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Sunday, November 08, 2015

Exit The Gods, Stage Left

I have read The Iliad in English and in Greek. However, I have never had it recited to me. I am currently listening to an audio-books recording of The Iliad, Fitzgerald's translation. It is great. I mean, I used to trudge through this stuff, but this is freedom and enchantment.

Of course, The Iliad was an ode that was intended to be recited; we were supposed to sit around and listen to the poet or rhapsodist recite the verses. It works, and it works quite well.

Listening to the Iliad is far superior to reading it, and it is also vastly superior to watching any of the films made of it so far.

Furthermore, it was a truly eye-opening experience, for I had always read of the major role that the gods played in The Iliad.
However, what I have found is that the poetry is so realistic that the gods are nothing more than asides and window dressing of a supernal kind.

Take for example the plague sent by Apollo because Agamemnon did not wish to ransom his war prize, the daughter of the Chryses, priest of Apollo, into the care of her father who came suppliant and bearing ransom to the Achaeans camp.
Even though we have been versed over and over about Apollo's role in all this, it is not only extremely natural to expect an epidemic to break out in an army encampment nine years old that had rudimentary hygienic practices, it is to be expected as a highly probable event.

Each and every act of the gods is a completely normal event to be expected in the tides of war and the lives of men and women. There is no obvious gods from the machine - theoi apo mechanes, dei ex machina, gods from the machine - rather everything proceeds according to the normal expectations of the ups and downs of history. The gods seem almost to be an intrusive embellishment.

It is said Zeus allowed his son by Laodamia, Sarpedon, king of Lycia and ally of Troy, to be killed by the Greeks since it was so fated, and to exempt Sarpedon would be to gamble with fate, and Hera says the other gods would contemn him for it or would exempt their own offspring from mortality, with unknown consequences for both men and gods.
But, all that really happens, as is set quite straight forwardly, is Sarpedon fights and Sarpedon dies, for that is one of the lots given to soldiers.

...with references to lightning, earthquakes, storm clouds, and so on, all of which keep reverberating through the images of human efforts and hopes the ominous sense of an irrational, overpowering, and destructive cosmic destiny.
Some of those who find such a vision of the divine uncomfortable try to neutralize the obvious implications of this scene. So G. S. Kirk, for example, finds nothing very shocking here. “[Zeus’ declaration of affection for Troy and Priam] may cause the listener to wonder why, nevertheless, he allows the city to fall even after he has discharged his promise to Thetis.
The answer is that this has been made inevitable by Paris’ offense against hospitality which is protected by Zeus . . . and by the Trojans’ condoning of it by receiving him and Helen” (Commentary 333). But there is no reference here to that reason. Indeed, it is conspicuous by its absence, as if Homer wishes to go out of his way to bring out the lack of such moral reasoning on Zeus’ part. Comments like this one by Kirk, it strikes me, are imposed on the poem in order to enable the reader to evade the central ironies in this harsh vision of experience (more about the origin and effects of such interpretative efforts in a later essay).

Faith in such deities obviously demands an acceptance of irrational and cosmic conflict and the frequently brutal consequences of that for human beings as the way the world and everything in it operates...
But as I hear this tale, the gods seem to deceive themselves about their power, and the gods are play-acting, and with all their huffing, puffing, thundering, and bravado they are actors off to the side watching the events of the world and mankind, pretending to be top dogs.

 Helen and Paris

I was amazed by this sudden insight into the poetry.

Most interpreters of myth think that heroes and heroines in time were raised by their society to a status of godhood.
However, there is something else here, and it is a hint of what so many have referred to as a species of genius of the Hellenes and Greek Culture: there are gods, but they are so fettered by Fate and the World that they - the gods themselves - lapse and degenerate over time into heroes and heroines, and eventually into men and women... not the other way around.


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