The Legend of Homer – A special guest post by author Luciana Cavallaro

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to welcome back a special guest and fellow historical fantasy author, Luciana Cavallaro.

Luciana is something of an expert on Homer and the Trojan War, and she always has some fascinating thoughts on the subject.

So, sit back, relax, and let yourself be transported back to the age of heroes…

Homer

I’d like to thank, Adam, for inviting me to be on his blog and to talk about my favourite topic, ancient history. I am very grateful to Adam as well, as this is the second time I’ve been invited to write a guest post for his amazing and informative blog.

With the constant turmoil in the world, whether it’s acts of terrorism, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s threats of war, and the barbarous nature of inhumanity, it goes to show how history repeats itself. This blog post isn’t a “doom and gloom” article, but more of a commentary on the early recorded history of war that birthed western literature.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could meet and interview their literary heroes, to learn what drove their passion and pursuit for telling stories? I often wonder what it would be like to sit down and have a chat with Homer, the bard responsible for western literature and legendary tales. I’d like to think our conversation would be an intellectual discourse, but truth told, I’d be blubbering idiot. The brain would freeze and I’d be tongue-tied, and starry-eyed!

Homer_and_his_Guide_(1874)

There’s not a lot of information about Homer, though speculation suggests he was born around the 8th Century BCE. As to where, no one is sure, except it was a Greek city in western Turkey. There was one element that most historians agree on was that he was blind, and that he was injured in a war he had fought in. This lends credence to the graphic and accurate descriptions he gave in the fight scenes in the Iliad. From the various sources I’ve read, each have commented he must have experienced war to able to describe the layout of camps, strategies in fighting, and the terrible injuries inflicted.

However, historians questioned as to whether he was the “author” of The Iliad and The Odyssey. One main reason for the conjecture are the two different styles: The Iliad is more formal and theatrical, while the language in The Odyssey reflected the day-to-day speech pathos and likened to a novel. The other is that the stories, in particular The Iliad, was passed down from bard to bard, and Homer is a pronoun for “bard”. This premise led historians to believe Homer did not exist, and as mentioned, there isn’t a lot of information as to who he was, where he was born, etc.

Achilles and Ajax dice – Louvre

Ancient Greek writing didn’t appear until the eighth century BCE, the time when a scribe wrote Homer’s stories while the bard performed them. Odds are, there weren’t any “biographies” written about many of the individuals prior to this period, with the exception of those nations who kept records of accounts, contracts, and pacts.

If Homer were here, I’d ask him whether he composed both stories. I believe he created both tales. As with most storytelling, an author’s experience grows and changes as they write more stories, so why can’t both epic tales differ from one another?

Another question I’d ask is how much of The Iliad is based on fact. It is suggested that the story is based on a number of wars that happened in the region over many centuries, and the history of these wars has been passed down from generation to generation. Homer then compiled these events into a single story. As a fiction writer, this makes sense, and who’s to say it didn’t happen that way? We take our inspiration from real events and weave a story. Why not Homer?

The Death of Priam – Louvre

Again, there are arguments for and against the validity of the events in the story. Why? Lack of evidence. Or is there? Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman and amateur archaeologist, proved otherwise. His tactics were less than honourable, damaging the layers at the site of Ilios and ousting Frank Calvert, who had partial rights to Hissarlik. Regardless, Schliemann believed in the story and set out to prove Troy existed. He did find Troy but it wasn’t until decades later that evidence of a war, skeletal remains and an underwater tunnel were uncovered. From later excavations, archaeologists have determined the site of Troy had endured a number of wars over many centuries. This supports the fact that the story of The Iliad was a compilation from historical events.

This leads to my next question, if I could ask Homer: did any of the characters in story exist? Very probable. In a Hittite text, around the time of the Trojan War, circa 1300 BCE, it mentions a city named Wilusa, which translates to Ilios, and a king called Alexander, better known as Paris. It was also the Hittite texts where ‘Achaean’, the name Homer used for the Greeks, was identified. Coincidence? I don’t think so, and certainly makes the history of Ilios and the story more interesting.

I do believe myths and legends stem from a basis of truth. I first read The Iliad about 20 years ago and fell in love with the story, the characters and the legend. I read fiction and non-fiction books, watched documentaries, and these have whetted my appetite to learn more. Homer is the reason why I started writing Historical Fiction/Mythology.

I’ve a new book due for publication on the 1st October, and I’d like you to join me on my first virtual book launch. For details, click here:

Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, likes to meander between contemporary life to the realms of mythology and history. Luciana has always been interested in Mythology and Ancient History but her passion wasn’t realised until seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. From then on, she was inspired to write Historical Fantasy.

She has spent many lessons promoting literature and the merits of ancient history. Today, you will still find Luciana in the classroom, teaching ancient history and promoting literature. To keep up-to-date with her ramblings, ahem, that is meaningful discourse, subscribe to her mailing list at http://www.luccav.com.

Connect with Luciana:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Luciana-Cavallaro-Writer/304218202959903?ref=hl

Twitter https://twitter.com/ClucianaLuciana

Author Luciana Cavallaro

I would like to thank Luciana for taking the time to share her thoughts and research about Homer, the site of Troy, and the Trojan War with us today. I always love hearing from her, and I can’t agree more that every legend has a base in truth.

Also, as archaeologists, we can’t help but find Heinrich Schliemann’s methods deplorable, but there is no denying that he found the most likely site for Troy. The fact that he did so using the text of Homer makes it a pretty great story in and of itself!

Always a hot topic, and certainly one I can’t get enough of.

Be sure to check out Luciana’s website and sign-up for her mailing list so you can get all the great blogs she writes and news on her books.

I highly recommend Luciana’s books, and if you have the time, definitely sign-up to check out her virtual book launch on Facebook by CLICKING HERE. If the time works for you, it should be a fantastic event!

Thank you again to Luciana, and thank you to all of you for reading.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

A Journey to Hell with Special Guest, Glyn Iliffe

Glyn website banner

Greetings everyone!

This week, I’m pleased to welcome author Glyn Iliffe back on Writing the Past.

It’s been a couple of years since I interviewed Glyn on the old website around the time of the release of the fourth book in his series, The Adventures of Odysseus.

This time, Glyn is back with a special guest post that I know you will find fascinating!

He has just released book five, The Voyage of Odysseus, which I am reading right now and cannot put down.

Homer’s Odyssey is one of the foundational works of western literature, and the story of Odysseus’ journey back home after the Trojan War is one that has fascinated people for ages.

One of the terrifying elements of this story is the hero’s journey into Hades, and that is what Glyn is going to talk about today.

Voyage of Odysseus_Cover_e-book (2)

Katabasis – The Descent into Hell

By Glyn Iliffe

According to Benjamin Franklin only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. The latter we can grumble about and try to dodge, but death is a different question. You might say it’s the question. Being aware of the finite nature of our existence is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, essentially, makes us human. Death – and what lies beyond it – is the great unknown. The anticipation or fear of it has shaped every culture across the world and throughout time.

To understand the psychology of a culture you need look no further than its art, and a lot of art focuses on death. Enter any Catholic church and you will see depictions of Jesus on the Cross. The tombs of the ancient Egyptians are filled with hieroglyphs illustrating the journey into the afterlife. Indeed, the reason we know so much about our ancestors is because of their obsessions with death, culminating in the desire to take their treasures with them into the next world, or leave monuments to the lives they led before death took them. But the clearest insights into a culture’s views on death come from its stories.

In particular, there is one type of story that appears again and again in the texts of different civilizations from different eras: the descent into Hell. I’m thinking here of a physical journey to the underworld, rather than a symbolic or psychological descent into madness or suffering. Possibly the earliest is Gilgamesh’s visit to Utnapishtim. The Egyptians had the Book of the Dead. The Roman poet Virgil told of Aeneas’s visit to his death father, Anchises; and in the Renaissance Dante’s Divine Comedy describes one of the most memorable and terrifying visions of Hell ever depicted. The most defining katabasis of all, for Western culture, was that of Jesus Christ, who spent three days in Hell after taking mankind’s sins onto himself on the Cross.

The term katabasis comes from the Greek words κατὰ ‘down’ and βαίνω ‘go’, and it is the Greeks we must thank for the most numerous and vivid myths on the subject. In the case of Orpheus, the greatest of all poets and musicians, the journey was undertaken for love. When his wife died after being bitten by a viper, he descended into the Underworld and so charmed Hades and Persephone – King and Queen of the Dead – with his music that they agreed to release her back to him. There was one condition, though: that Orpheus walked ahead of his wife and did not look at her until they had both reached the world of the living. In his anxiety after reaching the upper world, he turned to look at her before she had crossed the threshold of Hades. She disappeared in an instant, and this time it was forever.

A less tragic visitation was made by Heracles, the greatest of all Greek heroes. As a penance for slaying his own family in an episode of madness (induced by the gods, of course), Heracles was forced to serve his weakling cousin, King Eurystheus, for twelve years. Eurystheus set him several labours, the twelfth of which was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell. Hades agreed to let Heracles attempt the feat, but only if he fought without weapons. Despite the fearsome nature of the beast, Heracles succeeded and carried Cerberus back to his cousin. Eurystheus was so frightened he agreed to set no more labours if Heracles would take the hound back!

Teiresias speaks to Odysseus

Teiresias speaks to Odysseus

The most famous katabasis features in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus descends into the Underworld to seek the ghost of Teiresias, who will tell him how to find his way home to Ithaca. There he encounters his dead mother and many of the heroes who died during the Trojan War. Chief among them is Achilles, who in life had been the greatest of all the Greek warriors and covered himself in martial glory. But in Hades he is a mournful phantom, scornful of what he had achieved on the battlefield:

‘…We Argives honoured you as though you were a god: and now, down here, you have great power among the dead. Do not grieve at your death, Achilles.’

‘And do no make light of death, illustrious Odysseus’ he replied, ‘I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.’

Odysseus comes away from the Underworld without learning the way back home, which makes the reason for his visit to such a bleak and terrifying place seem pointless. But was it pointless? Indeed, why do some heroes have to descend to Hades? What’s the meaning underlying these myths?

Though later Greeks softened their ideas, in the Bronze Age they believed one thing: that death was followed by an eternity of misery and regret in Hades, relieved only by forgetfulness. Knowing this, many sought the one form of immortality available to them – a reputation that would be honoured from generation to generation. This could only be achieved in battle, by defeating enemies and accumulating honour. This is the driving force for many of the characters in my own novels about the Trojan War.

The katabasis, though, is about symbolic immortality. Importantly, the hero does not reach Hell by the usual route (death). Instead, he seeks to enter the Underworld as a mortal, fulfilling a quest that requires him to take or retrieve something of great worth, such as an object, a person or a piece of knowledge. Interestingly, Odysseus does not return with the knowledge he went in search of, but emerges with something of possibly greater worth: an understanding of the value of life. By achieving his quest the hero proves himself to be exceptional, and by overcoming a figurative death he also becomes more than just mortal. He is reborn into a new life, similar to the Christian baptism ceremony, where the lowering into and rising up again from water is symbolic of death and rebirth.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Such deep themes have inspired many modern retellings of the katabasis. Though the themes are no longer Greek, such stories are still reflective of their own times. Wilfred Owen was an officer in the Manchester Regiment during the Great War. His poetry is full of hell-like visions from the mud and slaughter of trench warfare, but in Strange Meeting there are clear parallels with Odysseus’s descent into Hades:

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

The speaker, like Odysseus with Achilles, tries to comfort the dead man; but like Achilles, the unhappy spirit will have none of it:

‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness.’

The twist comes at the end, where the dead man informs the speaker ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. Though only a glimpse of a descent into Hell, and one from which we don’t know whether the “hero” returns, Owen nevertheless plays on Homer’s suggestion that death is hollow and empty, and that any kind of life is rich by comparison.

A more recent katabasis appears in Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, in which Lyra enters the Land of the Dead to rescue her best friend, Roger, who has been murdered. This already has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, but there are also other allusions to Greek mythology in the Harpies that patrol this terrible underworld, as well as the phantom-like figures of the dead that populate it. But there are heavy Christian references, too. Like Christ, Lyra leads the lost souls to a form of redemption. Through Lyra’s katabasis Pullman tries to offer an atheistic view of what lies beyond death – very different from traditional descents into Hell – but ironically still relies very heavily on Christian beliefs about redemption.

In The Voyage of Odysseus I retell the story of Odysseus’s long and arduous journey home to Ithaca. The previous books in the series have attempted to draw the full story of the Trojan War into one narrative, focussed on Odysseus. As a fan of Greek mythology, it has always been my intention to be faithful to the original myths and make them accessible, regardless of what the reader may or may not already know about the story. And yet it will always be my take. This is particularly true of the scene in which Odysseus enters the Underworld.

I have had a fear of Hell since childhood. This was probably instigated by seeing Hieronymus Bosch paintings, and reinforced in my teenage years by Dennis Wheatley novels. The notion that Hell is not merely a place of suffering, but a place where the relief of light, love and peace do not exist, is even more frightening. I have incorporated these fears in my retelling of Odysseus’s katabasis – as well as my terror of enclosed spaces!

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

Glyn Author Photo

Glyn Iliffe studied English and Classics at Reading University, where he developed a passion for the stories of ancient Greek mythology. Well travelled, Glyn has visited nearly forty countries, trekked in the Himalayas, spent six weeks hitchhiking across North America and had his collarbone broken by a bull in Pamplona. He is married with two daughters and lives in Leicestershire. He is currently working on the concluding book in the series.

Connect with him on Facebook, or visit his website at www.glyniliffe.com

Be sure to check out The Adventures of Odysseus books at any of the following outlets:

Amazon (UK) – Amazon (US) – Waterstones – Barnes & Noble – Book Depository – Kobo

I’d like to thank Glyn for taking the time to write such an interesting piece for us. I know that whenever I read or write about a character’s descent into Hell or the Underworld, I will be doing so through a new lens.

If you haven’t already read Glyn’s work, I highly recommend The Adventures of Odysseus books. It is definitely one of the best historical fantasy series out there, and despite these being very old stories and characters, Glyn manages to give them new life. Trust me on this one, folks!

For my Eagles and Dragons Newsletter subscribers, Glyn and I have got a special treat which I will be notifying you about shortly by e-mail, so stay tuned for that.

As ever, do be sure to leave your questions or comments for Glyn or myself in the comments section below.

Thank you for reading!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

The Links Between History and Mythology – A Guest Post by Luciana Cavallaro

Greece 2006 076

Today I have a special guest on the blog.

Luciana Cavallaro is the author of a series of mythological retellings from the perspectives of some fascinating women in Greek myth.

When I read her book, The Curse of Troy, I knew that I wanted to have her write a guest post for Writing the Past. Luciana has a wonderfully unique style, and she gives these accursed women of Greek myth a voice that you may not have heard before.

So, without further ado, a big welcome to author, Luciana Cavallaro!

First, I’d like to thank Adam for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’ve been following Adam’s blog for years now and enjoy reading about the Roman history, expansion and legacy they’ve left behind and learning about King Arthur and Medieval England. The latter is not one of my strongest or favourite periods of history, but I do enjoy reading Adam’s articles. I also want to apologise to Adam. He asked me last year to be a guest blogger and at the time I was finishing up my book and then time got away from me.

Let’s get into it

I’m a bit of a fan of mythology, in particular Greek myth, but I’m not an expert or purport to be one. I love the stories, learned a great deal from them and continue to do so. What I particularly enjoy are the links between the myths and historical fact.

Before I get into that, let’s address what mythology is. Here’s a dictionary meaning:

Mythology is a body of myths, especially one associated with a particular culture, person, etc.  (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1989)

I prefer Joseph Campbell’s explanation:

There is a mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you’re a part. And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society.

(Interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, 1986)

Myths are cultural as is history. If one digs (pardon the pun) deep enough, there is a correlation between the story and fact. Let’s take Jason of the Argonauts and his search for the Golden Fleece. In the Republic of Georgia, once annexed by Russia, the fleece of a sheep was used to trap golden grains dug from the river, or placed in the river banks and used in the same way.

Here’s a great article on this: Legend of the Golden Fleece was REAL: Greek myth originated near the Black Sea where miners used sheepskin to filter gold from mountain streams, geologists claim

I also watched a documentary of an Australian photo journalist who was trying to find the cities Alexander the Great founded in the Middle East. He watched Afghan miners use this technique to find gold in the riverbeds 4000 years on.

The journey from Jason’s home of Iolkos (Thessaly) to Georgia some distance away was dangerous. It is possible the story of the skills and craftsmanship of the Colchians who developed smelting and casting metals for agriculture and making jewellery found their way to Greece. This was something the ancient Greeks wanted, and the gold.

Jason and Pelias

“Jason Pelias Louvre K127” by Underworld Painter – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another is the great story of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, which is a famous tourist site, and I did get to see. It is massive just as Homer stated. The lofty walls the Greeks couldn’t penetrate are there, and what is left is tall and slopes inwards. Hittite texts confirmed the site of Ilios, which they called Wilusa and identified Alaksandu/Alexander as one of the city’s kings. Alexander was the Greeks’ name for Paris. The texts also mention an invading force from the west, Ahhiyawa, that closely resembles Homer’s name for the Greeks, Achaeans. What historians have concluded is Homer’s story is a collective memory of the various invasions on Troy over centuries and its eventual downfall.

Hittite Tablet

Hittite tablet recounting the events of the fall of Troy by Unknown – Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The fact that the site of Troy exists, as does Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon, does give credence to the mythologies. But like all stories, you can’t let facts get in the way of telling a good tale.

I do believe the more we delve into the myths, the more facts we’ll find in history. As with the current series I’m writing on my blog Eternal Atlantis, on the Atlantis myth, I believe such a place did exist. Like Homer’s Iliad, the enduring legend of Atlantis is a conglomeration of memories and oral histories to explain the rise and fall of a mighty empire. Look through the timeline of history and you will find many periods of great empires and their demise, either through war or a natural disaster.

Kircher's 1675 map of the world after the Great Flood. The location of Atlantis is marked in the Atlantic Ocean. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Kircher’s 1675 map of the world after the Great Flood. The location of Atlantis is marked in the Atlantic Ocean. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Myths, like all stories, have morals and a message to relate. One day, I hope we will be smarter and take heed of these so we don’t keep repeating these transgressions. In a hundred or thousand years to come, people will question our mythology. What mythology will we leave behind?

I’d love to know your thoughts on the veracity of myths in our history.

Visit Luciana's website at: http://luccav.com/blog/

Visit Luciana’s website at: http://luccav.com/blog/

I’d like to thank Luciana for taking the time to write this fascinating post for us. I’m so jealous of her trip to Troy, a place which I have wanted to visit for a long time. Ah, someday…

Mythology is truly fascinating, and there is a lifetime and more of stories for us to enjoy and learn from.

If you enjoy mythology as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to check out Luciana’s book, Accursed Women, or pick up one of the many short stories she has out. She also has a new book entitled Search for the Golden Serpent which I’m looking forward to reading.

Also, be sure to sign up for her E-bulletin so that you can receive her very interesting blog posts to your e-mail. By signing up, you’ll receive The Curse of Troy for FREE!

I always look forward to reading her posts as they are a fantastic escape from the everyday. The blog series on Atlantis is titantic!

Please leave any questions or comments for Luciana in the comments below, and, once again, thank you for reading…

Check out Accursed Women by Luciana Cavallaro

Check out Accursed Women by Luciana Cavallaro

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

Remembrance Day: Healing Wounds with Ancient Greek Tragedy

parchment helmet

Remembrance Day is here, in Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations. This is the time of year when we pin poppies on our jackets and hats to show that we remember the sacrifices of the men and women who have served their countries in war.

This is a solemn time of year; many people have known folks who have served in one conflict or another. For myself, my grandfather served in WWI as a young man, my other grandfather in the merchant navy in WWII. I have friends and relatives who have served in the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Every year, I try to write a special post around Remembrance Day because I feel it is utterly important not to forget. I often write about war and warriors. It’s something that is always at the front of my mind. I haven’t served in the military myself, but I have the utmost respect for those that have and do.

This year is the 100th anniversary of World War I, the conflict that began the wearing of poppies. Hard to believe it‘s been that long since the Battle of Liège, or since the earth shook with shelling and gunfire at Verdun and the Somme.

The Tower of London Remembers poppies in commemoration of the centenary of WWI

The Tower of London Remembers poppies in commemoration of the centenary of WWI

We remember the dead, and the ultimate sacrifices they have made, we bow our heads to them as the guns salute on November 11th.

But what about the living?

Troops in Afghanistan

Troops in Afghanistan

In war, the casualties are monstrous, but there are those who do manage to come home. What about them?

Those are the troops I want us to think about today.

What prompted this was an article that a colleague of mine gave to me to read, an article that has indeed struck a chord.

This article by Wyatt Mason, in Harper’s magazine, is entitled You are not alone across time – Using Sophocles to treat PTSD.

The trauma of war

The trauma of war

PTSD stands for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is, perhaps always has been, a bane on the lives of warriors for ages. It was not always acknowledged as many former troops were simply told to ‘suck-it-up’. But there is a higher level of awareness now, with a variety of treatments being sought by, or offered to, veterans.

In his article mentioned above, Wyatt Mason writes about a unique theatre group called Outside the Wire, and their program ‘Theatre of War’.

The man behind Theatre of War is Bryan Doerries. He has been studying and translating ancient Greek dramas for years.

What is Theatre of War? Using ancient Greek tragedies, particularly Ajax and Philoctetes by Sophocles, Doerries and a small group of rotating actors travel to military bases and hospitals around the world to perform readings of these plays.

There are no stages, props, or pageantry, just Doerries and about three actors sitting at a table. You might think this would be boring, and so might the troops who were ‘voluntold’ to go. But one cannot underestimate the language of Sophocles, the message, and the powerful delivery of the actors.

After attending these ‘performances’, veteran troops come forward to say that they completely relate to the pain of the warrior-characters in these plays, that they do not feel alone. These performances have been helping troops with PTSD with their healing.

Before we go further, here are a few statistics from the article to put things in perspective.

The number of U.S. soldiers who are committing suicide is at an unprecedented level with nearly one per day among those on active duty, and one per hour among veterans. The number is something like 8,000 a year at the moment.

The horrors of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The horrors of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When I read those numbers, my jaw dropped. It seems like there is no heroic return for many of our troops, no ticker-tape parade. It seems more likely that reintegration with civilian society may be more difficult and lonely than war itself.

In 2008, Doerries’ group received $3.7 million from the Pentagon to tour military installations around the world and they have staged more than 250 shows for 50,000 military personnel.

But what is it about Sophocles’ plays that modern troops relate to so much? What leaves these men and women in tears at the end of each performance?

Sophocles

Sophocles

One thing that the article highlighted for me, and of which I was not aware before, is that Sophocles himself was a warrior and commander, his father an Attic amour-maker. Sophocles had lived through the Greek victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, and then served in the bloody years of the Peloponnesian War when the Greeks tore each other apart.

These were deeply traumatic times.

What hadn’t really clicked for me before reading this article was that with military service in Athens being compulsory among men, most of Sophocles’ audience would have been soldiers and veterans of bloody conflicts.

Sophocles spoke to his audience, he addressed the costs of war, the trauma of battle, the grief and rage that lingered long after the laurel wreaths had been handed-out, and the praise of one’s comrades had ceased.

The blood and chaos of warfare

The blood and chaos of warfare

Theatre of War mostly performs two plays for military audiences – Ajax and Philoctetes.

In Greek history/legend, Ajax was one of the greatest of the Greek warriors during the Trojan War. He was a good friend of Achilles, had won numerous battles for the Greeks, and survived one-on-one combat with the greatest of Troy’s heroes, Hector. Ajax inspired his brothers-in-arms.

But even the mighty fall, it seems. In Sophocles’ play, after nine years of fighting on foreign shores, Ajax, who carried Achilles’ body from the battlefield, has a disagreement with Odysseus about who should get Achilles’ god-made armour. Agamemnon and Menelaus decide to award the honour to Odysseus and this insult sends Ajax into a rage. He swears he will kill the sons of Atreus and Odysseus and any others who have insulted him.

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles from the battlefield

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles from the battlefield

However, the gods are not on Ajax’s side. Athena drives him mad and he ends up slaughtering a host of animals in his tent, thinking they are his perceived enemies. Tecmessa, Ajax’s slave woman and consort, relays what happened:

As captives bulls and herdsmen’s dogs and sheep,
Of which a part he strangled, others felled
And cleft in twain; others again he lashed,
Treating those beasts like human prisoners.
Then rushing out, he with some phantom talked,
Launching against the sons of Atreus now,
Now ‘gainst Ulysses, ravings void of sense,
Boasting how he had paid their insults home.
Then once more rushing back into the tent,
By slow degrees to his right mind he came.
But when he saw the tent with carnage heaped,
Crying aloud, he smote his head, and then
Flung himself down amid the gory wreck,
And with clenched fingers grasped and tore his hair.
So a long time he sat and spoke no word.
At last, with imprecations terrible
If I refused, he bade me tell him all,
What had befallen and how it came about.
And I, my friends, o’erwhelmed with terror, told
All that I knew of that which he had done.
Thereat he uttered piercing cries of grief,
Such as had never come from him before,
For in loud lamentations to indulge
He ever held a craven weakling’s part,
And, stifling outcries, moaned not loud but deep,
Like the deep roaring of a wounded bull.
But in this plight, prostrate and desperate,
Refusing food and drink, my hero lies
Amidst the mangled bodies, motionless.
That he is brooding on some fell design,
His wails and exclamations plainly show.
But, O kind friends, ’twas to this end I came,
Enter the tent and aid me if ye can;
The words of friends are desperate sorrow’s cure.

(Sophocles, Ajax)

When the clouds of madness are swept from Ajax’s eyes, he is shamed by what he has done and goes into deep depression. I’m guessing that it must be the same for modern troops who come home and are haunted by the things that they have experienced, seen and done.

Ajax in anguish

Ajax in anguish

We must remember that this is one of the greatest warriors in the army, second only to Achilles. He has Tecmessa, and he has a son, he has had honours heaped upon him, and yet he cannot deal with what he has done. The strain of 9 years of war have had their toll.

What now am I to do, since of the gods
I am abhorred, of the Hellenic host
Hated, to Troy and all this land a foe?
Shall I to their own quarrel leave the Kings,
Unmoor, and homeward cross the Aegean wave?
How can I face my father Telamon?
How can he bear to look upon the son
Who comes to him disgraced, without the prize,
When glory’s wreath has circled his own brow?

(Sophocles, Ajax)

Ajax decides he can no longer be among the living, such is his disgrace. He decides to leave his tent, despite Tecmessa’s protestations. Alone outside, on the earth surrounding Troy, he plants his sword in the ground, point upward, and kills himself…

O death, O death, come and thy office do;
Long, where I go, our fellowship will be.
O thou glad daylight, which I now behold,
O sun, that ridest in the firmament,
I greet you, and shall greet you never more.
O light, O sacred soil of my own land,
O my ancestral home, my Salamis,
Famed Athens and my old Athenian mates,
Rivers and springs and plains of Troy, farewell;
Farewell all things in which I lived my life;
‘Tis the last word of Ajax to you all,
When next I speak ’twill be to those below.

(Sophocles, Ajax)

Ajax's suicide

Ajax’s suicide

In the video trailer for Theatre of War, which I link to below, you will see various troops coming forward at the end of a performance to talk about their own demons, and how they very much identified with Ajax and the torment he was feeling.

The suicide statistics I mentioned earlier are telling and terrifying, and they align with these emotions which Sophocles expressed through the hero Ajax over 2000 years ago.

It is wondrous, the therapeutic role that culture and the arts have to play. Doerries and the Theatre of War seem to have tapped into this on a visceral level to engage an audience that has been neglected in decades past. According to the article, the purpose is to “reach communities where intense feelings have been suppressed, in hopes of bringing people closer to articulating their suffering.”

From the numbers of troops, from all ranks, who come forward after the performances, Doerries and the Theatre of War are helping.

One has to wonder what else Sophocles might have produced, and to what effect? Only seven of Sophocles’ plays have come down to us. It is reckoned that he actually produced over 100. There’s a thought! What other issues might he have tackled which involved the ancient warrior and those around him?

One of the other plays that has survived is Philoctetes.

Philoctetes, in history/legend was one of the greatest archers in the ancient world. He was also the inheritor of the bow of Herakles, which that tragic hero bequeathed to Philoctetes when he was the only one who would help Herakles to light his funeral pyre. Another great hero who committed suicide.

Philoctetes had joined the expedition to Troy, but when they first arrived on the other side of the Aegean he was bitten by a snake on his foot. The wound festered and stank and Philoctetes was always in unimaginable pain.

But his comrades did not help him. Instead, because he was so loud and disruptive to the sacrifices and morale, they abandoned him on a desolate island to be alone with his pain and torment.

Philoctetes abandoned

Philoctetes abandoned

Sophocles’ play is not about a soldier who is driven to suicide, but rather a soldier who is abandoned, whose friends are not there for him when he needs them most.

His former friends do return, however, after 10 years of war. But it is not for him that they return, but for the bow of Herakles, without which it is said the Greeks cannot win against the Trojans. Odysseus comes to Philoctetes with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to get the bow.

Naturally, Philoctetes is bitter and might have killed his comrades had not Neoptolemus stolen the bow at Odysseus’ insistence. Philoctetes is distraught at losing his one great possession, the thing which has kept him alive.

O pest, O bane, O of all villainy
Vile masterpiece, what hast thou done to me?
How am I duped? Wretch, hast thou no regard
For the unfortunate, the suppliant?
Thou tak’st my life when thou dost take my bow.
Give it me back, good youth, I do entreat.
O by thy gods, rob me not of my life.
Alas! he answers not, but as resolved
Upon denial, turns away his face.
O havens, headlands, lairs of mountain beasts,
That my companions here have been, O cliffs
Steep-faced, since other audience have I none,
In your familiar presence I complain
Of the wrong done me by Achilles’ son.
Home he did swear to take me, not to Troy.
Against his plighted faith the sacred bow
Of Heracles, the son of Zeus, he steals,
And means to show it to the Argive host.
He fancies that he over strength prevails,
Not seeing that I am a corpse, a shade,
A ghost. Were I myself, he had not gained
The day, nor would now save by treachery…

… I return
To thee disarmed, bereft of sustenance.
Deserted, I shall wither in that cell,
No longer slaying bird or sylvan beast
With yonder bow. Myself shall with my flesh
Now feed the creatures upon which I fed,
And be by my own quarry hunted down.
Thus shall I sadly render blood for blood,
And all through one that seemed to know no wrong.
Curse thee I will not till all hope is fled
Of thy repentance; then accursed die.

(Sophocles, Philoctetes)

Philoctetes has experienced not only pain and torment, but extreme isolation for an extended period of time. If he had been able, he likely would have taken out his anger and rage on his former comrades who had come to get him, those who had abandoned him, mainly Odysseus.

Neoptolemus and Odysseus take the bow of Herakles from Philoctetes

Neoptolemus and Odysseus take the bow of Herakles from Philoctetes

But the Gods decide to favour Philoctetes, and in the legend Herakles himself appears and urges his old friend to return to the war with his bow. This Philoctetes does, and he is one of the men who hides in the Trojan Horse. Sophocles’ play does not go into this, but focusses more on the pain of abandonment and isolation.

How many modern troops, or troops through the ages for that matter, would also have experienced such deep pain in isolation, real and figurative?

How many troops come home to family and friends who, despite the very best of intentions, just don’t understand what they have been through? They can’t understand unless they have been there themselves.

Trenches

The Theatre of War and its performances of Ajax and Philoctetes seems to provide just what is needed for troops who are alone, and depressed, and dealing with PTSD and all the horrors that that entails – a forum of common understanding.

As I said before, I have not served in the military, so I can only imagine what our troops must be going through. However, there is a level on which I can understand some of this that is perhaps related.

It has to do with the study of history in general. Over the years, when I have felt isolated, out-of-place, depressed, or felt difficult emotion to some extreme, I’ve always found comfort in history, the people, the events.

Medieval battle

Medieval battle

Somehow, studying and trying to understand history, whatever the period, has always helped me to feel more attuned to the world about me, less lonely. No matter how bad I might have thought things were, how little I might have been understood, history, the past, has always shown me that similar things, more difficult things, have happened to others. I think the knowledge of the challenges people in the past have overcome has always given me strength.

I can’t imagine my life without having studied the past. From those difficult teenage years to the present day, the past has always been my comfort and compass, and helped me to move forward however small my steps.

Perhaps that is what our troops, those veterans of extreme emotion, get from listening to their fellow warriors’ voices out of the past?

Bryan Doerries says it at the end of each of his group’s performances:

“Most importantly, if we had one message to deliver to you, two thousand four hundred years later, it’s simply this: You are not alone across time.”

So, this November 11th, and all through the year, I will ever spare a thought or prayer for warriors past and present. It shouldn’t matter what you think of the kings or politicians who sent them to battle for whatever ends.

If history has taught me anything, it is that warriors through the ages have faced incredible challenges and horrors, and for that they deserve our compassion.

Lest we forget…

Thank you for reading.

 Poppy field

If you would like to learn a bit more about the Theatre of War, be sure to visit the website and spread the word. You can also watch the video trailer which shows some of the work they do and includes troops expressing their feelings post-performance. Powerful stuff!

I would also recommend watching some of their performances. Below are clips of both Ajax and Philoctetes being performed by Theatre of War.

Click HERE to watch a performance of Ajax by Theatre of War.

 

 

Click HERE to watch a performance of Philoctetes by Theatre of War. 

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest