The term “myth” has been defined in many ways. Ernst Cassirer asserted that myth is a perspective, that all “knowledge” involves a “synthesizing activity of the mind into ‘the key of myth’”. Thus myth is a way of seeing. This has a broad applicability, susceptible to abuse. The notion that myth and poetry cross over, primitive language and craft of culture combined, that celebration and participation have always played a role, is asserted both by anthropological evidence and linguistic research. The use of personification, for instance, summons up both the ancient, primitive poetry of language and the sublime, cultivated language of poetry. In this unit we will follow Aristotle’s conception of “mythos” as a “narration”, or piece of a story, which is told for edification (such as in the
, Book IX, where Phoenix tells of Meleager, attempting to sway Achilles from his stubbornness; or in the
, Odysseus’ encounter with Agamemnon, forewarning him of what he may find at home). In the Odyssey myths are told which serve as lessons, as standards and examples, to the characters. Telemachus is implicitly and explicitly compared to Orestes, the justified avenger. Bird signs and omens charge the moral structure. Helen’s fair reading of the good omen in an eagle snatching up a goose creates in Telemachus a new courage, and serves to make the bloody destiny of the suitors inevitably justified by heaven. Similarly, the stranger Theoklymenos foresees the end, and Penelope also has a dream interpretable in no other way. The
, as a work which in a masterly way handles such turns, has never failed to serve the same role, as mythical example, to the poets of Greece, Rome, Europe and the New World, whose cultures cannot be separated from the seminal culture of Homer.
Few students do not know the definition of a “role model”, though few may be able to cite an example of a good one. The need for sound role models reveals the need for myths with heroes who embody more than athletic prowess, although such prowess may be an ingredient in the role-model formula. Whatever the role model must be, he must embody the heroic ideals of his culture. He must stand for its highest achievements. For the Greeks, the heroes from Homer’s two epics, Achilles and Odysseus, were exemplary representatives. For Greek writers, the works themselves became models for poetic achievement. This was the case because Homer embodied in his heroes the ideals of a culture, the excellence, the virtue, the actions and deeds, for which they used the word “arete”. In Homer’s heroes, as Werner Jaeger states it, they had a “common fund” from which to draw examples for moral edification.
Education is more than instruction in technical matters and traditions. It includes the rules by which we live together as social animals, the rules of civilization, which means moral lessons. Greek heroes and poets alike were judged by the toughest standards of duty. Since the notion of “arete” originated in the class of aristocratic warriors, it included, at first, “military virtues” such as courage and honor in battle. The hero’s goal is to be remembered for his glorious deeds, preserved by the poet, the poet’s to be remembered for his glorious words. In Book VIII of the Odyssey, listening to the song of Demodokos, an allegorical name, for he is the preserver in poetry of the glory and deeds of the people, Odysseus hears of Troy and his lost companions and begins to weep. A little later, the heavy-hearted Odysseus is challenged to a match with the discus. Though worn out and saddened, he still manages to summon enough pluck from his anger to win the contest. And soon thereafter he is called to tell the story of what brought him to Phaiakia. So, despite the nine years lost at sea he remains fierce as his reputation, never ceasing all the while to be noble in form and behavior, quick-witted and with a crafty tongue. As we reflect on his grief, endure with him the distance he must go, we see him both deeply human, a humble man deserving sympathy, and coldly calculating. Never doubting for a moment his ability to kill the suitors, we see him planning, in the end, thinking on nothing but revenge. Within the one man, most civilized of men, contend the forces of ancient brutality.
The presence of Demodokos, the lavish gifts promised Odysseus, the great meal and quarters, all create the proper image of an aristocratic culture, shared by men from far lands and near, with a definite code of moral behaviour. Civilization is clearly marked in contrast against mere barbarism. Take for example the episode of Book IX, where he and his men encounter the ungovernable Cyclops, a mythical one-eyed monster, son of Poseidon. As we follow Odysseus’ narration of events we learn he takes with him twelve of his best fighters and a goatskin of wine. Unexpectedly, Odysseus takes about a dozen lines to explain from where the wine came. It was, he says, that “sweet liquor that Euanthes’ son, Maron” had given him. Maron “kept Apollo’s holy grove at Ismaros”. It turns out Odysseus received it as a gift there along with many other fineries, and that the wine’s potency is such that it may be mixed with water, one part to twenty. It is wine no servant ever tasted, which no man could turn down. At first this might seem like a superfluous detail, or merely an ornamental enhancement, but Odysseus states, describing the situation in retrospect, that he knew they would encounter a man “all outward power, a wild man, ignorant of civility”. The first thing we learn about the Cyclops, from his own mouth, is that he has no fear of the gods, no respect for the rules of hospitality shared by civilized folks, nor, as we may infer, does he cultivate the vine. This episode serves as a dark memory in Odysseus vast journey, but stands for us as a shining example of the premium put upon intelligence in the story and the necessity of the rules of hospitality which govern the interactions between strangers. Needless to say, the cannibalistic, uncouth Cyclops is not a good host and it takes all of the ingenuity Odysseus can summon to escape with his life and the lives of his few remaining uneaten men. Two things make their escape possible: Odysseus’s intelligence and the wine. But the wine, as we see, is no longer simply the wine. The wine was a gift from a civilized, pious host to a noble guest, and as such, used to outsmart the uncivilized, despotic barbarian, comes to symbolize civilization itself, the cultivation of the vine, and the respectful interaction between noble strangers.
This lesson of how to act properly towards strangers, how to be a guest and how to be a host, is maintained throughout the epic. It is one of the primary motivations for the entire work. We see Telemachus abusively mistreated by the heedless suitors, the epitome of bad houseguests; then we see how well he is treated at the courts of Nestor and Menelaus. This dialectical relationship between what is proper in the eyes of the gods, honoring them with ceremony and sacrifice, and the scornful barbarity which deprives them of their due, comprises the moral structure. It is this dialectic, reinforced by the use of divine intervention and foreshadowing, which makes the consequences inevitable. It is this sense of justice which would be developed further in Athens, by Aeschylus, and later, by Plato and Aristotle.
Digressing for a moment to consider local applications of the notion that the vine stands symbolically for civilization, consider the seal of the city of New Haven, or the seal and motto of the state of Connecticut. Both contain direct reference to the cultivation of the vine as a signature of civilization. The seal of the city of New Haven, designed by two key enlightened personalities of the Revolutionary period, Ezra Stiles and James Hillhouse, depicts a ship at the entrance of the harbor, and an Ionic pillar entwined with a grape vine. The motto of the state of Connecticut is” qui transtulit sustinet”, faithfully translated by Webster’s as “ He who transplanted (it) sustains (it)”. Of the resonant Greek influence on all of the Western world, Jaeger writes: “Insofar as it is not the history of one particular nation but of a group of nations to which, physically and intellectually we belong, our history still begins with the Greeks”. And considering the Hellenic synthesis of Mandelstam in Russian, Joseph Brodsky remarked: “ Civilization is the sum total of different cultures animated by a common spiritual numerator, and its main vehicle– speaking both metaphorically and literally– is translation. The wandering of a Greek portico into the latitude of the tundra is a translation.” A portico, an ionic pillar: the vine is the living symbol which hangs upon these traces of architecture.
Homer, like the transplanted vine, has served in many places, under a fabulous array of climates. The works have never ceased to be recognized, even when the original was not available. Dante knew perhaps only the 1st century AD Latin epitome of the
, relying on the word of Virgil. Virgil, of course, supplied the fame (but not, as noted by Arnold, the speedy style), while for centuries there was no actual text to be read. An intriguing, and quite funny, comparison may be made between the gravity of the actual speeches in Book IX of the
and the portrayal by Shakespeare in
Troilus and Cressida
. Here we find only a kind of farcical caricature of the original, a parity of situations, but a parody of the tragic implications. The play (later “translated” by Dryden) was more influenced by Chaucer and the chivalrous
Romance of Troy
The text was– as has been determined from the references made by ancient authors, and scholia on later manuscripts– roughly the way we have it, by the time of Solon (638-557 BC). The expurgation of spurious passages from variant manuscripts was carried out by the librarians in Alexandria, who also put the two poems into twenty-four books each, one chapter for each letter of the Greek alphabet. Papyri exist intact from that period, recovered from the sand. The manuscript relied upon by modern scholars came to Venice in the 10th century– perhaps Dante had heard of this manuscript? Curtius explains: “To see European literature as a whole is possible only after one has acquired citizenship in every period from Homer to Goethe… one acquires the rights of citizenship in the country of European literature only when one has spent many years in each of its provinces and has frequently moved about from one to another”. Very few could attain such a citizenship, which is more Roman than Greek, but certainly it makes the point about the structural necessity of Homer in any student’s curriculum. Despite the positivistic longing for multiculturalism, neglecting to teach Homer to any American public school student– raised in a country so founded upon Greek and Roman cultural principles– in favor of more recent literature, from wherever it may come, seems partial and dubious. Homer’s myths built an entire world of reference upon which later literature has for centuries depended. Myths are woven into a complex fabric of lessons, a structure of continuous comparison between justice and injustice, and sustained reflection upon human destiny in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. Homer’s lessons to poets have surfaced as allusions ever since. Unless one would abandon Western Civilization altogether, Homer must remain central to the writing curriculum. And yet, as mentioned above, Homer has been periodically neglected. It is as much as to say to a student of English literature, after an objective account of the history of poetry in English, that he need never peruse the King James translation of the Bible. No issue of religion or ideology should serve to isolate a student from the heritage he may choose on his own to disregard after he has studied it. The last few centuries have witnessed an enormous reversion to Homer initiated by their largest literary figures: Keats, Arnold, Tennyson, Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Auden and many others.