On the Necessity of the Iliad for Modern Polytheism

In this week’s New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn reviews a new, compressed translation of the Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. (The whole article is behind the paywall—the link is to an abstract.)

Discussing other recent translations, he describes Stanley Lombardo’s as having “a tight-lipped soldierly toughness.” I own that one — I saw its cover while walking through the book exhibits at the 2005 American Academy of Religion annual meeting and almost wept —  it was such an emotionally powerful design.

Mendelsohn, meanwhile, strikes gold at the end of his review:

The Iliad doesn’t need to be modernized, because the question it raises is a modern — indeed, existentialist — one: how do we fill our short lives with meaning? The August 22nd issue of Time featured, on its “Briefing” page, a quote from a grieving mother about her dead son. The mother’s name is Jan Brown, and her son, Kevin Houston, a Navy SEAL, was one of thirty-seven soldiers killed in a rocket attack in Afghanistan this past summer. What she said about him might shock some people, but will sound oddly familiar to anyone who has read the Iliad:

He was born to do this job. If he could do it all over again and have a chance to have it happen the way it did or work at McDonald’s and live to be 104? He’d do it all over again.

Whoever Homer was and however he made his poem, the song that he sings still goes on.

That is the polytheistic view of life. The world is a mess. The world is beautiful. The gods are eternal (or as good as). The gods work at cross-purposes, and sometimes humans are caught between them.

If you try to change the world in the name of some grand, sweeping, utopian vision, you will just make it worse. The most you can do is to give Achilles and  Kevin Houston a good cause.

8 Comments

  1. Robert Mathiesen says:

    Yes! — especially to your last two paragraphs. This is how the world is.

  2. NeoWayland says:

    That’s the best summary of polytheism I’ve ever read.

    One for my quote file.

  3. Lombardo’s translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey are wonderful. Both Mitchell and Lombardo studied Zen with the same teacher (Seung Sahn). Lombardo is not a Zen teacher in his own right (I’ve attended two retreats led by him).

    • oops – that was supposed to be “Lombardo is NOW a Zen teacher in his own right”.

      • Chas Clifton says:

        Interesting. I attended a seminar with Lombardo some years ago where he discussed his work with the Iliad, but I did not know that he was a Zen teacher.

      • I’ve only been around him when he had his “Zen teacher” hat firmly on.

        He gave a dharma talk at one retreat where he claimed that Homer contains everything one needs in terms of Zen teaching. So I asked him why we need Zen, then, at all: why couldn’t we all just worship Zeus, Demeter, etc?

        His reply was that Zen provides more than just the words and ideas: it also provides a fully worked out system of spiritual practice to implement the words and ideas. Basically he was coming down on the side of those who say there is no “continuous tradition” of Pagan praxis, despite the fact that Pagan ideas have continued to survive in the form of literature and philosophy. Even though I have been known to resist that claim, I have to admit that my views about Pagan survivals rely on very fragmentary and attenuated survivals — especially when placed directly alongside a full-blown living tradition like Zen. Which I guess is one of the main reasons why I practice both.

  4. […] Clifton waxes eloquently on the need of modern polytheists – indeed, I’d say any thinking person […]