A song for men to come

For Homer war is something dreadful and in which participants take no joy. None of his epithets are positive e.g. Πολυδακρυος bringing tears or αινος dreadful. There is one exception χάρμη which can be translated as joy in battle. But Leaf and Bayfield would dispute this meaning saying at the most it could mean the glow of battle. This view of war lends a sadness to the Iliad that permeates throughout and adds a pleasant melancholy when reading it. Sometimes this sadness bubbles to the surface. Here in the encounter of Glaucos the Trojan with Diomedes the Greek, Glaucos talks about the impermanence of families and generations.

τὸν δ᾽ αὖθ᾽ Ἱππολόχοιο προσηύδα φαίδιμος υἱός:
Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ᾽ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ᾽ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ᾽ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ᾽ ἀπολήγει.

Then Glaucus, the glorious son of Hippolochos replied. “Great hearted son of Tydeus, why do you ask about my lineage? As is the generation of leaves so is the generation of men. The wind piles the leaves on the ground, but the wood flourishes and brings forth others and the season of spring comes on. So one generation of men brings forth and another withers.”

So what is all this war and suffering for? To be a story for those to come Here Helen is talking to Hector and expresses this view.

ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε νῦν εἴσελθε καὶ ἕζεο τῷδ᾽ ἐπὶ δίφρῳ
δᾶερ, ἐπεί σε μάλιστα πόνος φρένας ἀμφιβέβηκεν
εἵνεκ᾽ ἐμεῖο κυνὸς καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρου ἕνεκ᾽ ἄτης,
οἷσιν ἐπὶ Ζεὺς θῆκε κακὸν μόρον, ὡς καὶ ὀπίσσω
ἀνθρώποισι πελώμεθ᾽ ἀοίδιμοι ἐσσομένοισι.

But do come in and sit upon this stool, brother-in-law, since trouble has especially encompassed your mind because of me, dog as I am and because of the folly of Alexander. On us Zeus has laid this fate so that in the hereafter we may become a song for men to come.

Iliad 6.354

And Alcinous, king of the Pheaecians, talking to Odysseus in the Odyssey expresses a similar view.

εἰπὲ δ᾽ ὅ τι κλαίεις καὶ ὀδύρεαι ἔνδοθι θυμῷ
Ἀργείων Δαναῶν ἠδ᾽ Ἰλίου οἶτον ἀκούων.
τὸν δὲ θεοὶ μὲν τεῦξαν, ἐπεκλώσαντο δ᾽ ὄλεθρον
ἀνθρώποις, ἵνα ᾖσι καὶ ἐσσομένοισιν ἀοιδή.

Tell me, why do you weep and are so pained in your heart when you hear the destiny of the Argives Danaans and of Troy. The gods have brought on this fate and they have woven death for men so that they may be a song for those to come.

Odyssey 8.577

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2 Responses to A song for men to come

  1. There is such beauty to Homeric Greek, although I do not think much on the melancholy of it all. Reading it, however, I do quite agree with your perspective. Even references to Zeus himself are surrounded by the bad and the painful. That “κακὸν μόρον” is so telling. Do you think Helen literally meant a bad fate? If so, does Zeus hand out this fate personally? Also, if fate is bad but for a good reason (ὡς καὶ ὀπίσσω ἀνθρώποισι πελώμεθ᾽ ἀοίδιμοι ἐσσομένοισι), isn’t that good fate?
    Very interesting excerpts, none the less.


    • platosparks says:

      Thanks for your comment. My perspective is that “to be a song for men to come” is not a good fate. It is such a slight reason for all our suffering that it makes the suffering even more pointless and melancholy.

      Liked by 1 person

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