Mythic origins

Published December 23, 2014 by Iphis of Scyros

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the “which came first?” debate regarding Patroclos and Antilochos.  There is a repetitive pattern, you see, which goes something like this:  Achilles loses someone close to him, knows he will die if he avenges him, and then he goes ahead and avenges him anyway, with the fates of him and his rival being weighed as they fight.  The version in the Iliad is, of course, well known to all.  (Rather, it bloody well ought to be!)  But the lost epic the Aithiopis told the similar tale in which Memnon killed Antilochos, and then Achilles killed Memnon to avenge him, only to die himself as he charged the city gates.  All we have for the Aithiopis is a summary and a few fragments, so it’s only a matter of speculation regarding what the precise relationship between Achilles and Antilochos was.  We know from the Iliad that they were friends, and that Antilochos was the youngest of the Achaians (and yet, bizarrely, he was also a suitor of Helen, despite that Achilles was too young to have been a suitor of Helen) so there is speculation in the academic community that Antilochos might have been Achilles’ eromenos in that lost epic, or in earlier works of oral composition that were never written down at all.  However, the ancient commentators never talk about any bond between Achilles and Antilochos other than friendship, whereas they held up Achilles and Patroclos as the ideal of love between men.  (Though there was some argument and changing of generally held opinions regarding who was the erastes and who the eromenos.)  This may have been because the scholars who say that there was romantic/sexual love between Achilles and Antilochos are wrong, or it may just be because the Iliad is one of the greatest works of literature ever, and the Aithiopis was not.  (If it was, it would have survived.)  Anyway, I’ve seen it theorized that “Homer” borrowed the bereavement/soul-weighing/vengeance motif that had originally been regarding Antilochos and Memnon, and applied it to Patroclos and Hector, thus forcibly implying a romantic bond between Achilles and Patroclos.  However, I’ve also seen it theorized that in earlier versions of the myth, Achilles had died immediately after killing Hector, as is implied by some of Thetis’ dialog in the Iliad, and that Memnon had to be invented to repeat the pattern to kill Achilles in the post-Iliad version of the myth.

As a die-hard Patroclos fan, obviously I dislike a version that makes him secondary to anyone.  However, I try to keep a level head about these things, and not let fondness overturn reason.

Now, I’ve not read much of the actual scholarship on the subject.  Just a tiny sample of the arguments on both sides.  So I don’t know the full story, academically.  Much of my theorizing on the subject therefore will necessarily seem uneducated to anyone who knows the full argument.  (As no doubt it will seem to me six months to a year from now, when I’ll probably have read much more about it.)  But I was thinking about it, just going through the myth as it has survived to now, and trying to work out which way would make sense as the earlier verison.

Neither fully works for me as the “true” pre-Iliad version.  Because if the Antilochos/Memnon version is the earlier version, then what happened to Patroclos and Hector?  Or rather, from the minimal attention paid to Patroclos in the Iliad prior to the time when he’s actually needed to start acting, it’s clear that the original audience both knew who he was, and that he was Achilles’ closest companion.  Everyone else–like Automedon, his charioteer–is “introduced” several times by their rank, role or closeness level, but Patroclos is not, because “Homer” knew that his audience didn’t need to be told that.  So he has to pre-date the Iliad by a significant margin.  And while Memnon’s demi-god status makes him a more fitting rival to Achilles than Hector is (especially since Memnon’s immortal parent is his mother, as Achilles’ is), it cannot be that Troy’s original primary defender was not a Trojan, but the King of Ethiopia.  So Hector always had to be the major enemy who needed defeating, and Achilles had to be the man to do it.

But on the other hand, the Patroclos/Hector model doesn’t quite work as the primary earlier version, either.  Because–as I just said–Achilles is a demi-god and Hector is an ordinary mortal, so where is the surprise that Achilles can defeat him?  Why was there a need to weigh their souls?  And why is the greatest hero of the Achaian forces giving up his life for the love of a man whose father is a nobody?  (Well, other than the obvious reason that love doesn’t care about bloodlines.  (Unless you’re a vampire.))

So, since both versions feel logically flawed when taken individually, it occurred to me that maybe around the time the Iliad was composed there were two versions floating around.  Perhaps the Patroclos/Hector version was the one more common in Ionia, and the Antilochos/Memnon version was more common in Greece, but most bards were aware of both, and freely swapped elements and motifs back and forth between them.

That, of course, still leaves the question of where the myths truly came from, and which one actually came first, what the original myth actually looked like.  To look at that, we have to speculate about their ultimate origin.  And about whether or not they’re based on anything that really happened.

If there was a joint Achaian venture against Troy–or rather Wilusa–that inspired the myths, then it was probably around 1250 BC, according to some of the latest archaeological work.  But Troy didn’t fall in 1250 BC; there was a Troy that fell much earlier, and another that fell much later, but mid-thirteenth century Troy was not destroyed.  So right there you have a variance from the myth:  if there really was a war between the Ahhiyawa and the Wilusans during the reign of Alaksandu, it did not end with the city being destroyed.  The Hittites were busy with their own affairs, but not that busy.

So let’s imagine what might really have happened to have spawned the myth that eventually grew into the one we know today.  Many of the names of the Homeric characters have been found in Linear B tablets as the names of ordinary people, so there might well have been real people that inspired some of those characters, so let’s make the (possibly absurd) leap of faith to assume that the Ahhiyawa forces were dominated by a man named Achilleus who was just unstoppable on the battlefield.

Maybe he had some close companion who was killed, and who he avenged.  That seems likely enough; battle scenes in literature the world over are replete with men avenging their friends slain in battle.  But not necessarily such a close friend as to be inseparable, or that they might have seemed to be more than friends.

More than that, though, looking at the myths, and especially the way Neoptolemos is usually handled, if there was a real man named Achilleus fighting in that war and proving to be so much stronger than his fellows…he probably survived.  Neoptolemos is always described as being exactly like his father in appearance, and some of the explanations of his birth don’t actually allow him enough time to be an adult by the time he shows up at Troy (and/or don’t make Achilles old enough to have fathered him before reaching Troy).  And his behavior is much like Achilles’, overall.  (Depending on whose Achilles you’re talking about.  The one in the Iliad ran the full gamut from horrific to thoughtful and contemplative.  Other authors were more likely to focus on one side or the other.  Though the same can be said about Neoptolemos:  the one in Sophocles’ Philoctetes is entirely unlike the vicious killer he’s said to have been in the Ilioupersei.)  So one real person may have become two mythical characters.  And why?  Probably because after the war was over, he went home and continued to be a terrible person, and did things that the poets didn’t want their hero to be guilty of.  So that was his son, who happened to look just like him, of course!  Or the terrible things he did were during the conclusion of the war.  That explanation also works.

Though it brings me to my next point.  Because obviously if there was a real war, it didn’t end in the destruction of Troy, so the entire story of what happened in the sack cannot be based on anything real.  Or not anything real from that particular war.  The horrors of war are universal, and can readily be transposed from one to another, particularly when the technology of warfare doesn’t change between the wars in question.  They might also have been basic mythic/bardic tropes that were already centuries old by the time of the Trojan War.

So how did it really end?  Beats the smeg out of me.  Probably, the Hittites rode in with a huge army and put a stop to it.  Or whatever had been the cause was nullified in the appropriate manner.  Given back/paid for/killed/what-have-you.

That asks the question if they could really have been fighting over a woman.  Hard to say.  There are records from the Late Bronze Age where two minor kingdoms did actually come close to war over a woman–she was apparently either an unwilling bride or an adulterous one, and married to a king, no less–but the Hittites intervened and prevented open warfare.  So it’s not impossible that a stolen queen could lead to war, but it does seem improbable that a queen could be so easily stolen.  (Whether or not she wanted to go, it would still be somewhere between difficult and impossible to get her out.  Hence the reason in the myth that Menelaos is usually in Crete for his grandfather’s funeral when Helen is taken.)

Of course, Helen running off to Troy with Alexander/Paris has always been the weak spot of the myth.  Because no matter how you slice it, it makes no sense, unless you assume the purely external “the gods forced her to do it” explanation.  Okay, sure, maybe she doesn’t love Menelaos and wants to elope with the handsome, exotic visitor.  Fine.  But why would she run away from her father’s kingdom and go to the kingdom where her beau is only the second in line for the throne?  Menelaos only becomes King of Lacedaemon because he marries Helen:  if she doesn’t want him any longer, it would make much more sense for her Trojan lover to kill him and then marry her, becoming the new king.  If he made it look like an accident or bandits on the road, he would likely get away with it entirely.  (And that’s only assuming that there’s no method of divorce.  If she could simply end her marriage, then that would be the obvious course of action.  There were ways of ending marriages in the Late Bronze Age (at least in Anatolia) but I don’t know if it was possible for the woman to set them in motion.)  Why do something so stupid as to take her away to Troy, leaving her husband alive and well and howling for retribution?  Even in ancient times, this never sat well with people.  Herodotus went to great lengths trying to come up with an explanation that made sense, and it still didn’t.

Net result?  No way the real war was over Helen.  Not if Helen was the same Spartan Queen we know.  Because it made no sense for her to leave.  So if it was fought over a runaway/abducted wife, then she was not the wife of a king, not his primary wife, anyway.  There are strong indications that it wasn’t just Sparta:  in the Late Bronze Age, inheritance via the female line was typical, so that it was the son-in-law who inherited, not the son.  (Not that it happened everywhere.  But it did happen among the Hittites, as far as we can tell, and the Greek myths provide enough examples of inheritance by the son-in-law that it seems a strong indication that in their distant past, when the myths were set, that was the norm for them, as well.)  However, there are also indications that the Mycenaean kings may have had two wives:  one to gain them their throne, and one from elsewhere.  (As Telamon, King of Salamis, had two sons, one by his wife, who had been his ticket onto the throne of Salamis, and one by his Trojan “concubine.”  In the Late Bronze Age, Aias and Teukros were probably both legitimate, but in different ways.)  So perhaps a secondary wife was brought to Troy by a king or prince?  Well, it’s not impossible.  But I don’t know how probable it is, either.  There are so many question marks, you know?

And by this point…if I had anywhere else I wanted to take this, I’ve forgotten it, so I’m just going to stop here.

I want to get back to my writing anyway.  I’m almost done with my (very) loose adaptation of “Achilles in Petticoats” into a modern, more mythically accurate, less ludicrously sexist play, and I’d like to finish it up before Christmas if I can.

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