggests that “graphic arts” are more primitive and less sophisticated than purely written arts. All that said, this is not an argument against hybrid-forms, nor against graphic arts as expressive, imaginative, and extraordinary media. The point is that graphic arts can adequately express thoughts and feelings, but that they are not capable of completely supplanting the purpose and value of less visually stimulating texts. Also, if one accepts the maxim “the visual provides expression where words fail” from the dissertation comic above, one may be tempted to ask whether that is the fault of the words or the writer using them.

The next style of new-age reading is from a book, or more commonly, some text (like a website or blog) with some alteration made to the performance of reading it. Either, one is electronically reading from a website with different colors, perhaps music playing, static images following one’s cursor, as well as images wedged between pictures–possibly even videos. Imagine this. There are pictures alongside, in-between, and continuing the narrative of the writing structure there. There are ads, links, and “calls to action” set to bright colors and warm-images. Breathe. One receives from such sites or blogs, again, a very strong view of the perspective of the author of the blog/site, though the intention of the site itself can sometimes be difficult to decipher. One perceives not only the author/artist’s capacity for writing, but his or her creative flair for design and pedagogy as well.

The difficulty one runs into is that instead of focusing on depth of thought, one might devote more time to one’s presentation and the audio-visual sensibilities of one’s audience. For example, though editing writing is difficult enough, imagine that the artist-writer hybrid now too must match the colors of his or her fonts with his or her backgrounds, flow of his or her images, and the linking of his or her videos. This is not to suggest that time or effort are the only factors limiting these media, so much as that they are complicated and that with images, videos, and colors added, it is very much possible that a strong presentation will supplant a strong argument instead. Though, of course, this need not be the case.

The third style, which is largely being supplanted by the second style, is the cinema method, but by this I do not mean full-length feature films (though, they are included), but rather I mean all matter of video-files, on youtube, facebook, and vine as well. What these methods allow for is instant communication via transmission of a life-like visage of yourself or something else, and in so providing this, they provide ease of access in an unprecedented fashion. One not only receives the direct thinking and expressions of the person one observes, one sees so much more about the author: his looks, his mannerisms, how he engages with the camera or another person. One gets a far more complete perception of the artist or thinker himself, and generally, such a vivid and exciting medium is capable of conveying a large amount of data and dialog within a rather focuses and short period of time. Does this, however, convey his or her thought more effectively, or does it simply give one more ancillary material on which to chew? It is true, that like with the comic-book, one (imagine a late-night host) may use graphics, sub-titles, and other large and colorful effects to express one’s meaning in front of the camera. But the question remains firm: do more images, sounds, and content detract from the thought while adding to the thematic value of the medium? The answer remains uncertain.

Although the book as a medium has a stalwart (and practical) place in a Great Books education or any education at large, it is still unclear whether more artistically expressive media like videos and image-filled sites are better media per se or simply offer more possible methods of expressing one’s self. If one thinks that “more is better” in terms of choices for presenting one’s self, the choice is clear, and the book is dead as a medium. But if one thinks deeper, and one considers that words composed of letters and ordered in brief semiotic units exist as abstract representations of images, thoughts, and feelings, and that one reading (especially verse) must translate, and make meaning, from these odd and unnatural representations, is this difficult and somewhat artificial process more or less likely to warrant and produce the best abstract and rational thinking than an image based method of communication?