Friday, July 5, 2013

TFBT: Random Notes on Hour 20 of the Ancient Greek Hero

"Odysseus employs the divine authority and enchanting poetic voice which he appropriates from the Sirens” Bellum? Is it possible that the winner of musical contests gets the right to use the loser’s song? Is that how the muses became the Pierides?

“Heroes keep trying to prove to themselves that they belong somehow to a world of immortals, but, after all is said and done; heroes only end up proving that they deserve to die for trying.
  H24H 20:63 Nagy

As I mentioned in the last posting that I consistently flunk the hourly quizzes for the Harvard on-line course I am taking.  I reviewed all the old quizzes and essays.  It ends up I always answer the questions from a secular prospective rather than the perspective of a pious 5th century BC Athenian.  Great!  Another example for my ongoing research in the inappropriateness of secular interpretation of Greek myth and I’m the example!   It is as if I was studying the New Testaments and when quizzed about the parables I responded as if the Lord was actually talking about sheep.  Ugh!   Maybe I learned my lesson.  I got a 96% on the quiz for Hour 20.

I also witnessed a great discussion between Douglas Frame and Gregory Nagy about the symbolism of horse racing.  Famously in the Iliad Nestor gives a long speech on the strategy and tactics of winning a horse race to his son.  This is towards the end of the “the first, best thing” at Patroclus’ funeral.  Nestor’s advice involves a washed out place on the course where the younger man could force a strategic advantage over other competitors.  Nestor also discussion in great detail turning the post  for the return trip  You know rein in the left horse, let the right horse fly, don’t turn to soon, not too wide….  Next thing you know the charioteers are galloping off, and then returning with no discussion of “turning the post”.  Also we discover that when Nestor was the age of his son, he won all the contests at a similar funeral, except the chariot race. At the finish line the typical debate about the prizes breaks out and the young man’s trick at the washed out spot is argued.  So, let’s see Nestor is no charioteer to advise on turning the post and there is no talk about his son turning the post.     If you keep reading what you hear in the debates about the prizes is his son reins in this passion at the correct moment and then lets them flew when the moment is right.  Apparently Nestor's advice had nothing to do with horses.  Nagy argues that "turning the post" is the moment we learn something or is the moment of initiation.  We learn something by the time we get back to the finish line, we grow and mature or else we are doomed to repeat the course over an over until we crash and die, like Hippolytus who refused to grow up. In further discussions with Claudia Filos, Nagy points out that tragedy starts with Hippolytus’s initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries.  Gee! I guess he failed that one too!  I hope my 96% proves I didn’t!


  1. I am glad that, most of the time, you ended up with secular interpretation. I am sure I would do the same if I were taking the course.
    BTW, I think the New Testament also needs a secular interpretation. No pious believer has ever been able to answer me why humans needed salvation and why Jesus had to die. The only explanation I can think about is that Jesus existed in some form before his "birth", that he tried to dissuade his Father from his intention to exterminate humans, and that the Father sent him to Earth in a human body to see first-hand that the wretches really deserved destruction.

    1. Maya, your interpretation is pretty good. Not scriptual, but pretty good. Actually, the sacrificial god is a pretty common motif.

    2. Reminds of Emily Dickinson:
      Of God we ask one favor,
      That we may be forgiven —
      For what, he is presumed to know —
      The Crime, from us, is hidden —
      Immured the whole of Life
      Within a magic Prison
      We reprimand the Happiness
      That too competes with Heaven.

    3. I never read any Emily Dickinson. Recommndation?

  2. What do you mean that Hippolytus refused to grow up? (Except that he was terrified by the very idea of erotic love, similarly to some boys in early puberty, and was egocentric in a way seeming infantile.)
    And what impact had the Eleusinian mysteries?

  3. Prof Nagy's theory is that we as mortal have ritual obligations to the gods. Offend Artemis and the fleet doesn't sail. Deny Aphrodite and pay the price. One story is that Phaedra fell in love with her stepson at the mysteries.

  4. Thank you!
    It seems that gods in general are, to say the least, harsh on humans. This is especially true for the supreme god. Take e.g. Enlil who drowned humans just because they were noisy. Or Zeus.
    Trying to re-tell some of the Greek mythology, I am having a "Zeus problem". You know that a character, to be considered realistic, must not be entirely good or evil but a mixture of both. However, I fail to find anything good in Zeus to sweeten his character. (Of course it is also difficult to find anything good in historical possessors of absolute power, such as 20th century totalitarian dictators, but this excuse seems lame.)
    Hesiod and modern scholars say that Zeus replaced the ancient horrors with the just "order of Dike". However, looking at the facts, the essence of this order seems to be that the strong are free to deal with the weak as they wish. I cannot figure out how naming one of your numerous daughters "Justice" is considered enough to make you a just ruler.
    In fact, my Zeus problem is not so hard, because I am using the viewpoint of Prometheus, from whom nobody expects a balanced and unbiased opinion of Zeus. So it can always be said (as some critics of Aeschylus say) that Zeus seems a cruel, unjust and arbitrary tyrant only in the eyes of the deluded protagonist, while any impartial and enlightened observer would see Zeus as stern but just and wise. (By the same logic, Zeus has the best possible plan for humans, although the essence of this plan is killing every single human on Earth.) Most of the other gods, unfortunately, are also deluded and fail to see how being raped, burned, crippled or swallowed by Zeus is just and in their own long-term interest because it teaches them wisdom through suffering.

    1. Maya,

      Maybe it is a matter of perspective, you are the "enlightened observer" of a distant age.

      Look at Zeus from the perspective of the Hectanchieres and Cyclops. King Uranus wouldn't let them out of the womb. King Cronus betrayed them and then threw them into Tartarus. King Zeus certainly was a just ruler in comparison.

      Look at Zeus from the perspective of Hestia trapped in Cronus' belly all those years. Zeus was her hero.

      Look at Zeus from the perspective of Hera, Apollo and Poseidon all of whom revolted at Zeus at some point, did their time and then returned to Olympic society with all their rights and honors. How about the perspective of Prometheus and the Titans? The ended up in the Elysium Fields under the rule of Cronus. (I think Gaea cut a deal, "If you don't oppress your cousins I won't birth any more monsters (giants, Typhon) to usurp you!") These were the acts of a merciful king.

      Look at Zeus from the perspective of an Ancient Greek peasant. You have no civil rights in most of the Hellenes and less security than a slave. But in myth after myth you have the promise that the gods will strike down an unjust king. Sometimes it is in divine time, but in the end all those hubristic bastards will get their come-uppendence

    2. Your interpretation about Gaea is interesting, but I think Strauss-Clay may be right that Zeus simply made Gaea infertile, burning her during the battle with Typhon.
      "To render his rule permanent, Zeus must here fight fire with fire and ultimately put an end to Earth's fecundity" (Hesiod's Cosmos).
      I don't see any merciful act of Zeus. He often does good, but it is always in his own interest. So the best we can say of him is that he is usually reasonable and can be persuaded to reasonable action if it is in his interest. Indeed, in the case of Prometheus, Zeus needed centuries before resorting to reasonable action.
      The Hundred-Handers, the Cyclops, Cronus and Prometheus all have important things to give to Zeus in exchange for their freedom. I doubt that they would otherwise see freedom (or that Hephaestos would ever be allowed to return to Olympus). The release of the other Titans could be regarded as an act of mercy. On the other hand, after you decide to release the leader, what's the use of keeping a detention facility for the rank and file?
      I don't remember any myth of a king stricken down by the gods because of being unjust to his subjects. Kings and queens are punished exclusively for violating the privileges of the gods. Lycaon is punished not because he killed a boy but because he served it to Zeus. (And I find it pretty unfair, because in other cases the gods explicitly want human sacrifices.) Indeed, at the end of the Odyssey, the gods prevent Odysseus from slaughtering more of his subjects. But this is all that can be hoped at, and more than can be expected. The Danaids and King Pelasgus thought Zeus was serious about xenia and protecting suppliants - and what was the result? Complete misery until the young women took their fate, and some knives, in their own hands.

      Indeed, for Hestia and her sibling Zeus is a hero... but how easily everybody forgets the other hero - Metis!
      I wanted to invent a happy ending for Metis, and because no myth portrays her rescued, I could do it only by identifying it with Athena. I don't know any other child of Zeus having light-colored eyes; if she is the only one, this is a strong case that she is not actually his child. I imagine a scene where a younger Oceanid tries to evoke memories of Athena's past. "Don't you remember this dress? You sew it for my 7th birthday. Don't you remember this doll? You made it by your own hands and gave it hair by cutting a little from yours." Then they compare the hair of the doll with that of Athena, like in the Orestheia, and finally Athena, not trusting subjective impressions, performs a lab test.

  5. Sorry, cannot help sharing this:

    "The existence of pervasive pain and suffering in the world has long been a challenge for belief in God. It is not, however, a problem for all views of God. Zeus, for example, was not above committing the worst of evils. In fact, as one of my former lecturers put it, no one put the bumper sticker “Smile Zeus Loves You” on their chariot since the love of Zeus was often a prelude to rape, in the minds of the ancient Greek."

  6. If you want to understand the theological basis for pain and suffering in the world, watch the movie "Time Bandits" Explains it all.