“Greetings! No evil fate sent you to journey
By this road—for indeed it is far off from mortal paths—
But it was Law and Justice. You need to learn everything:
Both the immovable heart of persuasive Truth
And the beliefs of mortals which have no true faith.
But you should also learn these things too: how beliefs
Must be credible because they pervade all things.”
“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth
ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·
Elsewhere on this blog and in forthcoming work I explore this as the difference between coherence and correspondence in memory. Here it seems clearly to be on the surface a difference between mortal and divine ways of seeing. These domains do not cancel each other out….
Although Odysseus has recently–and frequently–told similarly long and detailed stories, the scholia do not suspect them because they think Odysseus is lying. But Eumaios, who speaks mimetically, vividly and effectively, is doubted for his power of memory.
Homer, Odyssey 15.389–484
Then the swineherd, marshal of men, responded:
“Friend, since you have asked me and inquired truly of these things,
Listen now in silence and take some pleasure and drink your wine
While you sit there. These nights are endless. There is time for sleep And there is time to take pleasure in listening. It is not at all necessary For you to sleep before it is time. Even a lot of sleep can be a burden.
Let whoever of the rest the heart and spirit moves
Go out and sleep. For as soon as the down shows itself
Let him eat and follow the master’s swine.
As we two drink and dine in this shelter Let us take pleasure as we recall one another’s terrible pains. For a man finds pleasure even in pains later on After he has suffered so very many and survived many too.
I will tell you this because you asked me and inquired.
There is an island called Suriê, if you have heard of it,
Above Ortygia, where the rays of the sun rise.
It is not too filled, but it is a good place
Well stocked with cows, sheep, with much wine and grain too.
Poverty never curses the people there, nor does any other
Hateful sickness fall upon the wretched mortals,
But when the race of humans grow old in the city
Apollo silverbow comes with Artemis
And kills them with his gentle arrows.
There are two cities there and everything is divided between them.
My father used to rule both of them as king
Ktêsios the son of Ormenos, a man equal to the immortal gods.
The ship-famous Phaeacians used to to frequent there
Pirates, bringing countless treasures in their black ships.
There was a Phoenician woman in my father’s house
Beautiful and broad and skilled in wondrous works.
The devious Phoenicians were corrupting her.
First, one of them joined her for sex while she was washing clothes
Near the swift ship—these things mix up the thoughts
For the female sex even when one of them is work-focused.
He then asked her who she was and where she was from
And she immediately told him about the high-roofed home of my father.
“I claim to be from Sidon of much-bronze,
And I am the daughter of Arubas, a wealthy man.
Taphian pirates kidnapped me one day
As I was returned from the country, and they forced me to come here
To the house of this man. And he paid a great price.”
The man who had sex with her in secret responded,
“Would you want to go back home again now with us
So that you might see the high-roofed home of you father and mother
And them too? For they are still there and are reputedly wealthy.”
And the woman then answered him in turn,
“I wish that this would happen, if you would be willing, sailors,
To swear an oath to take me home unharmed.”
So she said, and all of them swore an oath as she requested.
And once they swore and completed the oath,
The woman spoke among them again and answered with a plan.
“Be quiet now. Don’t let anyone address me with words
Should any one of your companions happen to meet me
In the street or near the stream so that no one might go to the house
And speak to the old man who might suspect something and bind me
In strong bonds. But plan for this destruction yourselves.
Keep this plan in your thoughts and earn the pay for your travels.
But whenever the ship is indeed full of its material,
Let a message come to me swiftly in the house.
And I will bring gold, as much as is ready-to-hand,
And I will add another passage-fee which I may wish to give.
For I care for the child of this nobleman in his home.
This child is clever indeed, and he is always following me outside.
I would bring him to the ship because he will earn for you
A great price when you take him to some foreign people.”
So she spoke and then left to the beautiful home.
They remained there among us for the rest of the year
As they sold the martial in their cavernous ship.
But when the hollow ship was packed up to leave,
They sent a messenger who informed the woman.
A very clever man came to the house of my father
Bringing a golden necklace worked out with amber bits.
The slave-women in the hall and my mistress mother went
To touch the necklace with their hands and see it with their eyes
As they discussed the price. He nodded to her in silence.
And once he nodded he returned to the hollow ship.
And she took my hand and led me from the house outside.
In the front part of the house she found cups and platters
From the men who dine there and attend my father.
They went to the council place and the opinion of the people,
So she quickly hind three tankards under her bosom
And left. And I followed without a care in my mind.
The sun set and all the roads were in shadows.
We went to the famous harbor in a hurry,
And there was the salt-swift ship of the Phoenician men.
They disembarked then and went sailing over the watery ways,
After they put the two of us on board. And Zeus sent a favorable wind.
We were sailing for six nights and days.
But when Kronos’ son Zeus brought the seventh day
Artemis the archer killed that woman
And she thudded into the cargo hold like a diving sea gull.
And they threw her out to be food for the seals and fish.
But I remained still, filled with pain in my heart.
The wind and the water carried them to Ithaca
Where Laertes purchased me among his possessions.
Thus I saw this land here with my own eyes.”
It seems when we hear a skylark singing as if sound were running forward into the future, running so fast and utterly without consideration, straight on into futurity. And when we hear a nightingale, we hear the pause and the rich, piercing rhythm of recollection, the perfect past. The lark may sound sad, but with the lovely lapsing sadness that is almost a swoon of hope. The nightingale’s triumph is a pæan, but a death-pæan.
So it is with poetry. Poetry is, as a rule, either the voice of the far future, exquisite and ethereal, or it is the voice of the past, rich, magnificent. When the Greeks heard the Iliad and the Odyssey, they heard their own past calling in their hearts, as men far inland sometimes hear the sea and fall weak with powerful, wonderful regret, nostalgia; or else their own future rippled its time-beats through their blood, as they followed the painful, glamorous progress of the Ithacan. This was Homer to the Greeks: their Past, splendid with battles won and death achieved, and their Future, the magic wandering of Ulysses through the unknown.
With us it is the same. Our birds sing on the horizons. They sing out of the blue, beyond us, or out of the quenched night. They sing at dawn and sunset. Only the poor, shrill, tame canaries whistle while we talk. The wild birds begin before we are awake, or as we drop into dimness, out of waking. Our poets sit by the gateways, some by the east, some by the west. As we arrive and as we go out our hearts surge with response. But whilst we are in the midst of life, we do not hear them.
But professional conferences often require social engagement! Talking to new people can be hard. If you find yourself at a loss for words this conference season, why not try something new by using an old script?
Diomedes: Il. 6.123-129
“Bestie, who are you of mortal humans?
For I have never seen you before in this ennobling battle.
But now you stride out far ahead of everyone
In your daring—where you await my ash-wood spear.
Those who oppose my might are children of miserable parents!
But, if you are one of the immortals come down from the sky,
I don’t wish to fight with the sky-dwelling gods!”
“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”
“I will now explain why I have told this story. There is in the Akropolis an olive tree and a little salt pond inside the shrine of the one called the Earth-born Erekhtheus. The story among the Athenians is that after Poseidon and Athena struggled for the land they put these there as commemoration.
That olive tree was burned along with the temple by the barbarians. Yet, on the day after it burned, when some of the Athenians who were ordered to go there to sacrifice arrived at the temple, they saw a new shoot about as long as a cubit already growing from the trunk. They then told this story.”
As few years ago I posted this passage as wildfires burned through Attica. As with most non-US and non-Trump related disasters, these fires went under-reported). The recent coverage of the conflagration that is claiming Australia right now is even worse in the US. Part of it is our own myopia and narcissism; the rest is that we are in deep denial that we have crossed some pretty terrible lines. Our hearts are with our friends, colleagues, and everyone else affected by this.
As Harper’s Magazine reports, severe fires are likely to be the rule rather than the exception thanks to our use of resources, lack of preparedness and global warming. This last year saw another season of devastation in the Western US, costing $163 million just to suppress. We can donate to help those affected, but in the long term we need to act to elect leaders who will acknowledge that we are hastening our own doom and we must hold accountable corporations that put short-term profit ahead of all else.
The passage above is from the part of Herodotus’ Histories after the Athenians have abandoned the city and retreated to Salamis to wage the war from the sea. This move is one of the most critical decisions of the Persian Wars, one that, arguably, is far more radical and important that the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. There is a simple beauty in the shoot growing from the burnt tree. But it is a beauty available only in hindsight and not to those who lost their lives before the story was told. The promise of new growth offers little solace to the dead and their bereaved families.
The promise of new life from destruction is central to one of my favorite similes from Homer as well.
Homer, Odyssey 5.488-493
“Just as when someone hides a firebrand in black ash
On the farthest edge of the wilderness where there are no neighbors
And saves the seed of fire when there is no other way to kindle it,
Just so Odysseus covered himself in leaves. Then Athena
Poured sleep over his eyes so he might immediately rest
From his exhausting toil, once she closed his dear lashes.”
The fire in this simile–that promise of life, the seed of the future–is a domesticated fire, one controlled and contingent on human relationships. It is a symbol for human potential to create and in its dormancy suppresses the urge to destroy. The promise of life and regrowth is contingent on the conditions that give life to begin with. We have the ability to make our lives together better or worse. We will never rid ourselves of all risk and disaster, but we can make the decision not to rush headlong into it. When I posted these passages a few years back, I was hopeful, somehow, that something might arise out of them. I am unsure that Herodotus’ historic view or Homer’s heroic vision can encapsulate what we’re facing at all: an unmaking of the world as we know it. This is primordial.
Hesiod Theogony 853-867
“When Zeus filled with strength and took his weapons,
That thunder, lightning, and the shining thunderbolt,
He leapt down from Olympos and attacked. He burned
All the divine heads of the terrible beast around him.
Once Zeus overcame him, slamming him down with his fists,
He fell, bent back, and the great Earth gasped beneath him.
Flame rose up from the thunder-beaten god
On the tops of the mountain ridges in the dry places
where he was struck and the great Earth burned beneath
because of the unbearable force and it melted there—
the way tin melts when fired with skill in the well-made channels
or the way iron—which is the strongest thing of all—
contracts when overcome by bright fire on mountain ridges
only to melt in the rich earth under Hephaistos’s hands—
that’s how the Earth melts in the glare of the burning fire”
Here at the end of Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus uses his overwhelming force and intelligence to face an existential challenge: the destructive potential of the universe contained within one figure, Typhoios (an elemental threat reflecting Zeus’ own surpassing power). Zeus brings order to the kosmos by subduing Typhoios and, in part thanks to this, gets to reign as king, father of gods and men. We don’t live in a poem of the gods; we can’t hope for myths to save our future. We need to do things now.
Or, we can just throw in with the reckless plutocrats and embrace that old Freudian death drive and keep on spending and burning until we’re all dead….
Anonymous, Greek Anthology, 7.704
“When I’m dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.
It means nothing to me since I’ll be totally fine.”
This is the voice that says only the now matters, that this quarter’s profits are more important than sustainability and justice, that today’s ends justify any kinds of means. Unsurprisingly, it is attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero:
Suda tau 552 [cribbing Dio Cassius]
“And Tiberius uttered that ancient phrase, “when I am dead, the earth can be fucked with fire”, and he used to bless Priam because he died with his country and his palace.”
“There were twelve sons of blameless Neleus. According to the Separatists, Homer records that there were twelve children of Neleus in the Iliad but had three in the Odyssey where he provides the genealogy: “And I saw surpassingly beautiful Khloris” and soon after, “Nestor and Khromios, and proud Periklymenos”. It is likely that the children born before came to him from another woman and these three came from Khloris, for Priamos said, “I had fifty children. When the sons of the Achaeans came / 19 of them were from a single womb / the rest women bore to me in my home.”
“First, anthypallage, as when Homer has “the two rocks, one reaches to the broad sky”. This is far more impressive than if the typical genitive had been used and he had said, two of the rocks, one reaches the broad sky. It is customarily said like that. But everything customary is trivial, and for this reason brings no amazement.
Conider, in turn, Nireus, who is minor himself and whose affairs are minor since he has three ships and a small number of people. The poet makes him great and his group lareger using the double and combined figures of anaphora and asyndeton. He says “Nireus led three ships / Nirieus the son of Aglaiê, Nireus, who was the prettiest man. The anaphora—repetition of the same word, here Nireus—and the asyndeton makes the matter described seem larger, even though it is only two or three ships.”
The lines in the Iliad are slightly different (2.671–675)
“Then Nireus came from Symê with three beautiful ships,
Nireus the son of Aglaiê and lord Kharops,
Nireus, the most beautiful man who came to Troy
Of all the Danaans after the blameless son of Peleus.
But he was weak and a meager army followed him.”