Friday, October 16, 2009

Conjecture and Frustrations from The Iliad

One of the things I find incredibly frustrating when reading through Homer's Iliad is the alarming number of characters, and the excessive ongoing genealogies. There are so many people who are mentioned, along with their entire history of breeding, only so that their death can be cataloged as someone's (with an equally irritatingly elaborated upon list of forefathers) kill. Achaean and Trojan alike. It almost gets to the point where I lose track of the thread of action, and forget what's going on, and certainly all the Greek names jumble together.

Homer definitely pays no attention to the difficulty one might have in following his players. While I recognize that in part this is a function of the formula and oral tradition of the poetry, I also want to curse him for naming (for example--one of many) Agamemnon at least three different ways. He's referred to, sometimes in the same stanza, sometimes in several different ones, as Agamemnon, Atrides, and Son of Atreus, which in and of itself would not be problematic to follow, if there weren't eighty other men, far less important, being named with the same level of variance throughout the book.

Sure some of these guys deserve to be named. Telamonian Ajax is a pretty impressive guy. And Diomedes is so tough he attacks Aphrodite and Apollo AND wounds Ares significantly enough that the god of war flees back to Olympus. Hector and Paris are clearly important characters as well, on the Trojan side. But do we need to know the names of Helen's brothers who died before the poem even began? Or the name of the father and origin of every single non-hero when he dies?

On the other hand, I have to wonder how well known these players were. Did Telamonian Ajax once have an oral poem all his own that we never heard? Or did Nestor, who is always going on about the Heroes he counseled in the previous generation? Were the men Nestor mentions as important figures back in the day so well known, that a Greek on the street would know by name, and remember other myths or legends about that we don't have anymore? As far as I can tell that would be the only real reason to specifically name and detail so many characters. Unless naming and providing their genealogies is supposed to make them more sympathetic in the ten seconds before they die. Making these warriors and soldiers someone's son, someone's father, someone's husband. Is it Homer's way of personalizing and humanizing the death and horror and glory of war for his listeners?

Still. The fact that Odysseus ends up with an epic poem named for him makes me wonder if we're missing a lot of other, smaller, tales as well. Stories and poems that go with, perhaps not every one of the characters named and described in depth, but many of these other men who go to their deaths in this war. Agamemnon does seem to have at his disposal a large number of men capable of heroic feats. An incredible number of kings and allies. What if these other characters and secondary heroes were adapted and created for the regional audiences? Say, if the poet is in Sparta, he emphasizes the spartan contingent of warriors and heroes. If the poet is in the islands, he talks up the Ithacans or whichever other men are from the area. What if this is just another part of the catalog, depending on the audience that was listening?

Perhaps (and this is pure conjecture with absolutely no proof or historical evidence of any kind backing it) the reason that Agamemnon is King of Mycenae, a civilization that was wiped out, is to allow any region within greater Greece to accept it later without feeling a slight to their own city-state. To prevent an objection to the piece because of the rivalries which were ongoing. Something along the lines of "a king of Sparta would never take commands from the king of Thebes!" or "No Athenian would ever send men to fight on behalf of so-and-so's city!"

Then again, maybe I'm just making things up, but it sure makes a crazy kind of sense. And isn't that one of the rules for writing? Know Your Audience! I can't imagine Homer wouldn't have taken that into account, as accomplished a poet as he must have been.

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