Tag Archives: Homer

An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Stonefaced

Railsea Imagine, if you will, life on the open sea. Back in the whaling days. Days before enlightenment really took hold. Transpose that thought onto railroads. In a day of huge moles and other underground creatures. Days when no one can imagine where the rails end. That might give you the slightest glimpse of China Miéville’s Railsea. I haven’t read too much of Miéville’s fiction, but I have read enough to know to expect a reality distorting romp through very interesting places. In this take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Miéville takes some noteworthy risks in providing his characters with a native religion. Fiction authors sometimes find religion a constraining topic. Consider Salman Rushdie. More often the restraint appears to be a lack of imagination on the writer’s part—although we can’t define religion very well, we all know what it is and what it’s supposed to look like. Miéville, although in backstory, provides a new religious world where the gods are called Stonefaces and everybody believes in angels, and the explanation of where the railways came from is “theology.” Even our erstwhile Captain Ahab is chasing after her “philosophy” in the form of a giant mole that seems to have taken her arm.

With a sensitivity I’ve rarely found (the fault could well be entirely mine), Miéville utilizes religion, particularly Christianity, to construct an alternate universe. The gospel therefore appears as godsquabble, and to suggest there is anything beyond the sea of rails is literally heresy. Our protagonist Shamus ap Soorap on his voyage of discovery ends up riding to heaven on the rails only to find that there is yet even more beyond. Although religion itself is not central to the story its adjuncts are, creating an entire mythos of life on the railroad. It this world it is clear that wood and trees are related, but no one quite knows how; some suppose an evil god planted false evidence to deceive them. There’s even a healthy dose of the Odyssey thrown in, with the Medes having to pass through a mountain dwelling monster, the siller, and the Kribbis Hole.

But aren’t we really on the ark once more? For surely the bedeviled Pequod was a shadow of the same. In Miéville’s fantasy world, the open ground unpopulated by islands is dangerous. All kinds of innocuous creatures burrow out and will eat the traveler who is not safely ensconced on a train. As if to underscore the Noahic connection, Sham ends up on an actual boat on an actual endless sea. I’m pretty sure Homer never read Genesis, but the parallels between Greek mythology and the Hebrew Bible were long ago recognized by Cyrus Gordon and his colleagues. Miéville continues the tradition. Stranded on an island, Sham tries walking on the rails (read walking on the water and you’ll get the picture) until his faith fades. There are many who declare that religion has outlived its usefulness, but if an author can bring Melville, Homer, and the Bible into an intensely creative story, I think I’ll have to beg to differ.

Dead Sea Souls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are coming to Times Square. Times Square is the kind of place where you know your being sworn at, but you’re never really sure in what language. It is a place of the people. So the sacred meets the profane. Mircea Eliade would be scratching his great head with his pipe firmly in hand. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the sexiest of ancient documents. Their story has it all: mystery, intrigue, conspiracy, romance—well, maybe not romance. A chance discovery by dirt-poor Bedouin in a desert, ads being taken out in the Wall Street Journal, clandestine meetings with ancient texts being viewed through a hurricane fence in a forbidden zone. And do those scrolls ever get around! I first saw them (those that are accessible to the public) in Jerusalem. The next time was in the Field Museum in Chicago. Now I’m feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing.

Those of use who’ve spent much time (too much time) with ancient documents relating to the Bible know that the Dead Sea Scrolls require no introduction. The far more interesting (and sexy–yes, literally sexy) Ugaritic tablets still receive slack-jawed stares of unrecognition, despite their importance. Those who read the stories of Baal, Anat, El and Asherah wonder why the “Classics” only begin with Homer. People have been creative with the gods since writing began. The theme of the human race might be summed up as, “if the gods are so powerful, what am I doing in a dump like this?” Fill in the blanks—that’s religion. From the beginning, once we’d come up with gods, we began to wonder why they treat us so. People are on the receiving end and so many things can put gods into a bad mood. It’s your basic dysfunctional family.

No doubt the Dead Sea Scrolls are important. We have learned much about the context of early Christianities from them. They provide the earliest manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Bible. And they’ve got that Dead Sea mystique. When I read the story of their discovery, I understand why crowds will flock into a tight room to stare through the glass at a bit of shriveled parchment that most of them cannot read. It’s like standing next to someone famous and powerful; maybe Moses or King David. Or more famous and powerful, like George W. Bush. I know, that was the last administration. But the Scrolls come from an even earlier one. I just hope somebody will give me a call when they find one that tells what happens when Baal meets Astarte. That will be worth the price of admission! And, who knows? It might even fit in with the spirit of Times Square (pre-Disney, of course.)

Troying Around

While discussing Homer with my relatives, it was decided that we should watch the movie Troy. Although conceived as a blockbuster retelling of the Iliad, the presentation reminded me significantly of The Clash of the Titans (2010). In both instances the directors and writers attempted to portray a realism of sorts, making Achilles and Perseus into just regular guys with issues. There is something of the fallen hero here, and perhaps a misunderstanding of the way the Greeks understood their greats. While it can’t be denied that heroes were intended as figures of unattainable stature, they were in some sense conceived as role models for mere mortals. The Iliad is an exploration of the anger of Achilles and the unpredictable influence of the gods.

As the critics pointed out when the movie was first released, the absence of the gods from the film is a serious departure from the Iliad. Without the gods, Achilles takes on a level of prominence never intended by Homer (whoever he was) and the playing out of his revenge begins to feel like a bad western. Although the Iliad does focus on Achilles, it requires an ensemble cast. None of the characters are evil like the movie portrays Agamemnon. He, along with his brother Menelaus, is the hapless inheritor of the curse of the house of Atreus. No matter what Agamemnon does, he is doomed. This fatalism is cut short in Troy as Menelaus, Ajax, and Agamemnon fall in the foreshortened battle of Troy.

The Trojan War is a myth. There is no history to portray accurately here. Instead there are gods and heroes. In removing the gods—a subtle nod toward many modern sensitivities—the movie loses its soul to beat the bank. And so perhaps it is a modern parable for a society that values money above all else. Whether the gods are real or not is immaterial, for they are but projections of the human spirit. Without them we are mere molecules conglomerated into biological entities with no purpose. Troy is a movie that falls short of truly mythical status, but at the same time holds a mirror to modern culture and asks “are you so sure that you can live without the gods?”

Trojan Gods

Every great once in a while Hollywood produces a major motion picture that demands the attention of scholars. Well, at least those of us who like to stay current about the way our subject is being displayed to the wider public. When Troy was released in 2004, I was still firmly engaged in teaching biblical studies and the Trojan War, although located somewhere at the fringes of the Ancient Near East, was not a particular concern. Now that I’m also teaching a mythology course that covers the Iliad, I figured I’d better watch the movie. For research purposes only, of course. Although I hadn’t seen the film before, I knew of the critics’ complaints that the gods, conspicuous in Homer, had been left out. I was expecting to be disappointed, but I found the movie to be more intelligent and subtle than I supposed it might be. The absence of the gods, distressing as it may be to purists, gave the movie an angst that is generally reserved for more cerebral subjects.

The question of where the gods might be in all the slaughter and destruction of war reminded me of a book that had profound influence on me several years ago. Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Little, Brown, 1995) traces the gradual withdrawal of God from the scene in the course of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The god who appears so active in the early chapters of Genesis distances himself further and further until the latest writings, according to Friedman’s dating, show few traces of the divine at all. God subtly, quietly, goes away.

Portrayed as defying the power of the gods in the film, Achilles desecrates the temple of Apollo and seals his fate. Nevertheless, although he is shot by an archer, the death of the hero seems more like an arbitrary act than the design of divine majesty. The Greeks, after all, did win the war. Atheism, however, did not exist in any real terms in the twelfth century before the Common Era. Then again, Achilles probably did not exist in any real terms either. Although Troy will never be among my list of most profound films, its commentary on the quiet skies of ancient Ilium serves as a useful metaphor, even for today.