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 II: Wars between Gods and Mortals in Homer’s Iliad

“…so now this is no horrible war of Achaians and Trojans, but the Danaans are beginning to fight even with the immortals.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk V 379-380. Lattimore tr.)

A lot has happened in the text since our last conversation: Agamemnon has failed to rouse his men, just to leave the task to better speakers: Odysseus and Nestor. We have met Thersites, ugliest and worst of the Achaians, and seen him brutally, but necessarily dealt with. We caught our first glimpse of heroic looking but cowardly Paris, and the grim and honest berating of him by his far superior brother, Hektor. We then saw the view of the Achaians from the top of the Trojan Wall, the so-called teichoscopia, where Helen described Agamemnon, Odysseus, Aias the Greater, Menelaos and Idomeneus to Priam, while, sadly, she did not see her brothers Castor and Polydeuces because they had already fallen.

We meet the great fool, Pandaros, and his cursed bow, and his failed attempts at eternal glory–letting loose shafts at Menelaos and Diomedes, injuring both, but killing neither. We see Aphrodite make a pest of herself on the battle field, saving Paris from dying and ending the Trojan War with no more death, and then attempting to save her son Aineias, but allowing a mortal “pin-prick” to make her lose her grasp, leaving the task of saving her son to her much stronger half-brother, Apollo.

We viewed the aristeia of Diomedes, or his heroic, and near invincible deeds after Athene breathes strength back into him and lets “the mist fall” from his eyes so that he might see Ares, Aphrodite, and Apollo on the battlefield.

Some of the major questions which were asked:

Who, exactly, was at fault for the rekindling of the Trojan War? This question involves the actions and mutual agreements of Zeus, the direct intervention of Athene, and the conscious decision of a mortal Trojan: Pandaros. So, in its simplest form, the question boils down to this: did Pandaros have the choice to shoot his arrow at Menelaos and restart the war, and even if he had not, would the gods have found a way to insight the war without him, or some other human?

This situation is this: a truce had been called between the Trojans and the invading Achaians after nine long years of war in order to allow for a single-combat, winner-take-all, fight to the death between Paris, who started the war by stealing Helen, and Menelaos, the husband from whom Paris stole Helen. The tension was palpable. During the fight, Menelaos immediately wins the upper hand over Paris, knocking him to the ground with his spear-cast, then breaking his sword over the head of Paris, and then attempting to strangle him with his own chin-strap. Paris, beloved as he is by Aphrodite, is saved by her in a mist, and she safely deposits him, unharmed and apparently washed and re-dressed, like a man “from a dance”, in the bedchambers of his stolen wife, Helen. Now, Helen is none too happy to see her husband, and she rebukes Aphrodite for not letting him die and the shame that she, Helen, will now have to endure from the other Trojan women, but after an Olympian response from Aphrodite, Helen capitulates.

In the aftermath of Aphrodite stealing Paris from the battle, Menelaos prowls about the battlefield, alone, looking for Paris. It is during this time that Zeus and Hera, high on Olympos, come to an agreement: should Zeus allow the destruction of Troy, his favorite city, so must Hera allow for one of her three favorites: Sparta, Mykenai, or Argos some day to be expunged by Zeus. Hera then sends Athene to convince some fool Trojan to “fire the arrow that will restart it all”, and that easily convinced and fooled Trojan is Pandaros–ever in search of, but just short of, eternal glory.

The question which occupied my students was this: was it Pandaros himself, the mortal, who was at fault for rekindling the war by shooting his arrow at defenseless Menelaos and reigniting hostilities between the Achaians and Trojans, or was it due to the divine influence of Athene–Hera–Zeus that the war began? Essentially, could the war have started again without human determination. Even had Pandaros not been the fool who was tempted, would not have some other mortal have been easily tempted, and was it not precisely because Pandaros had this quality (or lacked integrity) that he was chosen for the task? It is a difficult question, because there are times when the gods act of their own volition on the battlefield–Ares fighting and stripping armor of the fallen Periphas in Book V 840-855, or Apollo himself slapping the back of Patroklos’ back in Book XVI 785-795, and of course Aphrodite saving Aineias and attempting to save Paris just as Hephaistos saves the son of his priest, Idaios son of Phegeus, Book V lines 20-25. So, why exactly the gods needed a mortal man to enact their will is a troubling and ambiguous question which led the students to an even bigger and more difficult one: what exactly is the relationship between the men and the gods?

Some of the funnier analogies of the day were shared in answer to the question above: as ants are to humans so are humans to gods; puppets to puppeteers; favorite characters of dramas on an interactive stage. But then the analogies began to be earnest: perhaps the gods are like major sponsors and the mortals who receive their favors are like elite athletes. This analogy has some ground–the gods do not dispense their gifts evenly in the Ancient Hellenic world–they give to those already “gifted”. Diomedes, a prince, strong and clever, is healed and given the ability to see gods by Athene. Paris, a man remarkable for his handsome looks, is given Helen by Aphrodite, and then saved from death by her (Bk III 379-382). Odysseus, most cunning of all mortals, receives more favor and affection from Athene than any mortal–so much so that even his son receives her blessings (though, this all occurs in the Homer’s Odyssey). So, the question became, why did the gods dispense their gifts only to those men who were already great in some way or another? The students had an interesting, and very pragmatic response: because these men would be most capable of seeing to the will of the gods and accomplishing the tasks they were set to. Diomedes attacks and wounds both Aphrodite and Ares under the instruction of Athene, Odysseus helps in the construction of the Trojan Horse and destruction of Troy, and Agamemnon masses an army which floods and ends the nation of Troy as it is; by the students’ reasoning, it would be wasteful of the gods to give their gifts to lesser mortals–much like, one imagines, sponsors would feel about giving having some smaller, less influential mortal endorse their wares. The analogy, perhaps even more intelligent, was brought up of calling gods political backers/contributors and the men the politicians. Our students are becoming very perspicacious indeed.

The nature, though, of the relationship between the gods remains something of a mystery–perhaps once given contour and direction by the famous mysterious Eleusinian Mysteries, but the fact that the gods have favorites, can breed with mortals and have children with them (Aineias, Herakles, Sarpedon, and Achilleus–to name a few of the hero-children who were part of or frequently mentioned in Homer’s Iliad) means that the relationship is in many ways a close one for the Ancient men of Hellas. The gods frequently took the form of men, had the desires and passions of men, but their power was far greater. A question the students had, which I could only echo, was: what is the relationship between the prayers and offerings of men to gods (like hekatombs to propitiate) and the power of the gods? Did the gods become so furious with mortals for neglecting to sacrifice simply out of vengeful anger? Or was their an element of survival instinct in so bitterly punishing those who transgressed: Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia because of either himself or his father neglecting Artemis; Tyndareus was himself curses to have adulterous daughters (Helen and Klytaimestra most famously) for neglecting Aphrodite; and Apollo in Book I doles out plague to the Achaians for Agamemnon treating his priest, Chryses, without due respect. Is the anger which the gods feel at these snubs simply due to the fact that such inferior and unworthy creatures might dare not recognize their might and majesty, or is there some relationship between the beliefs and offerings to the power and splendor of each Olympian god, just as proper funerary rights and the subsequent cults were essential to the deification of a hero (cf. the story of Herakles and Philoktetes burning his hydra-poison-ridden body in Sophocles’ Philoctetes). The question, here, remains open.