Revered Nereids, grant that my brother
Comes to me alive and well;
What in his heart he wants to happen,
Grant that it be realized;
As many wrongs as he did before,
Make him atone for them all;
And make of him a joy to his [friends],
But [a torment] to enemies.
Let there be not one [problem] for us.
Through many nations and across many seas
I’ve come, my brother, for these sad burial rites—
To pay you the final tribute owed the dead,
And to speak, in vain, with your speechless ashes,
Since fortune has snatched you—you!—away from me.
Oh! My poor brother, cruelly taken from me!
Still, there’s the matter of the burial rites,
Preserved in antique customs of our line
And passed on in the melancholic tribute:
Receive them, though quite wet with fraternal tears.
And now, for all time, my brother,
I salute you and say goodbye.
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem.
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
Fr. 3 Seneca the Elder ( Donat. Vita Vergilii, 29.)
“Seneca reports that Julius Montanus was in the habit of saying that he would have stolen certain things from Vergil if he could have his voice, and comportment, and dramatic ability. [He added] that the same verses sounded beautifuly when Vergil was reciting but without him they were meaningless and mute.”
3. Et Seneca tradidit Iulium Montanum poetam solitum dicere involaturum se Vergilio quaedam, si et vocem posset et os et hypocrisin; eosdem enim versus ipso pronuntiante bene sonare, sine illo inanes esse mutosque.
Epopopoi popoi popopopoi popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick, my comrades in the air; all you who pillage the fertile lands of the husbandmen, the numberless tribes who gather and devour the barley seeds, the swift flying race that sings so sweetly. And you whose gentle twitter resounds through the fields with the little cry of tiotiotiotiotiotiotiotio; and you who hop about the branches of the ivy in the gardens; the mountain birds, who feed on the wild olive-berries or the arbutus, hurry to come at my call, trioto, trioto, totobrix; you also, who snap up the sharp-stinging gnats in the marshy vales, and you who dwell in the fine plain of Marathon, all damp with dew, and you, the francolin with speckled wings; you too, the halcyons, who flit over the swelling waves of the sea, come hither to hear the tidings; let all the tribes of long-necked birds assemble here; know that a clever old man has come to us, bringing an entirely new idea and proposing great reforms. Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkabau, kikkabau, torotorotorolililix.
The one-hundred-and-thirteen elaborate wooden panels that make up the Damascus Room at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology testify to the immense wealth of the era, at the beginning of the 19th century when wood and ceiling panels adorned the reception room of Damascene houses in Ottoman Syria. A detailed composition of city landscapes, bouquets of flowers, bowls of fruits and Arabic calligraphy was executed around a main framework in which vertical panels, niches, wall closets, doors and windows were integrated, often aggrandized by the use of mirrors in a sophisticated painting technique known as ‘ajamī (Persian). This pastiglia style involved preparation of the wood with a rough white ground layer, followed by more colorful paint layers, underdrawing, transfer of patterns, then followed by application of ornaments, metal leaf and dyed glazes.
Scholar Anke Scharrahs interviewed Damascene artists revealing that knowledge about this intricate painting technique of the 17th and 18th centuries (rich in organic pigments and animal resins) was subsequently lost to modern pigments and European influences. In fact the panels were often washed down, restored and repainted every few generations, therefore only a few original interiors remain in Syria itself, so that the preservation state of the Damascus Room is nothing short of astonishing (only four such interiors exist in the Western world).
But the journey of the Damascus Room to its present splendor took two centuries, and is as protracted as the history of the museum housing it. The Dresden Museum of Ethnology dates back to 1560 with the cabinet of curiosities established by Augustus, the elector of Saxony, and was subsequently transformed into different museums, under different names, as European ideas about culture were being shaped by both science and colonialism.
It was the year 1898 when a German art collector, Karl Ernst Osthaus, known primarily for his interest in the avant-garde movement, traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire, collecting artifacts from bazaars and workshops. But there was one treasure hunt that couldn’t be completed: The search for an Oriental interior. Although he traveled far and wide in all the major cities of the empire, it was to no avail, and at the end of his journey, he passed on the responsibility to the German consulate in Damascus. The consulate in turn assigned photographer Hermann Burchardt to the task, who had been living in Damascus since 1893. A suitable interior was found (dated 1810-11), purchased, disassembled and sent to Germany. Osthaus was then very involved in modern art, so when the pieces arrived at his estate in Hagen, they were kept in an attic and quickly forgotten.
After Osthaus’ death in 1921, the panels were discovered and donated to the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in 1930, and the collections of the museum were about to go on show at the Zwinger palatial complex (dating back to the 18th century Baroque), but the space provided for the Damascus Room proved too small – the surface area of the room is 4 x 5.5 m and 5.4 m high. This mismatch turned out to be a fortunate event, because the room would have been completely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
Once again forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1997, but by then no one knew how to assemble it together. How do the one-hundred-and-thirteen pieces fit together? Two students from Dresden, Ulrike Siegel and Antje Werner, took up the challenge of putting the puzzle back together, measuring every single piece, meticulously documenting each item and following the number coding written onto the backsides.
But then it needed to be restored. 200 years hadn’t passed in vain, and many of the wooden pieces had been eaten by worms, damaged by dampness, large flakes of paint fell off and the entire thing was covered in dust and mold. A restoration began that wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2019. The following year, in the autumn of 2020, amidst the raging pandemic, as if continuing the trail of oblique historical journeys, it met a peculiar contemporary artistic intervention coming from the place where it all had begun, modern Syria and Turkey.
An installation consisting of colorful glass swallows with their heads tilted downwards, placed on the floor of the lavish room, would tell a story where the different pasts and presents of these interiors would meet: Improbable journeys and the (im)possibility of travel, exile, migration, uncertainty, memory and the feeling of having fallen out of the world, whilst living in the presence of all its traces.
2. Birds Without Wings
Three years earlier, in 2017, Turkish glass artist Felekşan Onar arrived in Berlin from Istanbul with the intention to work at a glass studio, and blow into plaster moulds closed winged birds for her project “Perched”, without knowing at the time its final destination. The wingless swallows with their heads tilted downwards, resembled for Onar, the millions of Syrian refugees stranded in Istanbul, not knowing where to go, or what is going to happen next. In Onar’s words, “Simply perched on sidewalks, like birds without wings”.
This reflection however, was interlocked with an earlier metaphor: She began thinking about the birds after a reading of Louis de Bernières’ novel “Birds Without Wings” (published in 2004); set in the era of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, in the period following World War First; the novel chronicles an era of intolerance and forced migration, still consequential to this day for both countries.
The plot of de Bernières’ novel revolves around the tragic love story between Philothei, a beautiful Greek woman, and Ibrahim, her Muslim suitor, who loses his mind halfway through the novel after returning from the trenches of war, vividly recounted. The novel is set in the fictional village of Eskibahçe, based upon Kayaköy, a Greek village in the Turkish province of Fethiye, deserted after 1923, when a series of agreements that would define the present-day borders between Greece and Turkey meant the forced migration of all Christian Greeks from Anatolia to the Greek mainland, and Muslims in Greece to Anatolia.
These peoples left behind their homelands, becoming refugees in newly established countries, shattering an ancient multicultural geography. Kayaköy is today a derelict ghost town after many failed attempts of the Turkish government to lure Muslims from Greece to occupy the abandoned houses.
This story was familiar to Onar: Born in the Aegean region of Turkey, in the town of Söke–some hundred kilometers from Izmir, the ancient Greek Anaia, renamed Soka in the Byzantine era–it was impossible for her not to be immersed in the cultural world of the population exchanges: A housekeeper from her childhood, Nazmiye Hanım, had come from Crete to Söke as a result of this population exchange, and often told mesmerizing tales about her homeland in the heavily accented Turkish of a native Greek speaker. Therefore, years later Onar identified Nazmiye Hanım with many of the characters in de Bernières’ narrative.
At the height of the Syrian crisis, Onar saw in these birds without wings, part of “Perched” (there are ninety-nine birds in total), a slow meditation not only on the present circumstances but on the permanent waves of migration and spatial redistribution of peoples that form of the core of Mediterranean history since antiquity.
In the words of Nadania Idriss, the founder of Berlin Glassworks (herself of Syrian background) where Onar completed blowing the swallows, “The pigments and surface texture of each unique sculpture recall the multitude of hues that hold in Syrian daily life; and yet these swallows sit patiently, heads tilted downward as they try to understand the situation that has befallen them.”
It was Idriss who facilitated a conversation with the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, and as a result the first stop in the journey of the wingless birds was the famous Aleppo Room at Pergamon in 2018. In fact, this might be the most spectacular of all Syrian interiors in the world, dated as far back as the early 17th century, and acquired in 1912 by German orientalist and archaeologist Friedrich Sarre in Aleppo. A conservator at the museum, Anke Scharrachs, then encouraged Onar to connect with other museums in possession of Damascene interiors (Scharrachs was involved in the restoration of the Dresden panels).
And that’s how “Perched” traveled then to the Damascus Room in Dresden, and the year prior, to the Islamic Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A double metaphor grew out of the Aleppo Room at Pergamon with its spectacular colorful panels, laden with rich ornamental fauna, according to Stefan Weber, director of the Islamic Museum: “The lively, colorful peacocks, ducks and pigeons on the wall panels stand in almost oppressive contrast to the small, fragile birds with clipped wings seated on the ground. Not only does the installation resonate with the sad fate of a once flourishing metropolis – now destroyed by the civil war – but it also picks on the reality of Syrian refugees in modern Turkey.”
From ambers, to amethysts and greys and blues, greens and pinks, the iridescent colored glass swallows hint at the archetypal role of birds in the ancient Mediterranean as both messengers and mediators, rather than silent spectators in the drama of mankind.
3. The Debt to the Birds
When “Perched” opened at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology (part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, one of the largest and oldest art and artifacts collections in the world), it was already September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and it was no longer possible for anyone in Turkey, and not only refugees, to fly anywhere in Europe, so that the metaphor came home to roost: The artist Felekşan Onar was unable to travel for the exhibition.
At the time a monograph about the entire journey of “Perched” was in preparation, which saw the light in December, and was supposed to be launched at the museum, but with the closure of cultural institutions in Germany due to the pandemic this wasn’t possible either. For this monograph, de Bernières contributed a short story, “The Debt to the Birds” (Onar and de Bernières met for a public conversation at the Victoria & Albert), that sets the story and trajectory of Onar’s birds, on a different, much more complex itinerary.
“The Debt to the Birds” is a deceptively simple tale about a boy that was given a gun by his father on a promise: “You must promise me never to shoot a bird that you do not intend to eat, nor ever shoot a man unless you’re at war. Do you promise?” The young boy, like his father before him, was tempted by his father’s words and shot a sparrow, watching it die in the grass. Three years later, he found a young jackdaw with a broken wing, and brought it home to cure it, in order to repay his debt to the birds. The bird healed quickly and became his loyal companion, perched on his shoulder, and then he was instructed by his father to teach it how to fly, at the risk that it might fly away. When it flew off with a posse of jackdaws, never to return, both father and boy thought that they had finally repaid their debt to the birds. The boy became a father and passed on the gun to his son, but yet he did not tempt him by telling him not to shoot the birds.
Distant from the historical world of de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings”, there happen to be a number of uncanny parallels between “The Debt to the Birds” and Aristophanes’ play “The Birds”, performed in 414 BC at the Dionysia festival in Athens.
These parallels ground the spatiotemporal framework of Onar’s “Perched” in a larger, aporetic logic, allowing the viewer (as if the audience of a live, theatrical performance) to move in between different temporalities, depending not only on the context. The Oriental interiors function here also as a springboard that releases the audience away from the historical context onto a nondescript area, free of allegory and actually also free of debt (I will return to this at the end). They are both are interrogative texts, set specifically against interpretation, by taking place outside any context whatsoever. One couldn’t name a specific timeframe in which the events unfold.
This is in fact an anomaly in Aristophanes’ surviving plays, and by all means an innovation, although it is written in the conventional style of old comedy. “The Birds” contains no direct reference to the Peloponnesian War, and hardly any references to Athenian politics (although much has been theorized about political allegory in the play), and in the manner of Aesop’s Greek tales, it is set in remote, but undefined times.
In “The Debt to the Birds”, there are two oblique references to war, ‘never shoot another man unless at war’ in the promise, and the father having been a soldier himself. But we know nothing about when or where the events take place. There seems to be a search for redemption in both texts which ultimately fails, by means of different strategies: In Aristophanes, the conclusion of the play is the instauration of a human-led tyranny after the defeat of the gods, and in de Bernières a potential cycle of return to debt with the birds.
In the larger scheme of Aristophanes’ play we know that it is a narrative about the foundation of a political community, but in such terms, so fantastic (two elderly Athenians convince the birds to create a walled city in the air, to prevent the aromas of sacrificial offerings from reaching the Olympian gods), that the cloud-cuckoo-land becomes less than a metaphor, offering something alien to the pattern of problem-and-solution of the comic universe, namely, a suspension.
For de Bernières, on the other hand, the smoothed out but always latent cycle of repetition between violence, debt and settlement, indicates a species of non-linear time, more akin to myth than to history. This time out of joint that cannot be put back together, resembles simultaneously the chaotic temporality of the ancients, marked only by events and decay, and the timelessness of Onar’s swallows, head tilted down, waiting and waiting, still at the Damascus Room.
4. Unfamiliar Futures
The resemblances between the ancient comedy and the contemporary tale do not end with the site of temporality. There’s a crucial passage in de Bernières: “The essence of man is to be a prisoner, but the essence of a bird is to be free. A bird shows no passport at the borders. It pays no taxes. A bird has no pockets and when it dies it has no shroud.”
Not only is this passage immediately connected to a key fragment in his novel “Birds Without Wings” (“Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows”) but also to Aristophanes’ play, when the starring humans, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, ask the Hoopoe, formerly King Tereus who metamorphosed into a bird, what is it like to live with the birds? The idea of a utopian, moneyless, political community, resonates strongly in both authors, and the impossibility to realize this fantasy reveals in its aporias a tension that remains without offering resolution.
Aristophanes, Birds, 154-161
I would not be Opuntian for a talent. But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.
Why, it’s not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.
That does away with a lot of roguery.
For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.
Why, ‘tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.
Yet, the most interesting parallel between them, concerns the antiquity of birds, thus, once again, the question of the origins and new beginnings (and therefore of foundations) returns. In “The Debt to the Birds”, the father explains to the boy, “Did you know that dinosaurs are not extinct after all? We were all completely wrong. They’re beginning to think that the little dinosaurs survived, so now we have lizards and amphibians, and birds […] We look out of our windows and see the trees full of little dinosaurs!”
The story continues later, with a moving passage on the boy: “That evening the boy sat his jackdaw on its perch and looked into its face. He recognized the extreme antiquity of its being, and said to it ‘Your soul is millions of years more ancient than mine. My soul is young compared to yours.’ The bird looked back into his eyes and shook its wings a little, just as fledging does when hoping to be fed.” And furthermore: “That evening the boy repeated to the bird on its perch in his bedroom ‘Your soul is more ancient than mine.'”
In these apparently innocuous passages, de Bernières is enlarging the historical space of Onar’s birds, breaking down the repetitive cycle of timelessness: Trapped inside an infinitely expanding present, these refugees moving across the world, but particularly visible in both Turkey and Germany, cannot articulate stories that narrate either past or future; they’re rooted in the presentism of despair that quickly devours the future as a temporal index, while at the same time not being entirely free from the immediate past. All recollection is fragmented. These birds, caged by traumatic events, acquiesce to a type of memory-work, structured by repetition and transitoriness, rather than a series of checkpoints in reality to orient yourself in the world.
The introduction of a primeval consciousness of time, a time before time, of unquantifiable properties, preceding the uniformity of historical experience, opens up a dialogue between de Bernières and Aristophanes, on a crucial passage from “The Birds”. In the one-sided agon of the play (there’s no antagonist, and the formal argument is constructed around convincing an already eager audience) a political cosmogony is laid out, by means of which the realization of a utopian city in the sky acquires legitimacy. The birds are now endowed with a new, previously unknown, master narrative. Enlarging the past works here in two directions: At first it provides a lasting consciousness of duration by probing the depth of origin, and then, it brings out an invented, alternative future, on which the past itself can be re-inscribed back, without the horizon of continuity losing its template.
Aristophanes, Birds 465-485
By Zeus, no! But I am hunting for fine, tasty words to break down the hardness of their hearts. To the Chorus. I grieve so much for you, who at one time were kings…
Leader of the Chorus
We kings? Over whom?
…of all that exists, firstly of me and of this man, even of Zeus himself. Your race is older than Saturn, the Titans and the Earth.
Leader of the Chorus
What, older than the Earth!
By Phoebus, yes.
Leader of the Chorus
By Zeus,but I never knew that before!
That’s because you are ignorant and heedless, and have never read your Aesop. He is the one who tell us that the lark was born before all other creatures, indeed before the Earth; his father died of sickness, but the Earth did not exist then; he remained unburied for five days, when the bird in its dilemma decided, for want of a better place, to entomb his father in its own head.
So that the lark’s father is buried at Cephalae.
Hence, if they existed before the Earth, before the gods, the kingship belongs to them by right of priority.
Undoubtedly, but sharpen your beak well; Zeus won’t in a hurry to hand over his scepter to the woodpecker.
It was not the gods, but the birds, who were formerly the masters and kings over men; of this I have a thousand proofs. First of all, I will point you to the cock, who governed the Persians, before all other monarchs, before Darius and Megabazus. It’s in memory of his reign that he is called the Persian bird.
Aristophanes, of course, was aware of a double-bind that we have carried over into the modernist imaginary: Cosmogonies are also structures of power and the pendulum can swing in any direction. Narratives can be manipulated as well, as the conclusion of “The Birds” exemplifies, under the new tyranny of Pisthetaerus. But as a mythology of origins, this cosmogony throws the body politic (of the birds) back to a future that is assumed to exist, as if the past had shed light on it (and yet fails).
When Euelpides and Pisthetaerus turned to the birds for help, and yet with a masterplan to create a new city in the sky, what they longed for was more than a political community itself; it was about an impossible political community where utopia and law could coexist. De Bernières subtly touches on this sentiment from the father’s viewpoint: “For us the birds represent all the freedom that we can never have. They give us something to aspire that we cannot reach. And sometimes when you aspire to what you cannot reach, one day after all, you will reach it.”
The long duration translates in de Bernières’ story into a multi-temporality, projected back on the journey of “Perched”: The journey of migrants towards Turkey and Europe contains many other journeys from the past, articulated here through the accumulation of cultural meanings embedded in the glass birds across time, and of which the current predicament is only one among the possible worlds. What emerges here is the possibility of an unfamiliar, yet un-created future, not necessarily the direct consequence of the past.
New foundations and master narratives can be anchored anywhere in the temporal index: It is not only the history of Syrian refugees perched on the streets of Istanbul juxtaposed to the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, but also the arrival of Byzas of Megara in the 6th century BC to found the city that three political orders later would become Istanbul, and the permanent condition of migration that shaped the Mediterranean cultural space since times before time (no less than the modern world) or the long journey of glass since the 4th millennium BC, appearing simultaneously in Syria, Eastern Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, long before it adorned the Ottoman palaces of Istanbul, challenging constantly our ideas about archaeological contexts and mobility networks.
5. Whose Cultural Property?
Yet it is significant that the journey of “Perched” has begun in European encyclopedic museums, and has been decidedly defined by their interiors and galleries. The encyclopedic museum, we recognize today, is deeply rooted in the experience of colonialism and the concept of universal history. This all-encompassing history, with Western mankind at the center, is a politically heliocentric universe, largely flawed, but at the same time, manufacturer of the colonial world-system, which has inflicted infinite violence on large swaths of the Earth.
As large collections of artifacts from all over the world, the Western museums perform what archaeologists Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet, have called in their work, the weaponization of time: The dispossession of both cultural property (in museums) and peoples (at the borders of nation states) is not simply circumstantial or situational, but ontological. Controlling time, by placing objects outside of everyday historical experience, often destroying complex systems and contexts along the way, suspends the temporality of objects under the unfulfillable promise of permanence. But isn’t the most fundamental reflection underlying “Perched”, the struggle of memory against the destruction of richly layered, pluriversal, complex contexts? An answer is difficult to arrive at.
And thinking about birds, is for us, always thinking also about the museum. Most of our knowledge about birds comes from the collections of encyclopedic natural museums, often mediated by the utilitarian beliefs of 19th century social science. Commenting on the 33,000 years old Water Bird in Flight from the Hohle Fels Cave in south-west Germany, carved in stone during the Upper Paleolithic, John Berger made an important remark for our context: “The supposition that animals entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Is there an intrinsic relationship between promises and debts?
If we have a debt with the birds, what does this debt consist of? And if de Bernières is correct, and birds do in fact represent freedom, shouldn’t we be free also from debt? Hannah Arendt was one of the first modern thinkers to treat the faculty of making promises with philosophical seriousness, arguing that they help stabilize the world by making it predictable to the extent that it is humanly possible and that the reality of the space of appearances, where concerted power could arise, is guaranteed only by mutual promise or contract.
But it was David Graeber in his monumental anthropology of debt, who made the connection between debts and promises: “A debt is the perversion of a promise.” All human economies have been heretofore based on a system of debt and credit that boils down to trust between peoples, and not to barter as economic historians have chosen to believe. All revolutionary movements in the ancient world were defined by a single program: The cancellation of all debt.
If the crucial question here is the settlement of a debt, could we try perhaps to free ourselves (this was a fundamental argument in Graeber’s work: we can only be free with each other, not from each other) and cancel our debt through a promise? The promise of time, of giving time, of giving time back, another idea I’m borrowing from Hicks and Mallet. What would it mean to give time back in the context of the birds in the Damascus Room?
All of the Oriental interiors in Germany were legally acquired as per extant documentation, and there’s no restitution claim for them as in the case of say the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon Marbles (Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, recently staged an intervention in Dresden through ‘missing’ posters in the city over one of the Benin Bronzes at the museum) but the question remains whether the grand tour of collecting antiquities in the Near East during the era of the great archaeological discoveries wasn’t embedded in terrible imbalances of power that remain to this day and account for many violent conflicts in the region.
Archaeology has been the main factory of universal history, and as decolonization struggles all over the world inform us, there’s in fact no such a thing as universal heritage, because heritage isn’t a concrete set of parameters for the preservation of a common past, but instead, a notion and symptom of time crises, in order to (re)produce pasts as touristic sites, with the present tense as the boundary event of our world.
Yet there’s something perplexing happening in the journey of Felekşan Onar’s swallows through these stately rooms in Berlin, London and Dresden: The birds, both as metaphor and artifact, imbued with so many blueprints of time, recent and distant, have begun accumulating contexts rather than merely reflecting them. With an eventual journey back from Germany to Istanbul in the horizon (a number of birds have been accessioned to the collection of the V&A Glass Gallery, and the permanent home of “Perched” will be in due course of time at the Dresden collection), they are now also pregnant with unfamiliar, open-ended, contingent futures.
Giving back time to cultural artifacts and peoples means essentially to re-insert them into temporality not only in absolute terms but through the relative durability of institutions and political agency. One can’t help but wonder after a reading of “Perched” through de Bernières and Aristophanes, whether it wouldn’t be possible to create new future-oriented cosmogonies for these artifacts and stories, beyond and outside closed museological systems.
A striking passage in Aristophanes, during the first formal argument between the two elderly Athenians and the hoopoe, brings to mind a poetic spatial metaphor: When Pisthetaerus asks the hoopoe to look up and down and what he has seen, the sky (οὐρανός) the bird says to have seen and the pole (πόλος) of the birds that Pisthetaerus refers to, do not carry identical meaning. The sky is a region of the atmosphere and outer space, a kind of unbounded expanse, whereas a pole, is a vaulted dome, the firmament, that in ancient cosmologies divided the primal sea from the dry land.
This firmament as David Konstan argues, is a bounded space, ‘not everywhere’, which necessarily grounds the utopian city in the sky within the framework of the polis, a community. Pisthetaerus goes on to add that this pole is a place (τόπος), expression which Seferis identifies with a country or fatherland in Mythistorima X. There’s a circumscribed place to stand on, even in the sky.
Aristophanes, Birds, 178-196
What have you seen?
The clouds and the sky.
Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
How their pole?
Or, if you like it, their place. And since it turns and passes through the whole universe, it is called ‘pole.’ If you build and fortify it, you will turn your pole into a city. In this way you will reign over mankind as you do over the grasshoppers and you will cause the gods to die of rabid hunger.
The air is between earth and heaven. When we want to go to Delphi, we ask the Boeotians for leave of passage; in the same way, when men sacrifice to the gods, unless the latter pay you tribute, you exercise the right of every nation towards strangers and don’t allow the smoke of the sacrifices to pass through your city and territory.Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
By earth! by snares! by network! by cages! I never heard of anything more cleverly conceived; and, if the other birds approve, I am going to build the city along with you.
The gift of time that cancels debt, at the heart of “Perched”, is a with-world, beyond the space of appearances and the realm of objects, which according to Sophie Loidolt, in her study of Arendt’s political intersubjectivity, “emerges through our intersubjective relations and which holds all these dimensions of meaning together in one world where we can exist as humans.” The gift is a promise, the promise of multiple meanings embedded in concrete, actual experienced time, looking backwards and forwards, without the grip of the instant. Where’s eternity then?
“Perched” by Felekşan Onar is on view at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, September 5, 2020 through February 21, 2021 (the museum is currently closed due to pandemic regulations), the monograph “Perched: Felekşan Onar”, published by Paul Holberton Publishing, with contributions by Felekşan Onar, Nadania Idriss, Stefanie Bach, Louis de Bernières, Stefan Weber, Mariam Rosser-Owen and Glenn Adamson, is currently available, in English and German.
Detail from Felekşan Onar’s “Perched”, V&A Museum, Islamic Galleries, 2019. Photo Credit: Daniel Oduntan.
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.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
Gregory Dobrov, “Aristophanes’ Birds and the Metaphor of Deferral”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1990)
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012
Francois Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time”, Columbia University Press, 2016
Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019, open access
David Konstan, “A City in the Air: Aristophanes’ Birds”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1990)
Sophie Loidolt, Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity, Routledge Research in Phenomenology, 2019
Annegret Nippa & Anke Scharrahs, The Damascus Room in Dresden – A Treasure of Ottoman Interior Design in Germany, 2003, online
Anke Scharrahs, “Insight into a Sophisticated Painting Technique: Three Polychrome Wooden Interiors from Ottoman Syria in German Collections and Field Research in Damascus”, in Studies in Conservation, Volume 55, 2010
“As a serpent awaits a man in front of its home on the mountain,
One who dined on ruinous plants [pharmaka], and a dread anger overtakes him
As it coils back and glares terribly before his home.
So Hektor in his unquenchable [asbestos] fury [menos] would not retreat,
After he leaned his shining shield on the wall’s edge.
He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart
As he stands before the walls of his city in book 22, Hektor is compared to a snake, coiled to strike an intruder. This moment of anticipation of violence is prolonged as Hektor turns away from the pleas of his family not to face Achilles. In a moment marked by the repeated speech introduction “ (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν), Hektor ruminates, and worries despite what the opening simile anticipates. He resolves to face Achilles, but then immediately changes his mind: “When Hektor noticed Achilles, a tremor overtook him and he could not bear to wait for him / but he left the gates behind and left in flight” Ἕκτορα δ᾽, ὡς ἐνόησεν, ἕλε τρόμος: οὐδ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἔτλη / αὖθι μένειν, ὀπίσω δὲ πύλας λίπε, βῆ δὲ φοβηθείς).
What happens between the end of Hektor’s speech and his choice to run from Achilles?
In the fall of 2019, I submitted my final manuscript for a book about the Homeric Odyssey and modern psychology. To say I had spent a lot of time with this book would be as much of an understatement as to make the overly banal claim that I learned a lot in the process. Both statements are true, but neither gets to the core of how much researching and writing this book changed the way I read ancient literature and think about just being a human being.
This project started with the observation in class one day in 2011 that Odysseus and Telemachus may be suffering from something we’d call learned helplessness and ended up with a reading of the whole epic as rumination on human agency, traumatized peoples, and the way stories have the power both to liberate and to chain us.
But, as with most long projects, my feeling at the submission was one of release and escape–every time I finish a paper or book, I wonder if I am done, if I have written all the words in me, and whether I have any other thoughts worth forming. I wanted to be done with the Odyssey and its trauma for a while, to think about something new, or, perhaps, to think about nothing at all.
And so much of what I read for the Odyssey book continued to course through my mind. Some people may bristle at the terminology, but it was clear to me that we were being collectively traumatized: by our fear about the safety of our lives and our loved ones’; by our inability to do anything about it; by the massive and arrogant failure of our government to protect or aid us; by fears about losing our homes and feeding our children; by the necessary and powerful reminder of racist rot at the core of our civilization provided by the #BlackLivesMatter protests; by the horrible uncertainty of the Trump administration’s attempt to steal the election; by rising threats of violence; and by a white supremacist coup. Each week and month of the pandemic was a frozen moment in an actual apocalypse, the unveiling of the terrible truths of who and what we are.
The question I started asking myself in April was whether or not knowing you’re being traumatized helps you process the trauma. The answers I found were contrary. So I started doing the very thing I swore I wasn’t going to do anymore, to think about Homer and human psychology. Somewhere along the way that took me back to Hektor, Troy’s prince and protector.
Very few people who read or write about the Iliad can make great sense of Hektor. His traditional character is part of James Redfield’s widely cited The Tragedy of Hektor (1975) and his strange engagement with his advisor Poulydamas–with whom he argues on three separate occasions–is seen as a function of the limits of Trojan politics but rarely as evidence of the emotional response of an actual human being.
Indeed, throughout the Iliad, Hektor’s behavior can be hard to parse, and so much harder to defend. He is harsh to his brother, but within limits; his kindness to Helen and joy in his son seems ill-fit to his rejection of Andromache’s advice. In war, he seems relentless, speaking repeatedly of glory and the alternating chance of war, while pursuing an offensive onslaught that seems either wholly irrational or an artificial hastening of the war’s ultimate plot. Sure, we see the man-killing Hektor in all his unquenchable fury, but there are questions: he barely fights Ajax to a draw in book 7; he needs the help of another man and a god to slay Patroklos in book 16; he must be tricked to face Achilles when the final conflict awaits him.
I have always had a soft spot for Hektor–in his acceptance of his doomed state, I used to find a welcome nobility in contrast to Achilles’ selfishness. And, yet, the way he dismisses Poulydamas or ignores Andromache has always troubled me. His final flight from Achilles has always been something I failed to explain to students. Over the years I have called it denial, escapism, a wavering panic when the doom on the horizon finally appears. Who among us can say we won’t quail in our final moments, or shudder and engage in a brief fantasy that there’s more life yet to live?
During the pandemic, I started to think of Hektor as someone marked by prolonged uncertainty and torturous anticipation. In a way, we have lived in our own kind of siege over the past year: often unable to leave our homes, afraid of what days and weeks would bring, and plagued beyond all else by uncertainties that undermined many things we held to be true, even sacred. I started to think of Hektor and the Trojans as living this way not for one year, but for nine, hearing of the deaths or abductions of family members in other cities, seeing no way to break out. Before the beginning of the epic we know, Hektor spent nine years pacing the walls of his city, unable to fight off his enemies yet unable to flee. Until, of course, the Iliad’s action lets him break free.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
In the third edition of his The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease (2014), Robert Scaer looks at the cycle of arousal and rest that characterizes the function of our nervous system in response to crisis or danger. In simple terms, we can think of the fight or flight response which triggers different neurotransmitters to prepare for rapid response: in a resting state, our bodies are prepared for and more efficient at digesting and storing nutrients and also at processing and storing knowledge of facts and events (13). The fight/flight response puts us in a high-energy nervous state, raising blood-pressure and moving blood into our muscular system.
Such a shifting of biological resources is an essential survival tool. But when we experience prolonged arousal without release or resolution we can become locked in or frozen, establishing an unstable state that may look immobile but may actually be “rapid and exaggerated sympathetic/parasympathetic oscillation (15). To put it in other words: when we face a crisis situation we can neither fight nor flee, our “freeze” reaction is a parafunctional cycling through the same fight/flight and resting process over and over again. In this state, our minds can become “numb and dissociated” and our vascular and digestive systems suffer. So, if over the past year you’ve found yourself inexplicably tired, facing unanticipated digestive issues, out of breath with a racing heart while sitting still, you may have been showing the symptoms of your body encoding our trauma
As Scaer outlines (15-16), Animals often show remarkable responses to this freeze (a “discharge”) that can include convulsions and more in an instinctive attempt to restore “autonomic homeostasis” (16), that is, stability. Human beings, however, rarely show such ‘rests’ to discharge the trauma and reset the body. Such an inability to resolve the freeze moment, it seems, compounds the long term dangers of physical responses to trauma and the likelihood that memories of the events will incite similar physical responses, a return to a traumatized state. Scaer argues that many chronic diseases may be rooted in the reshaping of our brains by trauma and the inability of our conscious minds to distinguish between now and traumatizing events.
Reading Hektor’s Trauma
I see so much of my sleepless nights, habitual doom scrolling, and somatic disarray in this description. And during these moments, I have wondered how this can change the way we approach Hektor both in a single moment and from the perspective of the whole narrative.
When we see Hektor before the walls of Troy, he is “coiled” like a snake (elissomenos) and he wouldn’t retreat because of his unquenchable heart. Note that I translate that participle clause ἄσβεστον ἔχων μένος causally. This is, of course, a significant choice, but I think a well-motivated one. This is the only time in Greek epic when menos—one’s energy, life force—is described as asbestos, “inextinguishable, unsatisfiable”. The adjective appears to mark extreme or powerful expressions of emotion as in describing the laughter of the gods at Hephaistos (1.599) or war cries of groups as they engage in battle (11.500, 11.530; 13.169; 13.450; 16.267). In the Odyssey, asbeston twice modifies kleos (4.584; 7.133). This word seems to describe extreme moments of pitch, or aggression with a sense of duration. But as Lorenzo Garcia argues in his Homeric Durability, asbestosmarks things that ultimately cannot endure: what the sound of a laugh or a war-cry share in common with Hektor’s menos is an unsustainable intensity. In addition, the adjective marks something that is public, shared, or heard by others. Here, the asbeston menos is something private, a massive, unsustainable thing somehow contained within a single person.
The simile compares Hektor to an animal coiled for attack; in describing his refusal to retreat, the narrative uniquely describes the energy driving him; the speech introduction that follows places him in a motif of deliberation over fighting or fleeing. Speeches introduced by the formula “He really glowered as he spoke to his own proud heart” (ὀχθήσας δ᾽ἄρα εἶπε πρὸς ὃν μεγαλήτορα θυμόν) are dramatic representations of deliberation—moments that happen in an instant but are unfolded in the time of performance to allow audiences to consider the inner workings of heroic minds. The simile of the serpent creates extra space and invites audiences to consider the space between the image of the coiled snake and Hektor’s actions: it is as much about how Hektor is the snake and how he is not.
For mortals, the moment of deliberation seems to be that very freeze before the selection of fight or flight: at 11.404-410, Odysseus, caught alone in battle worries about being overcome as the battle rages around him. At 17.90, Menelaos pauses in the defense of Patroklos’ body, afraid to face Hektor alone. At 18.5, Achilles is paralyzed by fear that something has happened to Patroklos and later at 20.143, Achilles finds himself perplexed at the sudden disappearance of Aeneas who has been rescued by the gods. At 21.552, Agenor the son of Antenor pauses mid-battle to decide to run or face Achilles.
The participle characterizing the speech, okhthêsas, moreover, expresses anger or resentment and may be an iterative of ekhthomai, that same root that gives us Greek words for hostility and enmity. Especially when combined with the asseverative particle ἄρα, this verb communicates an inward wrath at a choice with no good options. It is the coiling of anticipation, of loss, and of a loss of control. It is, I think, a formulaic marker for the process of navigating between fight and flight. In its pairing with the opening simile, it marks Hektor in that same moment, in an extended freeze. His resolution, however, contrasts with the other scenes: Hektor ends up acting contrary to his choice to stand.
Hektor’s menos, his anger, is a reflex of his loss of control and of his longing for something to be different. Andromache anticipates this when she speaks to him in book (6.407-409):
“Divine one, your menos will destroy you and you do not pity
Your infant child and my wretched fate, the one who will soon
Be your widow. For the Achaeans are on their way to kill you…”
Hektor’s drive to protect those he cares for most is the very thing that separates him from them, that unites them only in loss and longing. This calls to my mind the work of my friend, Emily Austin, who has written a book foregrounding the thematic importance of loss and longing (pothos) in the Iliad: it is the sudden absence that motivates Achilles’ menis. I think it is also the unconquerable fire that keeps Hektor from ever truly being still.
Thinking about the fight/flight/freeze complex as described by Scaer helps us confirm the poetic function of a Homeric formula: it also serves to invite audiences into a mind navigating a moment of crisis, of choice or judgment (hence Greek krisis) over running away or facing danger. In combination with a striking simile and a strange description of Hektor’s menos, this pattern also helps us see what can happen when the deliberation fails, when the freeze prolongs. Hektor’s menos is overloaded, it is too thoroughly interiorized, coiled inside him, breaking him from within.
Hektor, Fighting and Fleeing
Almost 15 years ago, Elton Barker and I wrote an article about debates over fight or flight in the New Archilochus Poem and Homer. In it, we argued that both Homer and Archilochus were engaged in a tradition of poetic debate about the merits of fight or flight, transcending our narrow concepts of genre and operating ahierarchically, that is, prioritizing neither Homer nor Archilochus, but providing evidence of debate and reflection over time. I don’t think we’re wrong, still; but I do think that this debate is about more than drama and poets: it is about representing human emotion and cognition.
Broadly speaking, Scaer’s framework and my own experience makes me think that we need to rethink Hektor’s behavior throughout the epic and the depiction of Trojan responses to the war in general, allowing more richness to the emotive and cognitive content. There are thematic ties that tell a story of their own.
When Hektor speaks to Andromache in book 6, he anticipates the shame he worries about in book 22 and considers his wife’s suffering after his death. He expresses a characteristic fatalism when he dismisses Andromache to her weaving, saying, “I claim that there is no one who has escaped his fate, / whether a good person or a bad one, after they are born” (μοῖραν δ’ οὔ τινά φημι πεφυγμένον ἔμμεναι ἀνδρῶν, /οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ἐπὴν τὰ πρῶτα γένηται, 6.488-489).
Perhaps it is too much to read into this passage to say that Hektor thinks flight is impossible (he does…), but it certainly helps explain his subsequent actions: keeping the Trojan army out on the field at night in book 8, breaking through the Greek fortifications despite a bad omen in book 12, and refusing to return to the defense of the city in book 18. When Polydamas calls for them to retreat, Hektor continues to insist Zeus is on their side and declares, “I will not flee him from the ill-sounding battle, but I will stand / against Achilles either to win great strength or to be taken myself. War is common ground and the one who kills is killed” (…οὔ μιν ἔγωγε / φεύξομαι ἐκ πολέμοιο δυσηχέος, ἀλλὰ μάλ’ ἄντην /στήσομαι, ἤ κε φέρῃσι μέγα κράτος, ἦ κε φεροίμην / ξυνὸς ᾿Ενυάλιος, καί τε κτανέοντα κατέκτα, 18.306-309).
When Hektor freezes in the choice to fight or flee in book 22, he knows there is no other option. In his speech, he often surprises modern audiences with a wish that he and Achilles could exchange pledges like young lovers and wishes neither would have to die even as he admits that shame would prevent him from retreat. As another friend Justin Arft has recently argued, Hektor “transitions from imagined mediation, to being unarmed, to being a woman, to intimate discourse, to he and Achilles in the place of lovers” (SCS 2021) and is flipping through cognitive schemas (patterns of behavior) trying to figure out what to do. It is as if Hektor has a handful of cards and is repeatedly flipping through them, looking for one that will change a fate he knows cannot be changed. He goes back through his own stories, perhaps stopping at his conversation with Andromache and thinking about what he loses, what he needs, and the absence of choices remaining to him. At the end, he returns to that deceptive idea, that fate alternates and he just might win the day (εἴδομεν ὁπποτέρῳ κεν Ὀλύμπιος εὖχος ὀρέξῃ, 130).
After not even a year yet in a society in trauma, I now see Hektor as someone whose response to the false hope of choice is to overcompensate, to come on too strong, and to engage in willful denial. He fights to extremes and then he flees excessively too. He is burdened by the weight of his past failures and the ultimate futility of his actions.
The Trojans in Trauma
Of course, there’s not a single way to think about this moment. David Morris in his 2015 The Evil Hours notes that Freud theorized that war neuroses came from an internal conflict between self preservation and responsibility to honor and comrades (15). As Jonathan Shay adds in his Achilles in Vietnam, trauma undermines “the cohesion of consciousness” (1995,188). And this fragmentation has been born out by neurobiological studies since.
The additional thing to think about for Hektor and for us, is that the impact of trauma can be increased by duration. What if we think of the Trojan leader as coiled for nine years, as representing a people besieged, constantly poised between the need to fight and the desire for an impossible flight. The repeated suppression of the fight or flight choice, the prolonged freeze would be traumatizing neurobiologically. It would change the way Hektor’s mind and body worked.
I do want to be careful to say that I am not saying the Greeks would have seen it this way precisely, but rather that there is clearly a traditional marker through the collocation of simile, deliberative introduction, and the invitation to the audience to linger with Hektor for a moment (the freeze) that modern observers have seen as having both psychological and neurobiological components. Ancient audiences would have seen their own peers shaped and reshaped by similar traumas and their poems show evidence of understanding the long term impact experiences like isolation, betrayal, and helplessness can have on the working of human minds (think of Philoktetes, Ajax, Odysseus, and others like Klytemnestra and Medea in tragedy).
So, this is not a positivistic reading saying “this thing is definitely that” but more that our modern scientific discourse has outlined a space of behavior that traditional poetics found meaningful too and that the correlation between these observations may help us understand something about Hektor others have missed. But I think this is bigger than Hektor: it may be about the Trojans, a people besieged, as a whole.
In the traditional story of the Trojan War, the story of the horse seems all but ridiculous (ok, it is ridiculous). But what if we considered the Trojan willingness to accept a clear trap, to engage in such extreme denial, as a function of their collective trauma? We are no strangers to large parts of our population refusing to accept what others see as fact, in engaging in clearly self-destructive behavior because it adheres so much more closely to what they want to be true and reality causes them so much pain.
In Greek myth, trouble tends to run in families and cities, traveling from father to son and grandson until the whole line is used up. This too resounds with what we have learned over the past century. We know trauma can be passed down three generations. Large-scale studies of oppressed populations show greater evidence of trauma related behaviors (depression, suicide, drug use) in the grand-chhildren of those who suffered abuse and displacement than their peers. And these responses may be about more than the power of discourse and socialization. There’s growing evidence for the reshaping of DNA as a result of trauma. Our ancestors’ experiences may impact those parts of our DNA that inform our mental health and shape our responses to traumatic events in our lives.
(As a necessary aside, this makes it even harder to defend people who deny the justice of reparations on financial or ethical grounds. The legacy of past traumas are still shaping people today.)
Trauma impacts our physical health; it impedes learning and new memories; it alters how we respond to crisis; untreated, it deprives us of even instinctual advantages. The Iliad’s story of the Trojan War gives its audiences traumatized warriors and families on both sides. It shows people fraying then unraveling under the pressures of long term conflict. And it provides us with vignettes of men and women trying to make sense of the world as everything they know breaks down. When Hektor tries to face his death, but then runs, the traditional language and its images unfold a human mind at its most intense moment of crisis.
Over the past few years, I have often found myself arguing about what the humanities are, about what they are good for. A poem like the Iliad is not some timeless relic, a perfect object to be worshipped for the unmixed good it can bring. But it is a deeply complex inheritance, a poem that gives us the opportunity to move between what we know and see now and what others experienced thousands of years ago. By tracing out the story of Hektor’s mind and his body’s burden, we may find just a little help in learning how to carry our own.
“But after you kill the suitors in your home
Either with a trick or openly with sharp bronze,
Then go, taking with you a well-shaped oar,
until you come to people who know nothing of the sea,
men who do not eat food that has been mixed with salt.
These people also know nothing of purple-prowed ships,
Nor well-shaped oars which give the ships their wings.
I will speak to you an obvious sign and it will not escape you.
Whenever some other traveler meets you and asks
Why you have a winnowing fan on your fine shoulder,
At that very point drive the well-shaped oar in the ground
And once you sacrifice a bull a a boar which has loved sows,
Go home again and complete holy hekatombs
To the immortal gods, who live in the broad sky,
All of them in order. And then from the sea death will come
To you in a gentle way, and it will kill you
Already taken by a kind old age. Your people
Will be prosperous around you. I speak these things truly.”
Why does Odysseus leave home again and how does he die? According to the prophecy, he still has to make amends with Poseidon. From this perspective, his journey is a type of expiation. As with many details in the Odyssey, however, we have only Odysseus to trust: he is the one who narrates the prophecy! One slight difference between the two versions of the prophecy gives me pause.
Odysseus does not come straight out and tell the story to his wife. Instead, he merely outlines that there will be more troubles and uses language of toil and suffering which is familiar from the rest of the epic.
“Wife, we have not yet come to the end of our struggles
But toil without measure is still in front of us,
Great and hard toil, all the things which I have to complete.
For the spirit of Teiresias prophesied this to me
On that day when I went to the home of Hades
To inquire about my companions’ homecoming and my own.”
For someone who has suffered so much in this epic with not knowing the outcome of events, with the paralysis that comes from grief that is unresolved, Penelope is compelled to ask Odysseus to tell her (256-262) ending with a gnomic plea that “it is not at all worse to know right away” (πεύσομαι, αὐτίκα δ’ ἐστὶ δαήμεναι οὔ τι χέρειον). Odysseus winds up his story and prepares to recite the prophecy, but he begins differently.
“But I will tell you and I will not hide it.
My heart will not take pleasure in it. For I take no joy
Since he ordered me to go again through many cities of men
Holding a well-shaped oar in my hands…”
After building up the suffering and forestalling any clarification, he seems almost to protest too much that he will not enjoy what the future brings. His curse, he claims, is that he is ordered to go through many cities of men. The absence of this line in the original narration alone would be telling, but it is even more marked because it recalls the third line of the epic’s proem: πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω (“he knew the cities and the mind of many people”. This traveling through many cities for which Odysseus is famous enough to be marked at the beginning of the poem does not really happen in our epic.
Note as well, that Odysseus’ tale of the future undoes much of what the Homeric Odyssey accomplishes. His future toils are his alone: there is no room for the lives of his son, elderly father, or wife. So, even though Odysseus is home and reunited with his family, this new revelation is enough to imply, perhaps, that when this story is over, Odysseus returns to himself, the one before the Odyssey brought him home again.
This is, I think, the inspiration behind Cavafy’s startling poem on the topic.
C. P. Cavafy, Second Odyssey [Walter Kaiser, trans.]
A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps,
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.
Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaca was small.
The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s aging years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.
And like rays they faded.
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbors you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.
The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s aging years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
And so he left.
As the shores of Ithaca gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.
Another reception of Odysseus that echoes some of these themes is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. The poem begins with frustration, the complaint that it is useless for a king to sit and rule men less than he with an aging wife, a crowd that cannot understand him (1–5). Tennyson’s Odysseus has retreated into an interior life, rejecting the dismal repetition of his life at home, and imaging him self as he once was. For this hero, a life at home is a life of wasted opportunities. The poem’s Ulysses confesses “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees…” (6–7). This Ulysses understands his coming transformation: “…I am become a name” (11) and this name is made up of his travels, his suffering, and his joys (11–20). The narrator continues (20–30):
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
Although in the next portion of the poem, Ulysses looks briefly back at the world he leaves to his son (31–42), this passage homes in on the Odyssey’s hero in a different light. Odysseus is looking forward to the boundary of death and although he concedes it is closer than ever before, he seems determined to inhabit it and atomize it, turning what remains of life to something like Zeno’s paradox, as if by filling every portion of it, he may always have another portion to fill. As will become clear from the prophecy itself, boundaries and limits are at the very core of his worry.
Tennyson’s Ulysses returns to the sea just as the Odyssey’s protagonist promises. He narrates a journey through the space of the sea that is also a straining against the bounds of time. This final battle, personal if epic still, culminates in Tennyson’s final, grasping boast: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
But to what is this Odysseus yielding? The story of the prophecy is ultimately that of an externally imposed compulsion. In its simplest form, this is death. In the more complex vision of the poem, this is fate, the very thing Zeus says men make worse through their own recklessness at the beginning of the epic.
Perhaps what is really chilling is that Odysseus is looking forward to the end of his story, to his own death. Few of us embrace the idea of our own ending. And when we know that the milestones of life and perhaps our greatest accomplishments are behind us, we often have little choice but to look toward the end on the horizon. This is a different type of helplessness from what Odysseus endures during his ‘exile’ with Kalypso–when he is stranded on Ogygia he has no where to go and all the time in the world. Once he gets home, he can go anywhere, but where has all that time gone?
In a way, Odysseus continues on the journey of his life rather than stopping and facing the reality around him. In other heroic tales–Bellerophon and Herakles especially, but Gilgamesh too–after a hero completes his great deeds, he metaphorically and literally challenges death only, ultimately, to fail. The fall of a hero is an allegory for what happens to us all when we are no longer young but not yet old: we either scan the horizon for our ending, or run to avoid even looking for it.
But I think there may be another allegory beyond this one. As Alex Purves (2006) and John Peradotto (along with Ann Bergren 1983) note, Odysseus’ emphasis the fact that they are not at “the limits of their suffering” (πάντων ἐπὶ πείρατ’ ἀέθλων) and on the “boundless toil” (ἀμέτρητος πόνος) strains against the limits of the narrative and the poem. But this epic is also about the boundaries of a life as it is lived. To look for the experiences of the life beyond the story we are living is to look for the promise that this story that our story will not end.
And, again, in that oar–as Alex Purves notes–we find a promise of transformation as the relationship between signifier and signified breaks down. The oar becomes a thing it isn’t when it is transported into different lands and, once planted, it is a “clear sign”, a sema of what has been accomplished. In the Iliad (7.81-91), a sema is the burial mound which will tell the story of what has transpired to future generations. It reduces an active, living thing, to a still, singular sign of the past. Here, of course, is the paradox of kleos perhaps articulated by Achilles’ rejection of the Iliadic ethos when he appears in the Odyssey: the story that continues on and does not change is not the self. The memory of the person is not the person remembered.
And in the Odyssey, it has already been established that an oar can function as the marker for a tomb–this is precisely what Elpenor requests when he meets Odysseus after dying (11.68-78). As a marker, a tombstone is final and, without readers, simple rather than complex. The single sign in the future Teiresias promises in the first version of the prophecy stands at odds with the multiplicity of meanings within the Odyssey and the multiple versions of the man whose tale it tells. So, while others have argued well that the prophecy anticipates a day and a place beyond the bounds of the heroic world, of epic meaning, and the range of epic transmission, I would add that this moment also reflects anxiety about the limits of the self.
(for a longer bibliography see at the end of the post)
Porphyry has an allegorical take Odysseus’ death and the tale of the sea.
Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 35
“And thus one may not escape from his toils, but when he has emerged from the sea altogether that his thoughts are so untouched of the sea and material matters, that he believes that an oar is a winnowing fan because of his total inexperience of the tools and affairs of the sea.”
Of course, in ancient myth, the “death from the sea” bit was not always considered an allegory. Homeric interpreters struggle over whether the phrase “from the sea” means a death that travels from the sea or one that happens away from the sea. Most versions settle on the first interpretation.
According to Aeschylus’ fragmentary Psychagogoi, Teiresias prophesied to Odysseus that his death would come from the sea in an avian fecal format:
“As a heron flies on high, he will strike you with shit from his stomach’s end.
And the thorns from that watery food will rot your old and balding skin.”
This may correspond to the Odyssey‘s cryptic note that “death will come from the sea”. For a great discussion, see Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. 1993. 711-712.
A scholiast to the Odyssey glosses the “death will come to you from the sea” line as follows: “Some also say that Hephaistos at the bidding of Kirkê fashioned a spear from Telegonos from a sea sting-ray’s stinger, which Phorkys had killed while it was trying to eat fish in his harbor. The spear-base was adamantine and the handle was gold and that killed Odysseus.” (καί φασιν ὡς ἐντεύξει τῆς Κίρκης ῞Ηφαιστος κατεσκεύασε Τηλεγόνῳ δόρυ ἐκ τρυγόνος θαλασσίας, ἣν Φόρκυς ἀνεῖλεν ἐσθίουσαν τοὺς ἐν τῇ Φορκίδι λίμνῃ ἰχθῦς• οὗ τὴν μὲν ἐπιδορατίδα ἀδαμαντίνην, τὸν δὲ στύρακα χρυσοῦν εἶναι, τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἀνεῖλεν,Schol. ad. Od. 11.134).
“Telegonos, after learning from Kirkê that he was the child of Odysseus, sailed out looking for him. After he arrived in Ithaka, he began to steal some of the Island’s cattle and he wounded Odysseus in the hand, who came out to help against him, with a spear that had a point made of a sting-ray’s spine. Then Odysseus died.”
This poisonous sting-ray weapon, as you might imagine, is exactly the type of thing Hellenistic authors might get excited about. The fragmentary historian Dictys tells a bit of a more complicated story: he has Odysseus send Telemachus away because dream-interpreters told him he would be killed by his son. According to Dictys, Telegonos struck him in the lung (τιτρώσκει τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα κατὰ τοῦ πλευροῦ) “with a sting-ray’s point given to him by Kirkê” (ὅπερ ἔδωκε κέντρον θαλάσσιον τῆι Κίρκηι, FGH 1a49F fr. 10).
When Eustathius discusses Odysseus’ death from the sea (Comm. ad Od. 1.404) he first makes it clear that what is interesting is that Odysseus doesn’t die on the sea (ἀλλ’ ὁ θάνατός σοι οὐκ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔσται ἀλλ’ ἔξω αὐτῆς.) He then presents features both from the scholia (the special stin-ray spear) and Dictys while also explaining that Oppian tells us more about this in the Halieutica. Eustathius explains that the spear-point made from a sting-ray was considered especially sharp by some (αἰχμὴ δὲ τρυγόνος τὸ ἐπὶ τῷ ἀδάμαντι ὀξύτατον). A basic point to be drawn from his extensive discussion is that the sting-ray spear was a generally well-known motif.
It is so well-known, of course, that the Scholia to Lykophron must present an alternative. There, Telegonos does kill Odysseus but Kirkê resurrects him with her drugs, only after which was Telegonos married to Penelope and Telemakhos was married to Kassiphone, his half-sister. (ἄλλοι δέ φασιν ὅτι ἀναιρεθεὶς ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὑπὸ Τηλεγόνου πάλιν ὑπὸ τῆς Κίρκης φαρμάκῳ ἀνέστη καὶ ἐγήματο *Κασσιφόνην* Τηλεμάχῳ, Πηνελόπη δ’ ἐν Μακάρων νήσοις ἐγήματο Τηλεγόνῳ, Schol ad. Lykophron 805). But that’s a story for another day.
[updated c. 2 hours later with an assist from Erik (see comments for his addition of the Tennyson poem)]
Some works consulted
Benardete, S. 1997. The Bow and the Lyre: A Platonic Reading of the Odyssey. Lanham.
Bergen, Ann, 1983. “Odyssean Temporality: Many (Re)Turns,” in C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine, eds., Approaches to Homer. Austin. 38–73.
Buchan, M. 2004. The Limits of Heroism: Homer and the Ethics of Reading. Ann Arbor.
Foley, J. M. 1997. “Traditional Signs and Homeric Art,” in E. Bakker and A. Kahane, eds., Written Voices, Spoken Signs: Tradition, Performance,and the Epic Text. Cambridge, Mass. 56–82.
Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: the Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.
“[Metrodorus said] concerning the laws and customs among men that Agamemnon was the sky, Achilles was the sun, Helen was the earth, and Alexander was air, that Hektor was the moon and that the rest were named analogically with these. He claimed that Demeter was the liver, Dionysus the spleen, and Apollo was bile [anger].”
Some Allegorical Readings from the Scholia Vetera to the Odyssey (Dindorf)
Schol. E. ad Od. 1.38
“Allegorically, an uttered speech is called Hermes because of his hermeneutic nature and he is the director because he manages the soul’s thoughts and the mind’s reflections. He is Argeiphontes because he is bright and pure of murder. For he teaches, and evens out and calms the emotional part of the soul. Or, it is because he killed the dog Argos, which stands for madness and disordered thoughts. He is the one who makes the reflections of the mind appear bright and clean.
*Heraclitus the Obscure claims that Hermes is a representation of Odysseus’ rational mind (Homeric Problems 72-73)
Schol E.M. ad Od. 4.384
“The winds and every sort of breeze”: Some allegorize Proteus as matter itself. For without matter, they claim that the creator [could not] have made everything distinct. For, although matter is never clear to us, men, trees, water and all things come from it. Eidothea, you see, is thought. Matter produces thought once it is condensed. Others allegorize Proteus as the right part of the spring when the earth first begins to make the shapes of grapes and offspring. Menelaos, since it was not the right time for sailing and he missed the spring, sailed in the wrong direction. The name Proteus is suitable for allegory.”
“The holy cave of the Nymphs”: Some allegorize the cave as the universe, the nymphs are souls, they are also bees and the bodies are men. The two gates are the exit of souls, and one is creation, the entry point of the soul, in which no part of the body enters, but there are only souls. They are immortal. From this they call them olive—or, because of the victorious crown, or because…which is nourishing…”
“And many report that “it will please” does not mean “it will bring pleasure” but it will be of some use”
et multi ‘iuvabit’ non delectabit, sed usus erit tradunt.
Seneca, EM 58.5-6
“If someone beset by troubles should say, “Perhaps someday it will bring pleasure to recall these things,” then let this person fight with their whole spirit. We are conquered if we yield; if we push back against our grief, we prevail.”
In ipsis positus difficultatibus dicat: Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Toto contra ille pugnet animo; vincetur, si cesserit, vincet, si se contra dolorem suum intenderit.
Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.6-8
[comparing Vergil to Homer]
Hom. Od 12.208-12
“Friends, we are in no way unfamiliar with troubles: This is indeed no greater a suffering than that time When the Kyklops trapped us in his cave with violent force. But we got out of there too thanks to my courage, planning, And wit, and I think you will some how remember these things.”
Ulysses reminds his companions of only one reason for their pain while Aeneas reminds them of the results of two catastrophes in order to urge them to have hope for release from their current troubles. Ulysses is pretty indirect in saying “I think you will somehow remember these things” while Aeneas is clearer when he says “Perhaps someday it will bring pleasure to recall these things”.
But what your poet also adds here is a stronger kind of reassurance when he asks people not only to think of a time when they survived but to have hope as well for happiness in the future by promising that following their current labors they will find not only a safe home but a kingdom.”
Vlixes ad socios unam commemoravit aerumnam: hic ad sperandam praesentis mali absolutionem gemini casus hortatur eventu. deinde ille obscurius dixit,
. . . καί που τῶνδε μνήσεσθαι ὀΐω.
. . . forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
‘Sed et hoc quod vester adiecit solacii fortioris est. suos enim non tantum exemplo evadendi, sed et spe futurae felicitatis animavit, per hos labores non solum sedes quietas sed et regna promittens.
Homer, Odyssey 15.398-401
“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.”
“To Athanasios, wine-diluter: Odysseus was persuading Polyphemos to release him from the cave: “I am a sorcerer and it is the right time for me to help you in your lack of success in maritime love. I certainly know chants, binding spells, and love-magic which it is unlikely for Galateia to resist for long. Just promise to move the door, or, more, the door stone. It seems the size of a cliff to me. I’ll swim back faster than this word itself, once I have compelled the girl. What do I mean by compelling her? I will show her here to you once she is easier because of the magic.
She will beg you and plead with you and you will act shy and be bashful. But something still gives me pause here. I am worried that the goat-reek of your blankets will be displeasing for a girl used to luxury, who bathes often during the day. It would be great if you cleaned everything up, sweeping, washing, and fumigating your place. It would be even better if you readied some ivy and bindweed to crown yourself and the girl when she gets here. Why are you wasting time? Why don’t you open the door now?”
In response to this, Polyphemos cackled as loud as he could and clapped his hands. Odysseus believed that because he was expecting to gain this girl quickly he was not able to restrain his joy. But Polyphemos rubbed his own chin and said, “No-man, you seem like the slickest fellow, a polished little businessman. Work on some other elaborate scam. You will never get out of here.”
“The rational part of the soul, which is established in the head, [Plato] made the charioteer of the whole, when he says this (Tim. 90a2-5):
Concerning the most lordly part of our soul, we should concern of its form like this: God has granted to each of us that very spirit which we say lives among us at the highest part of our body, to raise us from the earth closer to our relative, heaven, since we are not an earth-bound growth but a heavenly creature.
Plato sprinkles these things into his own dialogues from the Homeric epics as if drawing from a spring.”
In the tradition of Greek Myth, Hektor’s son Astyanax is well-known for being killed during the sack of the city. Other traditions weren’t having this. To wit, Servius:
Servius Danielis on Vergil, Aeneid, 9.264
devicta genitor (sc. Aeneas) quae cepit Arisba]
“Which his father took once Arisba was conquered…”
“(And yet, according to Homer, Arisba sent aid to the Trojans and was overcome by Achilles)…the city is called Arisba after the daughter of Merpos or Macareus who was the first wife of Paris. According to some authors, Abas, who wrote the Troika, related that after the Greeks left Troy, the rule of this city was given to Astyanax. Antenor expelled him once he had allied himself with the states neighboring where Arisba’s location. Aeneas took this badly and took up arms for Astyanax; once the expedition was prosecuted successfully, he returned the kingdom to Astyanax.”
[[atqui secundum Homerum Arisba Troianis misit auxilia et ab Achille subversa est …]] dicta est Arisba ab Meropis vel Macarei filia, quam primum Paris in coniugio habuit. quidam ab Abante, qui Troica scripsit, relatum ferunt, post discessum a Troia Graecorum Astyanacti ibi datum regnum. hunc ab Antenore expulsum sociatis sibi finitimis civitatibus, inter quas et Arisba fuit. Aeneam hoc aegre tulisse et pro Astyanacte arma cepisse, ac prospere gesta re Astyanacti restituisse regnum.