by Martin Murie
(Swans - May 7, 2007) Hektor, prepared for battle, takes leave of his wife and son.
So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse's bosom screaming, and frightened of the aspect of his own father terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse hair nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honoured mother and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet and laid it in all its shining upon the ground. Then taking up his son he tossed him about in his arms, and kissed him. (1)
Here, Homer, in the 7th or 8th century BCE, let us say (we will never know for sure) speaks of war and love in a tight space of nine lines, jamming together the horrific choices we humans have built for ourselves. Has anything changed? Yes, but love still battles war.
Those patriarchs of ancient times honored one another and fought to the death against each other, but reason and common sense kept emerging like underground moles daring to poke into daylight to speak a drastically different line: love, solidarity, resistance to pompous, self-glorifying patriarchs. Homer makes spaces for their daring, as when Artenor "the thoughtful" addresses the Trojan assembly.
Come then, let us give back Helen of Argos and all her possesions to the sons of Atreus to take away seeing now we fight with our true pledges made into lies; and I see no good things accomplished in the end, unless we do this. (2)
Paris refuses to give back the woman. Priam, speaking with good will to all, arranges a compromise. Next morning Adaios, acting as a Herald, carries Priam's proposal to the Achaians, but can't help voicing for all to hear his own wish that Paris had perished before he came to Argos to steal Helen. (3) We should note that Adaios and Artenor are free-lance observers, not backed by divine personages. Another freelance, wonderfully outrageous, is Theristes, hump-backed and lame-legged, who openly scolds Agamemnon for his hoarding of spoils of war. He goes further, saying what he knows is in the mind of every one of the besiegers in this ninth year of war. "Let us go back home in our ships." Odysseus scolds him for daring to "lift up your mouth to argue with princes." (4) But even haughty Agamemnon wavers. When he "tests" the metal of his coalition of the willing by urging an end to the siege he argues with great force. It's obvious he has secretly harbored homeward thoughts.
God went to extremes at the siege of Troy, taking sides, urging vengeance, playing favorites, deluding each other. A numerous host, these gods, which makes sense since, by and large, they personified the multitude of Nature's forces, human and otherwise. Apollo is a sun-and-light god; Poseidon with his trident is of the ocean and Hephaestus creates Zeus's bolts of thunder. Ceres brings springtime and her daughter brings flowers. Proteus has the gift of prophecy, but he is a changeling, difficult to interrogate. Aidoneus, aka Hades, presides in the earth where all of us mortals end up. Gods descend to mate with select humans. And, Homer tells us, the father of Troy's great river Skamandros is none other than Zeus. Now that is intimacy.
The war goes on. Thetis, silver-footed goddess commanded by Zeus, goes to Achilleus, urges him to stop mourning and accept Priam's ransom in exchange for the body of Hektor. At the same time, storm-footed Iris, a goddess also serving Zeus's commands, travels god-speed to Priam, urging him to offer ransom to reclaim Hektor's body. Inner struggles, tormenting the minds and hearts of Priam and Achilleus, translated into god-speak, allow these deciders to turn from mourning to action.
Homer's intricate ecology of the gods is considered today a quaint source for poets, but for the rest of us nothing but water under the bridge. That's a flimsy disposal. My casual, slow walking on the black earth within sight of the bright and sounding sea, showed abundantly the cleverness of language where god-human talk builds a world of intense and complex involvement. Error, chance, mystery, deception and evil bedevil gods and humankind alike. No hiding place.
The language we moderns speak seems to harbor a great "not getting it." We seem to lack a gut certainty about a certain double-edged proposition, that we are absolutely dependent on Nature and that we possess a monstrous capacity to mess up Nature and ourselves for good, forever.
Homer is more honestly outspoken than nearly all of us Americans who have this strange notion that we are totally free in speech and writings. Not so. How many of us can regularly break through the tangle of fear and constraint to stand alone and speak truth to princes, as did that hump-backed "fool," Theristes? As for war reportage, Homer refuses to shift his steady gaze.
A spearhead held its way straight on and came out by the navel, and he dropped, moaning, on one knee as the dark mist gathered about him, and he sagged, and caught with his hands at his bowels in front of him. (5)
And Achilleus, mourning his dear companion, Patroklos.
Yet I am sadly afraid, during this time, for the warlike son of Menoitios that flies might get into the wounds beated by bronze in his body and breed worms in them, and these make foul the body, seeing that the life is killed in him, and that all his flesh may be rotted. (6)
Those patriarchs all wondered which god or quirk of nature would have the last word on their term on Earth. They were tender too, subject to great loves and griefs, spoiled brats also, supremely arrogant, not always loyal, clever, calculating, resentful, lustful and on and on through the complete catalog of human traits. Sometimes cowardly, sometimes like raging lions, they had to be goaded, or had to goad themselves, to step into battle formation. That is perfectly understandable. Homer makes it perfectly clear, time and time again. It is no light act to enter death-defying hand-to-hand combat.
But I am tempted to believe that the men and women of those times, whether youthful, middle-aged, or doddery, faced fate with more equanimity than we do. They were not swamped by profit-obsessed outfits touting fountain of youth stuff or bragging that we too can be 85 years young. Or offering makeovers of our bodies in the name of supremely oppressive fashion; that particular oppression, that monumental arrogance, demands a name. Let's give it a god's name. Let's call him Mono, good of all-alike, equipped with the wiles of Odysseus, the persuasiveness of Priam, the dazzling armor of Hektor. Mono, when young and impressionable swore a great oath on a high, desolate ridge of Mount Conform. His vow condemned him to eternal stalking of the world's malls, the aisles of all commerce, even unto the sacred halls of Wal*Mart, vigilant and alert, raging against shapes, sizes, quirks, expressions, oddities and rebel traits not to his liking.
Walking out of the Iliad I thought of Sappho, reputed to be wrong size, wrong shape, wrong behavior, not at all up to the standards of the day, but by some fluke of fate, a few of her lyrics survived, on fragments of Egyptian papyrus. The version in English, below, is a literal, prose translation. There is a rumor that Plato called Sappho beautiful because her lyrics were beautiful.
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves. It is perfectly easy to make this understood by everyone for she who far surpassed mankind in beauty, Helen, left her most noble husband and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all for her child or dear parents, but (love) led her astray ... and she has reminded me now of Anactoria who is not here; I would rather see her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face than the Lydians' chariots and armed infantry. (7)
Tomorrow Alison and I join another antiwar protest. The weather, at last, will favor us. We have lots of homemade posters now. Alison will carry a new one:
ABOUT OUR TROOPS
BRING THEM HOME
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