Priam’s Tragedy and the Wrath of Achilles

I’m always interested to know what reality (if any) lies behind any work of fiction.  Particularly with historic fiction.

In this case, one is in the realms of myth and fragmentary records, with a little help from archaeology.  But at Troy, archaeology suggests that Homer blended several separate sacks of a city that was rebuilt more than once.  And that he lived in a Greek dark age after the breakdown of complex kingdoms.  That he wrongly projected Greece as it existed in his time onto the earlier era when any real Trojan war might have taken place.

The Iliad and Odyssey are two famous poems from a cycle of stories famous to the Classical Greeks.  The same myths are found in surviving poems, histories, and plays, sometimes contradicting Homer’s version.  For that matter, it’s not certain there was a single author called Homer or that the Iliad and Odyssey have the same origin.  Robert Graves in Homer’s Daughter does a clever novelisation of one way it might have happened.

The root of this story was when I realised that Priam’s life would make a beautiful epic.  As a young man, he survives one sack of Troy by Hercules.  He prospers, has everything – and then loses it.  So I imagined that this was the original story.  I imagined this back in 2004, and then set it aside for later completion, still having a full-time job to do.  Many of the ideas were already there in 2094, but I added more later before writing it a completed version in a morning’s session early in March 2017.

Does my idea have merit?  Obviously my notions of the original stories are pure invention.  But it is universally agreed that Homer told of ‘the wrath of Achilles‘ within a well-know cycle, and that he or another also did a fine epic about the wanderings of Odysseus.  And as I have the song-stitcher mention, Helen in her current legend was abducted first by Theseus and then again by Paris, which is excessive.  She even officially hatched from an egg, sometimes along with her brothers Castor and Pollux.

There is also the puzzle as to why Odysseus became Ulysses to the Romans.  One speculation is that there was once a distinct individual called Ulixes, whose legend was absorbed.

I also agree with the speculation that the Iliad includes famous heroes who lived long before or after the actual war against Priam, assuming it was originally a real war.  In our own time we see similar combinations and changes.  The original Dracula was the historic Vlad the Impaler, viewed as a hero by some Romanians and Russians.  Others saw him as a tyrant, but it was Bram Stoker who reinvented him as a vampire, drawing on separate legends of such beings.  He nowadays is out of copyright and included in all sorts of stories.  His victim Mina Harker, whom Stoker had cured of her curse, becomes an heroic vampire lady in the comic book series and film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  She does this along with characters from a number of other works of fiction.  I assume the same thing happened a lot in ancient times, but with few characters wholly invented in an age when history and myth had not sharply separated.

We know with certainty that an enormous number of Greek poems and plays were lost.  Some of the verse from Homer’s day and before may never have been written down.  Even with writing, much was lost.  We hear about works by famous playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides that have not survived.

And who was the real Homer?  Among the Greeks and Romans, there was a tradition that he was a blind bard from Ionia, but not identified with any particular place.  Most modern experts think this was invented long after the event.  Regardless, I have him conforming to a tradition of poetic blindness, and do not specify any particular place.  Nor use any proper names except for the legendary heroes.

Regarding writing: some unknown people on Crete had a writing system known as Linear A.  It remains undeciphered, and if it was phonetic then the language was not Greek or anything else we know of.  But from it derived a system called Linear B that was used to write archaic Greek. Greek different from and older than the Greek spoken by Homer, which in turn was not the same as the Greek that Plato used.  It is believed to have 87 syllabic signs and over 100 ideographic signs: I chose to make it 193; or at least the man knew that many.  He is fluent in Linear B and has a sketchy knowledge of Linear A, which many have been a wholly ideographic system.

Linear B was used in Mycenae, Agamemnon’s city in the Iliad.  If Homer’s Agamemnon was based on a real king of that era, he would have had scribes who used it.  He might even have known Linear B himself.  He would have been very different from the war-chief ruling a society without writing that you see in the Iliad.  Records show a much more complex society with a central bureaucracy.

Surviving Linear B writing are wholly palace records.  If it were ever used to write scrolls about myths, none have survived.  Yet they might have existed.  The vastly older Epic of Gilgamesh was written on clay tablets, and we would suspect none of it without them.  It has been noted that it includes a story of a world flood rather similar to that in Genesis, though it need not be the direct source.  But without the tablets of his epic, Gilgamesh would be just another enigmatic name in the Sumerian king lists.  His real name may have been ‘Bilgamesh.

Later Greek writing almost certainly came from the Phoenicians.  The alphabet has the merit that if you learn the letters to read a foreign language, you can also use it to write your own language.  All it takes is a little adaptation to add new sounds that the foreigners lacked and drop those your own language did not use.  Greeks added vowel sound in this way.

Who invented the original alphabet is uncertain.  The first recorded use is in turquoise mines in the Sinai peninsula.  The users may have been close to the ancestors of the Hebrews.  The language is definitely Semitic.  The signs mostly evolved from a small number of Egyptian hieroglyphs.  And the subject matter is prayers to Egyptian god.  Make what story you like out of those details!

It was almost certainly the Phoenicians who spread the idea of republican government and limited democracy to Greece.  We know that they had it earlier, with possible beginning in older Mesopotamian cities.  That it survived in their greatest colony, Carthage.  And that all of it was a long way from modern democracy.  Athens probably came closest, with periods of equal voting-power for all citizens.  Of course woman were not citizens, many inhabitants were slaves and resident foreigners seldom got citizenship.  The later Roman system had deeply unequal voting that let the rich dominate.

In the Iliad, we have a hybrid of monarchy and oligarchy: Agamemnon commands but must consult the lesser kings in a broad council.  Ordinary Greek warriors are expected just to obey their regional King.  There is every indication that Homer saw this as correct.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.

I have since done a fuller study that says a lot more about Troy, among other matters, in The invention of agriculture and cities.