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Beside the tumbling sea December 8, 2008

Posted by Jenny in Ancient Greece, classical studies, Homer, literature.
Tags: , ,

800px-ocean_waves/photo by Sean O'Flaherty This post follows from my earlier one, Wild animals of the Iliad.

The Trojan War had already been going on for ten years, with its ebbings and flowings, its brutal assaults and exhausted retreats, its whimsical interventions by meddlesome gods, when arrogant Agamemnon provoked the wrath of Achilles.  And so the Iliad begins its story:

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,

that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss

and crowded brave souls into the undergloom…”

And so came dark days for the Greeks.  This episode of the war was triggered by the capture of a girl who was claimed as booty by Agamemnon.  Her father, an elderly priest named Kryseis, came down to the Greek ships carrying ransom for his daughter, saying, “O captains / Menelaos and Agamemnon, and you other /Akhaians under arms! / The gods who hold Olympos, may they grant you / plunder of Priam’s town and a fair wind home,  / but let me have my daughter back for ransom / as you revere Apollo, son of Zeus!”  And Agamemnon’s comrades said to him, “Behave well to the priest.  Take the ransom!”

But Agamemnon harshly orders the priest away: “Let me not find you here by the long ships / loitering this time or returning later, / old man;  if I do, / the staff and ribbons of the god will fail you. / Give up the girl?  I swear she will grow old / at home in Argos, far from her own country, / working my loom and visiting my bed.”

And the priest turns and walks away.  “…The old man feared and obeyed him, / in silence trailing away / by the shore of the tumbling clamorous whispering sea…”

In those three words—“tumbling clamorous whispering”—the minds of the poet and the translator have perfectly fused.   The Greek is all in a galloping three-beat rhythm, while the English has gone from two beats to three beats just for those words, just so that we can see the waves tumbling on the shore.  Since they are waves created by Homer, they carry one of his epithets, “poluphloisboio,” translated flatly in the Greek-English lexicon as “loud-roaring,” translated by Robert Fitzgerald as “clamorous.”   The “tumbling” comes from “para thina,” which means  “the heaping of sand on the beach.”  The waves tumble, then whisper with the hiss of the foam as the water slides back.

And so the grieving priest walks back beside those living, murmuring waves, and the gods hear his words, and they become angry.  And when Phoibos Apollo  gets angry, terrible things are about to happen to mortals….




1. Gary Howell - December 19, 2008

amazing this Greek poetry still works 2500 years later ..
(even if it just looks to me like a bunch of math symbols .. but
the Pythagorean theorem still works too )

2. Tom - September 19, 2009

I enjoyed your careful and insightful reading of this passage.

Of the two books, the Iliad and Odyssey, however, I have always felt that the Iliad was for young people, but the Odyssey for adults. I do not think anyone under 40 could even begin to understand the Odyssey. The Iliad tells of young men competing to obtain recognition, sex, never-ending glory. The Odyssey is about a war-seasoned man who realizes the value of home.

In his struggle to return home, Odysseus gives up immortality with the demanding (yes, demanding in that manner) teenage goddess who becomes a virgin every dawn; and life with the sexy witch who turns lesser men into swine but who he is able to tame (yes, in that manner); and the young princess who presents the chance to marry into wealth and social prestige.

Stripped literally down to his naked self, armed with only his “skill in contending,” Odysseus struggles to get back to his loyal and sly wife, the house he built, the son he does not know.

Hey, it’s about a mid-life crisis! (Maybe my reading tells more about me than about Homer’s poem).

The English poet, Samuel Butler, insisted that the Odyssey could not have been written by a man; it must have been written by a woman. And, of course, the great Irish writer James Joyce used the Odyssey as his blueprint for Ulysses: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes…”

I do not have Greek, but I always wanted to read in the original Book V, around line 220, when Odysseus at the beginning of his long journey home, says something like:

What hardship
have I not endured
in shipwreck or in battle?
Let the trial come.

It strike me as a very adult approach to life – and to off-trail hiking!

3. Jenny - September 19, 2009

Tom, I found your interpretation of the Odyssey to be very interesting. I agree with some of what you say, but I don’t think the “mid-life crisis” model fits. I don’t believe Odysseus was a man who temporarily forgot the value of home and wife and then returned to that value. I see him as a man who never wanted to leave home in the first place, who fought for years in a war, and then struggled to return to home and wife, though he did experience some distractions along the way…

I had to look it up because I wasn’t sure, but there is a story about how he feigned insanity to avoid going off to the Trojan War. His ruse was unsuccessful, and then he was off to fight in the war, becoming one of the most valuable soldiers of the Acheans.

I see him as a man with a powerful sense of duty—a concept very unpopular in the 21st century. Once he realized he would have to fight in Troy, he did all that he could in support of his cause, using all his wiliness to succeed in his exploits. And then once he had fulfilled that duty, he struggled to get back home.

As the first line of the Odyssey says, he was a man who “wandered far and suffered many sorrows.” I’ve always found that line very compelling, and I’m not sure why. But that of course is one of the reasons the classics are great, that we can read our personal meanings into them.

4. Tom - September 20, 2009

You are probably right that my reading is too personal to be accurate. But before I give up, I would like you to consider the following.

When Odysseus leaves Troy, in the first year of his journey home (which will take twenty years), the first thing he does is sack a small town: “We killed the men and took the women….” (Book 9, line 45). He is still in the “heroic” mold.

Fast-forward nineteen years. After “wandering far and suffering many sorrows,” he is almost home. As an unnamed guest in a banquet hall, he hears a bard sing the praise of the great Odysseus for his role in the Greek victory over Troy. Odysseus does not stand up and boast. He does not wipe away a dignified tear for gefallen Kameraden. Instead, he bursts into uncontrollable sobs.

He cries, as the poet says in one of those long Homeric similes, like the women of Troy cried when he kidnapped them into slavery:

as a woman weeps, her arms flung around her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
she clings for dear life, screams and shrills—
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain
and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks.
So from Odysseus’s’ eyes ran tears of heartbreak now.

(Book 8, line 590-). The use of this simile at this point cannot be a coincidence. I submit it was intended to show that young man hounding after glory at the beginning had become someone very different at the end. Odysseus is no longer focused on the fame of the warriors, but the suffering of the women and children.

He has become wise the old fashioned way – through heartbreak. Odysseus is more fierce and dangerous than ever, if anything more so (think of the fate of the one hundred young suitors at the end). He will kill anyone or anything that threatens his family or home. But he is done chasing glory.

If you accept this reading, which may well be wrong, it suggests an interesting sensibility speaking to us from the year 600 B.C.

5. Jenny - September 20, 2009

So–we have a real discussion going!

I didn’t actually say that I disagreed with your reading because it was too personal. I said that I didn’t feel that the “mid-life crisis” model was the right one for Odysseus. Whether that model is something that has personal meaning for you is a different question.

You raise a lot of points that could be developed further. What is kind of funny is that you seem to be picking up on the more feminine aspects of the character of Odysseus, and I am homing in on the more masculine ones. Basically, I see his character as being more constant over the whole period of the Trojan War and his return to Ithaca. I don’t see him as having been a big seeker of glory—that is more the character of Achilles—but as a skilled and cunning warrior through the whole time. I see his tears not as reflecting a change of character but as the sincere tears of grief shed by a brave soldier, tears that flow copiously because of all of the loss and suffering that he has seen.

I would also point out that the person who is described in one of those extended similes is not necessarily thinking of the theme of the simile himself. For instance, Ajax, who was “like a dun lion” in the simile I described in my “Wild Animals of the Iliad” post, is not thinking about lions as he fights in battle.

And though you didn’t say this exactly, I also think today’s readers are often tempted to apply a post-Vietnam mindset to Odysseus, one that sees war as lacking purpose or meaning. I don’t think he saw it that way, even though he was sensitive to its tragedies.

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