I know, this will be somewhat controversial, this view of mine about Homer, I mean but, oh well, let the controversy explode and let’s see where the bits and pieces fall!
Not Homer Simpson but Homer the blind bard, I mean. That Homer who sang some 300,000 words which he accompanied with a lyre, about a war and a hero’s tortuous and torturous, adventure-packed journey home. That was Odysseus.
That war was called the Trojan War even though it had taken place in Ilium and even though it hadn’t taken place at all. Such are the perplexities of mythology, especially the Greek kind. Rest easy, though, after those 48 songs (or rhapsodies as the Greeks called them) there were no more myths, no more heroes and all wars were real, brutal and deadly, as brutal and deadly as Homer the blind bard described them. There were also no more heroes, other than those on the footy fields of Australia and the canines who drag their masters out of sink holes.
Nor was there a Homer, supposedly born around the Western shores of modern-day Turkey around the 8th century BCE. No Homer, no war, no heroes, just scrumptious stories of bronze spears driven through the eyes of men, swords thrust mightily through throats of loud war-cry, of spines being torn away from men’s backs, bronze helmeted heads lopped off bodies, of bodies tied to the back of chariots and dragged around the walls of Troy at the peak speed of stallions, and so on, and so on and so on. A pleasant sojourn around a battlefield heaped with blood and gore!
Oh, look, there’s Athena whizzing Paris away from Agamemnon‘s blood-soaked sword! She flies him to his bedroom where he can polish his spears. His new wife, well, by now a ten-year long marriage, Helen screams at his cowardice which only makes him horny.
And so on, and so on, and so on!
And yes, it’s true, Homer did not exist!
And how do I know that? That Homer did not exist, I mean?
Because his name has been concocted to fit just too conveniently with the two epics. The name Homer, in Greek, (Ὅμηρος,) means “hostage” and being a hostage is the very essence of these two great works. Everyone in these two huge operas is dealing with the fact that they are a hostage. The war is not between the Trojans and the Greeks -in any case, around that place and around Homer’s time, they were all Greeks and Herodotus couldn’t see what all the fuss about the abduction of a mere woman was. Such a thing happened all the time by sailors from all around the world. They’d dock their ship at some port or other, girls would be enticed to go up and check out its cargo and before you know it, the ship would be sailing away with them on board! Nothing unusual, certainly nothing to bring on a war over.
But, Homer is trying to say that this war was between Man and his Fate, Man and his inescapable condition, which is to be a hostage. Nietzsche’s “homo!”
Homer is singing in no uncertain notes the true nature of Man, his inability to escape his condition as a hostage. His weakness, his insignificance, his place in the Cosmos as a hostage to it: to the gods, to fate, to the stars, to kings and queens, to beauty and to ugliness, to terror and to horror, to the telly and the dirty book, to things beyond his reach or strength or ken.
“We are all in lock-down,” he sings. “In an eternal lock-down and the exit is most firmly deadlocked!” In another book, by another wise man, he’d put it in different words, “were you a camel (the thickest type of rope) you wouldn’t be able to get through the exit’s eye.”
The Trojans have been hostages to the Greeks for ten years before all the men were slaughtered and all the women – bar one- were taken to Greece as slaves. The one who was freed from enslavement was Polyxena. She was spared the enslavement but instead, she was sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb by his son, Neoptolemos, a man judged by all to be, like Achilles, a man of virtue. By all the Greeks, I mean.
The Iliad begins, in res (in the middle of things) on the tenth year of the war when Chryseas, the father of a young priestess, Chryseis, loads his cart with valuable things, goes to the Greek camp and asks to have his daughter, Chryseis returned to him for all the wealth on his cart. She was held as war-prize by the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon who, in spite of all his men calling him to return the young woman to her father, he doesn’t. The beautiful Chryseis is a hostage to Agamemnon, and he says he’ll take her home to be his and his wife’s slave.
The distraught father leaves the camp and when he gets back to Apollo‘s temple, prays to the god and he, in answer, punishes the Greeks most severely.
Muse, sing about Achilles’ rage! Peleus’ son and his bellowing rage
which sent immeasurable misery upon the Achaeans, their glorious souls to Hades and their bodies to the teeth of dogs and the talons of birds of prey.
Sing the song from that moment when anger split apart the two men,
King Agamemnon and brilliant Achilles.
The two leaders one, of men, the other of the battlefield, are now hostages to their pride and thus, their soldiers become hostages to them also. So are all the armies that had gathered around the walls of Troy, trying to free another hostage, Helen, ex-queen of Sparta, a hostage now of her lover, Paris and of her beauty, identical to that of the goddess Aphrodite. She was handed over to Paris in a deal between the goddess and the Prince. She was a hostage but then so were all the women at the time. Bereft of any freedom to choose or do anything.
Homer does a divinely inspired job (after all he calls for the help of the muse) in describing Helen’s torment as a hostage and why the Trojan elders understand her predicament and the predicament of all the Trojans and Greeks alike, in effect, their hostage.
So I’ll jump to what the author of these two massive books, The Iliad and The Odyssey is describing for his audience. He is describing the travails of being a hostage. Man’s existential condition. We are all locked up – or “locked-down”- to use the modern vernacular; the Trojans, not for a few weeks, as we are in modern-day Australia but for ten years! No wonder whoever gave him his name he thought of the most appropriate one for him: Homer. Hostage.
We are hostage to the strength and weakness of our bodies, of our minds and of our hearts. We are hostage to the will and whim of others, more powerful than us and we are hostage to this moment and this place.
The worst question one can ask about any work of art, be it sculpture or Music, or Literature or origami is “what is it about?” It’s an insulting question because it reduces all that immeasurable inspiration it took to create that work into a single, deplorably miserable sentence. “Oh, it’s about war!” or “Oh, it’s about peace?” or “it’s about the abduction of a queen,” or, “oh, it’s about love!” etc, etc, etc.
But the core message, the greatest picture we get when we read these works, is the one that merges when we plunges deep into own soul, much like when Odysseus was guided down to Hades before he left the shores of Calypso’s island and headed for home. It’s a picture that psychologists try to see but never can because, as Homer describes it, it is a huge picture, ever evolving, yet ever a hostage.
It is the picture of Man as a Hostage, Pontius Pilate‘s man, when he uttered the words “ecce homo.” And it is a picture that emerges out of the fog of chaotic clamour and groans of pain. The poet’s sermon says that man is a hostage right from his first breath.
Astyanax, Hektor and Andromache‘s baby boy was thrown over the sky scraping walls of Troy to his death, by – another irony! – Neoptolemos, the “virtuous” son of “virtuous” Achilles who had also cut Polyxena’s throat upon his father’s tomb. Some virtuous man! That’s what baby Astyanax was hostage to; a male, the son of the most prominent man in Troy, Prince Hektor and of the turn of the battle between two peoples about whom he knew nothing.
Being a hostage brooks no logic.
The Odyssey, too, begins with Odysseus, his name means “someone hostage to acute mental pain,” begins with this man being hostage to the Queen/goddess Calypso and to Poseidon‘s anger because – well, for many reasons but primarily because Odysseus had blinded Poseidon’s beloved son, the cyclops, Polyphemus.
Back in Ithaka, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope was hostage to 108 suitors waiting for her to pick her husband from one of them and they, the suitors themselves, were hostages to her will. They became hostages (and target practice) to Odysseus when he had returned after ten more years on the sea, twenty years altogether from the day he left for Troy (23 actually, because the fleet was held in Aulis, hostage to Artemis who would not allow favourable winds to fill the sails of the 1000 ships). There, the young girl Iphigenia was also held hostage and had her throat slit because of her father’s indiscretions.
Homer gave us the greatest insight about us: we are all hostage to this planet, to this time, to this place in the Cosmos. Both, place and the cosmos are magnificent. Yes, we are in lock-down but, luckily – some religiously minded will say, purposely – we are locked-down in a great resort. The best that Nature can offer. So let’s not destroy it, let’s not fill it up with destructive rubbish of our flaws, hubris, greed, gluttony, crime. Let’s just enjoy it. It’s a holiday.
Homer sang for us the quintessential lesson about our life as humans: We are all hostages and then we die. We must live knowing that.
Plato called him “the teacher of Greece” and a number of scholars said that he was not merely a footnote in the pages of History but History itself.
“But, come now! Let us you and I enter the bliss of love for never was my soul captured so mightily by desire…
You make me so horny when you’re angry!” Iliad Book 3.438) (The last line is my paraphrase).
NOTE: All translations from ancient Greek are mine.
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