Atoms, Agony and Gallimimi

Monday, May 28th, 2012

I’m sitting in the Boston airport as I type this, waiting for my flight to London to attend the Orange Prize shortlist reception and start my UK paperback tour.  Very exciting!  It seemed like the perfect time to post something on etymologies (isn’t it always a good time for etymology?)  And hopefully next week I’ll be back with a myth as well.

Those of you who follow this blog know my feelings about snakes, but this is such a great etymology that I couldn’t resist.  Herpetology, or the study of reptiles, snakes and amphibians, comes from the ancient Greek “herpo” which means to creep, crawl or slither.  In other words, Herpetology is “the study of creepers.”  Interestingly enough, in the ancient world, this didn’t just mean snakes and their ilk.  The Greek noun herpuster could refer to a reptile or a crawling child. Hmmm.

A creeping salamander. Photo by Patrick Coin

What really makes this etymology cool is the fact that the “h” sound in Greek very often became “s” in its Latin counterpart.  So “herpo” became “serpo,” also meaning to slither.  And from there we, of course, get our English word serpent.  Other examples of the “h” to “s” change include hept- (Greek root for seven) and Latin sept-, as well as “hals” which is the Greek for salt, which becomes Latin “sal.”

Thersitical.  This one isn’t really etymology, but eponym. Thersitical, which means loud-mouthed, rude, and foul, is named after Thersites who was a loud-mouthed, rude and foul character in the Iliad.  He’s the only common soldier who dares to stand up to the kings and tell them what he really thinks; in return, Odysseus beats him savagely.   He also plays an amazing role in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where he steals every scene he’s in with his bitter, angry and hilarious diatribes against the hypocrisy he sees around him.  Among many other acid observation he notes that “Agamemnon is an honest fellow enough…but he has not so much brain as earwax” and that Achilles has “too much blood and too little brain.”  In his most famous line, he sums up the Trojans and Greeks alike: “lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery.  Nothing else holds fashion!”

Two fighters in an all-out agon. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

In its modern English usage, agony has come to be an exclusively negative word, but in its original Greek sense, it simply meant “contest”—most often in the physical sense.  A boxing match, for instance, was an agon, as was a race—any situation in which contestants strove to beat each other.   From this we also get the word “antagonist” which originally just meant opponent—the person against you in the agon.  So, although agony is something you suffer in English, I prefer the Greek, where it seems like something you can fight, and maybe win.

Atom.  This is a very old word, used by Greek and Roman philosophers to refer to the smallest particles imaginable—the foundation stones that built everything else, and so were themselves “unsplittable”—from “a” (not) and “tomos” (cut).  Of course, nowadays we know that atoms can be split.  But I like that the name remains anyway—in homage to the amazing ancient philosophers who had the foresight to imagine that the world was made up of things they couldn’t see.

Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who taught about atoms.

Gallimimus is a ostrich-like dinosaur, whose name is actually Latin, from gallus, meaning chicken, and mimus, meaning mimic—but Latin mimus is itself derived from the Greek mimos, which means an actor or mimic, so I felt like it still counted.  And, of course, our word “mime” also comes from it.  For all you Jurassic Park fans out there, Gallimimus makes a brief cameo in the first movie: “they’re flocking this way!”

A young gallimimus skeleton. Photo credit, Eduard Solà

I wish you all a wonderful week and (those in the US) a great Memorial Day weekend!

My Trip to Troy

I recently wrote a “Traveler’s Tale” for the Wall Street Journal about the first time I visited the archaeological site of Troy.  The experience was absolutely amazing.  You can also see a slideshow of the trip here.

Myth of the Week: Athena

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Like a lot of bookish, myth-reading girls, Athena was my hero.  After all, what wasn’t to love about this goddess?  She was brilliant, bold, wore amazing armor, and could hold her own against even the greatest Olympian gods.  Her powers—of strategy, craftsmanship and wisdom—were all things I wanted to be good at too.

One of my favorite stories is the one about her birth—bursting, full-grown, from her father’s head.  Her mother, Metis, was the goddess of wisdom and cunning, and Zeus’ first wife (before Hera).  Unfortunately, a prophecy revealed that she would give birth to two children—one a daughter, and the second a son, who would grow up to be greater than Zeus himself. The ever-insecure Zeus decided to diffuse the problem by swallowing Metis whole, with the side benefit of taking her wisdom for himself.

Athena bursting fully armed from Zeus' head

But nine months later Zeus was struck down with an agonizing headache.  Ever-helpful son Hephaestus seized his ax, and split open Zeus’ head. From the cleft leapt his daughter Athena, gray-eyed goddess of wisdom.  Like her half-sister Artemis, she announced that she would be remaining a virgin, and unmarried. Quickly, she became one of her father’s most trusted counselors, often sitting on his right hand to offer advice.  She never rebelled against her father, so we don’t know if she was in fact greater than he was—but there was a legend that her aegis (breastplate), was so strong that even Zeus’ thunderbolt couldn’t pierce it.  The dreaded son never manifests.

Athena armed and wearing her aegis

Athena also proved her mettle during the war against the Giants and Titans, where she was one of the most powerful warriors on the Olympian side. According to some myths, she battled the fire-breathing giant Enceladus, at last hurling the island of Sicily upon him, beneath which he still vents his smoky breath (Mount Etna).  She also battled the giant Pallas, and in one myth, skinned him alive to make her powerful aegis—the same breastplate that she would later affix with the head of the Gorgon Medusa.  She also added the giant’s name to her own as a trophy, which is why she’s often referred to as “Pallas” or “Pallas Athena.”

Pallas Athena

One of the most famous legends about Athena is how she came to be patron of the great city of Athens.  Both she and her uncle Poseidon wanted the city for themselves, and they decided to hold a contest: whoever could give the city the most useful gift would get to have it.  Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and a spring of salt water bubbled up.  Impressive yes, but useful?  No.

When it was her turn, the ever-wise Athena gave the city an olive tree, which not only provided food, but also olive oil, wood, and (very important in Greece) shade.  The decision went unanimously in her favor.  Did Poseidon really think he had a chance?  Also, Athens sounds a lot better than “Poseidons.”

Statue of Athena

Athena was also known for being a great champion of heroes—aside from her favorite of favorites, Odysseus, she lent a hand to Perseus, Diomedes, Hercules, Bellerophon, Orestes, the master craftsman Daedalus (surely a hero after her own heart), and many more.

Her most famous epithet is “grey-eyed” (glaucopis).  But she was also known by other names—daughter of Zeus, craftswoman, and interestingly, horsewoman (hippia).  Her uncle Poseidon may have been the god of horses, but Athena was the god of horse-taming.  Among her many other accomplishments, she helped inspire the bridle.

Athena with Pegasus, who was tamed thanks to a golden bridle

For all my Athena-love, as I got older, I started to recognize other sides to the goddess.  Yes, she could be a hero’s best support, but she could also be terrifyingly ruthless, as in her treatment of Medusa, or Arachne, or how she impales Ajax the lesser on a rock (though, frankly, he had it coming—more on that later).  It’s also interesting to note that nearly all of those she favored were men, Odysseus’ clever wife Penelope excepted. One thing is clear; she isn’t a goddess of wisdom in the mold of Prometheus, who sees himself as a universal protector of human kind.  Instead, she is a strict mistress who favors only those who have earned—and who work to keep—her good will.

Athena also figures prominently in the story of the golden apple, being one of the three goddesses in competition for the prize of “most beautiful.”  I’ve always been vaguely disappointed in Athena that she cared about this—it seems beneath her dignity, somehow.  Maybe she should have taken her cue from her little sister Artemis, and left it to Hera and Aphrodite to battle out.

Athena dressing, with her armor on the floor.

Each of the goddesses offers the judge, the Trojan prince Paris, a bribe to convince him to choose them.  Hera offers power (she’s queen of the gods, after all), Aphrodite offers the most beautiful woman in the world to be his wife (Helen, who’s—whoops!—already married), and Athena offers to make him the wisest man in the world. Paris chooses Aphrodite, of course, but as one of my middle school students pointed out: “That was really dumb.  He should have taken wisdom.  If you’re smart enough, you could figure out how to get everything else.”  No one ever accused Paris of being an intellectual giant.

In vengeance for the slight, Athena becomes a fierce defender of the Greek army, and is involved in one of my favorite minor episodes in the Iliad.  With Achilles on the bench, Athena decides to invest the clever Diomedes with divine strength and send him out to kill Trojans.  But, she warns him, he should be very careful whom he’s stabbing—there are gods fighting in the fray, and he wouldn’t want to accidentally attack a god.  Unless, that is, he sees Aphrodite.  He can go ahead and stab her.  (Yet again: don’t get on Athena’s bad side).

Paris awarding the golden apple to Aphrodite (Athena's on the far right, looking annoyed)

Diomedes wades into battle, suffused with the goddess’ power, and finds himself facing the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Aphrodite.  He beats Aeneas badly, hurling a rock at him that crushes the Trojan’s hip.  When Aphrodite swoops down to bear him away to safety, Diomedes sees his chance and stabs her in the wrist.  Aphrodite screams and abandons her son, fleeing off to Mount Olympus (luckily for Aeneas, Apollo comes to his rescue).  Aphrodite sobs in her mother Dione’s lap, while Hera and Athena look on scornfully. Athena taunts her by asking if she scratched herself with a pin.  I kind of have to go with Athena on this one—Aphrodite shows herself to be pretty wimpy, given that the wound heals almost instantly.

A little later in the fight, Athena aids Diomedes again, tossing his charioteer out in order to take the reins herself.  She leads him against Ares, using her power to help him stab the god of war–who goes up to Olympus to complain to Zeus that he lets Athena get away with anything.  (Zeus retorts that Ares is his least favorite child, and should stop whining).

Bust of Athena, photo by Vitold Muratov

Athena makes some wonderful appearances in Zachary Mason’s “Lost Books of the Odyssey,” but sadly I don’t know of any other modern novels that feature her.  Let me know if you do!

I wish you all a very wise week!

Myth of the Week: Pyrrhus, Part I

Monday, February 6th, 2012

It is one of the oldest stories: a famous and powerful man has a son.  The son grows up.  How will he interact with his father’s reputation?  How will he define himself as his own man?  It was an even more fraught question in ancient Greece, where no matter how famous a man became, he was called not by his own name, but by his patronymic (his father’s name plus an ending that meant “son of”).  So, even though Achilles’ fame far surpassed his father’s, he was still referred to as “Pelides” (son of Peleus).  Comparison was inescapable, stitched into one’s identity.

In the stories of the Trojan War, there is a trinity of sons who grow up in the shadow of intimidating paternal legacies: Telemachus, son of Odysseus; Orestes, son of Agamemnon; and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.  All of their stories are worth telling, but I thought I’d start with Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus).

Pyrrhus/Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Photo credit: Zafky

One of the strangest things about Neoptolemus is the fact that there seem, in the myths, to be two of him: two mutually exclusive versions of his story, each championed by a master poet, Vergil and Sophocles.  In one, Neoptolemus is a sadistic perversion of his father’s legacy, heir to his strength and capacity for violence, but not his humanity; in the other, he is a heroic young man, struggling to do the right thing.  Generally, Vergil’s portrait, from book II of the Aeneid, has proved the more lasting, so that is where I will start.

Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, Thetis, desperate to keep her son from an early death at Troy, dressed him as a woman and hid him on the island of Scyros, in the court of King Lycomedes.  But Lycomedes’ daughter, Deidameia, discovered the fraud, and she and Achilles conceived a child—Neoptolemus.  Shortly thereafter, Achilles was found out, and sailed for Troy, leaving his wife and unborn child behind, for good.

Achilles being discovered in a dress on Scyros, as he seizes a shield. From a fresco at Pompeii

Neoptolemus grew up with a head of red-gold hair, and so earned the nickname Pyrrhus (fiery, the same root as the word pyre).  Of his childhood, we know little other than that he was raised on Scyros by his mother and grandfather, with help from Thetis.  Like his father, he was named in a prophecy: Troy would never fall unless Pyrrhus came to fight for the Greeks.  When his father was killed in the tenth year of the Trojan War, Pyrrhus sailed for Troy.  If the timing seems off to you, it is—even if we give Achilles a few years to get to Troy, Pyrrhus should still only be around twelve, absolute maximum.

All I can say is: that is one creepy twelve-year-old.  When he gets to Troy, Pyrrhus takes his father’s place as one of the most terrifying and reckless warriors of the Greeks.  He is among those in the Trojan Horse, and according to the Odyssey, the only one who isn’t afraid of being caught.  Once inside the city of Troy, he uses an ax—Shining style—to tear his way into Priam’s palace, leaving a bloody trail behind him.

Pyrrhus attacking King Priam, on the altars

One of the things that I love about Vergil as an author is his profound humanism.  Even his so-called villains are worthy of sympathy and understanding—all, that is, except for Pyrrhus.  With Pyrrhus, Vergil seems to be doing something else entirely: creating a person with no ability to pity or empathize with others. It is, as far as I can tell, the first depiction of a sociopath in Western literature.

Once inside the palace, Pyrrhus chases down the Trojan prince Polites, killing him in front of his father, the aged King Priam, who has taken shelter at the household alters.  The old king, in one of the most moving moments in the Aeneid, rises, trembling with grief and age, to deliver a ringing speech that calls down the wrath of the gods upon Pyrrhus for his double blasphemy: killing a son in front of his father, and defiling a sanctuary.  As a further reproach, he compares him to his father, unfavorably: “Not even Achilles behaved so to me.  He knew how to respect the laws of the suppliant; he returned my son’s body to me, and sent me safely home again.”  This is a reference to the famous scene in the Iliad where Priam goes to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body, and Achilles relents–a shining moment of mercy and hope in an otherwise bloody work.

Priam begs Achilles for Hector's body

But you cannot shame a man like Pyrrhus.  His response is sneering contempt:  “You can go tell my father about my disgraceful deeds yourself. Now, die!”

He seizes the old man by his hair, and drags him, slipping in the blood of his son, to the altar to dispatch him.  Later we hear that Priam’s body has been left on the shore, missing its head, for the animals to eat.  It is not enough for Pyrrhus to have killed him, he must also dishonor him—mutilating his body and depriving his soul of its eternal peace.  The hope kindled in the meeting between Achilles and Priam is snuffed, utterly, by the son.

Pyrrhus killing Priam on the altars, with Hector's baby son, Astyanax, as a club.

Sadly, that is only the beginning.  After killing Priam, Pyrrhus goes in search of Andromache, Hector’s wife.  When he finds her, he seizes from her arms her infant son, Astyanax, and smashes his brains out against the wall.  (In fact, in some lurid versions of the story, he uses the baby’s body to club the grandfather Priam before killing him.) Andromache herself he takes captive, as his slave-wife.  It is a horrifying cruelty: forcing her to share the bed of the man who murdered her son, and whose father murdered her husband.  Then, before returning to Greece, Pyrrhus sacrifices the princess Polyxena on his father’s tomb.

Perhaps it will be no surprise to hear that such a violent man comes to a violent end.  Pyrrhus, upon returning to Greece, decides that no bride is worthy of him except for the daughter of Helen herself, Hermione—even though she is already betrothed to Orestes.  Rather than wooing her, or trying to negotiate with her father, Pyrrhus presses forward with his usual method: force.  He abducts the girl, and rapes her.

Pyrrhus sacrificing the Trojan princess Polyxena. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

One of the things that is most disturbing about Pyrrhus’ story is that his victims are not, as his father’s were, fellow warriors.  There is no Memnon here, no Hector, no Penthesilea.  Instead we have people who are powerless: infants, the elderly, women not trained in combat.  Vergil’s point isn’t, I think, that Pyrrhus is a coward–we see his fearlessness and ferocity in the sack of Troy– but that he’s unnatural.  The things which would normally arouse pity in us mean nothing to him.   This makes him a very different kind of villain from someone like Agamemnon, whose faults we recognize: selfishness, cowardice, pride, petty brutality.   To me, Pyrrhus is a far more  frightening figure, a man who is moved by no boundaries or bonds of affection, who acknowledges no limitation on his behavior.  The world is made up only of his own strength and everyone else’s weakness.

So who, then, finally stops this unstoppable force?  In some versions of the story it takes the god Apollo himself.  But in Vergil’s version, it’s Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, enraged at the violence done to his fiance.  Pyrrhus has finally crossed the wrong person, and Orestes cuts him down.  A satisfying end, and an interesting one too: Agamemnon and Achilles’ feud has repeated itself in the next generation–only this time, at least for me–with the sympathies reversed.

By the way, at Pyrrhus’ death Andromache is freed and, with her brother-in-law Helenus, able to found a new city in Troy’s image, and live out her life in peace.

Coming on Wednesday: Pyrrhus, part II, the son Achilles would have been proud of.

Myth of the Week: Pegasus and Bellerophon

Monday, January 22nd, 2012

Last week I talked about Medusa, from whose neck the winged horse Pegasus was born.  This week, I thought it would be only fitting to return to Pegasus’ story, along with his most famous rider, Bellerophon.  As I sat down to write, my significant other Nathaniel (a fellow myth-lover) told me that Pegasus and Bellerophon was one of his favorite myths, and offered to do a guest post for the week.  I happily accepted–though you see I couldn’t resist adding a few of my own thoughts at the end.  Take it away, Nathaniel!

“As a child, there was no one in Greek myth I envied more than Bellerophon. You may not have heard of him—he doesn’t have the name recognition of a Heracles or a Theseus. But you’ve heard of the reason I envied him: Pegasus.

Pegasus Vase-Painting, image from

To befriend a horse, to tame him, and to ride: this is the fantasy that countless novels and movies are made of.  So what could be more thrilling than a horse that could go even further, bear you beyond the bounds of gravity itself? Perseus may have had winged sandals, but they were nothing compared to the visceral pleasure of a living, breathing companion that could lift you into the sky.

Bellerophon came to Pegasus from a typically nasty Greek myth situation.  Born in Corinth to King Glaucus (or sometimes the god Poseidon), Bellerophon accidentally killed a man, and found himself exiled to the court of King Proitos—where he was then falsely accused of rape by the Queen. Proitos packed him off to his father-in-law, King Iobates in Lycia, bearing a sealed message with instructions that he should murder Bellerophon immediately upon arrival.  But Iobates was reluctant to do the deed himself, fearing the wrath of Zeus, and so sent Bellerophon off to fight, and be killed by, the local rampaging monster: the Chimera.


The fearsome Chimera

One of the wonderful things about Greek myth is that the monsters tend to combine primal terror with a touch of total absurdity.  Take Medusa: a woman whose gaze turns you to stone.  In this we can see ancient fears about female power and sexuality—the ability of a woman to rob a man of his will with a glance.  Snakes too, are primal horrors.  But snakes for hair? This seems to invite all sorts of overly literal question like: Does she have to give them haircuts?  Do they bite her?  Does she have to feed them separately?

Similarly, the Chimera: a fearsome lion-headed creature that breathes fire, with a snake for a tail.  If the ancients had stopped there it would have been all right.  But they didn’t.  For along with its lion-head and snake-tail, the Chimera has a goat head sprouting from its middle (see above).  Yes, a goat, that fearful predator that haunted the sleep of dawn age humanity. The Oxford Classical Dictionary notes that the goat “may be made less risible by allowing it to perform the fire-breathing.” Fear the now less-risible goat!  But I suppose the very improbability of this combination is part of what makes the Chimera frightening: it’s a loathsome hybrid, a perversion of all logic and natural order.

In despair at ever defeating such a thing, Bellerophon went to sleep in Athena’s temple, hoping for the goddess’ advice and aid.  She appeared to him in a dream, and told him where he might find the horse Pegasus. When he woke, there was a golden bridle waiting at his side.

If ever a horse deserved gilded tack, it’s Pegasus.  With it, Bellerophon was able to successfully tame him, and the two flew off to do battle with the Chimera.  But because of the fire-breathing, Bellerophon and Pegasus couldn’t get close enough to the monster to stab it.  So Bellerophon attached a piece of lead to his spear, then rammed it into the Chimera’s mouth on his next fly-by.

Bellerophon Killing the Chimera

The lead melted and filled the beast’s throat, suffocating it. I’m not sure why it suffocated, with two other apparent windpipes to draw on, but let’s not look too closely. The lesson is clear: clever thinking and a flying horse are tough to beat.

This is Greek myth, and there are no happy endings. Not content with his status as a great hero and rider of the most wondrous horse ever to live, Bellerophon yearned for more: to see Olympus itself, the home of the gods. So Bellerophon urged Pegasus to fly higher and higher still, all the way up to Olympus’ gleaming gates.  Just as he was about to reach them, Pegasus bucked, and Bellerophon fell back to earth.  His death, at this point, would have been merely tragic.  But the gods, in punishment for his hubris, devised something far worse.  Bellerophon lived, but crippled and blinded, stumbling over the earth for the rest of his days in search of his beloved Pegasus–who never appeared to him again.  It always seemed far worse to me than Heracles’ fate, or Achilles’ or Icarus’.  The once-great hero forced to live the rest of his life with his regrets, “devouring his own soul,” as Homer puts it.  And Pegasus?  He goes to live in Olympus with the gods.

Hi, Madeline again.  I agree, I’ve always found the story so sad.  And Bellerophon’s love for Pegasus reminds me of the ancient appreciation of horses in general, even ones that couldn’t fly: Alexander the Great named cities after his steed Bucephalus, while Caligula made his horse a senator.  In the Iliad, Achilles’ immortal horses weep for the death of Patroclus, and later try, in vain, to warn Achilles about his fate.  Flying or not, horses were magic in the ancient world.

Bellerophon’s story also plays an important role in the history of literacy. In the Iliad, Glaucus of Lycia tells us that his grandfather Bellerophon was sent to King Iobates from King Proitus with a message scratched on a tablet.

As scholars have long noted, this is Homer’s only mention of writing, and the first reference to it in the history of Greece letters.  It’s also tantalizingly vague: Homer doesn’t say that the tablet has words on it—rather, he says that it contains semata lugra “sad signs.”  The sad part refers to the note’s murderous content, but the semata is fascinating.  Does it imply some earlier, more rudimentary form of writing, like pictographs?  Or is it merely that written messages were so new in Homer’s age that there wasn’t a more elegant way to describe them?  It’s unclear.   Scripts did exist in the Greek world before Homer’s time (like Linear B), but they were used largely for clerical things–keeping track of sacrificial offerings, for instance, not messages.

Sarpedon’s body, carried off by Death and Sleep, while Hermes looks on

By the way, Glaucus isn’t the only grandson of Bellerophon who makes a notable appearance in the Iliad.  There’s also Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, who helps Hector lead the charge against the Greek camp, and tears down its protective palisade with his bare hands.  He was one of my favorite cameo parts to write in The Song of Achilles—he’s the only  son of Zeus who fights in the war, and he’s from the exotic (to the Greek eye) Lycia.  He’s killed by none other than Patroclus himself.

Have a favorite myth?  I’d love to hear about it!  Drop me a line either on my contact page or twitter (@MillerMadeline).

Gregory Maguire Interview

I had the amazing fortune to be interviewed recently by the hilarious and lovely Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, Confesssions of an Ugly Step-Sister, and many other best-selling novels.  Not only is he a fellow Bostonian, but I am pretty sure that this is the most fun I will ever have answering questions.  Click here to read our conversation!

Back-to-School Patroclus

In honor of all the students going back to school, I wanted to share one of my favorite Patroclus-related teaching stories.

In my middle-school Latin class, we were discussing which gods had taken which sides in the Trojan War.  I asked who was on the Greek side, and the students called out answers:
“Athena!”  “Hera!”  “Apollo!”
“No!” another student shouted.  “Apollo wasn’t on the Greek side.  Remember?  He pantsed that guy.”

The class paused.  In US slang, ‘pantsing’ refers to yanking someone’s trousers down as a prank, preferably in front of an audience.

“He did what?” I asked.
“Pantsed that guy.  On the walls, or something?  You told us he did!”

I ran back over every Trojan War myth, trying to find an incident that could possibly be interpreted as ‘pantsing.’  At last, light dawned.  The week before I had told them about Apollo knocking off Patroclus’ helmet and armor, to reveal that he wasn’t really Achilles.
“Do you mean Patroclus?”
“Yeah!  Him!”

I explained that pantsing wasn’t really a good term for it, since they didn’t wear pants in Homeric Greece.  The student listened to my explanation with polite tolerance.  Then turned to his neighbor, “See!  I told you he pantsed him.”

I can just imagine the student one day saying to his college professor: “Sure I know who Apollo is!  My teacher told us how he pantsed this guy…”

‘Book of a Lifetime: The Iliad’ in The Independent

I first encountered Homer’s Iliad as a young child, when my mother read it to me as a bedtime story.  It was love at first listen.  Here is a short essay I wrote about that, published today in The Independent’s “Book of a Lifetime” series.  In it, I mention one of my favorite similes from the Iliad,  describing Patroclus as he weeps for the dying Greek soldiers.  Here is the simile:

“Patroclus stood by Achilles, shedding warm tears like a darkened spring which pours its black streams down a steep rock.”  Iliad, 16.2-4

Stealing Hercules’ Club

Click here to download the PDF.

Around 29 BCE the Roman poet Vergil began his answer to the Iliad and the Odyssey—the Aeneid.  As pieces of the new work became public, he was accused not of alluding to Homer, but of plagiarizing him.  He answered, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer.”

Anyone who has tackled a creative adaptation set in Homer’s world knows what Vergil means.  There is something about Homer: something monolithic and singular and whole unto himself.  You could pry a chip off of the Parthenon, but when you got it home, it would be nothing more than a piece of stone, inert, anonymous and grey.  So Homer.  You might steal one of his similes, but it will never thrive in your verse; it cannot live without the messy, vital, inimitable soil in which it was born.

Perhaps this singularity has something to do with the poems’ unique origins.  Scholars have traced the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey to the 8th century BCE, but much remains debated and mysterious, including Homer himself.   We do not reliably know if he was a single person, nor how much of his work is original, as opposed to a reworking of already well-known myths.  We do not even know how he composed, whether with stylus and tablet, or entirely from memory. Recent scholarship has theorized that Homer may have been more entertainer than formal poet: a skilled improvisor who carried in his mind a huge repertoire of phrases, lines and episodes which he wove together anew at each performance.  What comes down to us then, is the morning after—drawn from the recollections of Homer and his audience.  But this too is largely guesswork.

The poems themselves raise even greater questions.  Created nearly five hundred years after the events they describe, they are far from eyewitness history.  Homer—whoever he was—freely intermingled his own time with an only-guessed-at mythical past.  There is much in the poems that is anachronistic, and much that is unreliable.  They are, more than anything, an invented world, a poet’s world.

These theories certainly help to explain the poems’ unusual patchwork nature.  Stylistically they are often irregular, and it is hard to know how much we may presume of Homer’s intent.  When Achilles is described as “swift-footed” while he is seated, should we chalk it up to the constraints of oral poetry, which calls for stock repetitions, or the poet’s keen sense of irony?  Archaic vocabulary abounds, regularly mixed with regionalisms and more modern usages, often in the same line.  Long lists of names mar the forward thrust of the action, and the main character vanishes for much of the middle of the Iliad.  A king dies, only to reappear mourning his son several books later.

In short, no one today would dare to write like Homer.  And if they did, no editor would publish it.  So, what is it then, that makes Homer one of the most adapted, alluded to and reworked texts in the history of the Western world?

Over the years my students have asked me again and again: did Achilles really say that?  Did Agamemnon really do that?  The responsible, unromantic answer is: mostly likely not.  Despite some tantalizing clues recently found in Hittite texts of a possible Agamemnon, there is no evidence that any of these ancient heroes were real, or behaved as Homer made them.  Yet, Homer’s poems have something in them that is as honest and real as history—the truth of great art. Hamlet surely did not live the life that Shakespeare gave him.  But he is a creation of the deepest emotional resonance, even if not actual reality.

It is this same truth that has made Homer justly famous.  His intimate understanding of human nature—in all its pride, folly and generosity—is the deep tensile steel that holds the poems together at their core.  Homer’s insights are as true today as they were then: human nature has not changed since he first sang of Achilles and his rage. Every day on the front page of the newspaper is an Iliad of woes, from the self-serving Agamemnons to the manipulative, double-speaking Odysseuses, from the tragedies of war to the brutal treatment of the conquered. Through beautiful hexameters—as swift of foot as their hero Achilles—Homer conjures us as we are, in love, in battle, in hope, in despair. We may no longer fight our wars with spears and chariots, but we fight them with the same greed, grace, courage and cowardice as we ever did.  Homer holds the mirror up to all our nature, if only we will look.

It is no surprise then, that so many have been inspired by his works.  The paths through his world are well-traveled. Vergil has been there, striding like a colossus.  And Ovid too, and Shakespeare, and Joyce, and Atwood, Logue, Malouf… hundreds upon hundreds of authors, greater and lesser.  They intimidate with their numbers, with their eminent quality.  How can one more voice be heard in that mighty chorus?  Why travel a road where so many have gone before you?

I cannot speak for others who find themselves possessed by these ancient works, only myself.  From the time I was a small child, I have been deeply moved by Homer’s exquisite attention to the human condition, the beauty and power of his tragic characters. I  might say that I wish to bring him to a modern audience, but the truth is Homer doesn’t need my help.  I wrote about Achilles and Patroclus and Odysseus because these stories lodged in me, and would not let go.  I wanted to understand further: their past before the Iliadbegins, and their future, beyond it.  How do we come to the terrible moment that opens the Iliad, with Achilles and Agamemnon at each other’s throats?  I wrote because two poems weren’t enough.  I wanted more.

And this is Homer’s final gift to us, of so many: his expansive, magnanimous ability to inspire.  He cannot be used up, or worn out, he is ever-new, abundant, boundless.  His infinite variety shines forth, bright enough to illuminate not just himself but the thousands of hopeful moons that crowd around him. His inconsistencies and anachronisms turn out to be blessings in disguise, encouraging invention and freedom.  The grandeur of his subject grants a soul-stirring scope.  Last, but not least, the flawed, realistic humanity of his subjects—wrathful Achilles, loyal Patroclus, proud Agamemnon—provides the perfect raw clay for drama.

No, you can’t steal Hercules’ club, but it turns out the generous man is always willing to let you borrow it.  Hold the same mighty wood that fit so well in Vergil’s hand.  Give it a swing or two.  Then give it back and make your own.