Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An alternate look at the story of Troy (Circa Homer)

Please tell me the Iliad is a satire! Please. I have just read (and finished),  for the first time, the epic by Homer. What follows is an alternative look at the story of the Iliad and the fall of Troy, with some of the poem's backstory. Those Greek gods! I tell you.

Those gods are, to paraphrase the villain at the end of Scooby Doo, meddling, to put it bluntly! Agamemnon is a total arse. And what kind of stuck up, stubborn prima donna is Achille's? I know that honor is the biggest deal with warriors past and present. And I understand that Agamemnon insulted Achilles in the biggest way possible. Believe me, I would be pissed too! But to stand off from the fighting for all that time while his comrades and countrymen are out there battling, losing their lives, being maimed, writhing in pain?

Let's jump sideways a bit.
First of all, I suppose the biggest losers here are Helen (if she eloped and was not abducted which to me seems most likely) and Paris. If, IF Helen was abducted, then I can see why Menelaus would set a war in motion to get his bride back. To get a thousand ships to get bring back ones true love is a pretty impressive feat (pact or no pact). But a ten year war with the body count rising - is it about love, honour, what? Also it has me wonder how many of those soldiers on those thousand ships died a day?

Let's look at the numbers. Ten years = 3,650 days. Let's take out all the weekends (I am not going to count public/bank holidays) in case they had weekends off. This leaves 2,610 days of fighting. From what Homer says, there were between 50 - 120 men on each ship. Taking an average, that is about 100,000 men on those thousand ships. If these Spartans and their allies were all killed, that would be about 38 bodies a day. Double that for the opposition - supposing the equal number were killed in the 10 year war - that is a total 76 soldiers killed a day. Seems a little low to me. Just saying!

I grew up in Britain where there were a lot of battles in our history. I have read about the Battle of Hastings (1066), and The Battle of Worcester (1651), among others, and 76 bodies a day is a little low for a kill count. The Battle of Worcester, a one day battle on the 3rd September, 1651, had between two to four thousand men killed - on the side of the Royalists alone. Hmm. Maybe the Greeks took lunch breaks, time off for texting, washing wounds and hanging with the gods. I know a few soldiers were whipped away from their imminent death by the gods, but still.

Okay let's put that aside. I know that times have changed, and all this happened a long time ago. Believe me, I read a great deal of old stories and understand the ethos of the olden days. I understand that our ethics, morals, treatment of people on the whole, has changed since Homer's day! So even with this as a consideration, let's move on and take all this at face value. Helen's face, I suppose.

Oh, Achilles. The etymology of Achilles' name means, if I have this correctly, 'grief of the people'. Too bloody right - if you pardon the pun. The grief of the soldiers, their families, in Achilles letting so many die before he beats Hector back to the walls of Troy - definitely 'grief of the people'. He is a sulky bully. A great warrior, no doubt, but very sulky. Seems to have had a pretty good childhood. His father adopted the very young Patroclus (who grew to be a very wise man) when Achilles was knee high to a grass hopper. Patroclus and Achilles were the best of friends. But Achilles let's Patroclus go in Achilles' own armor to fight the Trojans who are jonesing to kill the great runner. He does tell Patroclus to return and not get killed. Well, he does his best, but, well - spoiler alert - Patroclus is killed by Hector. This is what it takes to get Achilles to fight, and fight he does! Possessed? A little. This does not happen until book 19 and Achilles has just been given the bad news. "Yeah, Atrides. Let's bury the hatchet and kill the Trojans!" And all over a girl. Silly us! That scene is almost as ridiculous as the movie Batman Vs Superman when Batman is beating the living snot out of Superman who is muttering "Martha, Martha." Batman stops and asks Clark why he is mentioning Batman's mothers name. It turns out that it is Superman's mum's name too. "No kidding? Really? What are we fighting for? We have mother with the same name! Let's be BFFs from now on!" And then later Achilles says of Helen, "If only Artemis had shot her with one quick shaft..." Really? It's Helen's fault and Artemis should have ended it? Blaming Helen and Artemis for poor choices. Nice. Well Achilles gets his. "Courage-shattering Death engulfed the corpse." Nice.

Priam seems a complete wuss, and a failure as a ruler when it comes to this war. Not only allowing his son Paris to keep Helen as his (second) wife, but failing to listen to the most sound minds around him. A few advisers told Priam to have Paris give Helen up, but he thinks it okay for his son to have a stolen wife and treats Helen as his own daughter. Well, more fool Priam - he loses all his 'warrior' sons because of this, as well as how many thousand others dead? Paris is not one of the 'warrior sons.'

Menelaus seems to send his brother Agamemnon to do a lot of his work for him. First to woo Helen, or at least negotiate the marriage, and then to fight for her return after she was taken by/left with Paris. Kings in those days, actually any man in those days would choose who their daughters would marry. Women were vessels for producing heirs, or children to work for the roof over their heads. Helen is betrothed to Menelaus because he picked the lucky straw. More on that in a moment.

Menelaus is shot in the gut during the battle, normally a fatal and unbelievably painful wound, but he later fights in the sack of Troy, dropping from the wooden horse, slaying many (well, less than 76) as he does so. When he finds Helen he vows to kill her for all the trouble she caused. Here, matters get a little sticky. Depending on the source, either:
a: as he raises his sword Helen begins to cry, causing Menelaus to have a change of heart and takes her back as his wife
b: same as 'a' but this time she renders her clothes in sorrow for her acts, bearing herself before him. Menelaus looking at her beauty decides to spare her
c: on seeing Helen again and gazing on her beauty, Menelaus drops his sword and says he will punish her back in Sparta (but not told how! Time out? A jolly good spanking? No parties for a month? We don't find out.)
or d: Menelaus says his men can stone her to death but she rips her clothes open, and the warriors drop the stones and stare at her. Oh, that Helen!

And what about Helen? Her story is a little mixed. Her birth a little unorthodox to us now, but somewhat common in Greece at the time. Helen's mother was the princess Leda, who 'protected' Zeus (disguised as a swan). Leda fell in love with said swan, mated with said swan and gave birth to Helen.  That's one story, anyway. Another is that her mother was Nemisis, which given the trouble Helen causes (inadvertently or otherwise) makes sense! Leda's worldly husband who helped raised Helen (may the gods forgive Zeus for leaving the parenting to Lena and her step-father) was Tyndareus.

Like all 'history' Helen's depends on what side you fall, or what camp you are in! Paris, if indeed he did abduct Helen, was not the first to do so. It seems Theseus snagged her first, thinking, as son of an immortal, he needed a semi-divine wife. Some accounts have her as a very young girl, when this happens. Other accounts state she was learning the arts of war with her (mortal) brothers. Somewhere, somehow, she makes it back to her mother and step-dad for 'proper' marrying age, and Tyndareus has to deal with other suitors. Let's face it, she is pursued by many, some records count 45 men, so something is going on for her.

At some point during the war Helen sees Paris for what he is - a sad little man - and she then begins a friendship with Hector. As we all know, Paris ends up dead and this time the Trojans decide on who Helen marries next - another of Priam's sons, Deiphobus. It's not surprising that Menelaus is a little upset when he finds Helen. So really, is Helen at fault here? She is treated, like most if not all women of the time, like a sack of flour and passed from one baker to another. If she did in fact go willingly with Paris (because after all she was a warrior in her own right, and hated the way she was pawned off), then discovers Paris is a whelp, and finds herself in deep doo-doos, who can blame her? Well, the Trojans I suppose. And the Spartans. And their allies. Anyway, let's move on.

Tyndareus, Helen's step-dad. What of Tyndareus? He offers the suitors of Helen straws to pick to win her hand in marriage. The king is too gutless to pick one of the suitors himself, thinking the rejected men would kill him, or at least invade and ruin his country. He thought the straw idea was a safe bet. What a way to be wooed and wed. To placate the suitors who 'lost', an agreement was made that they would all come to Helen's aid it were ever needed. This pact, the Oath of Tyndareus, was thought up by Odysseus, one of the said suitors. This is the pact that causes a thousand ships to be launched, never mind the face. Menelaus is not some young hero either. An older man, shall we say. Maybe that's why she went (willingly or otherwise) with Paris. It is a little ambiguous as to whether she went of her own accord, or left with Pairs and eloped, but I tend to think she willingly buggered of with the not-so-smart Pairs and had to lay in the bed she made herself.

Paris was a complete troublemaker. But again, we have not lived in his shoes. Is he a complete numpty, or is he just a coward trying all along to get the best for himself without thinking of others? Or just a coward saving his own skin? Whichever way you look, he is a looser and troublemaker. Paris is a moral. There is nothing special about him. When he is asked by Zeus to judge the most beautiful goddess he agrees. What an idiot - right off the bat for taking on the task. But which would one prefer: the wrath of Zeus or two of the three goddesses? Even Zeus who is asked by the goddesses to judge knows it is a bad idea. I suppose to Paris, fed up of looking after sheep, being able to check out three goddesses in the buff seems like a good idea at the time. Even standing before Paris naked, the lad can't decide which of the three is the most beauteous. Aphrodite bribes Paris to vote for her by offering him the most beautiful woman in the world. According to the goddess, this is Helen. Paris, is offered other gifts from the other goddesses, but of course chooses a woman already wed despite being wed himself. (Hera's offer of the ownership of Europe and Asia would probably come with its own hefty cost too.) I can see Paris sitting there gazing on Hera, Aphrodite and Athena with his chin on his hand saying: "I just don't know. Can turn to the left? Shake your hair about a little.  Could you turn all the way around? No, it's too hard! You are all beautiful. Hang on a moment. No, you are all gorgeous. I just cannot make my mind up!" Maybe he was playing for time, hoping they would give up on the notion of who was the most beatific. Funny how no one thought to look at the inside, at the personality of each. If they had, maybe none and that apple thrown to the goddesses would be left uneaten. These Greek gods and goddesses, so entitled. Oh my gosh (hair flick).

So Paris, making a few wrong choices, goes after Helen. But wait! Is he a great warrior, worthy of a Queen? Not really. He uses a bow and arrow, which despite being a kick-ass weapon, is not seen by the Ancient Greeks as being a particularly noble weapon. You don't have to get into the thick of the action and therefore don't get scars to prove your worth. You sit in the safety of the outskirts of battle and shoot people without the risk of getting hurt yourself. Hector is not thrilled with his brother, nor his father - although presumably the latter was fine with all this in the first place. Before the great battle gets too bloody, Paris offers to duel with Helen's true husband, but when the lad is almost killed, Aphrodite spirits Paris back to the safety of clean sheets and a bed back home. Aphrodite, although presumably trying to keep her end of the bargain, just makes things worse by doing this. Paris is to die at the hand of Philoctettes. Helen runs off to the nymph Oenone, Paris' first wife knowing that the nymph can save Paris. Oenone could heal him, but she is pissed at Paris and effectively says, let the bugger die. Although Oenone then throws herself on his funeral pyre. Aphrodite has a lot to answer for.

Then there is the fighting. I have to say Homer can write a really good battle scene. I have added up (I was halfway through the book when I started this) the number of different ways he describes being killed. There are at least 19 wonderful phrases he uses and none of them are: snuffed it,kicked the bucket, was left pushing up daisies! Death, funnily, is mentioned a lot. "Death's dark cloud closed down around the corpse." Wow. I have to say, I loved this stuff. There are many metaphors like: "...chopped down with an axe, it's leaves running with sap." This is poetry at its best. Forget the characters, the poem is one of the best. "Life fell from his limbs." There is a lot of blood too! And it is described going everywhere in the most gory of ways. For those with gentle dispositions I will not give examples, but know, this book (this fine translation was by Robert Fagles) holds Nothing Back!

At one point, Zeus says to the other gods, 'Go on then! Have some fun.' So they break up into teams, and get in with the fighting. When Poseidon gets going, Hades wakes up and wonders what is going on. Athena starts yelling: "Stretch the Trojans out in the dust with all their sons and wives." This was to Apollo. What did the kids and wives do? Apollo sulks off and his sister calls him a coward, for not killing the wives and children. The gods and goddesses are like children in a playground at a bad school. It's like Match of the Day has ended, they didn't like results, so in they go to sort it out themselves.

As I said before Agamemnon is a complete arse.  He kind of reminds me of Trump. Lots of bluster, lots of threats. "Your fired!" Except Agamemnon fires people (the Trojans) with spears. After getting here, and getting a lot of people killed out Aggie wants to flee. "Come on. Let's sneak off. No one will know." Odysseus says: "You are a disaster! Would you rule cowards? Bid farewell to Troy, kiss her streets goodbye after all the grief our men have suffered the cost of our comrades?" Too right. Let's keep this battle going, get into the city and sack it. Forget Helen!

So the war goes on. Hector is killed - to me the one of the smartest men on and off the field - the truest, in my mind, of all the warriors. Priam is devastated. Some of Priam's family call him mad, because he rides into the Argive camp to speak with Achilles and ask for Hector's body back. Hector's corpse has been run all over the camp, but the gods have anointed his body so no mark is left on him. Achilles agrees and allows Priam to have twelve days to bury his greatest son. After which the war continues, but not in the Iliad.

UPDATE: A colleague of mine, Nick Smith has told me what a "...lousy reputation the Greeks had for doing siege warfare properly. Apparently in those days a siege pretty much meant standing around outside the walls of a city and starving the folks inside, or bribing someone to open the gate, if it was a strong fortress. If the walls were too tall for siege ladders, and the gates too thick for a battering ram, the attackers were pretty much out of ideas.
"In the case of Troy, apparently they couldn’t completely surround it and couldn’t climb the walls or break down the gate, and no one inside was stupid enough to accept a bribe, so there wouldn’t have been any way to bring things to a quick conclusion. Still, the body count would have been relatively low. That’s because except on days when Trojans came out to fight, for the honor and glory of the thing, then mostly everyone would have been standing out of bowshot of each other, making rude faces."

The rest of the Trojan War is found elsewhere - such as the Roman Aenid by Virgil, Euripedes' Hecabe, Apollodorus' Epitome etc., etc..

I have to say that Robert Fagles' translation is thorough and makes for a fabulous read. The story itself and the characters can be a pain, but the poetry of Homer is sublime to read. It might be a while before I hit the Aenid and the Odyssey (I have two translations - one by Robert Fitzgerald and the other by E. V. Rieu) and get through the real Greek stories, but I did enjoy the Iliad.

1 comment:

megan hicks said...

You've got a stouter constitution than I have, old chum. I've read novelized Iliads, but never an actual verse translation. Something about that high flown epic language puts me right to sleep. Literally.

Concerning body count and how many dead soldiers you could rack up in ten years... I don't picture them clocking in for battle every day. Somewhere I heard a definition of war as "endless days of crushing boredom broken by brief periods of carnage and terror." I have a feeling they did other things besides fight. And then when they did get around to killing each other, they didn't mess around.

C. S. Lewis wrote a short story about the sack of Troy. I have big problems with Lewis, but I did enjoy this short story. In it, when they breached the city inside the horse and they finally got to Helen's chamber, what they found was a tired middle-aged woman who was ready to go home. Maybe a little too believable for Greek mythology, but it resonated with me.

Thanks for this whirlwind Trip to Troy. I'll rate it five stars on Trip Advisor.