The Purplish-Animistic-Magical World of The Iliad

Lately I’ve been interested in Mycenae Greece. I’ve been reading some history, and The Iliad again. The last time I read it was actually in Turkey, or  Asia Minor, on the site that has been excavated on the Aegean coast and widely considered to be the site of the ancient Homeric city of Troy. There were in fact many cities built on that site, each of them numbered by archaeological era. The Troy of Homer fame is archaeological number VII (1300-950 BC) . The ruins are interesting, but surprisingly small–about the size of your average baseball diamond. The Odeon at Pergamon further down the Aegean coast is much larger, and it seems strange to describe what could not have been much more than a small garrison a city. [Editorial Note: Reading The Trojan War: A New History, by Barry Strauss this morning, and after having written this post, I learned that while when I was there in 2002 Troy was considered to be only as large as the uncovered ruins — a half acre or so — it is now considered by archaeologists to have been at least 75 acres in area and contain 5000-7500 inhabitants. I love it when I’m proved wrong, which means I have learned something of value today. Go Troy!]


But the eight century BC, when Homer was writing, was a different time, and he obviously expands and exaggerates for the sake of his story, as all writers do. Besides, when I stood in the center of the “city”, I was suitably impressed, almost haunted by an ancient past, and it was Tennyson’s words that came to mind, not Homer’s: Myself not least, but honour’d of them all/ And drunk delight of battle with my peers,/Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

Much, though, about the place and period, can be gleaned from Homer and The Iliad. I currently, on this reading, am most fascinated by the complexity of human character portrayed in the book. The philosopher Ken Wilbur discusses “consciousness memes” in his book, A Theory of Everything. He breaks societies, and the human beings within them, into seven types of evolved consciousness. The highest of the single-tiered consciousness is the green meme–the pluralistic, democratic society (which, Wilbur claims, is only one tiered because it is still quite intolerant, despite not thinking so of itself.) The society that Homer is describing in The Iliad is totally second meme–purple, animistic/magical. It’s brutishly tribal, ethnic, homogeneous, superstitious, intolerant, violent and war-like. The world of The Iliad is obviously what Wilbur describes in the second meme, and yet I am still shocked, when reading it, at how sophisticated Homer’s characters can be.  Phoenix’s lament  in Book IX when he goes with Odysseus and Ajax to convince Achilles to return to fighting and accept Agamemnon’s gifts of appeasement is a perfect example of this. In one minute, all are senseless, violent, blood-thirsty, arrogant and egotistical brutes. In another they are tender and soft and weeping, offering libations, expressing love for one another, observing complex social rules and etiquette that I’m quite certain I would have trouble mastering myself.

Anyway. I attach the speech, if anyone wishes to read it. All the loveliness in it is predicated on glorifying war and killing people. As is practically everything in the poem. I can never get a real handle on what Homer thought of war. Supposedly he condemned it, but sometimes I wonder. I get the sense that The Iliad existed, and perhaps still does, as a record of the majesty and glory of an animistic purple society. I think we’re meant to get caught up in a world where everything is significant, has talismanic power and spirit, but man inhabiting this world of wonders is portrayed as both deeply heroic and deeply flawed. This forces us to ponder the human condition, rather than make a judgement about war, or passion. In my other readings of The Iliad, I have been wrong, I think, to imagine Homer took a stance on anything. It’s very green meme to think so.

Excerpt from Book IX: Phoenix’s speech after Achilles has turned down Agamemnon’s offer of kingly gifts, including seven towns, the king’s daughter in marriage, and vast wealth, in exchange for returning to the fighting. [The Iliad. Translated by A. S. Kline. © Copyright 2009 A. S. Kline]

They were all silent at his words, stunned by his stern refusal. Finally the old charioteer, Phoenix, fearing as he did for the Greek fleet, spoke tearfully: ‘If you do intend to sail, great Achilles, so great the anger that possesses you, and refuse to save the ships from a fiery end, how can I stay alone, dear child, without you? Peleus, that aged horseman, sent me with you, that day you went from Phthia to join Agamemnon. A child you were, ignorant of war’s evils and the assembly where men find fame. That was why he made me your guardian, to teach you how to speak and act. So I could not bear to stay here without you, not though a god should take away my years and give me that strength of youth I had when I left Hellas, land of lovely women, fleeing a quarrel with my father, Amyntor, son of Ormenus. He loved his fair-haired mistress, and neglected my mother his wife, who begged me to seduce her and turn her against the old man. I consented and did so, but my father soon knew, and cursed me, called on the avenging Furies to make sure he’d never take any son of mine on his lap. And the deathless ones, Hades, the Zeus of the Underworld, and dread Persephone, fulfilled his curse. Enraged I sought to put my father to the sword, but some god restrained me, filling me with fear of public shame, of being reviled as a parricide among Greeks. Still, I could not bear to live in my hostile father’s house, though friends and kin gathered round and begged me to stay, slaughtering fine sheep and sleek shambling cattle, roasting fat hogs over the flames, and pouring wine in plenty from the old man’s jars. Nine nights they kept watch, in turn, stoking the fires, one lit beneath the colonnade of the walled court, one in the porch in front of my bedroom doors. But in the tenth night’s darkness, I levered open the doors of my room, and leapt the courtyard fence, unseen by maids or guards. Then I fled far through wide Hellas, reaching fertile Phthia, mother of flocks, where King Peleus welcomed me, and showed me the love a father shows his beloved only son and heir, granting me wealth and a subject people, as King of the Dolopes on Phthia’s far border.

And, loving you with all my heart, I formed you as you are, divine Achilles: you would refuse to feast in the hall or eat till I set you on my knee, filling your mouth with savoury titbits, touching the cup to your lips. And, child that you were, you would spatter my chest with wine and soak my tunic. But I suffered much for you and took great trouble, believing the gods would no longer send me a son of my own. I treated you as my son, divine Achilles, in hope that you might save me from some wretched fate.

So, conquer your proud spirit, Achilles, and don’t be so hard-hearted. The gods themselves may be swayed, despite their greater power, excellence and honour. The erring and sinful man in supplication may turn them from their path of anger, with incense, blessed vows, libations and the smoke of sacrifice. Prayers are the daughters of almighty Zeus, wrinkled and halting they are, with downcast eyes, following in the steps of wilful Pride. But Pride is swift-footed and strong, and soon outruns them all, and scours before them over the earth bringing men down. Prayers follow on behind trying to heal the hurt. He who respects those daughters of Zeus as they pass by, they hear his prayers and bless him. But he who is stubborn and rebuffs them, they beg Zeus, son of Cronos, to overtake with Pride, so he is brought down, and made to pay in full. So, Achilles, see that you honour the daughters of Zeus, who sway all men of noble mind. If Agamemnon failed to offer you gifts or promise more, but persisted in his furious anger, I would not tell you to swallow your pride and help the Greeks, however great their need. But now he promptly offers many gifts, and promises others later, and sends these warriors, the pick of the army, dearest to you of all the Greeks, to persuade you. Do not scorn their embassy here, or their words, though none can blame you for feeling anger. For have we not heard of men of old, warriors of great renown, who were swayed by gifts and persuaded by words, when a like fury gripped them?

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