Wretched Things

We men are wretched things, and the gods, who have no cares themselves, have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives.
– Achilles, The Iliad

For whatever reason, the people behind the theft of our democracy wanted us all to share, comment, & get very worked up about this video, from a TV programme that came out seven years ago. That this should be amplified so widely now rather than any point in the last seven years immediately puts me on edge.

I’m not a classical scholar by any means: my use of a Latin quotation from an Ancient Roman source in this site’s header is merely because I prefer, when possible, to use the original source – one not obscured by the unavoidable bias of translation. I’m deeply suspicious of people who overuse (or improperly use) certain words & phrases from dead languages, which you’d think would put me at odds with my great appreciation for history & classical scholarship. As expected, there was a clamouring of “he’s rambling,” “gibberish,” “terrible pronunciation,” and whatnot, while others responded with “actually not bad,” “brilliant,” “didn’t understand a word of it but it was highly entertaining.” For the most part, to my immense frustration, the vast majority of comments on either side were deeply unhelpful – mostly pronouncements of credentials (“I’m an ancient Greek scholar & what he said was nonsense/flawless”) without anyone providing something that would be useful – like, say, providing the bit of the Illiad he was speaking, saying why it was nonsense/flawless, old-fashioned stuff like evidence, you know. You’re just expected to believe them because they said so, rather than because they prove their case forensically. That it was both sides doing this shows why we’re in this mess.

I find the whole episode highly instructive on many levels.

For me, the most helpful comment came in response to a native Greek speaker who studied ancient Greek texts (the irony of someone called Laura McNeill Greeksplaining to someone called Yiokasti Mouratidi is something I can’t possibly comment upon):

As I said, I’m no classical scholar, but comparing the video to the original Greek at the Perseus project, it seems accurate enough:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν

5 οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
τίς τ᾽ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;
Λητοῦς καὶ Διὸς υἱός: γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθεὶς

10 νοῦσον ἀνὰ στρατὸν ὄρσε κακήν, ὀλέκοντο δὲ λαοί,
οὕνεκα τὸν Χρύσην ἠτίμασεν ἀρητῆρα
Ἀτρεΐδης: γὰρ ἦλθε θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν
λυσόμενός τε θύγατρα φέρων τ᾽ ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα,
στέμματ᾽ ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος

15 χρυσέῳ ἀνὰ σκήπτρῳ, καὶ λίσσετο πάντας Ἀχαιούς,
Ἀτρεΐδα δὲ μάλιστα δύω, κοσμήτορε λαῶν:
Ἀτρεΐδαι τε καὶ ἄλλοι ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί,
ὑμῖν μὲν θεοὶ δοῖεν Ὀλύμπια δώματ᾽ ἔχοντες
ἐκπέρσαι Πριάμοιο πόλιν, εὖ δ᾽ οἴκαδ᾽ ἱκέσθαι:

20 παῖδα δ᾽ ἐμοὶ λύσαιτε φίλην, τὰ δ᾽ ἄποινα δέχεσθαι,
ἁζόμενοι Διὸς υἱὸν ἑκηβόλον Ἀπόλλωνα.

ἔνθ᾽ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες ἐπευφήμησαν Ἀχαιοὶ
αἰδεῖσθαί θ᾽ ἱερῆα καὶ ἀγλαὰ δέχθαι ἄποινα:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι ἥνδανε θυμῷ,

25 ἀλλὰ κακῶς ἀφίει, κρατερὸν δ᾽ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:
μή σε γέρον κοίλῃσιν ἐγὼ παρὰ νηυσὶ κιχείω
νῦν δηθύνοντ᾽ ὕστερον αὖτις ἰόντα,
μή νύ τοι οὐ χραίσμῃ σκῆπτρον καὶ στέμμα θεοῖο:
τὴν δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐ λύσω: πρίν μιν καὶ γῆρας ἔπεισιν

30 ἡμετέρῳ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ ἐν Ἄργεϊ τηλόθι πάτρης
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένην καὶ ἐμὸν λέχος ἀντιόωσαν:
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.

What’s more interesting to me is what it all means.

Since Ms McNeil uses the Loeb translation, we might as well use that one:

[1] The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment,

[5] from the time when1 first they parted in strife Atreus’ son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles. Who then of the gods was it that brought these two together to contend? The son of Leto and Zeus; for he in anger against the king roused throughout the host an evil pestilence, and the people began to perish,

[10] because upon the priest Chryses the son of Atreus had wrought dishonour. For he had come to the swift ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, bearing ransom past counting; and in his hands he held the wreaths of Apollo who strikes from afar,2 on a staff of gold; and he implored all the Achaeans,

[15] but most of all the two sons of Atreus, the marshallers of the people: “Sons of Atreus, and other well-greaved Achaeans, to you may the gods who have homes upon Olympus grant that you sack the city of Priam, and return safe to your homes; but my dear child release to me, and accept the ransom

[20] out of reverence for the son of Zeus, Apollo who strikes from afar.” Then all the rest of the Achaeans shouted assent, to reverence the priest and accept the glorious ransom, yet the thing did not please the heart of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, but he sent him away harshly, and laid upon him a stern command:

[25] “Let me not find you, old man, by the hollow ships, either tarrying now or coming back later, lest your staff and the wreath of the god not protect you. Her I will not set free. Sooner shall old age come upon her in our house, in Argos, far from her native land,

[30] as she walks to and fro before the loom and serves my bed. But go, do not anger me, that you may return the safer.”

Or for a more in-depth line-by-line translation, The Chicago Homer seems pretty excellent:

IL.1.1   μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ [1Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος1]
IL.1.1   SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus

IL.1.2   οὐλομένην, μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς [2ἄλγε’ [3ἔθηκε,2]
IL.1.2   and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,

IL.1.3   πολλὰς δ’3] ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς [4Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν4]
IL.1.3   hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls

IL.1.4   ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
IL.1.4   of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting

IL.1.5   οἰωνοῖσί τε [5πᾶσι, [6[7Διὸς5] δ’ ἐτελείετο7] βουλή,6]
IL.1.5   of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished

IL.1.6   ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
IL.1.6   since that time when first there stood in division of conflict

IL.1.7   Ἀτρεΐδης τε [8ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν8] [9καὶ [10δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.9]10]
IL.1.7   Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε [11θεῶν ἔριδι11] [12ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;12]
IL.1.8   What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?

IL.1.9   Λητοῦς [13καὶ [14[15Διὸς υἱός:13]15] 14] γὰρ βασιλῆϊ χολωθεὶς
IL.1.9   Zeus’ son and Leto’s, Apollo, who in anger at the king drove

IL.1.10   νοῦσον ἀνὰ στρατὸν [16ὦρσε κακήν,16] ὀλέκοντο δὲ λαοί,
IL.1.10   the foul pestilence along the host, and the people perished,

IL.1.11   οὕνεκα τὸν Χρύσην ἠτίμασεν ἀρητῆρα
IL.1.11   since Atreus’ son had dishonoured Chryses, priest of Apollo,

IL.1.12   Ἀτρεΐδης: γὰρ [17[18ἦλθε [19[20θοὰς [21ἐπὶ [22νῆας18]20] Ἀχαιῶν17]19]21]22]
IL.1.12   when he came beside the fast ships of the Achaians to ransom

IL.1.13   [23λυσόμενός τε θύγατρα φέρων [24τ’ [25ἀπερείσι’ ἄποινα,24]25]
IL.1.13   back his daughter, carrying gifts beyond count and holding

IL.1.14   στέμματ’ [26ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν26] [27ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος27]
IL.1.14   in his hands wound on a staff of gold the ribbons of Apollo

IL.1.15   χρυσέῳ ἀνὰ σκήπτρῳ, καὶ ἐλίσσετο [28πάντας Ἀχαιούς,28]
IL.1.15   who strikes from afar, and supplicated all the Achaians,

IL.1.16   Ἀτρεΐδα δὲ μάλιστα δύω, [29κοσμήτορε λαῶν:23]29]
IL.1.16   but above all Atreus’ two sons, the marshals of the people:

IL.1.17   [30[31Ἀτρεΐδαι τε [32καὶ [33ἄλλοι31] [34ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί,30]32]33]34]
IL.1.17   ‘Sons of Atreus and you other strong-greaved Achaians,

IL.1.18   ὑμῖν μὲν [35θεοὶ [36δοῖεν35] [37Ὀλύμπια36] δώματ’ ἔχοντες37]
IL.1.18   to you may the gods grant who have their homes on Olympos

IL.1.19   ἐκπέρσαι [38Πριάμοιο [39πόλιν,38] εὖ39] δ’ [40οἴκαδ’ ἱκέσθαι:40]
IL.1.19   Priam’s city to be plundered and a fair homecoming thereafter,

IL.1.20   παῖδα δ’ ἐμοὶ [41λύσαιτε φίλην,41] τὰ δ’ ἄποινα δέχεσθαι,
IL.1.20   but may you give me back my own daughter and take the ransom,

IL.1.21   ἁζόμενοι [42[43Διὸς υἱὸν43] [44ἑκηβόλον42] Ἀπόλλωνα.44]
IL.1.21   giving honour to Zeus’ son who strikes from afar, Apollo.’


IL.1.22   [45[46ἔνθ’ ἄλλοι μὲν πάντες46] ἐπευφήμησαν Ἀχαιοὶ
IL.1.22   Then all the rest of the Achaians cried out in favour

IL.1.23   αἰδεῖσθαί θ’ ἱερῆα [47καὶ ἀγλαὰ [48δέχθαι ἄποινα:47]48]
IL.1.23   that the priest be respected and the shining ransom be taken;

IL.1.24   [49ἀλλ’ οὐκ [50Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι49]50] [51ἥνδανε θυμῷ,51]
IL.1.24   yet this pleased not the heart of Atreus’ son Agamemnon,

IL.1.25   ἀλλὰ κακῶς ἀφίει, [52κρατερὸν [53δ’ ἐπὶ μῦθον ἔτελλε:45]52]53]
IL.1.25   but harshly he drove him away with a strong order upon him:

IL.1.26   μή σε γέρον κοίλῃσιν ἐγὼ παρὰ νηυσὶ κιχείω
IL.1.26   ‘Never let me find you again, old sir, near our hollow

IL.1.27    νῦν δηθύνοντ’ ὕστερον [54αὖτις ἰόντα,54]
IL.1.27   ships, neither lingering now nor coming again hereafter,

IL.1.28   [55μή νύ τοι οὐ χραίσμῃ55] σκῆπτρον καὶ στέμμα θεοῖο:
IL.1.28   for fear your staff and the god’s ribbons help you no longer.

IL.1.29   [56τὴν δ’ ἐγὼ οὐ56] λύσω: πρίν μιν καὶ [57γῆρας ἔπεισιν57]
IL.1.29   The girl I will not give back; sooner will old age come upon her

IL.1.30   ἡμετέρῳ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ ἐν Ἄργεϊ [58τηλόθι πάτρης58]
IL.1.30   in my own house, in Argos, far from her own land, going

You can see the inherent problems in translation millennia-old texts based on oral traditions, even before you get to the likely reason even classical scholars might take issue with the video (the pronunciation, which is too complex, varied, & downright weird for even me to get through). Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear what’s being described in the passage: it’s the introduction to the Trojan War. The prominent emotions are wrath and grief, the actions destruction and conflict, a war between nations cast as a disagreement between two Great Men – and throughout, the Will of the Gods unfolding.

So, what actually happened? The then-Mayor of London sought to delight & spellbind a captive audience in a faraway colony with a recital of one of the great oral stories of the world, in the original language, with much vigour and excitement. It is entirely understandable that those who still think of this man as a fool would automatically assume he was either stringing together disparate lines without rhyme or reason, or making it up entirely, given the man’s track record for bald-faced lies. I know my immediate reaction was sympathetic to those suppositions.

But this man is not a fool. His recall is not something to be dismissed so blithely: every “gaffe,” every “mistake,” is a carefully crafted & meticulously orchestrated conceit, as revealed by Jeremy Vine in his insightful anecdote. So why, after the election, has this blown up over social media? It’s a result of the inherent hypocrisy & unrealism of the movement of which he finds himself the head.

The entire UK Government election campaign was built on self-contradiction. They talked of The People being “tired” of experts & the Elite, yet barely stopped to breathe touting their credentials; they championed The People’s decision in a gerrymandered 2016 referendum, yet resolutely act time and time again against everything those same people value & cherish; they dare talk of charity & respect & honour, yet show none to the most vulnerable & needy in the society they are supposed to uphold. So they don’t show an Eton-educated personal millionaire passionately orating in a dead foreign language to an audience of latter-day nobility during the election – but they take great joy in flaunting their Expertise after they’ve already won.

It’s a sick game to them. They convinced voters that a vote for their party was a vote against arrogant experts who think they know better – then show off a Prime Minister impressing people in an ancient alien tongue most of the country (including speakers of that language’s modern form) doesn’t understand. They convinced workers that a vote for their party was a vote against the Elite – then demand that we show proper respect for people who are to receive literal honours for their work against the poor & the struggling. They think voters are stupid – & reward voters for their patronage by treating them accordingly.

Because, for them, none of it is real. It’s all The Iliad: a story, a ripping yarn, an adventure. They are Achilles and Diomedes & Odysseus in modern times, with the EU cast as terrible Troy who dared to take away their Helen (their… what, sovereignty? Pride?), and the people mere props in a story of Great Men. It is how they are educated. It is how they view their lives. It is how people as profoundly undeserving of any “honour” – like Iain Duncan Smith – can dress themselves in the rainment of Wilberforce, & can take the same title as the likes of Isaac Newton, Alexander Fleming, Richard Grenville, Cloudesley Shovell, Samuel Romely, Christopher Wren, & others without any sense of shame. That they also share that honour with such folk as John Hawkins & Francis Walsingham (not to mention more recent disgraces) isn’t much comfort.

They don’t have to face the reality, the consequences, of their decisions. Boris Johnson doesn’t have to go to jail for his grotesque intervention in Iranian politics – but Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe does. Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t have to die waiting for his social security to come through – but tens of thousands of UK citizens do. Theresa May doesn’t have to lose her possessions & family members because of Grenfell – the people who live there do. So they all continue living in their little fantasy worlds completely unaware – or completely uncaring – of the cruel bite of reality which affects millions of us now.

Here’s another quotation from The Iliad – from the Chicago Homer rather than the Loeb, as it seems to me more direct – one that seems appropriate, as it is from the great Achilles himself, & it’s one that the cosseted, precious worthies of Eton should ponder more often.

For not worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel, in the old days when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaians; not all that the stone doorsill of the Archer holds fast within it, of Phoibos Apollo in Pytho of the rocks. Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.



One thought on “Wretched Things

  1. Marconatrix says:

    I’m not really sure how Boris’ rendering of Ancient Greek is relevant to anything really, he no doubt was taught a ‘traditional’ anglicised pronunciation handed down through generations of public schoolboys. Years ago I came across an attempt to reconstruct the actual ancient phonology of Classical Greek, pitch accent, aspirated stops and all. Called IIRC _Vox Graecae_ or some such, but only of interest to language specialists. However I’m sure were one such to listed to Boris, his vox would be shot forthwith 😉

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