This is the first in a weekly series (and hopefully roundup) of essays comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories.
Next week I thought we’d discuss the Duel. Dueling was a tradition which lasted until well into the 19th century. Since then, the gentler side of our culture has weeded it out. However these stories come from a time just a tad earlier than our era and the concept of a duel, not just to settle individual honor but to act in the stead of combat between two armies, was not out of bounds. The Iliad is replete with examples of two warriors duking it out where the other warriors are honor bound not to interfere. I thought we’d concentrate on just two duels … one from each story. David v Goliath and Menelaus v Paris (I had thought to include Achilles v Hector as it seems to leave our second protagonist, Achilles, out of this enterprise, so if you feel like adding that into your discussion feel free). And I just had a comment from Andrea R, to write about the women in both tales … given the testosterone laden topic I’ve suggested for next week, I figure it is only fair if we swing the other way the following week. 🙂
So on to “The Openings” (below the fold):
David’s Story begins (from Alter’s translation)
And there was a man from Ramathaim-zophim, from the high country Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives, the name of the one was Hannah and the name of the other was Peninnah. And Peninnah had children but Hannah had no children. And this man would go up from his town year after year to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh, and there the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, were priests of the Lord. And when the day came round, Elkanah would sacrifice and give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. And to Hannah he would give one double portion, for Hannah he loved, and the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival would torment her sorely so as to provoke her because the Lord had closed up her womb. And thus was it done year after year — when she would go up to the house of the Lord, the other would torment her and she would weep and would not eat.
Homer begins (from Fagles translation):
Rage — Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaean’s countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Right off, the similarities seem more striking than the differences. Both storytellers come from societies very much unlike our own, in that your patronage is very important. Achilles isn’t introduced via any of his particular accomplishments but … as Peleus’ son. Elkanah (?!) is similarly introduced by way of a litany of his lineage as well as where he lived. Place and parent outweigh personal accomplishments. Both opening stanzas also showcase our storytellers playing games with the reader. Homer begs the Muse to “sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles” which rage had sent so many Achaean’s to their death. But is rage the right word, we might ask? A modern reader might see his rage as coming just prior to the end of the tale, when after Patroclus’ death an enraged, enervated, and inconsolable Achilles cuts his way through any who might oppose him seeking Hector’s life. That was rage! A modern reader might see his earlier “rage” against the injustice done him as something more akin to pride. But, we should give translator (and Homer) his due and think about what this might mean a little further. Homer is throwing us a curve ball, we have to think a little about why Achilles is enraged, for it isn’t as obvious as his later white hot rage. We also might be deceived by Homer if we think that this story is just about Rage. For it is a complex multifaceted tale. Men have studied this story for thousands of years and are still learning from it. No, the Muse may be asked to sing about rage, but she weaves a better tapestry than requested.
Similarly, the author of the David story “tricks” the reader not once, but twice (or on two levels). This is the “Story of David” which begins by starting off with Elkanah … oops. Not! Elkanah is barely in this story at all; he is in fact arguably only introduced as the husband of the main character of the story of
David Samuel (err) Hannah. When telling a tale of Israel’s 2nd, and arguably greatest, King how does this tale begin? Not with a story of his beginnings, but of a tale of a broken yet wise and faithful woman. This tale told of a woman, Hannah, broken (albeit much loved by her husband) because her womb is closed and she has borne no children and hence, more importantly, no sons. Historians (Biblical and not) tell us that in this society, in this place and era, women measured success through the accomplishments of their sons. Hannah is teased by Elkanah’s other wife, for she had born sons.
Rage and tears are the contrasting response to injury, for both tales start with injustice done. Injury done in fact, prompts the same reaction. An oath is taken in response.
Achilles is affronted when Agamemnon, required to give up “his prize slave-girl”, takes from Achilles his captive beauty Briseis. Hannah is tormented sorely by Peninnah, who must have been herself a little jealous of the favor shown to the childless Hannah. Like Peninnah, Agamemnon is not completely without motivation for his actions. What about Achilles? How has he been injured? As leader, if all things were equal, Agamemnon would be within his rights. As commander he has first pick of prizes. His actions would not be beyond the pale. But, Achilles is a Hero (with caps). He knows it. He was born to this role and his Heroic exploits have been prophesied to ring down the ages (as, thanks to Homer, they have). Agamemnon, by not recognizing Achilles properly, is in modern parlance “dissing” the hero, and that just won’t do. A Hero, while being heroic, can’t abide that for … it just isn’t heroic (it might be useful to note that while a Christian hero might value humility that isn’t a virtue in the Achaean panoply). Since the goddess Athena stops Achilles from cutting down Agamemnon directly, so thus foiled Achilles gathers his troop and prepares to sit the battle out. So that he might prove to the Achaeans directly just how badly they need his help. So Achilles swears he will not help until he is given his due. That is the injury, rage, and oath that get this story rolling on its way.
Elkanah tried to console his wife, asking her “why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart afflicted? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” For Hannah has been injured by her tormentor. Indeed in tears and weeping and in response to the pain of her lot and her injury in the Lord’s house she swears, “I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, no razor shall touch his head.” The priest Eli hears her, and after a somewhat humorous exchange about drunkenness, says, “may the Lord grant your request.” The Lord does so, and … Samuel, prophet to the Lord, is born and given to the temple.
With that our two great dramas are set in motion, for Hannah gives birth to Samuel the Great Prophet who will select Saul and David for Kingship and be a major player in the ongoing drama. Achilles’ oath in response to injury sets countless Achaeans on their way to the House of Death.
To put a modern twist on these stories a point to ponder might also be to consider, for example, an essay posted by Joe Carter earlier last week about subsidiarity and how, in our modern age, and especially in our very egalitarian society he finds it hard to accept the idea of subsidiarity. Noticing, valuing, and respecting ones heritage and patrimony has been set aside in our society. Subsidiarity to my eye flows from a similar part of the human makeup. Perhaps as we set aside the one, we find the other harder to do. Perhaps the stories, praxis, thoughts, and language in these tales might help us regain some of what we have lost.
Update: I can’t leave well enough alone.
It occurred to me, I’ve left hanging (at least) one item. The two oaths are very different in character. Achilles’ oath is self-centered (and I’m not making a value judgement here, just an observation) while Hannah’s is God-centered and/or self-sacrificing. Achilles oath concerns his heroic vision and the fulfillment of his Heroic destiny. Hannah, in response to her injury, prays to God and offers to him her son. Those differences may in fact resonate with the differences in ideals of those two cultures and those differences very well may be resonating, like Achilles fame, into our society today.