August 06, 2008


The rage of Achilles was the subject of The Iliad, an epic of kleos. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Aside from links and (occasionally snide) comments about current events, theme here lately is Homer's classic epic poem The Odyssey. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the bard Homer, are the only two surviving epics about the Trojan War, a major theme of ancient Greek literature and legend. Most historians think that there really was a war between some Greeks and a city in Asia Minor (now Turkey) sometime around 1250 BC, although Homer's epics probably date from much later, probably the 8th century BC.

For that matter, nobody knows who Homer really was or whether the epics should be seen as the collective creation of generations of bards rather than a single individual, although many people incline to the latter view. One semi-serious joke says that the Iliad and Odyssey weren't written by Homer but by someone else with the same name.

Whatever can be said of all that, the Iliad and the Odyssey are two very different kinds of epics. The Iliad, which tells the story of the wrath of Achilles in the last year or so of the war, has been called an epic of kleos or the attempt to gain glory through valor in combat. The Odyssey is an epic of nostos or homecoming.

A word about both:

Kleos is often translated as glory, but it means more than that. Homer's characters had a pessimistic view of life after death. People in the underworld were shades of their former selves--jibbering bats, as one passage puts it. The only meaningful kind of immortality was to live and die in such a way as to be remembered in song and story after one's death. That was kleos.

Achilles in the Iliad is the perfect example of a hero motivated by kleos. He is given a choice between a long and peaceful but unremembered life or early death but lasting glory as a warrior. He chose the latter (although his ghost in the Odyssey regrets that decision).

Nostos (sorry for my horrible efforts at Greek) means homecoming, as in how a veteran of the Trojan War tries with or without success to go home and reintegrate into a peaceful community. It's about going from a state of war to a state of peace--if you're lucky. (Methinks it's also related to the word nostalgia.)

One of the challenges Odysseus faces in his homecoming is leaving kleos and the overwhelming desire for it behind.

But as many veterans and others have found, sometimes surviving war or other ordeals is sometimes less difficult than the homecoming. Many never quite make it home, whether home is considered literally or metaphorically. More on that tomorrow.

BOTTLE BATTLE. The movement against the environmental impact of and waste created by plastic water bottles is growing.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT. A former white supremacist who broke with his past spoke in Charleston last night.

THE NOSE KNOWS all kinds of things. It helps you feel them too.

AW, HELL! Fewer Americans believe in it.


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