Monday, January 3, 2011

When Bad Things Happen to Good Greeks

It's a new year, 2011, and I've officially started Year Five of my ten-year reading plan.  I got in a few Father Brown stories during the last few days of December, but for the last three days, I've been reading ancient plays and The Odyssey, the first items on my calendar for this year.

Getting out my old copy of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey reminds me of homeschooling days.  Our son, Brad, told us one Thursday that the schools weren't teaching him enough.  The next Monday, after some fast but intensive investigation of the district's curricula, our kids stayed home, and we started schooling them ourselves.  Brad was about twelve years old, and for literature, we started him out with Plato's Theaetetus; he enjoyed reading it, and since he was able to summarize accurately its main argument for me, we figured we had made a good decision.

Soon after Plato, we started Homer.  I drew up worksheets for Brad based on words and passages that I marked in the text, and it is seeing these markings that brings back the memories.  We covered vocabulary: clarion and hekatomb and corsairs and numinous and other delicious words.  I made special note of names of gods, humans, and places: Zeus, the summoner of cloud; grey-eyed Athena; clear-headed Telemakhos; and the red-haired king, Menelaos; Olympos; Ilion; and Sparta.  And we discussed passages that give detail on customs at the time: that unexpected guests are welcomed and fed first before exchanging names and stories, that "ships" stay on the beach until the sailors drag them to the water, and that an unburied body brings dishonor and sorrow to a family.  Seeing just these names and hints of stories brings me back gladly to Homer's heroic world where the fate of the kosmos can turn on a simple gift or a stray arrow.  After reading, my world is not smaller by comparison with, but larger by infusion of its magnificent images.

I had forgotten that the epic starts in Ithaka.  For a full sixth of the poem's twenty-four books, Odysseus' son, Telemakhos, knows no more about the whereabouts of his father than we do.  Suitors have flocked like vultures around the rich, beautiful, and presumably widowed Penelope for years.  Just when Telemakhos can no longer bear it, Athena appears to him in the form of an old family friend and tells him to go seek news of his father.  On his travels, he hears the tales of all the other surviving heroes of the Trojan War, and thus in this sequel to The Iliad, Homer answers questions his listeners have been asking for many years.

Along with these catch-up flashbacks of Aias (Ajax), Menelaos, and others, Telemakhos and we also hear some philosophy about the meaning of it all.  Menelaos has not had the happiest of lives.  Helen, his wife and the most beautiful woman in the world, has been taken to Troy by Paris -- at the command of Aphrodite, but not entirely against her own will -- and the long expedition to win her back has involved countless deaths and heartaches.  On his way back from the nine-year war, Menelaos tells us, he was stranded in the doldrums around Egypt because of the wrath of Zeus.  And why was Zeus angered?  Because Menelaos did not offer sacrifices to him often enough.  At this point in the story, it seems the only obligations the Greek gods lay on humans are acts of piety and worship, not of moral living.

But are divine resentments the only sources of human sorrow?  Earlier in the poem we hear that Zeus, "who sees the wide world," simply gives out good luck and bad luck alternately, as on a whim.  Even earlier, on the other hand, Zeus himself complains that humans wrongly refer all their misfortunes to him.  "What of their own failings?" he cries.  The gods tried to warn Aigisthos, he says, but he stole Agamemnon's wife anyway, and so Orestes killed him in revenge.

It seems the Greeks weren't entirely comfortable with any one answer as to why bad things happen to us.  Sometimes it seems something like justice enacted by humans, sometimes a punishment from the gods, and sometimes just blind bad luck.  The best the poor Greeks could do was try to treat others honorably, make frequent sacrifices, and hope for the best, all under the gaze of immortal tyrants who threw about their great but limited power just because they could.  Ironically, the limits of the gods' power give the humans both hope and despair.  Menelaos finds out both why he is stuck in those Doldrums and how to get home by tricking and overpowering the Ancient of the Sea.  Three men can overpower THE ANCIENT OF THE SEA?!  The mind races with possibilities.  But finding the Achilles' heels of the gods will work only so long for a resourceful Greek: "The gods may love a man," Athena tells Telemakhos, "but they can't help him when cold death comes to lay him on his bier."

Within just a few centuries of Homer, the Greeks practically invented philosophy and took it in some instances to heights that have not been topped.  I've heard that this unparalleled development happened there precisely because the Greeks found their religion so unsatisfactory in explaining the world and the vicissitudes of life.  Their healthy combination of skepticism and inquisitiveness gave us Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, not to mention the disillusioned plays of Euripides and the irreverent satires of Aristophanes -- all among the greatest literary contributions of any civilization in history.  But how much better to find a God whose judgments aren't whimsical and who has power even over death!

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