102: Approaches to Literature
Lesson 5. Men like Animals (Iliad 20-24).
The literary term for the day is "theme." Before the modern period, theme simply meant subject. That is, the theme of the Iliad was understood to be the anger of Achilles and the theme of the Odyssey was the resourceful and well traveled Odysseus. In most literature it is easy enough to say what the subject is or what the fiction (or play or poem) literally appears to be about.
But in modern literary discussion, theme no longer means subject. It usually means idea, point, or meaning. Some writing is highly polemical or didactic, clearly aimed at teaching a lesson, and so it's theme is obvious, but most artists don't tell explicitly what they mean, so analysts looking for themes must uncover or discover them lurking beneath the surface or behind the words of the text. Why would any writer bury messages, as analysts suppose? Perhaps because subtle approaches often work better than obvious ones. We see this phenomenon in advertising, where the most effective commercials are indirect.
Still, there's a problem that readers who go looking for a particular theme in literature are likely to find it, whether it's really there or not. A variety of readers are likely to find a variety of themes, all in the same work. In identifying the theme (a main idea or central point) or a theme (one of many), one reader might stress a feminist theme, another a Marxist or socialist theme, still another a Freudian or Jungian theme, and so on. The exercise of theme-finding is a highly subjective one, the only real test being how well well any theme is supported by evidence in the text.
This doesn't mean, however, that it's useless to think or write about themes in literature. On the contrary, there's hardly a better way to study and absorb a literary work than to try to describe what's important about it. When you conclude a reading that you would like to know more fully, write a paragraph about it, describing its subject matter. Then write a second paragraph in which you attempt to sum up what it could mean.
Literature and propaganda
Literature can be hijacked to serve political or ideological purposes. When reading a piece of literary criticism, always try to be aware of the biases that it may have. A feminist interpretation of a given work could have more to do with the interpreter's social agenda than it has to do with the work itself. This is not to single out feminists; all kinds of social and political biases underlie literary interpretations, even when published in reputable academic journals or by academic presses.
Homer has been hijacked repeatedly in history, hundreds or even thousands of years after the Iliad and Odyssey were written. The greatest instance occurred when Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) led an army of allied Greek city-states across the Hellespont and started his conquest of Asia at Troy and the tomb of Achilles. Alexander's propaganda machine made his war against the world appear to be the Iliad coming true. We see this political spin in the main source document about Alexander's career, Plutarch's biography written about 75 AD in Rome. Plutarch's "Life of Alexander" reads very strangely to us today because it devotes most of its attention to describing Alexander's character as a quasi-Homeric king. In Plutarch's account, Alexander
heroic descent from both Heracles and Achilles,
All is Homeric posturing. At various points in Plutarch's story, Alexander's mind seems to be under Homer's control, as if Alexander was the hardware while Homer was the software that ran Alexander's brain:
Alexander's first tutor Lysimachus used to call himself
"Phoenix," Alexander "Achilles," and Alexander's
father King Philip "Peleus";
The Homeric details in Plutarch's story are remnants, preserved by Plutarch from his source documents, of the foundation myth of Alexandria, the official story that explained Alexandrian culture to the people of the city. The myth told Alexandrians that their city had been founded by Alexander, that Alexander had been fathered by the Egyptian god Ammun, and that Alexander's ancestry on his mother's side went back through Achilles to the goddess Thetis. You see, every Egyptian Pharaoh had to be descended from deities, so the more closely that Alexander's life seemed to resemble the life of Achilles, the better were Alexander's credentials to be Pharaoh.
How had Alexandria actually been founded? Alexander had suddenly died in Persia in 323 BC, and his military commanders promptly carved up the empire among themselves. Ptolemy must have been one of Alexander's stronger generals because he was allotted the rich prize of Egypt. But his claim to the Egyptian throne was weak; all he could say was that Alexander had conquered Egypt and he had been one of Alexander's friends. He needed a better story.
To show what a good friend he had been to Alexander, Alexander's
successor in Egypt, Ptolemy I, seems to
have reenacted in real life the
Homeric fight for the body of slain hero (such
as the battle for Patroklos' body, Iliad 17). As Alexander's body
was being returned from Persia to Macedonia for burial in 323 BC,
Ptolemy's forces attacked the bodyguards, hijacked the body and brought
it to Homer's Pharos, the place that would become Ptolemy's Alexandria.
In the heart of Ptolemy's new city of the dead, he built a museum, in which he enshrined the casket, a casket allegedly won from Emperor Darius, that included not only Alexander's body but Aristotle's corrected "casket copy" of the Iliad. So, just as Plutarch reports, Alexander in fact slept with Homer's song under his pillow. He slept with it there for centuries in Ptolemy's museum!
Ptolemy also built, adjoining this museum, the great library of Alexandria which soon became famous throughout the ancient world for its collection of Homeric manuscripts and Homeric scholars. Our modern texts of the Homeric songs were established and first published at this Ptolemaic library in about 200 BC--only perhaps 1,000 years after the fall of Troy! We can see why it was here in this library that the texts of Homer were "corrected" and standardized. The Alexandrian scholars weren't just following some pedantic example supposed to have been established by Aristotle. They were the faithful priesthood in a mortuary temple of a recognizably Egyptian sort. As such their job would have been to maintain dead pharaoh's happiness by preserving the records of his glorious reign and divine ancestry. The Iliad would have been one of Alexander's pedigree proofs, and the priests would have needed to establish a definitive text to be passed down through the ages by scribal copying.
The Ptolemaic pharaohs were masterful in cultivating a larger than life, story-book image of "the great" king. They surrounded themselves with propagandists, including court poets, court artists, court historians and court philosophers, old-fashioned spin doctors of every kind to promote Alexandrian legends, images and thoughts. The inflation of Alexander was a ruling technique. For example Plutarch comments that when Alexander retreated from his campaign into India,
he could not refrain from leaving behind him various deceptive memorials of his expedition, to impose upon aftertimes, and to exaggerate his glory with posterity, such as arms larger than were really worn, and mangers for horses, with bits and bridles above the usual size, which he set up, and distributed in several places.
Hence Alexander "the Great"! Some passages of the Iliad attribute gigantic size to the Achaeans and Trojans, exaggerations reminiscent of Egyptian portraits of huge Pharaohs battling shrimpy adversaries. It's a fair bet that these giant images in the Iliad were inserted by the Alexandrian priests to make Alexander's ancestors "the greater"!
Plutarch takes up several stories about Alexander's descent from the god Ammon, a chief Egyptian deity that the Ptolemies attempted to identify with Zeus. The mythological idea in creating hybrid spirits like Zeus-Ammon was to merge Hellenic and Egyptian cults into a unified culture; Greeks and Egyptians alike could worship the same deities. (Is this political fusion of gods perfected in monotheism? A god who governs the whole world gives that god's priest authority over everybody in the whole world.)
Alexander's descent from Zeus-Ammon was useful propaganda for Hellenistic culture, but the army veterans who had campaigned with Alexander obviously did not believe it. Zeus hadn't been fathering new Zeus-men for a long time. The veterans (like poor Clitus, murdered by Alexander in Plutarch's story) knew Alexander to be the son of Philip of Macedon, and many of them also knew that Philip was not a descendant of Heracles. Philip was not even Hellenic.
Alexander had acceded to the throne of Macedon when Philip was murdered. The murder remains unsolved, but Alexander often is considered to be the chief suspect. His father had threatened to disinherit him. In this light, the idea that Philip was not really Alexander's father may have had great appeal to Alexander and his court. If your father is an immortal, you cannot have killed him, can you!
Plutarch must be understood as a collector of myths, though he is usually classified as a second-rate historian who doesn't stick to facts. From his Alexandrian sources he gleans memorable stories, like Alexander's visit to the tomb of Achilles, where Alexander is supposed to have poured libations, offered sacrifices, and run around the tomb naked "as the ancient custom is." (It was the ancient custom of the pharaohs to run around their funerary temples naked on their jubilee anniversaries. It was the ancient custom of the Hellenes to hold competitive funeral games, including races, in honor of the dead. Which "ancient custom" does Plutarch mean?) The whole episode makes a good Alexandrian multicultural story, easy to remember and to repeat, but did it really happen?
"How many poets is Alexander the Great said to have had with him to transmit his name to posterity? And yet, as he stood on the promontory of Sigeum by the tomb of Achilles, he exclaimed: "Oh happy youth, who found a Homer to herald thy praise!" And with reason did he say so; for if the Iliad had never existed, the same tomb which covered his body also would have buried his name." --
Cicero Pro Archia Poeta X 24-32
Well, we've all heard the name of Alexander the Great. The poets did that much for him.
And Alexander also did something for Homer. His tomb got Homer's songs published and handed down through the generations, for which any bard should be grateful. Yet the Alexandrians' use of the Iliad as political propaganda put Homer in a false public light from which he has never fully recovered. Even today people say that Homer meant Achilles to be a "hero" in our modern sense of the word--one whose acts are ideal, admirable models for action. They say the same of Odysseus--that lying thieving murdering pirate--and so Homer popularly has become stigmatized as one who glorified wickedness.
A paper is presented on theme in the Iliad. This paper illustrates the use of Modern Language Association (MLA) citation and manuscript formatting. If any students are not familiar with MLA, please see Dr. G before writing papers for this course.
5 - MINUTE BREAK QUESTION: what will you do to further your writing project this week?
Group (Is the purpose of the Homeric songs to relieve stress?)
Group (Compare and contrast the Homeric hero with modern ideas of the
Group (Write a narrative in imitation of one Homeric scene, from a list
Grading of Writing Project #1
Research for Writing Project #1
What research has been gathered so far? Do we need to spend part of a class in the library together?
the return of Odysseus, Odyssey books 13-18. As you read, ask yourself what the
story may mean:
Read the return of Odysseus, Odyssey books 13-18. As you read, ask yourself what the story may mean:
* do you
think it's intended to be taken as a true story?
Left: Ptolemy I of Egypt, first of the Greek Pharaohs after Alexander the Great.
Left: Alexander the Great--what if Achilles ruled the world!
Left: Alexander's real dad, Philip of Macedon, "liberator" of Greece.
Drs Gary & Elizabeth Gutchess
Sept 28, 2004