Sunday, June 30, 2013

Update & Why I Haven't Been Posting

Sorry for not updating the blog in a while. I've been busy with work and other projects. As of this moment I'm writing an entry regarding bronze vs iron and the transition between the Bronze and Iron Ages. That may take a few more days to complete. In the meantime I present you with the following link detailing some images of a rendition of the famous Shield of Achilles.

Didn't want to put the pictures themselves here due to copyright issues or what not.

Fell free to post your thoughts as to how accurate those images are.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sex & Violence: Eternal Companions

The Rape of Helen, by Tintoretto

 Yesterday I watched a show called In Search of the Real Helen of Troy, hosted by the British Historian Bettany Hughes. She traced the historicity of the Trojan War and investigated the myth of Helen (as the title suggests), delving into how high-status Mycenean women (such as Helen) would have looked and behaved, and explored the status of women in other societies in the Late Bronze Age such as the Hittites, where Queen Puduhepa was given some coverage. Women of this era were revealed to be more liberated than their Classical counterparts, which was probably an important allegory for the myths surrounding Helen.

Of course this wasn't the only thing that was covered. The archaeology of the civilizations, their sports, religious rituals, the trading center of Troy, the rituals surrounding hospitality (as seen in the Iliad and especially in the Odyssey) and their importance in international relations, and Bronze Age warfare and combat (complete with an appearance by Mike Loades, always a plus) were also given ample airtime. I'd recommend those that are interested in the Trojan War, Homer, and the myths to give it a go.

However there was one aspect of the program that was particularly intriguing, and that was that the treatment of sex and violence, which may seem diametrically opposed, was actually portrayed as two sides of the same coin. Both are base impulses leftover from our reptilian and mammalian brains in our evolutionary road to becoming human (Carl Sagan's Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory covers this well). Both can subvert our 'higher,' human impulses such as logic and judgment and cause us to make poor decisions. In this way, our lust for flesh and our lust for blood are two manifestations of the same core, and Helen can be seen to personify both.

Helen's life is tied up in both sex and the violence that surrounds her sexuality. Her very conception was violent, as Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped her mother Leda. Then, while she was still a young girl, Helen herself was raped by the King of Athens, Theseus. Things didn't seem to be starting off well for this still young princess.

The show went into detail about the kinds of competitions that could be expected between suitors for Helen's hand (and as we've seen in the Odyssey, athletic competitions between suitors were not rare). Events included what could be termed Pankration- the Ancient Greek precursor to modern MMA. And although, as it was explained, the object of the competition was to get your opponent to submit (a not-so-subtle display of dominance akin to lions or rams fighting for a mate), this art was first and foremost something for the battlefield.

Throughout the Iliad, the contrast between beauty and battle is at times on display, mostly through the character of Paris. One of my old professors in college said, quite rightly, that "Paris isn't a pussy." And he isn't, but it is clearly shown that defending his country or even less nobly, prestige on the battlefield, is not where his top priorities lie. They are lying, quite literally, in Helen's bed. Hector reaps scorn on his brother more than once for his prioritizing. Paris can fight, but he's far from the best on the field. Nevertheless, it was Paris' womanizing ways which started the entire mess by giving a pretext for the Greek coalition to invade, but Helen is not absolved of responsibility either. It takes two to tango, almost literally. The show explains that while later storytellers popularized the tale that Helen was abducted, it really seems like she went willingly with Paris, an assertion that Homer would agree with. As we see especially in the Iliad but also in the Odyssey, Helen clearly regrets her actions and wants to go back to Menelaus. There would be no need for her to have such feelings if she did not go willingly. She would be absolved of responsibility.

Thus the violence of the war is not only tied to Paris' lusting, but to Helen's sexuality and desires as well. One could even argue that Helen is the ultimate fictional example of a cautionary tale surrounding female hypergamy, but that's a different (though related) topic.

After the show explains that situations reminiscent of Helen did in fact occur in history in the Late Bronze Age, it would again seem to add arrows to the quiver of sex and violence being linked. Few things are as emotional to the human consciousness as sex, and this can subvert our cerebral cortex and give root to the lower brain impulses: aggression and violence. At the same time that the contrast between beauty and battle are on display, they are linked too, as the elders of Troy, upon seeing Helen, can all agree that the extraordinary beauty of Helen is something that they shouldn't blame anyone for fighting over.

This is probably the reason why, no matter what culture or what age, sex and violence have been eternal companions. Sex and poor decision-making go hand in hand.

And what of Helen? Well, she does seem to live a peaceful life after the war in what few appearances she makes in the Odyssey, but Homer reminds his audience that she's still a dangerous charmer, as the show again explains. She slips drugs into the drinks of Telemachus and Menelaus to keep them up longer, so she can tell a story. While this instance is relatively benign, it leaves the reader in no doubt as to what she is still capable of, and is a not-so-subtle warning that she must be guarded closely.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Tweets of Achilles

The Rage of Achilles, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Twitter meltdowns are common entertainment these days, so this is just going to be a more or less humorous take on what Achilles would be doing if he were part of the Twittersphere during the events of the Iliad. Yes I know, 140 characters or less.

Book I:

 Army beset by plague. Time to call Chalcas. What's up with Apollo?

Chalcas says Chryseis must go. Agamemnon having a bitch fit. More at 11.

Agamemnon the f'ing ahole coming after my prize Briseis. Tells how greater he is than me. Outrage.

He wants us to obey his orders yet this cunt hasn't gone to battle ever. Fuck Agamemnon. Going back home.

Gonna kill this cunt.

Had a talk with Athena. Goddess checked my rage.

Agamemnon can go fuck himself. Better not come crying to me when Hector knocks his army flat.

Achaeans will beg to have Achilles back.

Handed over Briseis. Called mom. She'll get Zeus to hand me the glory.

Book IX:

So, Achaeans got their ass handed to them. Now Agamemnon sends Ajax, Odysseus, & Phoenix to beg. This gon b good.

Odysseus tells stories but Agamemnon offers many prizes but no hint of apology. Unsurprising.

If they think they can buy me back without question they're delusional.

Going home. This shit is just insulting. 

Mom told me I'd either win undying glory here or go back home and live a long life. Glory's  cut off now. Not worth it.

Phoenix now comes to beg.

He's telling me sob stories of us when I was young. I love the man, but I won't change my mind.

I have no interest in this Meleager shit.

He needs to stop his emotional diatribes. Time for sleep. Tomorrow I decide what to do.

Ajax now comes to get my attention.

Ajax says he longs to be one of my dearest friends and reminds me he offers seven beauties for the price of one.

Still, I'm staying here, until Hector fights near my own camp.

Then I'll put his rampage to rest.

Book XI:

Achaeans are getting their asses beat.

I think they're ready to kiss my ass this time.

Sending Patroclus out to see what's up.

Book XVI:

I'll relent. How can someone rage on forever?

Still, I'm not going out there. I'll send Patroclus out.

I'm confident he'll send the Trojans fleeing back to Troy. 


Antilochus just told me the news I feared.

I knew this would happen...I knew it!

Hector's killed my best friend! He has my armor!

 Mother tells me I'm doomed to die at the heels of Hector's death, so let me die at once!

Mother will get me new gear. Going out to stop the rampaging Trojans.

Roared at them, they fled like birds.

Patroclus' body brought tears to these eyes. Time to clean his body.

Before we lay him to's time for payback.

Book XIX:

Beautiful armor...time to go to battle!

Agamemnon wants a formal apology, Odysseus says the men need to rest.

I care not for such things.

To hell with these ceremonies! I want to drop some Trojans!

I will relent. Let my comrades eat and rest, but I will have none of it.

Who can eat when Patroclus' body isn't even cold?

It's time now. Mounting chariot. Time to kill.

Book XX:

Had an encounter with Aeneas. What a pushover!

Saw Hector. He escaped. I'll finish him next time!

Trojans falling like flies beneath my spear. Back2business.

Book XXI:

Look, it's Lycaon again.

Sold this guy into slavery. Now he's back before me!


Killing more, throwing them in this river.

What the....this river is trying to kill me!

How dare it tell Achilles to stop killing in its waters!

Hephaestus brought the river to heel.

Glory will still be mine! More killing!

Book XXII:

Flee! Fleee before Achilles you Trojan dogs! 

There's Hector!

Athena says she'll help me out, keep him outside the walls.

Chased Hector three times around Troy's walls, now he wants to fight!


His body...his body will be food for my dogs!

Driving his corpse back to camp.


The time has at last come to burn and bury Patroclus.

I have done all I could- monumental ornaments on the bier to send my dear friend off!

There will never be another Patroclus. A terrible loss to all of Achaea, to me most of all. 

At the funeral games. To the best will go the prizes!

Book XXIV:

Drove Hector's body around Patroclus' bier again.

Though dead, my enmity of Hector will not stop.

Mother tells me that the gods decree I must hand Hector back.

Fine, let Priam send his herald with a ransom.

Astonished...did not expect Priam to be here.

The man made sense. He did not tempt my wrath.

My father will never see his son again, nor will Priam.

I will make sure the Trojans have 12 days to bury Hector.

War makes us all inhuman. We only recognize it when it's 2late.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Human Sacrifice: Myth & Reality

Mentions of sacrifice to the gods litter the entirety of the Iliad and Odyssey. We hear of rams, cattle, goats, sheep, etc. etc. all being killed to honor the gods, and sacrifices in wine are also mentioned (pouring libations). In one instance in Book 6 of the Iliad, Hecuba, Hector's mother, the Queen of Troy, led a procession of the noble Trojan women to the temple of Athena to sacrifice a robe at the statue of the goddess' feet. The gods consistently claim these sacrifices as their rights (though they are certainly not obligated to help or even not hinder those that sacrifice to them, not too bad of a deal is it?). But what about human sacrifice, as has so often been supposed?

There are two cases (that I am aware of) in the myths that seem to involve human sacrifice. One is perhaps somewhat vague. The other is seemingly written without any ambiguity, but it can lead to more questions than answers. It's best not to jump to conclusions (as I did, more on that later).

The first of these (and the most studied) is the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Francois Perrier

There is some ambiguity about this story. First, let's detail the facts. The Greek fleet, moored at Aulis due to bad wind, cannot sail to Troy. The soothsayer Chalcas declared that the goddess Artemis was responsible for holding the fleet back and that to appease her, Agamemnon himself would have to sacrifice his own daughter at the altar.

We here have a decision that can only be agonizing. Our first expectation is that as a father, Agamemnon would outright refuse such an obscene request. Doing anything else would make Agamemnon a monster. Even merely thinking about such a request for a moment is tantamount to an unspeakable crime to our eyes. Unfortunately, Agamemnon did indeed think about it, and even agreed to go through with the, uh, transaction. That much we know. It's then clear that Agamemnon has motives of greed upon undertaking this expedition. No rational father could care so much about his brother's honor and its restoration (by retrieving his brother's wife) that he'd sacrifice his own daughter to get the opportunity (the outcome is by no means clear at this point) to do so. What else could motivate Agamemnon other than the riches of Troy?

Now that we've gotten our answer that Agamemnon is, indeed, a horrible father, even by the standards of his own time, we can now only ponder about the fate of poor Iphigenia. Fortunately, here is where things get a bit murkier.

There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly happened on the altar. Some stories suggest that the sacrifice actually was carried out, others say that Iphigenia was simply whisked away by Artemis, the goddess satisfied that Agamemnon was willing to carry out the deed. For the answers, we'll need to look at the Cypria, which details the events of the Trojan War prior to the Iliad.

You can read some fragments from the Cypria here (I listed it on the External Sites page on the navigation bar as well). Of the sacrifice, this is what the Cypria has to say (and we are very fortunate enough these fragments survived):

"Artemis, however, snatched her away and transported her to the Tauri, making her immortal, and putting a stag in place of the girl upon the altar." (Cypria, Fragment #1)

This suggests that the latter was true. What about some of the secondary sources by ancient authors whose texts have in fact survived?

Proclus' summary of the Cypria says the exact same thing.

So it seems that Iphigenia managed to escape a ghastly fate. But what about the second instance? This happens in Book 23 of the Iliad. Hector is dead, and Achilles is preparing to lay Patroclus to rest. It is here where he takes twelve Trojan prisoners, cuts their throats, and puts them on Patroclus' bier along with the other animals that were sacrificed to his friend.

Notice that this wasn't even a sacrifice to the gods, but to a dead mortal man. It is one of the final acts of utterly barbaric rage that Achilles displays in the poem.

Is there any connection to reality in this? We do know of rare instances of human sacrifice in the classical world done by the Romans- most famously during the nadir of the city's fortunes during the Second Punic War after its disastrous defeat by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae. In this case, the Romans did it to reestablish favor with the gods, who had seemingly so obviously abandoned them.

Did Bronze or Dark Age people do similar things? The fact that there are similar stories centered around human sacrifice such as that of Isaac suggests that the phenomenon had a certain basis to it, but is there more concrete historical evidence?

One of the first things I found was the abstract of a scholarly paper by Dennis D. Hughes describing funerary killings in the literary record as "revenge killings" which certainly seems to fit the bill of Achilles' actions in Book 23 of the Iliad. He also describes the archaeological record as inconclusive, however describing a "funerary ritual killing" in a Mycenaean tomb.

Far from human sacrifice, the author concludes that there was none, not even in Homer. A preview of his book may go into further detail. In the archaeological chapter, he more or less elaborates on the same point.

Somewhat surprising, considering my initial predictions when first delving into the subject. Checking my translation of the Iliad again (Penguin Classics, Fagles translation of 1990), Achilles says on page 560:

"I'll cut the throats of a dozen sons of Troy in all their shining glory, venting my rage on them for your destruction." (Fagles, 560)

Note my emphasis by the underline on the word rage. This would seem to match Hughes' description of historical revenge killings.

Then when Achilles actually does it:

"And then a dozen brave sons of the proud Trojans he hacked to pieces with his bronze...Achilles' mighty heart was erupting now with slaughter- he loosed the iron rage of fire to consume them all." (Fagles, 565)

Thus far we seem to have relatively robust literal and archaeological evidence for Hughes' assertions that evidence human sacrifice as it is commonly understood was inconclusive at best in this period. The two prominent examples outlined show an aborted human sacrifice (though one with full intent) and one that can be misconstrued when it is more akin to a revenge killing than an actual sacrifice- an act of submission to the gods.

The scholarly literature in this area seems to be somewhat scarce, so if  any reader finds further information about human sacrifice in Bronze or Dark Age Greece, I'd be glad if you shared it. From what we've seen both in its treatment in myth and in the scholarly literature (at least as far as scratching the surface goes), it seems to have been of peripheral or misunderstood importance.

Sources Cited:

1. Cypria (fragments), (The Online Medieval and Classical Library) 
2. Dennis D. Hughes, “Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece,” Bryn Mawr Classical Review (1991): Abstract
3. Robert Fagles trans, The Iliad (New York: Penguin Books), 560, 565