Homer without Gods (or Doughnuts)

Synchronicity can happen at any time (as someone cleverer than me once said–probably Sting or Harlan Ellison).

Yesterday I ran across two Troy-related items on the web.

First, Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope gave a fairly accurate rundown of the archaeological and historical evidence for the Trojan War. I was interested especially to see him mention the destruction of Troy VI, a generation or so before the destruction of Troy VIIa.

Unfortunately, he didn’t mention the fact that I consider the most interesting: this double destruction of Troy is represented in the mythological record (if that’s the right word): Heracles is supposed to have sacked Troy a generation or so before Agamemnon and co. got there. (As you might expect in Greek myth, a woman plays a role in the casus belli but she doesn’t get the kind of blame that often attaches to Helen.)

Something that was up on the web a few days earlier, but that I didn’t see until yesterday: Comic Book Resources interviewed Eric Shanower whose well-regarded series of graphic novels, Age of Bronze, is intended to tell the entire story of the Trojan War. The third volume is out this month; Shanower began the long-running series in 1998 and apparently he thinks it will be 15 more years before it’s done.

As addicted as I am to mythology in general and Greek mythology in particular, I’ve never quite gotten up the oomph to buy a copy of Shanower’s work. I was never sure why, but after reading the interview I have a clearer idea.

For one thing, Shanower is big on historical authenticity, and there’s a limit past which you can’t push this in a myth. What’s a “historically authentic” version of James Bond? Of Superman or Spider-Man? Or King Arthur? These stories have been told and retold so often, over such a long period of time by so many different people, that they’ve broken loose from their moorings in history (as a good myth always will). Sure, for a particular retelling, you can pick a particular setting. You could even make a movie about Spider-Man where he is in his 20s in 2007, or a movie about James Bond where he gets his first assignment in 2006. But that’s not their authentic historical setting, because they don’t have one. Shanower apparently feels the Trojan War does have an authentic historical setting and his intensive research is designed to recreate it as accurately as possible. This is like trying to figure out “the metre of the dictionary” or “the short spark’s gender”: a recipe for futility, rather than excitement.

Also, Shanower’s version has been de-godded. This significantly changes the story from any mythological source, transforming it from myth into Euhemerized history. Euhemerism doesn’t usually appeal to me: it always sounds like someone telling a joke whose point they don’t understand. In the interview at CBR, Shanower makes clear that his god-expunged version was an ideological choice, which makes it even more irritating to me: an ideologically sanitized universe is a dull one, as a rule.

None of this means that Shanower’s books aren’t good ones; he may just not be the best publicist for his own work. I looked at part of volume 2 in a bookstore a few years ago and put it back without buying it: I wasn’t excited, but I wasn’t repelled.

Maybe I’ll try them again in fifteen years or so. It’s not as if my middle name were “Early Adopter,” anyway. (My parents wavered between that and “Curmudgeonly Nutbar” and I think they went with the right choice.)

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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8 Responses to Homer without Gods (or Doughnuts)

  1. davidcapeguy says:

    Not religious myself, but I don’t see how someone could tell the tale of Troy in the Bronze Age without gods. Even if an ideological choice, the people of that time were believers in their gods (if not universally, at least overwhelmingly, according to archaeological evidence), and to tell THAT tale, story of the sack of Troy, the linchpin literary epic of Greek history, without their gods and the belief in their gods, makes no sense. It would be like telling the history of the city of Rome for the past two thousand years without mentioning Catholicism.

    And for the record: I believe, without a heckuva lot of evidence to support me, that there was a Trojan War, and that the Troy of Homer was based upon real events, possibly a piratical raid on a massive scale upon a rich city. (The Vikings did it…why not the Greeks?) It may be that there was no Helen, no golden apple, and all that, but I suspect that many of the lead characters in the Iliad were based at least loosely upon actual individuals who participated in the great raid. Doubt if it lasted ten years. I’d like to believe in the Horse.

    • JE says:

      It does seem weirdly intrusive that Shanower would consider his religious opinions as central to the story when he’s so intent on recreating all the other features as “authentically” as possible. Oh well: I guess I was the one arguing that this isn’t really possible anyway…

      • filomancer says:

        I agree completely about not taking the gods out of Homer. Which was one of my beefs with the Brad Pitt version.

        But as someone who’s been working with a rather different body of mythology/oral literature for many years, I don’t think all euhemerism, in the broadest sense of the word, should be dismissed without investigation. (And after all Schleimann wouldn’t have found the archaeological site if he hadn’t assumed some historical facts in the story.) Such stories (all stories!) are cultural forms belonging to a particular cultural and historical context… but in a society in which remembrance of deep history (hundreds of years) is crucial for the present, stories about the past may contain quite a bit of what we as outsiders would consider accurate historical information.

        • JE says:

          You’re right: I overstated the case. If the myth is a legend (in the narrower mythographic sense) it can be useful to speculate on the relationship of the myth to its historical core, and (as you say) some kind of euhemerism is more or less inevitable in that process. But, for storytelling purposes, I think the myth trumps history. And euhemerism can get elaborately useless results when applied to etiological myth or folktale or just plain fiction.

          In classics one is always being pestered by some latter-day Euhemerus who’s trying to explain to a close-minded establishment type (me! which is totally unfair!) that the original Phaethon was a pilot crashing a spaceship or that the mythical Medusa was based on a variable star. Do you get cranks like that in Native American studies?

          • filomancer says:

            The kind of elaborate hyperinterpretations you describe are more common with Mesoamerican and South American bodies of myth. (E.g. Quetzalcoatl.) What’s maybe more common with North American materials is to distort the stories into unrecognizability. Re-tellings by outsiders tend to leave out the crucial (story-telling) points.

            With regard to reading certain kinds of astronomical or natural history or calendrical “codes” into myths, I think in some cases it’s justified. That is, in some cases you can’t understand what the storytellers were talking about if you don’t have their knowledge of the natural world and the symbolism they create out of it. If a Loon appears as a helper and guide in a story, it might be relevant to know that loons migrate to the seacoast in autumn, so for the island-dwelling storytellers, its presence has an automatic seasonal association. But that requires becoming more knowledgeable about the original context, rather than arbitrarily ripping elements out of context altogether.

          • JE says:

            “With regard to reading certain kinds of astronomical or natural history or calendrical ‘codes’ into myths, I think in some cases it’s justified. That is, in some cases you can’t understand what the storytellers were talking about if you don’t have their knowledge of the natural world and the symbolism they create out of it.”

            I agree, especially given your qualification about context. My problem with many of the code-hunters I come across is their carelessness, even distaste, for cultural material that seems to operate against their thesis. (If a guy is going to argue that the Trojan War was fought in England–I’m really not making that one up–he’s got to be prepared to be pretty merciless to the evidence.) But stories get passed on in an oral tradition because they matter to the people who pass them on. It’s not absurd in principle to look for patterns of meaning in these stories. Not all hunts are snipe hunts, in short.

            Is there a collection of translations or retellings of North American myth that you’d recommend?

          • filomancer says:

            Is there a collection of translations or retellings of North American myth that you’d recommend?

            The two best anthologies out there (and I say so not just because I have translations in them) are both edited by Brian Swann: Coming to Light (Random House) and Voices from Four Directions (University of Nebraska Press). They consist of translations from the original Native languages along with contextualizing intros for each piece. Some of the other collections out there, even by reputable people, have some pretty unreliable reworkings.

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