Homer's Iliad, Books 9-16Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 10: Homer's Gods. This is the second of three episodes on the Ancient Greek epic about the Trojan War, Homer's Iliad. In this episode, we'll cover the bloody, sword clashing, helmet smashing center of the Iliad, books 9-16, and then I'll talk a little bit about Homer's Gods, how we perceive them as modern readers, and the Ancient Greek reactions to the Homeric pantheon. If you're just jumping in and want to hear the story from the beginning, then please, start with Episode 9. In that episode, I introduce all the major characters and lay out the basic situation of the war.
Otherwise, here's a recap on the essentials. The Trojan War is in its ninth year. The Greeks have gone from their homeland in the west, across the Aegean to the east, to modern day Turkey, to recover the great Greek king Agamemnon's sister-in-law, Helen. The whole epic starts with a very long scene of arrogant king Agamemnon making a bad tactical move. To prove how important he is, he steals a woman away from the Greek champion, Achilles, when Achilles openly questions Agamemnon's decisions. Achilles is heartbroken and furious, and says he'll no longer fight for the Greeks. He even goes to his mother, a minor goddess, and asks her to help him make Agamemnon pay for his overweening pride. Achilles' mother then goes to Zeus, and persuades him to punish the Greeks. The Greeks, she says, need to understand that they're nothing without her son.
So Zeus sends an idea to the Trojan champion Hector – Achilles' counterpart on the other side, telling Hector to attack. And attack Hector does. The first eight books of the Iliad show the Trojans mounting an incredible defensive assault, thwacking arrows and hurling spears against the Greek aggressors. In Book 9, the success of the Trojan assault has left the Greeks desperate for a plan. So, let's polish our bronze, double check our bowstrings, sacrifice some quadrupeds, and jump back in. . .to Homer's Iliad. [music]
The Iliad, Book 9: The Embassy to AchillesAt the end of the previous book, the Trojans were camped outside of their city. This was new, for the Greeks had kept them penned up in Troy for most of the siege. The Trojans had spent the previous day crushing the Greeks in battle, driving them all the way back to their ships, and in the glow of a thousand watch fires, the long-suffering Trojans planned the final destruction of their assailants.
Book 9 picks up the same night, in the Greek camp, where panic and despair crippled the armies of king Agamemnon. His eyes desolate, tears coursing down his craggy face, he rose to address his men. Zeus had duped him, Agamemnon said. He would have no victory in Troy. His homecoming would not be triumphant. It was time to sail home to the fatherland. Seriously this time. Even though I said the exact same thing in lines 163-166 of Book 2, using identical language, seriously, let's go home. We're getting our asses kicked.
Diomedes, the mighty star of Book 5, begged to differ. He said the king could leave, but the rest of the Greeks would finish the war, and even if it was just left to him and a single trusted fellow warrior, he would see to the fall of Troy. Wise old Nestor agreed with mighty Diomedes, but said they should take their evening meal and talk it over. Food and drink were prepared and enjoyed, and after the repast Nestor arose. "Now," he said, "I will tell you what seems best to me. / No one will offer a better plan than this."1 After this modest introduction, wise old Nestor laid out his idea. They needed Achilles. They needed to apologize, give Achilles' wife back, and throw in some treasure.
[music] Agamemnon, in his moment of vulnerability, admitted that he may have been a bit overzealous in unnecessarily seizing the beloved wife of his strongest warrior. In fact, he said it had been a mad, blind thing to do, a dumb thing done in rage. He would atone. He'd give Achilles an outrageous amount of treasure, and seven cities, seven beautiful women, also the choice of any one of his daughters. To top it off, he'd give Achilles his wife back, and, king Agamemnon said, "I will swear a solemn, binding oath in the bargain: / I never mounted her. . .never once made love to her" (256).
Following Agamemnon's generous offer to give Achilles untold treasure and return his unmounted wife, the Greek giant Ajax and his crafty compatriot Odysseus were dispatched to plea the humbled king's case before the champion Achilles. They found him relaxing near his ships, playing the lyre with his dear companion, a man named Patroclus. Patroclus, though not quite a major character in the Iliad, still plays a hugely important role in several books. Homer never explicitly states that Patroclus was Achilles' lover, but some later Greek authors assumed this to be the case. Whatever their relationship, Patroclus was very important to Achilles, and when the Greek emissaries Ajax and Odysseus approached the two men, Achilles was plucking his lyre and singing songs about warriors and heroes while Patroclus listened. The champion saw the two men approaching, stopped his song, and greeted them happily. "Welcome!" he exclaimed, "Look, dear friends have come our way. . .my dearest friends / in all the [Greek] armies" (258). He invited them into his quarters and had Patroclus pour wine. "Mix stronger wine," said Achilles after a moment, "A cup for the hands of each guest - / here beneath my roof are the men I love best" (258).
Achilles and Patroclus prepared and served their guests dinner, and soon enough, wily Odysseus and giant Ajax got down to business. They told the champion that the Greeks were losing the war – that the Trojan champion Hector was unstoppable, and that Achilles was desperately needed by all. They repeated Agamemnon's offer, reiterating the king's itemized list verbatim, but for some substitutions of pronouns. Achilles would have wealth unending, his unmounted wife returned, all the other women he could wish for, and he'd get to defeat the champion of the Trojans, bringing himself great honor. Not to mention, he'd help save his comrades from the shame of defeat – or worse still, death. There was no way he could refuse this, right? Right?
[music] Achilles said he wanted to be very clear, so that no one would approach him with similar entreaties again. He spoke of Agamemnon first. "I hate that man like the very Gates of Death," he growled, "who says one thing but hides another in his heart" (262). The Greek champion said that he had fought, and fought, and fought, and suffered, and bled, and lived on subsistence rations, all so that Agamemnon could hide behind the lines and take the very best treasures. Worst of all of Agamemnon's crimes, they'd come all the way to Troy to get Helen back for Agamemnon's brother Menelaus – all because Helen had been seized by the Trojan prince Paris, and then, of all things, Agamemnon had stolen Achilles' wife? He'd loved that woman, he said, and "Any decent man, / a man with sense, loves his own, cares for his own / as deeply as I, I loved that woman with all my heart" (263). The king, therefore, was a hypocritical, cowardly, greedy, selfish tyrant. The last thing he wanted to do was marry into Agamemnon's family.
And as for the treasures, he told them that "no wealth is worth my life!" (265). Achilles said he'd heard a prophecy about him from his mother – he could stay in Troy and fight, and die, and his glory would live forever. Or, he could go home and lead a long life in his fatherland, and be forgotten. He was opting for the latter. As a matter of fact, Achilles added, they were just about to leave the next morning for home.
The Greek emissaries were silent. You can imagine them looking at each other and saying, "ah, sh. . ." or however you said that in eighth century Greek. Momentarily, an old tutor of Achilles asked him to reconsider, offering him a cautionary tale about help given too late, but Achilles would have none of it. He was done with Agamemnon. They were no longer friends. Odysseus and Ajax really shouldn't serve Agamemnon, either, Achilles said, but he loved them anyway.
Though they didn't conceal their anger and disappointment about Achilles' refusal to help his brothers in arms, Odysseus and his Ajax left on civil terms. Achilles thereafter spread soft bedding for his old tutor, and retired to the confines of his lodge with a beautiful woman he'd captured from Lesbos. Which is. . .he has lost his wife three days ago and just extolled the virtues of loving one's own wife, and he's sleeping with a woman he probably kidnapped from her husband. Well, I promised the Iliad would be entertaining, not ethically coherent.
Anyway, after Achilles and his dear companion Patroclus settled in for the night (also, by the way, Patroclus had a woman that Achilles had kidnapped from somewhere else), anyway, clever Odysseus and giant Ajax returned to Agamemnon's camp and told the king the terrible news. Mighty Diomedes lamented the loss, but said one way or another they had to be ready for combat in the morning, and suggested that perhaps Agamemnon should play a role in the fighting to spur the men on. Lulled by wine and the lateness of the hour, the exhausted and disappointed Greek warriors went to sleep. [music]
The Iliad, Book 10: Marauding through the NightAll of them went to sleep, that is, except for Agamemnon and his brother. Even through his tent the Greek king could see the Trojan watch fires burning brightly nearby. The plan to get Achilles back had failed. It was time to generate another plan. Agamemnon told his brother that they needed tactics. He would get wise old Nestor – Nestor's idea to talk to Achilles had been good – maybe the geezer had some more schemes up his sleeve.
Agamemnon awoke the old man. The king told Nestor about how he hadn't been able to sleep. The Trojans lurked close by. If a single Greek sentry neglected his duty, the Trojans could mount a nocturnal assault. Nestor thought about it, and, checking the line of Greek sentries, they found everyone on duty alert and well armed. Meanwhile, some of the key Greek fighters had been summoned to an assembly. Nestor addressed them.
It was very late – not far from daybreak, but Nestor proposed that a Greek warrior should into the opposing camp and see if he could gather any strategic information. Diomedes volunteered, and selected Odysseus to accompany him. The men said their prayers to Athena, and then ventured in the direction of the Greek army. The night was dark, and the reconnoiterers strode over carnage and dead bodies, heaps of broken armor and blood that looked black in the starlight.
[music] Meanwhile, the Trojans were also conducting their meeting, and came to similar conclusions. What they needed, was information on the Greeks. From the ranks of the Trojans, a spy volunteered to venture into the Greek camp to gather intel. The Trojan spy got his bow, wolf pelt cloak, and weasel hat, and set out.
The Trojan spy, however, was soon spotted by Odysseus. Odysseus and mighty Diomedes captured him. The spy pleaded for his life, and said to take him captive. "Courage," said Odysseus. "Death is your last worry. Put your mind at rest" (289). The Greeks encountered into the Trojan spy's motives, and he told them everything. They asked him if he had any choice strategic information on the Trojans. Why, he certainly did. He'd tell them everything – just please spare his life. The Trojan camp, he said, was carefully guarded with watchful sentries. But some of their allied forces were quite vulnerable. There was, in fact, an encampment of Thracians with some incredibly fine horses that the marauding Greeks could probably ambush. Now, the spy said, he'd told them everything – would they please take him back to their ships, or bind him and gag him for the Trojans to find?
"Well," said Odysseus, "we are men of honor, and we wouldn't hurt a vulnerable captive." Just kidding, Diomedes cut the Trojan spy's head off, and they stripped his corpse of its bow, wolf pelt cloak, and weasel hat, and threw them all into a bush to collect later. The pre-dawn raid then proceeded in earnest. Diomedes and Odysseus skulked up to the Thracian camp, and together, killed a total of thirteen men, including a king. Next, they secured some of the horses. What was next? thought Diomedes. The night was still young – he'd only killed fourteen people, after all. He looked around for more mayhem to cause, but Athena interceded. It was time to go. The Trojans might have gods watching over their forces, she told them.
Sure enough, Apollo, stalwart supporter of the Trojans, awoke some of the forces and sent them after Diomedes and Odysseus. It was, indeed time to get back to camp.
The Greek heroes hurried back to their camp, taking time only to retrieve the dead guy's bow, wolf pelt cloak, and weasel hat that they'd tossed into the bush. Nestor heard them coming and worried that the Trojans were invading en masse, but saw it was only Diomedes and Odysseus returning. The two heroes reported that their mission had been successful, tethered the horses, and then bathed in the sea. After this, they bathed in polished tubs, rubbed themselves with olive oil, and drank wine, thanking Athena for their victory.
Unfortunately, Homer doesn't tell us about the fate of that stolen weasel hat. I got to thinking. What happened to that weasel hat? Was it just left in the bushes forever? Does anyone care about it but me?
[Weasel hat song]
The fate of the weasel hat, to this day, remains unknown. Well, on to the next book. [music]
The Iliad, Book 11: Agamemnon's Day of GloryThe sun rose over the dark, hulking ships of the Greek fleet. A new spirit of violence had risen in the Greek army since the raid that had taken place in the small hours of the morning. King Agamemnon awoke, and adorned himself in his armor. Almost forty lines are devoted to the description of the armor the king. Thus impressively dressed, Agamemnon strode down to the trench that ringed the Greek ships and prepared for the day's battle.
What followed was a day of warfare that makes the rest of the Iliad seem almost peaceful by comparison. Throughout Book 11, Homer heaps the gore and screams and severed limbs thick. Battalions smashed into battalions, and the leader in the bloodletting, for once, was Agamemnon himself. No longer hanging back and letting his men do the fighting, Agamemnon was on the front lines. He killed two brave Trojans, and then two more, and then two more. Spears exploded through heads, splashing brains into helmets, swords tore off ears and pierced chests, and everywhere, Homeric similes compare the men on the battlefield to wild beasts – again and again lions slaughtering powerless prey, wildfire racing over dry timber. Agamemnon was the chief lion of the Greek pride, and as the Trojans' strength faltered, they were "like cattle driven wild by a lion lunging / in pitch darkness down on the whole herd / but to one alone a sudden death comes flashing - / first he snaps its neck, clamped in his huge jaws, / then down in gulps he bolts its blood and guts" (302).
The Trojans watched in disbelief. The Trojan champion Hector, who'd the day before been filled with the power of Zeus, was shocked to see all the ground the Trojans had won being taken back. But Hector received a message from Zeus. Hector was told to hang back from combat as long as Agamemnon was active. However, Hector learned that if Agamemnon fell, Zeus' power would return to Troy, and to Hector himself. Quickly, forces were detached to take down the rampaging Greek king Agamemnon.
Though the Trojan forces pressed him hard, Agamemnon refused to go down easily. He killed his first assailant. His second assailant managed to slash Agamemnon on the side, but Agamemnon decapitated him. He kept fighting, but soon enough the king realized his wound was too severe for him to continue. He had his charioteer carry him back to the Greek camp.
After Agamemnon fell, the Greek forces quickly started to waver under the pressure of Hector. Soon enough, Greek blood and guts were littering the battlefield, and the Greeks might have lost at that very moment. But wily Odysseus and mighty Diomedes stood together at one of the flanks and made a stand. The Trojan champion Hector soon came for them. He took one of Diomedes' spears to the head, but was protected by his helmet, and after some unkind words were exchanged, Hector realized he was needed more in the main part of the battlefield.
[music] Then, a miracle happened. Handsome, lazy Paris did something useful. He shot Diomedes. Now, admittedly, his arrow only pierced Diomedes' foot. Diomedes didn't flinch. "So brave with your bow and arrows – big bravado - / glistening lovelocks, roving eye for girls! / Come, try me in combat, weapons hand-to-hand - / You scratch my foot and you're vaunting all the same - / but who cares? A woman or idiot boy could wound me so. / The shaft of a good-for-nothing coward's got no point" (309). Paris, evidently, declined the offer. Odysseus covered Diomedes, who pulled the arrow out of his foot, and then headed back to the Greek ships. We aren't told about their conversation, but I imagine it was something like the following, with Odysseus saying: [music and sound effects]
Odysseus: You're not going, are you, Diomedes? It's just going to be me fighting here.After this hypothetical conversation did not actually place, Odysseus really was indeed left alone. He fought desperately. It was touch and go, against all odds, savagery. No one showed him any mercy, and he returned the favor. Odysseus was wounded, though, and when he was on his last legs, Ajax and Agamemnon found him and came to his defense. Hector, seeing the intensity of the combat around Odysseus, made his way to the eye of the storm. Hector's chariot moved forward, "trampling shields and corpses, axle under the chariot splashed / with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping round the car, / sprays of blood shooting up from the stallions' hoofs / and churning, whirling rims" (314). More intense combat, more blood, and more lion similes followed, and giant Ajax took center stage.
Diomedes: I got shot in the foot, bro.
Odysseus: But you told that guy that it wasn't a big deal.
Diomedes: Of course it's a big deal, Odysseus. He shot me in the [censored] foot. It hurts.
Odysseus: So you're really going?
Diomedes: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I am. Are you mad at me?
Diomedes: You just used your angry voice.
Odysseus: [sigh] Really, I'm fine. I'm fine. Hey, how do you think we're able to keep having these articulate, unrealistically protracted conversations even in the middle of supposedly apocalyptic combat?
Diomedes: Oh, Odysseus, you're such a thinker. Who knows?
Odysseus: Okay. You're right. I guess – well – I guess I'll just dismember some more people.
Diomedes: Yeah, alright. That always makes you feel better. Hey, good raid last night, huh?
Odysseus: Sure. I'll see you back in the tent, Diomedes. Get yourself some Diomedicine. [laughter]
[music] Even Achilles, with his dear companion Patroclus, looked on with dismay at the decimation of the Greeks. It was a rout. Most of the main Greek characters of the Iliad were grievously wounded, and they fled back to their ships.
Back at camp, in wise old Nestor's tent there was a healer. She prepared a mighty brew in Nestor's large cup – a drink made of wine, and barley, and cheese. The heroes drank this – beverage – which sounds kind of like it belongs at a redneck county fair. "Get your nacho cheese wine. Ride the mechanical bull." Actually this curious sounding beverage was a common one in Ancient Greece. Anyway, as the wounded heroes shared this restorative cheddar Chablis, Achilles' dear companion Patroclus came in, concerned for his fellow Greeks. Nestor lamented that Achilles had left the fighting, and then the old man grew nostalgic.
He remembered when he was young, and strong. He fondly recollected killing a cowherd and taking the cowherd's flock back to his city. In a war that ensued, Nestor reminisced about killing a hundred people. Then he recalled meeting Achilles' father, and Achilles' father's advice to the boy. After this, wise old Nestor revealed his idea. Patroclus could dress up as Achilles, and lead Achilles elite army into battle. They were all fresh. None had seen any fighting.
On the way back to Achilles' quarters, Patroclus passed the suffering Odysseus and other wounded Greeks. He spoke with a wounded Greek captain, who said the situation was becoming irrecoverable. Patroclus considered Nestor's idea. Should he really dress up as the invincible champion Achilles, and lead Achilles' elite forces into battle with the Trojans? [music]
The Iliad, Book 12: The Trojans Storm the RampartMeanwhile, the Trojans wiped the blood from their weapons, and surveyed the Greek defenses. A sturdy rampart wall encircled the Greeks, and all around it was a pit filled with sharp stakes, so that any assailant faced impalement from below, arrows and rocks from above, and a solid barrier between them.
The sight of the perilous bulwarks did not stop the Trojans from attacking, though. Fighting broke out all around the wall. Boulders smashed the attacking Trojans, but, resolved to carry the day, they pressed forward to destroy the wall. Once, a Trojan looked up and saw a bird carrying a snake – an ill omen, he told Hector, for it meant that they would lose the fight once they were in the walls of the Greeks, and never return home. Hector was not convinced. "You tell me to put my trust in birds, / flying off on their long wild wings? Never. . .Bird-signs! / Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!" (333).
The Trojans smashed at the wall, crushing the supports of towers and battlements and support stakes. Rifts appeared in the wall, and the Greeks plugged them up with earth. They placed their shields over the breaches while other Greeks flung huge rocks down onto the attackers.
Ajax, with the aid of a powerful Greek archer, was the center of the Greek defense. But a powerful Trojan warrior, with the aid of Zeus, tore a section of the Greek wall down. As the outer Greek defenses began to fall, the trench, earthworks, and barricade itself were all covered in the blood of both armies.
Then, Hector saw his chance. He lifted a colossal boulder, and waited for an opening. [music]
Hector hurled at the gates, full center, smashingTerrified, the Greek defenders fled for their lives.
the hinges left and right and the boulder tore through,
dropped with a crash and both gates groaned and thundered –
the doorbars could not hold, the planking shattered up
in a flying storm of splinters under the rock's force
and Hector burst through in glory, his face dark
as the sudden rushing night but he blazed on in bronze
and terrible fire broke from the gear that wrapped his body,
two spears in his fists. (340).
The Iliad, Book 13: Battling for the ShipsThe very moment the Trojans breached the Greek defenses, Zeus looked the other way. Interesting things were happening to the north in Thrace. No need to worry about the Trojan War any longer. He'd basically led the Trojans to their victory, after all, hadn't he? Yeah. . .basically. And he'd told the other gods to stop interfering. Why, they wouldn't dare ignore his command, he reasoned. Sure they ignored his commands and interfered in the war all the time, and there was no absolutely reason to suspect that this time would be different, but still, Zeus thought, he'd basically taken care of things. No one would interfere.
Yeah, as soon as Zeus looked away another god began interfering. "Suddenly down from the mountain's rocky crags / Poseidon stormed with giant, lightning strides / and the looming peaks and tall timber quaked / beneath his immortal feet as the sea lord surged on" (342). The presence of the sea god put new vigor into the limbs and weaponry of the flagging Greeks. He taunted them, and told them they couldn't possibly lose to the Trojans, and so the Greeks quickly went into battle formation.
The sight of the newly heartened Greek army did not intimidate the Trojans. After all, they'd just ripped through fortification walls to get at their nemeses. New Greek and Trojan heroes came to the forefront and fought one another at the bases of the ships. Poseidon aided the Greek fighters, but kept a low profile in case Zeus happened to return. A small encyclopedia of fighters perished in diverse gory ways, their victors standing over them and stripping their bronze armor and helmets as prizes.
In the midst of the butchery Menelaus cursed Zeus for favoring the Trojans when all this time, it was he – Menelaus – who'd been slighted and deserved justice. While Trojan heroes, among them Aeneas and Hector, felled some mighty Greek warriors, the Greeks benefited hugely from the support of Poseidon. A contingent of archers working for the Greeks launched a devastating volley on the Trojans. Things, it seemed, had evened out once more. The armies prepared to go at it again. Ajax told Hector his days were numbered. The war cries of each army rose to the highest clouds.
The Illiad, Book 14: Hera Outflanks ZeusAs the Trojans prepared for a final assault, Nestor joined Agamemnon to look out over the growing ruination of the Greek forces. Agamemnon, as he had in the past, lost his heart for the warfare, and proposed fleeing for home, rather than perishing in a strange place. But Odysseus said it wouldn't work – the Trojans would kill them on the way to their boats, and Diomedes insisted that all that could be done was to fight it out. Poseidon heard this, and again filled the Greek armies with fighting power.
Meanwhile, on Olympus, Hera, who favored the Greeks, looked on with apprehension. She was glad Poseidon was helping, but knew the Greeks were still in a dreadful position. Far worse, she thought, looking at her husband as he stood over one of the cold rivers that fell down from Olympus – far worse, if Zeus saw what was going on, he would finish her cherished Greeks for good. She had to distract her husband. But how to distract Zeus, the mastermind of all the gods. . . .Sex?
[music] Hera went to her chambers. She cleansed her beautiful body. She rubbed herself with olive oil, combed her hair. She put on lavish robes, a waistband with a hundred tassels, beautiful earrings, and a seductive headdress. Then, as if this weren't all sufficient, she went to Aphrodite. She said she needed an intense dose of seduction, and lied, telling the goddess of love and sex it was to offer counseling to two other feuding deities. Aphrodite complied.
Though she now radiated and pulsed with divine beauty, Hera still wasn't quite ready to go to her husband. She went to the deity Sleep and, after promising him a favor, compelled him to guarantee that once she and Zeus had made love, Sleep would make carry Zeus into unconsciousness. Then, she was ready.
As soon as Zeus saw her, he couldn't think of resisting. "[A]t one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race, / fast as the first time. . .they [had] rolled in bed, they locked and surged in love. / He rose before her now, he savored her name: / Hera – where are you rushing?" (379). She pretended she was going to counsel some other gods, but he begged her to stay. He had never, he said been quite so filled with arousal as he was now – and, he added, enumerating many of his past sexual encounters – this was saying something. He had to have her. But no, said Hera, they were right on top of Mount Olympus – everyone would see them! Not to worry, Zeus said – he'd wrap them in a golden cloud. How could Hera refuse this? Soon enough, Zeus[music]
caught his wife in his armsAfter this flower-blossom inducing, eco-friendly act of divine coitus, just as planned, Zeus fell into deep sleep. And Hera rushed down to help the Greeks. She had them redistribute their equipment. Then, battle! Poseidon led the Greeks. Hector led the Trojans. Hector took a boulder to the chest from Ajax, and his forces led him off toward Troy. The Greeks rushed for the fallen champion, and the Trojans were now the defenders. The Trojans retreated – away from the ships, back past the earthwork fortifications of the Greek encampment, back past the ditch filled with sharpened stakes, back to a river that crossed the plains of Troy. And the Greeks came in pursuit. [music]
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground. . .
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvelous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both. (381)
The Iliad, Book 15: The Achaean Armies at BayThe Greeks were chasing the Trojans now – they chased them past the river, over the plain, and soon the Trojans were in danger of being pressed against the walls of Troy. Only, elsewhere, on Mount Olympus, Zeus woke up. And he saw the Trojans being routed.
Instantly, Zeus understood what had happened. He wheeled on Hera and confronted her. She'd seduced him in order to distract him as her beloved Greeks gained ground! He would make her sorry for duping him. But no, Hera explained to him. She'd merely been on the way to give sexual therapy to some other gods when he'd intercepted her and enveloped her in golden mist. She was innocent! If the Greeks were winning, it was the doing of Poseidon.
Poseidon and Zeus, lords of the sea and sky, occasionally butted heads over who was the chief most deity. Zeus always won, but he saw that his wife must be telling him the truth. His ocean-dwelling brother was committing a minor act of rivalry. No matter. Zeus had a plan. He would drive everyone against each other, but finally, accomplish that which he'd set out to all the way back in Book 1. Having humbled Agamemnon and the Greek king's forces, he would glorify Achilles, and fulfill his promise to Achilles' mother. Achilles would rejoin the battle after his friend Patroclus died on the field. And when Achilles rejoined the battle, the Trojans were finished. Hera's cherished Greeks would be the beneficiaries. Was that okay with Hera? Why, yes, it was.
After a bit more squabbling on Mount Olympus, a messenger was dispatched to Poseidon. The God of the Sea was told to stand down before his lightning chucking brother. Poseidon was incensed. He was nearly peers with Zeus, after all. Zeus had been born first, but only slightly. At first he refused, but after the divine messenger reasoned with him, Poseidon decided he would stand down. Bad news for the Greeks. "A sharp tremor," Book 15 tells us, "and the massive god of earthquakes left [Greece's] lines, / into the surf he dove and heroes missed him sorely" (394).
[music] Quite the opposite happened on the Trojan lines. Apollo healed and heartened the battered Hector. Hector rose, and after a beautiful simile comparing him to a robust stallion breaking free of its tether, hurled himself back into the fray. Seeing that Hector was obviously protected by gods, and knowing that their oceanic protector Poseidon had abandoned them, it was the Greeks' turn to flee. They wheeled from the Trojan plain, went back through their trench, back to their earthworks, back to their ships.
As the first damaging assaults scarred the Greek ships, Patroclus could take it no longer. The dear companion of Achilles gritted his teeth and said he would get his king to help the Greeks.
Out on the battlefield, giant Ajax and his archer companion tried again and again to wound and kill Hector, but divine protection stalled their spears and arrows. Ajax understood that withstanding the divinely empowered Trojans was probably futile. Still, he said, "Quick, better to live or die, once and for all, / than die by inches, slowly crushed to death - / helpless against the hulls in the bloody press - / by far inferior men" (404). Fighting and grisly violence ensued. Skulls exploded. Jaws and teeth shattered. Men were disemboweled, and eyes flew out of sockets. Ajax was at the center of it, wielding a giant pike, and Hector too, his divine armor protecting him from even lethal blows. They were fighting on the decks of the ships, now, and for the Greeks, the only way to survive, it seemed, was to pour everything they had into the diminishing odds of victory. [music]
The Iliad, Book 16: Patroclus Fights and DiesWith a name like that, is there really any need to tell you the story of this book? Well, here's the details of what went down. [music] Patroclus was in tears at the sight of the Greek forces being beaten so decisively. He went to Achilles. The Greeks really, really needed Achilles, Patroclus explained. Their ships were going to get burned. He understood that Achilles was still upset. After all, Agamemnon had taken from Achilles the woman who Achilles loved who Achilles had stolen from some people that Achilles had murdered. Well – there were some details, yeah. But Achilles' woman had been stolen from him! Patroclus understood this. But still, could Achilles still help his poor brothers-in-arms, his dear friends – could he save them all?
Nope, Achilles said. He couldn't.
Patroclus accused him of being a "heart of iron" (413). "[T]he salt gray sunless ocean gave you birth / and the towering blank rocks – your temper's so relentless" (413). Then Patroclus revealed his plan. He'd put on Achilles' armor. He'd lead their elite troops – called the Myrmidons. Achilles' men – these Myrmidons – were well rested. They would run over the Trojans like wildfire. And he, Patroclus, would wear Achilles armor, and lead the Myrmidons into combat. Every Greek in the army would redouble his efforts if they saw Achilles – or someone who looked like Achilles, in their ranks.
Achilles conceded that this was acceptable. Patroclus could wear his armor. Only, he told Patroclus, be careful, and don't actually take the city of Troy. Because if Patroclus took the city of Troy, and people found out about it, Achilles' own glory would be reduced. In summation, after being told he could borrow his friend's armor, and fight alongside the elite Myrmidons – but just not fight too hard – Patroclus was off.
At this point, poor Ajax was still neck deep in Trojans, his arms exhausted from blocking and dealing blows. So tired he could barely breathe, he saw Hector approaching. Now, Ajax and Hector had already dueled to a draw back in Book 7, and back at the end of Book 14, Ajax had crushed Hector's chest with a boulder. But the Trojan champion just kept coming, almost always under divine protection, and Ajax kept being on the defensive, fighting him off. This time, Ajax knew he was too battered and exhausted. He fled the ship that Hector was charging, and the Trojans set it ablaze. Soon, fire burst on more than one ship.[music]
Amidst Achilles' men the Myrmidons, Patroclus decked himself out in the Greek champion's armor. He harnessed Achilles' war team to the champion's chariot. After a brief catalog of all the Myrmidon fighters who were going into battle, and a stern motivational speech from Achilles, the elite forces rushed into battle,
crammed so closeAchilles prayed to Zeus for victory. Specifically, after reminding Zeus how faultlessly devout he'd been, he asked that Patroclus be allowed to lead the charge bravely, and return safely. Zeus heard the prayer. Sure, he said to himself, he'd allow Patroclus to lead the charge into the battle. As for returning safely, no, Zeus didn't think so. Thanks for all the nice offerings and sacrifices, though.
the crested helmets, the war-shields bulging, jutting,
buckler-to-buckler, helm-to-helm, man-to-man massed tight
and the horsehair crests on glittering helmet horns brushed
as they tossed their heads, the battalions bulked so dense. (419)
So the elite Myrmidons finally entered the fray. Soon, as usual, limbs, brains, eyeballs, teeth, guts, etc. etc. etc. were flying on both sides once more. To Zeus' dissatisfaction, Patroclus moved to kill a Trojan captain particularly dear to him, but Hera warned him against intervening. If Zeus started plucking people from battle, then everyone would start doing that again. So be it, said Zeus, the man's time had come. After one missed spear, Patroclus hit the Trojan captain with a fatal blow. Fighting – bestial in its fury – broke out around the corpse of the fallen captain.
[music] During rest of the battle, carefully orchestrated by Zeus, the Greeks pushed the Trojans away from their ships. Zeus compelled Hector to call for a retreat, and this time, the Greeks drove them all the way back, again passed the rampart of their encampment, past the stake filled ditch, down the Trojan plain, and this time back against the city walls. Apollo himself, longtime patron of the Trojans, had to stop Patroclus at the city walls. It was time for a showdown.
Attempting to spear the Trojan champion, Patroclus instead killed a half-brother of Hector. The two men then literally played tug-of-war over his corpse, Patroclus pulling on a foot, Hector the head, as they simultaneously hacked at one another. Moments later, as Patroclus was distracted by fighting, Apollo slammed his hand into Patroclus' back. Achilles' dear friend was stunned. His helmet flew off, going under his horse's hooves. A Trojan fighter speared Patroclus between the shoulder blades, and he went down. Then Hector approached him. It had been stupid for Patroclus to think he could take the city walls, Hector said. The Trojans wouldn't fall so easily. The vultures would eat Patroclus raw.
Well and fine, Patroclus said, his life fading before his eyes, but Hector hadn't beaten him. He could have taken twenty Hectors, but Apollo had given Hector divine aid. Hector, Patroclus said, hadn't beaten him at all. Oh, and there was one more thing Hector hadn't thought of. One tiny little detail. This word was Patroclus' very last, just before death took him. "Achilles."
Hector was not intimidated. He stepped on Patroclus' chest, pulled the spear out, and, shoulder to shoulder with his Trojans, prepared to face the elite Myrmidons and Greeks. [music]
Homer's GodsWe'll pick up on the next part of the story in Episode 11. For now, I want to spend some time talking about the title and main idea of this episode: Homer's Gods. Throughout this show and the previous, you've seen a lot of Homer's Gods, and we're now at a good place to talk about them. Robin Waterfield writes that
"Being pictured as super-humans, [Homer's gods] could not be omnipresent or omniscient. We even hear of the gods washing, walking, eating, drinking, being wounded, and making love. The gods in this respect are just many times more powerful than petty humans; the only utterly irreconcilable gulf between the two species, which makes Homer's Iliad a tragic poem, is that the gods are immortal. But for Homer the gods did not have laws, only preferences" (pp. xxi-xxii).Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and Ares do all have preferences. In addition to having appetites and lusts and easily bruised egos, these gods support various individuals and factions within the war, and their factional support causes unquantifiable human suffering. Not a single deity in Homer has any regard for innocent lives, or average, blameless soldiers. Pious individuals who petition their chosen gods consistently and with fitting sacrifices still do not get their prayers answered. The end of the Trojan War, which actually doesn't happen until the first books of the Odyssey, does not bring just rewards to the deserving and fitting punishments for the guilty. It's simply another chaotic massacre to end a long series of chaotic massacres, in which egocentric gods haphazardly back bombastic, equally egocentric warriors, a gory free-for-all loosely superintended by the imperceptive, puffed up, thunderous rapist god, Zeus.
The Iliad is not, put simply, a story about devout mortals and the gods who take care of them. It's a tale about a shifting, uncertain universe, where the only certainties are martial power, and exercises of this power that lead to legends. Even martial power isn't something to place ultimate stock in, however. Athena helps Diogenes fight, Aphrodite rescues her favorite fighters from their victorious opponents, Poseidon and Apollo smash the Trojans and Greeks against one another, and Zeus makes Hector invincible – all with the intention of letting him die. Individual volition, in the midst of this snake pit of unreliable deities, is feeble. [music]
The utter chaos of the Homeric world is at times one of the things that makes it so riveting. So many times over the course of the middle portion of the Iliad that we've just heard, the warriors go back and forth between the ships and the walls, as though the gods merely intend to wear a rut down in the Trojan soil until no one is left at all, and all we see are bones and sand. At times, the chaos is so complete that the books we read today feel like demolitions – munitions exploding, fire racing in every single direction, warriors slaying warriors, gods squabbling and duping one another, and thousands of unseen innocents, women and children who have to pay the price.
The gods themselves, at times, seem to have little intelligence or dignity. In a number of scenes of the gods convening in Olympus, the deities bicker and argue like any human counsel, generating plans that are flawed for obvious reasons. And while they are immortal, Homer's gods suffer from all sorts of pains and indignities. Ares, the god of war, goes to whimper to his father after being stabbed in the guts by Diomedes. In a book to come, Hera will slap Artemis around until arrows tumble out of her quiver. By the Iliad's end Aphrodite has been cursed, chased, stabbed in the arm, and punched in the boob.
But there is, somehow, a web of order that governs it. To understand this web, we have to talk about the thing that caused the Trojan War. This thing was not, contrary to popular belief, the handsome playboy Paris seducing or kidnapping beautiful Helen from her Spartan husband Menelaus. It was not some prior geopolitical feud between confederated Greece and its eastern neighbor in Asia Minor, Troy. The Trojan War was caused by one single entity, a goddess. We met her before once – a passing mention in Hesiod's Theogony, and forgot about her. But we won't forget about her again. She was a child of the elemental Night, and the Greeks called her Eris, or the goddess of Strife and Discord. [music]
Eris and the Beginning of the Trojan WarThe story of Eris setting the whole Trojan War into motion is briefly alluded to at the very end of the Iliad – just two lines – but its full version was recorded in a lost epic poem called the Cypria.2 The story is as follows. The parents of Achilles, the nymph Thetis and her lover Peleus, were being wed. Fond of celebrations, the gods were holding a party and feast. The guest list was long, but the gods were careful to exclude one individual – and this individual was Eris, the goddess of strife. Eris was incensed. And she came anyway, bringing with her a very important golden apple. On the golden apple were inscribed the words, "for the fairest." It was, the gods and goddesses understood, to be a prize for the most beautiful of all the goddesses. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all stood up, believing themselves eligible.
They asked that Zeus would be the judge. But Zeus wouldn't touch this with a ten foot pool. He delegated the decision to the mortal Trojan prince, Paris, who had shown fair judgment in a prior contest. The goddesses then bathed and presented themselves to the Trojan prince. Each endeavoring to look her most beautiful, all three goddesses promised mortal Paris a prize. Hera promised kingship of the known world. Athena promised martial power and great wisdom. And Aphrodite guaranteed that Paris would have Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman on earth, as his bride. Paris chose Aphrodite and Helen. And Eris, I imagine, though the goddess of strife and discord is not mentioned, smiled in the background, envisioning a decade of death and bloodshed on the Trojan battlefield.
By now, you know most of the rest of the story. Aphrodite backed Paris and the Trojans, because Paris had earned her the golden apple. Hera and Athena, incensed at not having been chosen, backed the Greeks. Zeus backed the Trojans, and then, eventually, the Greeks, simply because he wanted Achilles to enjoy glory. The whole story is half soap opera, half bloodbath, and in the ancient Greek imagination, the dark plot was all catalyzed by Eris, goddess of discord and strife. We can blame Aphrodite, who whisked Paris away from being killed by Menelaus in the first books of the Iliad, which would have ended the war. And we can blame Zeus, for not simply slamming a lightning bolt down on the Trojan plain and telling everyone to put their weapons away. But really, behind it all, is Eris, the goddess of strife and discord. [music]
Homer's HenotheismLet's leave Eris behind, and talk about Homer's gods more generally. Homer's gods offer a perfect illustration of something called "henotheism." "Henotheism," which is a pretty esoteric word, simply means the belief in a primary deity who exists amidst other deities. Between monotheism, the belief in a single, usually omnipotent god, and polytheism, the belief in many different gods, henotheism is a halfway point. And henotheism comes with some inherent problems. If, for instance, Zeus is so powerful and wise, why is he so stupid as to take his eyes from the battlefield at the beginning of Book 13 and not understand that another god will interfere? If he's so all-knowing, how can he be duped by his wife's advances later in the same book? And if he's so powerful, then why does he have to bow down to the rules and let an elite Greek fighter kill one of his favorite and most treasured of the Trojans? Why, a couple of books from where we are now, is Agamemnon going to say that Zeus is subject to the whims of his oldest daughter, Atê, or fate? Is the dude in charge, or what?
Folks, we have arrived at possibly the most critical question in all religion. The structure of this question is always the same, "If god is so [blank], then why [blank]?" In Judeo-Christianity, it's usually, "If god is so good and wise, then why does so much suffering exist in the world?" Now we're not there yet. We'll get there, when we get to the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible, and Job, and Second Esdras. For now, let's stick with Ancient Greek poetry. The question a pious Greek might ask, on reading Homer, would be, "If Zeus is so powerful and wise, why can't he get the Trojan War sorted out?"
One answer is simply that Zeus is one deity among many. He's the figurehead of a turbulent henotheistic pantheon, and not a perfectly ordered monotheism like, say, Islam. Zeus might be in charge, generally speaking, but he's part of a greater picture, the daddy in the family photo, and the kids, aunts and uncles are all very unruly. As a modern reader, the violent, rowdy, incestuous soap opera of the Homeric gods is certainly entertaining, but it doesn't seem like something that ought to inspire worship and reverence. And you don't have to look too hard in the writings of Ancient Greece to find authors who pointedly disagree with Homer's depictions of the gods. [music]
Xenophanes' Criticism of HomerHomer's first dissident was a remarkable, very early Greek philosopher called Xenophanes of Colophon. We know little about his life – only that he fled from the west of present day Turkey in 546 after his homeland was invaded, that he moved from town to town a lot, and that he lived to at least the age of 92. And we only have fragments attributed to Xenophon, but oh, what fragments they are.
In his sharply critical theological writings, Xenophanes is thousands of years ahead of his time. He was, to use a word we used earlier, a henotheist, placing high importance on a primary god, Zeus. His objection to Homer's pantheon was the same one a modern person might make – that the swashbuckling, unpredictable, egocentric buffoons who pull the puppet strings of Homer's epics aren't worth a single prayer or sacrifice. I'll quote some of Xenophanes' fragments – these are from a book called The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, published by Oxford University Press in 2000.
Xenophanes imagines "One god, greatest among gods and men, / In no way similar to mortal men in body or in thought." 3 "Complete he sees, complete he thinks, complete he hears" (26). "He remains forever in the same place, entirely motionless, / Nor is it proper for him to move from one place to another. / But effortlessly he shakes all things by thinking with his mind" (27). "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods / Everything that men find shameful and reprehensible. . .Stealing, adultery, and deceiving one another" (27). You can already see from these quotes that Xenophanes' conception of Zeus is far closer to the Yahweh of Judaism than the anthropomorphic patriarch of Homer. To Xenophanes, Zeus didn't have to ever move anywhere, because he was everywhere simultaneously. He never had to hurl thunderbolts or play fisticuffs with other deities, because he could accomplish anything with a mere thought. Again, this sounds less like Homer and more like the Hebrew Bible, a book which, in the 500s during Xenophanes' lifetime, was being produced and developed during the Babylonian captivity.
If this was all Xenophanes had written on the subject of religion, he'd still be famous – famous as a Greek who had, for unknown reasons and in the same timeframe as the ancient Israelites, moved incredibly far in the direction of monotheism in his writings. But these aren't even Xenophanes' most famous reactions to Homer.
What Xenophanes resented the most was projection – the projection of imperfect human qualities onto immortal beings. "[M]ortals," Xenophanes griped, "think that the gods are born, / Wear their own clothes, nave voices and bodies" (27). "If cows and horses or lions had hands, / Or could draw with their hands and make things as men can, / Horses would have drawn horse-like gods, cows cow-like gods, / And each species would have made the gods' bodies just like their own" (27). "Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and black, / And Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair" (27). With these words, Xenophanes suggests an idea not widely in circulation until the 1800s – a full two thousand five hundred years after he lived. This is the idea that gods do not create men, but men create gods, and they create gods in their own image.
Now, we don't know whether Xenophanes really did have a sense of religion as a cultural phenomenon, or whether he was just chastising the Homeric poems for their anthropomorphism. What we can definitely take away from this fascinating early Greek philosopher is that at least some of Homer's readers, even early on, found the cosmic order of the Iliad to be a bit lacking, and found his gods to be undignified, if not ridiculous. So if you have a similar reaction while reading the Iliad, believe me, you're not alone. [music]
Plato's Proposed Censorship of HomerA much more famous figure in Greek letters, Plato, offered his own criticism. Plato's criticism survives at length, making up much of Book 3 of the Republic, a long dialogue that Plato produced around 380 BCE. The book may need no introduction, but the bullet points are that it's a series of extended discussions between Socrates and, mostly, Plato's brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus. Socrates had been executed in 399, and Plato used him as a literary figure who asked question after pesky question and slowly undermined the logical footing of his fellow conversants. The book tries to pinpoint the meaning of justice and the just man, and how an ideal society might be configured.
To get to the specifics, then, what, exactly, does Plato think of Homer? First of all, he knows the Homeric poems very, very well. We have more Homeric quotations in Plato than in any other ancient source. It's not too surprising, as literature, storytelling, and poetry were a foundational portion of a child's upbringing in Plato's Athens. From a young age, kids read Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey being quasi-sacred texts of Greece's most advanced city-states, and key episodes of the Homeric poems were recited to music at festivals and private parties for entertainment. Thus, Plato, like all of the patrician class of Athens, knew the Iliad and the Odyssey. And like Xenophanes, he found Homer's pantheon of gods to be troubling.
Plato's Socrates, the speaker of The Republic, finds the episode of Zeus being overcome by passion for his wife to be entirely morally outside the bounds of the way gods ought to be depicted. Further, any passages in which the gods were mourning for their own pains or for the deaths of their cherished heroes, Socrates says, are unacceptable. These are immortal gods, after all, not a bunch of wimps who will shed tears at the slightest cause. The gods should also not be displayed laughing or overcome by mirth, according to Socrates. They are a disciplined lot, in control of their emotions, and not a band of jokers – their business is the control of the cosmos, not brouhaha and goofing off.
So far, Plato's objections to the Homeric pantheon don't sound too unreasonable. If you want people to feel piety toward the pantheon, you depict that pantheon in such a way that elevates them above the sometimes messy, impulsive world of human emotion. But Plato as a critic isn't interested in merely tempering down some of Homer's choicer passages about the deities. Plato wants massive censorship – not just of the gods, but of all characters, and all literature. It is for this reason that those of us who study literature, including me, have a squeamish relationship with some of the Platonic dialogues.
Just listen to the specifics of what Socrates says ought to be done to the Homeric poems. One: all references to Hades should be omitted, since they might make people fear death and act with less bravery and discipline in war. Two: references to the horror of death should be erased for similar reasons. Three: all passages of men mourning for lost comrades should be removed, since these passages show men who are weak, undisciplined and not self sufficient. Four: all passages showing men laughing should be struck, since mirth on the part of men is an overindulgence of emotion. Five: all passages showing major characters who act with dishonesty should be deleted, since readers might misconstrue the message and become dishonest themselves. Plato does note that it's okay for leaders to be dishonest, since they have to dupe the masses sometimes in order to keep the peace. Okay, what else doesn't Plato like? Six: only passages which show characters being dutiful and obedient to leadership should be retained. Seven: as for Achilles, passages about him need to be seriously censored – he's disobedient to Agamemnon, for instance, and we can't have our readers learning from this. And Achilles is way too emotional, wringing his hands over the death of Patroclus in upcoming books. Achilles is a demigod – the son of a sea nymph – and he should act like one – severe, disciplined, and not showing so much emotion. Finally, nine: passages describing feasts should be cut and trimmed, as we don't want readers to think too much about indulging themselves with food. [music]
There's more, but it all adds up to the same idea. As Plato's Socrates says of the Homeric poems, "[W]e must put an end to stories of this nature: if we don't, they will engender in the young men in our community a casual attitude towards badness." 4 He didn't exactly want to scour Homer from the record – only to change the Homeric poems into sanitized moral lessons that inculcated, over and over again, the same core messages: obedience, discipline, fearlessness in combat, and fidelity to state over family. If you've read The Republic you can see how Plato's prescribed cleansing of Homer fits into his overall program of a militarized state run by a core group of elites who control legislation, the media, and everything else.
But even with what we've heard so far, Plato isn't done with censoring Homer. He thinks that dialogue ought to be severely limited in the Homeric epics, since there's something inherently disingenuous about a third person narrator trying to speak with the voices of others. And he thinks that the musical accompaniment to the poems should be rigorously restricted. In a major scale, there are seven things that we call modes. Plato says we must only use two of them.
We can't use this one, for instance. [Locrian mode]. Plato calls it "Mixed Lydian" and we call it "Locrian." And we can't use this one [Aeolian mode]. Plato calls it "Taut Lydian" and we call it "Aeolian" or "natural minor." These two modes, to Plato, are bad because "Laments and dirges need not be voiced." So, according to Plato no more natural minor scales. Incidentally, he's already removed almost every symphony, concerto, sonata, fugue, nocturne, mazurka, and so on, from the world's music. But he's not done yet. According to Plato, two more modes must be eliminated. These are this one [Mixolidian]. Plato calls it "Loose Ionian" and we call it "Mixolidian." And also, this one is also not allowed [Lydian]. Plato calls it Loose Lydian, and we call it "Lydian." These two are no good, because, according to Plato's musical expertise, "are soft and suitable to drinking parties" (96). [Lydian again] Does this sound like a drinking party to you? It sounds like a movie preview. "Janice was a yoga instructor. Jared was an out of work taxidermist. But one summer, during a thunderstorm, they met, and fell in love." Anyway, that eliminates pretty much all the music our species has produced. Nice job, Plato. So, what are we allowed to play in your republic?
Plato likes a mode called "Dorian." [Dorian] The guitar at the beginning and end of this podcast happens to be playing in Dorian – F Dorian, to be exact, the second mode in the key of Eb, if that means anything. [Literature and History guitar theme] Plato thinks that this mode sounds like "a brave man's voice during battle. . .the voice of a man who, even when he falls and faces injury or death or some other catastrophe, still resists. . .in a disciplined and resolute manner" (96). And he likes a mode called "Phrygian." [Phrygian] Phrygian makes him think of the aforementioned man in peacetime, willful and striving for success. So, we're allowed to use Dorian and Phrygian, because Plato thinks that these modes sound like manly men, doing manly things. [manly men doing manly things manly men doing manly things] And lastly, as for Ionian [Ionian], or the major scale, the most common scale in music, Plato makes no mention of it. I guess he either forgot about it, or he couldn't even count to seven. They seem equally likely to me.
Plato fans, I'm really sorry for that dig. I know he's terrific, and that some like to think of him as a puppeteer who uses even Socrates satirically in his dialogues. But the third book of the Republic, unless treated to elaborate reinterpretation, indicates that although he probably had little understanding of music, he was ready to slam draconian laws onto it. And to bring things back to Homer, this portion of the Republic, if its censorship were applied to the Iliad, would make the poem garbled and unreadable. We would have a procession of stoic men, voicing brief, passionless lines, dying violently on the battlefield but fearing nothing, having little desire to return home, and never once questioning the motives of their leaders. The gods would be distant and meekly obedient to Zeus. No one would care when anyone else died, and when Patroclus perished, Achilles would serenely accept it and the poem would prematurely wheeze to its end. Plato's Iliad would be a poem about shiny robot-men bravely killing each other in a world where bravery could not exist, since no one feared death. Plato's censored Iliad would be a tedious, unintelligible piece of writing, and it never would have survived like the real Iliad has. In the real Iliad, death is terrifying, great people make terrible mistakes, and we cry, make love, overeat, miss home, speak out against leaders, and hope desperately that forces outside of our control won't pummel us into annihilation. Now amigos, that is a poem. What Plato suggests – not so much. At a certain point in the Republic, when Plato's Socrates suggests an alternative way to compose a Homeric passage, he prefaces his remarks by admitting, "I'm no poet." I underlined that phrase twice when I read the Republic the first time. And next to it, I wrote, "I couldn't agree more, Plato." Actually, I didn't write "Plato." I wrote a bad word. [music]
The Instructional View of LiteratureI took a little excursion here. I couldn't resist actually demonstrating what modes are, what they sound like, and just how silly it is to say that only certain scale forms may be used in music. I hope that was interesting. And I hope it demonstrated something more generally about the arts and people who wish to control their production and circulation for some reason or another. For Plato, in Book 3 of the Republic, controlling literature is about creating a pliable citizenry who will die for the state in battle and not question the motives of the elite leadership. In his program of state censorship, Plato is not an isolated case. Thousands of years of literary scholarship has been produced with the notion that, essentially, literature's purpose is to teach us how to live. Let me say that again – that literature exists to instruct us on how to live. We can call this an "instructional" view of literature.
Proponents of the "instructional" view, and Plato is their granddaddy, believe that literature must be carefully shaped in order to inculcate a certain moral conduct and civic behavior. Read the Iliad, follow the examples of obedience and bravery set by the characters. "Be a good little Athenian – when there's a war we'll call you." Early Christian writers and commentators unsurprisingly also take the "instructional" view – that literature ought to reinforce the New Testament's core messages of self discipline, neighborliness, kindness, and the worship of God and Jesus. And latter day Platos, from critics in the disciplines of Marxism, Postcolonialism, Feminism, New Historicism, and a dozen other isms you may have heard of, to actual political entities like the Soviet Union or the post-revolutionary Iranian government – are particularly concerned with literature's "instructional" capacity. Of course all of these traditions are valuable and have their great strengths. But one of their concerns is pinning down what kinds of behaviors literature encourages in its readers, and what kind of an ideology it creates or reinforces. Considering literature's instructional capacity and ideological assumptions is something that literary critics and others do, and should continue to do.
But – to point out the obvious – of course there are plenty of other reasons to read literature. And – uh – those of us who read literature don't simply consume it and blindly follow the examples set by its characters. Ahem. Plato. I have read the Iliad many times, but I have never impaled someone in the face with a bronze spear. The literate masses are not slathering apes who need the protection of a privileged circle of censors. We're diverse folks with diverse intellectual strengths, to co-opt a phrase from Chaucer, and our reactions can't be predicted.
The "instructional" view of what literature should do is only one of several meta-theories about the purpose of literature. We'll cover many of them in episodes to come, from Plato, to Aquinas, to Philip Sidney, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelly, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, and many others. But the literary theories of these guys, to posterity, frequently end up sounding outdated or reductive. In plain English, literature doesn't need to have a concerted purpose. It just is. It's one of the things that our species produces. I like to think of literary texts like billiard balls on a gigantic table, just zooming around and wacking into each other, some getting bigger, some smaller, over time. None of it is right or wrong, and all of it is viable, legitimate, and interconnected, from Homer to hip hop, from prim Plato to ballistic Bukowski, from cuneiform tablets to blog posts. There's no stable ground for someone to stand on that pool table and tell all the globes bouncing around to all be colored green and spin the same way, and thus, as with Plato's prescriptions for Homer, any text tries that to stand over literature and demand that it do this or that ends up looking ridiculous to posterity. So if you're thinking of writing a treatise on the purpose of literature – uh – be careful. [music]
Well, on our billiards table of literature, we're dealing with a particularly old, storied, and influential ball, Homer's Iliad. And now that my little tangent on Plato his descendants is over, why don't we find out what happens at the end of the story? In the next episode, we'll learn about what takes place upon the death of Patroclus. Will the Trojans finally defeat the invading Greeks and drive them from the land? Will the gods get their stuff together and decide on a victor for the war? Will Achilles extend forgiveness to Hector and say that enough have died on both sides? Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I'll answer all those questions in the next episode.
|Paid||Hardcopy||The Iliad||Homer||This is the translation that I first read, in hardcopy, in college. It's currently Amazon's #1 bestseller in European poetry. That's one train you might want to hop on. It's one of my top five recommendations in all literature.|
|Free||Podcast||Ancient Greece Declassified||Lantern Jack||This free podcast features interviews fantastic, accessible interviews with contemporary giants of classical scholarship. I very strongly recommend that you listen to the outstanding interview of Andrew Ford - the fourth installment in Jack's series.|
|Paid||Hardcopy||Homer: The Poetry of the Past||Andrew Ford||Leading Homer scholar Andrew Ford published this modern classic about twenty years ago, and it continues to be a standard, due to its unusual combination of broad accessibility and and scholarly diligence. The book is particularly fascinating in the context of this episode, since it considers the Iliad in the context of late Bronze and early Iron Age history, and the work the Homeric poet does as an author of historical fiction.|
|Free||Podcast||The Trojan War Podcast||Jeff Wright||This is a serialized, 20+ episode program on the Trojan War, including the peripheral stories outside of Homer's Iliad. Host Jeff Wright focuses on weaving the whole epic into a gigantic, edge-of-your seat audio program - his voice, delivery, organization and obvious love for the topic all do justice to Homer and his legacy. Highly recommended.|
|Free||Podcast||The History of Ancient Greece||Ryan Stitt||Launched in the spring of 2016, Ryan Stitt's The History of Ancient Greece is the long awaited counterpart to Mike Duncan's The History of Rome. Ryan begins in the Stone Age and guides his listeners through the complex and fascinating history of Ancient Greece, covering topics like geography, culture, military technology, architecture, and much, much more. You don't want to miss this one!|
|Paid||Audiobook||The Iliad||Homer||This is a 9 hour recording of the Fagles translation of the Iliad on Audible. I haven't heard it, but if you want a full recording of the exact text I used, this will do the trick.|
|Paid||Hardcopy||The Iliad||Homer||There are many great things about Lombardo's translations of the classics. I happened to read the Fagles Iliad first, but Lombaro's musicality is second to none. And (if you know Homeric similes you'll understand how awesome this is) he typographically separates the vehicles and tenors of similes.|
|Paid||Audiobook||The Iliad||Homer||This is a 15 hour recording of the Lombardo translation of the Iliad. Actress Susan Sarandon offers synopses of the 24 books, and then Lombardo reads his own gorgeous tranlsation. It's a really, really effective combination. Even to those of us who know Homer, this audiobook is like listening to music.|
|Paid||Hardcopy/Audiobook||Why Homer Matters||Adam Nicolson||This book came out in 2014 to rave reviews. Nicolson is an extremely strong historian and reader. As if this weren't enough, reviewers (me included, I guess) remark again and again on the brilliance and panache of his writing style. An experienced travel writer, Nicolson writes about the setting and background of the Homeric epics with impassioned beauty and unforgettable descriptions. Read this baby. Or listen. He narrates the book on Audible, too.|
|Free||Podcast||The Ancient World||Scott Chesworth||This is a terrific, energetically delivered introduction to ancient history from earliest times up until Rome. Plenty of free, accessibly arranged information about Homeric Greece, too. Click the link already!|
|Free||Podcast||The Ancient World Rediscovered||Scott Chesworth||An entertaining, well organized survey of some of the great discoveries and wacky personalities of archaeology from the late 1700s until the early 1900s, including archaeology at the city of Troy, and the ruthless German tomb raider Heinrich Schliemann. Troy's archaeology is in this episode and concludes in this one.|
|Paid||Hardcopy/Kindle||The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists||Robin Waterfield||This book is a gem. Anyone who deals with Presocratic Greek philosophy has to have a mastery of a bunch of scraps from later writers. On one hand, you don't want a book that dumbs things down too much and gives you these scraps out of context. On the other, you don't want full scale specialist polemics just because you're reading a bit Heraclitus. Waterfield strikes the perfect balance in this highly readable little anthology.|
|Paid||Audiobook||Everyday Life in Ancient Greece||Cyril Robinson||Setting aside all the Themistocleses, Leonidases, and Alexanders, Robinson's book talks about how most folks actually lived during the Greek Golden Age. Over the course of 4 hours, Robinson tells you what it would have been like to actually live in Pericles' Athens.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times||Thomas R. Martin||A rock solid single volume history on the Ancient Aegean world. Well organized, readable, exciting, and carefully researched. I strongly recommend this book.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Republic||Plato (edited by Robin Waterfield)||Plato was Homer's biggest (and perhaps most heavy handed) fan. Book 3 contains a sustained (and, in my opinion, laughably stupid) conversation in which Socrates not only proposes censoring Homeric epics beyond recognizability, but also outlaws most modes of the major scale.|
1.^Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles and with an Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 254. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.
2.^See Burgess, Jonathan S. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Link.
3.^Robin Waterfield, Ed. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 26. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.
4.^Plato. The Republic Ed. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 86. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.
2.^See Burgess, Jonathan S. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Link.
3.^Robin Waterfield, Ed. The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 26. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.
4.^Plato. The Republic Ed. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 86. Further references noted parenthetically. Link.