Monday, January 28, 2013

Athena and Ares

One thing that I kept an eye out for in the Iliad was the actions of Athena and Ares.  This was mostly because of a passage in Neal Stephenson's 'Cryptonomicon' outlining the differences between them.  I found a transcription of it here.  Excerpt:

"She was the goddess of metis, which means cunning and craftiness. . . . The word that we use today to mean the same thing, is really technology. . . . Instead of calling Athena the goddess of war, wisdom and macrame, then, we should say war and technology. And here again we have the problem of an overlap with the jurisdiction of Ares, who's supposed to be the god of war. And let's just say that Ares is a complete asshole. His personal aides are Fear and Terror and sometimes Strife. He is constantly at odds with Athena even though -- maybe because -- they are nominally the god and goddess of the same thing -- war. Heracles, who is one of Athena's human proteges, physically wounds Ares on two occasions, and even strips him of his weapons at one point! You see, the fascinating thing about Ares is that he's completely incompetent. . . .
"So insofar as Athena is a goddess of war, what really do we mean by that? Note that her most famous weapon is not her sword but her shield Aegis, and Aegis has a gorgon's head on it, so that anyone who attacks her is in serious danger of being turned to stone. She's always described as being calm and majestic, neither of which adjectives anyone ever applied to Ares. . . ."
"Let's face it, Randy, we've all known guys like Ares. The pattern of human behavior that caused the internal mental representation of Ares to appear in the minds of the ancient Greeks is very much alive today, in the form of terrorists, serial killers, riots, pogroms, and aggressive tinhorn dictators who turn out to be military incompetents. And yet for all their stupidity and incompetence, people like that can conquer and control large chunks of the world if they are not resisted. . . . Who is going to fight them off, Randy?
"I'm afraid you're going to say we are."
"Sometimes it might be other Ares-worshippers, as when Iran and Iraq went to war and no one cared who won. But if Ares-worshippers aren't going to end up running the whole world, somebody needs to do violence to them. This isn't very nice, but it's a fact: civilization requires an Aegis. And the only way to fight the bastards off in the end is through intelligence. Cunning. Metis. . . . Do you kow why we won the Second World War, Randy?"
"Because we built better stuff than the Germans?"
"But why did we build better stuff, Randy? . . . Well, the short answer is that we won because the Germans worshipped Ares and we worshipped Athena."

In the Iliad, Ares really does come off as the embodiment of rage and violence.  He attacks and attacks until Zeus pulls all of the gods off of the field.  Athena is much more crafty.  She keeps finding ways to be active and help her favorites.
(And I highly recommend Neal Stephenson's writing!)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rethinking the War

The other night I was watching a documentary on the Greeks.  We're pretty deep into the Greeks for the first few months of the year.  It can't hurt to have a broader understanding.  Anyway, in the documentary, they made the point that Greek noblemen were brought up with heroic ideals.  They would have looked towards the example of Achilles, et al, for guidance and direction. 
As I mentioned last week, I thought Achilles was a bit of a jerk.  If one of my sons told me they wanted to grow up to be like him, I'd be seriously taken back.  But the guys who made the documentary certainly know more about the Greeks than I do, so I'll have to take them at their word. 
On the other hand, maybe I'm selling Achilles short.  He showed bravery and courage.  He was strong and swift and a faithful friend, to Patroclus, at least.  His lack of mercy, which loomed large to me, might have seemed more of a background thing then.  If a Greek noblemen found courage and ambition in response to the Iliad, then I shouldn't look down at him.
But I wonder if there was some subversion going on too.  One of the themes of the Iliad is that death comes to everyone, so you should face it open eyed and courageous.  Virtually every time someone flees, they get a spear in the back.  The idea that one must fight, and fight hard was an important one to the Greeks.  They lived in a very dangerous age, when raiders could appear over the horizon at any time.  Only by being willing to commit to arms at a moments notice, did they have any hope of being safe. 
However, as the Iliad points out, losing a battle had very dire consequences.  It meant death for the soldier, of course.  But it also meant horrible death for their families.  If they were lucky, they'd only be sold into slavery.  And this would probably only happen after their wives were repeatedly defiled.  Not good.
Here though, is what I wonder.  Was there a lesson in the Iliad that man should avoid actually going to war?  The Trojan war was kicked off when a prince named Paris stole off with a queen named Helen.  The Greeks were honor bound to sail off and get her back.  This process wasn't a simple one.  It involved its own bloodshed and bad feelings.  (We'll get to the story of Agamemnon next month!)  Once they took off, they spent ten years attacking Troy.  After they won, the survivors were scattered and killed. 
Was it worth it?   I can't imagine that anyone really thought so after it was all done. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Iliad translated by Fagles

This isn't the translation that I read, but it's the one that was most recommended to me:

I should mention that I was able to find translations of next months readings, both Aeschylus and Sophocles, by Robert Fagles.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Milton - Poetry

The next poem is from John Milton.  The title is 'When I consider How my Light is Spent' and was written after he had become blind.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker; and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur; soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousads at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

What an interesting poem!  Milton's 'talent' is obviously his way with words.  Now that he is blind, he can't write.  He can still dictate, but I imagine this is a frustrating way of continuing.  So can he stop writing?  His talent is from God, and God has seen fit to take his sight.  Is he still expected to work?
The answer is oblique at best.  God doesn't need his work.  Tasks are given out to those who can best handle them.  And although many work for him, even those who are simply still and patient are doing God's will.
And yet he still wrote.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

February Reading

Here is the list for next month: February

Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides link, link, link
Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone link

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Achilles, the Anti-Hero

As I mentioned, there was a lot about the Iliad that took me by surprise.  One of the biggest surprises was finding out the character of Achilles.  At first he seems to be the hero.  Right away he is wronged by Agamemnon.  He (famously) sulks but it's a justified sulk, or at least he has a serious reason. 
The first surprise comes when the Greeks try to make amends.  He brushes them off, even though he knows that this will only mean more death for his allies.  He has been through battles with them and spent nine years on the beach in their company but he lets them die.  This is hardly heroic.
The real shocker came later though.  After Achilles kills Hector, he strips him of his armor (of course) and returns to the boats, dragging his body behind his chariot.  This isn't exactly noble, but can perhaps be excused because of the heat of battle.  However, the next morning Achilles gets up early, ties Hector up again and drags him around the camp.  And again the next day and the next.  That's hardly cricket.
This keeps up until the gods tell him to knock it off.  And honestly, at this point you have to wonder what the gods see in this jerk.  I don't know how the Greeks of Homer's time really felt about Achilles, but I didn't like him at all. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Adapting the Iliad

Of Homer's two works, the Odyssey is easily the more adaptable.  I was just reading that a studio is going to make a version set in space.  (The article messes up which story comes first which doesn't speak well to the education of the author or the editors.)  Could you do the Iliad in space?  Not easily.  The whole book is about very personal battles overseen by the gods.  Fighting in spacesuits or spaceships would ruin that.
Where else could you put the Iliad?  When could you put it?  The story wouldn't work in either of the world wars, far too impersonal.  It wouldn't work in the cold war, the combat is up front and in the open, not shrouded and indirect.  Frankly, I think it almost has to stay in the spears and sandals era.  A mob story?  Maybe, but it would be a stretch.
Ok, let's turn the question around.  What story could you create using the Iliad as an inspiration?  The Odyssey has been a huge inspiration.  Every road trip adventure story owes it a debt as does any story of an episodic nature.  It can be moved in time pretty easily.  In outer space, as mentioned but recently the movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' put it in the depression era American south.
But I mentioned that I thought of one possible place where you could redo the Iliad fairly easily.  Comic books.  The personal battles are easy to create.  Even in an enormous battle scene you can have Thor battle the Juggernaut, for instance.  You can have two sympathetic sides fight against each other, say the X-Men and the Avengers.  And the comic book universes have dabbled with higher powers that pull the strings, even to representing pantheons of myth.  If someone wanted to do a modern retelling of the Iliad, this is the only route that came to my mind.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

George Herbert - Poetry

Yes, this series is back after a few weeks off.  As a reminder, in an effort to become more familiar and comfortable with poetry I'm (slowly) working my way through a book humbly titled 'The 100 Best Poems of All Time', which was put together by Leslie Pockell.  You can read through the previous posts by clicking the 'Poetry' link at the bottom of the post.
The next poem is completely unknown to me.  It's 'Jordan' by George Herbert, written early in the seventeenth century.

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
     Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover's loves?
Must all be vail'd while he that reads divines,
     Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no man's nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rime
    Who plainly say, My God, My King.

Ok, so we have a poem about poetry.  Is Herbert condemning poems that are overly complex?  And poems that reach too quickly for certain imagery (enchanted groves, sudden arbors, nightingales and spring).  He seems to champion the simple and honest shepherds and their plain speech.  But he does this in a complex poem that is itself filled with imagery.
The book emphasizes that the title 'Jordan' refers to the Jordan river which separated the wilderness from the Promised Land.  Is that river then, a stand in for the separation between admiring pretty words and understanding the deeper meaning of a poem?  Or is that simply my lack of confidence speaking?
This is kind of an unsettling poem, and one I wish I could discuss in a group.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Iliad - Homer

I mentioned this already, but I'll do so here too.  I looked at various translations of the Iliad and ended up going with a prose version.  I've reread parts of it in poetry as well, by Edward Earl of Derby.  Frankly, I wouldn't have gotten a tenth out of the poetry if I hadn't read the prose first.
What did I think?  I enjoyed it much more than I expected I would.  Coming into the reading I knew three things about the Trojan War.
  • I knew how it started.  The story of Eris and the golden apple is one of my favorites of Greek mythology and has been ever since I first read the 'Illuminatus Trilogy'.  I pushed for 'Helen' as a possible girls name.  We had a fairly lengthy discussion of the name 'Paris' for a boy.  
  • I knew about the Trojan horse.  I mean, really, who doesn't?  If there is a more famous trick in western literature, I don't know what it is.
  • I knew about Achilles' heel.  About the weakness there.  About his one vulnerability.  
To my surprise, none of those things were actually in the Iliad.  The story opens years and years after Paris took off with Helen.  The story closes well before Odysseus tricks his way into the city.  And Achilles heel doesn't come up at all.  (And apparently that particular part of the myth may have been invented later by the Romans.)  As a result, the entire story was full of suspense and surprises for me.  I didn't know who would die or why.  I didn't know who would anger the gods next and who would gain special favor.  I even found myself rooting for the Trojans (though as a lifelong Vikings fan, that may be because I'm a sucker for a lost cause).
I found the interplay with the gods fascinating.  Mere mortals had to contend with these wildly powerful folks and yet, doing so was very dangerous.  The gods could obviously favor you.  They could lie to you.  The favor of one god could anger a different one.  All you could do is offer up sacrifices and hope for the best.  If you take a step back and think of the vagaries of battle, that suddenly doesn't seem quite so crazy.  Why did this guy die and not that one?  The gods, I guess.
Some of the action, especially the death scenes were so over the top as to be ridiculous.  This one made me laugh out loud:
With that, Diomedes cast. His spear, guided by Athene, struck Pandarus on the nose beside the eye and passed through his white teeth. His tongue was cut off at the root by the relentless bronze, and the point came out at the base of his chin. He crashed from his chariot. His burnished scintillating armour rang out upon him, and the horses shied, thoroughbreds though they were. This was the end of Pandarus.
I should say so!  Catching a spear to the mouth will shorten your soldiering days considerably.  Here is the poetic version of the same passage, if you're curious:

the spear, by Palas guided, struck
Beside the nostril, underneath the eye;
Crash'd thro' the teeth, and cutting thro' the tongue
Beneath the angle of the jaw came forth:
Down from the car he fell; and loudly rang
His glitt'ring arms: aside the startled steeds
Sprang devious: from his limbs the spirit fled

Once someone was killed, the victor would strip the armor as a prize.  And a thrown spear would either kill the target or hit some unlucky guy behind him.  And just about everyone was of noble or royal birth.  Or a child of the gods.  In fact, Zeus apparently inspired the Trojan war because he feared that there were too many children of gods in the world and he wanted to kill some off.  Think on that for a moment.  How monstrous is that, to want to thin out your children and the children of your closest family members.  I think it's fair to say that the Greek gods were not to be looked up to for moral education.
I tried to think of another story like the Iliad and could only come up with one comparison (which I'll blog about later, though feel free to guess in the comment section).  Think on that, too.  Movie makers of today borrow and update endlessly from old stories.  Stage adaptations simply delight in placing ancient theater in some kind of modern setting.  But the Iliad resists that!  Nearly three thousand years old, one of the wellsprings of Western literature and it is a story of its own time only. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Biography of Homer

The monthly biography and author timeline has been useful to me, in terms of organizing when people wrote and what experiences helped to develop them.  For instance, I'd been vaguely aware that the Great Books authors were clumped in certain times and places but I hadn't realized just how distinct that 'clumping' was until I broke it all down.  Now that I've seen that I can wonder what happened to make Ancient Greece, Enlightened Paris, etc., so special.
Anyway, the process doesn't work as well with Homer.  The joke is that after many years of study, some scholars have determined that Homer didn't actually create his epic poems.  They were done by a different man with the same name.  (Ba-dum-bum!)  In short, we don't really know anything about the author.  There is some dispute if both of the epic poems were created by the same man, but there is wide belief that they were.
We have traces of written Greek language dating back to 1400 BC (according to Wikipedia) but the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' weren't actually written down until the 6th century or so, a century or two after they were believed to have been developed.  Before then they were passed down by word of mouth.
There is reason to believe that Homer may have been blind.  There is also a theory that 'Homer' is a title similar to that of 'bard'.  In short, we don't know anything about the author except a very large time frame in which he worked.  Unless we get time travel, we almost certainly never will.
But man, what a legacy!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Author Timeline

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55
Nicomachus 60-120
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January Reading

For year two, we're starting at the beginning:

The Iliad - Homer link

I looked at a few different translations to read from and ended up with the old paperback version that I've had for years.  It's the Penguin Classics edition, translated by E.V. Rieu.  It's a prose translation and I'm wondering if this is a mistake...

Happy new year to everyone!