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True/False Stories
The cult of Achilles
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Choice of Achilles
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Lesson 4

We dine with Achilles who asks: why be a hero?

Good question!

We read Iliad scroll 9, and we don't find out.

Achilles' fortunes peak when the Argives make gift offerings to him, as if to a god. Yet Achilles is not a god, and he knows that his doom rapidly is approaching. But how does he know?

Stories true or false

Everyone has plenty of experience with lying, deceit, and false promises, when seemingly good stories may be told, but they don't come true. Magic is broken so often by these deceptions that cynicism is hard to avoid. Why believe in stories at all when so many are false?

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's Air Hephaistos!As noted in earlier lessons, literature does not need to be true to be relaxing.  We are often very happy with mere fictions or fantasies, even when they are presented as  predictions of things to come. Despite the futuristic orientation of modern science fiction, for example, the only true invention by a science fiction writer to date appears to be Arthur C. Clarke's 1945 "extraterrestrial relay," which later came true as the space communications satellite. Some other cases are debatable (Has George Orwell's 1984, written in 1949, actually come to pass?), but in nearly all science fiction, there is only fiction, not science. 

Prophecy is far more accurate when set in the past. Ancient story-telling is full of examples where prophetic predictions, visions or covenants come true in the unfolding of the action, ending in belief in the magic by the characters in the story (the micro-cult), if not also by the story's intended audience (the macro-cult). In the Hebrew Bible the Lord's promise to Moses of a homeland for the Jews comes true in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. The main parallel in the New Testament is Jesus' announcement that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, prophetic words fulfilled in the stories of his resurrection and in the general apocalypse of the Book of Revelation.

Just because events work out as predicted, however, doesn't mean that they work out well. A bad ending that can't be avoided places particular emphasis on the magical power of the prophecy. Nobody wants the bad ending, but it happens anyway! Think of the ancient Hellenic story of Oedipus as a tragically true story in this sense:

The oracle of Apollo foretells that Oedipus, when he grows up, will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus' parents try to escape the story by disposing of the infant in the wilderness, but the child is found and raised by foster parents in a nearby city. When young Oedipus grows up and learns about the story of the oracle, he also tries to escape by running away from his foster parents. (He supposes that they are his natural parents.) He doesn't get very far. On the road, Oedipus is provoked into a quarrel with an older man, and he kills him. Soon afterward he marries a queen who (unknown to Oedipus) happens to be the widow of the stranger whom he has killed. Years later, in terrible moment of agony, Oedipus recognizes that he has lived the oracle's story.

What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?The power of Apollo's oracle over future events is inescapable in the Oedipus story, at least as the story has been dramatized by Sophocles. The oracle is the magic that comes true in Oedipus' life, and the witnesses in the story who finally recognize the inevitable truth of the oracle are the micro-cult, led by Teiresias. The message to the macro-cult is plain. It's the same as Socrates' message in The Apology (to be studied in Lesson 12): never think you can outwit Apollo. 

The Homeric songs likewise are preoccupied with oracles, prophecies and magic coming true. We have seen this interest already on Odysseus' voyage, in the prophecies of the cyclops, King Alkinoos, and Teiresias. (Recall Lesson 2.) We have seen it in the prayer magic of Chryses and Achilles. (Recall Lesson 3.) 

Now, let me see, let me see...The prophetic conception of the future differs from our ordinary understanding that the future has yet to be. In Homer's entertaining world, as in Biblical prophecy, "the" future already exists, although only in the form of magic words or visions that have yet to materialize. Before time unfolds this future for everyone to know, it can be "read" or "seen" in advance, in the present, if only by Zeus or by an all-knowing prophet or seer like Teiresias or Kalkhas. 

The ancients spent enormous energy attempting to perfect technologies to reveal the future. One of the common techniques was augury. Victims were sacrificed to tell the future. Professional interpreters read the victim's remains and explained the signs. 

A good example appears in Iliad scroll 2. After nine years of fighting without success, the Achaeans are discouraged, and they are ready to sail home from Troy at once. Odysseus quells the rebellion, however, and persuades them to stay. How? He beats them with Agamemnon's staff of high command, and he ridicules them too, but he has an even more effective technique. He reminds the troops of the promise of the war that Kalkhas told to them before the war began, during a ritual sacrifice:

 "All who have not since perished must remember as though it were yesterday or the day before, how the ships of the Achaeans were detained in Aulis when we were on our way here to make war on Priam and the Trojans. We were ranged round about a fountain offering hecatombs [animal sacrifices] to the gods upon their holy altars, and there was a fine plane-tree from beneath which there welled a stream of pure water.

"Then we saw a sign, for Zeus sent a fearful serpent out of the ground, with blood-red stains upon its back, and it darted from under the altar on to the plane-tree. Now there was a brood of young sparrows, quite small, upon the topmost bough, peeping out from under the leaves, eight in all, and their mother that hatched them made nine. The serpent ate the poor cheeping things, while the old bird flew about lamenting her little ones; but the serpent threw his coils about her and caught her by the wing as she was screaming. 

"Then, when he had eaten both the sparrow and her young, the god who had sent him made him become a sign; for the son of scheming Kronos [Zeus] turned him into stone, and we stood there wondering at that which had come to pass.

"Seeing, then, that such a fearful portent had broken in upon our hecatombs, Kalkhas forthwith declared to us the oracles of heaven. ‘Why, Achaeans,’ said he, ‘are you thus speechless? Zeus has sent us this sign, long in coming, and long ere it be fulfilled, though its fame shall last for ever. As the serpent ate the eight fledglings and the sparrow that hatched them, which makes nine, so shall we fight nine years at Troy, but in the tenth we shall take the town.’ This was what he said, and now it is all coming true. Stay here, therefore, all of you, till we take the city of Priam."

On this the Argives raised a shout, till the ships rang again with the uproar. Iliad 2.300 (emphasis added)

The Achaeans are willing to fight this difficult war for a decade because they know that the outcome will be defeat of the Trojans. They know the story in advance from Kalkhas. Their failure to capture Troy for nine years is not a sign of failure, as it might seem to an outside observer who places no faith in Kalkhas' story.

Not everyone in Homer is an oracle or prophet, of course. Many are fools who can't foresee the catastrophe that fate has in store for them. Some brighter ones who are not all-knowing have clear premonitions, strong feelings or forebodings about what is going to happen.  

Image based on a classical bowl decoration.Even though the Trojans have held off the invaders for nine years, Hektor and Andromache seem to know that the war is going to end with Hektor's death and Andromache's enslavement. Hektor resolves to fight in a hopeless cause so that he will not live to see his wife being taken captive.  Hektor seems to know particularly  that he will be killed by Achilles. He fears only Achilles. Of course, Achilles is well aware of Hektor's fear, and he seems completely confident that he--and he alone--will kill Hektor.

In today's psycho-jargon we might say that Achilles has "a positive winning attitude," and Hektor has "an unhealthy self-defeating outlook." Achilles has Hektor mentally beaten or "psyched out," as we say. Mental attitude predicts what will happen when the two meet in single combat.

There's more to Homer's view than simple thought-magic, however. No amount of positive thinking by Hektor is going to change the result of the story. The story is real. The story-teller knows how it's all going to turn out, after all. It always ends with the same result, so there's only one correct way to imagine it. While Hektor wins glory on the battlefield, and he begins to think that he's invincible, Homer portrays him as deluded, rash and lacking in judgment. Hektor is destined to lose. When he accepts his proper place in the story, as a good loser, he's presented as a hero; when he "forgets" it, he's an idiot.

Stories that don't come true can be annoying, or even disastrous when we rely on them, but magic stories can be more than a little disturbing, too. The pre-existence of stories that will come true appears to deny the idea of human freedom or free will. Why can't Oedipus and his parents escape from their story? Why should the Argives have to fight for ten years before Troy will fall? Why must Hektor lose? Who or what is authoring these inevitable, painful stories?

The cult of Achilles

Achilles seems to be authoring many of the events within the Iliad. The Mission to Achilles depicted on a classical vase.(Recall "the culture of Achilles" in Lesson 3.) Like Agamemnon's admissions of wrong-doing against Achilles, or Thersites' sarcastic criticisms of Agamemnon, the Achaeans' frequent threats to quit the war seem to be manifestations of Achilles' thinking as he broods in his tent and ponders whether to sail home.

By scroll 9, the war is so colored by Achilles' anger that Hektor and the Trojan forces are in complete control of the battlefield, and the Argive army is hiding in fear behind a wall hastily built around their beached ships. It's Achilles who's attacking them--not physically, of course, but through his powerful words.

Zeus is the explanation or agent of Achilles' magic, just as Apollo was the agent or explanation of Chryses' magical curse in scroll 1. Zeus' intervention in the fighting, on Achilles' behalf, explains all of Hektor's victories. Hektor's own battle skills are not responsible. Hektor is simply the tool of Zeus that punishes Agamemnon and his supporters, as Achilles has sworn and prayed. 

The Achaeans' military predicament is a culture. It is the result or fulfillment of Achilles' magical words, his great oath: 

"In the day of your distress, when your men fall dying by the murderous hand of Hektor, you shall not know how to help them, and you shall rend your heart with rage for the hour when you offered insult to the best of the Achaeans." Iliad 1.238-240

This culture also fulfills Achilles' prayer to Thetis:

"Let the Achaeans be hemmed in at the sterns of their ships, and perish on the sea-shore, that they may reap what joy they may of their king, and that Agamemnon may rue his derangement in offering insult to the best of the Achaeans. . ." Iliad 1.405

The Achaean army in this defeat has become a cult of Achilles. Scroll 9, known as "the mission to Achilles," is Achilles' grand moment of triumph, when almost everybody in the Achaean camp recognizes that Achilles alone has power to change the outcome of the war. The Achaeans give offerings and prayers to him, as if to a god. And yet Achilles is painfully aware that he is not a god. Even as the Achaeans present him with gifts and honors, he is contemplating his own doom which must bring him either death or dishonor.

Summary of the mission,
Iliad 9

A little more to the right... that's it.Agamemnon sends three ambassadors on the mission to Achilles: Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax. They are good candidates for the embassy because they are among Achilles' closest friends. Yet they are no more successful than the World, the Flesh and the Devil or any other triad of hero-tempters of later literature. Achilles does not give in to them. 

The mission episode doesn't advance the story of the Iliad, but the temptations clarify the heroic values that Achilles rejects. Let's summarize them briefly here.

Temptation #1, Iliad 9.225. Odysseus offers bribes to Achilles to return to the war. Following Agamemnon's instructions, Odysseus offers a whole catalogue of gifts, including the return of Briseis and other slave-women, numerous treasures, several whole cities, and Achilles' choice of one of Agamemnon's own daughters for a wife. How could any mercenary refuse such an offer?

Achilles is not interested in Agamemnon's gift offerings for a very simple reason: he knows the story of his life. He knows that he must choose between glorious death in battle at Troy and inglorious life in peace back home in his native land. If he stays to fight, as Agamemnon wants, obviously he will lose all of Agamemnon's gifts when he dies. From a material standpoint, he's further ahead to sail home, since he still retains loads of treasures from the war. (He has lost only Briseis.)  No amount of worldly riches can buy Achilles' promise to stay and fight. Worldly possessions have no use to the dead.

Temptation #2, Iliad 9.430. Phoenix appeals to Achilles' desire for fame or good reputation. This is the central temptation of heroic society.

Old Phoenix is a father-figure who has raised Achilles from infancy and taught him both "speech and action," the things that a warrior should say in council and do on the battlefield. Phoenix's argument to Achilles is based on heroic song, the model behavior of famous heroes of old. 

According to Phoenix, heroic songs teach that heroes should relent and give over their anger when they are offered gifts and addressed with soothing words. This idea goes back to hero ritual itself, where the hero's anger is appeased through gift offerings of sacrifice and song. There's an example of such a ceremony earlier in the Iliad, when Odysseus appeases the wrath of Apollo through sacrifices and hymns. Apollo doesn't need to accept the Achaeans' food or the singing for any material reason, but evidently he accepts them to strengthen his cult. He rewards those who respect his priest Chryses.

Phoenix cites another example for Achilles, the story of the warrior Meleager. Like Achilles, Meleager became angered while his people were at war, and he withdrew from fighting. He was offered gifts to return, but he refused them. It was only as his city burned, and was about to fall, that Meleager finally changed his mind and rejoined the battle. He was moved to return to fighting, not because of any gifts but because of the tears of his beloved wife Cleopatra.  (Her name has the same meaning as Achilles' tearful companion "Patroklos," though the syllables are reversed: both names mean "fame of the fathers" or "glory of the fathers.") 

The Meleager story is an appropriate warning for Achilles to consider from a long range point of view. Achilles should not want to be remembered as the man who came too late to the rescue, when he could have saved many lives simply by forgetting his own peevishness. This is, of course, precisely how the Iliad negatively remembers him, in its famous opening lines: 

Sing, O goddess, the anger [męnis] of the son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul [psukhę] did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures...

Achilles rejects heroism. He knows that if he accepts the gifts and fair words from the Achaeans, he will be famous, but he also will be dead. That's not the honor that he wants. Besides, why should he die to save Agamemnon's life? (Agamemnon is such a snake.) Achilles rejects Phoenix's idea angrily.

Temptation #3, Iliad 9.620. Ajax, son of Telemon, appeals to friendship and camaraderie. This temptation is pure peer pressure. Ajax vies with Odysseus as the best of the Achaean warriors at Troy, after Achilles. Unlike Odysseus and Phoenix, Ajax is a plain-spoken man of few words. For him, the whole issue is simply a matter of affection. The Achaeans are asking for Achilles to show his friendship and comradeship, but Achilles is being hard-hearted in rejecting them, all because of a silly quarrel over a girl. Should Achilles let his friends die when he has power to save them?

Achilles appreciates what Ajax has to say to him, but he will not give up his anger yet. Achilles foresees a time to enter the fight later, but only when Hektor attacks his camp:

I will have no concern with fighting until Hektor, son of noble Priam, reaches the tents of the Myrmidons in his murderous course, and flings fire upon their ships. For all his lust of battle, I take it he will be held in check when he is at my own tent and ship. Iliad 9.644

The Myrmidon tents and ships are Achilles' city; the Myrmidons from back home in Phthia are his only comrades. Achilles does not have broader allegiances to the Achaeans generally.

Odysseus and Ajax return to Agamemnon with great disappointment. Phoenix remains with Achilles in his tent for the night, perhaps to sail home with Achilles in the morning. Achilles isn't sure what he's going to do. There are no good answers. None of the options look good.

The choice of Achilles

Recall our discussion of the creative creatures of Genesis (Lesson 1). By the paradox of imagination, the creative creature is both a magic user and a victim of magic, both a powerful story-teller and also a powerless character helplessly trapped in others' stories. Achilles fits this description. Although he has awesome power to control the military situation at Troy temporarily, there's a larger story that ultimately is in control of Achilles. It's his fate.

Achilles' mother, the goddess Thetis, has told him this fatal story, and he believes it: 

"My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming but I will have a glory that is unwilting: whereas if I go home my glory will die, but it will be a long time before the outcome of death shall take me." Iliad 9.410

This oracle differs from that of Oedipus in at least one important way: Achilles is given a limited measure control over his "outcome." In his story he can choose between two different endings. This choice between deaths is the prototype of the male syndrome, the "fight-or-flight" response to stress. (Fight and die, or flee and live in shame.) It is paralleled in later religious ethics too, where the sinner's choice to live leads only to death but the saint's choice to die leads to a glorious cult afterlife. Die to live, or live to die?

Magic is limited by nature and culture, the Adam and Eve principles as we described them back in Lesson 1. By naming his poison, it seems that Achilles can choose between these two limits to his magic and push back one boundary or the other:

  • Becoming a hero by returning to the war, as Phoenix wants, Achilles will die, but his cultural influence will last forever. He will join the ranks of the song heroes whose fame is handed down to future generations through inspiring stories. He will receive the offerings of "gifts and fair words" of hero cult followers at his grave. The heroic choice to die substantially overcomes the barrier of culture by accepting the limit of nature.

  • Being an ordinary mortal, as Achilles naturally seems inclined to be, he will run away from Troy and lose all of his fame, but his natural existence will be extended "for a long time." He will have fun, temporarily, but no cult following. The non-heroic choice to avoid death prolongs natural life, but accepts the limit of culture. Nobody praises selfish non-heroes or lays gifts on their graves.

The two alternatives, as they are presented to Achilles, are not equally weighted over the course of time. Physical death can be delayed "for a long time" but not avoided forever. Glory or fame, however, is "unwilting." The heroic choice would seem to be the one that is meaningful year after year.

This simple heroic scheme of life and death values produces three separate kinds of beings in the Homeric universe:

  • First, there are immortals or gods who don't have to make a choice between physical life and glory because they have both eternally. They are given gifts, and they get to keep them, too. Mortals (including demi-gods or half-breeds like Achilles) can't attain this level of being, even with magic.

  • Second, there are ordinary mortals who choose physical life and are forgotten. They enjoy creature comforts, but the pleasures are temporary. The masses of people belong in this infamous category. (They will remain nameless here.)

  • Third, there are heroes who have chosen glory. They are the sacrifices who live in memory, in heroic songs in particular. Due to this memory-extended life, they rank in longevity between gods and ordinary mortals. Heroes aspire to immortality that they cannot achieve bodily; glory or fame ("kleos" in Greek) separates them from ordinary people. Kleos is coded in their famous names: Heracles (Hera + kleos), Patroklos and Cleopatra (fathers or ancestors + kleos). What about the name "Achilles"? It is pronounced A-kill-aa-us. Is kleos encoded in this name, too? It might be (ac [meaning "ash," as in ash-spear] + kleos). But it's hard to say. Scholars don't agree on the origin or meaning of Achilles' name. Perhaps Homer intended the ambiguity?

Heroic song, as Phoenix describes it, is a tool of culture. It glorifies  individuals who make sacrifices that are necessary for group survival. Its promise of fame attracts these victims as the cave paintings attracted food animals to the welcoming fires of the Paleolithic cave artists. What more can the bard offer besides good opinion and remembrance?

Unhappily for the Achaeans, Achilles is not interested in self-sacrifice, and he does not feel pressured to accept any social responsibility toward his comrades. It is not Homer's point to portray this character as an ideal song hero. Achilles remains angry, even when he is offered gifts and praises. 

Parents and child

We still haven't answered our most troubling question about stories, where the "true" prophetic ones come from. Where does the magic story of Achilles' fate come from? Who decided that he must choose between fame and long life? 

Back in Lesson 2, we said that the future is predicted by the past (in Homer, that is). This rule clearly applies in Achilles' case. Genes tell the story: Achilles' destiny is explained by his origin. Achilles is in-between god and mortal status because his parents are Peleus (a mortal father) and Thetis (a goddess mother)

These parents aren't living together, except in Achilles. Like human body and spirit, they're not even found on the same plane of reality! Where is Achilles going to live? If he chooses to sail home from Troy, he will return to his mortal father Peleus, but he will have no immortality of any kind. If he chooses to win glory at Troy, he never will return home to his father, but his goddess mother will immortalize him in song and dress him in the armor of a god. (Thetis' roles as singer of funeral laments for the dead and as the procuress of divine armor for her son appear later in the Iliad. They are discussed in Lesson 5.) 

Homer's characters generally are identified with their parents -- or with surrogate parents or substitute parents. This parental identification is stressed in the use of names, like "Ajax son of Telemon" that includes both the personal  name and the parent name. This naming convention is used not only to distinguish one character from another (there are two warriors named "Ajax" at Troy), but also to identify all of the characters of both sexes, including both mortals and gods. When only one of the names is used in isolation, it is almost as likely to be the parent name as the individual name. Group names receive similar treatment, too: for example, Homer often refers to the Achaeans as "the sons of the Achaeans."

These naming conventions suggest that one's identity is always that of a child, and so it is that generational conflict is one of Homer's favorite topics. Consider the variety of both real and figurative parent - child relationships simply in scroll 9:

  • The war camp is divided between old men, like know-it-all Nestor, and men young enough to be their children, like rash Diomedes. The elders consider themselves to be the wisest in council, and they are smart enough to consider the youths to be the better fighters.

  • Generational conflict follows from this somewhat artificial age division between those who command and those who fight. The conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles is partly generational: Achilles does the work, but Agamemnon gets to decide how the benefits are distributed. Agamemnon offers to become Achilles' father by giving one of his daughters in marriage to Achilles. (The offer is really more like an order: "I am older and more royal than himself. Therefore, let him now obey me"  [Iliad 9.160]). Of course, Achilles can't stomach the thought of becoming Agamemnon's son. Agamemnon has treated him like a mere boy when he has taken Briseis away from him in front of the whole Argive assembly.

  • At Troy Achilles is far removed from his father so he lacks a father's counsel. Odysseus (who Homer always identifies with the parent generation) tries to correct Achilles by reminding him of his father's instructions: "when your father Peleus sent you from Phthia to Agamemnon, did he not charge you saying, ‘Son, Athena and Hera will make you strong if they choose, but check your high temper, for the better part is in goodwill. Eschew vain quarreling, and the Achaeans old and young will respect you more for doing so.’ These were his words, but you have forgotten them" (Iliad 9.252). Peleus foresees his son's wrath, but apparently Achilles doesn't appreciate the warning.

  • Phoenix is characterized as an old man, a "foster father" to Achilles, one who has nurtured Achilles from early childhood. He is Achilles' tutor, hired by Peleus. The old days that Phoenix remembers, and that the bards tell about, are full of valuable experience that a young man like Achilles can use, if he only will pay attention! Achilles can't accept Phoenix' advice. 

  • Interestingly, however, Phoenix as a young man was cursed by his own father, Amyntor, following an argument over a concubine. (This story is another parallel to the Achilles-Briseis-Agamemnon story with two generations of males competing for the same female.) Amyntor has prayed that his son Phoenix never will have a son of his own to sit upon his knees. Gods of the underworld have made this curse come true. Though the infant Achilles sat on Phoenix's knees, Phoenix has never had a real son.

  • Perhaps Phoenix is attracted to the Meleager story because Meleager also is cursed by a parent. Meleager's mother has prayed for his death, and spirits of the underworld have heard her prayer. She "beat the earth with her hands, calling upon Hades and on awful Persephone; she went down upon her knees and her bosom was wet with tears as she prayed that they would kill her son - and Erinys that walks in darkness and knows no pity heard her from Erebos [the underworld]" (Iliad 9.555). This mother's curse is the cause of Meleager's anger and refusal to fight when his city is under attack.

  • The terrible Erinys (sometimes translated as "the Fury" or plural as "the Furies") is a spiritual agent of revenge that redresses wrongs committed by children against their parents. The Erinys is supposed to drive its victims to intense suffering, madness and death. 

  • "Patroklos" means glory of the fathers. Patroklos, as it will turn out, sorrows for the defeat of the Achaeans and urges Achilles back into action when Achilles doesn't want to go. The re-engagement in battle will cause Achilles' death.

  • "Cleopatra," wife of Meleager in Phoenix's story, also means glory of the fathers. In the end, like Patroklos summoning Achilles into battle, Cleopatra in her grief motivates Meleager to fight. The interesting irony is that both Meleager and Achilles apparently die for their efforts (though there are conflicting myths about the death of Meleager in later Greek literature), but both are remembered in the Iliad only for their anger and refusals to fight for their comrades. 

All of these parental relationships are conflicted! Generational strife is the norm. Parents are seldom seen as nurturers in Homer; in many cases they are responsible for curses under which their children live and die. The elders hold power but do not use it wisely. Children for the most part serve and obey, fighting and dying when instructed. Homer's picture is one of traditional society, where the old ways are kept, but the presentation is not a nostalgic one. The past is blamed for present suffering. 

In year 2000 AD (as I write this page), ancestry is thought to be moderately "predictive." Science indicates that we are genetically susceptible to diseases that have run in our families in the past; some physical traits such as eye-color and hair-color have more or less strong tendencies to recur, as some diseases do also, such as diabetes and lupus.

Inheritance, however, is understood in our time to be a matter of probability, not inevitability. Psychological predetermination or influence by the parent(s) is a matter of scientific controversy. Few social institutions in western and westernized societies are organized along family lines. Given this situation, individuals these days seem to have some considerable freedom from the past, or at least a probability of some freedom. 

Not so for Oedipus, Achilles, Phoenix, Meleager, and almost all mortals in Homer. Their futures have been determined in the past, often by their parents. The young rebel, to seek independence, as when Oedipus tries to run away from home, but runs to it instead, or when Achilles puts off the choice that inevitably he must make. They resent this pre-arrangement of their lives (and deaths), and their resentment only grows stronger as they grow up and their fates become clearer to them.

Homeric time & modern history

As we are going to see when we come to the end of the Iliad, almost all of the characters have been doomed long before the opening of the story in scroll 1. The future, at least in its broad outline, already is determined. The gods know what is destined to be, great seers like Kalkhas can envision it, semi-divines like Achilles may have it leaked to them, and mere mortals like Hektor and Andromache sometimes can sense it, too. (You and I, of course, have to read to the end of the book to find it out!)

In Homer, time is a closed system; no time is ever lost. This conservative view is a carry-over from traditional hero worship, the ritual from which the Homeric songs descended. In the ceremony, the ancestors are still here. If things aren't going well lately, it's because the heroes haven't been given gifts and/or their songs have not been sung. They are angry. Time to offer sacrifices to them. Time to sing their praises. Somebody call a psychogogue ("soul charmer"), or a necromantic ("prophet of the dead") or an engastromith or Python ("in the stomach speaker"), who can find out what the anger is all about through spirit-impersonation.

If the past is not lost, but merely at times neglected or forgotten, it can be "recalled." For the early Hellenes this recall is not a private act of remembering, or a historical research project, but a public calling ceremony designed to restore harmony with the ancestors through the use of magic and song. Since the past is still here, the hero cult can visit it at any time by dropping in at the local tomb, shrine or graveyard or wherever the cult believes that the past continues to exist (in the form of bones, relics, apparitions or whatever). If the right things then are said and done in that setting, the spirits will be called, and their words will be heard, and their anger may be appeased.

In the secular west these days almost nobody talks with the ancestors or lives in fear of them. For a few social conservatives, perhaps, everything wrong today still can be explained in terms of infidelity to yesterday, but nearly everybody understands that yesterday is gone, and it's not coming back tomorrow. We are free of it.

If the past isn't here, however, even a professional historian or archaeologist can't find it anywhere or bring it back. It can only be reconstructed, and a reconstruction can only be an illusion that we create. Nobody goes to the cemetery to invite the spirits of the dead to supper any more, and if they showed up uninvited, the event would be treated as news (or insanity) and not history.

There's a fundamental problem with our modern secular approach to time, a problem that doesn't exist in Homer's approach to time. Why bother with history unless it is somehow magical--that is, recurring or otherwise predictive? If stories are severed from present reality so that they cannot come true, they become "history for history's sake" or "art for art's sake," without functionality or appeal outside of narrow antiquarian circles. The essential problem of history, as of all story-telling, is the problem of loss of magic.

So we return to the question with which we began this lesson: why bother with stories that don't come true?

Lesson Summary: The ancients believed that the future was present to an extent that prophets and seers could tell it. So they were fascinated by magic stories--that is, stories that come true as foretold. Achilles' case is unusual in that his predicted story has alternate outcomes, depending on what Achilles personally chooses to do: fight and die, or run and live. Dying would make a hero of him, but Achilles does not want to be a hero. He rejects the gifts and fair words that the Achaeans offer to persuade him to return to the fighting.  

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. Telling the future: Does your future already exist? Can you see it for yourself or do you need the help of a seer (or other advisor)?

2. Oedipus: The story is dramatized in Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus the King, composed about 426 BC. You can link to it here, if desired. Sophocles, whose name means wisdom (sophia) + glory (kleos), after his death was awarded his very own hero cult in Athens!

Sigmund Freud's famous interpretation of the Oedipus complex (the desires of young children to kill the parent of the same sex and to marry the parent of the opposite sex, desires that necessarily are repressed in later life) is presented in Totem and Taboo (1913) and further described in Civilization and its Discontents (1929).  Freud's interpretation is quasi-magical in the sense that the Oedipus story attempts to come true in each of us during early childhood and it survives later in our unconscious memory. 

Is a Freudian Oedipus complex at work in Achilles' choice, rejecting the father in favor of the mother?

3. Young and old:  Youth is contained in age, because all elders once were young. Age is potential in youth because--with luck--time will bring it about. The identity of all generations reflects the natural rhythm of life, yet behavior between generations typically is adversarial. From the parents' point of view, the child rebels; the child however wants independence from a tyranny of parental control.

In American life, the identity of our own generation is seen as very different from those that have gone before and all that will come after. As a symptom of limited empathy toward other generations, note the astonishing number of young Americans in prison and the even larger number of institutionalized elderly people. It seems that the mature people who temporarily are in charge have everybody else locked up!

Can you characterize your generation? What about your elder's generation? (Or if you are older, what about the younger generation?)

4. Sacrifices: What heroes have sacrificed for you? Describe them. How do you remember them?

5. Be a hero: If you and I were at Troy, at the time of the war described in the Iliad, and if we had the choice to go home and live in peace "for a long time," I would leave, and I wouldn't wait around to learn your decision! 

Yet, what if we knew that our deaths in the war could save our friends and families from a merciless enemy? Further, what if we knew that, if we died for the benefit of the group, we would be remembered and glorified after our deaths? Would we be willing to become literary heroes? Is that what martyrs choose? What about terrorists

What can be done to prevent the heroism of suicide bombers who attack innocent civilians?

6. Further food for thought: Did you notice the feasting in Iliad Scroll 9? Agamemnon and his advisors eat before taking counsel, and Achilles feeds his three visitors before hearing them out. Can you now see why dinner plays such an important role in the story?

7. Giant bones and history: Modern scholars like to claim that they know early Greek history better than Homer did, and even better than the Greeks of classical times knew it. It's not that they have improved hero worship, of course. What their boast means is that, through archaeology, they now have access to many records that the early Greeks themselves evidently did not, and the linear reconstruction of these records occasionally suggests more clearly how Hellenic civilization may have developed over linear time. It's development that matters most in the historian's linear plan, the separation of time "A" from time "B" and "C" like so many distinct layers of sediment. 

Mammoth skeleton rearranged to become a giant, scale contrasted with a human skeleton.Homer's linear "mistakes" have been brought to light by modern scientific methods of investigating the past. For example, from all of the digging it has become apparent today that neither the early Hellenes nor their enemies were fifteen-feet tall. The Iliad and later Greek writings (as well as Genesis and other early sources) may have featured giants because of the enormous bones that the ancients found buried everywhere in the earth--such as wooly mammoth bones that could be reconstructed to seem heroic indeed (image right). 

The Hellenic territories on the Greek peninsula, western Asia Minor, and the Aegean islands were rich with Pleistocene deposits of the bones of extinct giant mammals, including sites of mass kills from earthquakes. The first reconstructions of these bones into giants and monsters probably was the basis for many of the ancient mythological stories of the distant past including the war of the giants against the gods, the interaction of the heroes with odd creatures like centaurs and griffins, and physical degeneration of humankind through four ages of time: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze age, and the present Iron Age. See the history of the world in Hesiod's Theogony. Also Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters, Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 

8. Pace of change: Does the escalating pace of change and development in the modern world have a bearing on story-telling and history? If the past is receding from us ever more rapidly, is its interest or use for us deteriorating? Does this mean that our lives are becoming less significant as we have less and less in common with future generations?

9. Don't get the wrong story! I don't want to leave an impression here that ancient stories work out, since people in those days were superstitious believers in oracles and fates, whereas we today know enough to be skeptical and disillusioned. There are as many "success stories" today as ever, where events unfold according to an auspiciously preconceived design or plan. Just because we're talking about Homer, and ideas of at least 2,700 years ago, doesn't mean that we're talking only about the past. To the extent that it exists at all, the future--your future--exists today only in stories.

Powers of Literature

Copyright © 2001







Figure left:
Hephaistos' airlines, image from a vase decoration, cir 525 BC. Did Homer invent the car and the mechanical robot? (See Iliad 18.368-428.)

























Image Left: Oedipus ponders the riddle of the Sphinx, design from a classical image.










Figure left: carved image of Kalkhas from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. 








































Link to Homer's moving episode of Hektor and Andromache here, if desired.
























The mission to Achilles was a favorite subject of classical pottery decoration. Example: image left.



























Figure left: Image of Phoenix and Ajax from a classical decoration. "Phoenix" was a standard name for wise man; the word refers to Phoenician. It was the Phoenicians who gave the alphabet to the Hellenes.



























Figure left: damaged classical statue of Meleager and his hound. Meleager was a favorite figure in Hellenic art. He was a noted hunter.



Figure left: Raphael's "Knight's Dream" (cir.1493), National Gallery, London. The  warrior must choose between virtue (Minerva, Roman Athena) and pleasure (Venus, Roman Aphrodite). The choice of Achilles is a standard motif in classical art and  literature.


































































Image left: the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, based on classical vase decorations.

Link here to my separate page on Peleus and Thetis, if desired.













































































































































































Image left: human skeleton compared with an upright wooly mammoth "giant."