Conversations with Students XI: The Tricky Telemachy

The second seminar of the second seminar series of the year (on Homer’s Odyssey) is also the last seminar of the first semester. So, we are half-way through our year long goal of recording, documenting, and sharing the thoughts of the students on the Great Books of the Western Canon. This week, we focused on the Telemachy (first four books of Homer’s Odyssey) as a whole with special focus on Books 3 and 4, and we considered not only Telemachos, and his struggle to become a man, but made comparisons between Penelope and Odysseus, and considered the examples of Nestor and Menelaos too–considering whether they were models of hospitality/xenia.

First and foremost, the students considered what the importance to Telemachos’ transformation the fact of his friendship with Nestor’s son Peisistratos is. All through Books 1-3, Telemachos is receiving help from Athene. In Book I Athene comes to tell him to take the initiative to call an assembly to turn public opinion against the suitors and to seek after information on his father in the guise of the stranger Mentes (1.114-320). In Book 2, after the assembly is rudely disassembled by haughty Leokritos, Athene appears to Telemachos as kindly Mentor and outfits a ship and rounds up a crew for Telemachos (2.266-295). Then in Book 3, Athene, still in the guise of Mentor, not only advises Telemachos on how to speak to Nestor (3.26-28), speaks/prays alongside Telemachos to Nestor in demonstration (3.55-62), but she even puts courage into Telemachos’ heart (to win a good reputation) (3.75-78), and then, reveals herself as a god in order to demonstrate Telemachos’ divine favor to Nestor (3.370-384) (to create a good reputation among men for Telemachos–part and parcel of being perceived as not only a man, but a man of great kleos). The point is is that Athene is essentially guiding Telemachos every step of the way–both internally and externally, like both a father and a mother might. She even, in typically devious and clever fashion, advises him on the proper perception of the gods in all their power:

“Telemachos, what sort of word escaped your teeth’s barrier? Lightly a god, if he wishes, can save a man, even from far off. I myself would rather first have gone through many hardships and then come home, and look upon my day of returning, than come home and be killed at my own hearth, as Agamemnon was killed, by the treacherous plot of his wife, and by Aigisthos. But death is a thing that comes to all alike. Not even the gods can fend it away from a man they love, when once the destructive doom of leveling death has fastened upon him.” (3.230-238)

Not only does Athene here quickly remind Telemachos of the difference between the will of a god and the will of man (and give some serious foreshadowing about the return of Odysseus):precisely that gods can easily make things happen, even if it takes some doing, in the case of Odysseus. But she also reminds us of a theme that was constant in Homer’s Iliad, the inevitable death of all mortals, and the importance that a man die in a proper way if he wishes to be remembered and honored. But back to the point–Athene, until she flies away as a vulture, makes sure that Telemachos  cannot possibly fail to make it to Pylos, say the right things, and be recognized as a fine young man and son of Odysseus. After she flies away, though, Telemachos is on his own, and Nestor grants him his son, Peisistratos, as a companion. This brought up an interesting question to the students: to what extent is friendship, beyond simple guidance (from Athene), necessary to a child becoming an adult?

This question was a little beyond us, but the general feeling was that friendship, for a child, is the first autonomous attempt of a young person to create and maintain the fabric of society. That is, a friendship, as the basis of society, is something for which the two participants alone are responsible for maintaining–so, in a way, Telemachos’ relationship to Peisistratos is the first thing in his life that he can call solely his–and is a major step towards him being an autonomous decision maker, or adult. This segues nicely to Telemachos’ adventure, across land, to shining Sparta.

As mentioned earlier, a major theme we are keeping in mind this time through Homer’s Odyssey is how a people greet strangers and whether they honor the xenia or not. So, in the first book, when Mentes first enters the house of Odysseus, the suitors pay him no mind and continue drinking and eating as if nobody at all has entered–only Telemachos honors the guest/host relationship and feeds and converses with Mentes. In Pylos, Nestor is making a grand sacrifice to Poseidon, and he invites the traveleres (Mentor(Athene) and Telemachos) to do the same. When Telemachos and Peisistratos then arrive at Sparta, they view a wedding feast occurring for two of Menelaos’ children: Megapenthes (his illegitimate son by a slave girl who is heir to his throne due to Helen now being barren) and Alektor’s daughter and Hermione (daughter of Helen and Menelaos from before the Trojan War) and Neoptolemos. There is really just so much to consider here. First off, Menelaos’ henchman, Eteoneus, messes up and suggests to Menelaos that these “god-like” men either have their horses unharnessed or “send them on to someone else, who can entertain them.” (4.29-30) Menelaos is none to happy about this suggestion; he is a mighty king, and no one far or wide could possibly entertain these men in the manner that he could. He rebukes Eteoneus violently. But, why, in the first place would Eteoneus even suggest this? Is there some shame to be observed in this public ceremony? Sparta is full of such ambiguities, painful reminders, and “all that glitters not being golden”, as it were.

Let us consider what could be potentially embarrassing or unseemly about the wedding feast for the two children of Menelaos. On the first hand, it brings up the issue of Menelaos’ faithlessness right alongside Helen’s barrenness and faithlessness herself. Megapenthes is not the son of Helen, and given his age, ostensibly he was conceived before Helen left for Troy. Awkward. Second, since Helen can longer have children: “but the gods gave no more children to Helen once she had borne her first and only child, the lovely Hermione, with the beauty of Aphrodite the golden.” (4.12-14) Hermione is herself an interesting case because she was left alone by her parents for years and years growing up–and she is now being shipped off to Phthia with Neoptolemos. Spoiler alert, too, her husband Neoptolemos will be killed by resident Achaian stud Orestes in a dispute over who has first right to her. But that is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Next, during the delightful dinner shared between Peisistratos, Telemachos, and Menelaos, Menelaos has decided that Telemachos must be the son of Odysseus, but it is Helen, just after she descends from the staircase, who points it out explicity. In a touch of bitter irony not unknown to the Homer of the Odyssey, Helen is compared to chaste Artemis in her initial description (4.121-122). Ouch. Helen then blurts out that Telemachos must be the son of Odysseus, and of course she is right. She does have a gift for seeing through ruses–and in fact in Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad she even effectively saw through a disguise that Aphrodite had as an attendant woman. There is, however, one time Helen tells us, that a very cunning man did manage to fool her–Odysseus, during a spy mission in Troy. Her description of what happens during the mission quickly gets awkward:

“[Odysseus] flagellated himself with degrading strokes, then threw on a worthless sheet about his shoulders. He looked like a servant. So he crept into the wide-wayed city of the men he was fighting, disguising himself in the likeness of somebody else, a beggar, one who was unlike himself in the likeness of somebody else [note: how like all things in this book! One thing appearing as something it is not] beside the ships of the Achaians, but in his likeness crept into the Trojans’ city, and they all were taken in. I alone recognized him even in this form, and I questioned him, but he in his craftiness eluded me.” (4.243-251)

So, we should revise our above opinion that Helen was fooled by Odysseus, because she did recognize him, but he was simply too crafty for her to prove that he was who she recognized him to be. Here, though, is where yet again in Sparta does the awkwardness of Helen and Menelaos’ tarnished relationship rear its head:

“but after I bathed him and anointed him with olive oil and put some clothing upon him, after I had sworn a great oath [note: keep this in mind during the Circe episode] not to disclose before the Trojans that this was Odysseus until he made his way back to the fast ships and the shelters, then at last he told me all the purpose of the Achaians, and after striking many Trojans down with the thin bronze edge, he went back to the Argives and brought back much information. The rest of the Trojan women cried out shrill, but my heart was happy, my heart had changed by now and was for going back home again, and I grieved for the madness that Aphrodite bestowed when she led me there away from my own dear country, forsaking my own daughter, my bedchamber, and my husband, a man who lacked no endowment either of brains of beauty.” (4.252-264)

Zeus only knows what Helen and Odysseus did before she bathed and anointed him, but Menelaos, who is sitting there listening, likely has some idea, just as everyone else there does. Even if it were nothing, the awkwardness looms. Another, small note Helen adds is that he heart had changed and that she longed for Menelaos. Whether it was the case that she truly loved Paris when she ran from Sparta or it was truly the “madness of Aphrodite” is a difficult question, and one the students continue to debate. What is slightly easier to debate, however, is that Menelaos’ immediate response to Helen about her involvement in an attempt to destroy the Trojan Horse seems to directly contradict her claim that she both loved and wanted to return to her husband, whom she almost had a direct hand in killing. Observe:

“Then in answer fair-haired Menelaos said to her: ‘Yes, my wife, all this that you said is fair and orderly. In my time I have studied the wit and counsel of many men who were heroes, and I have been over much of the world, yet nowhere have I seen with my own eyes anyone like him, nor known an inward heart like the heart of enduring Odysseus. Here is the way that strong man acted and the way he endured action, inside the wooden horse, where we who were greatest of the Argives all were sitting and bringing death and destruction to the Trojans. Then you came here, Helen; you will have been moved by some divine spirit who wished to grant glory to the Trojans, and Deiphobos, a godlike man, was with you when you came. Three times you walked around the hollow ambush, feeling it, and you called out, naming them by name, to the best of the Danaans, and made your voice sound like the voice of the wife of each of the Argives.” (4.265-279)

Burn. Not only does Menelaos bring up the fact that Helen directly acted against her expressed will in her previous statement by attempting to “out” the Achaians in the Trojan Horse through nefarious means, but he also cleverly and pointedly suggests that perhaps this action to was the result of some “divine spirit” like when she abandoned Sparta with Paris in the first place. This relationship looks uglier and uglier. Not only earlier did Helen show her lack of “one-mindedness” with Menelaos by blurting out that she thought Telemachos was the son of Odysseus, but she also had to place “heartsease”, an Egyptian drug, which eases even the deepest hurts (4.221-232) into the drinks of all the men because they were all crying so hard for those they had lost during Troy, which of course was the result of Helen’s absconding. Everything seems to remind Menelaos and Helen of the fact that she is responsible for all Menelaos’ suffering–and we have not even gotten to how Menelaos learns of his brother’s death from Proteus, and his inability to do anything to prevent it, because of course he was detained in Egypt after finishing the war to win back his truant wife. The quote then ends emphasizing Odysseus’ clever nature by detaining the foolish Antiklos who fell for Helen’s ruse, and mentioning, perhaps slyly, that Athene must have led Helen off (4.280-289). If Helen is going to rely on the gods as an excuse for her indiscretions, Menelaos is certainly laying it on thick that she is apparently beyond choice and influenced in all she does by them.

There is so much more to consider in this book, but we have run long, and not even considered all we set out to–we should end by mentioning the potential significance of Menelaos’ encounter with the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus. The students wondered why exactly it was that Menelaos had to wrestle with and hold Proteus, Old Man of the Sea, and a shapeshifter. He shifts into a lion, serpent, leopard, boar, water, and even a tree. All I could suggest to them is that the truth takes many forms, and that in life, it often requires real perseverance and wrestling with the truth in all its many forms in order to pin down and finally grasp the essence of its apparently evanescent nature.




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 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.

Are We Romans Yet?

“I live in Sicily as a foreigner, but I love this country More than any other. This is my home now, My true dwelling place.” –Ovid, Metamorphoses Bk V 572-557 (Lombardo tr.)*

Consider the diverse peoples who came together to form and defend Troy: Lykians, Aethiopians, Amazonians, et alia. At one time, and for one lucid moment, these people were united in a just and singular goal: defend home. Then imagine them scattered to the wind in the wake of their defeat. Many of the surivors–those not enslaved–followed Aeneas, forever stopping and starting in cities that would never be called home. Later, after his own women burned many of his ships, King Acestes of Sicily would take the less warlike and honor-driven people in, and for many, their journey ended there: et in Sicanis ego.

But the journey was not over for Aeneas; ever did the signs point to Latinum and War;  war, with a seven year long journey sandwiched between it and the Ten year long Trojan War before it. Twenty years of suffering–When ever do we find home? When ever do we, like Aeneas’ followers, become Romans? Is home our birthright, or do we, like poor Helenus and Andromache risk falling for pale illusion? Or like poor Polydorus and Palinurus, do we simply lack the fate or strength to make it home? Is home, perhaps, a little more difficult to attain than one might at first suspect?

When we came together; some from undergraduate colleges in the Southwest, others from the Northeast, others from being cooks in the south, and others from the deep colds of the Midwest, we were disparate and many. At St. John’s we became one. We were Johnnies, or put more correctly, we were GI’s. We were friends united in learning and transforming our natures and lives, substantially. But St. John’s is no end point, no telos. One must be-at-work-while-staying-at-self-and-then-go. The gates of ivory close; the cave must be returned to; the heights of the Empyrean precede the inevitable return to the mundane; Jacob’s or Plato’s ladder must be scaled down. One leaves through the gate of horn. We then multiply and become plentiful. But though we came as disparate people, did we leave as one people? Are we not now all Romans now, though once we were fallen Trojans of Phrygian, Thracian, Amazonian, or Near-Eastern stock? No, obviously not. A fallen Trojan does not a Roman make. Journeys, sufferings, losses, and war await one. St. John’s is a beautiful beginning, but a beginning all the same.

St. John’s offers a taste of home, but a taste, like the Lotus Eaters would attest, that one never can go without drinking from again. Just as Alcibiades was overcome by his desire to see within Socrates, to see his inner light, the light beyond the shadows of the cave—those inner depths sometimes called pristine heights, so must one afflicted by the gadfly which flits about plains less noble than Elyisum, restlessly, strive for Hyperborea beyond the clouds, or Rome beyond the Aegean sea. A distant point, hare-like in its elusiveness, the distance to which is only ever halved; Sicily may have to do. My lips are cracked, my breath dry. The air without is dry and arid. Where is home? The answer is so cruelly simple. Home must be built, not found. Such homes as exist ready made for others are denied you now, Brother Aaron.

I say this not to discourage, but like Teiresias in Homer’s underworld, or Anchises in Vergil’s, to counsel. To return home, or where once was home, like Agamemnon, expecting all as it was, is to invite severe misfortune. All is not as it seems, though once that was all one’s eyes could darkly see. One must now, with scales fallen out from eyes, mist parted, see that which is, and actually bring about what once could safely exist in hope alone.

My evenings at St. John’s involved pleasant conversation, thoughtful debate, and were often followed by giving Dionysos his due after Apollinian days. The Even-star fell on my days where happiness was equal during morning hours to those hours covered by Selene’s cool light. My nights now are largely solitary, and though my knowledge and wisdom daily increase, so does my loneliness and estrangement from those around me. I continue my work in isolation; I grow strong, my life’s work is happening, and yet I long for my former Troy, the company of my dear Creusa. My work continues. I strive onward hoping for Athene’s counsel; avoiding Poseidon’s wrath.

I miss my home. I know it does not exist; it must be founded at yet unknown costs. And yet still do I linger on un-spun thoughts, restless sentences dripping from worn-through keys. A barista, rude in tone, low in thoughts, calls me back to the mundane. Doesn’t she know from what heights she drags me down from? My fall is Luciferian. Pandemonium will not do. Only Rome. Such grasping hands belong not alone to baristas: the ignoble belly. I hold a lowly steward’s grip on Agamemnon’s weathered staff—molding youth, expressing knowledge, transmitting culture. All are excaliburs of thought. What gives me happiness and long-lingering hope causes pain all the same. I have never been without this feeling. Is this what the Pious son of Venus and swift-footed Peleion felt with goddess mothers? Such simple and short-enduring pride, exaggerated with filial love when they were present, followed by such keen pain at their eternal and inevitable passing by?

To reach a crescendo, Ovid’s Tristia comes to mind:

“When the saddest image of that night recurs which was for me the final moment in the city, when I recall the night in which I left behind so much dear to me, a tear now also glides from my eyes. Now the day was nearly at hand in which Caesar had ordered me to depart from the bounds of farthest Ausonia.”

But this is no elegy; it is the beginning of an epic. Suffering and nostalgia for what is lost is not this life’s major theme. Suffering is but hand-maiden, constant companion to something greater.

All this goes to show the layers with which life and fate conspire to confound and confront one. I am, perhaps arguably, a success in terms of the thinking of St. John’s, though I once declared its program a failure (in terms of finding one opportunities to share one’s acquired wisdom for a wage). Two years after graduating I am responsible for developing four years of Great Books course-work in a Charter school system—truly avant garde–not having accepted what was already laid down. Many of my fellows chose Carthage or Buthrotum, burning their ships, but I, possibly with the love of some Venus or Minerva, sailed on, ever in search of Lavinia, which I must build.

This is the life I wish to live. This is the life the moirai set out for me. And yet, like Aeneas, I was not warned by Helenus nor Celaeno of the sorrows I would face. Perhaps, though, I was? A life of meaning is not at all times happy. I feel the nagging sorrow, the tristia, and loneliness of those who travel West, those who approach the great Ocean’s border, and I am as of yet still unsure how to fill this void. I long for meaningful company and conversation, and I require more and more the farther I progress. I know these are the long days of struggle on the sea, but clarity can be difficult as the Dog-Star rises on the horizon, or the Sun sets in Capricorn, causing fear to all sailors braving the wine-dark sea.

*Written for all those who once knew home at St. John’s or some other brief Eden and are now on their nostos, wherever that may be.