Thursday, October 22, 2009

Some (Disorganized?) Thoughts on The Cypria Fragments.

I hadn't intended on reading The Cypria Fragments, but while perusing the wikipedia article on Helen of Troy, there was a reference to it that intrigued me. Namely, the comment that the marriage of Helen to Meneleus heralded the beginning of the end of the age of heroes, and Zeus intended to destroy men and in particular, the heroes among them through the Trojan War. I have to add, too, that the phrasing was very Tolkien-esque, in the article. Anyway, this motive for the Trojan War as a way to destroy man wasn't something I had heard of before and in light of the archaeological evidence of Mycenae's inexplicable destruction following the epic, it seems quite meaningful. So I followed the reference to its source in the Cypria and dug in.

So far, I haven't found anything specific to that particular reference, but I have found what seems to me to be an event not dissimilar to Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac in the old testament. Agamemnon offends Artemis, and in order to restore himself and his expedition to her favor, he offers his daughter, Iphigeneia as a sacrifice to the goddess. At the last moment, Artemis stops him by removing Iphigeneia and replacing her with a stag instead for the sacrifice. In the old testament, the angel of God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last minute, and a ram is discovered nearby to replace his son as the sacrifice. Of course, Isaac wasn't swept away and made immortal, but the trope is still there. Willingness to sacrifice one's own blood without hesitation is more important than the sacrifice itself. I can only imagine the emotional scarring that Isaac and Iphigeneia might have ended up with, at finding themselves on the wrong side of the altar. I bet they would have got on famously if they had ever met.

After yesterday's epiphany of the relationship between Germanic Folklore and the Classical myths, I can't help but wonder if this similarity is the result of a natural adaptation of theme as well. I can't say with any certainty which became what, because my historical knowledge of the bible is sadly not what it could be, but it seems awfully naive not to consider that there might be a connection. That if one did not lend itself to the other, then perhaps there is some common ancestor which birthed them both. And no, it doesn't escape me that the origins of myths seem sometimes to be as convoluted as the Darwinian theories of evolution for life and the differentiation of species.

The destruction of man and heroes by God or god could also be perceived as a cross-religious trope. In Christianity, this is the great flood, which destroyed everyone save Noah and his children (and floods themselves aren't at all limited to the old testament). Some say the reason for this destruction was because of the angels taking women as wives and bearing children with them. It isn't something I personally buy into (my impression of the angels of God has always been of a race without free will of its own, bound instead to God's, and I'm fairly certain that would preclude them from having affairs with women if that wasn't in God's plan), but would it be so different from Zeus wanting to wipe out all the half-breed children of immortals and humans, in his own lands? Children of gods, and children of children of gods? There isn't a one of the heroes in the Iliad who can't count in his lineage one god, goddess, or otherwise immortal being among their ancestors.

But I'm getting ahead of myself now, since I haven't found that reference in the text itself, and it would be the mistake of a rookie to take Wikipedia at its word without vetting it. Ah! but here it is:
'There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide-dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed earth, and Zeus saw it and had pity and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing earth of men by causing the great struggle of the Ilian war, that the load of death might empty the world.  And so the heroes were slain in Troy, and the plan of Zeus came to pass.'

So maybe it wasn't necessarily about the heroes themselves, nor is it so much about wiping out men for sins, so much as it is just for the sake of the earth itself, though that's still particularly poignant for today. The reference is rather more vague than I had hoped. And it goes somewhat against the Iliad itself, which paints Zeus as not wishing to see Troy destroyed, and wanting to end the war without nearly as much bloodshed. He only allows it to go on, or so it seems to me, to appease Hera and Athena, and he's fairly displeased with them about the whole situation.

But The Catalogues of Women and Eoiae gives a slightly different account of Zeus's reasoning for destroying men and heroes, which does fall into the pattern of the old testament flood:
Now all the gods were divided through strife; for at that very time Zeus who thunders on high was meditating marvellous deeds, even to mingle storm and tempest over the boundless earth, and already he was hastening to make an utter end of the race of mortal men, declaring that he would destroy the lives of the demi-gods, that the children of the gods should not mate with wretched mortals, seeing their fate with their own eyes; but that the blessed gods henceforth even as aforetime should have their living and their habitations apart from men. But on those who were born of immortals and of mankind verily Zeus laid toil and sorrow upon sorrow.
I don't know which one was written first, or which one is more correct, but I'm not sure that matters. The variation in the account is fascinating, but it amounts to the same thing really. Zeus wanted to destroy men and heroes, and so he caused the Trojan war. The rest of the accounts about the reasons the Trojan war were fought would be superseded by Zeus's desire for it, if that was the case. Zeus's referring the goddesses to Paris's judgment makes a lot more sense if you ascribe some omniscience to the Father of the Olympians. If he knew Aphrodite would offer Helen, and Paris would choose her as his prize, then not only does he make Helen, his daughter, infamous (an urge described by Apollodorus in E.3.1 -- and perhaps in that we see the desire for reputation that is later a huge part of the Viking culture) but also a perfect excuse with very little interference required, to cause a war of enormous scale to accomplish his goals.

Still I have to wonder--is this suggestion that Zeus caused the destruction of men through the vehicle of the Trojan war the way in which later Greeks explain the fall of Mycenae and the dark ages? A destruction which they (and we) don't seem to have any preserved history for otherwise? There is no epic poem relating why Mycenae disappeared, though I could well see people being dissatisfied by the outcome of the Trojan war, and whatever unification there was falling apart when the remaining kings returned home to Greece. In the Iliad there seems to be a general idea that Agamemnon takes more spoils than he necessarily deserves. But that assumes that Agamemnon was a real man, a real king of Mycenae, and not some mythic hero who exists only in the epic.

Is that too great a supposition to make? Again, I'm forced to ask the question which doesn't seem to have an answer--where do we draw the line between myth, legend, and history? Fiction, and history?

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