Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Birth of Death in Athens and Jerusalem

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Birth of Death in Athens and Jerusalem

Article excerpt

The Elohiad

THE SECOND OF the epics attributed to Homer resembles the second of the books attributed to Moses. Like Exodus, the Odyssey is the telling of a journey of return.

For narrative to loop back to its point of origin is, to be sure, nothing unusual. The Bible identifies the prolific mother of such closed trajectories. "[O]ut of [the ground] you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). ("Bible" refers throughout to the Hebrew Scriptures; the translation is the New Revised Standard Version.) But the resemblance between the works goes beyond mere congruency. In the Odyssey as in Exodus the returnees, Odysseus and the Children of Israel, meet temptations to abandon the homegoing, and confront obstacles to concluding the trek. In the one story as in the other the protagonists complete the circle with an altered grasp both of the place they departed long years earlier and also of their own situation.

The typical consumer of the Western canon won't need to be informed of these likenesses. The conjoint mention of the two literary second installments is however stimulative of a question that such a one might not have asked my question. Does any text in the Greek corpus stand to the Odyssey in the thematic way that Genesis, the curtain raiser of the Torah, stands to its sequel?

Although Hesiod's Theogony, like Genesis, starts with "each thing as it first came into being," it soon emerges that this a differs substantially from the N. True to its title, the Theogony takes for its subject the origin of divinity. Genesis, by contrast, caters primarily to an anthropogenic wonderment. We men and women, what are we? Where do we come from? What is our place? It is in the frame of the answers to these questions that the Israelites' journey of return fits. The Theogony, for lacking a comparable account of how we came to be delivered onto the scene, does not then appear to be connected to Odysseus's homegoing.

Genesis is a cosmogony and anthropogeny, not a theogony; Hesiod's work, the reverse. But should we not expect as intricate a depiction as the Theogony gives of the birth of the gods and the manner in which the relations between them fall out to reflect how the world's flesh-and-blood dwellers, who are doing the depicting, think of their own comings and goings? Living in the world over which the deathless beings are conceived to preside, a world in which they themselves play no more than bit parts, how could the world's flesh-and-blood dwellers turn oblivious of their own precariousness when they set to work? By the same token, a self-reflective account such as Genesis's of the birth of men and women is likely to tell us how those who supply it think of the wider world into which they are born and in which they have to make their way. While those seeking a Genesis for the Odyssey would therefore be hasty to scratch Hesiod's work from the running just on the ground that it pulls towards the theogonic, I believe that another Hellenic horse, precisely the one that the alignment of the Odyssey with Exodus suggests, has the inside track: the Iliad.

Had I asked after a Hellenic stable mate for Genesis without having mentioned the Odyssey/Exodus resemblance, odds are the Iliad would not have come to mind. If at all anthropogenic, Hesiod's work, I just now said, is anthropogenic only in a recessive way. This fact I advanced as working against the Theogony's placement alongside Genesis. The designation of the Iliad as the more suitable partner thus commits me to identifying in it a story of human beginnings comparable to the one in Holy Writ. That I shall do. As to why the Iliad's anthropogeny is so elusive, my conjecture is that the biblical story of humankind's creation is culturally so dominant as virtually to hard-wire the expectation that any such story will have an obstetrical cast.

Homer, then, is my Greek Moses; Moses, my Israelite Homer. …

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