Sunday, February 24, 2013

Iliad as an ethical guide

400 years after his mother put Moses into Nile River inside a basket and 1200 years before Mary gave birth to Christ in Nazareth; in Çanakkale in today’s Turkey, an Anatolian civilization, the city of Troy was destroyed by the people of Achaea, i.e. by Hellene tribes at the end of a war that lasted 10 years. 3200 years after this war, we learn its story from Iliad, which is the epic of Homer, a poet from Izmir.
For four centuries from eighth century when Homer compiled Iliad until the fourth century when the roots of modern philosophy germinated in Athens, Iliad had been the sole written work specifying the values of the Greek society around the Aegean region. This book which is a beautiful poem and an ancient epic for us today, had a totally different function at those times. Iliad was almost only written text used in education. The most important part of school education and religious education was the memorizing of Iliad. Just as most people learn their values, rights and wrongs from the holy scriptures of the religions they believe, they learnt these from Iliad back then. Until when Socrates and Plato criticized the religious system talked about in Iliad, in which gods punished and awarded the people as they wished and the ethic system in which fame and honor were only achieved by courage and skill in wars through philosophy and asked “According to what shall we live, what is right and wrong? What is ethics?. Criticizing the irresponsible gods of Homer cost Socrates his life who was accused of poisoning the youth. These two philosophers in some respects, brought an end to the polytheistic pagan religions whose holy scripture was the Iliad, and began the era which will lead to the monotheistic religions with sacred books, though this wasn’t exactly what they wanted…
Alexander the Great is ordering that Homer’s Iliad is put into the grave. - - Jean Pénicaud III – 16th century Though his tutor was Aristotle, Alexander the Great had been raised with the memorization of Iliad. According to rumors, every night he slept with Iliad under his pillow.  
Iliad’s Language
Homer lived 400 years before this war, indeed. So I guess it would be better if we said he had compiled different pieces of oral tradition that had accumulated for centuries and formed Iliad instead of saying that he wrote the epic poem of more than fifteen thousands of lines on his own. When Homer lived, Iliad had most probably been formed already and its lines were being told by traveler bards by heart. It was probably that, he was the first to put these lines down on paper.
Homer – Bust – Hellenistic Period
Today we read the translations of these lines. Considering that translations of poems don’t give the pleasure of their originals even in best translations, one naturally can’t help wondering how good had the original poem been. Homer wrote these lines in ancient Greek language in Ion dialect. It is a weird feeling to know that only few people in this big whole world are now able to read Iliad in the language of Homer. From the link below you can listen to Iliad vocalized in Homer’ language by the ancient Greek and Latin professor Stanley Lombardo from Kansas University; it could give an idea about what the language is like. Unfortunately I don’t speak Greek but if my ears don’t fail me, it is quite different from modern Greek and has a song just like I have imagined. It is not surprising that people have liked this epic for three thousands of years.

Achilles is dressing the wounds of his bosom friend, Patroclus – BC. 5thCentury Greek vase pattern
Subject of the epic
It will be challenging to try to summarize the Iliad in a single paragraph but let me try anyway;
At the beginning of the story, the Greek king Agamemnon wrested the prisoner Briseis from Achilles, who were also fighting at his side, Achilles got cross with the King Agamemnon, rejected fighting and let himself into his tent.  The story ended when Achilles joined the war back upon the slaughter of his best friend Patroclus, killed the Trojan Prince Hector and gave his corpse to his father, the Trojan King Priam. On the contrary to the assumptions of many people, neither the beginning nor the end of ten year war are mentioned in the book; Homer only tells us about a period of fifty one days of the war in its ninth year. Though the epic tells about the story of the outbreak of the war, which states that it broke out from a dispute over a woman, when the Trojan Prince Paris kidnapped the Greek Princess Helen, it doesn’t mention much about the end of the war. You must read the Odyssey and other epics of the period for the Trojan Horse and other similar stories.
Though Achilles may seem to be the hero of the story, I think the secret hero is Paris’s brother Hector, indeed. Hector is the single righteous and responsible hero in the story. He tried to protect his city, newborn child and his wife in a war he had not started. His maturity in accepting the things that happened to him and his commitment to his responsibilities is amazing. Homer, who himself was from Anatolia, Izmir praised the bravery and courage of Hellenes throughout the epic but indeed he praised the civilized and intelligent Trojans between the lines. We shall keep in mind that the epic was written in a time when all Aegean was under the dominance of Hellenes, and the author had to preserve the politic balances despite the fact that he was from Ionia, i.e. Anatolia.
Hector’s corpse is being moved to Troy. –  2nd Century B.C. – Roman relief – Louvre Museum
Now let’s get to the real story; Hellenes were tribes that came to Greece from the North and their following destination was the Anatolian city state Troy, which was attractive for its land, richness and civilization. So this was a rather pragmatic, plundering war for expansion, which was shaped by economic reasons. As the epic was written during the dominance of Hellenes, Homer tried to justify the invasion by claiming that Hellenes began this war rightfully upon the kidnapping of their Princess. The war was declared when Hellenic tribes wanted to reach the richness, trade and especially bronze in Anatolia. The Hittites, Phrygians and Lydians, who were in Anatolia at that time probably fought in the war side by side with the Trojans to protect Anatolia. Hellenes on the other hand, had an assembled army as well. The army, which was leaded by Agamemnon, was gathered from all Hellenic kingdoms, i.e., from the opposite side of the Aegean.
The Trojan War was also the starting point of Hellenic dominance in Anatolia.
Anatolian- rooted god Apollo
The Gods
Homer included the gods in his epic, it was almost that the gods sided with the humans and they fought in wars. The interesting thing here is that, in the epic we see the implicit genesis of Olympus Gods which Hellenes who came to Anatolia formed by combining their pagan gods with the ones of the Troy, Lydia, Phrygia and Hittites civilizations in Anatolia.  Throughout the epic, Hera, Athena and Poseidon sided with Hellenes whereas Apollo, Aphrodite and Artemisia sided with Trojans. This is so natural because it wasn’t the war of Anatolian and Hellenic societies anymore, it transformed into a war between of Anatolian-rooted pagan gods and Hellene-rooted pagan gods. When the war ended and Hellenes came to dominate both sides of the Aegean, Anatolian-rooted pagan gods got absorbed among Hellenic ones and I think in order to preserve the balance, a consensus between the religious beliefs of the two societies was built with the neutral leader cult (Zeus) and the Greek mythological gods we know today came to life.
Iliad as an ethical guide and a mean of training
Religious books are the written forms of the ethical values and social rules of societies which are ornamented with rituals changing from one geography to another. In this respect, the impact Iliad had over the Aegean shores for four hundred years can be seen as the impact of a religious book considering that all children were made to memorize it, it was almost the single written source about the gods of Olympus and it identified the values of the society.

The religious and ethical values Iliad presented to its reader can be summarized as the following;
-          Humans shall believe in gods and offer sacrifices to them. Gods have complete dominance over the destiny of humans.
-          Gods do not act or decide with any ethical view; One may have a perfect or a rough life as the gods desire and it has nothing to do with what one deserves. A simple example to this is that, in Iliad Zeus makes Agamemnon see a false dream to mislead him and tells a lie in this sense. Furthermore; gods of Homer sometimes fight with each other; you may imagine how a great problem it could create for humans; you have gods that have different expectations and it is inevitable to make one angry while trying to please the other. Your gods fight with each other, they got cross, they become jealous, they cheat, lie and have no concerns about your wellbeing.
-          The most significant things in life are glory and honor; these are gained or lost in war depending on how courageous and resistant you are. Your being fair, helpful, honest and hardworking are relatively insignificant.
-          Even rather unethical things can be done if “approved by gods”.
Now let’s go back to the fourth century before Christ, when philosophy as we know today originated and people asked the questions, “What is right, according to what shall we live?; Plato in ‘the Republic’ and Aristotle in ‘Poetics’ objects to having education with the memorization of Iliad. People shall decide what is good and bad on their own, it shall not always be as the gods wish. People shall mostly assume the responsibility of the things they do, especially when the gods are so irresponsible and insensitive.
Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David – 1787 / Socrates was executed by hemloc poison as he poisoned the youth with his questions.
Socrates tired the people of Athens by questioning their beliefs in “Socratic Methods” and paid this with his life. It also tells us a lot that, Miletus, who accused of Socrates at court represented traveler bards in Athens. Obviously when Socrates criticized the gods of Homer and Iliad, that is, the bread and butter of Miletus and his friends, they apparently wanted to get rid of him.
Socrates’s pupil Plato shaped the gods for the first time as “good” and “righteous” as we know today. Plato’s gods didn’t tell lies, cheat on their wives, get jealous or do bad things to humans anymore. He developed the concept of ‘idea’, which means that all the things we see and touch are symbols of ideas. Though we consider the world we live in as real, it is just the image of the reality, in fact.
On the other hand, Plato’s pupil Aristotle observed the philosophy Plato had carried up to the ‘sky’ empirically and ‘brought it back down on earth’ through experiments. Humanity was closing one age and starting another then. Iliad would just be an admirable epic, and leave its place to the New Testament day by day in the following centuries.
Athens School (Details)– Raphael – 1510 / While Plato on the left is indicating  ‘the sky and heaven’ with his hand; his pupil Aristotle,  who materialized philosophy through observations and experiments and brought it back down on earth, is indicating ‘the ground’.
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