The Muses

Helen in the Iliad and Alcinous in the Odyssey both say the same thing: it was the desire of the gods to grant material for a song that led to the terror of the Trojan wars. Helen first of all (she is speaking of Paris, also, knowing that they were the cause of the war to come): 'On us two Zeus has set a doom of misery, so that in time to come we can be themes of song for men of future generations.' Alcinous claims the gods destroyed Troy and the Acheans 'that there might be a song in the ears of men yet unborn'.

The singer, of course, was Homer. But did he compose it? Poets, then, were singers; nothing was written; each performance of epic verse was unique. Accompanied by a lyre, the poet, the singer, would be permitted to improvise, to recast events. But at the outset of the performance, it was necessary to call upon divine assistance: the Muses were invoked.

What did Homer suppose himself to be doing when he sang? According to an interesting book by Finkelkraut, which I paraphrase here, he takes himself to be reporting the truth. No, Homer did not see what happened - he was not present at Troy, and many even say he was blind, but the Muses saw everything; they were eyewitnesses to the events. Even though Homer knows what occurred in broad outline, he calls upon the Muses to help him when his expertise fails. There is a point when he sings:

Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympus--you are gods, and attend all things and know all things, but we hear only the report and have no knowledge--tell me who were the leaders of the Danaans and their rulers.

True enough, the Muses supply him with details he had no means of knowing.

The Muses were said to be daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Some asked how, if this were the case, the poet could call upon the Muses as eyewitnesses of what happened before the birth of Zeus. Inventive poets gave another genealogy for the Muses, claiming they were born from Uranos and Gaia, gods from an earlier stage in the theogony. The Muses would have to come first of all, else how could a singer like Hesiod compose his epic? But then the theogony can only reach back to the Muses, recounting their birth and their progeny. Before them, darkness, the forgotten.

The gods set the Trojan wars in motion to await the poet who would call upon the Muses to retell the events. But why did the gods, who saw everything, want to hear them told again? And what of the Muses, gods among the gods - why, if they were the ones who would give the poet the gift of song would they want to bring about the wars? Divine caprice? Or was it to hear the changes wrought by the poet, to experience the surprise of the events happening anew in the song?

I think it was this: the gods, all-powerful, receive something over which they can exert no power. They learn once again of the wars of Troy and, with Hesiod's Theogony, of their own birth. What else do they learn? That there is something in the song which escapes and threatens to destroy the gods themselves. Homer and Hesiod give way to a generation of philosophers who agree that the epic poets have already made the gods all too human. In place of the manifold gods of Hesiod and the Olympus of Homer, there is the burning logos of Heraclitus, the divine law, which he refuses to call Zeus.

The Hero

Who is the hero? He does not belong to the most ancient times – to a time populated by dwarves, ogres and witches, the time of magic and cave paintings, in which the community paints the beasts it will hunt (and rarer and stranger beasts too – think of the extraordinary creatures of Lascaux ...) There is as yet a common horizon, this is a horizontal world, a world that has no sundered itself from the natural immensity, from the immanence of the natural realm. The hero appears by shattering this horizon – he is the transgressor, the one who tears up immanence.

To fight, to conquer – the hero lives in the glory of his acts, in the splendour of immediate action. It is possible to begin, to find a firmness from which to leap into the world, to accomplish deeds. But this presumes that another experience of the world, revealed in the most ancient tales, has disappeared. No more dwarfs and witches – now is the time for light, for a revelation which admits of no division. Essence and appearance are joined in the act; the name of the hero suffices only to name the most brilliant of heroic deeds.

But the hero’s name depends upon the song in which he is celebrated. After the feast, the bard comes forward to sing; in the song, the hero lives. Didn’t the heroes of the Wars of Homer’s poem know their fate? Hector says that before he dies he will accomplish something great 'whereof even men yet to be born shall hear’. Agamemnon says 'even men yet to be born shall hear' of the shame of the Achaeans' retreat from Troy. The heroes know their reward lies in posterity; their names will resound after they die. Thus, the hero owes his existence to the telling, the song, to the language in which his deeds are repeated. True, the hero is unique – he has a name, and a unique glory as the bearer of this name that is sung in the great hall. A uniqueness born of the splendour of an act that his name substantialises, and this is the miracle, the surprise of heroism: a name can attach itself to such great deeds.

A human being can be marvellous: this is what the epic rhapsody celebrates as it repeats the name of the hero, begining the tale again, over and again, embellishing it, transforming it even as it is yet the same tale. Sing of the Pandavas in the forest again! Sing the story of the Rama one more time! Tell us of Krishna’s deeds! It is true, Rama, Krishina, and the Pandava brothers name avatars, or men who can claim divine descent. Perhaps one should think of Heracles and Archilles instead – of Roland and Cid....

Still, the epic is a tale without beginning or end. An epic which must end as history begins (‘and then darkness fell over India ...). The hero does not belong to history. His time is passed – who now is capable of a deed which flashes out through heaven and earth? Who can lend his acts to the memory of the epic? Yet the hero exists in the tale and this is the condition of his existence: he is alive in the retelling of the tale – alive in the presence he has for the listener in the great hall.

Some say the Trojan and Theban wars were caused by Zeus in order to end the Heroic Age. In the Odyssey, it already seems the Trojan wars already belong to another era. All, even Ulysses, are keen to hear songs of Troy. And isn’t it knowledge of Troy that the Sirens promise to bestow? It is already, with the Odyssey, a time for song. Soon, the hero’s name will be eclipsed by the name of the singer. The bard steps out of obscurity and anonymity to lay claim to Achilles.

Now the act belongs to the bard (the author). Literature begins. Does the singer become a hero in turn? Is it necessary, now, to write rather than act – or to act and then write, recording one’s exploits? Must one create one’s own legend? Eventually, the hero is replaced by the adventurer, the novel is on the horizon. It is a question, once again, of the horizontal, of the common horizon ...

The Oracle

First violence: language, which distances beings in their being only to reclaim them in an idealised form. Then this question: could the gods speak? Was Olympus silent? The Delphic oracle, placed at the centre of Hellas, and perhaps at the centre of the inhabited world, is like the lips of a cave which reached into the depths of the earth.

Who spoke through these lips? The gods? Or the priestess whom the gods appointed so they could hear the peculiar violence of naming belongs to human beings alone? Or was it the depths themselves, reverberating in the songs of those who would sing in the competitions held at Delphi? Already in the song there was a violence beyond that which would separate human beings from the world. Already there was a language beyond language which spoke of a horror from a time before humans and gods.