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?

This thing of darkness

I’m starting to wonder if I was misled during those halcyon days on my father’s knee. It was a time when heroes and villains were easily recognizable -like the white and black hats on the cowboys in the movies that were in vogue then. Apparently, I needed to know who to root for when I was a child -life was a battle between good and evil, God and the Devil. I thought that maybe all stories were supposed to be like that in one way or another -that, in fact, perhaps without that tension, there would be no story worth listening to -nothing and nobody to cheer for. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I suppose it’s natural to assume that the early patterns learned are special -sacrosanct, even- when you are a child. Deviations are regarded with suspicion. Doubt. And even now, I usually expect there to be recognizable traits in the characters, and a direction of the storyline that helps me to pick out which side to pull for. So maybe it has been that way from the time stories were first told -the one inviolable rule to keep an audience attentive. In a chaotic world, people must have longed for order, justice -something to hope for, if only in the imaginary tales told in the flickering firelight as eyes watched hungrily from the forest. The eventual triumph of good over evil -surely that’s the purpose of a good story…

But it seems that in the glimmer of recent historical analysis, that’s not how it used to be. I came across a fascinating essay by Catherine Nichols which suggests that the Ancients did not see it quite like that: https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil

Entitled The good guy/bad guy myth, she writes that ‘In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

‘Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.’

That’s interesting, don’t you think? Although I suspect the final verdict is not yet in, we have -all of us- been guilty of inadvertent historical revisionism: we have felt the need to interpret stories as having morals, unaware of the ‘historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values.’ In other words, we are judging, or appending qualities, that originally may not have been intended.

‘The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.’

‘In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’’

But now that I am in my autumn years, and have had time to reflect on these things, I think that Nichols only partially captures what’s really going on: although the revised stories incorporate values that have shaped (or been shaped by) society as a whole, they also encompass a whole range of feelings from my childhood, that I am rather loathe to abandon. Her analysis seems a bit too reductionist for me.

I suppose I am a product of my era, a result of its prevailing zeitgeist, and yet when I was a child, I think I wanted to believe, not so much in the continuing battle of Good with Evil (whatever either of those concepts mean), but more in the hope of an acceptable ending to the story. So, for me, the success of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example, didn’t hinge on a moral dichotomy -a Life-lesson. It’s a story that doesn’t really need that kind of tension. A child doesn’t impute evil to Goldilocks for eating Baby Bear’s porridge -okay, I didn’t, anyway. It left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and I don’t think I learned a lesson from it -I was entertained. I was fascinated. I was just a child sitting on a lap wanting to hear my father’s reassuring voice. Surely you have to have some stories that don’t teach you anything, except how to smile…

Gynicles

I’m not sure why I’m so much against what are now politely referred to as listicles. Maybe they’re too much like sound-bites and too little like enjoyable prose; maybe it’s because if I gloss over the word quickly, it always looks like testicles

I have nothing against lists –pithy reminders of what I need to buy at the grocery store, or as memory aides if I have to do some task in a particular order- but I object to having information sufficiently divorced from its source that it seems already chewed and partially digested –a dictionary substituting one word for another with little or no background. As nourishing as junk food.

It seems to me that information, to be reliable, must have depth. Context. Credentials. And to be believable, it needs substantiation –evidence to support its content, and proof that it wasn’t just made up to fill the final position on the list.

I’m sure that lists have been around since writing began –before maybe- but they were seldom confused with substantive writing. A possible exception might be Homer’s detailed catalogue of ships in the Iliad… but my attention was drawn to this by reading it in a listicle: https://timeline.com/stories/list-of-listlces-hammurabi-luther-homer -so I’m not contending that they are completely without value. And yet, if I were to want to pursue it further –lecture about it, for example- this ‘facticle’ would only deserve a Powerpoint asterix as a reminder to elaborate further on the topic and prove my contention that Homer did indeed say that, and that he meant it as literature (or not…). On its own and unexplained, it could qualify as a rumour, a joke, or even a mistake.

David Leonhardt in the New York Times, attempted to defend the listicle as a more efficient way to convey information –referring to a listicle by Aaron Carroll titled simple rules for healthy eating As Leonhardt put it, ‘…it was a better, more useful piece than it would have been as a 1,000-word essay or news article.’ http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/25/upshot/in-defense-of-the-listicle.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=1

Perhaps, but listicles can also be excuses for lazy, slovenly researched journalism. Unfortunately, the ones my patients have been quoting to me, or bringing in on their tablets for me to read, do little to bolster my confidence in what is out there.

The one I remember the best, perhaps, was from the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/02/02/university-of-vagina-lessons_n_6591506.html and delivered to me from Lucy like a bible…

Lucy was an occasional patient of mine who seemed prone to recurrent vaginal problems of one sort or another. Forty-five years old, or so, she was entering the time of her life when her hormones were beginning to misbehave and she seemed to blame it all on her vagina. It hurt one time; it itched on another; sometimes too small, the next too large, I was always on tenterhooks with each of her visits as to what else could go wrong. On the most recent visit, however, she informed me that it even bothered her husband… It was almost like a poorly trained, but as yet unnamed, pet.

I saw her in the waiting room clutching an electronic tablet –not reading it, merely clutching it, readying it for me to see. I took a surreptitious deep breath before I crossed the room to greet her. She usually relied on Google or Wikipedia for her diagnosis and presented it to me as a fait accompli. Incontrovertible evidence to support the fact that others, too, suffered from similar problems but only received adequate diagnoses and helpful remedies after multiple visits to multiple doctors led them to experiment with alternative strategies: alternative healers using esoteric knowledge of plants and energy fields.

When she finally made it into my office after fiddling with the tablet while walking down the corridor and bumping into things on the way, she looked at me with a satisfied but condescending expression on her face. And before I could even ask her how she was, “I found an article online that was very helpful,” she said, unable to contain her enthusiasm for the discovery any longer. She held the tablet to her breast so I couldn’t spoil her surprise. “Superficially, it seems quite humourous, but the insights in it are…” she launched her eyes at the ceiling for a moment as she rummaged around for the best word to describe it. “Well, they’re profound!”

I could almost see the italicization; I could certainly hear the exclamation mark. She was preparing me for something, I could tell. I steeled myself for some testimonial from a vaginal victim who had finally discovered a cure somewhere unexpected.

“Now I want you to read this carefully, doctor,” she said as she loosened the tablet from her abdomen where it had taken up residence after sliding from her bosom. “Read between the lines…” She knifed me with her eyes and left them there, pinning me to my seat, for emphasis. She was taking no chances.

The first thing that grabbed me was the picture of the perineum as the gateway to a university building and I have to admit I chuckled. Softly, though. Respectfully. The problem came when I was expected to appreciate some of the wisdom. I really couldn’t decide what she felt was profound and valuable information. I have to admit that a louder and unmistakeably improprietous laugh escaped at the ‘sword holder’ part at the end.

She immediately snatched the tablet back from me and nestled it safely on her lap. She did not appreciate my levity and seeming inability to extract the kernels of wisdom however cleverly disguised. In fact, her look was one I remember from my teacher in grade school whenever I made one of those rude noises with a hand in my axilla. I was about to be expelled as a healer if I didn’t think of something to assuage the insult.

“It’s a very…” -I, too, had to hunt for a word- “..clever article, isn’t it?” I said with due humility at my gaff. “Which point did you find the most valuable, Lucy?” I certainly wasn’t going to commit myself.

She took a slow, unnecessarily noisy breath, and sat up as straight as a ruler on the hard wooden chair. “Well,” she finally deigned to answer, all the time thrashing me with her eyes as if she shouldn’t really give me another chance, “I’m torn between learning the number of orgasms it is capable of –I mean, who would have thought…?” She blinked in a brave attempt to get back to her original line of reasoning. “And the bacteria thing. Maybe that’s where mine goes wrong –it never seems very clean…” She paused for a little self reflection before finally deciding on the most influential point she took from the listicle. “But I suppose if I had to choose…” –she didn’t really. I was just curious- “If I had to choose,” she repeated herself, as if her credibility depended on it. “I think I’d go for the self-cleaning aspect. But I mean if it really is self cleaning like they say, then why are there still bacteria in there, for goodness sakes?” She shook her head and shrugged as if she’d finally discovered what had been wrong with her all these years. “The self-cleaner must break down a lot in others, too, or they wouldn’t have mentioned the bacteria…” She hit me with her eyes again, but this time more softly.

“Anyway, I solved the problem with a nightly vinegar douche .” I smiled, relieved at the news. “But my husband won’t go near me now.” For some reason a tiny trace of a smile raced across her lips and disappeared into her makeup.

I knew there had to be something. “And why’s that, Lucy?”

“Says it hurts.” She shook her head as someone used to the bludgeonings of Chance. “There’s always something, isn’t there..?” she said, accepting her fate with another shrug.