Thursday, November 7, 2013

TFBT: Schurr’s Subtext in the Introduction to the Iliad

I recently stumbled upon “Recreating the Creation: Reading between the Lines in the Proem of the Iliad by Emily Schurr at the Center for Hellenic Studies website.  

 First let me say, “What great writing!  I love her style and her clarity.  Amazement and delight crowned  both the quality of her writing and the content. That said, “Wow!  She gave me a headache!”  But it was a good headache, sort of like a brain-freeze on a hot day.  The solution in both cases was the same, take a smaller bite and give it a chance to digest before greedily going for the next delicious tidbit.  Her observation on the unnamed goddess in the first line of Homer’s epic, The Iliad amazed me.

Her whole argument is about a subtle subtext in the opening of the epic Iliad is eloquent, insightful and thought provoking.  The Iliad composed by Homer opens like this;  

The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment, from the time when first they parted in strife Atreus' son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles.”  (translated by A. T. Murray)  


The above  is sort of an executive summary presented by Homer.  In the same seven lines he also upon the presumably the Muses for inspiration .  They are the goddesses of the arts and Clio goddess of epic in particular. 

Emily Schurr saysAfter more than two thousand years of scholarship, countless commentaries, publications and lectures, one might very well ask if there is anything more to be mined from these seven over-studied lines. It is my intention to argue that there is…previously undiscovered, and highly meaningful, subtext.”  What she is suggesting is that Homer’s opening remarks are arranged in such a way to remind us of other stories and to imply a few things about his epic song without actually saying it.   

She points out that, in the first line alone, we have a goddess, (who will sing the plot of the Iliad and the story of Achilles) ; the son, (with wrath of cosmic consequences) and a father. Such three closely grouped characters might  hint at a family, because Achilles' mother  Thetis  is a goddess.  And Thetis is famous for singing laments for her son throughout the Iliad.   More on this later.   

The next character to enter these famous seven lines with  the  “goddess and son, united in their song-plot and anger” is  Zeus whose “plan is in the process of being fulfilled, of which theirs is a part”  If we are looking for subtley here we could envision Zeus as an alternative father figure in this “happy family”. 

For line 7, Schurr suggests that in Anciet Greek the phrase “from the time when first”  sounds like “from that time in the beginning  To use an ancient disclaimer: I have not Greek.   I cannot comment.  But if I had noticed earlier on that Homer was specific about the names of the three male characters and notable not of the female character  I might start wondering about the rest of this introduction.  

Schurr then spends the next two pages explaining the Hesiodic Succession Myth.  Hesiod was the poet that told about the first of the great sky gods; Uranus.  Uranus knew that one of his sons would over throw him and take over the rule of the universe.  So, he kept all his children by the earth goddess Gaea in the womb.  There were eighteen children; several of them of monstorous size.  The youngest son Cronus with the help of his mother finally over threw his father.  Same prophecy applied to the security of his throne, so he kept all his six children in his belly by swallowing them at birth.  His youngest Zeus with the help of his own mother and grandmother Earth  over threw Cronus.  Same prophecy applied to Zeus’ uneasy crown.  So, he swallowed his first wife Metis when she became pregnant.  Guess what?  Wrong wife.  The product of that union was the goddess Athena.   

There was a still a potential male heir out there; Achilles.  If Zeus bedded Thetis Achilles would overthrow him, so Thetis was married to the mortal Peleus to avoid the danger.   Schurr says  The parallels to the cosmic succession struggle seem to be simply too strong to miss.” She has uncovered the plot narrative of the subtext. It is, the story of the primordial conflict  of earth goddess  and sky god, with the mother's opposition to her husband's will and  her patronage of the son's quest for sovereignty over the universe.  “In other words, the entire struggle for succession is played out in a mere six lines of poetry,” 

But, being mortal Achilles quest is doomed to fail. Zeus will win out in the contest for universal domination and for the plot of the Iliad. But…”the fact that the potentiality for an alternative interpretation is left open - that the Muse is not specifically signalled, despite the fact that every other invocation in the Iliad addresses them directly (suggests that another goddess) may also be felt….Now, singing goddesses, once we start looking beyond the Muse, are often extremely dangerous”  Schurr goes on list the striking similarities between the Metis of the Hesiod’s  succession myth and Thetis in further proof of what could have been.  

Schurr concludes that Homer formulates the subliminal archetype “roles of creative mother, retributive son and transgressive father”  then opens the Iliad by “invoking the creative powers of the goddess and the menis of the son, endowing them with power in the language of their cosmic parallels; but they turn out to be mere shadows of their alter egos, unable to uphold the challenge to Zeus, unable to turn the narrative to their advantage.”




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