Tradition, Truth and the Literary Epic

Homer by JW-Jeong on
Were Homer's epics inspired
by ancient tales of Gilgamesh?
Yesterday, by a piece of serendipity, I discovered that there's a revised edition of Charles Rowan Beye’s Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, which now contains a chapter on Gilgamesh. I want it! I read the earlier edition years ago when I was in graduate school at the University of Dallas, and it made an indelible impression on me, as well as my teaching. The key idea I took away from it was an understanding of what it means to be “literary.” I mention this now because it has a bearing on my reading of the flood accounts I’ve been discussing, particularly the ones in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Metamorphoses.

What does it mean to be “literary”?

As the original edition of Beye’s book points out, Homer’s epics are regarded as marking the beginning of the Western literary tradition because they were the first great stories in fixed, written form to survive and influence later poets. Scholars agree that Homer was drawing on a long oral tradition of myths and legend. Because they had no literary predecessors, neither of Homer’s great epics is “literary” in the sense of making allusion to a previous written tradition. Or at least, that’s what I would have said before I read the Epic of Gilgamesh. Now it seems pretty clear to me that Homer must have been familiar with some version of that earlier, Mesopotamian epic. And Greek scholar Charles Rowan Beye seems to agree. In commenting on the second edition of his book on ancient epic, he says:
The important addition in this 2006 book is the chapter on the Gilgamesh poems.  I spent a considerable time gathering the results of the latest research in order to present a full account of these Sumerian-Akkadian texts.  There is no doubt in my mind although it cannot be proven other than by inference that they had real influence on the Iliad and Odyssey texts.  This connection means that students and teachers of so-called western literature have to enlarge the canon certainly to include these narratives.  Literature can no longer be said to begin with Homer.  
However, we can never know to what extent Homer expected his readers to be familiar with Gilgamesh, or to recognize the way in which he (apparently) appropriated some of its themes and tropes for his own poems, so perhaps Homer’s epics really are not “literary” in the narrow, specialized sense in which I am using that term. I believe it’s likely that Homer would have expected his readers to be familiar, not with Gilgamesh, but with the many Greek heroes who appear in his poems — their character, their milieux, their deeds — as depicted in myriad stories passed down from (even more) ancient times in the oral tradition.

There is a reason I make a sharp distinction between the oral and the literary traditions. This is because stories passed down orally change with each retelling, thus there were many (often conflicting) versions of many Greek myths. And because of this fluidity, there was no canonical, set, “correct” version of any of them. By writing down his own stories of Achilles during the Trojan War, and of Odysseus in the years following the conclusion of that war, Homer set the stories in a fixed form. Because his versions were so beautifully crafted and deeply meaningful, they are the versions that people wanted to hear and read, time and again. The oral versions faded and died, but Homer’s epics lived on. Later poets studied and imitated the masterful examples that Homer presented. Thus was born a “literary” tradition, that grew out of a previous, oral tradition.

Tradition’s bad rap

The term tradition, however, is another which is often misunderstood. “Tradition” simply refers to whatever gets handed on from one generation to another, whether that be stories, beliefs, customs, or something else. The iconoclastic modern world, from Francis Bacon on, has often treated “tradition” as an idol that must be smashed — and it must be admitted that there is a danger in worshiping the past unreflexively. However, this handing-on that we call tradition is an essential element of culture — no tradition, no culture.

Without getting into a whole critique of modern culture, let’s just acknowledge that in most cultures, throughout history and throughout the world, anything or anyone that achieves great age is revered as possessing wisdom and value. Such cultures are called “traditional.” (This is not particularly true of our modern culture, which glorifies youth and novelty.) Thus Homer’s epics, because they were so greatly prized, got handed down through the centuries and eventually their great age lent them a patina of authority. The Greeks came to view Homer almost as the ancient Jews regarded Moses, educating their children out of his epics, as if The Iliad and The Odyssey were great encyclopedias of Greek history and culture — almost as if they were sacred texts filled with divine truth and wisdom, like the Bible.

In fact, one of the reasons the people of Athens condemned and executed Socrates was that he apparently held that Homer’s stories about how the gods behaved were unworthy of belief. Socrates was interested in Truth with a capital T, but to him Homer’s epics were simply imaginative renderings of human truth (with a lower case t), and therefore unworthy of dogmatic belief. Later, in his great philosophical dialogue on the nature of justice, which we call The Republic, Socrates’ great pupil, Plato, had his (fictionalized version of) Socrates declare that poets such as Homer should not be allowed into the perfectly just city, because their stories of the gods would warp the impressionable souls of the young, making them unfit to govern the city. Such an idea was deeply shocking to traditional Athenians, which is one reason why they convicted Socrates of atheism and put him to death — to reject Homer’s depictions of the gods was tantamount to not believing in the gods at all.

Literature can be another way of learning the truth

Ancient Epic Poetry, 2nd edition, by Charles Rowan Beye
The first edition of this book
changed my understanding of epic.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, this does not mean that Plato was against all made-up stories, just those that misrepresent Truth. Later still, Plato’s own disciple, Aristotle, wrote in his Poetics that that poetry (i.e., fiction) can be philosophical, meaning that it can help us contemplate immutable truths. In this way, I suppose, Aristotle goes a long way toward rescuing Homer from Socrates’ condemnation of him and other “lying poets.” As many modern readers can attest, the stories of Achilles and Odysseus certainly capture some enduring truths about human nature, which is why we still read them with such enjoyment and appreciation —  although I’d wager few people (if any) would feel moved to piety by Homer’s depictions of the gods.

At any rate, as Beye points out in his book, by the time of the reign of Caesar Augustus — when Virgil wrote his Aeneid (and Ovid wrote his Metamorphoses) — there had accumulated a long, literary tradition of heroic epic. This means that there was a huge fund of received practice, including not only characters and stories, but also poetic technique and tropes, upon which poets drew to compose their own poems. They expected their readers to be well-read enough to recognize the clever, artful, and meaningful ways in which they made use of these traditional elements. And we too should recognize these deliberate literary allusions, if we wish to understand properly the works of such poets.

Oh, how I wish my high school English teachers had understood this! I remember one class when, after we had studied some excerpts from The Odyssey (a bad practice in itself — always read the whole work, not excerpts taken out of context!), someone asked the teacher why we weren’t going to study Virgil’s Aeneid. The teacher replied that there was no point, since the Aeneid was just a slavish (and inferior) imitation of Homer’s epics. It makes me grind my teeth now to remember this, because this pronouncement colored my views on ancient epic, and on Virgil, for decades thereafter.

Tradition does not stunt creativity

Caesar Augustus wearing the corona civica
Ovid, and others, may have feared
Augustus as a god-king.
The reason my teacher’s dismissal of Virgil grates on me so is that I now understand (thanks in part to Charles Rowan Beye’s book) that Virgil’s constant allusion to, and imitation of, both The Iliad and The Odyssey was not “slavish” at all, but a creative, deliberate, and sophisticated manipulation of his highly literate audience’s imaginations, in order to bring out the meaning of his story that he wanted them to perceive. His epic about Aeneas was a Roman story, written for a Roman audience, containing a distinctly Roman meaning. It was intended, in part, to address very present concerns of his contemporary audience. But these were things the poet did not wish to discuss directly, discursively, openly. Instead, he explored them indirectly, poetically, allusively, creating an analogy not only between Trojan Aeneas and the Greek heroes Achilles and Odysseus, but also between ancient Aeneas, the legendary “father of Rome,” and Caesar Augustus, the recent savior of the country whose own adoptive father, the dictator Julius Caesar, had been declared pater patriae, “father of the nation.”

Focus on Caesar Augustus

All of Rome waited with bated breath to see what kind of “father” Augustus himself would prove to be. He held enormous power, and Romans were deeply distrustful of allowing any one man supreme power over the nation. Augustus was careful not to allow himself to be styled a king (that, after all, was one of the things that got Julius assassinated), but he was, in fact, essentially a monarch, over the most expansive and powerful realm the world had ever seen. And, of course, too much power can make a man go a bit mad (as later inheritors of the title Caesar made plain). So there were many who wished (but hardly dared) to admonish and advise the great Augustus, as well as to warn and reassure the Roman people. Some of them, poets, found that the safest, and perhaps the most effective, way was to convey these ideas indirectly — that is, poetically.

This is, to a great extent, what Virgil was doing in The Aeneid. I believe it is also, to a somewhat lesser extent, what Ovid was doing in the Metamorphoses. Both relied heavily on their readers’ familiarity with the long Graeco-Roman mythopoetic literary tradition to do so. In a coming post, I’ll try to explain a bit of how I believe Ovid made use of the literary tradition in his Metamorphoses in order to convey meaning to his contemporary audience, and how this can help us today, at least those of us who are well-read enough to be able to recognize the early works to which Ovid alludes. I wish Charles Beye had written a chapter on the Metamorphoses, but he admits that this would have been beyond the scope of his expertise:
What the book truly lacked, however, is a chapter on Ovid’s Metamorphoses since it is abundantly clear that Ovid is probably self-consciously playing Apollonius [author of the Argonautica] to Virgil’s Homer.  It would have been a great chapter but, since I am a Hellenist, and even working up the Aeneid taxed my faculties for appreciating Latin poetry, I had to let well enough alone.
So perhaps, at least, I shall have to go back and re-read his chapter on the Argonautica, as a way of understanding better what Ovid was up to in the Metamorphoses. Ah, well, there are worse fates.

I will leave you with this very modern take on some quite ancient material — a Japanese anime rendering of the exploits of Alexander the Great. It just goes to show that traditional material continues to inspire modern storytellers.

This Japanese anime is a mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy, purportedly about
the exploits of Alexander the Great — although perhaps in an alternate universe!

Until next time — read well, and prosper!

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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