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.

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.