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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Iliad as Historical Record

The Trojan War is a fascinating event, at once both myth and understood as historical in nature. To the Greeks, there was no question of the fact that it had occurred-- even Thucydides accepts it as fact. They believed it had happened. Perhaps not to the scale of the poem, but a war had been waged between the Greeks and the Trojans. The poem was treated as historical record for a very, very long time, as much as it was a view into legend and later, the myths of the gods, and a work of art and literature.

Homer's Iliad (perhaps not quite as long as it is today, and certainly not exactly as it was written) was an oral recitation before it ever made it to paper--or scrolls, but we can still see in its language the devices used by a bard or story teller to complete the meter of the lines and allow the poet to remember what comes next. The poem is full of repetition. Phrases, even entire passages are reiterated. Some of these things are identifying characteristics such as "white-armed goddess Hera" and "bright-eyed Athena" and others are ritual, such as the description of how offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods. That the repetition is preserved in the poem as it was written down is fascinating, and it's a veritable gold mine of an example for writers who may be interested in trying to adapt their written work into something that could be sold on iTunes to the world of people attached to their mp3 players. These devices could serve us just as well as they did ancient bards.

The other beautiful (and problematic) thing about The Iliad is the smorgasbord of customs! Because it comes from an oral tradition, and the poem was refined by each teller for his time, using this catalog of phrases, they could and did insert new, more modern ones, as time went on, adding them to the archaic phrases and customs already in place. This means that looking at the Iliad for daily customs for a particular time is probably not going to give you a good picture of any specific time and place, but rather, an overview of customs for an extensive period in history from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age, thrown back on the Trojan war as an historical event.

In my personal opinion, the a lot of the value of The Iliad is not its preservation of an historical event, but in the preservation of the gods and their characters. Sure, it also gives us a look at how war was glorified and the ideas of the Greek culture in that regard, but it's hardly of the same historical significance in regard to the actual event it transcribes as, say, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. From the epics of Homer we are given a lot of information about the society and culture as a whole, especially its reverence for the gods that were worshipped. But its those gods that give the story mythological and legendary proportion. The gods involving themselves in mortal affairs, from Athena sweeping down to stay Achilles hand from striking at Agamemnon to Achilles own immortal heritage, and Helen's.

It's not unlike the Old Testament, when Prophets walked the earth and the voice of God boomed from the heavens. The destruction of Troy as a vendetta by Hera and Athena isn't that far different (though much more mercurial) than God's own destruction of cities and peoples that displeased Him. But the story does more than just capture these moments between gods and men, and goes so far as to show us the infighting and strife that must have been ongoing between Zeus and his wife and his entire family. We are given the understanding of the gods as a disagreeing family under the rule but not entirely submissive to, their patriarch.

We are also given to understand that a great war such as the one waged against Ilium was more than just mortal rage and lust for plunder, but set in motion by forces beyond mortal understanding and control. Ordained and encouraged by the gods, so to speak. A theme which I find fascinating to the extreme.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Iliad, an Example of Completely Unabridged Storytelling

Homer bust louvre front
Picture by Hay Kranen / PD via wiki commons
One of the things I always found incredibly frustrating when reading through Homer's Iliad is the alarming number of characters, and the excessive ongoing genealogies. There are so many people who are mentioned, along with their entire history of breeding, only so that their death can be cataloged as someone's (with an equally irritatingly elaborated upon list of forefathers) kill. Achaean and Trojan alike. If Homer were writing today, I can only imagine how much red ink would be spilled across the pages of his manuscripts in the ever-pressing drive to "tighten this up." But that said, if it weren't for Homer and his painstakingly unabridged storytelling, how much of the histories and genealogies of these heroes would have survived?

Part of this, I know, is related to the culture. Having your name remembered, even after your death, was a big deal. Going through the trouble of mapping out the ancestry of each particular hero could easily have been a gesture of respect to those ancestors and the hero himself. Not only that, but it's possible that some of his audience might have claimed descent from these same heroes, and in those cases they were certainly more likely to be recognized and the recitation would have carried that much more weight. From a strictly storytelling angle, it makes sense that Homer would want to make each of these men more sympathetic -- instead of a faceless, characterless name, with the inclusion of the genealogies of those fighting and dying, these warriors and soldiers become someone's son, someone's father, someone's husband, or long lost cousin, or shared ancestor. It humanizes the death and horror and glory of war in some small way, perhaps.

The fact that Odysseus ends up with an epic poem named for him and his journey home makes me wonder if we're missing a lot of other, smaller, tales as well. Stories and poems that go with, perhaps not every one of the characters named and described in depth, but many of these other men who go to their deaths in this war. Agamemnon does seem to have at his disposal a large number of men capable of heroic feats. An incredible number of kings and allies. What if these other characters and secondary heroes were adapted and created for the regional audiences? A poet in Sparta, might emphasize the Spartan contingent of warriors and heroes. If the poet is in the islands, he talks up the Ithacans or whichever other men are from the area. What if this is just another part of the catalog, depending on the audience that was listening, drawn from and excised as necessary for each regional retelling?

And isn't that one of the rules for writing? Know Your Audience! I can't imagine Homer wouldn't have taken that into account, that any bard wouldn't have lived and died by that same law. Even if the laws of hospitality were sacred, accidents could still happen, and I can only imagine they might have happened with greater frequency to men who offended the kings who hosted them.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Fall of Antaeus, Son of Poseidon

The Epic Wrestling Match
photo © me!
Antaeus was a son of Poseidon and Gaia, a giant who drew power directly from his mother -- that is, the earth itself. He was one of those jerks who wouldn't let anyone pass through his land without first defeating him in a wrestling match. (This is the kind of guy Theseus might have taken apart on the Isthmus Road, just for the record. And in fact, Theseus does defeat a similar Wrestle-or-Die figure in Kerkyon as one of his own labors. I'd imagine the parallels are deliberate.) But of course, Antaeus being Antaeus, and drawing power from the ground underneath him, he was unbeatable. The losers ended up dead, and their skulls shingled his temple roof to the glory of Poseidon.

Why those skulls didn't go to a temple to the glory of his mother, whose strength allowed him to perform these feats, I do not know. Maybe he was trying to get his dad's attention, because Poseidon was an absent father figure. Considering Poseidon and Zeus' track records, it isn't difficult to imagine that they neglected their less impressive children.

Anyway. One day, Heracles was passing through Libya (Antaeus' home turf) and Antaeus being Antaeus couldn't just let that opportunity go. I'm sure at that point he was thinking: YES. A real opponent! Or maybe something along the lines of: Haha! If I defeat Heracles I will be famous throughout all the lands and my name will be remembered for all time! Fame was, as we know from Achilles' choice, of great value to the Greeks. But either way, whether it was pride or because he just wanted to test himself, Heracles was made to wrestle him.

Now, this sculpture -- I don't know. Antaeus does not look very large for a giant, or else Heracles has got to be supersized for a man. Maybe it was a little bit of both. But regardless, the story ends the way you might expect. Heracles lifts Antaeus up off the ground in a crushing bear-hug, preventing the giant from drawing upon his mother's power. Antaeus weakens, and Heracles defeats him utterly.

Now, Heracles is kind of not the brightest crayon in the box himself, so some say that Athena told him how to win. But no matter how he figured it out, it seems kind of like dirty wrestling, to me.

...Not that Antaeus didn't deserve to reap what he sowed.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Helen and Menelaus

I really want to like Menelaus. I really want him to be a hero. To be Helen's hero, and more than just the King Arthur to her Guinevere and Paris's Lancelot. Unfortunately, I'm not sure wanting it is enough.

So who was Menelaus? And what was his relationship to Helen before he became her husband?

Antonio Canova-Helen of Troy-Victoria and Albert Museum
Helen, from Wiki Commons
Photo by Yair Haklai
We don't have a lot of evidence. Helen's early life is usually summed up with Theseus's abduction as a few lines at best. We know that there is an account of Agamemnon and Menelaus being expelled from Mycenae when their father was killed and the throne usurped. And Tyndareus took them in, later helping them return to Mycenae and reclaim the city. But nothing I've read indicates the difference in age between Helen and Menelaus. How much older was he? Was Helen even born when Menelaus and Agamemnon stayed in Sparta?

Even if she weren't, the likelihood that Menelaus and Agamemnon were in and out of Sparta was probably high. The likelihood that Menelaus ran across Helen during her childhood, even higher. And it's entirely possible that he had his sights set on her as his bride from very early on, knowing that even if he couldn't persuade Tyndareus, Agamemnon, by all accounts a powerful man, probably could. And I suspect that Agamemnon knew full well his brother's desire, or else why would he have married Clytemnestra, and not the more beautiful Helen? She was certainly the greater prize.

Admittedly there was a complication of inheritance. The husband of Helen would become the king of Sparta, but Agamemnon probably wouldn't have minded in the slightest expanding his sphere of direct influence. He seemed driven by a lust for power and conquest. But did Menelaus share that lust? Was it Helen herself who captivated him, as much if not more than the throne of Sparta? Or did he simply want his own city to rule? An escape from his brother's control and command?

Brogi, Giacomo (1822-1881) - n. 4140 - Roma - Vaticano - Menelao - Busto in marmo
Menelaus, from Wiki Commons
If Helen was simply a means to an end, then no wonder she ran off with Paris. But if she wasn't-- if he loved her even more than Sparta's throne-- and let's not forget that Helen's beauty was such that even the mightiest of men fell within her thrall-- might he have developed a close relationship with her prior to their marriage? Kept a jealous eye on her interactions with other men? With his potential competition? What might that have driven him to? And how much harder might it have been for him when he realized she'd been abducted once already, by Theseus, a well known and highly acclaimed hero, if not an even more powerful king than Agamemnon.

In the Myths, Menelaus is relentless in trying to retrieve Helen while she's in Troy, he makes for a sympathetic character in the Iliad, and in the Odyssey, after he's brought Helen home again, and they begin to build their life together anew. But I don't buy that it's only about love. If Isocrates is right about Helen's beauty as POWER, ALL those heroes should have been on their knees before her, panting to have her back.

The thing that people overlook in the Iliad is that it's entirely possible that without Helen, Menelaus had no legitimacy as a king. If he HADN'T gone after Helen earnestly, what power would he have left? Everything he'd worked for and built in Sparta would have been forfeit, and whatever freedom he'd enjoyed as a king in his own right, as an independent political unit, would have been surrendered too. He'd be just another second son, serving his brother, the rightful king.

Could it still have been, in part, about love? Might Menelaus have been genuine in his affection? Sure. He might also have been just as "brainwashed" by Helen's beauty as Theseus, too. But there had to have been more going on between him and Helen before their marriage than is recorded, and I think whatever it was, it was the foundation for the trouble that came after.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Helen and Theseus: Another Reason Athens and Sparta Don't Get Along

This is called "The Espousal" but
I can't decide if they're celebrating
or if he's abducting her. Fitting, really!
image © me!
The conflicts between Sparta and Athens run deep and long, and as we all know from reading Homer and Herodotus, it was the habit of the ancient world to take common ideas and issues along with common ways-of-doing-things and reflect those back onto the struggles of their heroes in myth. Perhaps then, it would be stranger if Sparta and Athens did not have anything to fight over during the age of heroes.

What if, in part, this was the purpose of Theseus' abduction of Helen in the myths?

The House of Atreus was known to be cursed, after all, and I have no trouble believing that if Theseus made an honest offer of marriage to Tyndareus and it was refused in favor (either in fact, or by assumption) of Menelaus and Mycenae, Athens would find that snub very offensive indeed. How dare Sparta insult their hero by choosing a cursed man as the husband of Helen over Theseus?

But that wouldn't be all. You see, the conflict goes both ways. Say that, in retaliation of this snub, or even just for funsies, Theseus chooses to take what he wants after all. He's deserving. Certainly he is, by pedigree, a better match for Helen than Menelaus could ever be. Theseus is a son of Poseidon, a (for the moment) successful and powerful king, and a hero equal only to Heracles. Add into the equation the dodgy influence of piratical Pirithous, and it's easy to see how Theseus might be persuaded to pursue Helen without her father's consent. Even to go so far as to kidnap her (because it isn't like he hasn't whisked women off before--and that kind of behavior was well established by Heracles, and even more established by the behavior of the gods who did that kind of thing with great regularity. Helen herself is a product of this same entitlement, after all!).

Sparta, taking great offense by the kidnap of their princess and HEIR, sends off their best to get her back. Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux--the Dioscuri--find her if not in Athens, at the very least, under the power of Theseus, possibly even violated by him! I can't imagine Sparta not being highly insulted and infuriated by such a thing, and these Greeks-- they know how to hold a grudge.

Take into account the fact that in the process of Helen's retrieval, Castor and Pollux upset the inheritance of Athens by giving Menestheus control of the city, and you've got an even greater recipe for long-standing conflict. Sparta has just meddled in Athens' politics and put their man on the throne. You don't even need Athens to have been insulted by the choosing of Menelaus over Theseus first (though I will say that I find that to be pretty compelling).

In this one story, a relative latecomer to the drama and tragedy of Helen of Troy, the seeds of enmity between Sparta and Athens have been sewn. These Myths, after all, are the ancient Greek way of explaining the whys and wherefores.

So, why are Sparta and Athens constantly finding reasons to dispute with one another? Well you see, once long ago, there was a girl named Helen....

Just a thought.