Tuesday, 22 October 2013

KIA Death Tolls in Illiad XX

I have been reading the extremely graphic action in Book XX as Achilles finally gets into the field and unleashes his terrible wrath on the Trojans after an inconclusive exchange with Aeneas. Throughout the ages, the Iliad has been the vade mecum of many a warrior or military strategist, from Alexander up to the more recent participants of the Iraq ‘event’ of 2003 and possibly even Afghanistan with its Operation ‘Achilles’ against Taliban enclaves. It is probably a fruitless exercise to try to decide whether Homer (whoever he was individually or collectively over time) was pro or anti war (I suspect the best answer would be- both) – but the death/carnage scenes impress me with two things, one is their graphically detailed, almost anatomically surgical presentation – the other is their literary function in the work as a whole. I was struck by this when I first read sections of the epic many years ago, I suspect I found it quite exhilarating and exciting and didn’t delve too much into the futility and horror of war tropes that Homer also masterfully hints at. What is the detail for I wondered? Perhaps it is for the vicarious pleasure of the readers or descendants of the slayers revelling in the destruction of the loser and following Achilles vaunts with a hearty cheer like football fans when their side scores a goal? Or for the descendants of the victims who wanted closure in knowing exactly how their hero and the founder of their city/deme died? Maybe it acted as a mnemonic so that the bard/s could recall the section more easily with stand out gory details like this. The first to fall is Ophition – compared with the slaughters that follow, a relatively clean felling:

‘First he killed Iphition son of Otrynteus, a leader of many people whom a naiad nymph had borne to Otrynteus waster of cities, in the district [dêmos] of Hyde under the snowy heights of Mount Tmolos. Achilles struck him full on the head as he was coming on towards him, and split it clean in two; whereon he fell heavily to the ground and Achilles vaunted over him saying, "You be low, son of Otrynteus, mighty hero; your death is here, but your lineage is on the Gygaean lake where your father's estate lies, by Hyllos, rich in fish, and the eddying waters of Hermos.’

Note the vaunt over the fallen dead. It’s not quite urinating on the body of the defeated but here we see the ritualized taunting of the slain enemy, contrasting the aristocrat’s high estate in life, his lineage and wealth with his split corpse lying on the dust at Achilles sandaled feet. This taunting is an intrinsic feature of Homeric combat and confrontation scenes – the verbal squaring up (see Aeneas before as well as Hector) before and after combat.

It is found in a lot of epic military literature – I have been reading a Japanese medieval war chronicle (The Taiheiki 13-14th C AD) and in the course of the many battle encounters, great warriors have their speeches and taunts before they launch into action to become slayer and slain. Meanwhile back in the Iliad, Demeleon and others bite the dust:

‘Achilles killed Demoleon, a valiant man of war and son to Antenor. He struck him on the temple through his bronze-cheeked helmet. The helmet did not stay the spear, but it went right on, crushing the bone so that the brain inside was shed in all directions, and his lust of fighting was ended.’

‘Then he struck Hippodamas in the midriff as he was springing down from his chariot in front of him, and trying to escape. He breathed his last, bellowing like a bull bellows when young men are dragging him to offer him in sacrifice to the King of Helike, and the heart of the earth-shaker is glad; even so did he bellow as he lay dying.’

The detail ratchets up a notch, Homer literally follows the trajectory of the death blow through to its gory conclusion and we also have a vivid image in the Hippodamas’ death scene of the intense and very realistic suffering of a stomach/chest wound – the horror as the fallen warrior dies and the extreme agony and suffering expressed by the simile of the sacrificial Bull bellowing in fear, suffering and outraged agony at his fate. Achilles is just getting into his stride now and his bloodlust is well and truly up:

‘Achilles then went in pursuit of Polydoros son of Priam, whom his father had always forbidden to fight because he was the youngest of his sons, the one he loved best, and the fastest runner. He, in his folly and showing off the excellence [aretê] of his speed, was rushing about among front ranks until he lost his life, for Achilles struck him in the middle of the back as he was darting past him: he struck him just at the golden fastenings of his belt and where the two pieces of the double breastplate overlapped. The point of the spear pierced him through and came out by the navel, whereon he fell groaning on to his knees and a cloud of darkness overshadowed him as he sank holding his entrails in his hands.’

The detail extends to a technical knowledge of the armour and I think it’s these little touches that prove the lie to those commentators who try to picture Homer as an armchair warrior. The detail, wherever it has come from (either Homer or embellishments as the long epic developed and was improved as it was handed down from generation to generation of bard) shows an uncommon intimacy with the equipment that the warrior went into the field with. A lesser poet could have got away with a more imaginative gloss but this touch makes the description extremely realistic and conveys a layer of authenticity rarely found in other epic poetry. In the next round of attacks, Achilles fells Drypos and Demoukhos, Laogonos and Dardonos one after another, almost as an afterthought..very swift and with minimum fuss – ‘clean kills’ as the modern terminology would have it.

‘On this he struck Dryops with his spear, about the middle of his neck, and he fell headlong at his feet. There he let him lie and stayed Demoukhos son of Philetor, a man both brave and of great stature, by hitting him on the knee with a spear; then he smote him with his sword and killed him. After this he sprang on Laogonos and Dardanos, sons of Bias, and threw them from their chariot, the one with a blow from a thrown spear, while the other he cut down in hand-to-hand fight.’

And most movingly and tragically, the pitiful and pitiable death of Tros – his name symbolic, prefiguring the merciless destruction of the city of Troy, an act that was outside the scope of Iliad but a theme which Virgil takes up with consummate artistry and empathy in his epic the Aeneid.

‘There was also Tros the son of Alastor - he came up to Achilles and clasped his knees in the hope that he would spare him and not kill him but let him go, because they were both of the same age. Fool, he might have known that he should not prevail with him, for the man was in no mood for pity or forbearance but was in grim earnest. Therefore when Tros laid hold of his knees and sought a hearing for his prayers, Achilles drove his sword into his liver, and the liver came rolling out, while his bosom was all covered with the black blood that welled from the wound. Thus did death close his eyes as he lay lifeless.’

 This scene is especially tragic and emphasizes the hubris that Achilles displays in not giving quarter to the supplicant fellow noble warrior, and the pathetic image of the defenceless victim hugging the knees of the victor begging vainly for his life. How many times must this actual scene have played out in all wars through all the ages? I always find this scene/image very moving and it sticks in my mind as a passage where Homer starkly underlines the great tragedy and cruelty of war. But Achilles has no time for such indulgences as pity when he is full attack mode and moves on to his next hapless targets.

 ‘Achilles then went up to Moulios and struck him on the ear with a spear and the bronze spear-head came right out at the other ear. He also struck Echeklos son of Agenor on the head with his sword, which became warm with the blood, while death and stern fate closed the eyes of Echeklos. Next in order the bronze point of his spear wounded Deukalion in the fore-arm where the sinews of the elbow are united, whereon he waited Achilles' onset with his arm hanging down and death staring him in the face. Achilles cut his head off with a blow from his sword and flung it helmet and all away from him and the marrow came oozing out of his backbone as he lay. He then went in pursuit of Rhigmos, noble son of Peires, who had come from fertile Thrace, and struck him through the middle with a spear which fixed itself in his belly, so that he fell headlong from his chariot. He also speared Areithoos squire [therapôn] to Rhigmos in the back as he was turning his horses in flight, and thrust him from his chariot, while the horses were struck with panic’

Moulios gets his head skewered; Deukalion is rendered non-combatant by hamstringing the arm (if that’s the correct term) and then promptly decapitated. Not only that but we have the fantastically gory image of the marrow oozing out of the spinal column post-beheading. Wild stuff!! The descriptions again show anatomical (black or red blood depending on where it issued from) knowledge or at least field experience either first hand or from men that had seen combat and could inform the workings of the epic as it was created and later embellished.

I wonder if the epic (Mark 1 for arguments sake) started out fairly heroic but relatively non gory and the ‘details’ were added by successive generations of war-experienced audiences as they sought more vivid and evocative detail with which to improve the telling and retelling of the epic as it was sung at the wine-soaked hearth fires of great lords and warriors in successive and increasingly war-like ages to come.

Prowess in battle and the recording of heroic acts is nothing new or unique of course, but the point I am making in this post lies in Homer’s (unique level of detail I would offer) attention to combat detail. I think it’s unique to Homer but I may be wrong. If you know of any other epic that has a similar level of detail and demonstrably not a distant ancestor of Homer – let me know. As I have done earlier with the medieval Japanese war literature (gunki monogatari), you may have to leave Europe to find it.

Hopefully I will recover from all this excitement and get back to with some more commentary on XXI.


How did ancient Greek Music sound?

Check out this interesting article about how Greek music and Homer recitation may have sounded.


Sunday, 13 October 2013

Painshill Grotto

I went to a conference last week at Painshill Park in Surrey called Gardens of Association about garden buildings in 18th Century landscape gardens. Painshill is a mid-18th Century pictorial circuit garden orientated around a central lake. It has a series of different buildings: a Gothic Temple, a ruined abbey, a Turkish Tent, a Mausoleum, a Gothic Tower, but most spectacularly a Crystal Grotto. The restoration of the Grotto has recently been completed, and the conference was partly a celebration of this. The second day of the conference included a presentation on the origins of Grottoes in 18th Century gardens and guess what, the origin is classical!

Wendy Monkhouse, a curator at the National Trust who was involved in the restoration, started her presentation by saying: "Homer is the foundation on which 18th Century Grotto making rests." So, first you have Calypso's Grotto and then the Cave of Polyphemus. The Emperor Tiberius had a huge grotto at Sperlonga in Italy which was formed in a vast natural cave. It was full of statues including this extraordinary one of Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus.

Apparently he used to entertain there and on one occasion rocks began to rain down on the guests. Most people ran for it, but Sejanus threw himself on top Tiberius which helped cement his position.

Equally important as an influence was Virgil's Aenied, in particular Dido's cave. There are several of these in gardens in the UK.

The conference ended with a visit to the Grotto and it is wonderful. It was made even more watery by the fact that it was pouring with rain at the time. Here are a couple of images.

Well worth a visit (only don't leave at 5pm on a Friday as it takes forever to get back to Hastings)!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Its all Greek to Thee, Homeric Attic, Ionic and SP

Firstly, I would like to thank all present at the last gathering where we discussed Ovid. As usual we managed to cover extensive and unusual ground. I have had my eyes opened to Ovid and will certainly read more of his work both in translation and the original for the imagery and language alone is quite stunning and really sticks in the mind. As I rather bluntly exclaimed during the session (at a moment lost for words presumably!) ‘There are some good words here!’ Yes, well onto other matters – in fact the matter of Greek! And there is not just one sort of ancient Greek but quite a few as it turns out. Each has their own peculiar characteristics and distinctive style.

We will be looking at books XX-XXIII of Homer’s great Epic work the Iliad, which tells the story of the ‘wrath of Achilles’ and the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The language of Homers works differs from the ancient Greek I started out with at school (Attic Greek) and is aptly named Homeric Greek, details of which you can find here.

I might try and declaim some Homeric – don’t worry, I will keep it short but it might be fun to have a go at reading the Greek aloud – just for the pure theatre and atmosphere. I was not exposed to Homer as set texts until A Level and after a few years of Attic and some scattered fragments of Ionic – it did indeed strike me as quite different in its sound and orthography.

As I have said, the student of ancient Greek normally starts off with Attic Greek and learns the language as well as encounters most of the common greats of Greek literature, the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the comedy of Aristophanes and the historical writings on the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. You can find more information on the peculiarities of Attic Greek here. Rightly or wrongly then we come to view Attic as the standard ancient Greek for the height of the classical period (with the exceptions of Late Greek and regional variations within the Greek speaking world or koine period (Hellenistic world in particular).

Last but not least is Ionic Greek, which is the language of Herodotus (as far as students of ancient Greek history are concerned). The later version known as New Ionic had appeal as a sort of bridge version between the Homeric form and Attic Greek, with which it holds certain affinities (you can see more details on Ionic here.) I note that some translators of Lucian where he writes for effect (archaic effect) (at least in the earlier Loeb Classical Library of Harvard Press) try to leave the translated ionic Greek in an equivalent attitude in the English so we have a translation deliberately in the style of Sir Philip Sydney or possibly mid Elizabethan prose. I am not sure if this works – but it’s an interesting point as to how we treat works in earlier forms of ancient Greek. If we put all of the works regardless of their position in the ancient canon into the same or similar modern English, it makes for good reading but perhaps we lose some of the effect that it must have had on ancient readers. So a sophisticated reader of Aristophanes age may have found Herodotus quite baroque and stiff or even alien sounding. I am not sure how to square the circle with this one though since any affected style imposed upon the ancient work will quickly date or lose relevance so perhaps it’s better to translate into as clear as possible a medium for the purpose of clear comprehension and readability hence enjoyment.

On a final note, I have deliberately not posted any text in actual ancient Greek. The reason is that your computer may not be able to render it. If you do not have the font for ancient Greek (called SPIonic Font), you can go here and download a free version. It’s very quick and easy to install and there are Mac and PC version of the download and full instructions. Once you have installed that in your font folder, the computer or device you have should automatically read any Greek posted up. I will recap on this when we next meet. I am off to read book XXI! I will post again soon re these books of the Iliad.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Orpheus :don't look now- success or failure?

Much of the literature which recreates the myth focuses attention on the point when Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice on their journey back to the land of the living. It is most often described as a mistake or failure, or as the result of an overwhelming compulsion, a rush of longing which leads to the fatal error.
 This suggests that the myth is about human frailty, that the really satisfactory outcome would have been the reinstatement of Eurydice in the land of the living.
Yet the words mistake and failure sit oddly in the context of a myth which asserts the incontrovertible fact that death is immutable. If, however, one reads the myth as if it were a dream in which different emotions and thoughts can be made manifest with a simultaneity which is not possible to the conscious mind, an alternative interpretation becomes available.
We must all be familiar with the fantasy of reconstructing the past with a different outcome. This is a vehicle for expressing regret, responsibility for some disaster, (whether it was actually within ones control or not) and loss. It also provides temporary relief from consciousness of the reality of trauma. Orpheus' journey to the Underworld, his use of his great talent ( his intrinsic identity) to overcome the normal boundaries for humans is a fantasy of this kind.
It is however essential to survival and to recovery from trauma that such fantasies do not persist, but that there is a ' therapeutic return to reality'. The looking back by Orpheus is then the pivotal point of the myth where he makes this jump from fantasy to recognition of reality, and he experiences it with all the intensity of the original event. This again is familiar to us: the return to reality is made unwillingly by the conscious mind and is experienced as shock.
It is essential to the success of the change of consciousness that the process is concealed from the subject, otherwise one would, and does, resist it powerfully. The mechanism therefore appears in disguise as the  condition which Hades imposes and Orpheus flouts.
Thus, in the midst of his determination to rescue Eurydice,one might say that ' in another part of his mind', he knows he cannot undo the past and overcome death. The overwhelming compulsion that he feels is the reinstatement of reality to his consciousness.
I think one of the reasons why the myth has retained its power over time is that hi has so much to reach us about grief and survival of loss. We learn that fantasy plays an essential part in the assimilation of loss and that a return to reality is necessary to recovery.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

In his own words

These lines from the early part of book X give a little idea of the incredible felicity with words and technique that Ovid displays with such seeming ease. Reading the Metamorphoses aloud to enraptured company or to oneself in a quiet bower shaded arbor or in the lamplight of your poor insula room, must have been as engrossing and enjoyable as it is today. See you all tomorrow… 

‘quam satis ad superas postquam Rhodopeius auras
deflevit vates, ne non temptaret et umbras,
ad Styga Taenaria est ausus descendere porta
perque leves populos simulacraque functa sepulcro
Persephonen adiit inamoenaque regna tenentem              
umbrarum dominum pulsisque ad carmina nervis
sic ait: 'o positi sub terra numina mundi,
in quem reccidimus, quicquid mortale creamur,
si licet et falsi positis ambagibus oris
vera loqui sinitis, non huc, ut opaca viderem             
Tartara, descendi, nec uti villosa colubris
terna Medusaei vincirem guttura monstri:
causa viae est coniunx, in quam calcata venenum
vipera diffudit crescentesque abstulit annos.
posse pati volui nec me temptasse negabo:              
vicit Amor.’

Metamorphoses Liber X 11-25