The First Classic of Western Literature Was Progressive Propaganda
Now when Ares, the bane of mortals, was ware of goodly Diomedes, he let be huge Periphas to lie where he was, even where at the first he had slain him and taken away his life but made straight for Diomedes, tamer of horses. And when they were now come near as they advanced one against the other, Ares first let drive over the yoke and the reins of the horses with his spear of bronze, eager to take away the other's life; but the spear the goddess, flashing-eyed Athene, caught in her hand and thrust above the car to fly its way in vain. Next Diomedes, good at the war-cry, drave at Ares with his spear of bronze, and Pallas Athene sped it mightily against his nethermost belly, where he was girded with his taslets. There did he thrust and smite him, rending the fair flesh, and forth he drew the spear again. Then brazen Ares bellowed loud as nine thousand warriors or ten thousand cry in battle, when they join in the strife of the War-god; and thereat trembling came upon Achaeans alike and Trojans, and fear gat hold of them; so mightily bellowed Ares insatiate of war. Even as a black darkness appeareth from the clouds when after heat a blustering wind ariseth, even in such wise unto Diomedes, son of Tydeus, did brazen Ares appear, as he fared amid the clouds unto broad heaven. Speedily he came to the abode of the gods, to steep Olympus, and sate him down by the side of Zeus, son of Cronos, grieved at heart, and shewed the immortal blood flowing from the wound, and with wailing spake to him winged words: “Father Zeus, hast thou no indignation to behold these violent deeds? Ever do we gods continually suffer most cruelly by one another's devices, whenas we show favour to men. With thee are we all at strife, for thou art father to that mad and baneful maid [Athena], whose mind is ever set on deeds of lawlessness. For all the other gods that are in Olympus are obedient unto thee, and subject to thee, each one of us; but to her thou payest no heed whether in word or in deed, but rather settest her on, for that this pestilent maiden is thine own child. Now hath she set on the son of Tydeus, Diomedes high of heart, to vent his rage upon immortal gods. Cypris first he wounded with a thrust in close fight upon the hand at the wrist, and thereafter rushed upon mine own self as he had been a god. Howbeit my swift feet bare me away; otherwise had I long suffered woes there amid the gruesome heaps of the dead, or else had lived strengthless by reason of the smitings of the spear.” Then with an angry glance from beneath his brows spake to him Zeus, the cloud-gatherer: “Sit thou not in any wise by me and whine, thou renegade. Most hateful to me art thou of all gods that hold Olympus, for ever is strife dear to thee and wars and fightings.”
The Iliad is considered to be the first great literary classic of European, western civilization. It is attributed to a poet named Homer, and discusses legendary events of the Trojan War, which itself occurred sometime around 1200BCE, near the very end of the Bronze Age, and the catastrophic collapse of civilization in the eastern Mediterranean.
Western scholars, even since classical times, have questioned the existence, or at least the identity, of a man named Homer, and have also questioned when the epic poem was composed. Nowadays the consensus seems to be (by western scholars who haven’t dismissed all classical literature because it was composed by white men) that the poem reached its current form in the 8th or 7th century BCE, when Greece was in its pre-Classical “archaic” phase and was gradually climbing back out of the Dark Age that resulted from the Bronze Age Collapse. Homer may have been a real person who put the Iliad into the form we know now, but the poem itself appears to have existed in earlier forms, going back centuries before his time. It appears to have been composed in layers, over time, much like the Buddhist scriptures or any other literature founded in oral tradition. The Iliad in its early forms was very likely orally transmitted by the ancient Greek equivalent of bards; and a good bard would embellish his material with his own artistic flourishes—which is what Homer, or whatever his name was, appears to have done.
It seems to me that a likely example in the works of Homer of a mutation in an older story is the tale of Odysseus’s final return to his home kingdom of Ithaca. According to the Odyssey, his appearance was disguised by the goddess Athena (who liked Odysseus for some reason), so that nobody would recognize him at first. But at the time that I read the poem it struck me that this dramatic device was totally unnecessary, considering that he had been away from home for twenty years, had been through all sorts of harrowing experiences, and was haggard and wearing rags. I would guess that in all probability the original version of that tale had him unrecognized by everyone (except his faithful dog, who even with his failing senses recognized his master, wagged his tail happily, and promptly died of old age) simply because of the lapse of time and the changes that his adventures had made upon his appearance. I would guess that some later poet or bard doctored up the story a bit to add some glamorous supernatural stuff.
At any rate, my theory with regard to the Iliad in particular is that Homer, or some poet reworking an older tradition, added some “progressive” details to the epic tale…and that progressive propaganda goes all the way back to our very first literary classic.
First there is the blatant fact that Achilles, the central character in the tale, is a total thundering ass. It is mildly astonishing to me that this blatant fact so often goes unremarked in discussions of the Iliad. The whole story is about Achilles’s angry sulking because a girl he was raping was taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition. It is true, though, that the story is essentially a tale of the Bronze Age Collapse, a time when violent seafarers were making predatory pirate raids along the sea coasts, with the Greeks obviously participating—in fact they were likely included among the so-called Sea Peoples who hastened the collapse of civilization throughout the eastern Mediterranean world, right around the time of the Trojan War. So the war was probably not really fought to retake Helen from the Trojans (she had been in Troy for many years before the expedition was launched anyway), but rather to sack a rich city, plus maybe take control of the shipping lanes to and from the Black Sea. Anyway, Achilles refuses to fight due to his “booty” being taken from him, until his dear friend (and possibly his lover; after all they were Greeks) was killed in battle by Hektor. Not only does Achilles wrathfully kill Hektor in consequence, but he even took his caddishness to the extreme of repeatedly desecrating Hektor’s corpse.
Then again, the wrath and ass-holery of Achilles is the central theme of the poem, and therefore this seemingly propagandist theme may be presumed to go all the way back to the original version of the Iliad, and may even be historical. Who knows, his killing of Hektor and public desecration of his corpse may have been what made Achilles famous in the first place.
But there is more to the point than the brutishness and vanity of the protagonist. The entire Trojan War was traditionally seen with some tinges of considering it a tragic crime committed by Greek scoundrels. Even to arrive in Troy Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to obtain fair winds for the ships; so the military expedition itself began with human sacrifice and ended with the sly deception of the Trojan horse.
Furthermore, as suggested above, the Trojans were portrayed pretty much as the good guys, with the possible exception of the unfortunate Paris who precipitated all this by choosing Aphrodite as the winner of a divine beauty contest, and receiving the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen) as a prize/bribe. One of the noblest and saddest scenes in the poem is the one with Hektor saying farewell to his loving wife and blessing his infant son, before going out to battle.
“For of a surety know I this in heart and soul: the day shall come when sacred Ilios shall be laid low, and Priam, and the people of Priam with goodly spear of ash. Yet not so much doth the grief of the Trojans that shall be in the aftertime move me, neither Hecabe's own, nor king Priam's, nor my brethren's, many and brave, who then shall fall in the dust beneath the hands of their foemen, as doth thy grief, when some brazen-coated Achaean shall lead thee away weeping and rob thee of thy day of freedom. Then haply in Argos shalt thou ply the loom at another's bidding, or bear water from Messeis or Hypereia, sorely against thy will, and strong necessity shall be laid upon thee. And some man shall say as he beholdeth thee weeping: ‘Lo, the wife of Hector, that was pre-eminent in war above all the horse-taming Trojans, in the day when men fought about Ilios.’ So shall one say; and to thee shall come fresh grief in thy lack of a man like me to ward off the day of bondage. But let me be dead, and let the heaped-up earth cover me, ere I hear thy cries as they hale thee into captivity.” So saying, glorious Hector stretched out his arms to his boy, but back into the bosom of his fair-girdled nurse shrank the child crying, affrighted at the aspect of his dear father, and seized with dread of the bronze and the crest of horse-hair, as he marked it waving dreadfully from the topmost helm. Aloud then laughed his dear father and queenly mother; and forthwith glorious Hector took the helm from his head and laid it all-gleaming upon the ground. But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms, and spake in prayer to Zeus and the other gods: “Zeus and ye other gods, grant that this my child may likewise prove, even as I, pre-eminent amid the Trojans, and as valiant in might, and that he rule mightily over Ilios. And some day may some man say of him as he cometh back from war, ‘He is better far than his father’; and may he bear the blood-stained spoils of the foeman he hath slain, and may his mother's heart wax glad.” So saying, he laid his child in his dear wife's arms, and she took him to her fragrant bosom, smiling through her tears; and her husband was touched with pity at sight of her….
Which is all the more poignant because those familiar with the story knew full well that little Astyanax would soon have his brains smashed out by a Greek soldier against the walls of Troy.
Zeus, King of Olympus, lord of the sky, and chief of the gods, favors Troy also, as does noble Apollo. The main divine forces rallied against Troy and with the Greeks are the two goddesses who lost the beauty contest to Aphrodite, and wanted feminine revenge.
But probably the most outstandingly obvious example of the probable addition of a “progressive” poetic flourish that had little evident purpose other than portraying war, or rather the Greek god of war, in a bad light, is the scene involving the Greek hero Diomedes wounding Ares, Greek god of war himself, and Ares’s subsequent cowardly and ignoble behavior, with which this article begins. The early Romans would never have tolerated such blasphemy against Mars, their own god of war, and one of the chief patron deities of Rome. The Iliad was such an anti-Greek screed, in its own more or less subtle ways, that the Romans eventually claimed their ancestry from the Trojans.
So in conclusion I would say that the Iliad is, in addition to the first great classic of western literature and practically scripture to the Classical western world, a kind of anti-Greek, anti-heroic propaganda. At the beginnings of the glory that was Greece and Rome the inspiration and vitality of the new systems overpowered the idealism of pacifistic poets; but of course by the 21st century most of that vitality has gone the way of last year’s snow.
It has probably always been the case that poets, including ancient Greek ones, tend not to be very warlike, and by the very nature of their poetic temperaments lean towards some version of lefty progressivism, or a more feminine and pacifistic world anyhow. And they evidently have used their skills from the very outset of civilization to put forth their sensitive message, and gradually more and more of it would be added to the foundational myths of martial prowess and glory that came from an earlier, more masculine, more heroic age. So the sort of civilizational self-loathing that we find in mainstream literature/propaganda lately was not invented by the Frankfurt School or by postmodern academic leftists of recent times, or even by Euripides. But it does tend in one direction if left unchecked, and that is the direction of a civilization degenerating into a vast flock of docile, emasculated, self-loathing sheep, ripe for the fleecing by a more aggressive, more inspired, more unified culture.