Thursday, April 7, 2016

TFBT: Spock, Achilles and Aesop

Captain Kirk provoking Dr. Spock into a fight calls him “a simpering, devil-eared freak, whose father was a computer and his mother an encyclopedia?"[i]  Whether you are a trekkie or no, it is quite the insult.  Hence the first time I heard “gray sea bore you and the sheer cliffs begot you,” in reference to Achilles (Iliad 16:30-34) that too struck quite the chord.  Here is the story of the latter insult; the goddess Leto heavy with the twins Apollo and Artemis having escaped the pursuing Python turned her feet towards Thessaly in search of a place to birth her children.  In horror of being the chosen site and attaining Hera’s eternal wrath, the river-god Anaurus fled as did the great nymph of Larisa and the cliffs of Chiron, too, abandoning to destiny the River Peneus, flowing calmly through the Vale of the Tempe below.[ii] The cliffs of Chiron are on Mt. Pelion in Thessaly, home of the Centaur Chiron.  Here Peleus, father of Achilles, and Achilles himself were raised when not a home in their Kingdom of Phthia.  In describing the rich plains of his homeland Prince Achilles mentions “both mountain and sounding sea." (Iliad 1.155) The background above helps explain the follow reference; “Now, however, he (Hector) kept trying to break the ranks of the enemy wherever he could see them thickest, and in the goodliest armor; but do what he might he could not break through them, for they stood as a tower foursquare, or as some high cliff rising from the gray sea that braves the anger of the gale.”  (Iliad 15: 615-619)  Achilles will someday soon be that cliff. And I end with the quote that got my research started; “May it never be my lot to nurse such a passion as you have done, to the damage of your own good name. Who in future story will speak well of you unless you now save the Argives from ruin? You know no pity; charioteer Peleus was not your father nor Thetis your mother, but the gray sea bore you and the sheer cliffs begot you,” (Iliad 16:30-34)


I have thought more on Aesop’s’  Venus and the Cat; A Cat fell in love with a handsome young man, and entreated Venus to change her into the form of a woman.  Venus consented to her request and transformed her into a beautiful damsel, so that the youth saw her and loved her, and took her home as his bride.  While the two were reclining in their chamber, Venus wishing to discover if the Cat in her change of shape had also altered her habits of life, let down a mouse in the middle of the room.  The Cat, quite forgetting her present condition, started up from the couch and pursued the mouse, wishing to eat it.  Venus was much disappointed and again caused her to return to her former shape.” [iii] Aphrodite in disgust turns the girl back into a cat.  In Greek mythology such things can be rarely undone. I thought specifically of Clay’s analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo  the first epiphany of the new god on the threshold of Olympus and his eternally repeated entrance into this father’s house…as he did the first time and as he will forever.[iv]  Or as I like to say, “Once and for Always”.   Okay Tiresias got changed back into his original form, but that was more of a happy accident than divine intent. He saw two snakes coupling and struck them with his staff and as a consequence was turned into a maiden.  A year later “she” saw another pair of snakes doing the nasty, struck them again and his manhood returned.  When retelling this story he angered Hera, she blinded him.  “immortal deities may never turn decrees and deeds of other Gods to naught, but Jove, to recompense his loss of sight, endowed him with the gift of prophecy.”  (Ovid Metamorphoses 3.4)  However at Odyssey 10.388, Circe returned Odysseus’ men to their original shape.  So it is possible.


I have thought more on Aesop’s’ “Mercury and the Man Bitten by an Ant; A Man once saw a ship go down with all its crew, and commented severely on the injustice of the gods.”They care nothing for a man's character," said he, "but let the good and the bad go to their deaths together." There was an ant-heap close by where he was standing, and, just as he spoke, he was bitten in the foot by an Ant. Turning in a temper to the ant-heap he stamped upon it and crushed hundreds of unoffending ants. Suddenly Mercury appeared, and belaboured him with his staff, saying as he did so, "You villain, where's your nice sense of justice now?" This fable suggests that as men are to a hill of ants, so gods are to men.  Here Hermes betrays a sensitivity not at all in keeping with his character or the nature of the gods. Although several gods get emotional about the loss of mortal sons during the Trojan War for example Sarpedon, Achilles, Aeneas.  But, I don’t recall any objecting to the destruction of the city in general, the death of thousands or the Cyprian plot against humanity.  


[ii] Callimachus 4 Hymn to Delos; 104)    
[iii] Quote thanks to;
[iv] Jenny Strauss-Clay (The Politics of Olympus, 1989)


  1. Greek gods are indeed very sociopathic (even their Mesopothamian counterparts regretted the flood). On the other hand, how do you think, why do they intervene to stop the bloodshed at the end of the Odyssey?

  2. Maya,

    From what we learned in "The Ancient Greek Hero in Twenty-Four Hours" the epics of Telemachus and Orestes mark the end of of the endless cycle of killing and revenge and the beginning of the rule of law.