Pan Drakopoulos: The Archaeology of European Identity (Part II)
by Pan Drakopoulos
6. Defining the Aliens
THE ILIAD leaves no margin for misinterpretations: the poet, by mentioning all who have participated in the great conflict, forces us to notice that on one side there are only Pan-Achaeans, without any strangers among them, whilst on the other side there are the Trojans, with a heterogeneous mass of people coming from Asia and from the North. Thus, Homer considers as an absolute reality the distinction “ourselves and the others”” (13).
Homer, of course, was not the first to introduce that distinction. Eight whole centuries before Homer -the first of all Hellenes- Camose I spoke in his sacred palace and told the noblemen of his retinue that there was some question as to his power. How could they think, he asked, that he, Camose I, had virtually all the power, since one master was in Avaris and another one in Ethiopia, which meant that he shared his throne with an Asian and a Negro (14), and each of them, seizing his land, had a piece of Egypt? Then, he carried on saying that he could not rest assured, since he was robbed by those thieves -the Asians- and he promised that he would fight them and disembowel them, because what he wished was to save Egypt and break down the Asians.
This is the oldest written use of the distinction “ourselves and the others” I could find, but I imagine that there must be even older ones. It is worth paying attention to the ‘between the lines’ distinction: The Egyptian monarch expresses his contempt for Negroes, whilst he hates Asians. And it is obvious that he cannot seriously accept that Asians are as competent as Egyptians who could boast an empire, conquests, institutions, and laws. (I can understand the Pharaoh’s sneering comment: even Asians have now acquired a taste for having a king, imagine!)
Homer, on the contrary, does his best not to insult and underestimate his enemies. Thucydides, in his famous and much discussed passage, says that Homer does not even call them barbarians. In both camps, he sees brilliant heroes destined to meet their doom; sons of gods, under an implacable destiny; gods whose power is tested in bravery and deceit. Each side honors the other, and it is not unusual to exchange presents in order to show in this way their mutual esteem (15). Priam, having called Helen at the walls of the city, is pointing to Agamemnon and asking her, full of admiration rather than curiosity, who that man is: “I never saw a soldier / clean-cut as he, as royal in his bearing”; and of Odysseus he says that he remembered from an old meeting of theirs that whenever Odysseus opened his mouth to speak, he “could have no mortal rival as an orator” etc. On the other hand, the Trojans are as equally honored as the Hellenes: they are called “brave men and of a first rate”, while Diomedes does not hesitate to confess, moaning:
“Friends, / all we can do is marvel at Prince Hector. / What a spearman he is, and what a fighter!”
It is true that we are far from Pharaoh’s way of thinking; I would say, playing with time but not with the substance, that Homer joins with Nietzsche (16) in this dialogue, not only in respect of his heroes’ subject-matter, but also because throughout the Iliad he wants the Achaeans to feel proud of their enemies.
However the distinction “ourselves and the others” is not only alive and kicking, not only is it present during the exchange of compliments between the opponents, but it is also the unmoving mover of the epic, the reason and the way of its existence.