On “Literary Criticism” Of The Iliad Which Fundamentally Misses Its Point

See, that’s the thing. Various characters of prominence in the Iliad are pretty heavily rooted in the living-mythology (living mythos, indeed) of the world around them. It isn’t just some abstract set of stories – they can literally tell you which Gods they personally descend from (and often not all that far back in the family tree).

They can, in other words, relate to the Universe and their placement position within it.

It is also partially … the point of the Iliad – it’s an immense and virtually apocalyptic conflagration of a conflict that it’s chronicling.

You literally see entire lines of heroic hailing wiped out in this decade-long incredibly bloody conflict. Indeed, that’s occasionally said to be … part of the reason why it occurred – too many “heroes”, had to do something about it.

[In fact, the archaic texts themselves from Homer and Hesiod appear to suggest that … the Trojan War was literally intended by Zeus to be a war of self-engaged extinction for much of Humanity due to overpopulation causing environmental / ecological degradation to the Earth. So .. “Apocalyptic Conflict”, indeed]

The scale of the desolation is communicated not only via some pretty serious simile and discussion around ranks of Bronze Age warriors being cut down – but also by attempting to build up particular figures, their prowess and their pedigree. Some of whom may have been familiar to listeners from elsewhere [which would seemingly suggest that The Iliad was not only an archaic Audiobook .. but a Crossover – although even though the Universe as Drama / Play is a pretty useful Indo-European cosmological / theological precept, I balk at describing this as the “Hellenic Cinematic Universe”] – others of whom, not so much.

So yes, yes of course you have all of these pervasive presentations of where people come from and who they are (or, rather, were) – particularly because this also then helped to (in)form the ensuing centuries of Greek civilizational identity and community networking: particular nations all having ‘their’ points of personal connectivity to the conflict via being able to say that their national hero fought at Troy [c.f Aeneas for the Romans], or that they could trace their lineage back to somebody stated to have been there, or that they had some entirely legitimate ancient grudge against some other group about the Eastern Mediterranean for what their ancestors did to their own [again, c.f. the deployment of Aeneas by the Romans in relation to .. well .. Greece; and interestingly enough, displacing a rather older Roman foundational myth which presented the city as having been incepted by a certain ‘Rhomos’, Son of Odysseus and Circe …].

If you’re just looking for a ‘cool story’ – then yeah, sure, the Iliad definitely does provide ! Even if you wind up having to mentally gloss over various recurrent elements to the text and ‘filter those out’ in order to keep your attention going.

But we so often think of stories as just that – just stories. We forget that they live and breathe with us, and our essential engagement and connection thereto. And that they’re there for far more than just ‘to entertain us’ – they’re there to .. well .. tell us something important about the world and our place within it.

Pointedly-particularly where we come from and what that might mean for us.

In that sense, then, even though Homer’s work is, quite literally, ‘Classic’ – it is not really for us. Although in another sense, it really rather is – because even though most of us in Europe or the Americas or a far-flung Antipodean enclave called New Zealand, are not Greek nor descended from the ancient Greeks nor western Indo-European Anatolians … our civilization has, for centuries now, effectively taken as in amongst its foundations, this text.

Odin did not come from Troy (although, in a sense, did hail from somewhere proximate to the Black Sea and thence migrate up North and West …) as the Ynglinga Saga euhemerically presents Him as doing. Yet that’s .. well, that’s, as I say, the start of the narrative for that text and its bearer-people. Even if it’s a ‘bolt on’ later on.

The Romans didn’t descend from the Trojans (and seriously – you can check the Etruscan or Latin archaeogenetics for pretty solid evidence on this, for a start) – yet they really did go out of their way to endeavour to ‘make the tale their own’ … the Aeneid quite directly being a ‘foundation’-stone to their own Imperial Age as hallowed not-quite-just-propaganda for Augustus (to the point that, if memory serves, Virgil wanted the thing destroyed upon his death).

Troy, contrary to what certain rather .. enthusiastic writeups of the past few decades / centuries might so happen to suggest, was not located in the British Isles. Nor were the Britons children of Troy cast into exile in the manner of Aeneas (or, for that matter, children of Aeneas’ re-settlement project in Italy). Yet what do we find in service of the Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy at the Battle of the River Plate in the early months of the Second World War – The HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles (along with, to be sure, the HMS Exeter – although this is not part of the ‘theme naming’). And all across British history (especially of the military variety) we find these conscious ‘callbacks’ to the Homeric texts. Lord Byron (inter many alia) taking it even further and self-inserting himself into what he viewed as a sort of ‘resonancy’ of the situation by going to fight for Greek Independence from the Ottomans … and doing so in panoply of war which he’d consciously designed to recollect the helmets of the Greek warriors of the Iliad.

Anyway, I’m ranting now.

But in terms of the two straw-Greeks that this anon has constructed, notice that the former was allegedly of a lineage of renown and mighty strength ; the latter, likewise, but with impressive wealth.

And in both cases – yes, this was not sufficient to protect them from meeting an end upon the blood-soaked earth of Ilium.

Yet were they real (and there is no shortage of actual Greeks – or other persons – from the Iliad who could broadly be substituted in here in exactly the same manner), then it should prove quite remarkable:

That they died, in amidst even many others – and yet here we are, some three thousand years later, still talking about them.

As a certain God put it – cattle die, kinsmen die, but one thing which does not die is an epically cool story.

Indeed, that’s sort-of the point.

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