Thursday, November 19, 2015

Legendary Men vs Mythical Gods

1) Homer (again), 2) Legendary Men vs Mythical Gods

Richard L. Purtill, in chapter 1, The Dimensions of Myth, 2nd §, puts it totally backward:

"Whoever Homer was, he almost certainly believed in the Olympian gods and even in the historical existence of people named Odysseus and Achilles, Penelope and Helen."

What does "and even" mean in such a context?

Very obviously, he got the persons, in the main (very good character like perhaps Hector in Troy and more probably Eumaeus and Eurycleia on Ithaca possibly excepted, these being more like his experience of good people transposed back into what he was writing about) from the legends current in his day (or among his fellow aoidoi) which, again in the main, came from the facts.

There is a local legend in Dürnstein of how Richard Coeur de Lion, of the Plantagenet race, King of England, was kept prisoner in the castle of Dürnstein. It stresses discretely how he had brought this on himself by insulting the Austrian Duke (a Leopold, as so often with Babenberg dynasty), at the siege of St Jean d'Acre in the THird Crusade, and how therefore, when going through Austria, Rihcard tried to pass incognito but failed as having been recognised by the Squire of that Duke who had been present at the scene in St Jean d'Acre.

No historian ever, that I heard of, put in doubt that Richard Lionheart was captive in Dürnstein.

There are legends about the Hunde von Kuenring as being more brigands than vassals - and of how a Duke of Austria sent men to end their pillaging. Here doubts have been uttered aboutif they really were that bad, if the bad reports weren't a way to justify greed on part of the Duke (and since their real or perhaps supposed victims are not an ethnic group, such revisionism is not illegal in France ...) But these reservations do not touch the fact that the Aggsteiners did exist and did own a castle at Kuenring, on the Danube.

Obviously an Austrian would believe the Dürnstein or the Danube stories nearly independently of whatever religion he had (the religions most opposed to believing this not being to my mind really Austrian!). And in almost any degree of education, from cobbler to university professor.

But an Atheist, a Catholic, a Neo-Pagan who wanted to make a full length novel about any of these legends, each of them would differ as to whether chance, God and sometimes the devil, or Germanic deities or Slavic deities decided the kind of coincidences which were sometimes decisive.

And Homer who made two full length epics of his legendary or family traditional materials, inserted (perhaps from poetic tradition) Olympic gods as his version of divine Providence. An Atheist who thinks there is only chance and causality or a Catholic Christian like me will disbelieve the dialogue between Zeus and Athena on Mount Olympus. At least the Christian of us need not dispute that witchcraft in part had kept him back in part of his delays, though saying that about Calypso might be doing her natural charms (waning somewhat ten years later) an injustice and instead too much justice or more than justice to Ulysses' full intention of returning as soon as possible to Penelope - or he may not. His return is in a sense symbolical, since Penelope and Telemachus were hoping as much against hope for it and certainly against social expectations around them, as Church and Christians for that of Christ. Even an atheist need not dispute Ulysses actually returned.

The opening quote should thus have read: he knew most of his human characters had existed, probably mostly doing what legends said they had done, and probably even - here the "even" is appropriate - believed in the precise divinities to which he attributed major events beyond human control.

And why not add the many minor events we do not even really try to control, most of us, and which lead up to the major ones.

Next sentence in this chapter is appropriate:

"He presented what might have happened to these people, selecting from legends and traditions, but also using his own imagination."

However, we do not quite know there were in his day many conflicting versions to select from, aboyt many things, he probably just selected which events he thought worthy to base the epic on.

Whereon Purtill compares Homer to a modern Historical novelist. Very aptly. The religious dimension of Homer is, however, very like that of another genre, in covering the outer events, say, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by Lawrence of Arabia : but Homer was no warrior (as far as we know) whose own autobiography was interesting enough to embody it in an impressive way : which is why he instead chose a genre closer to Historical novel than to autobiography.

Obviously this is very different from Tolkien writing about Frodo, as far as historicity of events is concerned. And of course this is on the other hand very close to Tolkien writing hints about his own (and my own) belief in Providence into his story of Frodo, insofar as he preferred to insert them in a less self centred genre than autobiography. The first chapter where I just quoted second paragraph, because I wanted to comment on the matter of principle, is that of J. R. R. Tolkien, subtitled Myth, Morality and Religion.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
St Elisabeth of Marburg

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