Finding the Words – classic western literature, its impact, and the right words to talk about it

Finding the words – April 2014 by Jim Sliney Jr

Classic western literature, its personal impact, and finding the right words to talk about it.

Story: sto∙ry, noun, \ˈstȯr-ē\  – “an account of incidents or events”

Fable: fa∙ble, noun, \ˈfā-bəl\ – “a narration intended to enforce a useful truth”

Tale : tale, noun, \ˈtāl\ – “an exciting story that may not be completely true”

Myth: \ˈmith\ – “a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence”

Le∙gend: \ˈle-jənd\ – “a story from the past that is believed by many people but cannot be proved to be true”

Before the word was written it was uttered.  From the mouth of one man to the ear of another stories of other people, their relationships with each other, and the tales of their interactions with powerful gods expressed the complex nature of an existence in which they hungered for meaning.
Like most children, my Mother and Father would tell me the histories of their family – where they came from and how they lived.  Their words moved like a painter’s brush recreating the places and people of their specific past and reinforced by family relics, photographs, and visits to relatives.  I very much wanted to experience these stories in a deeply personal way.  As I grew, the ancestral stories of migration, war and love told from multiple perspectives began to evolve into something more complex – they became tales, something more than natural and somehow above the idea of “true or false”.  These tales were infused with profound meaning and prescribed a path I could, should, or might follow in my life.
My parents told other stories as well, stories that seemed equally profound and irreproachable.  In time, as my knowledge of the world matured I finally understood that these other stories were not the same as our family stories but were instead fables – the fantastic stories of gods, men and places that were both real and allegorical, told for the purpose of providing moral guidance.  However, when taken together as a whole, these tales intertwined in a way so that my grandmother Ruth and the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:27) could easily frequent the same halls-of-cloud in my thought-palace.  It seemed the distinction between facts,  imaginings and symbols was not as important as the light that they were meant to shine on my environment.
Long ago in a far away land

The author we refer to as “Homer” took the spoken tales from the past,  and recorded them.  In the 8th century B.C. Homer wrote  “The Iliad”.  In The Iliad vast armies from across Greece (the Achaeans) sailed to Troy to the city of Ilium to overcome it.  Under the leadership of King Agamemnon, kings of many lands, with all the warriors and ships that they could muster, forsook their homes and loved ones for the sake of Kleos (that is, glory).  The war was fought to return queen Helen to her husband, king Menelaus after she was abducted by Prince Paris of Troy.

Such real world motives might be part of the story of the Trojan War but the fable of the war involves the supernatural rage of heroes like Achilleus,  or the interventions of the Olympian gods.  The story and fable come together in this tale of how men struggle to make their lives something other than being “nasty, brutish and short”(Hobbes).  Yet the complex realities of war are often ignored rather than confronted, for instance by a longing wife or grieving parent.  Rare indeed are the scenes of mourning or expressions of personal loss in The Iliad[1].    While one could put pins in a map to represent the locales referred to in the story of The Iliad, the morality it displays(murder, slaughter, plunder, and abduction all for the sake of glory) would be unjustifiable if The Iliad were no more than an accounting of history. Instead it is the merger of  history with the fabulous that elevates The Iliad to a relatable literary tale.

Homer also wrote the tales of Odysseus.  Different from The Iliad, The Odyssey includes more proverbial creatures (the monstrous Scylla and Charybdis[2]for example) and settings that are not historically justifiable (like an island populated by the sacred sheep of the sun god Helios). Odysseus himself is a complex legendary character who goes from good decision making to bad and who tells untruths for reasons sometimes difficult to fathom.  Through the lens of these fabulous tales Odysseus becomes the metaphor for the difficult choices adults must make.  He is also a symbol of the relatable human need to have a place in the world to call home.  The Odyssey also tells about Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who is a symbol of the rise of a new generation, and of the difficult decisions that are a part of growing up.
After Homer changed the landscape for story recording storytellers emerged who told their stories directly to the page.  Aeschylus the playwright is one of these.  Building off of the Homeric tales and utilizing the characters of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their children Orestes and Elektra, Aeschylus presents a story from the end of the Trojan War in “The Orestea”.  The tale begins with a somewhat tepid return of Agamemnon to his home where he is quickly and tragically  murdered by his own wife, Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.  How tragic!  Why did she do it?  What would come of the children?  Would Orestes take revenge, and if so, what would come of that?  Concepts of justice, family loyalty, and matricide were explored though murder, vengeance, hateful spirits and divine justice.

Looking at the works we’ve discussed so far, there was a metamorphosis from Iliad to the more fantastic Odyssey then again to the tragic plays.  This evolution of the relationship between tale-teller and tale-recipient become more complex through the use of fancy and more emotionally engaging through the use of tragedy, digging the well of literature deeper and deeper.

The circulation of the tragic plays and the conversations they undoubtedly inspired coupled with the attempts to tie fact into the tales of old began to form a foundation of knowledge and experience explored in the vessel of literature.  But this literature was new, while the telling of tales was an ancient practice.  It was Herodotus in his “The Histories” who endeavored to chronicle  the histories of the Greeks and Persians with the goal to preserve them from decay(Herodotus).  However when exploring to Herodotus’ work one quickly realizes that he cannot avoid treating his histories with a generous dose of fiction.  On the one hand he painstakingly describes verifiable artifacts that his contemporaries could go visit  (the statue of Apollo at Thornax in Laconia in Book I for e.g.) while on the other he translates omnisciently the thoughts and dreams of some of his subjects (the visions of Xerxes, Book VII).  This hints at how Herodotus handled that literary place between the historical and fabulous.  He was a valid historian, but he was a biased teller of tales as well – by his own admission he not only wanted to preserve these histories but wanted to ensure the great and wonderful acts of the Greeks got their due glory (Book One, p1). Dichotomy such as this exists in all “historical records”, but this early work makes a classic example showing us that it has always been so.
The Iliad was written at some point in the 8th century as marked by Herodotus who wrote his Histories in the 5th century B.C.  But meanwhile, in the 6th century B.C.(Seters) the Book of Genesis was also written.  So rather than moving so much ‘forward’ in time, we shift ‘sideways’.
The Book of Genesis tells us of the creation of the world by the Lord God.  Genesis navigates from an account of God making the world, to the creation of Man, the destruction of the world in the great flood, and the repopulating of a part of the world by God’s chosen people.  Genesis presents itself as the original frame in which we can observe the beginnings of things, including the origin of a covenant between God and His chosen people.  Genesis covers some fantastic ground; it has God talking directly to people (G3:16), supernatural creatures reproducing with humans (G6:4), people living for nearly a millennium (G5:5),  attempts at genealogy (G:10), and the explanation for why there is more than one language spoken in the world (G11:9).  Genesis also establishes Abraham as the great religious leader of God’s people and unfolds his lineage into the 12 tribes of Israel.  Much like The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Histories, Genesis infuses verifiable history and geography (G2:10-14) with morality tales and the overall quest for a relationship with the divine.
Were these tales told to justify the evolving or existing beliefs and practices of the Hebrew people?   Were the tales of Genesis more story-based?  Were they meant to lay down a true and accurate history of a land and people?  Such would be an effective way of saying “this land is mine” – having a creation story that leads to that very same conclusion.  Were the tales more driven by fables, designed to illustrate to the young or the simple the dangers associated with certain behaviors, the benefits of others, and memorable tales of how they came about?  It is likely that the Book of Genesis is all of these things, after all, it is the cornerstone of three of the world’s major religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).  That fact certainly suggests a validity of the text and history, but did not the Greek tales do the same?  At some point the Hebrew monotheism “overcame” the Greek polytheism (and others) and “won” the religious competition in the Western world[3].
Myth and Legends
When I think about the role I play in the world I call upon the stories of my forefathers for perspective.  I gauge my moral correctness on the successes and failures of characters who supposedly walked dusty paths in Israel 2000 years ago.  If I find my courage challenged, I gird myself with an heroic tale of valor and glory.  If I find my current path intractable I pray for that deus ex machina!  For me, these story-and-fable-infused tales are poured together into one great bowl.  Mix into that bowl the figures who are legendary to me, like my great, great uncle James Kilduff who beat the boxer Jack Dempsey in a bar lifting contest in an Irish Pub.  Put in proverbs like my grandpa Ed’s popular “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” and a unique stew is created. This stew is my own personal mythos, my own personal folklore (my “Jimlore”), and it makes the road map on my life’s journey and in time I was pass it forward.
Literature captures life, from the oral tales we used to tell around campfires when that is all there was, to the forecasts of what our future generations will be like.
A photograph, while thought of as highly realistic, is subjected to the talents of the photographer to “instill their own artistic vision on the scene”(Mumford).  Similarly literature, made up of words and the ideas they strive to represent, builds an abstraction of the meaning in life and our endless search for it.  Whether that literature is an Homeric epic poem, or a contrived symposium of Plato, an allegorical, fictional vessel of traditional religious values like the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, we turn to literature for direction, for insights into our current struggles, or some wisdom on how to arrive at a desirable future.
Are these tales true enough to stand the test of time?  How different is the tale of Odysseus that I read in 2013 from the exploits of the real Odysseus?  Was there a real Odysseus?   Was it exactly 10,000 days between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of His ministry?(Hills).  I answer, without hesitation, that it does not matter at all.  These myths and legends, tales and histories represent the entire vapor trails of the Western past which in turn makes up the foundation on which I will take my very next step.  These are my myths and legends, the things I choose to believe and give meaning to my life.  I accept and own them.  And Literature will help me pass them on to those who follow after me, as has been done by those before me.  In this way I will preserve them from decay and from the dust of time and give them their due glory.
Herodotus. The Histories. Penguin Classics, 5th century BC.
Hills, Christopher. The First 10000 Days. Trafford Publishing, 2005. eBook.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651.
Mumford, Andy. 2012. website – 8 December 2013.
Nidal-Vaquet, Pierre. Iliad. 2013. website – 30 November 2013.
Seters, Jon Van. “The Pentateuch.” The Hebrew Bible Today: an introduction to critical issues. Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 14. page 14 – the supplementary hypothesis of Van Seters.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary –
Online Etymology Dictionary –


[1] leaving loss unaddressed until the death of Patroclos makes Achilleus the embodiment of ALL of the loss not otherwise addressed through the whole tale.
[2] sensing “Scylla and Charybdis” sounded culturally familiar I searched a bit and found out why – they are used by the band “The Police” in the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger”: “You consider me your young apprentice / Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis / Hypnotized by you if I should linger / Staring at the ring around your finger/”

[3] There is a wonderful book by Douglas Adams called “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul” wherein the Norse gods comes to terms (or don’t) with the idea of being completely phased out of modernity.

image from Google Creative Commons


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