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 Odyssey, The 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]  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.
This last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing an esteemed and wizened professor make the bold assertion that we in America live in a myth-less society today. What he meant was that unlike the Ancient Greeks with their mysteries and rich epic heritage, the Romans and their destiny of world-conquest, the Teutons and their war-loving gods, et alia…that we Westerners, and Americans, must settle for platitudinous and calcified forms of thoughts in the form of “-isms”, doctrinaire and schismatic systems of faith, and for lived-out and discarded notions like manifest destiny and the quickly dwindling American Dream. Several questions thus arise: (1) What is a living mythology? (2) Does America and the West have a living mythology? and (3) What is the process for developing or discerning a living mythology?
The esteemed professor first suggested an erroneous etymology for the study of economics which he correctly linked to the Greek term oikos but incorrectly defined as “rule of the home”. The term oikos means “home” or “household” in the Greek and nomos means “the rule of or law”–therefore oikos+nomos=”the rule of the home”. Etymology aside, his suggestion was that America has lost connection to its living spirit and instead that America is ruled by inert economic considerations–something like Oscar Wilde’s miser who “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. If one needs evidence of just how concerned Americans are with “the American Dream” or “economic mobility” one need only access the great oracle, Google, and one can see for one’s self countless articles from countless sources on the issue. One also observes in the articles above that the consensus omnium is that these various myths and dreams have failed. Is this perhaps because true myths are always bound to fail? Let us consider what a “real” or “living” myth then is and how it differs from a false myth, doomed to fail.
Naturally, America and the West in general has access to the roots of its myths in many, many forms. One need only look to our broad collections of Homer, Hesiod, Statius, Nonnus, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Spencer, et alia to see that myths are very much still present in the literature and cultural dialog of our people. But what exactly is the difference between the myths which have informed and shaped our culture and a living myth which continues to define and give meaning to the lives of American people, especially if the economic myth is dead or dying? We turn first to the eminent psychologist and student of mythology, Carl Jung, and his massive tome The Symbolic Life for a brief exposition of what a “living myth” is: “A myth remains a myth even if certain people believe it to be the literal revelation of an eternal truth, but it becomes moribund if the living truth it contains ceases to be an object of belief. It is therefore necessary to renew its life from time to time through a new interpretation.” (C.G. Jung, The Symbolic Life CW 18 Par. 1665, P. 736). He again attempts a description of the “living myth” in his work Psychology and Religion in paragraph 451: “But whereas mythological figures appear as pale phantoms and relics of a long past life that has become strange to us, the religious statement represents an immediate “numinous” experience. It is a living mythologem.” (Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion CW 11 Par. 450, p. 300). Two immediate aspects of Jung’s descriptions jump out at us. In his first description of a living myth, he suggests that in order to “renew its life” it requires a new interpretation. And in his second description, he suggests that a living mythologem gives one a “numinous” experience, which means a spiritual, moving, or transformational experience. So, with these descriptions we will define a living myth as: “an expansive, motivating and transformational story which informs, guides, and provides meaning for the life of a person or people.”
With the definition above, the first thing which becomes immediately clear is that though America has access to many, many myths (viz above: Homer, Statius, Virgil, Dante, Milton), that few if any of them have an expansive impact on Americans, and in fact, many of the “old” myths are reserved for more of a scholastic readership, even though many are easily accessible to any person. The other more difficult aspect of the definition above, however, is that few if any of the stories throughout time might be considered “transformational” to a contemporary American audience. Though, for instance, the story of Odysseus might well establish a firm expectation in a reader that greatness and eternal glory requires endless strife and divine endurance, it is unclear that the story might affect the character, attitude, and spirit of the reader. And even if the Odyssey does impact a person in that way, does that make the Ancient Greek myth a living myth for Americans? We must return to Jung’s first description and its notion of a “new interpretation” to answer this question.
Clearly, it would be nationalistic and chauvinistic to assert that the living myth of a people would have to come from that people and not that people’s ancestors. However, not to observe national differences in character, temperament, and civilization between the archaic Greek nation-states and the contemporary America would seem criminally unobservant. So, is it then the case that these old stories, these myths–potentially inert for years–could be resurrected by a new interpretation of their content and the meaning of their content? In theory, yes, but the question quickly becomes: is a new interpretation of an older and less familiar myth the way to a new living myth or is the creation of a new myth, possibly informed by those of the past, an even stronger guarantee of new transformational American myth? Let us consider how this might work.
The first question that arises for how to “create a new living myth” is this: Will America’s myth be an artistic creation (movie, book, poem) or lived out in the life of some great man or woman? What this question is asking is whether America requires a written or oral myth, like Homer’s Odyssey, or more like the Life of Alexander, as reported by Plutarch, some great American must live and embody a myth, though it may not yet have solid or concrete form. As profound as this question is, the general difficulty of it exists in the same mode for either option: the myth must be indefinite and exist more as a potential story or path in the mind and soul of the person who is to write or live it out. What this means is that there will not be a clear line demarcating the path on which the author of the great work (opus) or action takes.
On either path, he or she will essentially be working in the dark. For though there are various luminous deeds, texts, and masterpieces scattered throughout history, the defining feature of each seems to be that there is something utterly unique and expressive mixed with the mundane aspects of the day. Or rather, there is the stamp of a particular and temporally bound culture mixed with some universal and eternal element. Such a notion is irreducible, and as such defies simple formulation. And even though that makes attainment of such a noble goal (the noblest goal?) so difficult that for most it would be impossible, it adds the highest possible value to the endeavor as well.
In conclusion, America seems to be dealing with a worn-out, tired, and unworthy mythology of an economic nature which it will soon cast aside. Because of this, there is no operating mythology governing and unifying its people, but like a phoenix, the opportunity now exists for a more honest, motivating, and expansive–a living–mythology to be born through a person or people through great and noble actions, if one will simply rise from the ashes and make one’s contribution to eternity.