Tuesday, December 3, 2013

“No One Has Blinded Me! No One Is Hurting Me!” Polyphemus Cried, So the Other Cyclopes Went Away -- Popcorn by The Colonel #73

Odysseus didn’t get away with it, though, because of his hubris in telling the injured Polyphemus his (O’s) real name as his men and he were sailing away, dodging Polyphemus's blindly hurled boulders. Imparting this information enabled the Cyclops to pray to his divine father Poseidon for revenge, which prayer Poseidon granted, to Odysseus’s detriment. And yes, the plural of Cyclops is Cyclopes, pronounced sigh-KLOE-peez ( \sī-ˈklō-(ˌ)pēz\). The word means "wheel-eye." It may be that ancient Greeks found mastadon skulls and hypothesized that there were the skulls of one-eyed giants who had lived in an earlier age.

Poseidon's revenge seems unfair, since Polyphemus started the dispute by violating the ancient custom of hospitality (he was eating Odysseus’s men, two for breakfast, two for supper -- how rude, and how quickly it adds up). Didn’t Polyphemus (the name means “much spoken of” or “famous”) deserve to lose an eye, even if it was his only one?

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” may seem barbaric, but when it first got rolling, it was a progressive Hebrew innovation over the idea that status mattered, so if you let your shadow fall on the king, you must die. Under the Hebrew code, the punishment for an eye should be no more than an eye, and for a tooth no more than a tooth. In other words, let the punishment fit the crime and not exceed or fall grossly short. The calculus eventually became monetized, as in, "[the price of] an eye for an eye" and "[the price of] a tooth for a tooth." Modern Worker's Compensation has similarly monetized an eye out, a leg off, and much more.

When William Zantzinger, 24, killed poor Hattie Carroll, 50, with a cane that he hurled from his diamond-ringed finger, he got a six-month sentence, which showed what her life was worth.

Odysseus got home and slaughtered faithful Penelope’s suitors and the unfaithful servant girls who consorted with the suitors. The suitors had violated the laws of hospitality, like Polyphemus, only not by refusing to extend hospitality, but by helping themselves to far too much of it and depleting Odysseus’s crops and flocks with their feasting.

We take it back. They did fail to show hospitality when they abused the ragged beggar that the disguised Odysseus seemed to be.

Did the suitors’ punishment fit their crimes? Did they “get theirs”? To the ancient mind, yes. To insult a king was to beg for death. Paris’s enticement of the Spartan king’s wife Helen to run away with him to Troy cost Paris not only his life, but his city and the lives of his father, mother, brothers, male fellow Trojans, and as many women and children as the Greeks didn’t want as slaves. When a Greek soldier dropped dead Hector’s infant son Astyanax from the high wall of Troy, the splat at the end of the fall was greeted by the cheers of Greek soldiers, because they knew they and their children in Greece wouldn’t have to worry about any descendant of Hector seeking revenge on Greece. (They didn't count on Aeneas.)

The role of the blood feud in ancient times is underrated now. Back then, if your father killed my father, and I didn’t dedicate myself to killing your father and you, the Furies (excuse me, the Kindly Ones) would be after me, all claws and hissing, for failing to do my family duty. I’m not forbidden to like you; I’m only forbidden not to kill you. It wasn’t a big deal; it was just how things were, like the weather.

One imagines Achilles passing a few idle moments before plunging the spear into Hector, King Priam’s son and Troy’s great defender.

HECTOR: Don’t get too puffed up at killing me, Prince Akhilleus. Just as you stand over me, the shadow of death stands over you, and you will not long outlive me. As it is, it took some tricky divine aid for you to bring me down, so don't get a big head.

ACHILLES: Have no fear on that score, Hektor -- do you mind if I call you Hecktor? Heck, under the circumstances, I’m going to call you “Heck.” Anyway, we are all the playthings of the gods. I had my choice between a long, uneventful life, not to be remembered hereafter, and a short, glorious one, after which my name would be remembered forever. I picked the latter, and here I am. Be comforted in the thought that I will in a sense bask in your reflected glory, since my fame will rest in part on killing you. If I’m memorable for killing you, you must be somebody special, right?

HECTOR: You’re starting to float up over my pay grade here, ‘Khil.

ACHILLES: My point, and I do have one (shaking his massy spear a little for humorous effect), is that the choices the gods give us all suck, if you’ll pardon my French (whatever that is). I mean, short life, long life, either way I’ll be dead a lot longer than I’ll be alive, and my name ringing down the corridors of time won’t mean squat to me if I’m a mindless shade in the underworld, waiting for someone to show me the way to the next bucket of blood, oh don't ask why. I’ll tell you right now, Heck, I would rather be the lowest slave in Greece -- even a woman -- for a thousand years than one of those mindless dead for ten minutes.

HECTOR: You seem surprisingly contemplative for a man of action.

ACHILLES: Well, Heck, there are just the three realms: thought, feelings, and action. I haven’t mentioned feelings so far in this little conversation, which is fast becoming a monologue, but feelings are why putting this spear though you will be a pleasure. Let me tell you about Patroclus, whom you killed, thinking him me. I loved him, Heck, and he loved me. I won’t expand on that, because I don’t think you, fine husband of noble Andromache, need to be told what love is. But the thing about Patroclus, he was better than I am in a way I didn't dope out till you offed him. See, I gloried in the losses and sufferings that befell the Greeks while I refrained from battle. They couldn’t die fast enough to suit me, because the more they died like flies, the more I knew I was going to see King Agamemnon crawling on his begging knees to my tent flap. Patroclus wasn’t like that. Oh sure, he wanted  my honor avenged and my reputation enhanced, but I now realize he felt every Greek death as if it were his own. When he asked to borrow my armor to fool you Trojans, I thought it would be a great thing for my reputation if my mere armor won battles. Patroclus pitched it to me that way, but in his heart he cared more about the damned Greeks. He put his life on the line for them, and you killed him.   The death you dealt him is now a perpetual shame upon me, a shadow on my kudos. He’s Mr. Unselfish and I’m Mr. Selfish -- for the ages.  So, long story short you used him to tarnish the glory that was all I got in return for losing long life. Not to put too fine a point on it, hah, hah, hah, you used my best friend as a tool to make my crappy fate even crappier. So now eat bronze and I’ll see you in Hell. (Nasty sound effects and yucky visuals.)

The Spartans were known for having beautiful women. Helen of Troy was previously Helen of Sparta, and one account had her again Helen of Sparta after the Trojan War.

Sparta was a strange place, but its great moment came at Thermopylae when the Three Hundred plugged the pass long enough to insure that there would be a West. Never have so many owed so much to so few, indeed. “Tell them at Sparta we obeyed her laws.” If glory is a kind of afterlife, they live.

And yet we moderns identify with Athens over Sparta. As Margaret Thatcher said so movingly, “Life’s a funny old thing.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Colonel,

Perhaps Aeneas and kind are creeping away even now from our own battered city, to emerge, generations hence, as a new society with a penchant for extra wide streets and lots of sidewalk dining. Or is it futile to search for meaning in our civic mess?

-Querulous Resident