An Achilles Heel?

 

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the average person, even if they’re only vaguely aware of Homer’s poems The Iliad, or The Odyssey, even if they are mildly conversant with the story of the siege of Troy and the Trojan horse, even if they have sort of heard of the Grecian heroes Odysseus and Achilles or perhaps the Trojan hero Aeneas, and even if they could pretend they remember that the author -not to mention the stories and characters- may or may not have been reality based… even if this were the case, the colours of their skin and hair probably do not rank particularly high in the recollection. Frankly, I -certainly not a card-carrying member of any historical society- had not given it much thought. Well, none, actually -some things are just not that important, I guess.

And when I think of the way Homer was taught in my freshman class in university, I suppose I merely assumed that detailed descriptions were unnecessary -obviously, they would each look similar to how we have portrayed Christ in all the medieval religious art: vaguely Caucasian. And in my student days, the zeitgeist of academia as well as the rest of western society, seemed to be swimming in what we might now call white privilege. Of course the ancient Greeks were white -I mean, just look at the white marble statues they have bequeathed to us. The fact that they were originally brightly painted was not known -or at least not communicated to most of us in my day.

So, although the article in an edition of Aeon that questioned the skin colour of Achilles, did not shock me, it did make me think about the long held western conceit that the ancient Greeks, on whom we have modelled so many of our democratic ideas, were fair-skinned. Even as I put this assumption into words, I realize that, however unintended, it seems terribly racist. And yet, some things do need to be probed, clarified: https://aeon.co/essays/when-homer-envisioned-achilles-did-he-see-a-black-man

The essay, written by Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, attempts to make sense of what little historical evidence exists from those almost pre-historical times. ‘The poems are rooted in ancient stories transmitted orally, but the decisive moment in stabilising them in their current form was the period from the 8th to the 7th centuries BCE. The siege of Troy, the central event in the mythical cycle to which the Homeric poems belong, might or might not be based on a real event that took place in the earlier Bronze Age, in the 13th or 12th century BCE. Historically speaking, the poems are an amalgam of different temporal layers: some elements are drawn from the contemporary world of the 8th century BCE, some are genuine memories of Bronze Age times… Achilles was not a historical personage; or, rather, the figure in the poem might or might not be distantly connected to a real figure, but that isn’t the point. Achilles, as we have him and as the Greeks had him, is a mythical figure and a poetic creation. So the question is not ‘What did Achilles look like?’ but ‘How does Homer portray him?’

Fragments of evidence exist, but many are fraught with translational discrepancies and contemporaneous social conventions that confuse the issue. For example, at the time, ‘females are praised for being ‘white-armed’, but men never are. This differentiation finds its way into the conventions of Greek (and indeed Egyptian) art too, where we find women often depicted as much lighter of skin than men. To call a Greek man ‘white’ was to call him ‘effeminate’.’

Also, ‘Achilles is said in the Iliad to have xanthos hair. This word is often translated as ‘blond’… [But] the Greek colour vocabulary simply doesn’t map directly onto that of modern English. Xanthos could be used for things that we would call ‘brown’, ‘ruddy’, ‘yellow’ or ‘golden’.’ And, ‘Weirdly, some early Greek terms for colour seem also to indicate intense movement… xanthos is etymologically connected to another word, xouthos, which indicates a rapid, vibrating movement. So, while xanthos certainly suggests hair in the ‘brown-to-fair’ range, the adjective also captures Achilles’ famous swift-footedness, and indeed his emotional volatility.’

‘So to ask whether Achilles and Odysseus are white or black is at one level to misread Homer. His colour terms aren’t designed to put people into racial categories, but to contribute to the characterisation of the individuals, using subtle poetic associations… Greeks simply didn’t think of the world as starkly divided along racial lines into black and white: that’s a strange aberration of the modern, Western world, a product of many different historical forces, but in particular the transatlantic slave trade and the cruder aspects of 19th-century racial theory. No one in Greece or Rome ever speaks of a white or a black genos (‘descent group’). Greeks certainly noticed different shades of pigmentation (of course), and they differentiated themselves from the darker peoples of Africa and India… but they also differentiated themselves from the paler peoples of the North.’ In other words, concludes, Whitmarsh, ‘Greeks did not, by and large, think of themselves as ‘white’.’

This information would be filed in the ho-hum section of our need-to-know list for most of us, I think, and yet, Whitmarsh, in his introduction points out that ‘in an article published in Forbes, the Classics scholar Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa caused a storm by pointing out that many of the Greek statues that seem white to us now were in antiquity painted in colour. This is an uncontroversial position, and demonstrably correct, but Bond received a shower of online abuse for daring to suggest that the reason why some like to think of their Greek statues as marble-white might just have something to do with their politics.’

That there are people out there who seem threatened by knowledge which doesn’t accord with their own confirmation biases is, to me, more deeply troubling than mere disagreement. After all, we can disagree with something without being threatened by it. Disagreement allows for discussion, and possible attempts at rebuttal, using other evidence. Or countering with other interpretations of the same facts. In the end, isn’t it all just a game? An academic exercise which, after the initial flurry of excitement and barrage of words, should end, like all closely fought games, with a glass of wine?

Is Man a Piece of Work?

You see it all the time, don’t you –portrayals of great male warriors triumphing over equally determined rivals, their muscles rippling with sweat, their eyes scanning the crowd daring any others to step forward. It is a classic scene, presumably so reminiscent of the glory days of yore when men were really men –a classic depiction of a decidedly monolithic world where pursuit of power alone determined ethics and values. Where might was not only right, it was also appropriately so. What else could drive a nation, a culture, a belief, to success?

And what about those of us not favoured with bulging muscles who either could not, or would not compete in the marketplace of war? We wore the yoke –the etymological root of subjugation.

Although largely undisputed, I have always felt that this view of history was probably a victor’s view: partial, and likely doctrinaire. Perhaps even unrealistic. And yet a reading –or nowadays, more likely a movie portrayal- of the classic heroes would do little to disavow this opinion. Every so often, though, there seem to be other, quieter voices crying in the growing wilderness of masculine insecurity that cast doubts on the impenetrability of the foliage. Voices that find paths hidden in the woods.

‘Homer’s Iliad has been used by some men to hail the virtues of traditional masculinity in the 21st century. Typically, the famous work of literature serves as a sort of manual of manliness. […] Aside from longing for the (grossly misunderstood) glory days of a triumphantly Christian Europe that traced its heritage to the Greeks and Romans, the new champions of the West obsess over an idealized version of the past that bears little resemblance to the real Greece and Rome.’ https://theconversation.com/toxic-masculinity-fostered-by-misreadings-of-the-classics-88118 -This from an article in the Conversation.

‘The classical world furnishes us with examples of manhood, masculinity and heroism that have inspired some men to react against the supposed feminizing of Western culture, especially in the university setting.’ But, as one might expect, the reality was likely far more nuanced than its adherents would have us believe.

The article’s author, Matthew Sears, Associate Professor of Classics & Ancient History, University of New Brunswick, uses Homer’s Iliad, a classic tale about the Trojan War, as an example. He says that when he first read it, ‘[…] the final showdown between the opposing heroes Hector and Achilles [was] an utter letdown. Hector, in fact, runs away rather than face his opponent. Only after Achilles has chased Hector around the walls of Troy three full times does Hector turn to fight, and only then because the goddess Athena tricks Hector into thinking that a Trojan ally would be by his side.’

This seems to glorify the strength and reputation of Achilles, of course, but also denigrates Hector, the Trojan hero. But more interesting –to me, at least- ‘By using different Greek words for manliness, Homer distinguished between Achilles’ toxic masculinity and appropriate expressions of manliness.’ I’ve left the link in for readers who may wish to pursue this further. ‘Readers do, however, tend to recognize in Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, a far more sympathetic figure, embodying classical manhood by fighting bravely and selflessly for his city and family against impossible odds and an implacable enemy.’

And yet, this is still a masculine trope, albeit a different variety, isn’t it? No, Hector doesn’t win, but he fights for what he believes in against impossible odds… A real man, although not a victor like Achilles. But wait -the complexity increases! ‘Not only does Hector’s nerve fail him at Achilles’ final approach, […]the Trojan prince waits outside the safety of the walls not because of any higher principle or courage. Rather, he waits because he has made the mistake of not ushering his soldiers into the city much earlier, which would have spared countless men a grisly death at Achilles’ hands. Hector must therefore save face lest some lesser man chide him.’ –Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, in the immortal words of Yeats.

‘Before fleeing, Hector also ponders whether he should lay down his arms and attempt to strike a deal. Instead of fighting to the death, Hector considers offering Achilles not only Helen and the treasures she brought to Troy, but every last ounce of treasure in every last household in the city, effectively selling out all the Trojans instead of facing death himself. Only after deliberating over these two options does he turn to run.’

But doesn’t that make Hector more of a person, not less of a man? As Sears puts it, ‘Aren’t we all guilty of taking a stand when it’s easy and when we’re among friends, yet balk at the chance to speak out when there might be real repercussions? […] From the gut-wrenching fear and indecision in Hector’s breast, to the plaintive laments of his father, Priam, as he begs his son to come inside the city walls […] the heroes of Greek epic are terrible fodder to use to justify […] toxic masculinity.’

It seems to me that there is a current of fear raising the hackles of many men nowadays. In this age of mirror-speak, many fear not seeing what they expect. What they deserve. Every unwelcome reflection is too easily mistaken as historical revisionism –that the attribution, for example, of the relative lack of contribution of women in history, is related not to its suppression, but rather to its absence. And for many, I fear, that the recording of history has largely been the preserve of men, seems unimportant. Merely an excuse, to delegitimize the world view it wishes to espouse.

So, have I become a modern day Judas, selling out my side, if not for money, then out of weakness? Someone not ‘man’ enough to oppose the feminizing of Western culture, to speak out against political correctness –or worse, who agrees with it? I suppose the answer lies in how the question itself is framed. I do not understand the various gender divides as competitions, or as assignations of unequal resources or restricted abilities. Nor, for that matter, do I see us as equals –of course there are physical differences, different aspirations, different Weltanschauungen- but so what? Everybody is different from everybody else. We are not clones. No one is actually ‘equal’.

I think that the time has come to forget about the ever-changing definitions of equality and rejoice in what makes each of us unique. What we need to espouse is fairness –in every interaction. All the rest is poor translation.