1 February 2014

HOMER'S ILIAD BOOK 6 AND S AMBROSE: Episode 1

In the Iliad, the epic account of the Wrath of Achilles during the Trojan War, there is a thought-provoking vignette juxtaposing Hector and Andromache, and Paris and Helen. The latter pair are corrupt adulterers whose passion has precipitated the War. We must remember that, in Classical Literature, sexual passion is regarded as a wound or madness which leads to disaster; the Romantic superstition that sexual incontinence is "love" and that it justifies any and every wrong deed, had not yet been invented.

Hector his brother, on the other hand, is a brave man who fights for his country; and Andromache is a faithful and devoted wife and mother.

Paris was defeated in a single duel with Helen's lawful husband, Menelaus, but rescued from death by - needless to say - his patroness Aphrodite, goddess of sexual passion. She miraculously transfers him to his fragrant bedchamber and then scoops up Helen to join him in bed. Meanwhile, the slaughter continues.

In Book 6, we find Hector deciding to urge Paris back to the battlefield. He approaches Paris's house, which consists of thalamos, doma, and aule, defined respectively by the Scholiast [ancient commentator] as bridal chamber, men's quarters,and 'outside'. Still fully equipped in his armour, Hector enters (eiselthe) ... but how far does he go inside? We shall return to this. He finds Paris in the thalamos with Helen and the handmaids, to whom she is assigning their tasks. Paris is sitting there stroking his superb display armour (I was tempted to translate: fiddling with his tackle). To his brother's remonstrances, Paris replies that he had been feeling rather depressed, but that Helen had been wheedling him malakois epeesin to return to the battle. The Scholiast helpfully reminds us here that Paris is gunaimanes, 'womancrazed'.

Helen now adresses her brother-in-law Hector. She apologises for being an abominable bitch who would have been better not to have been born, and adds some derogatory remarks about her husband ... and starts trying to persuade Hector to 'come in' and sit beside her on this nice little chair.

But is Hector not already 'in'? I think not; and the Scholiast agrees with me. He explains that Hector had so far only entered 'in' as far as the aule. In other words, he had been standing on the threshold of the thalamos. Now she desires him to go in and sit down.

What we need to know here is that in pre-modern societies there were rigid and prescriptive assumptions about where each sex went and did not go. Except when retitring at night, you would not normally expect a man to spend daylight hours in the thalamos with his wife and the womenfolk. That Paris was doing so reflects enormous discredit upon him. And now Helen is inviting Hector to join in this discreditable behaviour.

Does Hector go in and cosy up to his sex-bomb sister-in-law? Episode 2 ...

1 comment:

GOR said...

Not sure where you are going with this, Father, or how S. Ambrose fits in (all will be revealed in time, no doubt) but I was struck by the phrase “rigid and prescriptive assumptions where each sex went and did not go.”

Perhaps unrelated, but certain ‘rigid and prescriptive assumptions” still obtained in rural Ireland even unto the 1950s. While vacationing with friends in the rural countryside I was admonished before Sunday Mass to “be sure to sit on the proper side of church…”

Huh?

Apparently, the custom of segregating the sexes at Mass still obtained there – men on one side of the center aisle and women on the other. I don’t remember which side for each, but I was careful to ensure that I was on the ‘right’ side!