Sunday, May 2, 2010

AtF: National Rent-An-Epic

So I’m doing something different with AtF this week.  Last week’s critical shortage of beverages of an alcoholic nature has turned in to a complete lack of any beverages of an alcoholic nature.  I can’t work under these conditions.

Well, I can and often do work under these conditions.  I, in fact, make a habit of doing it for at least 40 hours a week.  It’s the “work on After the Flood” part of the conditions that cause problems.  So tonight we’re going to put After the Flood itself on hold and talk about something that neither Bill Cooper nor the writer of Tysilio seems to understand: the National Epic.

Now, the primary difference between the writer of Tysilio and Bill Cooper is this: Bill Cooper doesn’t have a freaking excuse.  I think I mention that bit once a week or so in reference to some random aspect of this stupid book, but it comes up so very often that it seems like something worth mentioning regularly.  Because we in the modern world have the ability to look at a document and say, “Hey, this isn’t actually history.  It looks a lot more like some sort of ahistorical legend.”

Enter the National Epic.  We’ve got two to work with just within the realm of After the Flood, so to keep it simple I think I’ll stick with them.

Let’s start with Homer.  He sure loves his donuts…wait.  Wrong Homer.  We want to see the blind poet guy here.

Homer’s great two-part poem is very much a National Epic of the Hellenistic people.  It sets forward an idea of who the Hellenistic people are, or who they should ideally be.

In the Illiad we primarily see Achilles as the hero.  He knows that if he’s to go to Troy he will die, but his name will be remembered forever.  So he goes, seeking glory and victory.  This is the Greek ideal of arête.  Glory matters above all else.

Achilles is counterpointed by Agamemnon.  The king is craven and cowardly, sending his men forward to die while taking their spoils for himself.  There’s a fantastic bit in Christopher Logue’s War Music where he compares Agamemnon addressing the troops to a modern head of state boarding a helicopter while the press shouts questions that can’t be heard over the rotor wash.

In the Odyssey we see Odysseus as the hero.  He’s constantly faced with terrible dilemmas that can only be overcome with cunning.  Of course we’ve already seen Odysseus’s cunning with the Trojan Horse, but in the Odyssey that cunning is allowed to come fully out.  We also get a notion of the Greek ideal from Penelope, waiting for Odysseus to return while all the suitors line up to gain her hand.  Of course Odysseus has no such prohibition, but, hey…

When Virgil wrote the Aeneid he saw Odysseus in a very different light.  When the Trojans find the Horse drawn up outside their gates the seer admonished all to, “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.”  He was, of course, ignored, and that fatal gift was brought in to the city.

Aeneas escaped the destruction and went on his own wanderings before finding himself in Italy.  Over the course of his epic poem, then, Virgil used Aeneas to set forth the ideals of the Roman citizen.  He also set forth the things that Romans shouldn’t be.  Strong and forthright were in.  Scheming liar, not so much.[1]

Either way, Virgil’s poem wasn’t about the founding of Rome any more than Homer’s poem was about the actual destruction of Troy.  I suppose we have no real way of knowing if either poet actually believed that he was telling an actually historically accurate story, but I strongly suspect that historical accuracy wasn’t the goal of either poet, either.  They were more concerned with the now than the then when they put their works together.

As such, evaluating the historical accuracy of any of the three works is folly.  We know Rome existed.  We also know that Mycenae and Troy existed.  But beyond that the stories don’t actually make much sense.

The Trojan War as told by Homer took place some time around the 12th Century BCE.  We know that we can say there might have been a germ of historical truth in this because we know when Mycenae existed.  We also know when the successive periods of Troy started and ended.  And because we know this, we can know a few other things.  So let's talk about religion.

In Homer’s epic the classical Greek gods participated in the fight on both sides.  Both sides also seemed to recognize the supremacy of these Greek gods, with Apollo apparently quite active on the Trojan side.  Unfortunately for anyone who wants to believe such things, there’s pretty much no way the Trojans could have been followers of the Greek pantheon.  If anything, they probably followed some form of Hittite religion, as Troy was a part of the greater Hittite Empire for quite some time.[2]

The other issue at hand, though, is that the Mycenaeans didn’t follow the Hellenistic pantheon, either.  They probably had some mixture of Egyptian, Minoan, and old-school Indo-European polytheism.  This may well have been the start of the traditional Greek pantheon, but it wasn’t set in the way Homer’s epic would seem to indicate it was during Mycenaean times.

Again, though, it doesn’t matter.  We’re not meant to see Homer’s poem as history.  It’s not so hard a concept to conceive of, either.  We do it all the time.  Think of how many times New York or Los Angeles or Tokyo have been utterly destroyed by space aliens or earthquakes or giant rubber monsters in the movies.  We are storytellers by nature.  But we still want to have those stories we tell rooted in something familiar, something identifiable.  It’s much easier to say, “It takes place in New York,” and have everyone get what that means than to have to invent a whole new fictional city for every stupid movie that needs a city to destroy.

The biggest problem we have when looking in to the past is we seem to think that the ancients didn’t get that.  It’s like we think they were credulous morons who didn’t get the difference between reality and fiction.  Well, I’ve got news for you.  The Greeks basically invented the theater.  The very first thing written down when written language became sophisticated enough to record abstract concepts was a poem.  People got fiction.  Especially the Greeks.

When Virgil wrote the Aeneid he was probably aware of the fact that there was no Aeneas, or at least not an Aeneas who escaped from the sack of Troy only to end up wandering the Mediterranean.  He also probably didn’t care.  It made for a good story.  But, again, we have no way of knowing if he actually believed his own press.  Still, I consider Virgil to be a likely candidate for being in on the joke.

As we progress farther afield from that, however, it’s harder to tell.  Snorri Sturluson had a bunch of Trojans becoming the great Norse heroes, then being elevated to the status of gods in the Prose Edda.  Then, of course, there’s Tysilio.

The biggest problem with Tysilio (and, therefore, Nennius and Geoffrey) is that Brutus of Troy doesn’t appear anywhere else.  I’m not just talking about history, either.  He’s not in any poem or play anywhere outside of that narrow, parochial British tradition where Cooper found him.  So I cannot comment on where the Tysilio account would have come from.

In fact, it may well have been invented whole-cloth by the Brits themselves.  I’d even say it’s exceedingly likely that something like that happened.

Tysilio, after all, functions as a National Epic.  Brutus takes on the role of Aeneas, or Odysseus, or Achilles.  But unlike those poems, Tysilio attempts to tell the rest of the story.  It is this confusion that seems to have lead Flinders Petrie and Bill Cooper astray.

Well, either that or they wanted to believe it badly enough that they didn’t really think about the implications too much.  We can’t rule that out with Petrie.  And we pretty much have to assume it’s the case for Cooper.

Really, though, this is what must be expected from someone who believes the Bible is completely accurate history.  According to the Bible the entire world flooded right in the middle of the Egyptian Old Kingdom and some of the earliest of the powerful Mesopotamian city-states.  And please, please don’t get me started on the Bible’s idea of Archaemenid succession again.  It won’t be pretty.[3]


[1]Um, in the interests of full disclosure, I have not so much read the Aeneid.  I actually have a really nice copy of it that’s been sitting around for a couple of years and is probably somewhere among the as-yet unpacked boxes of books in my second bedroom.  I know the Illiad and the Odyssey far better, having read both.  Also, I saw Troy.  Wow, what a terrible movie.

[2]The Hittites, for the record, are a fascinating group that I know basically nothing about.  Considering that they were basically one of the first two superpowers in the world, though, they’re impressive.  Also, the first two wars and peace treaties between groups that could be considered nations were between the Hittites and the Egyptians.  That’s something, right?

[3]I had an interesting conversation over at Ken Pulliam’s blog last week.  The original post was about presuppositionalism v. appealing to evidence in Evangelical apologetics.  One of the more recent regular commenters, who at one point claimed to have a degree from Bob Jones popped in immediately and claimed that evidence leads to reasonable faith.  He then followed it up by claiming that the evidence further weakens non-belief.  I tossed my Persian succession argument against the idea that the Bible is an accurate historical record, just to see what the response would be.  He ignored me, preferring instead to accuse BeamStalk of not being willing to look at the evidence with open eyes or some other such silliness.  Eventually he came at me with this:


The Bible has been tested historically and archeologically thru the ages. It has always come out unscathed. There are stories from 18th cent that only now are proved, in 1990 Caiphus discovered....

I would say to you that altho you doubted, you should not stop looking. Although you are smart in history, there are some who are more knowledgeable who have come to a different conclusion. They too would've observed the errors you mention and would have 'disproved' the Bible.

For the record, I absolutely love it when people get all condescending when they’re telling me that the Bible is an infallibly accurate historical document.  It just makes my day.  Especially when I then get to go right back to the Cliffs Notes version of how the Bible actually contains three different accounts of Persian succession, none of which are actually right.  And then I get to point out that, “There are stories from the 18th cent that only now are proved,” isn’t actually an argument.  Or a complete thought.  Or a particularly useful clause.

The lesson, as always, is, “Don’t be smarmy and condescending in the presence of people who know more than you.”  We really enjoy it when we get to return the favor.  With interest.

[4]It’s Geds.  GEDS.  Why is it that everyone seems to drop the “s?”


Michael Mock said...

"The biggest problem we have when looking in to the past is we seem to think that the ancients didn’t get that. It’s like we think they were credulous morons who didn’t get the difference between reality and fiction."

The other one I run into is the unspoken assumption that the ancients had no concept of snark or sarcasm. Everything they wrote must have been the literal truth as they understood it. (Plato is the example that immediately springs to mind, but I stumbled over it myself the first time I read Lord Byron's Don Juan.)

I may be mixing up my classical literature, but I have this memory that the Aeneid is a bit more subversive than the Iliad or the Odyssey. In particular, there's a bit where they descend to the underworld, then go forth to found Rome - but when they leave the underworld, they exit through the gate of false dreams. There's also a scene where they pass the site of one of Hercules' victories - the big guy had ripped open the face of a cliff with his bare hands or somesuch - which seems to reflect Aeneas as... well, more civilized, perhaps, but definitely less heroic.

Assuming that I *am* remembering that correctly, it's fair bet that Virgil was both writing a national epic, and directing some critical irony at precisely that sort of story.

Fake Al Gore said...

It's sharing time. I found this while browsing Reddit today:

It seems like something this audience would enjoy.

Geds said...


You are correct, at least about the Gate of False Dreams bit. You might also be right about the Hercules thing, but, like I said, I haven't actually read the Aeneid myself.

The idea that Virgil intended to be subversive with the whole thing is entirely possible. Although if there was an attempt to compare Aeneas with Hercules, remember that Hercules' defining fault was his sometimes uncontrollable rage. That's why he had to do his twelve labors. So, really, the idea of saying, "We'll take less strength but more civility," isn't such a bad thing. And it turned out pretty well for the Romans.

Fake Al Gore:

That right there is a long blog post. I'll have to look at it when I've got a bit more time.

Rhino of Steel said...

That cliff, by the by, is the pillars or gates of Hercules, a.k.a. Gibraltar.

There are definitely elements that make the Aeneid seem subversive, especially when you see how unheroic Aeneas is for most of the story prior to landing in Italy. The only real exception before that is his failed defencive actions in Troy. His actions in Carthage really highlight this but I think Virgil did that on purpose. It let him set up Aeneas as following his duty even though he didn't want to.

Virgil was far more focused on laying out what it meant to be a true Roman though and used Greeks and others as contrasts. Like Neoptolemus showing no respect to the gods by killing those who sought sanctuary or Dido being a clear stand in for Cleopatra who tempts the Roman stand in, Aeneas, with her Eastern ways.

If you really want the subversive author of that time, though, look to Ovid. The Metamorphoses in particular are hard on Apollo whom Augustus identified with. I'm just surprised it was his book on adultery that got him exiled rather than that one.

I hope your copy of the Aeneid doesn't rhyme. It really is quite good but some of the translators tried to put in a rhyming scheme that makes the whole thing sound ridiculous.

Chris said...

[4]It’s Geds. GEDS. Why is it that everyone seems to drop the “s?”

They're all obsessive LeGuin fans?

Michael Mock said...

Thanks, Rhino of Steel. I was feeling a bit bad about not remembering the details... and then I realized that the last time I read the Aeneid was nearly fifteen years ago. (And yes, I'm pretty sure we were using the non-rhymed version.)

So now I can feel a bit bad about getting old, instead.

Janet said...

And I can feel bad about messing up Geds's name, 'cause I know I've done it at least once. Everyone is so used to an 's' being the result of a plural or a possessive that we often disregard the ones that are there by birthright. There's an older (60-something) woman I'm helping learn to read right now, and she has a wanton disregard for such things. She will miss an 's' that is there, and put one there that is not.

Geds said...


Meh. It doesn't really make me mad. I've just noticed that it seems to happen a lot lately. It's quite odd, really.