Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of gods and humans in Homer's Iliad

The siege of Troy is in its ninth year, and the Greeks have nothing to show for it but some loot from other cities allied with Troy, and most of that has been appropriated by Agamemnon, the king. There is muttering in the ranks, by Thersites especially, which is brutally put down. This business takes up the better part of a day. The next day, as the armies are getting ready to resume battle, a curious interlude occurs: Alexandros (a.k.a. Paris) leaps forth from the Trojan ranks and issues a challenge "to the best of the Argives [Greeks] to fight man to man with him in bitter combat." On seeing Menelaos (the man he has wronged by running off with his wife, Helen) looking like a lion that has seen his prey and is getting ready to eat it, Paris shrinks back into the ranks hoping no one will notice. His brother Hektor sees it all, however, and rebukes him in the harshest terms:

Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling,
Better had you never been born, or killed unwedded.
Truly I could have wished it so; it would be far better
Than to have you with us to our shame, for others to sneer at.
Surely now the flowing-haired Achaians laugh at us,
Thinking you are our bravest champion, only because your
looks are handsome, but there is no strength in your heart, no courage.
Were you like this that time when in sea-wandering vessels
Assembling oarsmen to help you you sailed over the water,
and mixed with the outlanders, and carried away a fair woman
from a remote land, whose lord's kin were spearmen and fighters,
to your father a big sorrow, and your city, and all your people,
to yourself a thing shameful but bringing joy to the enemy?
And now you would not stand up against warlike Menelaos?
Thus you would learn of a man whose blossoming wife you have taken.
The lyre would not help you then, nor the favors of Aphrodite,
Nor your locks, when rolled in the dust, nor all your beauty.
(Bk 3, lines 39-55)

Paris is not a weakling, however, and, fully recognizing the justice of Hektor's rebuke, agrees to do battle with Menelaos; the winner keeps Helen and the war will be over:

                                                                           . . . . do not
bring up against me the sweet favors of golden Aphrodite.
Never to be cast away are gifts of the gods, magnificent,
which they give of their own will, no man could have them for wanting them.
Now though, if you wish me to fight it out and do battle,
make the rest of the Trojans sit down, and all the Achaians,
and set me in the middle with Menelaos the warlike
to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward. . .
So he spoke, and Hektor hearing his word was happy
and went into the space between and forced back the Trojan battalions
holding his spear by the middle until they were all seated.
But the flowing-haired Achaians kept pointing their bows at him
with arrows and with flung stones striving ever to strike him
until Agamemnon lord of men cried out in a great voice:
'Argives, hold: cast at him no longer, o sons of the Achaians.
Hektor of the shining helm is trying to tell us something.'
   So he spoke, and they stopped fighting and suddenly all fell
silent; but Hektor between them spoke now to both sides:
'Hear from me, Trojans and strong-greaved Achaians, the word
of Alexandros, for whose sake this strife has arisen.
He would have all the rest of the Trojans and all the Achaians
lay aside on the bountiful earth their splendid armor
while he himself in the middle and warlike Menelaos
fight along for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of them who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly, and the woman, and lead her homeward
while the rest of us cut our oaths of faith and friendship.
   So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence;
but among them spoke out Menelaos of the great war cry:
'Listen now to me also; since beyond all others this sorrow
comes closest to my heart, and I think the Argives and Trojans
can go free of each other at last. You have suffered much evil
for the sake of this my quarrel since Alexandros began it.
As for that one of us two to whom death and doom are given,
let him die: the rest of you be made friends with each other.

And right then and there the whole damn war might have ended, if the gods would only allow their human playthings to settle their own affairs. This the gods are unwilling to do, however, for, as Homer makes very clear, the Gods have no lives of their own; without their human subjects or slaves, through whom they live vicariously (or parasitically), their lives would be empty, meaningless—an eternity of boredom. So, just as Menelaos is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite whisks him off to his bedroom in Troy, to which she summons Helen, who at first is so ashamed that she dares, in an act of extraordinary courage, to defy her patroness—but only for a moment.

'Is it because Menelaos has beaten great Alexandros
and wishes, hateful even as I am, to carry me homeward,
is it for this that you stand in your treachery now beside me?
Go yourself and sit beside him, abandon the god's way,
turn your feet back never again to the path of Olympos
and stay with him forever, and suffer for him and look after him
until he makes you his wedded wife, or makes you his slave girl.
Not I. I am not going to him. It would be too shameful.
I will not serve his bed, since the Trojan women hereafter
would laugh at me, all, and my heart even now is confused with sorrows.'
   Then in anger Aphrodite the shining spoke to her:
'Wretched girl, do not tease me lest in anger I forsake you
and grow to hate you as much as now I terribly love you,
lest I encompass you in hard hate, caught between both sides,
Danaans and Trojans alike, and you wretchedly perish.' (3.403-17)

And so Helen obeys, returns to Paris, for whom she has as much contempt as she has for herself, and disappears from the poem—as tragic a figure in her way as Achilles is in his.

These (attempted) rebellions have not gone unnoticed by Zeus and the other gods. He is prepared to be forgiving, or so he says, knowing that his words will enrage his wife, Hera, and daughter, Athena, whose hatred of Troy is unappeasable.

'Let us consider then,' he says, 'how these things shall be accomplished,
whether again to stir up grim warfare and the terrible
fighting, or cast down love and make them friends with each other.
If somehow this way could be sweet and pleasing to all of us,
the city of lord Priam might still be a place men dwell in,
and Menelaos could take away with him Helen of Argos.'
   So he spoke; and Athene and Hera muttered, since they were
sitting close to each other, devising evil for the Trojans.
Still Athena stayed silent and said nothing, but only
sulked at Zeus her father, and savage anger took hold of her.
But the heart of Hera could not contain her anger, and she spoke forth:
'Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
How can you wish to make wasted and fruitless all this endeavor,
the sweat that I have sweated in toil, and my horses worn out
gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children.
Do it then; but not all the rest of us gods will approve you'
   Deeply troubled, Zeus who gathers clouds answered her:
'Dear lady, what can be all the evils done to you
by Priam and the sons of Priam, that you are thus furious
forever to bring down the strong-founded city of Ilion?
If you could walk through the gates and towering ramparts
and eat Priam and the children of Priam raw, and the other
Trojans, then, then only might you glut at last your anger.
Do as you please then. Never let this quarrel hereafter
be between you and me a bitterness for both of us.
And put away in your thoughts this other thing that I tell you:
whenever I in turn am eager to lay waste some city,
as I please, one in which are dwelling men who are dear to you,
you shall not stand in the way of my anger, but let me do it,
since I was willing to grant you this with my heart unwilling. . . .
   Then the goddess the ox-eyed Lady Hera answered:
'Of all cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart:
Argos and Sparta and Mykenai of the wide ways. All these,
whenever they become hateful to your heart, sack utterly. (4.14-53)

Meanwhile, as Zeus and Hera are settling their own jurisdictional disputes, the truce established by Hektor is still in effect; if nothing is done it might become permanent: the two sides might, for example, begin to understand that they have nothing to fight about and are merely entertaining the gods. Hera is the first to say, in effect, let's get back to business:

'Come then, in this thing let us both give way to each other, 
I to you, you to me, and so the rest of the immortal
gods will follow. Now in speed give orders to Athene
to visit horrible war again on Achaians and Trojans,
and try to make it so that that the Trojans are first offenders
to do injury against the oaths to the far-famed Achaians.'
   She spoke, nor did the father of the gods and men disobey her,
but immediately he spoke in winged words to Athene:
'Go now swiftly to the host of the Achaians and Trojans
and try to make it so that the Trojans are the first offenders
to do injury . . . .'
Speaking so he stirred up Athene, who was eager before this,
and she went in a flash of speed down the pinnacles of Olympos. . . .
[and] in the likeness of a man merged among the Trojans assembled . . .
searching for godlike Pandaros, a man blameless and powerful,
standing still, and about him were the ranks of strong, shield-armored
people. . . 
Speaking in winged words she stood beside him and spoke to him:
'Wise son of Lykaon, would you let me persuade you?
So you might dare send a flying arrow against Menelaos
and win you glory and gratitude in the sight of all Trojans,
particularly beyond all else with prince Alexandros.
Beyond all besides you would carry away glorious gifts from him,
were he to see warlike Menelaos, the son of Atreus,
struck down by your arrow, and laid on the sorrowful corpse-fire.

And so the arrow is loosed, the truce treacherously broken, and the great war continues to its terrible and tragic conclusion. We should note, in passing, that Athena does not keep her promise to Pandarus, but treacherously brushes the arrow aside so that Menelaos merely suffers a superficial wound.

The significance of this moment—so close to the beginning of the great poem—seems not to have been sufficiently noticed: for the first time in human history, human beings try to break away from the tyranny of the Gods.

The only thing we know about Homer, besides his name, is that he was evidently the last of an ancient tradition of professional poetic singers or performers. We know he was the last, because he was the one who either fixed the poem forever by writing it down, sometime in the 8th century BC (which was when the Greek alphabet became established, and Greek became a written language), or by dictating it to someone who could. (There is a self-referential moment in the Odyssey, when Odysseus who is still unknown to his hosts on the island of Phaecia, is present at one of these performances of the poem that would become the Iliad. When his hosts see the tears running down the face of this stranger, they ask him who he is.)

Perhaps you should also know that the Iliad is the first tragedy. And what is tragedy? Aristotle's remarks in the Poetics are not very helpful, mainly I think because tragedy is about the basic irrationality of human existence—a very unAristotelian notion: a tragic choice is a choice in which reason is useless; a perfectly rational argument can be made for all the choices you face—and doing nothing is not an option. And it gets worse: equally rational arguments can be made for doing contradictory or inconsistent things. Such situations are not supposed to arise in Aristotle's Ethics. Homer's cosmos, founded on the amorality, unpredictability and arbitrariness of the Olympian gods, is antithetical to everything that Aristotle believed in. Nor, it seems to me, was life under Yahweh much better—despite the decalogue which always seemed to have been intended for other people. Job thought Yahweh pretty much the same as the devil and he wasn't far wrong. (The Palestinians certainly think so, justifiably.) After Job, Yahweh makes his exit, from the bible and from history. (I'd be inclined to say "good riddance" if it weren't for the fact that the Decalogue still makes pretty good sense; or would if we could alter the command to honor ones' father and mother in such a way as to give it serious moral force: "Don't dishonor your father and mother." All the other commands would then make sense for atheists as well as believers.)

So why was it that it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented tragedy?

Homer, at least, had no illusions about the gods; nor did Socrates, who was executed for saying far less subversive things about them than Homer does in the Iliad, one of the most widely read and admired poems of classical antiquity. You can see why, given a choice between the Olympian gods and Jesus, many Romans made the switch.



1 comment:

  1. All gods are the same. They're all pranksters.
    What is a prank? It is a pointless act of unkindness. It is also an ancient tradition. According to ancient Greek tradition, the gods played a prank on Oedipus and his family by giving him information that was accurate but incomplete. They knew that their predictions were the very reasons that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. When Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, learned what they had done, Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself. The gods, we may assume, had a great laugh. Aristotle, generally a wise and accurate thinker, said that Oedipus had been guilty of hybris (pride), which was the reason he had done the investigation that led to the tragedy. Nonsense. Oedipus had no choice; the tragedy was carefully planned and orchestrated by the gods. Not even Aristotle, however, had the courage to say something bad about the gods.
    A similar prank occurs in the Bible. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee unto the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Genesis 22:2). At the last moment, an angel spares Abraham, who has, we are told, passed a test of faith. His wife Sarah died at the beginning of Chapter 23, although we are not told whether there was a connection between Abraham’s obedience to God and Sarah’s death. Abraham and Isaac never spoke to each other again.
    It might even be argued that the Christian doctrine of justification through faith is a prank. Since faith, by definition, is different from knowledge, we can’t ever know—as distinct from believe—the route to salvation instead of damnation. And so if you have no faith, you don’t learn the truth until you are already in Hell and it is too late. Pranks are always based on incomplete knowledge or lack of knowledge on the part of the victim.
    Children are frequently the victims of pranks. When they complain, they are asked, “Can’t you take a joke?” Those who ask such questions are supporting the validity of committing cruel acts and considering them jokes.
    Dharun Ravi, who was 18 when he set up a webcam in his dormitory room to catch his roommate, Tyler Clementi, in the act of a sexual encounter with a man, thought he was committing a prank. That was his defense. His lawyer Steven Altman, called him “an 18-year-old boy, a kid.” This excuse, the jerky-kid defense, might have worked had it not led to the death of Tyler Clementi. If Clementi hadn’t committed suicide but merely tried to make an issue of this prank, he might have been asked, “Can’t you take a joke?”
    Our society may have learned—too late in this case—that pranks are not funny, not the slightest bit funny. We can only hope.