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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Polypoetes and the Trojan War

“You ask me why, if she did not want this war, she has not given herself up to Menelaus since,” Polypoetes said, “but perhaps the question you should ask instead is why has Menelaus not given up Helen? Why, knowing where it might lead, did he insist upon marrying her to begin with? When she had made it clear she did not want him or the future that would follow. When she went so far as to arrange her own abduction, barely more than a child at the time, to escape his claim upon her body, her beauty, her life? This war was not caused by Helen, even if she escaped Sparta with Paris of her own free will—which Helen’s own brothers denied. It was caused by Menelaus, when he would not accept her refusal. Not as a girl, or as a woman, or as his wife. He could have ended this war long before it ever started and saved us all so much pain and suffering.” 
--A Broken Horse

You all know I swore I would never write the Trojan War. I was sure I had nothing new to say and didn't want to retread the same ground that had been overtrod already before me. But then, some time after I finished writing By Helen's Hand, I remembered Polypoetes.

Alexandre Jacovleff's Trojan Horse, via Wiki Commons
Who is Polypoetes?
I've talked about him before, I'm sure. A lesser king. Unremarkable by most accounts. There is no real mythology, no real fame attached to his name beyond being named as one of Helen's suitors. We know he earned a prize at Patroclus's funeral games. He is explicitly named as one of the men inside the Trojan Horse, though we don't know what he did inside it or after he slithered out of it. And he's the only named son of Pirithous, who together with Leonteus (a grandson of Caeneus, who we also talked about recently) led their region and the Lapith people in the fighting at Troy. (There were quite a few ships of them, if I recall correctly, too.)

He is a Background King who inexplicably takes a front row seat in the clutch moment of the Trojan War, where he continues to be treated as a Background Character still.

Fam, it's weird. And weird, to me, offers opportunity.

One of the things that strikes me about Trojan War retellings on the whole is how they focus themselves so entirely on the same handful of players. The great heroes who were all about fame and glory and embodied what we consider to be the prevailing cultural drives and sentiments of the time. Might makes right. Conquer and enslave! Get that Fame and Glory! 

Even the retellings that try to offer "a new perspective" are often just showing us these same characters and stale motivations through the eyes of the women around these heroes, sometimes romanticized, sometimes in order to reveal "the reality of abuse" they suffered inside a war camp, or the ugliness of war (which the Iliad itself doesn't shy from, either.) Often, the repeated stampedes of the rest of the men to their boats when Agamemnon tests them, in the Iliad, are entirely scrubbed out of the narrative. But those moments offer a key perspective: Agamemnon and Menelaus and the rest of the hero-kings and -princes we all know and love were leading a DEEPLY UNPOPULAR war.

And there were A LOT OF PEOPLE in that camp who were desperate to go home, with or without the sack of Troy.

There is no reason to think a Background King could not have been one of them.

And now we have a new story and untrod ground. We have something DIFFERENT.

"But Amalia," I hear you say, "What about glory and fame?! Those were driving forces!!"
WHY does EVERY HERO get a CHOICE, if a long life and a death of old age at home surrounded by your family is not some kind of temptation still? If they all, ALWAYS, choose glory and fame then the choice means nothing. We have to allow for the fact that there were some people in this society who chose OTHERWISE. It's right there in the construction of the myths. 

Part of what makes those particular heroes exceptional is that they chose glory--when other people MIGHT NOT.

It isn't even going against the grain. It's not modern to look at what is presented as options inside the myths themselves and connect the dots, to take the OTHER path presented. Odysseus never wanted to go to war, but we don't act like that's a break with history. If fame and glory were all that mattered, all that drove the people of this culture EVER, then Odysseus would not have playacted his own madness in order to get out from under the oath he designed.

Do you see what I mean, now, when I say: we are making choices TODAY to create in these myths something more monstrous, more violent, more cruel when we discard the variations that present something other? 

Dozens, maybe hundreds of people have retold this story. But if they keep leaving out the part where PEOPLE REALLY DID NOT WANT TO BE THERE, half of it, and all the nuance, is lost. To suggest that everyone in the past was driven by a bloodthirsty desire for fame and glory at any cost is a profound disservice to history and our ancestors. Perhaps even more so than by allowing people inside problematic power dynamics to fall in love (as attested inside the myths themselves.)

I think we all know why as a society we focus on a mythic hero falling in love as the bigger problem, though. Why that's the thing we need to expunge from the record, above all, by pushing to make sure those relationships are more "realistically" portrayed primarily as violence and assault, in our so modern and enlightened age. We are INVESTED in the idea that these heroes never looked at women as anything but objects, never saw value in them as people beyond the child they might provide. And we've been invested in that idea for a VERY long time.

Tamer of Horses Helen of Sparta By Helen's Hand Daughter of a Thousand Years A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus
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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Aethra, Poseidon, and the Myth of Caeneus.

I am absolutely fascinated beyond all reason by Aethra's relationship to Poseidon and how that relationship influences and alters the course of her life. (If you subscribe to the Amaliad, this probably isn't news to you.)

“My Lord, how might Troezen serve you?”

“If I had come for Troezen’s service, I would have called to your father, the king,” Poseidon said, a ripple of laughter beneath his words. “This night, I have something else in mind. A bargain I would make with you alone, if you desire it.”

If I had been standing, I might have stepped back, but upon my knees, my face still held in his hand, I could only narrow my eyes and bite my tongue on a response that would give offense to a god. Because though he framed it as a choice, an offer I might decline, I was not certain he would be so generous if I denied him.
 --The Lion of Troezen

CHOICE, right??? 
How much choice does anyone have when the offer comes from a god? I blogged about this topic previously and I think it's still (maybe even more) important and YES, this question of CONSENT is so much of why I am SO INTERESTED in Aethra's story, because of how I framed her relationship to Poseidon in HELEN OF SPARTA to begin with.

The heroes always get choices. ALWAYS. They always get a decision point. They can fade into obscurity or they can find GLORY AND FAME. 

So where are the decision moments for everyone else?!

I've talked about the choices and decision points heroes get, too, before--in regard to Theseus and how harshly he's judged in contrast to other heroes who make the same choice he does for arguably more selfish reasons, but I think it's important to engage with this from other perspectives, too.

Like: WHY IS IT that only the heroes are allowed explicit decision moments? 
That's kind of rhetorical, we know that there was a limit in society/culture for anyone who wasn't a man in the periods these myths were recorded and preserved, of course, but does that mean WE SHOULD CONTINUE to impose that limit on characters and mythic figures of other genders? That we should continue to assume they were never granted them in our own retellings, now?

Let's step back from the most famous heroes we all know, whose stories are told over and over and over again--Heracles, Achilles, Theseus--and look at a different myth for a moment: the myth of Caeneus.

(CW: Rape.)

Lattanzio Gambara, Neptune and Caenis, via Wiki Commons
One of the Lapiths and favored by Poseidon, they were either propositioned or raped by Poseidon, and asked to be transformed into a man so that they would not have to bear his child or anyone else's--or according to Ovid, later, so they might never have to suffer a rape again.
A hero who became known thereafter as Caeneus.

Whether this exchange of favors was entirely voluntary really isn't clear. Did Caeneus have a choice about sleeping with Poseidon? Were they simply raped? The power dynamics at play would have made consent a tricky business no matter what, as we've previously discussed, so even best case scenario it's always going to be a little dubious on that score.* 

For a little extra historical context though, the fact that Ovid of all writers seems to push the rape narrative so hard makes me inclined to think it might be a late Roman reading, or perhaps a bias against the idea of a woman being allowed to do anything with her life other than bear children without experiencing some kind of punishment—because Rome was, whew! Deeply invested in those traditional and strictly defined gender roles. PARTICULARLY during the reign of Augustus, who, if I recall correctly, pushed a family values agenda as he consolidated power and warped the Republic into an Imperium.

But setting aside that question, this myth still offers a tantalizing glimpse of something ELSE. Of Gods making BARGAINS with those they desire. Why should Poseidon have promised anything to Caeneus if there wasn't some kind of opportunity or right to refuse? And if that was the case, Caeneus may well have set the terms of the exchange, knowing Poseidon desired them.

So either Poseidon KNEW he had wronged them in an assault and offered the boon to make up for that, (which says something interesting in itself, about the inviolate right to bodily autonomy being recognized by the gods even if they didn’t always limit themselves by that recognition), 
More than just men had bodily autonomy and the power to choose the course their lives would take. TO TAKE CONTROL OF THEIR OWN FATE.

“I would have found you,” Poseidon promised, the slough of the sea coloring his voice. As if he’d read my thoughts, on my face or from my mind. “Readied and waiting, and you’d still have been mine. But I would have had you first, and bargained only after for what I’d taken, and the fates would have laughed in spite, for you would never have forgiven it, no matter what I offered.”

It was a splash of cold seawater dousing the flame of my desire, and I stepped back, my jaw tight with rage. “Should I have?” I demanded. “Should I now, when you say I deserve better, but in the next breath, admit you’d rape me?”

“You’d have enjoyed yourself, all the same, Princess,” Poseidon said, almost laughing at my response. As if it were all a game.

Nothing would have been the same,” I snapped. “Bad enough that I trade myself for my father’s sake, for Troezen’s, but at least that is my choice to make. If you had taken it from me, I would have had nothing left. Nothing but a child I hated for the reminder it gave that my body would never be my own again.” 

--The Lion of Troezen

The Myth of Caeneus is EXTREMELY important on any number of levels right now. On maybe every level right now.
Because CHOICE matters.
Because CHOICE has ALWAYS mattered.

The choice of HOW we live, and what we give of our bodies to others. 
The choice of what body we want to live IN. 

And when we're retelling these myths about women maybe we don't, ourselves, always have to choose to tell a story of rape. MAYBE there is more in the myths, even as they were preserved, than just the THEFT of that right to choose their own fate.

Or maybe this is just a very long-winded way of saying: 
My retelling of Aethra's story in The Lion of Troezen? It's going to be something different.

*I've personally only bumped up against this myth because the Lapiths are Pirithous's people: Caeneus was at the Centauromachy, died in that battle with the centaurs, and interestingly, Polypoetes’s companion, Leonteus, appears to be his grandson. I'm sure there are people who know a lot more about it because it's an extant attestation of a trans man in ancient literature, which makes it particularly relevant to a lot of scholars right now.

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