Previously: An abridged Bible reading challenge
I’m going to spend much of this chapter highlighting dark and violent material found in ancient texts, material that includes references to sexual violence and violence against children. I get queasy just thinking about a lot of this stuff, I think it’s important to talk about given many people still think that some of these texts are our ultimate guides to morality.
>But I’m not going to talk about the Bible first, because if I do that, some people will say I’m picking on the Bible unfairly, that I’m singling it out for harsh treatment. So instead, I’m going to talk a bit about the Homeric epics which are good candidates for the most important works in Western literature after the Bible.
I read the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, when I was in eighth grade. This was due to a combination of getting bused across town to spend half my time at the local high school, and deciding for some reason to make a couple of English assignments way more difficult than they needed to be.
As a result, I learned that while the Iliad is set during the legendary Trojan War, it does not contain the stories from the Trojan War that most people are familiar with, such as how Achilles died from an arrow in the foot or how the Greeks snuck into Troy hidden in a giant wooden horse.
Instead, the Iliad begins with divine intervention by Apollo forcing the Greek commander Agamemnon to return a woman he had taken captive, Chryseis, to her father. Agamemnon then decides he will take Achilles’ female captive, Briseis, as a replacement. Achilles is unhappy about this, and takes himself and his men out of the fight. As a result, the war starts to go badly for the Greeks.
Agamemnon tries to make amends with Achilles by offering to give him back Briseis along with many other beautiful women. When Agamemnon does this, he emphasizes in reference to Briseis that he had not yet “mounted her bed” (as the translation I was reading put it). But Achilles is not satisfied, and only decides to return to the fighting after his friend Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector. Achilles, seeking vengeance, returns to battle and kills Hector.
The Odyssey is the story of Odysseys’ return home from the Trojan War. It contains some better-known stories, such as the cyclops that Odysseys tricked by saying his name was “Nobody,” the witch Circe who turned Odysseys’ men into swine, and the Sirens whose song Odysseys managed to live through hearing by being tied to the mast while his crew’s ears were stuffed with wax.
But the Odyssey also includes a lot of stories that aren’t typically told to children. Like how Odysseys and his men attacked Cicones for no reason that’s ever explained, killed the men and “enslaved” the women. Or how, upon returning home, Odysseys killed all his wife’s suitors (even though he had been gone 20 years, and had told her to remarry if he wasn’t back by the time their then-infant son had grown a beard). Or how Odysseys hanged a number of women of the household for having slept with the suitors.
As I’ve been describing these works, I’ve tried to stick closely to what is explicitly in the text. Now I’m going to say something that isn’t explicit in the text, but was obvious to me even as an 8th grader: the plot Iliad revolves around a dispute between two men over who would have the privilege of raping a particular woman. And while rape is not so important to the plot of the Odyssey, when Odysseys talks about “enslaving” the Cicone women it is quite clear what he is talking about.
It is quite clear that the author thought this was perfectly suitable behavior for “heroes,” and was writing in a culture where he could expect his audience to agree. The lack of explicit references to rape in a way makes the situation all the more horrifying: the question of whether captured women want to have their “beds mounted” is treated as being of no more importance than whether captured livestock want to be eaten.
In his excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker reports that the description in the Iliad and the Odyssey of how warfare was conducted in ancient Greece fits well with what we know of the period from archaeology, ethnography, and history. And without a doubt, the most famous text that reinforces the Homeric picture of ancient warfare is the Bible.
To be continued…