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.

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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:

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

COBB
He’s a good point man.

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

COBB
You’ve done it before?

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

COBB
You didn’t plant it deep enough?

EAMES
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.

COBB
That’s why I’m here.

EAMES
What’s the idea you need to plant?

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

EAMES:
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.