The Grand Finale of Dante’s Purgatorio

The Church and the Tree of Knowledge are now disconnected, and thus is the truth about good and evil disjoined from the Church. And as society, and that which is secular must give law, which has nothing to do with good and evil, the knowledge of good and evil through an institution leaves the world. Due to this fact, first the Theological virtues (faith, hope, charity) sing Vulgate Psalm 78 while weeping and then the Cardinal virtues (temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude) sing out weeping too. What they sing, “Deus, venerunt gentes” (1) means “God, the heathens/people are come [into thine inheritance].” What exactly does this mean in context? Well, precisely this: if the institution of the church no longer continues to embody and therefore know the truth of Good and evil, then where must the truth now reside? Let us move forward before we answer this.

Beatrice then sings out “Modicum, et non videbitis me; Et iterum, Modicum, et vos videbitis me.“(10-12). This quote from John 16:16, means “In a little while, even you will not see me, and therefore, you will see me.” In the context of the church disjoining from the tree what does this mean? It means that the Tree and Church were connected, and then one could see the truth of what was good and evil, but now that they are disjoined, one can no longer see the truth through the church. But is there some other way? Beatrice continues while placing all seven virtues together in front of her. (13-15) And she commands Dante to ask of her what questions he now has in order to free him “from [his] entanglements of fear and shame.” She then says that “the vessel which the serpent broke was and is not”, which means that which once held the Truth, the Church, no longer holds it, and “The eagle who left his feathers in the car Which then became a monster and a prey, He will not forever be without an heir.” (34-36) This means that without the balance maintained between the secular and sacred authorities, neither represents the correct attitude or outlook necessary to hold or understand Truth about good and evil. Correct authority on good and evil therefore comes neither from secular authority, nor sacred authority due their corrupted natures. But, again, where then does proper authority or interpretation come from?

Beatrice does not yet answer this question but continues on to mention the divine number, 515 (DXV), which heralds a “messenger of god” “[who] shall kill the whore Together with the giant who shares her sin.” She then compares this enigma to the one which Laiades, or Oedipus, figured out in the wake of the sphinx at Thebes. Of course the answer to the great riddle which the sphinx asks, “What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening”? Is man, and let us now consider how the answer of man, is also the answer to our question of where the authority to interpret the knowledge of good and evil is as well. First, Beatrice insists that Dante remember what he has seen in order to report it to others (why, might we ask, unless he has seen the truth and can thus, like a messenger, convey it to others?)

“Take note: and as my words are carried from me,
Make sure that they are delivered to the living
Whose life is nothing but a race to death.

And bear in mind, when you are writing them,
Not to conceal how you have seen the tree
Which now has been twice robbed on its leaves here.

Whoever robs the tree or snaps off pieces,
Offends against God by a blasphemous act;
It was created for his use.

For biting it, the first soul hungered on
five thousand years in torment and desire
For him who took the punishment on himself.

Your mind must be asleep, if you do not see
That it is for a special reason that this tree
Is so lofty and so wide at the top.

And if your idle thoughts had not encrusted
Your mind like the water of Elsa, and the pleasure of them
Been like Pyramus spattering the mulberry tree (with his red blood, sacrifice),

By so many circumstances you would have recognized,
On your own, the moral significance
Of the justice of God in his interdict on this tree.” (52-72)

What Beatrice is saying here is that originally the tree was robbed from, and a piece was snapped off, like how a piece must be snapped from the trees of suicides to speak to them, or from poor Polydorus in Virgil’s Aeneid. But this is not the correct use of the tree. One learns from the tree not from taking from it, but from observing it. For that which one receives from the tree, one is not supposed to keep materially, but to pass along formally, and that is knowledge of good and evil. And Beatrice says just as much:

“I want you to take back inside yourself,
At least an impression, if you do not write it,
As a pilgrim’s staff is brought back wreathed with palm.” (76-78)

Beatrice is saying here that the knowledge which the Tree has to offer is now within humanity, or a human, who as a messenger of the divine, guided by Divine Faith or Wisdom, which Beatrice represents, has received the “correct impression” which exists only when it is shared. Dante responds:

“”And I: ‘In this same way as wax under a seal.
So that figures stamped on it do not change,
My brain has now been marked by you.” (79-81)

Dante says that he understands what he must, and yet just after this he admits to the fact that most of Beatrice’s words “fly so far beyond what I can see.” Beatrice then spends several lines reminding the pilgrim of three potential reasons why: 1) he has followed the way of materialism which cannot understanding eternal things, naturally, because material things are constantly in flux and changing. “You cannot step in the same river twice,” as it were. The second reason 2) is that the pilgrim has just drunk from the River Lethe, and therefore he may well have forgotten words based on the forgetfulness which Lethe causes, and 3) perhaps his will was not correctly employed, and therefore, like a poor student, his attention wandered, and in so wandering he became lost.

The pilgrim then observes the two, now one, group of virtues in front of the two rivers issuing from one source. The principle of unity of opposites is here strongly reconciled. In seeing the truth, that which appeared different, is actually one. The Tigris and Euphrates, the Rivers Lethe and Eunoe, good and evil, human and god, and church and state. All are seen as differing aspects of that which is really and truly one. So though Lethe causes one to forget sin, and though Eunoe causes one to remember virtue, “the way down is the way up”, and it turns out that they find their sources in the same, single truth, and that which causes forgetfulness also causes one to remember, depending on how one engages with it. Such it is with all seeming dualities which are at once their opposites.

Under the guidance of Matilda, the pilgrim then drinks from Eunoe and:

“I came back from that most sacred of streams,
Made afresh, as new trees are renewed
With their new foliage, and so I was

Clear and ready to go up to the stars.” (142-145)

Therefore, just as the Tree of Knowledge was rejuvenated when the Divine rejoined it through the church/chariot, and the leaves sprang out in beautiful crimson hue, so does the pilgrim, when rejoined to the knowledge of the divine, or the truth, and freed from the tension of opposites, himself become renewed, and share his own crimson leaves by giving us the shining and illuminating pages before us, from which we receive the very same gift he was given, so long as we empty ourselves of our own prejudices, and shame, and fear, and instead of trying to grasp, and take it, we hold our hands open in order both to give and receive, and to join in the eternal connection which is always and forever eternally present. For does one remember one’s own good deeds through drinking from Eunoe, or does Eunoe simply show one all good deeds ever done, like a string of illuminated texts, great books even, which in one emptying one’s self of prejudice, one then finds one’s self filled with that which is great and excellent and everlasting and ready to share instead.

Psalm 82:6: “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.”

John 10:34: “Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”‘?”


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.

Conversations with Students VI: The Deaths of Heroes

The main text discussed during this most recent seminar was Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad. Three major events occur during this episode: (1) Achilleus allows Patroklos to don his armor and go out into the fighting looking as he would; (2) Patroklos kills Sarpedon, son of Zeus and King of Lykia, and (3) Apollo, Euphorbos, and Hektor all take part in the killing of Patroklos.

This might be a useful point, as well, to briefly mention the purpose of this “Great Books” with high school student project that is here being recorded and is ongoing in the classroom. The point is that when a student asks me, “why do we read these books?” for me to be able to answer. “Well, in this transitory time when all around you changes–media, houses, people, language, all that you believe makes you the person you are in the world you live in–these books and the ideas within them will still remain. And though how they are perceived and bound and packaged will of course always change, what is within them serves less to differentiate us, as people, from each other, and more to connect each generation to those which came before it in solidarity, though never uniformity.” That brief waxing philosopho-poetic complete, let us move on to the seminar and the questions considered therein.

1) Fate and its relationship to the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos (and soon Hektor and Achilleus).

2) Aristotle’s four causes and the etiology of Patroklos’ death–who, really, are we to blame for this? An immortal? Zeus or Apollo? Or one of the men who directly killed Patroklos: Euphorbos or Hektor? Or one of the men indirectly responsible: Achilleus or Nestor, or even Patroklos himself?

3) In allowing Sarpedon to die, was Zeus valuing his role as king over his role as father? Or truly was he valuing his promise to Thetis over any other responsibility? Was he truly persuaded by Hera’s comment that the gods would resent him that action as the majority of them (sans Apollo) were still restricted from interfering on the battlefield? That said, as ruler of the gods, is Zeus then less subject to the laws he upholds or moreso? A strange and perturbing question.

A theme today will be applying Aristotle’s four causes to the deaths of Patroklos and to Sarpedon because that may be a useful way to determine the precise roles which each person, god, and intangible fate plays in the end of each. A brief explanation of Aristotle’s causes comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, Aristotle offers his general account of the four causes. This account is general in the sense that it applies to everything that requires an explanation, including artistic production and human action. Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.” (

The reason we delve into Aristotle here and this brief explanation of his causes is because really the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos are that complex. First and foremost there is a prophecy in Book 15 that both will die in a grand sweep of formal causality in the service of Zeus keeping his promise to Thetis. He speaks the following prophecy to Hera:

“Let [Apollo] drive strengthless panic into the Achaians, and turn them back once more; let them be driven in flight and tumble back on the benched ships of Achilleus, Peleus’ son. And he shall rouse up Patroklos his companion. And glorious Hektor shall cut down Patroklos with the spear before Ilion, after he has killed many others of the young men, and among them my own son, shining Sarpedon. In anger for him brilliant Achilleus shall then kill Hektor. And from then on I would make the fighting surge back from the vessels always and continuously, until the Achaians capture headlong Ilion through the designs of Athene.” (15.61-71)

So, we will consider the place of fate within Aristotle’s concept of the four causes. Just as Patroklos is clearly the efficient cause of the death of Sarpedon and his spear the material cause. So, is it clear that the final cause is in order to be part of a succession of events which lead to inevitable return of Achilleus to the battle and the fall of Troy. The formal cause might be “the account” of the death of each of the men, whatever that means. The collateral damage, as it were, of this are the lives of Sarpedon, Patroklos, Hektor, and Achilleus, as well as the countless men whom each of them kill. All this though goes to show us that within Aristotle’s framework there are several different factors which led to the death of each of these men–the material cause which for both was a spear (16.480-481; 16.816-820), the efficient cause which was in the case of both men was another man using the spear against him, and the final cause which was Zeus’ plan to allow Troy to fall from all the way back in Book IV (4.30-69). Since Sarpedon’s death was foretold but also caused by Patroklos alone, let us consider the example of Patroklos, as it offers far more complexity than Sarpedon’s death.

First and foremost, we know from above that Patroklos is doomed to die by the hand of Hektor due to the prophecy and will of Zeus. Secondly, we know that Nestor is the one who even suggested that Patroklos take the battlefield wearing Achilleus’ armor in the first place (would him giving that idea make him also an efficient cause?) (11.790-803). Thirdly, we know that Achilleus accepts Patroklos’ request but himself refuses to return to the fighting because he still bears a tremendous grudge towards Agamemnon. That said, he does warn Patroklos to return to his tent after driving the Trojans back from the ships for fear some god might crush him (or that he might dishonor Achilleus). (16.48-100). Fourthly, there is the fact that Patroklos himself gets caught up in the heat of the battle and does not return as Achilleus requested that he do, but the reason for this is itself ambiguous: “But Patroklos, with a shout to Automedon and his horses, went after Trojans and Lykians in a huge blind fury. Besotted: had he only kept the command of Peleiades he might have got clear away from the evil spirit of black death. But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” (16.684-688) So, whether Zeus or Patroklos’ own battle-fury is cause of his death in this case is subject to question. Then of course, fifthly, there are the two men and one god who strike him: (1) Apollo knocks off his corselet, shield, helmet, and splits his spear and mazes his wits at 16.788-807, and then Euphorbos strikes him with a spear in his back (16.812-814), and Hektor, his “third slayer” strikes him in the midriff 16.821-822. So, with these five causes laid out, who is it exactly that is responsible for the death of Patroklos? Do Aristotle’s causes ultimately help to determine who is most responsible? Zeus seems to have the final cause covered, but it is unclear whether Patroklos’ own motivations, Nestor’s prodding words, or simply the killing throws of Euphorbos and Hektor are the efficient causes of Patroklos’ death. And what chance had he, really, to stand up to Apollo? And could he have really avoided being crushed by Apollo had he gone back to the ships, or was he doomed to be “besotted” by the will of Zeus, who is too strong?

Though question three, about Zeus’ role as a father is a fair one for the students, beyond Hera’s argument that the gods will resent Zeus, Athene in Book 15 gives a response to Ares who wishes to avenge his son Askalaphos very much like Glaukos’ speech to Diomedes in Book VI which seems to satisfy why a god must allow his mortal son to die: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) Such a fact must be accepted by the gods, regardless their relationship and love of their children who are mortal. Those are who mortal are doomed to die, regardless their gifts or lineage, just as the commoners–such is a recurrent and ever prevalent theme in Homer’s Iliad, the common lot of man.

Conversations with Students V: Subterfuge, Cunning, and Power in Homer’s Gods

This time around, we covered a long stretch of readings: Books 11-15 and the first 100 lines of Book 16. In years past, I have skipped straight from Book 11 to 16 because the transition is so seamless. But this time around, I wanted the students to see , Poseidon’s direct contravention of Zeus’ order for all gods to remain off the battlefield (13.10-38), Agamemnon’s second attempt to flee (14.74-81), the seduction and deception of Zeus (14.160-360), and Poseidon’s near fight with his brother, equal in rank, but not in power (15. 167-235), and of course the fateful request of Patroklos to Achilleus for his armor and return to the battle at the head of Myrmidons (16.20-100).

A major theme which shows up again and again in Homer’s Iliad is power and its manifold expressions–and also the intricacies connected to differences in power and rank. For instance, in Book I, one of the governing reasons for the conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon in the first place is that Agamemnon exceeds Achilleus in rank, but Achilleus is “far stronger” than is Agamemnon (1.130-245), In similar but distinctly different fashion, we observe the machinations of both Hera and Poseidon, in defiance of Zeus, during Books 13 and 14. Both may claim to be equal to Zeus in terms of birth and in fact Poseidon in his response to Iris suggests that either he or Hades could easily be king over the sky as Zeus is had the lots been cast in their favor. The difference, however, seems to be that equal as Hera and Poseidon may be to Zeus in rank and as siblings, they have not his brutal power. Even Poseidon is cowed by Zeus’ might (15.205-215). This difference in power leads to another expression of power, particularly feminine, by Hera.

Hera observes her brother Poseidon enter the Trojan battlefield against the orders given by Zeus (from 8.1-28) at 13.10-28. Knowing that if her brother and husband finds out about this that he will be angry and immediately seek to stop Poseidon from helping the Achaian side, Hera seeks a way to keep Zeus’ attentions divided. Her solution, since she can hardly force Zeus, is to use the tools at her disposal: deception and male weakness for female flesh–which she actually uses on two gods. First and foremost, Hera goes to Aphrodite with a contrived tale of how she wishes to go see Okeanos and Tethys and “reignite the passion” between them that has been lost (she wants to return them to the same marriage bed). But in order to accomplish this act she requires the “zone” of Aphrodite which will make her irresistible to mortal men and gods. Aphrodite willingly gives the zone over citing the fact that Hera shares the bed of Zeus as her reason. Interesting to note is that Hera is not explicit about how she wishes to use the zone–is it to give to Tethys so that she is irresistible to Okeanos? Or is it that Hera will have limitless persuasive power over both with the zone? In any case, Hera acquires the belt, and then she goes to see the god Sleep (Hypnos).

Just as Hera played on the weakness of Aphrodite’s position in requesting the zone of her, so here does she play on the weakness Sleep has for a certain Grace, Pasithea.  First, Hera attempted to offer a throne and footstool wrought by Hephaistos, but apparently this is not the first time Hera has made this request of Hypnos, and he is wise to the consequences of interfering with the plans of Zeus. The last time Hera made such a request–after Zeus fell asleep, Hera sent a storm with the help of Boreas (the North Wind) to drive Herakles, her most hated step-son, off course to Kos. When Zeus woke up, however, he threw all the Olympians and gods on Olympus in rage and only retreating to Mother Nyx (Night) saved Sleep from bearing the full fury of wrath of Zeus (14. 245-269). All that said, Sleep, being male, is immediately swayed to do as Hera asks when she offers to him the Grace that he is soft for.

All the pieces in place, Hera then seeks out Zeus at Mount Ida and makes a pretense to request his permission before leaving for Okeanos and Tethys. Looking as good as she does though, and augmented by Aphrodite’s zone, Zeus suggests that they bed-down before she goes–he does not even want to wait the span of time necessary to go to Hera’s house, which we find out in Book 15 would be the span of a thought (15.78-82). He shrouds them in a golden cloud, and Hera buys Poseidon time to undue as much of the harm as Zeus has caused to the Achaians as possible.

The whole scene–and what leads up to it and what comes after (with Iris commanding Poseidon off the battlefield after Zeus sends Hera to convey his will to her) is a fascinating study in the use of varying powers. Hera, knowing her brute force is far less than that of her husband, knows that she can still circumvent his will by deceiving him and Aphrodite, and convincing Sleep to help. All this she does, too, in such a way that she can still swear a holy oath on Styx that she did not put the thought to act against Zeus into Poseidon’s mind (15.35-45). Clearly, she did help Poseidon by distracting Zeus and worked hard to ensure his success, but in the face of the rage of the Olympian she can claim to have been innocent of orchestrating the plan. For those who feel powerless in the wake of the force and strength of their betters, Hera is truly the acme of resourceful cunning in these two books.

All the while that this is happening, Agamemnon, too shows himself to be still a weak and easily discouraged leader. Just as in 9.17-28, so does he again suggest fleeing at 14.65-81 (and if one counts his failed attempt to rouse the battle spirit of his men by reverse psychology, he did the same at 2.111-141). Although Agamemnon is remarkable for his ability on the battlefield, particularly in Book 12, as a leader he is easily discouraged, and he is rightfully admonished by Diomedes in Book 9 and Odysseus in Book 14. The students, as any person reading this epic poem might imagine, maintain a low opinion of Agamemnon’s gift for marshaling the men and maintaining morale. Interestingly, when asked who they would prefer leading the troops, many suggest Diomedes, but most suggest Odysseus. One, however, suggested that Odysseus, though he leads well, especially in the aftermath of Agamemnon’s speech in Book 2, is of higher value in his current place as the man who “gets things done”: whether he be re-invigorating troops in Book 2, or drawing off lines for one on one combat in Book 3, or going as an envoy to Achilleus in Book 9 or stalking through the night for information in Book 10, Odysseus is the man “who gets the job done.”

Patroklos’ request to don the armor of Achilleus at the suggest of Nestor was touched on, but largely it will be discussed during seminar this upcoming Wednesday in the wake of Patroklos’ death. For one of the most hotly debated topics of seminars on Homer’s Iliad is this: who is responsible for the death of Patroklos? In our next post, we will delve into the subtleties and complexities of this question.

Nota Bene*The students are beginning to see that that which is flashy, superficial, and without substance is weak and without value, not simply in Homer’s Iliad but in the world around them.

Conversations with Students IV: The Embassy to Achilleus and Death of Dolon

This seminar focused on two particular episodes and in its own way two particular characters: the embassy to Achilleus as it is known, from Book IX, and the Doloneia, the potentially interpolated episode of the traitorous Dolon, and his unfortunate run-in with Diomedes and Odysseus. Even though this seminar only covers Books IX and X of Homer’s Iliad, they are packed full of information, complexity, and interesting questions. Let us first examine the structure of the two books.

After the Trojans route and defeat the Achaians during Book VIII, mighty Hektor decides to camp on the Trojan Plain, outside the walls of Ilion, for the first time in the nine years that the war has been ongoing. This, understandably, freaks Agamemnon, leader of the Achaians out, and in a true testament to his meddle as a commander, his first instinct is to instruct all the men to flee back to their homes by ship. Diomedes, who has recently seen his star in ascent (Cf. his aristeia of Bk. V), immediately declines and derides the course of action, and Nestor, wisest and eldest Achaian on the battlefront, assents with him, but “completes his argument,” with the suggestion that an embassy of trusted men should be sent to propitiate and placate Achilleus (9. 95-113). Agamemnon agrees to this action saying that “[he] was mad in the persuasion of [his] heart’s evil.” Nestor then with great politic suggests that Aias the Greater, Phoinix, and Odysseus be sent to placat Achilleus without allowing or forcing Agamemnon to nominate himself. Here ensues the first question we considered during seminar:

1) Why were these three men chosen, and would the embassy have had a greater effect had Agamemnon led it himself?

The first thing which must be noted in answer to this question is that Nestor suggests these three men before the reader ever finds out the thoughts of imperious Agamemnon. Regardless of exactly what Agamemnon might have planned–and in fact the plan to even supplicate Achilleus comes from Nestor–it is Nestor’s wise and guiding hand which determines who will be sent. That said, seeing as the last time Achilleus saw Agamemnon Athene had to prevent Achilleus from slaying Agamemnon, the three men chosen will undoubtedly have a more positive ethos and rapport with Achilleus. And as we see in the speeches of Phoinix and Odysseus in an obvious way (speaking of “glory like an immortal”, Odysseus, and childhood memories, Phoinix), there is plenty of pathos too. Even Aias, terse as he is, offers arguably the best logic of the three.

In Aias’ speech he very quickly observes a potential flaw in the reasoning of Achilleus. He mentions that even when a man’s brother is killed, he will accept a blood-price and be placated, but Achilleus, pitiless as he is, is now offered back his woman, and seven more, and he will not accept them. (9. 630-639) Is Aias’ reasoning here correct, or is the hypocrisy of Achilleus fighting for a man who has stolen his “woman” too much? One has to wonder: in Book III, Menelaos seemed very willing to fight against Paris for Helen, though she was very much “sullied” by him in the way that men and women lie together. And Menelaos, angry as he was, did accept the terms that if he won, the Trojans would keep their city after paying recompense and returning Helen. Is Achilleus’ character simply stronger than Menelaos’? Or is he pitiless, as he is described?

After the three men and two heralds return from their embassy in failure, Book X begins, and Agamemnon and Menelaos cannot sleep. With the Trojans camped right outside their walls, on the plain, the war is finally going to make its way to the Achaians’ ships–without the aid of their greatest soldier, Achilleus. Something must be done: so Nestor, Diomedes, the Aiantes’, Odysseus, Meges, and Idomeneus are roused. A spy mission, then in close-council, is suggested, and Diomedes, recently having achieved some glory for himself (his aristeia in Bk V, his bold words in defense of the war at the beginning of Book IX (9. 31-49), and his callous remarks about Achilleus after he does not agree to return (9. 696-705)) is keen to volunteer, but he requests a second man because: “When two go together, one of them at least looks forward to see what is best; a man by himself, though he be careful, still has less mind in him than two, and his wits have less weight.” (10. 223-226). Agamemnon then gives Diomedes free-reign to choose whichever man he thinks will be best equipped to handle the situation (while secretly worrying that Menelaos will be chosen (10. 240-241)); and naturally, Diomedes chooses the most cunning and capable Achaian to join him: Odysseus.

The two of them traipse through the night in search of the Trojan camp and Hektor to view the position of the Trojans and decipher their plans for the next day. Unbeknownst to the Achaians, however, Hektor has himself asked for volunteers to do the same thing, and a fool, Dolon, has volunteered to spy, on the condition that he be given Achilleus’ chariot and horses should he be successful and is described as, “an evil man to look on, but was swift-footed; moreover he was a single son among five sisters.” (10. 316-319) In the physical and masculine culture of the Archaic Greeks, Dolon already has two major strikes against him, being womanly and ugly–but he is also covetous and delusional. He claims that he will go straight to the tent of Agamemnon–somehow getting past the seven-hundred sentries and wall and ditch that the Achaians have recently built. A major question which is asked the students is this: does Hektor show his inability to lead as a strategic commander in this situation? Now, there is ample literature calling Book X itself an interpolation, and even more claiming that there is a Greek nationalist bias present in Homer. But from a purely literary standpoint, the students are rather unimpressed here with Hektor’s lack of foresight. They do, however, suggest that at least he chose an expendable man–but that reasoning does not hold up under scrutiny, because after Dolon is caught, he quickly and with little prodding reveals the location of the new Thracian camp–which leads to the death of 13 men, including their king Rhesos, and the leading off of their horses which were fated to save Troy should only they drink from the waters of Xanthos/Skamandros. So, Dolon, in all his traitorous nature, could be argued to be a man who cost the Trojans the war.

800px-Rhesos_MNA_Naples Diomedes and Odysseus (Lycurgus, @360 BCE)

The students thought that it would be difficult to dislike a character more than Pandaros or Thersites. Dolon, however, is universally despised for his cowardly and traitorous nature. If Aristotle is correct, therefore, in saying: ”

“For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle 1104b 9-13, Barnes tr.)

Then, perhaps our students have a chance. For Dolon is certainly hateful, and he is justly despised even by the young.

Conversations with Students III: Defeat, Destruction, and Catastrophe on the Trojan Plain

The body of text that we covered in preparation for this seminar was technically Homer’s Iliad Books VI-VIII, and just through the very beginning of Book IX. During that time, the students encountered the odd exchange between Glaukos and Diomedes of vows of friendship and an exchange of armor of wildly disparate values (Glaukos’ gold armor was worth 100 oxen and Diomedes’ 9), but the students were quick to remind that at least Glaukos left the encounter with his life, so perhaps the 91 oxen difference is value is at least one or two short of the value Glaukos lays on his life.

Much of the remainder of Book VI is given to Hektor briefly leaving the battlefield in order to order a sacrifice to Athene within the walls of Troy, to collect his brother Paris, who is sitting about his bedchamber, doing nothing, like a pale shadow of Achilleus, and for Hektor poignantly to see his son, Astyanax, and his wife, Andromache for the last time.

Book VII then carries on with the fighting and Apollo and Athene decided that yet another one on one combat between champions is in order: Apollo chooses Hektor, the greatest warrior of the Trojans, and when Hektor calls out his challenge to the Achaians, only Menelaos attempts to accept it–but his older and more prudent brother, Agamemnon, stops him from volunteering, insisting that Hektor is “by far the greater man”. Nestor, the wise old counselor of the Achaians, then tells a story in typical fashion about him once defeating a great champion named Ereuthalion, and the Achaians now shamed and full of fighting spirit have 9 intrepid champions volunteer to fight: Agamemnon, Diomedes, Aias the Greater, Aias the Lesser (The two Aias’ are called the “Aiantes” when referred to together), Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and Odysseus. Each man then has a lot assigned, and with a prayer for Diomedes, Aias the Greater, or Agamemnon to be chosen, Nestor shakes the helmet and shoots the lot. Aias’ lot is chosen, and he proceeds to seriously task Hektor during the fight: penetrating his shield twice a spear, tearing Hektor’s neck, and crushing his shield inward with a rock while sustaining no damage himself. Unfortunately, night comes and the two champions are separated by the heralds, Idaios and Talthybios.

Book VII then ends with the Trojan advisor, Antenor, sagaciously suggesting that the Trojans just give Helen and the stolen possessions of Menelaos back to the Achaians, but Paris demurred, and for some reason, his father Priam, king of Troy, agrees to send the possessions back but not Helen. Of course the Achaians take this as a slap in the face, and they do not accept the fulsome offering from the Trojans. All this said, the seminar we had to today largely focused on why the Achaians and Trojans are still fighting after 9 long years of war. Several suggestions ensued.

1) Helen is a political object which was possessed by Menelaos, king of Sparta, and she was stolen by a foreign dignitary, Paris, and therefore an act of war was made by Troy against Sparta. In the background to this is the fact that many of the great men around then Achaia, Argos, and what would come later to be called Hellas or Greece had all been suitors to Helen before Menelaos was chosen as winner. During this process, Odysseus, seeking after his own interest in winning Penelope, niece of Tyndareus (father of Helen) suggested that Tyndareus have every suitor honor the decision of Helen and Tyndareus on husband and promise forever to protect Helen and her husband. The idea behind this oath was to keep the suitors from outright murdering Helen, her father, and her new husband in a collectively spurned rage. Little did any of them expect that they would later be honor-bound to mass armies, cross the Aegean Sea, and fight a ten year long war, which few enough of them would return from.

2) The second reason that the students gave for why the war rages on is the champions/heroes’ desire for further enlarging and expanding their kleos or honor. This claim might see some evidence with Pandaros, fool that he is, being persuaded by Athene to shoot his arrow at Menelaos in a misbegotten attempt to win honor at the expense of continuing the war on (4. 115-140). Also, Diomedes several times distinguishes himself as a great battler, susceptible to shaming (4. 425-430) and desirous of wonderful honor during his heroic and god-like deeds during his aristeia all throughout Book V. But the problem with this perspective was that in the first nine books of Homer’s Iliad there are five attempts by the Achaians or the Trojans alone or in tandem to draw the war to a quick end–all five of which occur during a Two day stint (Books III-VII are one long day of fighting, Book VIII another long one during which the Trojans rout the Achaians with the favor of Zeus, and Book IX begins on the same night as Book VIII).

The first time the Achaians show their weakness and desire to leave is actually the same day spoke of in Book III but is found back in Book II. Agamemnon devises a “reverse psychology” sort of speech where he tells the Achaians that they should just go home because Zeus must have falsely promised Agamemnon Troy (2. 119-153). Instead of having their battle spirits raised, the men of the Achaians just start heading back towards their ships, and it takes a command by Hera to Athene to rouse the men back up through the voice of Odysseus and then the liquid-honey voice of Nestor to get the men to stay. The point is though Odysseus suggests that it is disgraceful to return home after a long time empty-handed, that these men are all tired and beaten down.

The second time both the Achaians and Trojans show a desire for a quick end is when Paris suggests to his brother Hektor single-combat against Menelaos, winner take Helen, receive war-restitution, and the items stolen from Sparta alongside Helen. Menelaos hears of this opportunity, and with the assent of all his people (and likely the Trojans too), proceeds to beat Paris senseless (its true; he knocks him over with his spear, breaks his sword over Paris’ head, and then attempts to choke him with his own helmet’s chin-strap) (3. 375-400). Unfortunately for both sides, Aphrodite then saves Paris and deposits him safely back in his bedchambers with Helen, who all too humanly, is disgusted with her wretched and cowardly husband.

The third time both Achaians and Trojans, and even the gods Athene and Apollo, show a desire to end the war is when in Book VII a second single combat (on the same day as the first) is suggested between Hektor and an unnamed Achaian champion, who after a rousing speech by Nestor, and nine men volunteer, ends up being Aias the Greater, who is chosen by lots (as summarized above as well). This battle is less one-sided than the Paris and Menelaos battle in a way, but Aias essentially dominates it until the heralds Talthybios and Idaios stop it do to the onset of darkness, and ostensibly, because both men are so beloved, that neither side really wants to see either die on account of pathetic Paris.

The fourth and most pathetic attempt to end the war (until we see the fifth at the beginning of Book IX) is Antenor’s suggestion to the Trojan council that the Trojans just give Helen back to the Achaians with Menelaos’ possessions and be done with it all. After two failed attempts at ending the war that day, Antenor reasonably assumes that the will of the people is to end the war, with Troy not being sacked. As reasonable as his perspective is, Paris demurred, and for some reason, Priam places the desires of Paris above the will of his people. Is this perhaps because he would prefer to see Troy destroyed than it further suffer disgrace at the hands of his beautiful but weak son? One is led to wonder, but the thought is never confirmed by him.

After Book VIII and Zeus’ decree that the Trojans shall smash the Achaians back until Achilleus retakes the field of battle (after his friend Patroklos dies), Agamemnon begins Book IX disconsolate. He is so disconsolate that now, without using reverse psychology, he suggests to his counselors that they just retreat (9. 18-31). Zeus is just too strong! Naturally, Diomedes, the young and name-making Achaian, who had just fought with the gods Ares and Aphrodite is sick of this sort of attitude and claims that if he and Sthenelos were left alone on the battlefield that they would sack Troy themselves. But all that said, over a span of two days, the men show just how tired, worn-out, fatigued, exhausted they are. Though kleos might be the immortal measure of a man’s life and power, his mortal limits apparently must be taken into account.

In the end, the students were asked just who was keeping this war going, gods or men, and in two of the accounts gods stepped in to keep the war from ending (examples 1 and 2), but in the following three (Examples 3,4, and 5) it was mortal men who continued to fight. What keeps them going? Or is it who? With these questions we left seminar, though the issue of Helen, her acute ability to spot Aphrodite through her deceptions, her keen hand for weaving and her take on all this remains for us to discuss another day.

Inception in Ilion: Agamemnon’s Dream

Long before Christopher Nolan was wowing audiences with expensive CGI and notions of thoughts being placed into minds via dreams, Epic Greek literature was doing much the same. For those of you who need a brief refresher on the concept behind Inception: it is an action-adventure movie that centers around the notion that men, in the near future, can dive into dreams and interact with the dreamers in their dream, or in the case of the theoretical “inception”, they could plant an idea which the thinker thinks is his own. The marquis scene where two characters are talking about breaking into the dream of the wealthy heir of a corporate super-power in order to plant the idea to “break up his father’s empire” follows:

Arthur? You’re still working with
that stick in the mud?

He’s a good point man.

The best. But he has no
imagination. If you’re going to
perform inception, you need

You’ve done it before?

Yes and no. We tried it. Got the
idea in place, but it didn’t take.

You didn’t plant it deep enough?

It’s not just about depth. You need
the simplest version of the idea
the one that will grow naturally in
the subject’s mind. Subtle art.

That’s why I’m here.

What’s the idea you need to plant?

We want the heir to a major
corporation to break up his
father’s empire.

See, right there you’ve got various
political motivations, anti
monopolistic sentiment and so
forth. But all that stuff’s at the
mercy of the subject’s prejudice
you have to go to the basic.

(Full script Here)

So just as these futuristic “mind-hackers” sought to place an idea in the mind of a corporate tycoon to break up his company by utilizing “the relationship to the father” (check the next line or two of script), so does the king of the gods in Homer’s Iliad lack and equally subtle and perfidious device by which to affect a massively powerful royal tycoon. In fact, the idea is so similar, who knows whether cryptomnesia, conscious alluding, or even inception is responsible for it. Let us examine the evidence below.

Early on in Homer’s Iliad, in the first lines of Book II, Zeus, king of the gods, lays awake at night wondering how to fulfill his promise to Thetis: how to glorify Achilleus and punish the Achaians because of Agamemnon’s haughty actions. Because his wife Hera is one of the three gods fighting for and striving to destroy Troy alongside the Achaians, Zeus must act subtly in order to maintain his neutrality, but also definitively to honor his word to Thetis, Achilleus’ mother.

Zeus has an insight: he will send a “false dream” down to Agamemnon–a dream which will counsel Agamemnon to act foolishly; and as Agamemnon is the war-chief (commander-in-chief) of the Achaians, if he is beset with a false or harmful idea, great will be the harm which befalls his men. Let us look at what the false dream counsels Agamemnon to do in the form of his trusted advisor, Nestor:

“Dream listened to his word and descended. Lightly he came down beside the swift ships of the Achaians and came to Agamemnon the son of Atreus. He found him sleeping within his shelter in a cloud of immortal slumber. Dream stood then beside his head in the likeness of Nestor, Neleus’ son, whom Agamemnon honored beyond all elders beside. In Nestor’s likeness the divine Dream spoke to him:“Son of wise Atreus breaker of horses, are you sleeping? He should not sleep night long who is a man burdened with counsels and responsibility for a people and cares so numerous. Listen quickly to what I say, since I am a messenger of Zeus, who far away cares much for you and is pitiful.   Zeus bids you arm the flowing-haired Achaians for battle in all haste; since now you might take the wide-wayed city of the Trojans. For no longer are the gods who live on Olympos arguing the matter, since Hera forced them all over by her supplication, and evils are in store for the Trojans from Zeus. Keep this thought in your heart then, let not forgetfulness take you, after you are released from the kindly sweet slumber.” So he spoke and went away, and left Agamemnon there, believing things in his heart that were not to be accomplished. For he thought that on that very day he would take Priam’s city; fool, who knew nothing of all the things Zeus planned to accomplish, Zeus, who yet was minded to visit tears and sufferings on Trojans and Danaäns alike in the strong encounters. Agamemnon awoke from sleep, the divine voice drifting around him.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk II 16-42 University of Chicago Press. Lattimore. tr.)

Because Zeus must consider the will and retribution of his wife, Hera, he decides not to physically support the Trojans, nor to act explicitly or openly against the Achaians. He does something far more cunning, perfidious, and effective: he convinces Agamemnon that an Achaian assault will end in victory (possibly that day, though Agamemnon may later supply that detail with his dim thinking). Agamemnon therefore believes that his actions have the will of the gods on his side, so that even when his wisest counselor, Nestor–this time the real Nestor–gives lukewarm and fainthearted praise for Agamemnon’s plan* Agamemnon is blinded by his take on the will of the gods.

“Nestor, he who ruled as a king in sandy Pylos. He in kind intention toward all stood forth and addressed them: “Friends, who are leaders of the Argives and keep their counsel, had it been any other Achaian who told of this dream we should have called it a lie and we might rather have turned from it. Now he who claims to be the best of the Achaians has seen it. Come then, let us see if we can arm the sons of the Achaians.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk II 77-83 University of Chicago Press. Lattimore. tr.)

Poor Nestor to have to fight under such a fool. He attempts to convince Agamemnon, through subtlety, that his plan is ill-conceived and incorrect by saying that “had it been any other Achaian who told of this dream we should have called it a lie…” suggesting that it is Agamemnon’s position as king, and not the veracity or intelligence of his plan, which keeps Nestor or any man at all from opposing it. So even though the idea which Zeus’ “dream” plants is not particularly deep, it is extremely simple–“attack Troy tomorrow and it will be destroyed.” Agamemnon follows through with this plan, and Zeus’ will is done. Inception.

***This has been part of an ongoing series on “Dreams and prophecies in the Ancient World”. Make sure to follow for further updates.