Daily News Online

Wednesday, 26 May 2010



Greek Epics: Gods, Men and Humaneness

This week we want our readers, particularly the young ones, to follow some impressions that yours truly had formed as imprinted in his mind regarding the relationship that the Gods had with the Humans as we read Homer's (the Greek Epic Poet) The Iliad and the Odyssey via English.

The first thing that comes to my memory is that there is a kind of affinity in both Greek and Hindu mythology and epics. There are almost similar characters in the Iliad and the Mahabharata. Let's leave that comparison for a later day and come to the point about our main concern here.

Odysseus Overcome by Demodocusí Song, by Francesco Hayez

The Gods in the Iliad are very human in that they behave like human beings.

They are not contemptuous of human beings. However they take sides.

Some times they suppose forces at the same time.

They disguise themselves as human beings and help the human beings whom they like.

They expect sacrifices from the human beings.

The Gods are always involved in some kind of activity in relation to the human beings.

We must remember the fact that the Iliad depicted the Heroic Age. And War and Peace was its theme. It was a warrior culture that prevailed in what may be called primitive times.

Our key point here is the presence of humaneness amidst a war situation.

A redeeming feature was that amidst hatred and war there laid dormant human kindness. As we learn the essence western classical culture then was Humanism. And this is best manifested in the parts played by the Gods in the Iliad. The divine blessings are transferred to the humans.

If you would remember the incident in the epic where soon after the death of Hector, Achilles meets Priam. There is an expression of humanism shown in the scene. This meeting could be considered as the climax of the epic in terms of the essence of what western classical culture was, namely Humanism.

Achilles was a true warrior, prowess in battle and honour and fame were his true mettle. But he was also human. He dragged Hector along the battle field after killing him. That was part of the military or martial tradition. But the most important thing was that once his enemy was killed, his hatred towards the Trojans declined. He honours and respects hector's father Priam and even weeps with him. This was a climactic point. It was also the kernel of human relationship.


This reminds us of how Lanka's recorded history says that the Sinhala king Duttu Gemunu after killing the Chola dynasty king Ellalan (Elara in Pali) erected a statue for the dethroned king and asked his people to show respects to the statue while they passed that way.

It must be pointed that that Achilles had nothing against the Trojans personally. This he had said at the beginning of the epic. He really went to battle with them for the sake of Agamemnon. But he came back sulking because Agamemnon had insulted him by taking over his Trojan captive Brusis. He returned to the battle only after Agamemnon begging him to come to his rescue. It was also because Patrioclus had been killed by Hector.

Therefore the return of Achilles to the battle field was for Honour- which was one of the characteristics in the Heroic Age. The other aspects were Aristocratic, Martial, Patriarchal and Individualistic.

To avenge his friend's death Achilles went back to the battle field and ultimately brought honour for himself and to the Achaeans.

Here lies the importance of the shield of Achilles. The shield by itself was nothing important but what it signified was great. It was the symbol of Honour and Glory which were the hallmarks of the Heroic Age.

The Gods physically came down to earth as if in a machine. Knowledgeable theatre people amongst us would know that in Greek Drama, Deux-ex- machina was a device where the Gods were brought to solve the climax of a play. The Gods took part in the battle and other affairs of the people.

More on ancient Greek culture later.



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