Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Odyssey

Most interested readers know that Homer, the blind Ionian bard, is thought to have written the first two masterpieces of Western literature: "the Iliad" and "the Odyssey". They probably also know that a proto-Greek society existed in Greece around 1200 BC and that it is currently named after its most famous centre, "Mycenae". Furthermore, most amateur ancient historians will be aware that the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, discovered an ancient city on the western coast of Turkey that had been destroyed by fire and warfare: the so-called "Troy VII (a)". It is all most fascinating. However, how many modern amateur detectives of the ancient world have actually READ "the Iliad" and "the Odyssey"? Not too many I'm sure!

The first thing to realize about these texts is that in ancient times they were regarded in the same way that modern people may regard the Bible or the Koran. In other words, they were essentially religious texts that made sense (or tried to make sense) of the world to which they belonged. On the one hand, they set out what is appropriate and moral behaviour for a man in his relations with other men; on the other, they show us the gods themselves reacting with one another on Mount Olympus. Finally, they go some way towards suggesting what is the right behaviour for men in the presence of the gods

What conclusions may be reached from reading the stories in this way? First of all, it is just behaviour for a man to fight for what is rightfully his: whatever else a man may be, he should also be a warrior, ready to defend his own and his family's honour. Secondly, a man should show humility and reverence for the gods at all times. If he should be fortunate in his life, then that is predestined by the gods. Equally, if he is unfortunate, this is evidence that he has displeased the gods in some way. The gods are not always strictly fair in their dealings with humans (being determinedly anthropomorphic in their passions), but men should not concern themselves with this too much. The gods are above men and can do what they like. In particular, humans should be careful to treat strangers kindly at all times as the gods themselves often travel the world of men in disguised forms: putting it bluntly, to help a stranger might be to help a god in disguise!

One aspect of Mycenaean age chivalry seems to have been the necessity and expectation of revenge. Everybody does it--most of all the gods themselves! It is taken for granted, for example, during Odysseus' wanderings abroad, that he will make the suitors pay sorely for their disrespect to his family when he returns. When Odysseus actually does return to Ithaca, Pallas Athene, no less, spurs him on to take his great, blood soaked revenge against the young men infesting his house and eating up his wealth. Several of the suitors plead for mercy before being hacked down or transfixed with an arrow, but Odysseus kills them all without exception. Twelve of the fifty serving ladies in Odysseus' house have been providing the suitors with easy sex, so Odysseus gets his son, Telemachus and supporters, to take them outside into the courtyard where they are hanged without compunction (a detail usually omitted from modern renderings).

In order to make this final scene both believable and moral, Odysseus' great sufferings during his twenty year exile are emphasized to high emotional affect and, given the way the story is presented, it is difficult to feel that the parasitic suitors get anything other than their just desserts from the returning hero. His actions are sanctified by Zeus' and Pallas Athene's support. Furthermore, the goddess herself actually fights side by side with the hero in his great battle with Penelope's suitors. Penelope herself is viewed as the most virtuous of women for having waited for more than 20 years for her husband's return. Great Agamemnon, in Hades, contrasts the faithful Penelope's behaviour towards Odysseus with that of his own wife, Clytemnestra who was complicit in the plot to kill him after his return from Troy.

In the final analysis, the moral world of the Iliad and Odyssey reflected the exigencies of late bronze age societies: fight your way to the top, kill your enemies, revenge your friends and family and, most importantly of all, get some great god to fight and plot on your behalf!


Anonymous Elektra said...

A very scholarly treatment.

3:02 AM  
Blogger Michael Leddy said...

Elaine pointed me to your blog, John, which is good reading.

One point I'd add about the Odyssey: the poem's ending points to a possibility beyond revenge, in Athena's peace treaty, with Odysseus' family ruling forever and the memory of the dead suitors removed from the minds of their living relations. Hardly equal terms, but better than a replay of Book 22. The Iliad seems to dream of a peaceful alternative, when Priam tells Achilles that Troy will be ready to fight after Hector's funeral rites, "if fight we must." But of course, the war must go on.

As you can tell, I'm deeply involved with Homer. : )

10:03 AM  

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