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A few years ago, I don't recall exactly when or where, I encountered a powerful idea that's stayed with me.  It concerns Homer's Odyssey, and its hero, Odysseus.

Odysseus is arguably the most unreliable narrator in Western literature.  His reputation is built on cunning and deceit.  All we know about the period between the time he left Troy and the time he washed ashore on Phaeacia is what he tells us.  He could be lying about everything, and we, the audience, would never know because there are no other survivors to contradict him.

Zachary Mason's odd little tome, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, captures some of that spirit.  Working on the conceit that archaeologists have discovered forty-five "lost" fragments of the Odyssey, Mason presents forty-four short works that reimagine, reinterpret, and play with Homer's original text.  There are alternate episodes in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find the island mysteriously abandoned, or his wife Penelope remarried, or dead.  Odysseus meets his own doppelganger.  He finds himself in a sanitorium unable to remember anything, in a cabin on an icy mountain.  We learn why no two people describe Helen the same way, and why King Death wants her.  We meet Polyphemus, an innocent shepherd blinded by a stranger.  We enter a world where Agamemnon rules a vast subterranean kingdom mirroring Troy above.  We cross paths with Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.  We meet a golem Achilles.

If you have never heard of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, you can check it out on Amazon.  It's a short book, but best read piecemeal, one or two chapters at a time, to better process the multiple variations on the Odyssey theme.

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Homer and Astronomy

The big news this week is that a group of Greek archaeologists and astrometrologists compared meticulous astronomical observations with a careful reading of Homer to calculate Patroclus's death as occurring at noon on June 6, 1218 B.C.  You can read the full paper here.

Homer describes a solar eclipse taking place during the battle for Patroclus's corpse; this correlates nicely with another calculation: a second solar eclipse in the Ionian Islands eleven years later, on October 30, 1207 B.C.  As the events of the Iliad occur in the ninth year of the war, eleven years later in the autumn would correlate with Odysseus's homecoming to Ithaca and the slaughter of the suitors.

This isn't the first time archaeologists and astronomers have tried to match Homer's descriptions to actual solar events.  I find this sort of thing interesting food for thought, which raises some crucial questions:

These calculations only work if Homer got the other details right.

Was there a warrior called Patroclus who was killed during an eclipse, and for whose corpse there was a fierce battle afterward?

Did the Trojan War happen exactly as Homer described, or is the Iliad a collection of independent traditions/stories woven into a new narrative framework, as Caroline Lawrence's insightful work The War That Killed Achilles suggests?

Was there really a hero called Odysseus who took ten years to get home?

I have no doubt that a solar eclipse during a battle is the sort of thing that bards would remember and pass down through the generations, but the oral tradition is something like a game of Telephone: the end result differs significantly from the original message.  All of the above factors would have to fall into place for the astronomical data to have any overall significance; it's the nature of oral literature that has me pausing to shake my head.

What we're left with is the possibility that Homer is remembering real details from real events, but in order to for this theory to withstand scrutiny there has to be corroborating evidence.  So far, there's no Mycenaean Greek documentation of any of the heros who went to Troy; the Pylos archive never mentions a king Nestor.  There are no records of a king Agamemnon or king Odysseus.  Some Hittite records from this time survive, but the evidence for the troubles that struck Wilusa at the end of the thirteenth century B.C. raises more questions than it answers.

It's a fun theory, nevertheless.

Pathetic Hero Deaths in Greek Mythology

I spent this week thinking about the sad, ignominious ways some of the Greek heroes met their ends. Why such pathetic deaths for these great men? The more I looked into each individual legend, the more the death appeared to be a comeuppance for some sin the hero committed in life.

Let's take a look at the ends of five great and lesser heroes and see what we can learn:


  • Theseus: This hero of Athens is overthrown as king by a cousin, Menestheus, after the ill-advised abduction of a young Helen of Sparta. He finds himself seeking the protection of Lykomedes, king of the tiny, rocky isle of Skyros where Thetis would later hide an adolescent Achilles. Theseus meets his end when he leaps, or is pushed, off a cliff. Not a particularly heroic way to go, but perhaps this strange death is meant to answer for the death of his father, Aegeus, who leapt from the Rock of Athens when Theseus forgot to change his sail from black to white. Or did Theseus forget? There's always that possibility that the Minotaur-slayer deliberately betrayed his father in a bid for the kingship he wanted or thought he deserved.



  • Achilles: This ultimate, testosterone-fueled killing machine met his end with an arrow through that part of the heel we now call the Achilles tendon. Given the spectacular goriness of his many kills, that Achilles is brought down by what should have been a survivable wound delivered (with some help by Apollo, granted) by playboy wuss Paris, of all people, makes this a particularly cringe-worthy death. Perhaps the arrow was poisoned, or the wound became infected, or it was as another legend of Achilles states, that the only vulnerable part of Achilles was his heel. If you look at the armor of the period, particular the famous Dendra Panoply, a Mycenaean warrior's only vulnerable spot would have been the heel. Perhaps the death of Achilles represents a dim bardic memory of an actual event, or maybe it serves a thematic purpose. In the works of the Trojan War cycle, Achilles slaughters a great many individuals unnecessarily; some are noncombatants, including women and children. Possibly the ignominious manner of his death mirrors the ugly way in which he slew those who did not deserve to die.



  • Jason: This prince of Iolkos, king of Corinth, and leader of the Argonauts dies a broken, lonely old hermit when the stern of the rotting Argo, under which he was sleeping, broke off and crushed his skull. Though he starts out with great promise, Jason loses favor with Hera when he betrays Medea. Once he loses the favor of his patron goddess, he proceeds to lose his wife, his children, and his kingdom. All he has left is the worn-out hulk of the Argo. The ship is a relic, like him, and both die together.



  • Orestes: A minor hero, whose cult of madness and purification was observed down into Classical times. His death by snakebite in old age is one of those WTF moments until one realizes that in ancient Greek lore snakes were associated with women/goddesses, and that the snakebite may be an indication that the Erinyes/his mother's ghost got revenge at last.




There are other heroes who meet such ends. There's Bellerophon, left blind and wandering after Zeus's thunderbolt causes Pegasus to rear and hurl the arrogant young hero to the earth below; he deserves his fate. Even Agamemnon, whose death I described in my last post as one of the most Metal Deaths in Greek Myth, dies the way he lived: treacherously and by the sword. I would not quite put Odysseus in the same category; his death is the result of a tragic misunderstanding--and the fulfillment of a prophecy stating that his death would come from the sea.

    Happy New Year

    Let's celebrate the new year as the Mycenaeans would have, with drink and storytelling.

     photo bard.jpg
    But where are the women? Were they excluded from hearing the bard sing, or relegated to the vestibule outside the main megaron, or perhaps to a gallery above? There's no archaeological evidence that says storytelling wasn't a communal activity, and Homer makes no distinction between the sexes in The Odyssey when Queen Arete and her women are present for Odysseus's account of his adventures; this is just the artist's interpretation. But it does raise interesting questions about Mycenaean social interactions.

    A nice touch that the bard's outfit echoes the image of the storyteller on the Pylos frescoes.

    Greek Heroes and Hollywood Fail

    The current Hercules film featuring Dwayne Johnson is that rarity in Hollywood: a genuinely good movie about Greek mythology, even though it debunks the myth it's set around. January's Legend of Hercules was a dud, as was 2011's Immortals and the Clash of the Titans reboot.

    Part of the problem is the difference between the ancient Greek hero and the modern idea of a hero.  Modern-day heroes are ideally selfless and self-effacing in the Judeo-Christian tradition; they're usually ordinary people who perform with class and distinction in extraordinary circumstances.  Athletes, too, are often considered heroes, though they should more properly be defined as role models.  By contrast, the ancient Greek hero was most often the fruit of the union between a mortal and god, or a man favored by a god/goddess who could perform feats beyond the capabilities of ordinary men.  Greek heroes were not modest.  Far from it, they boasted of their deeds as a form of ancient PR.  They killed monsters and took on enemies not out of altruism but to enrich themselves and amass kleos, or personal glory.

    Greek heroes also killed and preyed upon those around them.  Herakles was temperamental and violent, and the world's first House Guest From Hell.  Odysseus got all his men killed first because he decided to pillage elsewhere after the Trojan War, and underestimated his would-be victims, and then because in a foolish, boastful mood he antagonized Poseidon.  Theseus deserted the lovely Ariadne after she saved him from a gruesome death in the Labyrinth (and presumably after he had his way with her).  Perseus turned to stone pretty much anyone who pissed him off, including Andromeda's fiance, his great-uncle Proitus, and practically everyone on Seriphos not named Danae or Dictys.  Jason dumped Medea for a younger woman.  Achilles withdrew from the Trojan War to sulk in his tent over a personal insult while thousands of Greeks and his own boyfriend paid the price.  Bellerophon's head grew so large with hubris that he tried to fly to Olympus.

    Greek heroes, in short, were assholes who would find themselves on Death Row if they were alive today.

    There were also local heroes with hero cults: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Pelops, Orestes, Oedipus (at Athens, not Thebes), Orpheus, Amphiaraus, Diomedes, Erechtheus, etc.

    Aside from the fact that most of the Greek heroes were unrepentant assholes, most of them don't have happy endings.  Theseus forgot (or did he?) to switch the sails of his ship from black to white, thereby causing his father Aegeus to commit suicide by throwing himself off the Athenian Acropolis.  Odysseus might have rescued his wife and property from 108 unscrupulous suitors, but had to flee Ithaca shortly thereafter because the families of the suitors wanted revenge.  Agamemnon was a Class A asshole who killed his own daughter, pissed off his wife, and was murdered in his bathtub by said wife.  Orestes killed his mother and went crazy.  Bellerophon was thrown by Pegasus and ended up a blind, crippled hermit.  Herakles was shot by a poisoned arrow and immolated himself to escape the pain. Perseus was killed by a rival kinsman.  Diomedes was driven out by his unfaithful wife and her lover.  Jason's rejected wife Medea killed their kids, and he died when a bulkhead from the rotting Argo fell on him.

    So you see what I mean in terms of translating the Greek myths into Hollywood blockbusters.  When it's done, as in the case of Hercules, the hero has to be whitewashed, the authentic part of his ancient Greek heritage retooled to suit modern audiences.  The various versions of the Clash of the Titans films center around the Perseus-Andromeda romance, leaving out the unpleasant business of Perseus impetuously killing anything or anyone other than Medusa and the Kraken, Cetus the sea monster.  Odysseus gets his happy ending with Penelope because the film versions of his legend end short of the last books of The Odyssey.  Theseus has never had a truly faithful version of his story told because neither Hollywood writers nor moviegoers can reconcile his actions after he kills the Minotaur.  Achilles comes across as a whiny, homicidal diva.  Bellerophon is irredeemable.  Jason deserves his fate because, frankly, you do NOT dump a woman like Medea.  Agamemnon is nowadays cast as a power-grabbing villain versus the OTP of Helen and Paris.  Even Menelaus gets the villain/abusive husband treatment, never mind that in Homer he's a perfectly nice guy, if a second-rate warrior.

    So while the success of Hercules might encourage more Hollywood films featuring Greek heroes, don't expect them to hew very closely to the legends that spawned them.

    Lo! Rosetta Stone

    Has Agamemnon invited you to dine with him, and you don't know what to order?

    Are you about to hang out with Herakles, and want to avoid any fatal misunderstandings?

    Has Achilles murdered your entire family, sacked your town, and carried you off into bondage? Are you looking to curse him in a tongue his gods will understand?

    Did Odysseus swindle you for everything you own?  Do you want to sue him in an Ithacan court but dread your lack of fluency?

    Did Oedipus kill your father and marry your mother?  Do you want to consult Teiresias to know if/when Oedipus might be visited with divine retribution?

    Did Medea just shriek gibberish at you? Do you want to know whether she cursed you or just said hello?

    Rosetta Stone now has the answer to your prayers: Mycenaean Greek.

    • Interact with native speakers like King Nestor, who may or may not let you get a word in edgewise

    • Learn exciting new ways to curse your enemies from highly skilled experts like Medea, Clytemnestra and Elektra

    • Learn how to reverence the Mycenaean gods without boasting and/or inadvertently pissing them off

    • Learn your rights and obligations as a guest, and how not to kill your host and/or make off with his wife

    • Let Odysseus teach you how to lie, cheat, and commit subterfuge like a boss

    • Gain effective techniques in how to woo your Mycenaean bride once you've killed her first husband and abducted her

    rosetta copy

    Penelope

    An image of Penelope from Peter Connolly's The Legend of Odysseus.  If the costume looks familiar, it is.  Penelope is dressed as the Mykenaia from the fresco found in the Mycenae Cult House.  As soon as my doll arrives, I will be attempting this look in miniature.  Am eager to try it.

    penelope031

    The Bow of Odysseus

    A scene painted by the late Peter Connolly: Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, aims his great bow at a line of axes.  The suitors have no idea what's about to (literally) hit them.

    bow
    Homer's account of Odysseus's feat may owe something to an Egyptian anecdote about Pharoah Amenhotep II, who claimed he could shoot an arrow through a copper ingot one palm (3 inches) thick.

    Odysseus and Penelope

    Odysseus reunited with Penelope, from an unknown source.  Note the Mycenaean hairstyle and the whiteness of Penelope's skin.  My God, is her skin white!  Only, why is her hand inching up his kilt?

    theend

    Heroes

    The ancient Greek definition of a hero does not match the Judeo-Christian definition of a hero.  Generally, in the Western world, heroes should be brave yet humble, inspiring yet self-effacing.  Suggest to an ancient Greek hero that perhaps he shouldn't boast so much, or that he should be a bit more altruistic, he would have laughed in your face--or ripped it off, depending on his mood.

    In fact, the heroic culture to which figures like Herakles, Achilles, and Odysseus belonged encouraged such wholesome activities as looting, rape, and boasting.  In the absence of permanent armies and coinage, raiding and pillaging was the equivalent of the defense budget for the Mycenaean world.  The king had to lead his fighting aristocracy against some neighboring kingdom or tribe every once in a while to let them blow off steam and reap some material reward, or he would very quickly find himself a king without followers, a kingdom, and a pulse.  As for boasting, in an age before Facebook and CNN, heroes had to see to their own PR, and hope that some prestigious bard would pick up the story and spin it into Late Bronze Age ratings gold.

    It's worth keeping in mind that most of the Greek heroes, if they were alive and committing atrocities working today, would most likely find themselves on Death Row or in a maximum security State Penitentiary.

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