Wednesday, April 23, 2014

And So The Trojans Buried Hector Breaker Of Horses

These are the last lines of the Iliad, and they are a powerful way to close out the poem. They are the culmination of a final book that truly shines a light on how the poem proceeded from its beginning: loss - hopeless, pathetic loss.

The subject of the poem is Achilles' rage - first at Agamemnon for commandeering his prize Briseis, and then at Hector for killing his best friend Patroclus. Hundreds of people die in the most gruesome, graphic ways all throughout the story. Hector's death was the climax of the poem.

Yet the narrator never seems to glory over these deaths. The individual heroes do, true, as well they should. It is an altogether human response to glory over a victory, even a ghastly one which ends another man's life. Homer however, doesn't glory. As I've said in my last post (which was quite a while ago), he doesn't paint a clear-cut picture of good and bad. Each combatant is simply a human being swept up in war. If circumstances had been different, he could easily have been on the other side.

And this is the aspect that the last part of the poem, Achilles and Priam conveys so well. When Priam begs for the body of his son, Achilles' rage finally dissolves. He simply sees an old man wailing over the loss of his son and heir, and Achilles knows his own old father will soon suffer in the same way. Achilles at last reestablishes a human connection, and is not raging away like a besmirched god.

The last pages of the Iliad describe Hector's burial. It is truly a pathetic scene, and it precludes Troy's fate to be destroyed. There is not one uplifting moment in this part of the story. Even the dissolution of Achilles' rage is because of a pathetic old man who has lost all reason to live. Whereas in the previous chapter (Funeral Games for Patroclus) there were many lighthearted and fun moments (the men of the army were in fact playing games and enjoying themselves after all the horrors they had suffered up to that point), the ending of the story is all gloom and doom. The reader is imparted with a never-ending sense of loss of life and waste of human potential, and all because of this, this maddening war. One would think that nothing was truly gained by the Greek expedition to Troy, and in fact we find in the Odyssey that many of the heroes do not return home, thus wasting the treasures they had won and their own lives, becoming just as much losers in the affair as Hector.

There is no other part of the story, or in fact, no other media related to warfare, that imparts such a devastating sense of loss and the hopeless waste that war brings than the conclusion of the Iliad. It is in fact why some have labelled Homer a pacifist. It is the best anti-war propaganda in the world.

Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame has commented that "there are no right or wrong decisions on the battlefield, it's just war."

In a way, he's correct, because in war, everyone loses in some way. No side goes out unscathed. As usual, the question to ask was whether the war was truly necessary, and in the case of the Trojan War, the answer is an emphatic "no."

Hector's body brought back to Troy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Homer's Greatest Talent

On the battlefield itself, there is no good or evil- only those who survive
Homer has been a big influence on my own fictional work. What I consider his greatest aspect as an author is his ability to severely blur the line between good and bad. Prevalent far more so in the Iliad than in the Odyssey (since the whole premise of the latter poem is that the suitors were violating the sacred laws of hospitality, which by default makes them evil and even unholy), it is difficult for the reader to truly draw the line between good and evil in the Trojan War.

While we know Achilles has some very negative characteristics- his overweening pride and his elevation of his glory before the livelihood of his own comrades, we are shown that he has good characteristics to him as well- his valor and courage on the battlefield, and the deep bond that he shares with his friends- Patroclus most of all. He does have the ability to realize that he made some terrible mistakes throughout the poem, and the guilt of owning up to them is part of what makes the scene between him and Priam at the end so powerful.

Hector, far and away the most noble of all the major characters to fight in the conflict, I have mentioned before, also has his dark side. He at times revels in the slaying of Troy's enemies and disregards the portents of the gods at times. Hector is probably the clearest example of how war can turn even noble men into savage beasts when the time comes.

It is not only the main characters that are blurred in their motivations and agency. The two warring factions are also hard to judge as to whether they should be put in the classically 'good' or 'evil' camp.

While the Greeks are motivated by revenge and greed, they also legitimately want justice to be served for the outrage Paris committed when he stole Menelaus' wife and a horde of priceless treasures. The Trojans, while wanting to defend their country, are themselves enablers of Paris' crimes by refusing to give him up.

Most brilliantly, the focus of the actual action is not so much on Greeks and Trojans- but human beings. Abstract ideals and morality is crushed, almost literally, in the clash between the two armies. When people die, they are painted in their full humanity just as it is being snatched away from them. Greek and Trojan labels are immediately cut away as men are being cut down. Sword, spear, and arrow don't care about nationality or status in society. A Greek casualty can easily be a Trojan casualty and vice versa. The lines between combating sides is erased utterly in actual combat.

This dynamic prevents the Trojan War story from devolving into a simplistic, one-dimensional clash between good and evil, and may be the most enduring reason why it is the standard for any great war story. I try to the best of my ability to follow this model in my own work, so that the two sides and their characters are fleshed out and easy to become enthralled by.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Embassy to Achilles


I've been neglecting this blog for too long and it's time for an update.

One of the most pivotal, and in my mind, well-written parts of the Iliad was Book IX- which is the same title as this blog entry. It entirely sums the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon and its failure would lead to the disastrous consequences of the second-third of the poem for Achilles, the result of his overweening pride and anger. There is also subtle gamesmanship going on, led by the master of that genre- Odysseus.

At the end of the day's fighting (in Book VIII), the Greeks are routed by Hector, with the blessing of Zeus. It was then that Agamemnon realized what a mistake he'd made by alienating Achilles at the beginning of the poem, and he sends an embassy to try and make peace with the raging leader of the Myrmidons. Three people are chosen to go to negotiate with Achilles, and each of them represents a different, desirable aspect to appeal to Achilles' honor:

Odysseus- wealth and power, the spoils of war
Phoenix- a warning of imminent ruin- and how overweening pride can cost the proudest dearly
Ajax- friendship and camaraderie

Achilles welcomes all three men into his tent, telling them that they are the comrades he loves most among the Greeks. After exchanges of pleasantries and the customary meal shared with friends and aristocratic peers, the embassy gets down to business.

Odysseus' appeal is the longest and most polished. The prizes that he offers Achilles would be enough to tempt most men into acquiescence to doing anything. Firstly, he conveys Agamemnon's offer of Briseis back to Achilles, along with an oath before the gods that he never touched her. In addition to Briseis, Agamemnon offers seven more beautiful women from Lesbos skilled in crafts plus twenty more of his personal picks of the captured Trojan women should the city fall, seven tripods, ten bars of gold, twenty cauldrons, a dozen horses, the hand of whichever of his daughters Achilles chooses in marriage, and seven cities to rule over. It is a monumental offer, and knowing Achilles' nature- his hunger for glory (which is partially recognized by the amount of loot one has taken), it seems like something that he would be foolish to spurn.

Odysseus did leave one thing out though- he did not tell Achilles that Agamemnon quipped: "Let him submit to me! I am the greater warlord, the greater man!"

Achilles however, sniffed a rat, and knew that Agamemnon's offer was not genuine. He is thus one of the few people in the Epic Cycle to see through Odysseus' deceptions. It wasn't that Agamemnon wouldn't have offered him the gifts, it was that Agamemnon would offer them as a price to pay for Achilles' service- and an affirmation of his own generosity rather than Achilles' worth on the battlefield. There is not a semblance of remorse from Agamemnon or admission that he had been in the wrong, and Odysseus made the fatal mistake (again, one of the few he makes) of not conveying the illusion that there had been one.

Achilles turns down Agamemnon's offer, stating to Odysseus that no amount of wealth could buy a life that was lost. He tells of his choice between the two fates laid down by his mother: a short life full of glory, or a long life full of love and happiness. Achilles opted to choose the former- so that his name would live on forever, but now that he has been denied this glory, he says he is choosing to go home, to choose life.

When Odysseus' appeals are turned down, Phoenix, a mentor of Achilles who had a large hand in raising him, moves to speak next. He tells the story of Meleager, whose refusal to fight nearly brought his country to ruin. As the enemies gathered in strength and stormed in, he still would not fight- even in the face of the offer of splendid gifts from his countrymen. Finally, Meleager was roused to fight by his wife, Cleopatra- but he paid the price of his refusal. He was able to fend off his enemies, true, but the gifts were refused him at the end, and his countrymen are not exactly grateful for his services. Phoenix warns Achilles not to make the same mistake.

But Achilles is still not moved. He could not care less about Agamemnon or his gifts, and refuses to concede. He does however relent on his resolution to sail home the next day, saying that he would decide in the morning whether to sail home or not.

Finally, Ajax is moved to speak. His speech was the shortest and and most direct, without any ulterior motives. He was open and honest, telling Achilles that they desired nothing more than to be his closest comrades and dearest friends. This moves Achilles to say that he will stay on with the army, but will not yet return to battle. He will only take up arms again when Hector rampages at his own ships.

With that, the three men leave to relay the bad news to Agamemnon.

There is subtle messaging and politicking going on throughout the chapter. Odysseus, as usual, is the most deceptive. Phoenix is more honest but certainly has a motive greater than Achilles at heart, at least according to Achilles' mindset. Ajax is the most honest and appeals directly to friendship. Nevertheless, Achilles refuses to yield. His status as the greatest warrior of the Greeks- and the respect that that position demands, is non-negotiable- even at the expense of the lives of Achilles' own comrades and all the earthly wealth that Agamemnon promises. The threat of their loss thus meant nothing to him, and from that point of view Phoenix is serving Agamemnon's, rather than Achilles' best interests. The embassy did not serve its purpose, and its failure would lead to the death of Patroclus in Book XVI of the poem.

In a way, Phoenix' warning came true after all. Achilles lost wealth- the wealth of friendship supplied by his best friend- and would enjoy none of what Agamemnon offers (or anything else he'd won in the war), for his own death was fated by the events that were set in motion. The embassy is thus a stark warning of what failure to negotiate can often lead to, and that pride often comes before the fall. Everyone lost due to the embassy's failure.

I wonder if Congress should be mandated to read this chapter of the Iliad?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Analytic vs Holistic Reasoning and the Homeric Question

Homer, by Rembrandt

I read an article outlining a famous prisoner's dilemma game given to indigenous peoples. It dovetailed with a problem in the social "sciences" (I don't like to call them sciences for a few reasons, but that's beyond the scope of this entry or probably this blog)- lack of diversity in the examination of test subjects. The outcome of this particular game was shown to challenge the assumptions of universality present in many of the social sciences like economics and psychology. It later goes on to detail how Westerners tend to think analytically- breaking things apart and analyzing the pieces, while most other cultures tend to think holistically- viewing and understanding the big picture of things.

This got me thinking about the classic Homeric Question- were the Iliad and Odyssey composed by the same author? Even further, was each individual poem composed by the same author or was it a collective effort of the entirety of a people over many generations? The attempts to answer this question illustrates in some ways the dichotomy between analytic and holistic reasoning.

The introduction in the Penguin Classics version of the Iliad goes over the question in great depth, and I will be citing it often.

During the 19th century, it was believed (probably for emotional rather than any coherent logical reasons) that the Iliad and Odyssey were a collective undertaking- a string of poems from different authors that merged together to form the modern epics. The onus was on Homeric scholars to take apart the pieces to construct this epic. It was the age of nationalism- the spirit let loose upon Europe after the French Revolution. It was also the age of equality- the great, collective efforts of the nation were in vogue over works of individual genius. This spirit was applied to the Homeric poems. They were seen to be the collective undertaking of the Greek people that merged together over time (Knox, 9). The problem of course quickly became apparent- nobody could agree on what constituted these separate poems. The 19th century rolled on and this basic problem could not be solved.

The points of contention were where the differences in the text indicated differences in authorship and time of composition. I've highlighted before the appearances of seemingly out of place technology within the text- iron tools and weapons for example, that the trained eye can find at certain points in the poems. Beyond this however, the culture seemed out of place. It's been pointed out numerous times that the Greek kings more resemble Dark Age warlords rather than the centralized monarchs operating out of sophisticated palace bureaucracies that were the norm for the Mycenaean period of the Late Bronze Age. Analytic scholars tackling the infamous Homeric Question enthusiastically pored over these differences in culture and technology, pointing out the inconsistencies that seem to suggest the hand of more than one author.

One other measure of the passage of time within the poem was the change in the language used to write it. The letter 'W' for instance, disappeared from the Greek alphabet early on (Knox, 13). Yet it is used frequently within the poems. Could this suggest that these particular parts of the poems came earlier than other parts of the poems that did not use the letter? Perhaps, but scholars were quickly confounded, as the letter appeared alongside other things that would suggest a later composition.

Another major avenue of inquiry was opened by Heinrich Schliemann, whose discoveries in the latter part of the 19th century of the sites of Mycenae and Troy opened a world that even the Classical Greeks did not know existed. Would there be physical evidence from these lost civilizations that correlated with the descriptions in the poems? Surely the world Homer was describing correlated with these fantastic civilizations, and not the comparative backwardness of Dark Age Greece, right? (Knox, 11)

To make a long story short for the purposes of this blog, all of these avenues were eventually exhausted. There was quite a bit of evidence that the poems coalesced and accreted over time, but there was no way to in any meaningful fashion point to specific places as definitively the work of a different author. They were simply too jumbled to make any analysis on these grounds meaningful. When the 20th century came, many scholars had given up. It seemed that the Unitarians- those who stressed that the overall style and progression of the poems suggested the hand of a single author, were correct. Unlike the Analysts, whose name suggests their style of viewing the poems, the Unitarians looked at the epics more holistically. What was important was not the inconsistencies (that can often be found even in the works of modern authors), but rather the big picture of the poems.

To the Analysts 'Homer' didn't exist. He was just an abstraction of the work of a whole people. To the Unitarians, 'Homer' may not have existed, but nonetheless the poems were written essentially by someone of the same name, as the famous adage in the field goes.

As the article linked at the top stated, analytic reasoning examines the pieces of the puzzle (which in my opinion can be very useful, as the scientific method has shown), but it can also take an object out of its larger context. This may lead to misunderstanding, as we can see with the comparative failure of the Analytic school in the 19th century.

An American scholar by the name of Milman Parry was the man that found the answer that best describes the Homeric riddle, and in some ways it was one that was a fusion between analytic and holistic reasoning. He found that the poems and whoever wrote them were the heirs of a long tradition of oral poetry. The poems did coalesce over time in countless oral performances (the structure of which can be seen through analysis), but their present form was given to us by a singular talented author that brought these different tales and short stories together to form a truly epic poem (the structure of which can be seen by looking at the big picture) (Knox, 21). Parry's work deserves its own entry, and so I will not go into it in detail here.

In my opinion the work of Parry is the best answer to the analytic/holistic dichotomy. One form of reasoning shouldn't be discarded in favor of the other. Both can be used in conjunction to give us the greatest understanding.

Sources Cited:

Bernard Knox, The Iliad (Penguin Classics Version) Introduction (New York: Penguin Group)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Odysseus' Infidelities

Odysseus Chasing Circe (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen at Wikimedia Commons)
In my previous post I mentioned in depth Penelope's steadfast devotion to her husband. No matter how much her refusal to be unfaithful to Odysseus was costing her- both materially and psychologically, she continued to hold out against the suitors, hoping for Odysseus' miraculous return. Her faithfulness and management of the household were as crucial to Odysseus' success as other allies like Telemachus, Eumaeus the swineherd, Philoetius the cowherd, and even Athena. Faithfulness can be seen to be in some ways the ultimate test of a good woman in the eyes of the Homeric audience. Penelope passed, so she was good. Clytemnestra failed, so she was bad.

These same rules however, did not apply to men. Odysseus did not pass the test of faithfulness to his wife, but he wasn't denigrated or scorned for it. On the other hand, Homer doesn't praise him for it either, it simply was.

We know of at least two affairs that Odysseus had, and they were with two goddesses- not too shabby, I take it? The likely answer is that he could have had more. He was one of the Greek commanders and as such was in a position to amass a lot of wealth while on the expedition against Troy, wealth that included slave girls who as a matter of routine would be expected to convey sexual favors to their masters.

Clearly not hypocrisy, right? Feminists understandably have a field day with these sorts of things, pointing to it as evidence of a suppression of female sexuality while glorifying male sexuality. While Penelope is suffering in her husband's absence, Odysseus is off fucking Calypso and Circe.

While Odysseus' actions simply can't be entirely explained away under a modern egalitarian lens, I wouldn't go so far as to label him entirely a hypocrite. Odysseus too, is clearly suffering from such a prolonged absence from his wife. The poem even begins by telling the audience that Odysseus sits on the shores of Ogygia (Calypso's island), longingly looking out to sea, crying every day, despite the fact that he shares the nymph's bed every night. He is clearly not enjoying his time with Calypso, and is desperate to go home. The most startling illustration of this is his refusal of Calypso's offer to make him immortal, and pointing out that though Penelope could never match the beauty of an immortal goddess, she is still his wife and he wants to be with her.

His affair with Circe is a bit more difficult to judge. After a year passed on Circe's island, Odysseus' men prompted him to set into motion events for which they would return home, implying that Odysseus may have grown content to simply stay there.

However the only reason Odysseus began his affair with Circe is because Hermes told him that it was necessary for him to- in order to rescue his men from her spell that turned them into animals. He started it out of a sense of duty and loyalty to his comrades, not lust.

There is a double standard, but this does not mean Odysseus isn't suffering as badly as Penelope is from their separation. The fact that he was willing to go through such hardships instead of giving up, and willing to go through them even when tempted with more immediately gratifying things, including immortality itself, speaks volumes as to his love and affection for her.

Ultimately I think the chief discrepancy between the treatment of male and female sexuality comes down to one simple biological reality- women bear children and there is thus no question as to maternity. However, in an age long before the advent of DNA testing, there was no way to tell who the child's father was unless the woman was having sex with one man and one man only around the time of the child's conception. Inheritance of property was a foremost concern and thus the legitimacy of the child needed to be above suspicion. Indeed, a central theme of the Odyssey is the estate that Telemachus would inherit. The continuation of the male line was of paramount importance, and the faithfulness of the mother was thus of equal importance as it was necessary for that continuation.

The logical response to this biological reality is that Odysseus, in theory, gets to sleep with other women (or goddesses) without anyone questioning the ethics of his actions. Penelope does not. But this isn't to say that Odysseus is terrible. One thing a romantic could take out of the Odyssey is that despite his affairs with two goddesses, Odysseus wanted more than anything to return back to the wife that bore him his son, the only woman he ever truly loved.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Penelope- The Most Fascinating Woman of Her Era

Penelope, Laertes, and Telemachus

The title is a dead-ringer for what this entry is all about. There are few notable women to compare her to, but Penelope stands head and shoulders above the other women of her era not only in terms of her intelligence, but the overall depth of her character. Even the infamous Helen serves as a rather one-dimensional persona- to tempt every man around her with her beauty, which often leads to their ruin.

Certainly Penelope is described by Homer as being a great beauty, even in her middle age during the events of the Odyssey. But the difference is that her beauty is incidental and doesn't define her. While Helen doesn't seem to be much of a life partner to anyone- whether that be Menelaus or Paris (although we see hints of a partnership during Helen's cameos in the Odyssey, perhaps as a sign of arranged marriage partners gradually warming to each other over the years), and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife is the ultimate example in the myths of a relationship gone bad (more on that later), Penelope is the ideal companion that any strong man even today would want. Like Agamemnon serving as Odysseus' foil throughout the Odyssey, Clytemnestra serves as Penelope's. The former's relationship disintegrated while the latter's stood firm despite all the signs throughout the poem that it should not have.

Penelope has been praised in the poem and for thousands of years for her faithfulness. Despite the fact that it would be common sense that Odysseus should be assumed dead after a decade of not returning home after the cessation of hostilities at Troy, Penelope cannot accept such a train of thought. Despite two decades of separation she still loves him dearly, even when continuing to be devoted to him is profoundly straining to both her emotional well-being and her son's future inheritance and interests. In modern economic theory, Penelope might be described as being irrational. She is hoping beyond hope that Odysseus is still alive, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary, and is seemingly acting against her own self-interest (and certainly the interests of her son) in holding out, spurning the suitors. The link between love and insanity is quite often described by scientists, and Penelope seems to fit the bill.

And yet Penelope is clearly not acting insane or irrational (in the common parlance of the terms) in the poem and throughout her ordeal with the suitors. She is shown to be extremely clever and manipulative, matching her husband's own infamous wiles. While Odysseus devised the Trojan Horse, tricked the cyclops Polyphemus, and masterfully donned a disguise to manipulate the suitors, Penelope kept the suitors at bay for three years with her famous shroud ruse. Telling the suitors that it wouldn't be right to leave her house without weaving a shroud for her elderly father-in-law Laertes, she would weave by day and unweave by night, until she was finally caught shortly before the beginning of the Odyssey and forced to finish. She makes it as hard on the suitors as she possibly can the entire way through, and ultimately sets before them the trial of the bow- the means of their destruction.

The bow raises some interesting questions into which Penelope's womanhood and faithfulness are intimately tied. Just as Odysseus returned home, it seems that Penelope is ready to marry another. Yet Penelope blurts out to the nurse Eurycleia to wash her master's feet when describing the stranger that is Odysseus. She quickly corrects herself by saying that the stranger was Odysseus' age only. Does Penelope know it was actually Odysseus or doesn't she? Homer gives us no definitive answer and the question is left ambiguous (this is a scene in which I particularly praise the TV miniseries in 1997 starring Armand Assente- it nailed the ambiguity spot-on). Perhaps Penelope simply knew that no suitor would be able to string Odysseus' bow, and could have used it as another ruse to wait out longer.

Regardless of the truth of the matter which we will never know, Penelope was instrumental to the suitors' destruction and setting things to rights. Without her steadfast resolve and her cleverness, Odysseus would never be able to have his aristeia of the poem- his triumphant return.

Agamemnon admits as much at the beginning of Book 24, when he praises Odysseus- not for returning home and defeating the suitors, but for choosing the right woman in Penelope as his wife.

Agamemnon serves somewhat as Odysseus' antithesis throughout the poem. While his journey home was short and without trouble, his time at Troy left him out of the loop regarding the goings-on in Mycenae. Unlike Penelope, who managed to withstand two decades of her husband's absence without infidelity to him, Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra was seduced by Aegisthus, and the two ruled Mycenae in his absence.

When Agamemnon returned, he suspected nothing and took no precautions. He proceeded to be murdered by the pair in his own home. This stands in contrast to Odysseus, whose journey home was the hardest of all the Greeks. Not knowing what went on in Ithaca in the two decades of his absence, Odysseus leaves his impulses behind and proceeds along a cautious route, winning him much praise from Athena in Book 13.

Likewise, Penelope held her fidelity to her husband, and was devoted to his interests. She is the opposite of Clytemnestra, who was unfaithful and devoted herself to causes opposing her husband's interests. A typical feminist might look at this as the reason why Clytemnestra is reviled while Penelope is praised. To a certain extent that's true, but it goes far deeper than that.

No one wants to be betrayed. The innermost sanctum of Hell in Dante's Inferno was reserved for traitors for a reason. It is probably the most insidious act humankind is capable of, and it rightly brings out strong emotions in the victims of betrayal- building trust and intimacy with a person only to see it come crashing down in the worst way possible when the deception is revealed. Infidelity in matters of the heart is the worst of all acts of betrayal since intimacy is the closest between romantic and sexual partners. Such betrayal by a woman he shared the closest possible bond with is what happened to Agamemnon, and he praises Penelope for keeping true to her heart and not betraying Odysseus.

There is one other caveat to this. Obviously in the world as written by Homer, it was expected that women would marry and not remain single. If her husband died, she would marry someone else. However, Homer makes clear just how inferior the suitors were as compared to Odysseus. They couldn't even string the man's bow. I highly doubt this would be the case if Odysseus' peers at Troy were amongst the suitors, but they weren't. The suitors, despite their noble lineage and ample wealth, were simply not Odysseus' peers- they were still lesser men.

Hypergamy- the act of marrying or mating 'up' in social status amongst women in particular, is a common notion in the field of evolutionary psychology. From a female perspective, it simply makes sense to mate with a man of higher standing than herself (for men it may in fact be somewhat the opposite). Yet the suitors, in addition to being rude and discourteous, were simply not in Odysseus' league, and Penelope was not attracted to them. It is not surprising that she was hesitant to remarry.

And? She shouldn't have had to to. Telemachus, despite lamenting at the loss of his inheritance, couldn't bear pushing his mother out against her will, showing his respect for her. Odysseus' triumphant return nulled that possibility.

Through their love and devotion to each other, against all odds and despite the high costs in emotional turmoil and drained wealth over the years, Odysseus and Penelope were reunited and their marriage seemed to be as strong as it ever was. They are the perfect companions- equal in status and intelligence, respectful of one another to the foremost extent, and united in their interests to have a strong family. They would never turn their backs on each other and would feel incomplete without the other's presence, supreme in their diametrical spheres (the battlefield and politics versus the domestic life at home).

Of course, Odysseus did in fact sleep with other women than Penelope during the two decades of his absence, but that's another topic.

Overall, Penelope is the most dimensioned, interesting, and threshed out woman in the Epic Cycle (the only other woman that comes close is Andromache, Hector's wife, but she is not given agency to the extent Penelope is). She is not merely incidental to the male action that is the central focus of the story of the war in Troy and the heroes that fought in it, but a crucial player in the life of one of the central characters, and thus becomes one herself. While other women in the story can simply be seen as sometimes dangerous status symbols conferred upon the heroes (Briseis and especially Helen come to mind), Penelope controls her fate in a way many others do not- and bears the at-times awful responsibilities of such agency in her world. She rises to meet these challenges, and unlike Clytemnestra (who is thus cast into the role of the evil, though one-dimensional villain for the hero to take revenge upon), does so in the best of ways, making her happy reunion with Odysseus all the happier.

Odysseus and Penelope, by Francesco Primaticcio

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bronze vs Iron: A Clarification

It's common amongst the average public and to a certain extent students and afictionados that are interested in military history to proclaim that iron is a superior metal to bronze, and that when people began to have the technology to create hotter furnaces that could smelt iron, it immediately replaced bronze tools and weapons, making them obsolete. The Bronze Age ended and the Iron Age began.

This is something that permeates even in circles that should supposedly know better. For instance, I still remember a 9th grade history textbook I had a long time ago (really, over ten years ago...I feel old!) that stated that a certain group of people (I can't remember which, sadly) established superiority on the battlefield because they wielded iron weapons, making their bronze-wielding opponents inferior.

In reality, this notion is as every bit as mythical as Achilles and the gods of Olympus tussling over the destruction of Troy. The end of the Bronze Age came as a result of many factors (natural disasters, the incursions of the so-called "Sea Peoples," the breakdown of old trading routes and organized bureaucratic centers of authority such as the grand palaces in Mycenae and Hattusa). The replacement of bronze with iron was not one of them. Indeed, it could partially be seen as a result of the collapse of the great Bronze Age civilizations that iron came to replace bronze.

The differences between iron and bronze simply explained.

So with these things in mind, how do they stack up against each other in a combat situation?

 Unfortunately I don't currently have any equipment available to conduct a test of my own (remind me to do that someday). However one historian attempted to clash the weapons against each other and both bronze and iron weapons sustained a lot of damage.

So as you can see there was no real battlefield advantage that iron conferred over bronze. In fact, some studies and many reports (including the one cited above detailing the differences between the two metals) suggest that iron was actually inferior to the older bronze weapons. It really wasn't until the advent of steel-making (alloying iron with carbon) that the old bronze tools and weapons were truly eclipsed in quality. But that didn't occur until centuries after the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Ages. Why then, was iron adopted over bronze, as passages in the Iliad and Odyssey clearly reference, if only in passing?

I'll borrow an oft-quoted catchphrase- "it's the economy, stupid!"

Bronze, again as we know, is an alloy made of copper and tin. Copper is very abundant in the world, moreover, it is a very recyclable resource. Tin on the other hand occurs only very rarely. The closest abundant tin resources to the centers of the large Bronze Age civilizations were in Iran and Afghanistan- nearly 1,000 miles away. This required an extensive trade network that, as we know, collapsed along with the civilizations that spawned them at the end of the Bronze Age.

Iron on the other hand is very abundant and found everywhere (even more so than copper), comprising 5% of the Earth's crust. Once furnace technology improved to the point of being able to work with it, and given its abundance (plus lack of tin available to make bronze), it isn't hard to see why iron would be an attractive alternative. More weapons could be produced with more readily available resources, meaning larger, more powerful armies that were less reliant on foreign trade and thus less vulnerable- more able to secure the state.

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