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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 2, 2023

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War brides and loot goblins: The Iliad

(Epistemic status: The Iliad is 2700 years old and practically a field of study unto itself. I doubt anything I have to say here is original.)

(You can skip this paragraph if you're familiar with the story). The Iliad is an epic poem composed in ancient Greece by oral poet(s), first written down around 700BC and attributed to an unknown poet called Homer (along with the Odyssey). It describes events towards the end of the Trojan War - a legendary event occurring hundreds of years earlier where mainland Greeks travelled to Greek Anatolia with the ostensible goal of rescuing/re-kidnapping Helen, a beautiful woman who'd been taken away by the Trojan Paris. Notable characters on the Greek side include warrior Achilles and his close friend/possible lover Patroclus, ineffectual king Agamemnon, and got-his-own-spinoff Odysseus.

Recently after a lifetime of mostly reading sci-fi and fantasy I was thinking that I should catch up on some of the classics. After comparing a few translations of the Iliad I went with Robert Fagles' version as it seemed the most energetic. (People like to say that the Iliad was meant to be listened to rather than read, but I'm not an audiobook guy). With the high and mighty reputation of Homer I was expecting an eating-your-vegetables experience where I might be encultured but not necessarily entertained, but it was actually rather engaging. The story is mostly (rather violent) action with a bit of drama and pathos and was clearly composed as popular entertainment first and foremost. Some sections get a little repetitive (there's a bit too much back and forth action - it starts to feel like a long MOBA match after a while) but overall it was both enjoyable and an interesting insight into bronze age society. I have a few scattered thoughts, some of which touch on culture war issues.

  • Tropes. Some things I think of as Hollywood tropes are already present here. Random fighters die instantly and reliably in a single hit while major characters get injured if not missed entirely. The few that die get just enough time to make a dramatic speech before death. On the other hand they hadn't come up with quippy one-liners yet - when characters try to dunk on each other they make speeches.

  • Names. An interesting difference from almost all modern media is that almost every single character who dies in battle, no matter how minor, gets named, usually with their father's name and often even a mini-bio as well. This does get a bit repetitive at times but also takes the cost of war more seriously than the typical Hollywood mowing down of faceless mooks. One interesting exception to this is that the dozen Trojan soldiers sacrificed by Achilles for Patroclus's funeral pyre are not named - perhaps their deaths were not heroic enough.

  • Morality. Ingroup-outgroup morality is very strong here, as well as an absence of altruism in the modern sense. The characters don't see anything wrong with looting random cities, slaughtering men and taking women as slaves, nor with summarily killing (or human-sacrificing) prisoners or desecrating their enemies' bodies - indeed they tend to boast about these things. Achilles just barely softens a little at the end, with bribery required. The Trojans are worried that they might be sacked and killed/enslaved, but they don't seem object to this on moral grounds. Meanwhile both sides show a great deal of concern over protecting the bodies of their fallen comrades, even at great risk to themselves.

  • Loot. The characters are obsessed with loot and on multiple occasions get killed or injured while trying to loot their enemies' armor mid-battle. They also send people back to base with loot mid-battle instead of trying to win the battle with their full force. Even the god Ares, fighting in the battle, stops to loot one of his victims - I guess even gods could use a spare set of armor.

  • Gods. The gods are involved surprisingly directly and frequently in the story, going so far as to redirect spears and arrows or even fight in the battles personally. Most often the gods seem to be used to explain events that in modern times would be attributed to good or bad luck - oh your chariot broke down, or your spear missed? Must have been the interference of Zeus again. They also seem to think character's thoughts for them at times - something that formed part of the basis for The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, if I recall correctly.

  • Women. Human women play little role in the story except as prizes - an explicit goal of the Greeks is to take the Trojan women as slaves/war brides, and both the Trojan war and the Iliad itself start with disputes over the possession of women. At the funeral games a woman, 2nd prize for one of the events, is even rated as being worth only 4 oxen, compared to a 1st prize cauldron worth 12. (This may have been intended as a joke, perhaps implying that this woman was not so desirable - another woman is also part of the first prize for the prestigious chariot race). It's interesting that the goddess Athena is portrayed as something of an ass-kicking girlboss, unlike any of the human female characters.

  • Theme. The theme could perhaps be summarized as "War is harsh and tragic, but at least it's glorious. Also you can really load up on loot".

One thing I speculate about - for a long time Homer was prestigious partly because you had to know ancient Greek to read him. Then there were various English translations (famously Alexander Pope's rhyming translation), but they weren't so easy to read, so there was still some prestige from the effort. I wonder if relatively easy/readable translations like Fagles have hurt the prestigious nature of Homer and, along with feminist opposition to the very unfeminist portrayal of women in the story, contributed to the apparent decline of the classics in academia.

I'll leave you with an excerpt from the end of book 20, which reminded me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:

Achilles now
like inhuman fire raging on through the mountain gorges
splinter-dry, setting ablaze big stands of timber,
the wind swirling the huge fireball left and right—
chaos of fire—Achilles storming on with brandished spear
like a frenzied god of battle trampling all he killed
and the earth ran black with blood. Thundering on,
on like oxen broad in the brow some field hand yokes
to crush white barley heaped on a well-laid threshing floor
and the grain is husked out fast by the bellowing oxen's hoofs—
so as the great Achilles rampaged on, his sharp-hoofed stallions
trampled shields and corpses, axle under his chariot splashed
with blood, blood on the handrails sweeping round the car,
sprays of blood shooting up from the stallion's hoofs
and churning, whirling rims—and the son of Peleus
charioteering on to seize his glory, bloody filth
splattering both strong arms, Achilles' invincible arms—

Theme. The theme could perhaps be summarized as "War is harsh and tragic, but at least it's glorious. Also you can really load up on loot".

Well, I'd imagine the first line is also pretty relevant, beginning with the wrath of Achilles.

Re: names, my professors largely interpreted that trope as a shout out. The catalogue of ships and the naming of random characters allowed the audience (across city states and tribes) to place their ancestors at the battle. The tradition of faux genealogy to the Trojan war continued well into the early modern period; Habsburg and English kings both traced their lineage to Iliad heroes at times.

Today of course, we don't identify by family or tribe but by gross-ethnicity, so we have racial tokenism. Or we see Chinese plots shoehorned into blockbusters to appeal to the Chinese market. Many Iliad names were added the same way, to appeal to a town or a family or a tribe by placing an ancestor at the battle.

Yes, during some of the action scenes I was reminded of gangsta rap (specifically Wu-tang clan ain't nothing to f' with) - youthful bravado and violence accompanied by a long list of shoutouts.

Though I dunno if I'd want my ancestor to be known as "guy who didn't do much then got killed instantly by Hector". No doubt there was some valor in just having been there.

Though I dunno if I'd want my ancestor to be known as "guy who didn't do much then got killed instantly by Hector". No doubt there was some valor in just having been there.

I expect that travelling bard were juggling who did what depending on their location. For example when telling story in place B then ancestor of their enemies were worse performing ones, while A ancestor were more glorious.

The Odyssey and the Iliad are more than just entertainment IMO because they work motivationally for a culture where war is constant and winning dictates quality of life. The Greeks lacked any heaven-like construct in their vision of their afterlife as everyone is sent to a boring and unpleasant underworld. In order to motivate men to die in battle without a conception of a Heavenly Judge who rewards your fate (the mystery religions and Christianity introduced this) and without a civic religion centered on a march of progress for the human race (American civic religion), the best way to reward men is to privilege valiant warriors and permit pillaging and rape. So, a boy listening to the Iliad will be looking up to these characters and modeling their relationships to each other, all of which are based on warrior-status.

If you haven't read it already you might like Tanner Greer's "How I Taught the Iliad to Chinese Teenagers". It's long but I think a cool example of introducing an ancient epic to a culture where it's not part of their own canon:

Over the last few years a debate has been raging among both educators and classicists regarding what place, if any, the “classics” should have in modern education, for what purpose they should be taught, and how best to teach them. I come to this debate from an unusual perspective: someone tasked with getting zonked-out Chinese teenagers to care about a book most of them assume they could never possibly finish.

Chinese students live in a social world that is quite alien to the culture wars that divide the Anglosphere and which underlay many of the debates we have about how to teach the classics. They don’t have a dog in that fight. Because of this I found teaching them to be a clarifying experience. Those who defend and those who attack the classics tend to focus their fire on the role the classics play, for good or ill, as the foundation stone of Western high culture. This context is entirely irrelevant to the Chinese teenager. The Western tradition is not their tradition. They have no special reason to adore or revile it. They must approach a work like the Iliad on its own terms and for its own sake. If it means anything to them, it is as a human story, not a Western one.

Why, my Chinese students asked, will we read this? Because you need to prepare for American university classes, I replied. But more importantly: because this book might just change your life! I said this without apology or awkwardness. I believed it! Ultimately, if a great work of history and literature does not have the potential to change a student’s life, to shape their character or transform their worldview, there is no point in teaching it! Most students believe this themselves. They can tell whether you believe the books you are assigning are that important. If you do not believe the works you are assigning matter, students will not think they matter either. I presented the Iliad as a meditation on universal problems of the human condition. My students read it as such.

I think that a big reason for why I find the Iliad to be sublime is that unlike most other fiction that I have read, there is an epic objectivity about the way it presents things.

To a modern reader like me, at least, The Iliad seems to be light on propagandistic ways of viewing reality. It has no conventional good guys and bad guys. The Greeks are a bunch of honor culture-bound bandit thugs, whereas the Trojans are relatively more civilized, but the Iliad also shows you enough of the Greek leaders' thinking to make them seem real rather than like cartoonish villains, and it spends more time with the Greeks than with the Trojans.

It presents war as something that is occasionally glorious but largely horrific. When people die, you get startlingly contrasting flashbacks to earlier days when they were living in peacetime. The actual deaths are more brutal than romanticized. There is a lot of anatomic detail about spears crushing their way through people's bodies.

Hector, the character who is most sympathetic to my moral sensibilities, fights on the losing side and gets killed. There is no traditional happy ending. Even if you are rooting for the Greeks, the book ends on a somber rather than a triumphal note.

There is also a sort of modern-feeling sense of atheism about the book. The gods are to such a large extent comic relief that it is hard to see them as being divine in any sublime way. They basically just act the way that humans probably would if humans had superpowers.

Yet at the same time there is a sort of horror to this. These gods might be funny, but the fact remains that they are playing with the humans in a similar way to how humans might get dogs to fight each other, or at best the way that a rather sociopathic much older brother might treat a much younger brother.

These gods also seem rather pathetic in that despite all their powers for some reason they get deeply invested in petty human affairs. Don't they have anything more interesting to do? It seems not.

So again, there is that balancing epic objectivity that one finds all through the text. The gods can easily crush the humans, but are comic and oddly invested in human drama. The humans are pathetic when measured by raw power, but unlike the immortal gods their decisions have a sort of grandeur and weight because unlike the gods, the humans are vulnerable and their decisions actually matter deeply to them.

One does not feel like the text is trying to convince you of some political or religious ideology.

If anything makes me doubt that the Iliad and the Odyssey were created by the same people or groups of people, it is that compared to the Iliad, the Odyssey is much more of a conventional straight-forward adventure story in which the protagonist's opponents are like two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that only seem to be there so that the protagonist can overcome them in various entertaining ways.

On the other hand, the handling of the gods in the Odyssey is very similar to how they are handled in the Iliad, which supports the idea that the two texts really did come from the same source.

The biggest thing that impacted me when reading the Iliad was the omnipresent fatalism. It's fitting that the original Nordic chad was a Mediterranean chad.

"Are we really going to fight a massive war with thousands of casualties over the wife of a man who has been a bad husband and is a worse commander?" "Yes."

"Are we really going to sacrifice our whole city and the lives of our allies because the prince did a really stupid thing and used a magic trick to seduce another man's wife, it's not like she really loves him, does she?" "Yes."


It's also served as a source of poetic inspiration and commentary for centuries, with many societies finding references and correspondences to their own in it.

During the Peace Process in Northern Ireland in the 90s there was on both sides, and within the paramilitaries and the civilian population, heated and angry debate about "how can we make peace with and live beside the people who have killed our families? how can we forgive them?"

One response was by the poet Michael Longley who wrote a poem called Ceasefire (poet reading it here ):

Michael Longley wrote this poem, evoking the painful reconciliation of those who must make peace, hoping that he might influence doubters on the IRA army council. He says he believes poetry does make things happen. And he wrote: “When I published my poem Ceasefire in the Irish Times I got a letter from the father of Paul Maxwell, the sixteen-year-old boy who had been blown up with Lord Mountbatten. Those letters matter more to me than any amount of criticism I might receive in literary journals or attention in the public world.”

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Have you read Scott's take on The Iliad? It's called "Atreus, Atreus, and Pelides: Attorneys At Law" and he summarizes it as "- when Prince Paris of Troy abducts Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, the Greeks' course of action is obvious - sue him!"

Hmm, not Scott's best work I'd say (and it was early days for him) - but "Hector, driver of sports cars" got a laugh.

Have you ever considered reading the War Nerd translation of the Illiad? I confess to not having read the original poetic translation. But I found myself literally spontaneously guffawing and feeling as though relaxed next to a campfire storyteller in his novel format retelling. Sensations that I'm not sure are as easily flow-into-able in the more high brow accurate translations.

That said I'd like to read it in the original someday. Do you stand by the Fagles translation for the average man?

Fagles is my first and only read of the Iliad so I can't really compare it to anything else - when I said I compared translations I meant the first dozen lines, not that I read multiple versions! I did consider trying a prose version, but I figured that since it was written as poetry it should be read as poetry. I did find Fagles very readable, it's all modern language. If you enjoyed the excerpt above you'd likely enjoy the rest of it.