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:

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?

The Tresses of Her Hair of Gold

I wish I could tell for sure, you know. I’m even afraid to compliment my friends on their hair nowadays for fear of getting it wrong –the colour, I mean. I’ve never been very good at colours, though; to me, hair is red, brown, black, or blond… and grey, of course –although I seldom see that except in roots anymore. Words like ‘auburn’, ‘chestnut’, ‘strawberry’, or ‘caramel’ are wasted on me. And, apart from the obvious camouflaging appeal of a foreign word, I confess I’m not sure why a brunette doesn’t just have brown hair.

Be assured that I appreciate the rich palimpsest available today, it’s just that I can never remember the names –or, except in some of the more fluorescent hues, know if it is their cheveux de naissance. And, yes, I share with Longfellow, a delight in the gold of long blond hair: Her cap of velvet could not hold the tresses of her hair of gold, that flowed and floated like the stream, and fell in masses down her neck. But I have to say that for me, at least, beauty has never resided in hair length, or presumed intelligence or desirability in hair colour. All these things are mere adjectives to the noun of personhood.

And yet, I say this as a retired, older man, unplugged from the business world, and I accept that from the other end of the spectrum, things may seem different –perhaps are different, for reasons I no longer have to accept. Take the case of Eileen Carey, a successful 30-some year-old CEO in Silicon Valley who, naturally blond, now wears glasses and brown hair:

‘Carey was told that the investors she was pitching to would feel more comfortable dealing with a brunette, rather than a blonde woman. “I was told for this raise [of funds], that it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown because there was a stronger pattern recognition of brunette women CEOs,” she explains. Pattern recognition is a theory which suggests people look for familiar experiences – or people – which in turn can make them feel more comfortable with the perceived risks they are taking. […] “Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously,” Carey says.

‘”People are more likely to hit on me in a bar if I’m blonde. There’s just that issue in general. “For me to be successful in this [tech industry] space, I’d like to draw as little attention as possible, especially in any sort of sexual way.”’

Forgive me, I don’t wish to appear unduly benighted about this –I’m just trying to understand. Just trying to put it in some sort of context, albeit probably an outmoded one. Is the need to dye one’s hair similar to the need for a man to don a shirt and tie for a successful interview? And would going in blond be like arriving in jeans and sweatshirt? Just how are people –women, in this case- judged? Unless she was auditioning for a waitress job at the Cactus Club, how could the otherwise successful possession of whatever criteria were advertised for the position be invalidated by hair colour? Come on!

Of course, if she freely chooses to dye her hair, and decides she prefers glasses to contacts, then that is a different matter, but it seems suspiciously akin to changing your name on an application form to disguise your nationality –or skin colour… or even sex– just to get through the door, no matter your qualifications.

It reminds me of something that Janice, a family doctor once told me about hiring her secretary. She was just opening her medical practice in a new city and had advertised for a someone to work at the front desk and answer the phone. She wasn’t having much luck, apparently. She’d asked for a résumé from each candidate before their interview, and none of them seemed to invite further consideration, until she received one from a Gerri Coland who, at 27, had apparently been trained as a social worker, and although she’d already worked at it for several years, felt it was time for a change. She still wanted to engage with people and help them whenever possible, she had written, but without needing to take their problems home with her each night. Perfect, Janice thought.

The résumé had arrived via Email, so Janice replied immediately with a request for an interview the next morning, if Gerri could make it. But she didn’t receive a reply, so the next day, Janice phoned the number provided. A very pleasant man answered.

“Hi, this is Dr. Janson,” she said. “Is Gerri there?”

“No… actually Gerri’s at work right now. Can I take a message?”

“Well, she sent in a résumé to my office and I wanted to interview her for the job.”

There was a slight hesitation before he answered. “Well, I’m Gerri’s partner, so I’ll pass the message on. When is the interview?”

“Would nine o’clock tomorrow morning work for her? I know it’s rather short notice, but I’m trying to start up my new practice as soon as possible.”

He chuckled into the phone. “I’m sure tomorrow morning will be fine. Gerri’s only filling in for someone right now…”

The job of a secretary in her office, Janice informed me, would merely be to greet and register the patients, and organize appointments over the phone. But it was an important first impression of the office. So, she needed someone pleasant, understanding, and able to cope with the different attitudes and moods patients often staple to their illnesses.

The next morning, ten minutes early, a smiling young man arrived at the office dressed in grey slacks, and a dark blue sports jacket over a pale blue shirt. Janice assumed Gerri was in the washroom, and smiled at the friendly man who was fairly obviously Gerri’s partner.

He glanced at his watch and stood up to shake her hand. “Sorry we’re a bit early, but my partner thought the traffic might be heavier coming across the bridge…” He glanced around the newly furnished office. “Wow, this is well-designed,” he added, walking up to the front desk after admiring a large Areca palm in an earthenware pot by the window. “I like the way the waiting room is furnished. The comfortable chairs, the pictures on the wall, and the box of toys for kids is so welcoming. So calming.” He allowed his eyes to rest on her face. “Did you design it, Dr. Janson?”

She nodded. I’ve always felt that the last thing a person needs is a sterile, airport-style waiting room when they’re already stressed with whatever problem brought them to the doctor.”

The man nodded in agreement and walked up to examine one of the pictures on the wall. “A Carol Grigg! I’ve seen some of her other work down in Oregon. She’s a Cherokee artist I think, isn’t she…?” But he seemed to be talking more to himself, than Janice.

This was a man who was obviously at ease with new situations, Janice thought, no longer caring, where Gerri was.

Suddenly the man stopped and looked at her. “Look, I’m sorry about this…” He stared down at his feet for a moment, and then rested his eyes on her cheeks as softly as small birds on a branch. “Perhaps there was a little confusion with my résumé… I’m Gerri.”

Janice broke out in a wide, reassuring smile, and touched him gently on the shoulder. “I was hoping you were…”