Odyssey v Iliad
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Whether it is the Trojan War or the Great War, men run into battle, notwithstanding their terror, as if the only way to "be" is to live full out. It's madness, and it is telling that Achilles is its exemplar. Soldiers may not understand this compulsion, but they feel it all the same. And it is that compulsion that grabs my interest.
This may have been influenced by how I read them, however, since my first experiences with the Iliad and in Herodotus were in what I have since decided are the preferable translations for entertaining reading, while the same cannot be said for the other two.
I have other reasons as well, but they might just be rationalizing.
Between the golden age of Troy and the blind poet of Xios, the Greek world had changed, the Heroic age had passed. Due to migration pressures all around the Mediterranean world new ways of thinking and being were developing.
Achilleus is the man of bold, decisive, forceful action (when he isn't acting like a baby) while Odysseus is cunning, intelligent, manipulative. Achilleus relied on magic for his protection, Odysseus relied on wisdom. Odysseus went home, Achilleus didn't. I believe Homer was describing a new kind of human being in Odysseus.
As far as the relationship between Homer and Thucydides who I've read and Herodotus who I know only in part. I agree that most people who like the Iliad will prefer Thucydides, but mostly for the wrong reasons. On the one hand Thucydides is a no nonsense kind of guy, an ex-general in the Odysseus mold, sceptical of the reasons for war in the first place and in disagreement with its prosecution. The people who instigated the war between Athens and Sparta were the same people who wanted the war with Iraq, the same people who mythologize the Heroes of the American military today. As an army vet of the Vietnam war with combat experience I'll bet ninety percent of the front line troops in Iraq don't feel like "Heroes", just ordinary men and women engaged in a particularly dangerous business, taking every day as it comes. They are "Heroes" to those who have never seen combat and have amped up the language (see Pericles) for propaganda purposes. George W. would have done well to read Thucydides. Would he have understood it? Probably not. If one reads the Iliad as against the destruction of war rather than a paeon to the Heroic, then Thucydides is a good fit, otherwise I think they miss his point. Thucydides had little sympathy with the false Heroicism of the Athenians of his day.
On the other hand, what I know of Herodotus is that he was more gullible in his reporting and less enamored of the facts than Thucydides. I may be wrong here. I would think he would be more attractive to those who don't need facts to form opinions (yours truly?). The Iliad is much this way. We have heard rumours of... let's do something. Just ask Iphigenia. He seems more fuzzy headed than Thucydides. I see Odysseus as smarter than Achilleus, less rigid in his beliefs, willing to entertain some pragmatism when it is called for, unlike Achilleus who remains the ideal Hero to the end. If one takes Odysseus in this light, then maybe his openness to experience and meditation do lean more to Herodotus.
Now, have I managed to agree with all possible points of view on this?
My personal taste runs to the Odyssey and Thucydides because they both express the mental ability to come to a valid conclusion of what must be done, rather than read their own entrails (gut feeling I think it's called today) and rush head long into action without considering the consequences.
If you check out my entry in books that made you think, or in this case, changed my life, I list Jaynes' book along with the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra as the two most influential works in my life. A third work, based on gleanings from these two, is the Bible. Think about God in terms of Capra and Jesus, the greatest humanist who ever lived as the ultimate result of Jaynes' ideas. Julian Jaynes has taken so much heat for what to me are a set of inescapable conclusions. I'm glad to see someone else that appreciates him.
BTW, was it THAT obvious?
To get a little bit back on track, I just picked up Enoch Powell's translation of Herodotus, which I've been wondering about. Powell had been a precocious classicist (youngest professor in the Commonwealth at his first appointment) and, according to the preface of this translation, had started it when he was a schoolboy. He also produced a Lexicon to Herodotus and, I believe, a commentary on the text as well. Clearly he was both bright and interested in Herodotus. (He also worked on Thucydides, but to a much lesser extent.)
However, he's now much more known as having been a "far-right" conservative MP with outspoken views on immigration that skirt the border of racism. The question is, does that square with having spent his early life working deeply with a text that explores cultural variety and seems to argue for a type of relativism? He was a notable orator, as well, and so perhaps more of a Thucydidean figure himself. Quite an interesting character, I think. I wonder whether he preferred the Iliad or the Odyssey...
Oydessey is a great story but the themes are not so universal. Oydessus is not every man but you do have to love him.
When Athena stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon is most telling. Translators from George Chapman and Alexander Pope down to Fagels and Lombardo have rendered this according their beliefs in what god might be.
That and the shield of Achilles and Priam's midnight visit are the greatest writing in literature.
Here's my funny Iliad story
Here is a link to the archive
I wrote a little piece applying some Classical comparisons to recent tragic events here: "The Question Mark Kid."
The Odyssey is a great story. Odysseus blinds the son of Poseidon on his return from the Trojan war and his journey home becomes the original epic adventure. The climactic scene in the Odyssey when Odysseus strings the bow and kills the suitors is one of my favorites in all of literature.
The Odyssey does not deal with the elemental forces in human life such as character and fate. The themes of the Iliad are timeless and at the center of human existence. Those themes are repeated in many of the greatest works of literature and in real life. I read each of the works about once every two to three years and the Iliad is always a greater emotional experience.
I recently reread The Odyssey and edited this post. I had said that Odysseus killed the son of Poseidon when he actually blinded him.
The Odyssey is to epic poetry as Euripides is to Greek Tragedy.
The Iliad is about a group of near automatons executing life according to the rules of power. Odysseus is a new creature on the scene. He is intelligent, a leader, devious when necessary, steadfast and true to his wife and family, faithful to the gods, his own man. He goes to war being one of thousands whose allegiance belongs to Agamemnon. He returns as his own man, loyal to his own interests.
These two poems mark the transition from Bronze Age social norms to the beginnings of a more recognizable Classical Greek age, the age that gave us democracy and high culture.
We move from Achilleus' unthinking response to Agamemnon's raw power play to Odysseus taking up his oar and carrying it himself. We move from action without thought to thought that yields action.
The two are a psychological journey from the past into the future.
"Odysseus is... steadfast and true to his wife and family..."
okay, so he's off with the lads for 20 years, boinking Circe, Calypso, and possibly Nausicaa too (and who knows how many others). then he finally goes home just long enough to scratch all the other cats sniffing 'round his den and tear off a quick piece with the ol' lady before he's off down the pub again.
yeah, that's what i call steadfast and true!
"... faithful to the gods..."
tell that to Poseidon.
"... his own man..."
who cries all the way through the story!