Saturday, December 3, 2016

Demystifying the Trojan War, Redux


This post originally  went up a bit under three years ago, but knowing you all have elephantine memories, I didn't dare try and slide it past you.  Besides, it's one of my favorites and took so long to write originally I felt it deserving of a re-run on its merits [N.B. Note clear rationalization].  And considering how my week has run, it'll be better than what I could do afresh.  You, see, I have been in one of those rare (for me, at least) writer's zones over the past five-days that had everything running perfectly toward finishing the novel I'd been struggling with for months. One does not jump off that sort of ride with the muses, and I'm pleased to say I finished a (relatively) polished re-draft of Andreas Kaldis #9 last night around midnight!  But this morning (Friday) I'm off to Chicago for my last book event of 2016, taking place Friday evening. So, with that introduction, here's Helen and crew.... 

How many of you have heard of the Trojan War?  I bet there’s not one of you who hasn’t. It’s the world’s best known epic tale of romance, action, and intrigue, and thanks to Homer’s telling in the Illiad and the Odyssey, a source for countless storylines down through the ages…including the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

But how many of you know the actual story of the War? Other than of course the bit about the (possibly) kidnapped Helen’s face launching a thousand ships and The Horse.  Aha, the ranks are thinning quickly.

Well, here’s my adapted telling of the tale based upon a version I came across while reading The Everything Classical Mythology Book, by Lesley Bolton.

The most well-known character in the myth is, of course, Helen of Troy, though she really wasn’t from Troy.  That’s just where she ended up spending ten years waiting to be “rescued.”  Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and the daughter of the union of Zeus and Leda (not Leto, whose children with couldn’t-keep-it-in-his-pants-Zeus were the twins Apollo and Artemis).

Helen by Evelyn De Morgan

However the aggravation of raising such a beautiful daughter (something I know first hand) didn’t fall to her natural mother and father (assuming there’s anything natural about a Greek god turning himself into a swan to seduce a mortal), but to her foster father, King Tyndareus of Sparta.  

King Ty, as I like to call him, worked out a way of keeping all the suitors for his daughter’s hand (and a lot more) at bay by making all swear that in order to participate in the competition, they had to agree to abide by Helen’s choice of husband and defend her against anyone who might try to kidnap her.  The winner was Menelaus of Sparta and they were wed.

Menelaus by Giacomo Brogi

Then along came Paris of Troy, who stopped in to say “Hi” to the groom and, when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a quick trip out of town for Menelaus, to repay his host’s hospitality by stealing away his bride. 

Paris and Helen by Jacques Louis-David

But the kidnapping wasn’t a spontaneous whim.  Paris felt he had a right to claim Helen.  You see, Paris had been the judge in a beauty contest among the gods Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera to settle a dispute as to which of the three was the fairest.  In keeping with the sort of judging still seen in many parts of the world today, Paris made a side deal with Aphrodite that he’d choose her in return for her promising him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. But before he could claim her, she’d married. 

No matter, to Paris a deal was a deal and he’d come to Sparta to collect his prize. He spirited Helen away and, after spending their first night together on Kranae, a tiny island just off the port city of Gytheio on Greece’s Southern Peloponnese, it was off to Troy.  

Abduction of Helen, Francesco Primaticcio

Church on Kranae
[As a side note, that one-night diversion has created a thriving cottage industry on modern day Kranae, for today couples exchange marriage vows at a church on that spot, no doubt hoping for better luck than came to Paris and Helen.]

Not surprisingly, Menelaus didn’t take kindly to Paris’ thank you, and when Menelaus’ trip to Troy with Odysseus (aka Ulysses) to demand of King Priam of Troy her immediate return proved futile, Menelaus returned home to Sparta, massed Helen’s former suitors who’d pledged to defend her against kidnappers, and with his brother Agamemnon in command, dispatched an army of a thousand ships to reclaim her. 

But the Olympian biggie gods were involved in this mess up to their tiarasses.  Some had aligned with Greece (e.g., Poseidon because he was pissed at the Trojans for not having paid his bill for construction work, and Athena and Hera because of Paris’ involvement in fixing their beauty contest).  Others sided with Troy (e.g., Aphrodite who’d created the mess in the first place, and Apollo joined in it with his twin sister, Artemis.) 

Anytime the gods got involved in something there were problems.  And in this instance, just to get things started, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter to the god Artemis (a backer of Troy) for the winds to blow and launch his thousand ships. 

The Greek plan was simple, conquer the numerous towns surrounding Troy and thereby squeeze it into submission.  A simple plan turned into nine years of war with still no end in sight. Hmm, sound familiar? 

In the tenth year everything went to hell in a hand-basket for the Greeks.
First, the Greeks’ greatest warrior, Achilles (slayer of the Trojans’ greatest, Hector) died when pierced in the heel (surely you knew that) by an arrow cast into the air by Paris from behind his fortress walls and guided to its mark by Apollo.  

Then a fight broke out between Odysseus and Ajax of Salamis (non-kosher style for sure) over who’d get to wear Achilles armor (starting to sound more and more like that Brad Pitt 2004 version of the tale called Troy, does it not?), an honor ultimately bestowed on Odysseus that led Ajax into madness and ultimately taking his own life.  And then the Amazons weighed in to fight on the side of the Trojans.

But the Greeks did not give up.  Led by Odysseus they captured the King of Troy’s son, and through him learned what they needed to do if there were to be any hope of Troy falling.  The Greeks did as the prince had said, culminating in snatching away the sacred statue of Athena—the Palladium—which stood within Troy to protect the city from destruction.

But still Troy did not fall.  Then Odysseus came up with a plan, perhaps the most famous hustle in history: one requiring a gigantic wooden horse and some mighty gullible Trojans.

It was the blueprint for a classic scam that’s since played out countless times in print and film:  Present the mark with a fascinating unexpected gift.  Get a shill to tell a believable story compete with a hook that gets the mark to thinking it’s come up with a way to outsmart the hustler, and toss in a last minute twist that threatens to destroy the plan but fails because of an even greater surprise twist. 

In this case, the Trojan Horse (more aptly the Greek or Spartan Horse, since they built it) appeared one morning outside the walls of Troy with the Greek army nowhere to be seen, leaving the Trojans confused over what to do with it: destroy the horse, or bring it within their city’s walls.   Then appeared a man in rags—the disguised Greek soldier Sinon—who claimed he’d escaped being sacrificed to Athena by the Greeks as an offering to appease her ire at their having stolen the Palladium from Troy. 

Then seemingly by chance he revealed a secret of the Greeks: that the great wooden horse before them was also meant to appease Athena by serving to replace the Palladium, but the sneaky Greeks had intentionally built it far too large to pass inside the walls of Troy out of fear that if brought inside it would bring victory to the besieged city.

Just as the Greeks’ plan seemed to be working, one Trojan stepped forward to challenge Sinon’s story (standard screenwriting fare these days), and hurled his spear at the wooden horse, no doubt hoping to elicit a cry from whomever it struck within. But just as he did, a giant sea monster reared up and devoured the cynic, distracting the crowd from the point of both his logic and spear.

The Trojans took the monster as a sign of Athena’s anger at the spear being tossed at an offering to her—rather than of an effort on her part (remember, she was on the side of the Greeks) to silence one threatening to expose the Greeks’ plan. 

Surprise, surprise the Trojans figured out a way to bring the horse within their walls, and while rejoicing in their good fortune missed Sinon freeing the soldiers inside it and opening Troy’s gates for the rest of the Greek army to enter the city.

We all know what happened next. Or at least we think we do.  Helen was returned to her husband.  But not until after the Greeks had engaged in a bloodlust rage of battle so unsettling and sacrilegious to gods that had once backed the Greeks that they turned on them, bringing Odysseus ten more years of trials and tribulations before reaching home (after all, it was a two-book deal for Homer) and far worse fates for far more.

Homer 850 BCE

Yes, that’s a plot line we’ve seen before and will see again. And though there were no real winners in the Trojan War, there sure have been a lot of modern day literary and box office triumphs. 

Many thanks again to Lesley Bolton for the inspiration I found for this post in her The Everything Classical Mythology Book.


Friday, December 2, 2016

A Conflict Of Priority.

There are some things that are now so politically sensitive that  it is almost impossible to voice an opinion without somebody accusing you of some ism or other.

There is the sadly commonplace issue of what to call that day that happens on the 25th of December. You know Santa, drunkenness, presents  .. and oh yes, it is to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus if you are a Christian. And a celebration of being nice to people if you are not. It was a pagan festival in Europe long before Christianity came along. It was the turn of the deep winter and those lucky enough to survive it celebrated.

I was talking to a Muslim friend this week, and he starting going on about how much he hates Christmas. Because he says  his non-Muslim friends suddenly become very tongue tied round him wishing him a err ‘happy holiday’. He was taken into side room at work and asked if he wanted to take part in the Christmas lucky dip or not.  ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ he asked, ‘I do work here and it is office tradition.’ His kids get very upset as everyone else is talking about what they are getting from Santa but nobody asks them, and make a very politically correct point of not asking them. It’s a sad state of affairs when kids are left out of anything, especially Christmas. His kids know that it’s a Christian tradition and that they do their own thing at other times of the year.  It’s about being happy and showing appreciation for friends and loved ones, which is the same in every language I am sure.

And then there was the more prickly issue last week, some professional footballers spoke out about the sexual abuse they had suffered as youngsters. I have no issue with that at all, and well done to them for speaking out but it was the first item on the news . The second item was the death of a two year old child at the hands of his 'parents'. Am I the only person in the world who thinks it is the wrong way round. There is a huge moral panic in this country about sexual abuse, it is now the territory of the moral stormtrooper, but it is not new it has been going on since time began and maybe the human race should realise that.

As a crime, and it absolutely is a crime, it can fuel all sorts of other criminal activity including human trafficking and murder. It is pushed so far into the extreme of something unspeakable that is simply goes more underground. Could there be a better way of dealing with it? Some kind of amnesty? I mean where do you go if you are an adult who realises they have a genuine sexual attraction to children? Can you go to your doctor and ask for help or does that get you placed on a register? A register that might be leaked to the press by a do gooder with a freedom of information issue? There was a famous case down south where a house was set on fire because the arsonists were so stupid they could not tell the difference between a paedophile and a paediatrician. And there were children in the house at the time of the fire. 

The mob mentality is alive and well. 

I treat many patients who have ‘survived childhood sexual abuse’, and just note that well know phrase 'survived'. I would say that 50% of them have come to terms with it, rational enough to know it was nothing to do with them, it was the abuser. And they have good counselling to understand why the abuser did it. They grow up to be sensible people with maybe just a tendency to keep a very close eye on their own children. 

Other survivors, to be honest, let the abuse define them and everything that goes wrong in their life is down to the abuse and sooner or later that becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Even one of the very successful footballers revealed that he turned to drink and drugs during his career due to the abuse he suffered as a youth.

The victim, any victim should never ever let the power be the possession of the abuser. That line of thinking only damages an innocent victim even more. So I am concerned that there now seems to be a growing assumption that if you have been abused as a child then the rest of your life should be scarred by that abuse. And some abuse survivors have said to me that they feel quite guilty that they do not feel that way, and they then start wondering if there is something wrong with them.
The recent headlines covering Operation Yewtree where victims were reporting historic abuse 40 or 50 years ago by celebrities who were either dead or already in jail, seems to me to be a poison chalice. Instead of pursuing those already in jail or already passed away for each new abuse claim ( 840 have come through on the helpline since the footballer went on the TV yesterday )surely the  resources should be directed into counselling or, maybe more importantly, to try and address the internationally organised abuse that is going on today. Even as I type this, there are atrocities being committed on children in this society and they have a chance of being saved. 

The German system seems to have  a better take on it – there is no burden of proof for a criminal case, both parties are asked to come to the table and have counselling. In the end sometimes they meet and that can be a very healing process  because at the end of the day it often turns out that they were both victims. Not always so but it might be a start.

And what of society as a whole? Two things are obvious. The most sexually attractive woman, according to the media, is now child like – stick thin, hairless, big eyed with petite facial features. Previous societies have regarded age as wisdom but not us.
And then there is the general sexualisation of general that goes on and we almost accept it without noticing. There is the odd moral outcry when a clothing store markets a bikini for a 5 year old but one look at the magazines children read tell a different story. Don’t even get me started on beauty pageants ...... false eyelashes, fake tan, full make up and, I do believe the term is, a stripper dress.
So while all that is going on the newsfeed is coming through that a mother has just pleaded guilty to drugging her own daughter with sedatives so that she could spend more time with her boyfriend. The mum is in court as the little girl, 4 years old, died due to the drug interaction.

In every species there is a strong instinct to protect the young, can’t help thinking we might be losing that in amongst the political correctness. Some straight talking required I think. 

Caro Ramsay  02 12 2016

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Feeding the addiction

Stanley - Thursday

I’m in the bush, recovering from the world.  I am a total addict.  The more I’m here, the more I need to be here.

This time, the contrast with what came before is very stark.  Even though I have internet access (spotty at best), I’ve had no interest in keeping up with what is happening.  I’ve left behind the pervasive anger, intolerance, and deafness that is blanketing the planet.  I don’t know what is happening in the Middle East, Europe, or the USA.  I don’t know what my Facebook friends are up to.  Have the markets spiked because of the US election?  Or tanked?  I don’t really care because there’s little or nothing I can do about it.

Life is basic here.  Wake up early; have a cup of coffee and some fruit.  Occasionally egg and bacon.  Head out in the rickety Land Rover to wander around the three thousand hectares of bush I have traversing rights on.  Hope to see something interesting.

There is always something interesting.  The first blades of grass pushing through the drought-stricken earth fascinate me.  How do they do it?  Where do they get the energy to brave a new year? 

And in the midst of the barren red soil, a gorgeous plant with red flowers stands proudly for all to see.  

And another:

I wonder how long they will last.  Will they be eaten?  Or wither away, more victims of the drought?

Animals are sparse.  Not surprising really, even though the waterholes are full thanks to the floods of four years ago, which replenished the water table.  Unlike the grass, which is virtually non-existent, the trees look good, most with good foliage, also thanks to the good water table.  I guess their roots can reach the water.

He has right of way.
Surprisingly the impala look healthy – must be eating leaves, since there is no grass.  But I see very few youngsters.  Perhaps the impala women took a year off from being pregnant because their offspring would die for lack of food.

The most interesting animals this time have been two mother-child pairs of rhinos.  (Frankly, I can’t tell the difference between a baby boy rhino and a baby girl.  Not at a distance anyway.)  Someone else saw eight rhinos together, something I’ve never seen.  We’re all worried about rhinos – over a thousand killed in South Africa alone this year.  Poached to satisfy irrational desires in Vietnam and China.  It’s impossible to stop the poachers, who have little to lose.  We should be doing more to stop the demand.

Also interesting is seeing the corpse of a hippo.  Starved to death by the drought.  Enough water in the dams to survive the heat.  But nothing to eat.  Sad.  However, the vultures weren’t complaining.

Here's a hippo uncharacteristically out of the water during the day scrabbling in the dust for something to eat.  The vultures are keeping an eye on him too.

There are a few animals about - always delightful to look at.

Elephants are fine - plenty of leaves on the trees

Don't know what the steenbok is living off - luckily it needs little

A warthog praying for rain

The buffalo also look healthy - must have learnt to eat leaves
Sometimes I don’t drive around hoping for an interesting chance encounter.  Sometimes I take a cooler of food and drink to a hide and settle in for a few hours to watch the passing show.  There’s always something going on.  If there are no animals, there are birds – about four hundred species in this area alone.  Except when there is a drought, when many of the seed eaters are smart enough not to arrive.  This too has benefits – I don’t worry about trying to identify each LBJ (little brown job) – there aren’t any.

But I had one spectacular sighting – a pygmy kingfisher – a bird I haven’t seen in years.  It’s about the length of one of my fingers, but much more beautiful.

Yesterday one of the first migrants returned - the woodland kingfisher.  Its call fills the air.  Click here to hear it.  One of the magical sounds of the bush.  And early in the morning I heard to iconic call of the African bush - the African fish eagle.  Didn't see it though.  Click hear to hear its beautiful call.

Photo: Hennie van Heerden from
And the rollers have started to return too - one of the stunning birds of the bush.

And early in the morning I heard the iconic call of the African bush - the African fish eagle.  Didn't see it though.  Click hear to hear its beautiful call.

African fish eagle - a cousin to the bald eagle, I would guess
 When the day is over, a gin and tonic awaits – medicinal, of course.  It’s important to take quinine to minimise the chances of contracting malaria.  And a glass of wine or two to prepare the mind for contemplation.

Then early to bed.  And the next day, the cycle repeats.

It is special here.  As I write this blog, I can hear some male lions grumbling about something.  Probably not happy that their female partners haven’t provided enough food, or that they had to exert themselves to get to it.  And when male lions grumble, the whole neighbourhood knows about it.  The decibel level of a lion’s roar must be about equivalent to a jet engine.

I also hear hyenas calling.  I don’t understand hyena talk, but I imagine the message has something to do with food.  Perhaps the food the lions are grumbling about.

And before I finish writing this blog, a miracle happens.  When I started writing, the sky was glowing with millions of stars.  Orion and his belt and sword were over there.  And I’m sure I saw his dog, Canis Major, wag its tale and wink, watched by the seven sisters.

Then a flash or two in the distance.  A bit later a gust of wind.  Another gust.  Then for fifteen or twenty minutes, the wind howls.  Mosquito-repellant cans blow off the table, doors bang, chairs blow over.  The sky is now full of lightning, but surprisingly little thunder.

More wind.  More lightning.

Then the thunder starts.  I love it.  Flash, bang, crash.  Mette hates it and burrows deep under her pillow.

And then I smell it.  Rain is coming.  Nothing nicer than the smell of impending rain in the African bush.

And then it rains.  Much needed rain.  Coming down horizontally.  Sometimes through the screens that comprise our outside walls. 

Even the lions are quiet.  So are the hyenas.  In awe of the storm and thankful for it.

And then it is over.  Just the sound of water dripping from the trees.

I settle down to finish the blog, thankful I had the foresight to cover the Land Rover.  I don’t like driving around sitting on a wet seat.

(Photos: Stan Trollip, Mette Nielsen, Martin Sambrook)