Pre-Modern Family: My Fourth Trip through the “Iliad”

note: Off-topic post.  Way off-topic.  It relates neither to my new career as a math teacher or my old career as an advertising something-or-other.  Proceed with caution.

I first read the Iliad between my freshman and sophomore year in college, inspired by the truly inspiring Martin Ostwald.  Still a boy, I enjoyed the boys’s adventure aspect of the story, one of the first great combat narratives ever committed to paper.  As a recovering Dungeons and Dragons player, I could easily imagine myself slipping on Diomede’s greaves and sailing into the Trojan host with fervid glee.

When I told Mr. Ostwald that I had read it, he took his pipe from his mouth (perhaps metaphorically) and issued a challenge in two words: “in Greek?”

Hence I read it again as an analyst, decoding the letters, words, syntax and structure in a language that I never quite came to grips with yet one I bluffed someone into thinking I knew well enough to minor in it.  When I wasn’t wrestling with the text, I occasionally got to ponder the great questions about the book, such as the meaning of honor.

I even accidentally wrestled with an even greater question, “what is the meaning of ‘time’ in the Iliad?”  The poem only mentions time in passing, usually in some metaphor regarding sunrise (“rosy-fingered dawn”) or sunset.  It turns out that the fellow student who raised the question in a paper meant τɩμἠ, which transliterates as “time” (pronounced “tee-MAY”) but means “honor.”  Fun question though.

After a few years in the working world, I took an adult education course through my alma mater that involved reading the Iliad and Odyssey again.  This time, I immediately glommed onto the source material as an allegory about organizational management, of all things.  That is, Agamemnon reminded me of every son-of-a-bitch boss I ever had, Achilles stood in for the arrogant-but-effective star and Odysseus resembled the scheming ladder-climber who lurks somewhere in every cohort of middle managers.  Moreover, the whole structure of maybe three people making decisions for thousands without any input from them rang a little to true for a 30-something advertising veteran.

So, just as Paul Simon’s records make more sense when you reach the age he was when he recorded them, the text took on newer meanings with each re-reading.  However, unlike my previous readings, I went into my fourth time through the epic with a specific goal, to understand how the Iliad works as a family story.

I suppose as I near 50, family takes on added definition to me.  The family that raised me no longer exists as such.  All my grandparents have gone as has my mother and favorite aunt as well as some supporting characters.  Smaller though by no means less momentous meals have replaced the big Thanksgiving and Passover dinners of the past.  I guess I always expected continuation but I find myself in a new thing entirely.

More to the point, recent events both personal and professional have made family the first thing on my mind pretty much all day every day.  Naturally, as a new teacher, I see evidence of both supportive and non-supportive families every day.  I see a brother and sister whose ability and persistence in math couldn’t differ more.  I see miniature versions of my students in grades 6 & 7 and larger versions in the high school.  I hear from parents and guardians via email and I call them on the phone.

My own family has moved into a new set of hopes and needs.  My wife and I are helping our dyslexic son apply to high school.  Our daughter is overcoming her ADHD and blossoming as a student and an artist.  My father-in-law is falling deeper and deeper into dementia.  My brother has some form of heart disease.

At the same time, family is often all I have time left for.  New teachers essentially build their own toolboxes of lesson plans, homework assignment, quizzes and tests, which means they’ll probably never work harder than in their first years.  I also have the same after-class responsibilities as other teachers, such as faculty meetings and training.  I have graduate school as well.  What time I might have spent on myself generally goes to my family.

As a reflection on family, the first book of the Iliad has rewarded me handsomely.  Since I focused on derring-do, technical factors or organizational son-of-a-bitchery in previous readings, I hadn’t fully appreciated how family binds the work together.  At bottom, of course, the epic focuses on two pairs of brothers fighting for family honor, after a fashion.  Hector feels obliged to protect his prodigal brother.  Agamemnon, jerkoff though he may be, also needs to protect his brother’s interest as well as uphold the normal order of things.  You don’t just steal another man’s wife, no matter how hot you think she is.

I had forgotten, though, how often Homer used patronymics–fathers’ names.  Maybe reading War and Peace a few years ago should have reminded me.  Just in the first book, we learn that Agamemnon’s father is Atreus, that Achilles’ father is Peleus, that Zeus’ father is Cronos and that in turn several gods are children of Zeus.  We’re also introduced to the father-daughter pair of Chryses and Chryseis and Achilles’ cousin Patroclus.  We meet Achilles’ mother, Thetis, as well.

Remember that this first book involves a tangled set of family disputes.  It starts with Chryses begging Agamemnon for his daughter, whom he’s kidnapped and presumably raped as his captive (this is not evidence of his son-of-a-bitchery in the context of bronze age rules of engagement).  As a priest of Apollo, Chryses begs his patron for revenge, so Phoebus starts killing Greeks with either metaphoric arrows or real disease, depending on how you read it.  This pisses off Agamemnon, who decides to pack Chyrseis off back to her father and takes Achilles’ human war trophy (Briseis) in compensation (by contrast, this is evidence of Agamemnon’s son-of-a-bitchery in the context of bronze age rules of engagement).  In turn, Achilles calls on his mom to intercede with Zeus, who we must remember is Apollo’s father.  Zeus reminds Thetis that he wants to help but doesn’t want to annoy his wife, Hera (Apollo’s stepmother since Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants and had him by Leto).  Got all that?

In short, book one of the Iliad already resembles a mid-series story arc from The Sopranos.  It readily displays that importance and responsibilities of of family.  We seek succor in our families but we also inherit their struggles.

I suppose there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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