January 28, 2021 | Brian Chappell

The Odyssey and The Aeneid

The ancient world has fascinated me since my days as a student. How does culture emerge? How do stories endure? Why is there such commonality in beliefs and practices across time and space? In my adulthood, I am working on deconstructing for myself the belief that the ancient world was backwards and we have progressed by leaps and bounds. Even a naive understanding of the twentieth century and of recent history will reveal the extent to which we not only repeat the violence of the past, but perhaps accelerate it. Ours may be the most brutal generation. 

But beyond questioning “progress,” is it possible that the ancients understood life, death, and violence in ways that are lost to us now, in ways that could benefit us somehow? In addition to the three questions on the syllabus, I am thinking about this idea: that Odysseus, Aeneas, and anyone who lived in their milieu, believed that they were part of a world. There was a unified, shared belief about what the world was and what was a given person’s place in it. Setting aside questions of social hierarchy, patriarchy, slavery, oppression, war, etc. (reminding ourselves as we do so that it is impossible to set aside such things for even a moment), there remains the idea that one’s life was a drama that played out in the eyes of the gods, that one’s small and seemingly insignificant being was nonetheless bolstered by the whole vastness of all being. 

With this potentially problematic view in hand, I want to focus on a key moment from the text. When Odysseus travels to Hades to gain information about getting home, he runs into his old friend Achilles. Achilles seems to embody the idea I introduced in the paragraph above. He is the son of a goddess, and his place in the cosmos as the greatest of all warriors was solid. He proceeded with the gods behind him. Though he died in Troy (per his destiny), he nonetheless gained ultimate glory for himself. But when Odysseus encounters him in Hades, he says, “Say not a word…in death’s favour; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” Though Achilles does not fully denounce violence and war (he would later threaten violence to anyone who attacked his father, and he would sing the praises of his son’s many kills), we nonetheless see another instance in which Homer uses the greatest of all warriors to at least suggest that all that killing might not be worth it. At the conclusion of the Iliad (Mouse readers recall), Achilles weeps alongside his arch-enemy, sharing in a father’s lament for lost sons. Here, Achilles hints that he would forego his glory to gain even a few minutes of peace above ground. 

In mythology, the supernatural firmament is whole and solid, because the cultural beliefs that raise the firmament are whole and solid. But in Greek mythology in particular, there are cracks in a firmament that may otherwise wish to validate war. Achilles regrets his excessive brutality and doubts his glory; Odysseus is punished by the gods for war crimes and foul play; women have prominent roles in denouncing violence, not only in the Homeric texts but also in tragedy (particularly in Euripides’ The Trojan Women). 

If we were able to contact the dead today, what wisdom might they impart? What cracks might appear in the firmament, were we to really know what awaited us on the other side? What myths might we debunk once and for all?