The Vocabulary of Myth, Part I

The Matter of Troy…

 The Obligation of the Poet to “hand the matter on”…

     I’ve called this course “The Vocabulary of Myth”, and grandly described its purpose in the Calendar of Priceton University as to furnish the basic “grammar” of the human imagination down to the eighteenth century.  I must leave aside the question of why the eighteenth century sounded the death-knell of man’s mythic consciousness—my chronology is arbitrary, in any case–on the assumption that forty-eight centuries out of fifty of civilized man’s pre-occupation with mythological forms of expression represents something enduring and significant, and not to be discounted or discarded on the basis of a mere two-century-long cultural anomaly.  So, I return, unapologetically, to my description.

In this context, words such as “vocabulary” and “grammar” are metaphors, of course, poetic figures—myths, in fact, since for the Greeks poesis and mythos were synonyms—by means of which I am attempting to express the idea that mythology has always been the principal well-spring from which the basic themes of the human conversation have  bubbled up.  Let me try to prove to you that that is true, and more than merely figuratively so.  I’ll start with what is dismissed by the modern mind—at least that of my undergraduates–as the least consequential aspect of civilization, poetry, and move on to religion, philosophy, and science.

As a matter of both tradition and empirical fact, there are two grand themes, two great bodies of stories, that have been subject to endless restatement and elaboration throughout the centuries of Western literature and art from antiquity right down to our own time.  The first of these is the salvation history of the Judaeo-Christian Bible, a body of narrative whose relationship to myth will be discussed in what follows, and whose centrality to the Western Tradition requires no proof.

The second is “the Matter of Troy” (as it was called in the Middle Ages):  the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath, including the maritime adventures and homecomings (nostoi) of the Greek heroes Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, but more generally including the entire cycle of Greek mythology whose great fountainhead was Homer’s two epic poems, the Iliad, or story of Troy (Ilion in Greek), and the Odyssey, which records the wanderings of Odysseus.  The Odyssey was thus the first successful sequel in the history of popular fiction, and its continuing influence illustrates Northrop Frye’s abiding principle about the genesis of  literature:  that it is simply made out of other literature.

As another eminent literary critic, C.S. Lewis, has characterized them, writers before the modern age were “bookish”; they felt no compunction about, indeed, only felt justified in, recapitulating the narrative themes and traditions of the great auctores who lived before them, and whose auctoritas they revered and borrowed.  As they themselves saw it, their principal vocation was to “hand the matter on” (in Lewis’ formulation), the “matter” being whatever narrative theme or tradition they had inherited gratefully from their ancient “authors”.  (Here, notably, the Christian writers of the Middle Ages and thereafter showed no diminution of reverence because those authors were pagan).   Once in the possession of a great theme, it would never have occurred to them to invent something out of whole cloth; indeed, they would have regarded the modern artistic fetish for “originality” as the symptom of a profound cultural poverty.


The Odyssey itself thus unleashed a deluge of imitations, extrapolations, and continuations, right down to James Joyce’s Ulysses in the early part of the twentieth century.  The first of such were the anonymous “Trojan Cycle”, or “Homerica”, as they were called, that anthology of five or six minor epics written by the “Homeridae” (figurative “sons of Homer”) from the seventh through the fifth centuries B.C., with the ostensible purpose of filling in the gaps in the record of the Trojan war and the journeys and adventures of the returning Greek heroes that their adoptive literary father, the great bard, might have left out.

Greek drama was similarly a gap-filling child of Homer:  the first Greek trilogy, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, tells the tragic story of the murder of Agamemnon upon his return from Troy at the hands of his treacherous wife Clytemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s own brother (with the Homeric theme–comic, in the ancient sense of the word–of Odysseus’ happy return to the side of his ever faithful Penelope in mind).  It then records the tormented resolve of Agamemnon’s young son Orestes to avenge his father’s death.  (Shakespeare’s Hamlet borrows heavily from it.)

Following the Trojan Cycle and the Greek drama, the next and by far the most important Homeric continuation was Virgil’s epic the Aeneid, which recounts the escape of the Trojan prince Aeneas from the burning city of Troy, and his wanderings and adventures at sea, where he encounters, by no mere coincidence, many of the same mythological monsters and temptresses from whom Homer’s Odysseus had escaped.  In book VI of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas descends into the underworld, just as Homer’s hero had done in book XI of the Odyssey, and navigates an already familiar infernal landscape.  Landing finally on the western shores of Italy, he launches a protracted siege against the local inhabitants that follows all of the stages of the Greek campaign against Troy, until he emerges victorious and founds there the city of Rome.

The Aeneid was written in the last decades before Christ to provide the civilization of Rome, and the incipient Empire inaugurated by Caesar Augustus (under whom the poem was penned), with an appropriately grand mythological pre-history and divine pedigree.   Such is the authority of the Homeric mythological tradition that from then on it became de rigeur for every people and nation to trace its ancestry, as did Virgil’s Romans, to one or other of the escaping heroes of Troy.

Thus, according to the twelfth-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, the island of Britain was discovered by an eponymous founder named Brutus, another Trojan prince who (though wholly unmentioned by either Homer or Virgil) spent many years lost at sea before finally finding safe harbour on another western shore and founding there a new nation by divine destiny.  In due course, within a half century or so, two Welsh poets, Wace and Layamon, composed (one in Latin, the other in Welsh) consecutive epics about Brutus’ wanderings and fathering of the British people, both separately entitled Brut.  (But besides the epic “Bruts”, several other poems were written in the Christian Middle Ages under the apparently pressing moral and artistic obligation to hand on the matter of Troy:  the French Roman de Troie of one Benoit of St. Maur, for example, and another anonymous French Roman d’Aeneas.) 

Everyone knows the next and most important of the medieval poems in debt to Homer and his literary progeny:  Dante’s Divine Comedy.  It is, of course, the shade of Virgil himself who acts as Dante’s guide through the underworld, a descent that is explicitly modeled on that of Aeneas into Hades in Aeneid VI, which was modeled on that of Odysseus in Odyssey XI.

One could adduce any number of other examples of works by medieval sons of Homer.  In the late-fourteenth century, Chaucer wrote his romantic epic Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus being another Prince of Troy belatedly thrust into the limelight, though scarcely mentioned by Homer or Virgil.  Chaucer’s story of Troilus was, in turn, handed on to Shakespeare, who made a splendid tragedy of it, and so it went, on and on.