As the world heats up, burns, and faces the uncertainty of our current mix of plague and politics, we seem desperate to look away from our Anglo-American race to the bottom to the distraction of sports. Yes, indeed, in the US the professional leagues are on the way to save us from Marble Races with plans for baseball and basketball to stage shortened seasons and professional football to proceed as normal (because the NFL is traditionally so concerned with player health). Given the players withdrawing or already testing positive for coronavirus, it seems likely that the smarter bets are on things falling apart rather than on the outcomes of particular games.
Now, this is is some sensitive ground, I know. but we’ve talked it over and we’re willing to forgo some usual debates about Ajax vs. Odysseus (that never ends well) or Diomedes as the alter-Akhilleus to turn to a time-tested, truly perfect solution: polling. We will run a poll every other day for the duration of the bracket on twitter in a single-elimination combination for the crown (or, um scepter?).
Before you get too upset about this one, let me be clear: Achilles complains that Agamemnon boasts to be “best of the Achaeans” (ὃς νῦν πολλὸν ἄριστος ᾿Αχαιῶν εὔχεται εἶναι, 1.91) while later asserting that he will be upset because he did not honor the one who is (χωόμενος ὅ τ’ ἄριστον ᾿Αχαιῶν οὐδὲν ἔτισας, 1.244). The narrative later claims that Telamonian Ajax was the “best of men while Achilles was raging” (ἀνδρῶν αὖ μέγ’ ἄριστος ἔην Τελαμώνιος Αἴας ὄφρ’ ᾿Αχιλεὺς μήνιεν, 1.768-769) and I suspect that the difference between being “best of men” and “best of the Acheans” might be meaningful….
Why NANAIHB? Since Achilles is the best of the Achaeans, he’s obviously out. After him, the picture is more complicated. Tradition pits Ajax and Odysseus against one another in claiming Achilles’ special weapons, but our Iliad clearly makes Diomedes the man to beat when Achilles is off his feet. And, yet, in crucial moments Idomeneus and Thoas (also members of the ‘council of elders’) jump in to save the day. Don’t sleep on Idomeneus! Agamemnon lists him with Ajax, Odysseus and Achilles as a leader!(εἷς δέ τις ἀρχὸς ἀνὴρ βουληφόρος ἔστω, / ἢ Αἴας ἢ ᾿Ιδομενεὺς ἢ δῖος ᾿Οδυσσεὺς / ἠὲ σὺ Πηλεΐδη πάντων ἐκπαγλότατ’ ἀνδρῶν, 1.145-147). Thoas, is listed as one of the nine who stand to fight Hektor in a dual in book 7 (168) and he’s the best of the Aitolians….(15.281).
We’ve left out the Atreids (Agamemnon and Menelaos) because (1) no one wins when someone fights with them and (2) if Menelaos loses, what would the whole Trojan War even matter? (Yes, that was a dig against a certain movie…)
We split the groups into Front-runners (Patroklos, Diomedes, Odysseus, Ajax, Idomeneus, and Thoas) and then a collection of wannabes, pretenders, and sneaky contenders (Tlepolemos, Sthenelos, Teucer, Thersites, Antilochus, Oilean Ajax). This second list was winnowed down using random numbers, shedding Makhaon, Meriones, and Eurypylos, shedding Eurupylos: Makhaon and Meriones were reintroduced by divine intervention and now there are 14 contestants!
I gave the clear front-runners preferential treatment and assigned them the top four seeds using a random-number generator. I did the same thing to set up the rest of the competition. the random number generator has the added cleruchal bonus of functioning like the drawing of lots before the duel in Iliad 7; polling of the twitter masses replicates the time-honored judgment of Greek contests by popular acclaim (see, for instance, the contest of Hesiod and Homer). Yes, Odysseus randomly got the first seed, twice. What can you do when Athena is on someone’s side?
So, here we are, day 1, battle 1: Teucer vs. Tlepolemos.
Teucer, Ajax’s brother, another son of Telemon, a legendary founder of Salamis in some traditions and a fabulous archer. He does not get mentioned in the Catalogue of Ships and he has his first kill in book 6. He sometimes appears taking shots from behind his brother’s shield (8.266) but that’s a sign of his intelligence and not a lack of valor! He mows down a group of Trojans in book 8 (272-277) and Agamemnon exclaims “You were born as a saving light / to the Danaans and your father Telamon who raised you up when you were little / in his home even though you are a bastard.” (αἴ κέν τι φόως Δαναοῖσι γένηαι / πατρί τε σῷ Τελαμῶνι, ὅ σ’ ἔτρεφε τυτθὸν ἐόντα, / καί σε νόθον περ ἐόντα κομίσσατο ᾧ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ, 8.282-284).
Tlepolemos? Well, he’s the “big and noble” son o Herakles who sailed from Rhodes with nine ships! (2.653-666). Tlepolemos might have been a bit of a wild child: he fled to Rhodes after killing his father’s uncle accidentally when old Likymnios got in the way of him beating an enslaved servant. So, Tlepolemos becomes something of a foundational hero in Rhodes. In the Iliad, he draws the short straw and faces Sarpedon in a lengthy battle in book 5, which our epic uses as an opportunity to set a minor son of Herakles against an iliadic son of Zeus. He’s a big, strong, brash-talking warrior. (Spoiler: Sarpedon kills him.)
Who of the following two is the best option to content for the title the second best of the Achaeans?#NANAIHB (Non-Atreid,Non-Achilles, Iliadic Hero Brackethttps://t.co/njv3OQKzpO
These two are competing for a chance to face Odysseus….so, who’s it going to be? This sets the island of Salamis against the traditions of Rhodes, an archer against a bruiser, a bastard son of Telamon against an uncle-killing Heraklean braggart. All for the the dubious honor of most likely getting shivved in the night by Odysseus.
Look to twitter for the poll and the announcement of the victor when the contest is done.
Jordan, Borimir. “The Honors for Themistocles after Salamis.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 109, no. 4, 1988, pp. 547–571. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/295081.
Who knows what Pindar poem this may have come from or what the context was–chances are it cannot be taken too seriously considering the on-again-off-again relationship between Sparta and Thebes and the fact that everything Pindar composed has to be understood from the perspective of the goal of the overall poem, to praise someone in particular by praising their country, their family, and their patron gods. (See Elroy Bundy’s Studia Pindarica for the clearest explanation of this.)
“He also [taught] me about juices and grains to treat
Sickness, what medicine might slow excessive bleeding,
What fosters sleep, how to close wounds wide open,
What plague is best ended by steel and what needs herbs.
He also fixed in my heart the principles of justice,
How he used to provide laws revered by Pelion’s peoples
Capable of bringing peace to his own bi-formed race.
That’s as much of the training of my youth I remember, Friends
And it delights me to recall it: mother knows the rest.”
quin etiam sucos atque auxiliantia morbis
gramina, quo nimius staret medicamine sanguis,
quid faciat somnos, quid hiantia vulnera claudat,
quae ferro cohibenda lues, quae cederet herbis,
edocuit monitusque sacrae sub pectore fixit
iustitiae, qua Peliacis dare iura verenda
gentibus atque suos solitus pacare biformes.
hactenus annorum, comites, elementa meorum
et memini et meminisse iuvat: scit cetera mater.’
“An #epidemic in that year provided a break from other problems.”
“After he left from Circe’s island, Odysseus arrived at another island, tossed up on it by struggling winds. Calypso, Circe’s sister welcomed him there and considered him worthy of a great deal of help. She had sex with him almost as if in marriage.
He went from there to a massive lake near the sea which was called the Nekyopompos. The people who live around that lake are prophets and they told him everything that had happened to him and what would happen in the future. When he left there, he was thrown from the sea when a great storm arose onto “the Sirens,” rocks which have that name from the peculiar sound that comes from waves crashing around them. Once he freed himself from there, he arrived at the place called “Charybdis,” a wild and desolate territory. He lost all his ships and his army here.
Then Odysseus was carried alone on a ship’s plank in the sea, waiting for a death from violence. But some Phoenician sailors passing by saw him swimming in the water and saved him in their pity. They took him to the island Crete to Idomeneus, a leader of the Greeks. When he saw Odysseus naked and impoverished, he sympathetically gave him a great of gifts because he had been a general with him at Troy along with two ships and people to guard him safely home. He sent him back to Ithaka like this. Wise Dictys wrote these details down after he heard them from Odysseus.”
‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.’
Traveling to and from islands is always, in a foundational narrative, a response to a search for origins, and finality, at the same time: “Islands are either from before or for after mankind […] Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute” (Deleuze, 2004). The second Homeric epic is a durational tale of the return of the hero to his home island of Ithaca, following the exploits of the Trojan War. While Odysseus was held for a year by the sorceress Circe on the mythical island Aeaea, she warned him about the song of the Sirens that he would encounter between Aeaea and the rock of Scylla: Whoever draws near their deadly song, he nevermore returns (Od. 12.36-54). He is advised to row past them, anointing the ears of his comrades with wax, and let them bind him to the mast of the vessel so that he may hear the voice of the two sirens and not come near them. But the survival tale of the hero leaves us wondering whether this isn’t one of the most cryptic passages in the epic.
In his first person account, Odysseus is unable to tell what it is exactly that he heard (Od. 12.180-194); it is a song without content, and the promise or threat of a song. The hero of the epic is fooling us into believing that he has heard a deadly song, and survived, rowing past the Sirens. The recital begins with the Iliadic expression ὦ πολύαιν᾽ ὈδυσεῦμέγακῦδοςἈχαιῶν (Il. 9.673; Il. 10.544, but esp. Il. 11.430 where he is faced with the possibility of death), “Odysseus, greatly praised, great glory of the Achaeans”, which appears nowhere else in the Odyssey. By re-introducing the militarism of the Iliad, the Sirens threaten Odysseus’ homecoming. This episode, however brief, has outlasted its importance in the diegesis of the Odyssey, and there’s an underlying contradiction that one cannot evade:“Since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth” is a flawed song and promise, for if they knew the future, they would have known that Odysseus sails on unmolested by their conditional offer.
The Sirens’ attempt to subvert time, expresses a desire to change the course of events not towards different historical events, but towards the one and single event: The endless repetition of the exploits of Troy. This temporal lacuna (a loss of vision) causes a rip in the texture of the Odysseic time-world, however minuscule and unsuccessful; according to the later account of Lycophron, the Sirens kill themselves after Odysseus escapes them (Lycophr. 1.712-716). This gap, a singularity, occurs as spatio-temporal remoteness: The Sirens know everything, except what is now present and visible. This remoteness is itself akin to an island – islands are unconnected. They represent a void in the continuity of the world, but also a last frontier that can be crossed, and yet a space without function: “Odysseus hears a voice without a story, and the audience a story without voice” (Schur, 2014). With these hypotactic metaphors in mind (void, island, breach, non-time), let’s travel to the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, where Odysseus made a brief stop en route from Troy to Ithaca (Od. 3.169).
“The islands of the blessed” (Μακἀρων νῆσοι) they were called – Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Cos, and Rhodes, because they were ruled by Macareus and his sons, or because of their enviable prosperity (Diod. 5.81-82), but Diodorus Siculus also tells us, in the 1st century BCE, that Lesbos had been inhabited in ancient times by many peoples, since it has been the scene of many migrations. After the Pelasgians perished in the flood of Deucalion, “It came to pass that Lesbos was also laid desolate by the deluge of the waters”. The rule of the Macarioi was just the first installment in an interminable history of conquest and resettlement of Lesbos, extending through the Mytilenian Debate (Thuc. 3.36-49), when the city-state of Mytilene attempted to revolt against Athenian hegemony, to the raising of the Greek flag in 1912, after the surrender of the Turks who ruled over it for over four hundred years. After the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, Greek refugees arrived in droves from Anatolia and settled in the northern part of the island, as Ottoman Muslims from Greece were exiled in the opposite direction.
Sea-locked in Lesbos, separated from Turkey only by a narrow strait, these former refugees once upon a time called “intruders, people with no identity, trash” (Papadiamantis, 2005), and at a considerable distance from the Athenian hegemony of today, were themselves the first ones to receive the new wave of refugees from the Middle East and Africa since 2015, enduring once again, the perils of Homer’s wine-dark sea (Od. 5.349). In this reenactment of a perpetual deluge through the island, without knowing yet the final destination (if there’s one), memories of unresolved trauma pile beneath new ones, and the role of an island as the focal point of a discentered void, becomes accentuated. “The desert island is the material of this something immemorial, something profound” (Deleuze, 2004). It’s not necessary for an island to be uninhabited to become deserted, or to contain inner deserts: There are manifold possibilities for being sea-locked; the raft on the water, the refugee camp of Moria in northern Lesbos, places of quarantine, and then the entire island. Archipelagos of time, zones of exclusion, confinement, para-legality.
In Wu Tsang’s collaborative video-installation slash parafiction “One Emerging From a Point of View” (2019, Fast Forward Festival 6, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens), the artist presents a polyphonic tale on the topic of migration that resembles more an epic than a linear narrative: Far from the logic of a documentary, a series of overlapping characters tell time (rather than specific events) in Lesbos not unlike the Homeric sirens – self-description becomes identical with a narrated event, time is a promise. What is promised is a story about history, but in the end we are faced with the condition of being outside of historical time, stuck, suspended, sealocked and unprotected by the spaces of mutual appearances. Realistic fragments from the present-day journey of a migrant, journalistic observations of life inside this political cosmogony (there’s no inside/outside on the island world), and the fictional narration of Yassmine Flowers, a transgender woman from Morocco, who escapes from a king to become a ‘deep sea techno witch’, interweave into a thick montage of present, fresh ruins.
In this hybrid fantasy world, events might be separated by impassable boundaries, where the border is not the limit of an experience, but its fundamental category. These different narrations collide in the photographic work of Eirini Vourloumis (one of Tsang’s collaborators), where she documents the physical traces of previous and current journeys from the viewpoint of an archaeology of borderwork: Working against a distinction between material and human (Hicks & Mallet, 2019).
The iconic orange inflatable lifesavers are piled on the shoreline, a raft approaches the coast at night, and the debris of a makeshift settlement, all serve as a testimony of the new arrivals, but the testimony isn’t a memory – the deluge is still taking place, it has never stopped taking place (inside of the void, there’s no history, just one single continuous event). “The Mermaid Madonna” is based on the eponymous novel of Stratis Myrivilis, published in 1955, set against the background of the Asia Minor catastrophe, but centered around two interrelated mythological characters: Our Lady of the Mermaid, (Παναγιά η Γοργόνα), a small church perched on a rock in the village of Skala Sykamnias, and the girl-nereid Esmeralda.
Centuries of oral traditions, transmissions and depictions in the Aegean, have blurred the distinction between various female mythological creatures, naiads, nereids, sirens, muses, tritonites, gorgonas, associated often with dual bodies/nature; they exist on the margins or at the borders of possible foundations. According to tradition the church took its name from what Myrivilis calls the strangest Virgin Mary in Greece and in the whole of Christianity, an apocryphal mural by an unknown folk painter that presented the Virgin Mary with a mermaid’s tail (now as an icon in the church). Esmeralda’s origin on the other hand is no less fantastical: A girl that doesn’t appear in the plot of the novel until several chapters later; she was born with emerald green eyes – like the sea, and golden curly hair – like the sun, so that the women in the village wondered whether she had been mothered by a nereid: “Who has given you such beautiful curls, my beloved? Your mother the nereid must be! Since you were born from the stars, go and ask the sun, whether it’s him or you who shines the world.”
Soon rumors around the dark powers of sirens, mermaids, nereids and muses began to circulate; a mythography around all the tragedies in Esmeralda’s life. Throughout the novel, the divine origin in the sea of Esmeralda is speculated, but she remains in the end like the Homeric sirens, unaccounted (Homer, always rich in adjectives, doesn’t offer a genealogy or even a description of the Sirens): “She anchored by the shadow of the rocks, then undressed completely and plunged into the water. Her body shone for a moment, illuminated by the moon, like an enormous golden fish, and then disappeared.”The gorgona virgin, the young nereid, the deep sea techno witch, the migrant and the gaze of the photojournalist, all cross each other in Lesbos, but never encounter one another. “One Emerging from a Point of View” expresses the lost imaginary of the future, in which the Homeric siren song must be cut short: Completeness of knowledge, threatens the present. In the end, a new creature arises from the violent seas of the here and now: “This mermaid is Greece – half land, half sea”.
The perplexing articulation of Tsang’s cinematic epic in Athens around the shrinking of historical time, was then augmented by an experimental theater piece, Thomas Bellinck’s speculative documentary “The Wild Hunt” (2019, Fast Forward Festival 6, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens) which begins with a reference to a painting by Romantic Scandinavian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo, “The Wild Hunt of Odin” (1872), recalling the Wild Hunt of Scandinavian folklore, a terrifying procession flinging across the skies during midwinter to abduct all those unfortunate who have been unable to find a hiding place. In this long audio performance (extending through hours, during which you only see the audible words projected on a screen), another sinister polyphony pieces together a portrait of today’s human hunt taking place throughout the Mediterranean, through snippets of dialogues in different languages between migrants, journalists, smugglers. The missing images of toil (the impossibility for Odysseus of sharing or reenacting the ephemeral sound of a deadly song) wrestle away from us the possibility of being shocked, and therefore, desensitized.
And the reality of this human hunt (humans have prices, markets, bidders), makes us question whether the typology of the island hasn’t erected itself as an entirely new politics? Archipelagos of time are those zones of enframing, confinement, enclosure, that exist outside an audible human world (where one is heard and can speak): Camp Moria and Camp de la Lande (in the Calais area of France) at the outermost borders of Europe. Who are those unfortunate who have been unable to find a hiding place? Roaming around the earth, these undesirables, are not fighting out only a conflict between a militaristic narrative and a homecoming, but rather, they have been abandoned by the Odyssey in the land of the Lotus eaters: “So they went straightway and mingled with the Lotus-eaters, and the Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way” (Od. 9.91-97).
It would be impossible today to discuss the structure of an emergency politics (the archipelago of time, the island, is the political condition of the exception, of the camp) without the Aristotelian sharp distinction between natural life and the polis (Aristot. Pol. 1.1252a.26-35), the demise of which is theorized by Agamben under the infamous concept of the state of exception: “When life and politics, originally divided, are linked together by means of the no man’s land of the state of exception that is inhabited by bare life -begin to become one, all life becomes sacred and all politics becomes the exception” (Agamben, 1998). Or, to put it more simply, the sovereign’s ability to commit crimes without suffering consequences: “Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense” (Agamben, 1998). On the island, those who have been gathered by Odin, exist in a different universe where they might not be killed, but they’re also not permitted to die.
This sacrality of life, Agamben informs us, is here fully decontextualized: “The principle of the sacredness of life has become so familiar to us that we seem to forget that classical Greece, to which we owe most of our ethico-political concepts, not only ignored this principle but did not even possess a term to express the complex semantic sphere that we indicate with the single term life” (Agamben, 1998). Out of this indistinction, where the traditional categories of friend and enemy that sustain classical political theory have been suspended, new forms of violence become possible in which what is traditionally called hostility, war, conflict, enmity, cruelty and hatred becomes here thus unidentifiable (Derrida, 2004). The camp, as the expression of the exception is a war without war: “To kill without bloodshed, with the help of new techniques, is perhaps already to accede to a world without war and without politics, to the inhumanity of a war without war” (Derrida, 2004). Agamben, in his fine construction, however, spins the tale as the natural outcome of Western metaphysics and this decline narrative must be abandoned at once.
Agamben’s willful oblivion of European imperialism brings us to a legal scholar to clarify the historical record. The state of exception didn’t rise out of Western metaphysics. It was in fact tried and tested by Europeans in their colonies, before it was shipped home and made to bear a constitutional face which is by no means exceptional, and thus destroys the traditional idea of colonialism as a period: “Colonialism is both place and process, a world-historical system that registers in different modes at different times” (Hussain, 2003). The island remains a liminal border of the colonial experience. Different colonial expeditions set sail not only towards inaccessible islands (Rufold Island in the Arctic) but also towards phantom islands: Islands that were previously recorded in maps and travelogues, but were found later not to exist. The exception of the camp is also a phantom island; it exists ghostly and outside cartography. The phantom island is also the story of the migrant stowaways on shipping vessels: a floating camp, bare life at sea, a site of radical difference (MacDonald, 2020).
What all these archipelagos of time share is actually the privation of time. Through dehumanizing borderwork (producing inside/outside border means to produce also illegality), impermanence becomes a form of transnational government and the bare life at sea (or on the desert, the island, the camp) articulates the interminability of colonial violence insofar as the permanence required to appear before others evaporates; the different languages of “The Wild Hunt” are inaudible gibberish without translation, just like the stuttering utterances of the deep sea techno witch, or in fact any inaudible story. Temporality is replaced with temporariness: “The temporary becomes a space for politics, a time destroyed so quickly that it is perhaps shorter than the evénément (Hicks & Mallet, 2019).” Refugees are moved from place to place, their belongings destroyed, their institutionalization halted. But this privation of time isn’t simply by exclusion, it is also by reconfiguration: They’re condemned to exist in a time other than the timezone of modernity.
The everlasting present of this island functions as a geopolitics: “The temporal stasis that comes from the physical blockage arising from seeking asylum through irregular passage becomes the abhorrent condition of impermanence as abjection. Time is weaponized, as it was once before through Victorian savagery. But this now operates through the withdrawal of duration and the ongoing (post)colonial process of the imposition of different ages across different hemispheres” (Hicks & Mallet, 2019). As denizens of a global pandemic, we now know how difficult it is to sustain a world in which the fragility of human affairs isn’t mediated by our appearing together through sustained, mutual, acts of speech. The nature of human action is such, that as soon as the action ceases, so does the world. It was for example, in the Iliad, the factuality of public speech, of having a place where men can do battle with words, what guaranteed a truly political foundation (Barker & Christensen, 2013; Arendt, 1958). How do we inherit then Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s notion of ‘giving time’ (back) as resistance to the threat of inaudible speech?
We must return here again to the Song of the Sirens and the opening Iliadic formula: ὦ πολύαιν᾽ ὈδυσεῦμέγακῦδοςἈχαιῶν (this time in the Wilson translation for clarity: ‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!’). Invoking Odysseus as the πολύαινος (polyainos, full of wisdom and knowledge), the one of many deeds and praises from the Iliad, the tale of force (violence, bare life), becomes a challenge to the hero’s present ainoi, his speech acts: The goddess Athena celebrates him for being a cunning liar, “among mortal men, you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns, and I am famous among the gods for wisdom, cunning wiles, too” (Hom. Od. 13.324-39) His survival depends now solely on his capacity for storytelling and persuasion. Returning home for Odysseus, as the opening lines of the epic tell us (Hom. Od. 1.1-6), establishes a relation between his mind (noos) and his return (nostos), so that in returning home, he also saves his life and his mind, after “getting to know/see different ways.” Odysseus refuses to submit to the interminability of the song, the precarious eternity.
The opening of the Odyssey already contains the answer to the Song of the Sirens: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home.” (Hom. Od. 1.1-5) Odysseus is not only relating the life of the mind, his soul, to the life of the community, his return, but he is also a πολύτροπος (polytropos): One who could change in many different ways who he was, and who takes on many different forms, a man of many devices, a complicated man (in the Wilson translation). It speaks of the capacity to use stories as foundations, in order to emerge from a primeval void (Homer’s epics were also a break with previous master narratives).
Gregory Nagy’s interpretation of Odysseus’ homecoming highlights that this isn’t just any homecoming, but a return to light and life. In Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s video work “Remember the Light” (2016, Sharjah Art Foundation), men and women are submerged deeper and deeper underwater, and strange things happen to the spectrum of color – it narrows into disappearance: “Those men, this woman, seems then the echo of all those persons traveling through the sea without knowing their fate.” But something resurfaces then again towards the light, and the spectrum of light begins to magnify until the light is in full view. Lebanese Joana Hadjithomas, from a Greek family that sailed for Beirut after the Asia Minor catastrophe, still wonders how many more homecomings are possible: “What is forgotten, what remains and what can be imagined? And the truth may just be this: that in a time of monsters, in which ‘the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth’, the only thing that can bring us out of the darkness is the light of love, beauty, poetry” (Muller, 2006).
“I’ve stared at beauty too much”, Cavafy tells us in one of his poems. The scene has changed from Athens to Beirut. In Hadjithomas and Joreige’s video, “I’ve Stared at Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians” (2013), in reference to Cavafy: “Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come. / And some of our men just in from the border say / There are no barbarians any longer”, we see Beirut from the skies, overlapping realities, myths, we are confused, the view is blurred, and yet remains possible at the same time. As I wrote in 2014 about their lecture performance “An Additional Continent”: “For Hadjithomas and Joreige it is necessary not only to remember the past, but also to reinvent it as if it had never happened before. Hadjithomas insists that to re-stage is to re-start. They want to reframe the question of political foundations as a problem of culture (or of civilization). How to start something anew? How to be reinvented in uncertainty? How to live without foundations? And by foundation we meant the act of founding a body politic, a human community, a political stage.” Dialogue is the possibility of geography, the possibility of (again) time; but these conversations take a very long time, perhaps all the available time.
And then what does poetry have to do with the gift of time, in its practical implications? How is it possible to conflate the travels of Odysseus with the plight of unnamed migrants stranded and even lost at sea? Because the Odyssey functions as a master narrative, a self-contained universe, it allows us today to wonder at a time when we’re ourselves temporarily exiled from access to the immediacy of time (during a pandemic), whether this being lost at sea, as a political cosmology, isn’t growing between us as a new foundational narrative and a possible new world, even more violent than the old one.
We should read this time the return to Ithaca against Cavafy, “To arrive there is your final destination. But do not rush the voyage in the least. Better it last for many years […]”, for we no longer want to delay time once it has been wrestled from our hands, and especially from their hands, into the evénément of the unexceptional exception of bare life at sea. But yet we will read it with Christos Ikonomou, from his collection of short stories “Good Will Come from the Sea” (2014): “In which land we are to live, I wonder, us and those who’ll come after us? In a country that will exist because it hates and is afraid? And I want to believe in something. I want to believe, okay? […] To know that something doesn’t exist and to believe in it – I think this is the only salvation left to us. Because if you believe in something that doesn’t exist, who knows, one day it could be born.” The procedure is simple; consciousness of limit, fragility, finitude, and only here, no other, distant worlds (Heller, 1993). The final word rests with Odysseus, in his address to the goddess Athena:
But even so, I want to go back home,
And every day I hope that the day will come.
If some god strikes me on the wine-dark sea,
I will endure it. By now I am used
To suffering – I have gone through so much,
At sea and in the war. Let this come too.
Pietro Pucci, “The Song of the Sirens”, Arethusa, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Fall 1979)
David Schur, “The Silence of Homer’s Sirens”, Arethusa, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter 2014)
Emily L. Shields, “Lesbos in the Trojan War”, The Classical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 9 (June 1918)
Acknowledgments to the people who through their suggestions and conversations in the past year contributed to this essay: Arca Alpan, Katia Arfara, Gregory Buchakjian, Joel Christensen, Musab Daud, Maria Eliades, Sofia Georgiadou, Joana Hadjithomas, Dan Hicks.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
“See that they don’t blame you any longer but honor you and have affection for you because they take part in these things. While the cost is of little account to you, the gift in their time of need will always be remembered. Furthermore, you would not be able to live in cities if the poor did not live there with you and make your happiness possible in countless ways. You would have no one to amaze with your wealth if you were rich alone, in private, and without anyone knowing.
So, let the masses gaze upon and wonder at your silver, your fine tables, and then, when you are toasting them, have them weigh their cups while they drink, consider the weight of the gold applied with skill, and contemplate the truth of the story it tells. In addition to hearing them call you noble and philanthropic, you will fall outside their envy. For who begrudges someone who shares and gives a little portion? And who wouldn’t pray for him to live as long as possible, benefiting from his goods? Right now, your blessings go unwitnessed, your wealth is an object of envy, and your life is not pleasant.”
“In the seventh book [Ptolemy Chennos reports that] Theodôros of Samothrace says that after Zeus was born he laughed without stopping for seven days. This is why the number seven is thought to be “final” [or whole, complete”]
“We have no small hope in our elections, but it is still uncertain. There is some suspicion of a dictatorship. We have peace in public but it is the calm of an old and tired state, not one giving consent.”
erat non nulla spes comitiorum sed incerta, erat aliqua suspicio dictaturae, ne ea quidem certa, summum otium forense sed senescentis magis civitatis quam acquiescentis
Philo, On Dreams 12.78
“Indeed, just as frightened horses raise their necks up high, in the same way all those devotees of empty glory raise themselves above everything else, above cities, laws, ancestral custom, and the affairs of individual citizens. As they move from demagoguery to dictatorship, they subdue some of their neighbors as they try to make themselves superior and upright–and then they plan to enslave however so many minds remain naturally free and unenslaved.”
“The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.”
“Tyrannos: The poets before the Trojan War used to name kings (basileis) tyrants, but later during the time of Archilochus, this word was transferred to the Greeks in general, just as the sophist Hippias records. Homer, at least, calls the most lawless man of all, Ekhetos, a king, not a tyrant. Tyrant is a a name that derives from the Tyrrenians because these men were quite severe pirates.* None of the other poets uses the name tyrant in any of their works. But Aristotle in the Constitution of the Cumaeans says that tyrants were once called aisumnêtai, because this name is a bit of a euphemism.”
*According to Louise Hitchcock and Aren Maeir (“Yo-ho, Yo-ho: A Seren’s Life For me.” World Archaeology 46:4, 624-640) the Philistines used the word seren to mean leader; this word may have been related to Hittite tarwanis and was possibly circulated by the ‘sea peoples’. Greek tyrannos may have developed from this. Chaintraine notes that the etymology of turannos is unclear but that it may be related to Etruscan turan or Hittite tarwana.
“This is likely formed from Tursennians*. Or it derives from Gyges who was from a Turran city in Lykia, and he was the first one who was a tyrant. Others claim it is from truô [“to distress, wear out, afflict”], that it was truanos and that the rho and nu switched places through pleonasm. Ancients used to use the word Turannos for kings. There was a time when they used a call the tyrant ‘king’.
“Tyranny: It differs from a kingship and a tyrant is different from a king. For a kingship is something that exercises power according the law. But a tyranny is a force without reason, following its own law. A king is someone who rules according to just laws; but a tyrant, who can never rule justly nor without the boundaries of the law, he steps outside of the laws.”
Tyrannos: from some tyrant, the one who first ruled badly, from the city of Tyre. It means two things: a kind and the man as a tyrant.”
“Citizens guard their kings with arms; foreigners protect tyrants. This is because kings rule according to the law and with willing citizens while tyrants rule the unwilling. As a result, kings have guards from their subjects and tyrants keep guards against them.”
In her introduction to the Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood notes that two lingering questions from the Odyssey inspired her– (1) the ancient question of what Penelope was up to (during Odysseus’ absence and in the Odyssey itself where many have seen her toying with the suitors, recognizing Odysseus ahead of time, etc. and (2) the brutal savagery of the slaughter of the handmaids who allegedly gave comfort to the suitors. The epic implies, I think, that Odysseus is tyrannical with his mutilation of Melanthios, but its presentation of the hanging of the maids is far more ambiguous and challenging to explain/defend/contextualize for students (or for myself). In preparation for a lecture on the Odyssey and the Penelopiad, I revisit this passage.
Homer Odyssey, 22.446-73
“So he spoke and all the women came in close together,
Wailing terribly, shedding growing tears.
First, they were carrying out the corpses of the dead men,
and they put them out under the portico of the walled courtyard
stacking them against one another. Odysseus himself commanded
as he oversaw them—they carried out the bodies under force too.
Then, they cleaned off the chairs and the preciously beautiful trays
With water and much-worn sponges.
Meanwhile Telemachus, the cowherd and the swineherd
were scraping up the close-fit floors of the home
with hoes—the maids were carrying the remnants to the ground outside.
Then, when they had restored the whole house to order,
They led the women out of the well-roofed hall,
Halfway between the roof and the courtyard’s perfect wall,
Closing them in a narrow space were there was no escape.
Among them, learned Telemachus began to speak.
“May I not rip the life away from these women with a clean death,
These women who poured insults on my head and my mother
These women who were stretching out next to the suitors”
So he spoke. After attaching a ship’s cable to a pillar he bound it around
The dome of the house and stretched it up high
so that no one could be able to touch the ground with feet.
Just as when either thin-winged thrushes or doves
step into a snare which has been set in a thicket,
as they look for a resting plate, a hateful bed receives them—
Just so the women held their heads in a line, and nooses
fell around every neck so that they would die most pitiably.
They were gasping, struggling with their feet a little bit, but not for very long.”
“It is clear from the words uttered that the father ordered one thing but the son ordered another. For since it seems that a clean death is from a sword, and an unclean one is hanging, as is clear from the Nekyia, he thought it was right that unclean women should not have a clean death, since they were not clean themselves nor did they leave their masters clean of insults.”
“They tell the story that after Zeus had sex with [Lamia], Hera turned her into a beast and further, when she went crazy, she ripped out her eyes and threw them into a cup and, in addition, that she ate flesh and dined on human beings.
It really could have gone this way: Zeus, who was a king, got intimate with her because she was pretty. Then Hera abducted her, gauged out her eyes, and left her on a mountain. For this reason she was living a painful life and had no help at all. Because she was living unwashed and unhealed in desolate places, she seemed to be a beast.”
“In the second book of his Libyan History, Duris reports that Lamia was a fine looking woman but after Zeus had sex with her, Hera killed the children she bore because she was envious. As a result she was disfigured by grief and would seize and kill the children of others.”