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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: homer

The Cretan Epic Poem in World War II

Bernard Knox, in writing about Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus, tells the amazing story of James Notopoulos, who got to witness the oral tradition in action in 1953 in Crete.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Evans had built for himself during the excavations. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the Villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

Nine years after these events, this is how the bard rendered them. Differences between the real story and the bard’s song are in brackets; there are a lot of them.

An order comes from British and American headquarters in Cairo to capture General Kreipe, dead or alive; the motive is revenge for his cruelty to the Cretans. A Cretan partisan, Lefteris Tambakis [not one of the actual guerrilla band] appears before the English general [Fermor and Moss are combined into one and elevated in rank] and volunteers for the dangerous mission. The general reads the order and the hero accepts the mission for the honor of Cretan arms. The hero goes to Heraklion, where he hears that a beautiful Cretan girl is the secretary of General Kreipe.

In disguise the partisan proceeds to her house and in her absence reads the [English] general’s order to her mother. When the girl returns he again reads the general’s order. Telling her the honor of Crete depends on her, he catalogues the German cruelties. If she would help in the mission, her name would become immortal in Cretan history. The girl consents and asks for three days time in which to perform her role. To achieve Cretan honor she sacrifices her woman’s honor with General Kreipe in the role of a spy. She gives the hero General Kreipe’s plans for the next day.

Our hero then goes to Knossos to meet the guerrillas and the English general. ‘Yiassou general,’ he says. ‘I will perform the mission.’ The guerrillas go to Arkhanes to get a long car with which to blockade the road. Our hero, mounted on a horse by the side of the blockading car, awaits the car of Kaiseri [that is what the bard calls Kreipe]. The English general orders the pistols to be ready. When Kreipe’s car slows down at the turn he is attacked by the guerrillas. Kreipe is stripped of his uniform [only his cap in the actual event] and begs for mercy for the sake of his children [a stock motif in Cretan poetry].

After the capture the frantic Germans begin to hunt with dogs [airplanes in the actual event]. The guerrillas start on the trek to Mount Ida and by stages the party reaches the district of Sfakia [the home of the singer and his audience; actually the general left the island southwest of Mount Ida]. The guards have to protect the general from the mob of enraged Sfakians. Soon the British submarine arrives and takes the general to Egypt. Our bard concludes the poem with a traditional epilogue—that never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done. He then gives his name, his village, his service to his country.

This is a fantastic example of how memory and history can work in the absence of written records. (Walter Ong’s over-general and overrated Orality and Literacy makes no mention of it.) Imagine playing Telephone with the history of your people. In brief, here are some of the key modifications:

  1. Fabrication of national hero as protagonist.
  2. Fabrication of romantic foil as plot contrivance.
  3. Elevation of core value of national honor to main motivator of hero and girl.
  4. Pledges of allegiance to family, love, other traditional values on behalf of hero, girl, and villain (universalization of these values).
  5. Additional humiliation of villain.

In other words, the changes built up the Cretan people and the esteem of the hero. The story was grafted onto readymade forms and tropes.

Not that this is in any way disparaging. These mechanisms kick in when facts get lost, mutated, or are otherwise unavailable. It applies to history as it is written today. As the ever-grouchy Christopher Tyerman said when reviewing a few recent books about the poorly documented Crusades:

[The authors] paint landscapes, imagine thoughts, display cultural stereotypes and reduce intricate historical forces to the experience of individuals. Each creates characters to inhabit swashbuckling narratives. [Their views], while accurate and up to date, are as much those of the 1950s and the age of Hollywood as of the twenty-first century and the digital age.

Thersites, the Iliad, and Not Knowing Your Place

The scene with Thersites in Book II of the Iliad is one of the most famous in the whole epic, and with good reason. Not only is it very peculiar, but it also gives voice to what any young person reading the Iliad for the first time must be thinking: why on earth are all these people getting killed for Menelaus just because someone stole his wife?

Thersites more or less asks what the point of the whole Trojan War is and gets beaten and humiliated for his trouble. Here is the scene, abridged a bit, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

But [Thersites], crying the words aloud, scolded Agamemnon:
‘Son of Atreus, what thing further do you want, or find fault with
now? Your shelters are filled with bronze, there are plenty of the choicest
women for you within your shelter, whom we Achaians
give to you first of all whenever we capture some stronghold.
Or is it still more gold you will be wanting, that some son
of the Trojans, breakers of horses, brings as ransom out of Ilion,
one that I, or some other Achaian, capture and bring in?…
My good fools, poor abuses, you women, not men, of Achaia,
let us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here
by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour
that he may find out whether or not we others are helping him.
And now he has dishonoured Achilleus, a man much better
than he is. He has taken his prize by force and keeps her….’

So he spoke, Thersites, abusing Agamemnon
the shepherd of the people. But brilliant Odysseus swiftly
came beside him scowling and laid a harsh word upon him:
‘Fluent orator though you be, Thersites, your words are
ill-considered. Stop, nor stand up alone against princes.
Out of all those who came beneath Ilion with Atreides
I assert there is no worse man than you are. Therefore
you shall not lift up your mouth to argue with princes,
cast reproaches into their teeth, nor sustain the homegoing….’

So he spoke and dashed the sceptre against his back and
shoulders, and he doubled over, and a round tear dropped from him,
and a bloody welt stood up between his shoulders under
the golden sceptre’s stroke, and he sat down again, frightened,
in pain, and looking helplessly about wiped off the tear-drops.
Sorry though the men were they laughed over him happily,
and thus they would speak to each other, each looking at the man next him:
‘Come now: Odysseus has done excellent things by thousands,
bringing forward good counsels and ordering armed encounters;
but now this is far the best thing he ever has accomplished
among the Argives, to keep this thrower of words, this braggart
out of assembly. Never again will his proud heart stir him
up, to wrangle with the princes in words of revilement.’

So spoke the multitude….

Moses Finley, in his powerful little book The World of Odysseus, says:

Those final words, “so spoke the multitude,” protest too much. It is as if the poet himself felt that he had overdrawn the contrast. [Homer says that] even the commoners among the Hellenes stood aghast at Thersites’ defective sense of fitness, and though they pitied him as one of their own, they concurred with full heart in the rebuke administered by Odysseus and in the methods he employed. “This is by far the best thing he has done among the Argives” indeed, for Thersites had gnawed at the foundations on which the world of Odysseus was erected.

And indeed, it’s pushing it to have the other commoners praise Odysseus and ridicule one of their own. Another odd note is sounded by having it be Odysseus, easily the slimiest of the aristocratic warriors, administer the rebuke. Odysseus got a lot slimier after Homer, with the introduction of stories about him framing Palamedes for treason and getting him stoned to death. Still, he’s about the last person you’d expect the commoners to cheer for, especially compared to the far more appealing Achilles.

On the other hand, this might well be what you’d expect the multitude to say if they were completely cowed by a social system privileging an aristocratic upper class of princes, either out of fear or false consciousness. “Good work, Odysseus! Put us in our place!”

Hegel and Nietzsche picked up on this to some extent, and Nietzsche, as usual, had a good line about it: “Socrates is the revenge for Thersites…the ugly plebeian Socrates killed the authority of the wonderful myth in Greece.”

Simone Weil, siding of course with Thersites, had a good line too: “Reasonable words fall into the void.

But to go back to the scene itself, the most painful part does not seem to be the beating but the jeering, coming from the very people Thersites seemed to be speaking for. Every time you are shot down from a position of greater authority, every time you are chastised for speaking out of turn, each time you meet the ridicule of your own peers for questioning your superiors, each time you are put in your place, you are Thersites. And if you have never experienced this feeling, you should look closely at your life.

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