Fayetteville (Arkansas) Public Library

Combat Veterans' Experiences in Ancient Greek Literature

Daniel B. Levine

(Professor of Classical Studies, J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. University of Arkansas)

May 16, 2012.

Fayetteville (Arkansas) Public Library, USA.

            Welcome to a National Conversation.  Tonight’s talk is just the start of this project.  After all, a lecture is not much of a conversation. Just wait: in the next two months, we’ll read some fascinating stories from Greek epic and tragedy and come back here to talk with each other about what these ancient texts can tell us about vets and their families today.  I’m looking forward to talking with you. Tonight I’m in the spotlight, like a “sage on the stage,” but I’m preparing to spend the summer with the Fayetteville community as a “guide on the side” (as we professors say).  Plus, we’ll have some time tonight after the lecture for questions and discussion.

            (Slide: Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives Logo) Tonight I want to talk about what we can learn from the Classics and how we can use ancient Greek texts as a basis for discussion of our own returning warriors. Ancient Greek literature is a useful tool to help understand the struggles of modern war veterans because ancient war veterans, who knew from firsthand personal experiences what it was like to fight and be away from home for long periods of time, composed most of it.  Their anxieties and struggles, expressed in ancient epics and tragedies, resonated with their audiences, which were mostly made up of combat veterans.  The actors on the Greek tragic stage were mostly combat veterans, too. When we read these classics, many of us relate to these universal experiences, and none more so than our own veterans. I like the logo of the “Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives” program because it shows in one picture that we modern folk have in our heads many of the same thoughts and feelings that the Greeks did.  That should make sense: they are our cultural ancestors.

            Modern soldiers, like their ancient Greek predecessors, had to spend long periods away from home.  They left wives and small children behind, about whom they constantly worried.  The tensions of these long separations take various tolls.  Ancient Greek soldiers, like their modern American counterparts, often had difficult and troubled relations with their commanding officers, worried about the faithfulness of their wives and the welfare of their children. Also, wives at home wondered about the faithfulness of their warrior husbands who served overseas.  Ancient Greeks told stories about how the folks on the home front miss their fellow citizens who are away at war, often not knowing if they are alive or dead; they told stories about the terrible conditions of being in the field, and of soldiers’ violent acts on the battlefield and off it — including frenzy, suicide and murder. But we also see the joy that veterans take in returning home after a long absence.

            The overall goal of this discussion series is to have a serious public sharing of thoughts about how the experiences of the ancient Greeks mirror our own. In the words of Peter Meineck, we want “to inspire people to come together to read, see, and think about classical literature and how it continues to influence and invigorate American cultural life.” 

            (Slide: University of Arkansas Logo, with Latin Motto) I’ve spent most of my life thinking about how classical literature is relevant to our world, and I think that probably those of you who have read the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans have made connections between these tales and your own experiences. When I became a professor here in Fayetteville, I had no idea about the ways I would relate my skills to the real world, like translating phrases into Greek -- for students’ tattoos, translating phrases into Latin and Greek for wedding ring inscriptions, or (Slide: Inscription Universitas Arkansiensis) checking the Latin for inscriptions on the new Pi Beta Phi gate on the north side of campus, helping a factory in Oklahoma determine whether the Latin notes one employee passed to another were examples of sexual harassment, helping an elderly man in Harrison, Arkansas to find distant Greek relatives on the island of Samos whom he had never met.  I had no idea that I would teach a two week summer course to gifted Arkansas high school students in Newton County, or to grade-school students at Leverett School, or that I would visit high schools in Fort Smith, Little Rock, Rogers and Fayetteville to share another perspective on the ancient Greeks and Romans with them.  I did not imagine that I would help my colleague Fred Spiegel come up with Latin names for the new kinds of fungus he discovered. I had no idea that I would take students to Greece and share its treasures with young minds.  I had no idea that I would write forty letters of recommendation a year. The Classics intersect with the “real world” in many ways; they are totally relevant.

            (Slide: Cover of Classics and Comics, Oxford Univ. Press) I have managed to publish results of my research on the Odyssey and other ancient literary works, but also on modern authors and their debt to ancient Greek and Roman writings, like the novelists Rita Mae Brown and Michael Chabon, and the comic strip artist V. T. Hamlin, the creator of Alley Ooop.  The great thing about classics is that it is a field that exists in a continuous continuum.  It always lives on -- in other forms -- and is part of our civilization’s collective memory.  It’s all around us all the time.

            (Slide: POW MIA Banner) I have learned from experience that the Classics can speak to everyone. In the early 1980’s a woman came up to me after class in Kimpel Hall with tears in her eyes and said, “My husband has been Missing in Action in Vietnam for years.  I know just how Penelope must have felt.” This memory always brings tears to my eyes.

            (Slide: Vase Painting of man holding baby) When I was a student at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, on a hike between Corinth and Argos I found a baby by the side of a mountain road, with a note inside her blanket:  ΣΑΣ ΠΑΡΑΚΑΛΩ. ΕΙΝΑΙ ΑΒΑΠΤΙΣΤΟ ΚΑΙ ΑΠΟ ΠΟΛΥ ΦΤΩΧΙΑ ΟΙΚΟΓΕΝΕΙΑ. ΑΓΑΠΗΣΤΕ ΤΟ (Please.  It is unbaptized and from a very poor family. Love it).  It gives me chills still today. How could I not think of Moses, Oedipus, Romulus and Remus?

            (Slide: Cover of Anouilh’s Antigone) In 1943, at the height of World War II, the Frenchman Jean Anouilh wrote and produced a version of Sophocles’ play Antigone, whose female hero stands up in courageous opposition to an unreasonable dictator -- with tragic results.  It spoke to a generation of opponents of the Nazis -- and still speaks to us all today. Antigone represented the French Resistance and King Creon represented the Vichy Government.

             (Slide: Map showing Krakow) Just this winter I heard the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn read part of a speech he gave to classics students graduating at Berkeley.  It includes the story of a Polish woman from Krakow who lived through World War II.  He asked her what the first thing her town did after the Nazis left. “You know,  [she said] it’s a funny thing,” …. “When the Germans first came, in ’41, the first thing they did was close the theaters.” The interviewer was puzzled by this answer and said, “The theaters?” She continued, “Yes, the theaters. The first thing they did was close the theaters. And I’ll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal–the first thing was that the actors and theater people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish, a production of Sophocles’ Antigone.” Mendelsohn goes on to say what he thinks this means: “A lot of life gets lost–almost everything, in fact. … But as [this Polish woman] knew, some of what remains means something–something very real, to real people, to people whose knowledge of suffering is derived from more than a book or a night at the movies. And so, I would ask you this: when you think of what it means to be a classicist, don’t think only about your …[esoteric research]. Think about [this Polish woman]; think about the people in Kraków, who, when they had very good reasons to believe that civilization had ended, felt that the first thing they needed to do was to put on a play by Sophocles. That, in the end, is the meaning of the tradition you have been studying…”

            (Slide: Cover: Gonda Van Steen’s Theatre of the Condemned) Another classicist, Gonda Van Steen, last year published a book called Theatre of the Condemned:  Classical Tragedy on Greek Prison Islandswhich recounts productions of ancient Greek plays by political prisoners -- many of them Communists incarcerated during the Greek Civil War of 1945-1949 who saw their own aspirations and tragic fates embodied in these ancient works.

            (Slide:  Poster for Ajax in Iraq) Last year Ellen McLaughlin’s new play appeared, called “Ajax in Iraq,” based on Sophocles tragedy Ajax. It featured parallel narratives of Ajax, the Trojan War hero who went mad and committed suicide because he felt betrayed by his comanding officers, and the story of a woman soldier in Iraq, who also commits heroic deeds but also goes insane when her own side betrays her. [I’ve read about this play, and don’t think I want to see it; its subject is most disturbing.]            

            (Slide: Poster for Anon(ymous)) This spring I went to a play at the University of Arkansas, written by a Japanese woman, on the contemporary “relevant” subject of war refugees, immigration and modern America.  The work, Anon(ymous), based on Homer’s Odyssey, played to a full house of mostly undergraduates, who gave it a standing ovation.  Why the Odyssey?  Well, like most “classical” works, it deals with timeless subjects:  family separation, death, missing, war, vengeance, and overcoming adversity through persistence, hard work and cleverness — not to mention the cool monsters. 

            (Slide: Cover of The Return of Ulysses) I recently read and wrote a long review article on Edith Hall’s recent book The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey, which shows the many and astounding ways that this one epic has shaped subsequent cultural creations all over the world:  in film, poetry, fiction, opera, movies, television and visual arts.  How many of us realize that the films O Brother Where Art ThouUlee’s GoldCold Mountain, and Sommersby -- all set in the American South -- are all based on Homer’s Odyssey (sometimes very loosely)?

            (Slide:  Logo of The Odyssey on Angel Island) Yesterday my brother in San Francisco sent me word about “The Odyssey on Angel Island,” a production of the Odyssey (very loosely interpreted) for people who take boats from Tiburon and Sausalito on the north coast of the San Francisco Bay and spend a day walking through the park, while actors produce various scenes from the Odyssey en route -- and lunch is included.

            (Slide: Cover of Achilles in Vietnam) On a more serious note, Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay wrote two books, Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, which resulted from his treatment of Vietnam War veterans with PTSD and his reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  (Slide:  Cover of Odysseus in America) His basic point is that the same kinds of combat trauma related in these epics still affect soldiers today in relation to soldiers’ interactions with their families and their officers, and in the realms of trust, loyalty and betrayal. Also relevant is the fact that the same issues that returning veterans still face are evident in the homecoming stories of ancient Greek warriors.

            (Slide: Photo of Philoctetes Project, New York Times) Shay’s observations have met with active responses.  Take for example the recent project named after a mythical abandoned Greek soldier: Theater of War, The Philoctetes Project, meant to speak to American war veterans. Peter Meineck writes,

Theater of War: The Philoctetes Project is the brainchild of Brian Doerries, a young theater director who uses [the ancient Greek tragedies] Ajax and Philoctetes to create what he calls “town meetings” aimed at veterans, current service personnel, their families, and support groups… [One such meeting] … was a directed reading of several key scenes from both plays followed by incisive and astute comments from a panel of military officers, veterans, representatives from veteran’s organizations, and classicists. But the most striking aspect of the event occurred at the end, as one by one the audience members stood up and started to relate their own experiences of war to the plays they had just witnessed. In attendance were veterans from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Vietnam, and Korea. There was a large group from a shelter for homeless veterans in Long Island City, family members of veterans, and even a group of young ROTC students. As spectators they were both active and vocal, as the events portrayed in the plays on stage resonated with their own experiences. In the discussion that followed many were shocked that drama, any drama, let alone ancient Greek drama, could so aptly reflect their own thoughts and feelings. Their responses were confessional, poignant, and moving. One got the distinct impression that much of what was being shared had never been uttered before and certainly not in public.”           

            (Slide:  Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives Logo) The tale of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the Trojan War has much to tell us about the perennial problems that returning warriors face both en route and at home. The tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were written and performed by combat veterans— for audiences consisting mostly of combat veterans.  Such documents deserve our attention always, and especially this year as we welcome American soldiers who are returning from faraway wars.  

    (Slide:  American Philological Association Logo) A fair question at this point would be, “What good will it do us to read all these texts? How can poetry -- ancient or modern -- help us understand our own issues?” I might answer: “Try it; you might like it,” and point out that many people have actually used the Odyssey as a model for better living, because they think that it has messages for self-improvement. I irreverently call this “literary therapy,” but hasten to point out that the idea that literature improves our lives is as old as literature itself.  Let’s start with the modern:  the national Classics Organization I belong to, the American Philological Association, has the motto: ΨΥΧΗΣ ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ΤΑ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΑ (“Literature is a healer of the soul”). I think that this motto comes from the inscription said to have been on the entrance to the sacred library at the tomb of Ramesses II in Egypt, ΨΥΧΗΣ ΙΑΤΡΕΙΟΝ (“Healing Place of the Soul”), as reported in the work of the first century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1.49.3).  Reading books can bring us comfort and healing.

            (Slide: Vase Painting, Lekythos with Muse on Mt. Helicon) The ancient Greeks themselves believed that poetry makes people happier.  In Hesiod’s Theogony, we read of the Muses, who inspire the bards to sing tales about the epic past that make people forget their troubles:

“And he whomever the Muses love is happy, and sweet speech flows from his mouth. For if anybody, even one having sorrow, is groaning as he grieves in his newly-mourning heart, nevertheless if a singer, a servant of the Muses will sing the glorious deeds of earlier men and of the blessed gods who hold Olympus, quickly that grieving man will forget his troubled thoughts and he will not remember his problems, but quickly the gifts of these goddesses turn them away” (Theogony 96-103 Levine tr.). 

            (Slide: “Medea Project” Website Photo) Clearly Greek audiences from the 8th century BCE onwards believed that poetry -- the Muses’ gift -- was a cure for troubled hearts.  Now fast forward to the modern world.  Part of the therapeutic use of the Classics is reflected in The Medea Project, which is a “prison-education initiative that encourages female prisoners to use Euripides’ Medea to develop a sense of personal agency” (Sarah Lozo, 2006 http://www.hamilton.edu/news/story/rabinowitz-presents-brown-bag-talk-on-the-medea-project). This program takes it name from the mythological Medea who committed terrible crimes in reaction to her abandonment by her husband Jason.  In the San Francisco County Jail, Rhodessa Jones conducted classes for female inmates including a performance piece inspired by the Medea, "Big Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women," based on the lives of the incarcerated women she encountered. During the work's creation, Jones and jail officials were made aware of issues that were specific to female inmates, such as guilt, depression, and self-loathing, which arose in response to feelings of failure in the face of community. These issues directly contribute to recidivism among female offenders. Based on this observation, Jones founded The Medea Project:  Theater for Incarcerated Women to explore whether such an arts-based approach could help reduce the numbers of women returning to jail.

            (Slide: Cover, Sailing Home) Now move from prison to Buddhist retreats.  Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist teacher in California, recently wrote a book (it’s here in the Fayetteville Public Library, where I checked it out last year), called Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls, which presents episodes and lessons from the Odyssey to help his meditation students, by showing how the tales in the epic can be metaphors for human challenges. We all undertake a spiritual Odyssey, he argues, to overcome the mystery and pain of our lives and to get through disasters and troubles. For example, Odysseys’ choice between Scylla and Charybdis reminds us of the impossible decisions we sometimes have to make, and from Odysseus’ son’s need to wait for his father we can learn how to be patient. Another example: “We can learn from Telemachus’ grief for his father and his expression of his pent-up sorrow at the Assembly he calls on Ithaca, that it is good to speak your heart, and to realize that life includes suffering, and we must learn how to express ourselves about it.” Fischer’s basic message is that we need to “return” to our true selves, just as Odysseus needs to return home. He wants to bring out our inner nostos, which means “Return” “Homecoming.” More on that very important word later.

            (Slide: Cover, Iron John) Consider the “therapeutic” use of the Odyssey by the writer Robert Bly, who has been active in the “Mythopoetic Men’s Movement” since the 1980’s. He has used stories from Greek myth in his writings and at men’s conferences, where he would try to get men back in touch with their masculine side by asking participants to act out the Odysseus-Circe scene, and brandish a sword to show their masculinity. In his book Iron John: A Book About Men (2000), he uses several examples from the Odyssey to show how men need to get in touch with their maleness in order to be better human beings:  “The Odyssey says there are suitors inside who want to marry the soul. These toothy suitors have plans for your life.  If a person never lifts a sword, he or she may get high marks for gentleness, but may end up as a slave to the suitors” (Bly 179). He traces American men’s problems to the decreased role of the father in the American family. This makes us think of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, who has grown up in a fatherless household and does not know what to do to take care of his family — until his father Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. The father’s nostos saves the day, and helps a boy become a man.

(Slide:  Lekythos with Soldier Holding Helmet) Now, we might find it rather intimidating to study some of the oldest basic texts that underlie our civilization, because they have been read so many times and discussed by so many people for thousands of years. Why do it?  My grandfather spent his life studying Hebrew Scriptures, in particular the books of the prophets. He wrote books on them.  When I began my detailed study of Homeric text, I asked him about this:  “How can I find something new to say about a text that countless scholars have already studied so much?” His answer was something like this:  “Every time you read a text it is a unique experience, because you bring something to the relationship that has never existed before.”  I think he was right: each of us has a unique relationship with the texts, depending on our level of understanding and our own experience.

For example, I have read Greek tragedies and the Odyssey many times, for classes in college, for my dissertation in graduate school, for my published research and for teaching classes at the University of Arkansas.  Well, I have spent a lot of time this spring re-reading tragedies and the Odyssey, in preparation for this program.  I’ve been consciously bringing a whole new set of questions to my reading:  What do these works say about ancient soldiers at war and their families at home? And how can this ancient literature relate to modern veteran experiences, and those of their families?  If we look at the essence of these stories, taking away the foreign names and the exotic locations, we can find some very familiar things.

            (Slide: Tyrtaeus Poem over Image of Chigi Vase Hoplites) The most well known stories of ancient Greek warriors are from mythology: Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Heracles, Ajax, Philoctetes, Diomedes, Hector and Paris.  But what do we know of the “real” Greek attitude towards fighting for one’s country? For one answer, we can turn to the poetry of Tyrtaeus, who, in the latter part of 7th century BCE, composed elegiac poems designed to inspire the Spartans in the second Messenian War. These exhortations, or what we might call poetic pep talks, sound familiar to any patriotic person. Tyrtaeus’ verses call on the young fighters to stand their ground in the battle line, side-by-side with their comrades, not to run away, and to be willing to die.  Young men who die in battle are a beautiful sight, with their wounds in front:  a sign that they have not been cut down fleeing (Fr. 10). His basic message is: “Take courage, Spartans.  Fight in the front ranks and die if necessary. It is shameful to see a corpse that has been hit from behind, in flight. Stand and fight in close combat:  shield to shield, helmet crest to crest, helmet to helmet, breast to breast” (Fr. 11). The bottom line is that of all the good things in life that a man can accomplish, none is as good as valor in war. After describing the glory of the soldier who has given his life for his country, Tyrtaeus presents a rosy picture of the successful returning warrior.  His nostos is blessed indeed:

“This is excellence, this is he best human prize and the fairest for a young man to win.  This is a common benefit for the state and all the people, whenever a man with firm stance among the front ranks never ceases to hold his ground, is utterly unmindful of shameful flight, risking his life and displaying a steadfast spirit, and standing by the man next to him speaks encouragingly. This man is good in war…. And if he falls among the front ranks, pierced many times through his breast and bossed shield and corselet from the front, he loses his own dear life but brings glory to his city, to his people, and to his father.  Young and old alike mourn him, all the city is distressed by the painful loss, and his tomb and children are pointed out among the people, and his children’s children and his line after them. Never do his name and good fame perish, but even though he is beneath the earth he is immortal, whomever it is that furious Ares slays as he displays his prowess by standing fast and fighting for land and children.  And if he escapes the doom of death that brings long sorrow and by his victory makes good his spear’s splendid boast, he is honoured by all, young and old alike, many are the joys he experiences before he goes to Hades, and in his old age he stands out among the townsmen:  no one seeks to deprive him of respect and his just rights, but all men at the benches yield their place to him, the young, those of his own age, and the elders.  Let everyone strive now with all his heart to reach the pinnacle of this excellence, with no slackening in war.” [Loeb Library tr. Douglas E. Gerber, 1999]

            The glory of fighting for one’s country has a long history in Greek literature.  In the Iliad, an account of the wrath of Achilles in the closing year of the Trojan War, we see antecedents to Tyrtaeus’ patriotic exhortations. For example, when the Trojan warrior Hector rejects a seer’s interpretation of bird omen that seems to indicate the need to retreat, he says:  εἷς οἰωνὸς ἄριστος· ἀμύνεσθαι περὶ πάτρης (“There is one bird omen that’s best:  to fight in defense of our country” Iliad 12. 243).

            (Slide: Red Figure Vase with Hoplite Shield, Helmet, Sword, Armor) The idealistic view of war is easy to see here, that it is most glorious to fall fighting in defense of your country, and that a dead soldier’s fame is a blessing to the community. However, our poetic sources also show that war is hell.  Homer’s Iliad describes dozens of actual combat deaths -- in excruciating and gruesome detail. Men kill other men with giant stones. The poet describes spears, swords and arrows going through men’s throats, entering their groins, jaws, chests, shoulders, mouths, noses, guts, thighs, heads, ears, arms and necks. Homer describes the sounds that dying men make, and the horror of their deaths. In these scenes we learn about the dying men’s histories.  We must imagine that the audiences liked to hear about the horrid reality of the battlefield; otherwise the Iliad would not be so full of it. Here Homer describes Achilles’ slaughter of Trojans in Iliad 20 (381-419 Ian Johnston http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/homer/iliad):

Giving a blood-curdling scream, Achilles leapt 
among the Trojans, his heart wrapped in battle fury.
First he killed Iphition, Otrynteus' brave son,
who commanded many men.  A Naiad nymph bore him 
to Otrynteus, sacker of cities, in Hyde,
a fertile land, below snow-covered Mount Tmolus.
As he charged right at him, godlike Achilles
struck Iphition with his spear squarely in the head,
splitting his skull apart.  He fell with a crash.
Godlike Achilles then cried out in triumph:

"Lie there, son of Otrynteus, of all men
the one we fear the most.  Here you die.   

You were born beside the Gygaean lake,

on your father's land, by the fish-filled Hyllus
and the swirling Hermus rivers."

Achilles triumphed.  But down on Iphition's eyes
the darkness fell, and then, in the first attack,
Achaean wheel rims on the chariots ripped him up.
After him, Achilles went for Demoleon,
Antenor's son, a brave defensive fighter, 
hitting the bronze cheek armour on his helmet.
But that didn't check the spear
it smashed through,
breaking his skull, splattering all his brains inside.
That stopped his fighting charge.  Then Hippodamas
jumped down out of his chariot to flee Achilles.
But Achilles speared him in the back.  As he died,
panting his life away, he screamed
just as a bull roars,
when it's pulled around the altar of Poseidon,
lord of Helice, the Earthshaker, who delights
in those young lads who drag the beast
in just that way
Hippodamas bellowed then, as his noble spirit
slipped out from his bones.  Then Achilles with his spear
attacked the noble Polydorus, son of Priam.
His father would not let Polydorus fight, 
for of all his children he was the youngest born, 
the one most loved.  He was the fastest runner, too.                                        
Now, like a fool, he was showing off his speed,
sprinting through front lines until he lost his life.
As he ran past, swift-footed godlike Achilles
threw his spear into the middle of his back,
where the golden belt clasps joined together
on the overlapping body armour.  The spear point,
going straight through, came out his navel.  With a scream,
he fell onto his knees.  Then black cloud enveloped him.                     
As he collapsed, his guts spilled out into his hands.

When Hector saw his brother Polydorus there,
down on the ground, collapsed and holding his own entrails, 

a mist flowed right across his eyes. He could no longer
bear to keep his distance. He moved against Achilles,
waving his sharp spear, just like a flame.

In war we lose our brothers, as Hector loses Polydorus, we lose our best friends, as Achilles loses Patroclus.  Such losses can unhinge a man and cause him to commit atrocities, as in the Iliad when Achilles, in a frenzy of revenge, goes berserk; he kills Hector and mutilates his corpse.  When commanders mistreat their best troops and publicly disrespect them, as Agamemnon does to Achilles in the Iliad, the result can be that soldiers want to murder their generals, as Achilles almost does.

Now I ask you now to think about relating to some of the plays that we will read this summer. Using mythological characters, they express to their audiences the feelings and realities of war.  Here’s what they’re about.

(Slide: Cover of Sophocles’ Ajax) Sophocles’ play Ajax, performed in Athens some 2,450 years ago. Here’s what I got from it as I read it and thought about our possible conversations on veteran experiences.  During the last years of the Trojan War, the great soldier Ajax feels that he has been cheated by his commanding officers. When he plans to murder them, a goddess re-directs his rage, making him think that the local oxen are his perceived “enemies.” So, his plan to kill his comrades in arms is channeled to a bizarre slaughter and torturing of oxen that he thinks are his human enemies.  In the course of the play we learn that he is upset that his commanders do not appreciate the sacrifices and labor of their subordinates.  His actions terrify the people around him.  His unreasonable behavior hurts his wife, in particular: he says hateful things to her, and hurts her even more in his eventual suicide. This distressed soldier is obsessed with revenge and suicide, resulting form the impulsive violent acts and the shame that they have brought on him. In his depression he just wants to slip into darkness.  He sometimes thinks that his comrades are his only friends. He contrasts his own wartime experiences with his father’s, to his own detriment. He feels dishonored and hated and imagines that his homecoming will bring him shame in his father’s eyes.  He fears the laughter of others. He lies, deceives and misdirects, and has lost faith in god.  He wants to pass his weapons on to his son.  He and his fellow soldiers hate war, because it takes them away from what is good in life: in particular, wine women and song.

(Slide: Cover of Euripides’ Heracles Gone Mad) These are just some observations about a single play. There is much more to read and think about here, and not all of it is pretty.  In Heracles Gone Mad, the hero’s wife awaits her husband, saying that his children keep asking her where their father is, and when he will come home. Heracles returns from his conquests, only to go mad and kill his wife and kids, with no motivation apparent to those around him.  And when the frenzy passes, he does not even remember doing it. He wants to kill himself in shame, and only a friend from his past  -- a sharer in his exploits -- can get him to show his face and can talk him out of killing himself.  The bond with his comrade in arms is the strongest thing that there is, and is the only salvation of the miserable wreck that he has become.  His friendship allows redemption and another shot at living a useful life. 

(Slide: Cover of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) In Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, king Agamemnon comes home from war and gets killed by his own wife, who has taken a lover while her husband has been off at war. This lover is described as a draft-dodging slacker and adulterous seducer — the classic definition of what US soldiers today call… what? [Audience: “Jody”]. The play is rich with the feelings and thoughts of the folks on the home front and their worries about the men off at war, and their joy upon their return.  There is great irony in the lies that his wife tells her husband as she cleverly lures him to his death. She is also upset at him for his own taking of a lover and bringing her home with him. We even get to see the reaction of a common soldier upon his homecoming after ten years away at war. This play contains the most moving description of men who went off to war in their youthful strength and confidence, and returned ashes in urns. There is a lot more in this play, some of which deals with child sacrifice and a curse on the house.

(Slide: Cover of Sophocles’ Trachiniae) There’s Sophocles’ play Women of Trachis.  This is the story of another wife of Heracles, who, awaiting her husband’s homecoming from his most recent military campaign, like Penelope has had no word of him for a very long time.  She doesn’t know if he is alive or dead, and complains that he’s been away so long that he hardly knows his own children.  When she learns that he has taken a lover while abroad, and fears that he will abandon her, she sends him a love potion. When what she thought was a love potion actually turns out to be a deadly poison, she commits suicide out of shame and guilt. 

(Slide: Cover of Sophocles’ Philoctetes) Then there’s the story of Philoctetes, told in Sophocles’ play by the same name --the only surviving Greek tragedy without a female character.  In this production, we see a man who joined the Greek army on its way to the Trojan War, but due to snakebite he got an incurable foot wound, and was abandoned by his fellow soldiers on a deserted island, where he lived in misery for years with a painfully diseased foot. Understandably, he hates his fellow soldiers, especially the commanders, and when some soldiers come to fetch him off to help the others with the war that has been dragging on, he refuses, because his pride is too badly wounded, and because he has too much anger stored up in his heart.  Only the sudden and unexpected intervention of the god Heracles changes Philoctetes’ intention.  The god orders him to help his comrades win the war, and promises that he will send a healer to cure his wounded foot. In this play we see the abandoned soldier saying that in war the bad men survive and all the good ones die. He wishes that his own pains would affect the commanding officers who wronged him. He is in such pain that he wishes for death and threatens suicide. This soldier values loyalty above all, and despises betrayal. His greatest pain is the loss of his weapon, which is literally his life.  He is chagrined at the very thought that someone else might handle it.  This abandoned soldier has intense feelings of loneliness; he’s starved for human company, but thinks that everyone who sees him does not want to have him around. When the angry soldier gets his arms back, he tries to use them to kill a hated officer, and is only stopped from doing so by the young soldier grabbing his arm.  This young soldier has become his friend, and tries to explain to him that murder is not the solution to his problems. The angry soldier has become savage and won’t listen to anyone, not even those who try to help him.  He won’t even trust those who want to heal his wound.

(Slide: Drawing, Odysseus Shooting Suitors) Homer’s Odyssey is the best-known nostos of classical antiquity.  It is the paradigmatic nostos, after which all subsequent nostoi are modeled.  What’s a nostos? Who remembers?  Right! Nostos is a Greek noun that means “homecoming journey,” and occurs in our word “nostalgia,” which is literally “pain in returning,” or the bittersweet feeling you get when thinking about trying to get back to the way things used to be, to your earlier life. The concept pre-dates the Greek language, deriving from a proto-Indo-European root *nes-, the basic meaning of which is “to return safely home.”  Going home is one of the most ancient of human needs. Each of the Trojan War heroes experienced his own nostos. The Odyssey is Odysseus’ nostos.

Having helped the Greeks win the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men repeatedly face danger and death on their homeward voyage; Odysseus alone survives.  In the years he has been away, his mother has died from missing him and his father has retreated to a little farm, where he lives a peasant’s life.  Nobody in his island kingdom knows if Odysseus is alive or dead.  Greedy young aristocrats have moved into his palace and demand that Odysseus’ wife marry one of them.  They consume Odysseus’ food and wine and sleep with his maidservants.  They bully his son and try to ambush and kill him. Odysseus returns in disguise and cleverly overcomes the suitors to regains his rightful position as head of the household once more.

(Slide: Zeus Cult Statue, Olympia) [I just like this slide. It’s not from the Odyssey; it’s Zeus at Olympia.] The Odyssey is an incredibly rich source of thoughts on what it means to come home after a long separation, about a wife needing her husband and a son needing his father.  It details a soldier’s unyielding determination to return to his family after years of war.  It is amazing to me how much of human life this poem reflects, and how it does so truly and movingly; it’s so rich in so many ways. That’s why we are going to spend the next month reading and discussing the Odyssey — and that will only be the first part of this conversation, which I look forward to continuing with you here at the Library and around Fayetteville.

Thank you.

© 2012 Daniel B. Levine

University of Arkansas

Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701 USA