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Vol. 7, No. 5, 2008
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Steve Kowit



Steve Kowit is the author of several books of poetry and has published a guide to writing poetry: In the Palm of Your Hand. His essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Poetry International, Skeptic, and The New York Quarterly.

The two great Homeric epics, among the most revered of literary works in Western civilization, celebrate the warrior kings and lords of slave-holding cultures and the glory of pirates, slavers, pillagers and rapists. But those facts are rarely spoken of: tradition seems to demand that Homer be accorded unadulterated praise. The Iliad begins with the struggle between King Agamemnon and the semi-divine Achilles over possession of Briseis, a beautiful sex slave, and tells the story of several days during the final year of a ten-year bloodbath fought for a reason that can only be characterized as ludicrous. Early in his adventures after leaving Ilium, the eponymous hero of the second Homeric epic lands with his fleet on Ismarus, the island of the Cicones, a land inhabited by people whom Odysseus has never met and with whom he has no quarrel:

The wind drove me out of Ilium on to Ismarus,
The Cicones' stronghold. There I sacked the city,
Killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder,
That rich haul we dragged away from the place —
We shared it round so no one, not on my account,
Would go deprived of his fair share of spoils.
(Fagels, Odyssey, Book 9, lines 44-49)

It is clear that raiding and plundering other lands is perfectly normal behavior for Odysseus and his fleet of murderous pirates, and his decision to tell the Phaeacians this tale when he lands on their shores is persuasive evidence that such adventures were perfectly honorable. Apparently Homeric Greece was a civilization in which the wealthy periodically took to sea as pirates, slaughtering, raping, stealing and taking slaves at will. If Homer is to be believed, it was a perfectly respectable undertaking. Here then, is the question: is the contemporary reader supposed to be rooting for Odysseus? Though I have certainly not read even a small portion of the thousands of volumes that have been published in modern languages focused on the work of Homer, in the small sampling I have come upon I have not read any critical caveats. These matters are simply not raised. The assumption is that Odysseus and his fellow Heroes are exemplary figures and the reader is supposed to be cheering them on.

Very near the second epic's conclusion, in a scene grim even by Hollywood standards, Odysseus's son Telemachus, on the suggestion of his father, hangs twelve of his mother's female slaves for the crime of having consorted with some of her suitors during his father's twenty-year absence. This too, no doubt, was perfectly acceptable behavior -- if you happen to live in archaic Greece. But it would be encouraging to find one or two critics willing to suggest that perhaps the lack of loyalty to their mistress is hardly villainous and hanging them is an act, however "proper" for the time and place, of unmitigated savagery that should make the contemporary reader shiver. Nor can the tacky behavior of the suitors themselves -- for which they pay with their lives -- be compared in villainy to Odysseus's rampaging mass murder in Ismarus. That to consider the suitors villains and the female slaves deserving of hanging while overlooking Odysseus's piratical adventures, is to have been seduced into the unwitting suspension of one's ethical beliefs. Nowhere in either epic is there any sense that the ancient bard cast a skeptical eye on the institutions of slavery, concubinage, bloody wars over matters of personal pride, murderous piratical raiding parties, or the hanging of slaves for disloyalty. Should none of this have any affect on our judgment of those two splendid epics? Should we dismiss such matters and claim Homer's genius untarnished by the barbarity of his ethic? Should we root for Odysseus, Sacker of Cities, because the author wishes us to? Are such matters of legitimate concern?

In contemporary English translations Homer's epics are splendidly readable and there is every reason to believe that in their original Greek they are of unparalleled excellence. Every reader of Homer can attest to his narrative genius. Nor is he lacking in compassion and human feeling. Far from it. In The Iliad he often notes the agonizing death of one or another of his warriors in language filled with pity. The heroes of his epics are kings and princes beloved of the Gods and are driven by honor courage and sacrifice. But does it not make sense for the alert contemporary reader to find Homer's heroes less noble for being murderers, rapists and slavers, or for such a reader to find the invasion of Ilium execrable and the entire bloodbath, given its trivial cause and horrific outcome, contemptible? Apparently not if we are to believe centuries of literary and scholarly encomia. Do high school teachers and professors of literature who teach those canonical masterpieces engage their students in discussions of such peripheral or "extra-literary" matters?

In her seminal essay The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil attempts to demonstrate Homer's extraordinary humanity, the exemplary level of his sensitivity to every variety of suffering. She writes:

The wantonness of the conqueror that knows no respect for any creature or thing that is at its mercy or is imagined to be so, the despair of the soldier that drives him on to destruction, the obliteration of the slave or the conquered man, the wholesale slaughter -- all these elements combine in the Iliad to make a picture of uniform horror, of which force is the sole hero.

The Greek genius, with its "lucidity, purity, and simplicity," as Weil puts it, is apparently exemplified by this ancient epic that concerns a war fought because of the infidelity of a handsome queen who runs off with a young prince. Nor is Weil in the least correct that Homer's pity at the suffering on both sides is unrelieved and commendable. For one thing, both books are full of ritual animal slaughter to propitiate the gods, acts of horrible cruelty to which Homer, his characters, Simone Weil, and almost all commentators who speak of Homer's humanity are blithely indifferent:

First they lifted back the heads of the victims,
Slit their throats, skinned them and carved away
The meat from the thighbones and wrapped them in fat,
A double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh….
And Apollo listened, his great heart warm with joy.
(Fagles, Iliad, Book 1)

The seductions of literature are such that unwary readers, enthralled by the unfolding drama, are likely to invest their sympathy where the author wishes them to. Such is the danger of the willing suspension of disbelief, though in fact that phenomenon is not so much willing as unconscious and manipulated. We are simply caught up in the tale and feel what the author -- especially so splendidly seductive an author -- wishes us to feel. We root for the characters he wishes us to root for, and feel pity or anger upon his command. Is it required for the suspension of disbelief that we also suspend our moral intelligence? The answer, unfortunately, in most cases is yes. The unwary reader is very likely to suspend his values and slip unaware into a clever author's point of view. We are likely to accept the narrator's premises uncritically but especially so if the tale has the imprimatur of time and broad social respect. Now and again a wary reader will refuse to swallow the bait. Several years ago Faye Hayashi, a former student of mine, took a course in Western civilization at the small school where I teach, and with her usual intellectual zest dove into the semester's first reading, The Odyssey, which she was certain was going to be great fun. The next day she emailed me the following note:

I want to share one thing: I was reading the Odyssey far into the midnight hours and fell asleep at the end of Book III, which describes rather too cruelly for me the sacrifice of a heifer to the goddess Athena. As I said, I fell asleep here, and then had an awful dream: a group of strange men were approaching me, and as their arms grabbed me, their faces turned into grotesque masks of death and their clothing into long, wicked, black robes. I was paralyzed by fear and felt absolutely helpless as the group of men hoisted me up and carried me to the edge of a steep, steep precipice. Then they hurled me over the edge into the darkness, and down, down, down I went into the pits of the abyss! I was being sacrificed!! I woke up in a bed of sweat. How unfun is this! Dear Steve . . . the ache is back in my heart.

Is it not encouraging to find people reading with their conscience enough awakened that the work does not cast its spell in so overwhelming a manner that the reader is blinded to the ethical implications of what is being described? Or is feeling for the animal victims merely sentimental foolishness? I for one am happy that readers can become, in their dreams, the terrified animal victim being sacrificed. It would be comforting to imagine that when students read the scene in which Odysseus has his men sack the innocent town of the Cicones, put the males to the sword, capture and rape their wives, and steal their cattle and gold (in the end the Achaeans are driven back to their ships by the enraged Cicones from nearby villages and barely escape with their lives), their professors -- or their own critical intelligence -- will point out that such behavior can only be characterized as savage and odious.

Imagine this: four hundred years from now some inspired bard pens a masterful epic poem concerning the exemplary adventures of that great warrior-king, Adolf the Bold, a leader who, in courage, physical beauty and steadfastness of purpose is almost godlike. For several lines the poet describes, in loving detail, how Adolf's army of stalwart heroes triumphantly throw their malignant enemies -- the Semitic, Roma and crippled captives -- into the ovens by the tens of thousands. It is, however, only a quickly passing episode. In the main, Adolf, Sacker of Cities, is kindly if wily, compassionate if remorseless, and altogether steadfast of purpose. Should enchanted readers simply delight in the splendid hexameters, the bard's wonderful psychological portraits and vividly dramatic episodes and not concern themselves with the fate of those unnamed background characters who are simply part of the heroic pageantry of The Hitleriad?

No doubt Penelope's twelve slave women were guilty of disloyalty nine thousand years ago, and it is entirely possible that the audience for this epic song in the later slave culture of Plato's Athens, the Roman slave culture of Virgil and Jesus considered the punishment mete and fitting. But should we? Is it fair to surmise that high school teachers and university professors of classical literature who do not point out this sort of barbarity to their students but allow it to be passed over in silence are suggesting that such matters are of little account? If they do not point out that Odysseus was a wealthy slave owner exacting primitive vengeance against vulnerable slaves, women trying to curry favor with men who might become their husbands, protectors or benefactors, is it, perhaps, because they themselves are asleep to the fact? Were modern readers not manipulated by the author's point of view, and perhaps by centuries of uninhibited praise for Homer's genius, surely they and their students would be rooting for the slave women, not for Odysseus and Telemachus.

In the introduction to Robert Fagles' superb translation of The Odyssey, Bernard Knox discusses the episode of Ismarus:

It is sheer piracy -- Ismarus was not a Trojan ally -- but it is obviously an action not unusual in its time and place; one of Odysseus' epithets is in fact ptoliporthos, "sacker of cities." Nestor at Pylos politely asks Telemachus and Pisistratus if they are

"Out on a trading spree or roving the waves like pirates,
sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives
to plunder other men?" (3.81-83)

And Polyphemus asks Odysseus the same question (9.286-88). Thucydides, writing in the fifth century B.C., was probably thinking of passages like these when, speaking of the measures taken by Minos to suppress piracy in the Aegean, he pointed out that in ancient times "this occupation was held to be honorable rather than disgraceful." This is proved . . . by the testimony of ancient poets, in whose verses newly arrived visitors are always asked whether they are pirates, a question that implies no disapproval of such an occupation on the part of either those who answer with a disclaimer or those who ask for the information.

But that is all Knox has to say on the subject. Clearly he has no emotional response to the plunder, rape and slaughter other than to remind the reader that this was acceptable behavior. However, three paragraphs later here's how Knox describes the suitors who will, in the final book, be slain en masse for their transgressions:

Telemachus will return to a house where the suitors of Penelope represent an unusual infraction of the code: they are uninvited guests who abuse and waste their reluctant host's possessions. Showing their utter contempt for the idea that wanderers, beggars and suppliants are under the special protection of Zeus, they offer insults and physical violence to Odysseus, the ragged beggar who, as they will eventually find out to their cost, is their unwilling host.

This is a judgment by a contemporary Homeric scholar who is portraying the suitors as reprehensible fellows, the implication being that they are deserving of their fate. But Odysseus's mass murder of the Cicones and the rape of the island's women and the attempt to take those women into slavery with the rest of the plunder are not criticized by Knox other than to say, offhandedly: "It is sheer piracy," a comment immediately ameliorated by his reminder to the reader that "it is obviously an action not unusual in its time and place." Knox does not suggest that there is something malignant about Odysseus and his sailors showing utter contempt for innocent farmers and their innocent wives and children. And this seems perfectly representative of the manner in which admiring poets, literary critics and Homeric scholars have always treated the matter, the reader being implicitly instructed not to cast aspersions on Odysseus's judgments and actions. Perhaps such critics fear that by pointing out the decidedly unpleasant behavior of the Homeric heroes, the romance of The Iliad and The Odyssey will be irreparably damaged and their readers will no longer be able to cherish those poems with quite the level of uninhibited adulation that was commonplace in former eras. But it is just as likely that their own education has allowed those who write about Homer to suppress judgments that decent readers of those epics ought to be making. I do not believe it is irrelevant to suggest that contemporary readers should maintain, no matter how deeply in other respects they fall under the sway of the charming and extravagant dream that Homer weaves, something of the actual values of their waking life. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
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