After many starts and stops, I finally finished reading The Iliad. The middle was slow going for a while but the very end had me absolutely hooked. Because what it all leads up to is an expression of human grief that we may or may not be able to understand today.
I am still somewhat disturbed by one event — the taking and slaughtering of the twelve Trojan children, sacrificed on Patroclus’ funeral pyre along with “many sturdy sheep and shambling twist-horned cattle”, “four strong-necked horses” (!), and two of the deceased’s pet dogs.
Achilles had these young Trojans rounded up out of the river in advance, “brought them out on to the bank, stupefied with fear like fawns, and tied their hands behind them with their own belts”, for the express purpose of later sacrifice. I can’t say exactly why these particular victims of the war disturb me and stick in my mind as much as they do, after several hundred pages of battle and slaughter and death, but they do.
So now on to the Odyssey. Except, now I learn that there are a few works that fall in between, namely the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Sack of Troy and the Nostoi, all of which exist only in fragments and later summaries. I am being pulled, slowly, into the ancient Greek epics, a place I thought I’d never have any interest in visiting, despite all those operas with plots taken from Antiquity.
The descriptions at Wikipedia tell me that if the deaths of the twelve young Trojans got to me, I’m in for it when I get to the sack of Troy.
Was there an historical Troy? Research and archaeological finds on the Turkish coast imply that there was, although there is dispute over the matter of whether the site currently known as “Troy” is the real thing. The epics may be loosely based on some factual events. An interesting bit from the introduction of the Richmond Lattimore “Odyssey” notes that the “story of the raid on Egypt…reads like an account of one of the great raids by the Peoples of the Sea, attested in the annals of Egypt, but told from the invaders’ point of view.”
Information on the excavations at Troy can be found here. (en & de)
And while we’re on the subject of Mediterranean-area digs by German archaeologists, National Geographic has a very good article about the most ancient Temple site at Göbekli Tepe, which is making historians rethink the whole premise of how civilization, as we know it, began.
Addendum: Echidne has a theory on what all that business with “the face that launched a thousand ships might really have been about.