It starts with Hercules. They just dug up a statue of Hercules in Turkey- 4000 years old or thereabouts and 9 foot tall. No head, no right arm, but I guess you can’t mistake that muscled torso. We think of Herc as a hero. But he was bigger than that. He was the hero who became a God. He was a primitive or not so primitive Christ. A Christ with balls. (Yet Greek statues always have tiny dicks- that is, when they’ve not been knocked off. Tiny dicks were the Greek ideal apparently.
But Herc was the best. He had human faults. He did some bad things (mainly by accident or bad luck) but basically he was noble. Much put upon, much suffering, all round heroic. So what the hell was he doing with poisoned arrows?
He had a club, right? We all know about the club. But there were also these poison arrows as back-up. That shouldn’t be. It’s like learning that good old General McArthur was willing to A-bomb cities all along the Pacific rim- starting with Vladivostock- in order to halt the spread of communism and win the Korean war- which he was.....
Damn, but those Greeks were realists.
So Herc is dying. Here’s where the poison first comes in. He’s put on the shirt of Nessus so as to look fetching on his wedding day and the poisoned blood of the old centaur-rapist is eating up his flesh, is coursing through his blood, is gnawing at his bones, and he’s in agony. He climbs a mountain, pulls up a forest, builds a funeral pyre that scales the heavens and goes and sits on top. Then he calls down to his mate Philoctetes- “Ok Phil, light the fucker.”
Now this is going to be about Philoctetes, so we’d better pause and take a look at him. I can’t help it, but I think of him as Phil the Greek . I reckon he’s a little guy. Jackal to Herc’s lion. Little and lithe and dark. In due time he’s going to become the best damn sniper in Hellas, so I guess we’ll credit him with keen piercing eyes. Kipling invented a guy like him once and called him Stanley Otheris. Otheris is a nasty piece of work, a borderline pyscopath, but he’s got a good sense of humour. Better credit Phil with that as well. Herc would appreciate having someone around who was fast with the one-liners. A bitter little funny man. Herc would down a guy with his club and Phil would stick in the satirical barb. Like in a Schwarzenegger movie. Only here Arnie is split in two. Herc does the bashing and biffing and Phil gets to say, “hasta la vista, baby” or whatever.
Phil can’t see Herc because the pyre is so high. There’s just this voice booming down at him from halfway to heaven. “I can’t do it.” he shouts back. Phil’s eyes are running with tears. He may be a psycho, but he loves Herc. “Don’t ask, me” he says.
Maybe this went on for a while. In myth there is usually a threefold putting of the question. So lets go with that here. The third time Herc gets clever. He says, “Do it Phil- and you can have the arrows.”
It’s an apostolic handing on. It’s not the club- the power and the glory of the right hand path. Face it, weedy little Phil couldn’t even lift the thing. It’s the arrows- the chemical weapons- the kingdom of the left hand path. Phil is this jackal whose lion is dying. People will feel free to kick him now. But not if he has the arrows. With them comes respect, the kind of respect that goes not with honour, but with fear. Phil can go on leading the life of a swaggering bully.
So long as he has the arrows.
So he chokes it back and puts a torch to the kindling. And Herc goes up in the biggest bonfire the world has ever seen. The flames lick the meat from his big bones and his spirit rides the smoke all the way up to the summit of Olympus. There Hera is waiting. The peacock flicks its tail and opens its fan of eyes. Hera has given Herc the worst time ever, supposedly out of jealousy because he was the love child of Zeus and some mortal woman , but I don’t believe it. If Hera hates him so much, how come his name means Glory of Hera? No there was something else going on here. Like he was always her favourite child and she was testing him to the limit, the way a candidate for godhead needs to be tested. Now she hands over her daughter Hebe- whose name means Youth. And Hercules and Hebe are married and the feasting and fucking go on forever.
Phil walks over to the pile of gear that Herc has left behind him. There’s a crowd standing round. They are the witnesses. They know Phil has the right. He picks up the quiver of arrows and shoulders it. The crowd parts to let him through and he walks off down the hill and enters into his kingdom.
We don’t know the next bit, but I can guess at it. Phil becomes a hero in his own right. But a sneaky kind of hero. The threat of the poison arrows gets him free drinks wherever he goes, but no-one drinks with him for the fun of it, like they did with Herc. Maybe he performs some heroic deeds,
some slaying of monsters, some righting of wrongs, but it’s done with the arrows or the threat of the arrows, not by virtue and getting up close. Phil is a sniper. He is the most accurate, goddamn sniper in the whole of Hellas.
So when they’re mustering heroes for the Trojan war, Phil has to be on the list. I don’t suppose Agamemnon or any of those other beef-eating warlords feel all that comfortable with him, but they want the best and Phil is the best at what he does.
What happens next seems odd to me. Phil has this wounded foot. What happened there? Did he stick himself with one of his own arrows by mistake, or did he just tread on a thorn? I can’t find an explanation in my sources. But the certain thing is that the wound won’t heal. And it stinks. Stinks the whole ship out. And the men are complaining and the chiefs are gagging over their roast beef dinners and the upshot is they take a detour and maroon Phil on the island of Lemnos- just like Alexander Selkirk.
I can’t believe it was as simple as that. Did all the other beef-eaters smell like roses? Did these horrible old pirates and war criminals really blench at a gangrenous foot? No I think the foot is a symbol. A symbol of Phil’s outsider status.
Now before we start getting romantic about outsiders, before we start thinking of Phil as Jimmy Dean or Mersault in the Camus novel- the guy who couldn’t live a lie- let’s be clear about something. Even by the pre-Judaeo -Christian standards of Agamemnon and his gang, Phil was a nasty piece of work. They were childish and petulant and brutal, but they did honour in a big way. Philoctetes didn’t do honour any way at all. Shooting someone full off poison arrows from behind a rock is not honourable.
And maybe, being dishonourable and having nothing to lose, he mocked at their honour. They were fundamentalists of honour and when you’re a fundamentalist of anything it’s because you know somewhere very deep down that your values don’t stand up to the light of reason or the light of reality. Maybe, Phil was firing off those one-liners all the time. Pricking and poisoning their sense of their own honourableness. Maybe he was like Jimmy Dean after all. The Jimmy Dean who would walk into a room full of important Hollywood players going “Fuck you, fuck you fuck you.”
Jimmy Dean used to have men in gay bars stub out cigarettes on his skin. And Phil had a poisoned foot. Maybe Phil was just goading that big stupid Agamemnon (with the rotting bull-meat stuck between his teeth) to get him to punish him. Outsiders simultaneously hate and love being outsiders. They do things to reinforce their status all the time. There’s a sentimentalism about them. They cosy up to rejection. It’s their comfort blanket. Oddly enough.
So Phil is dropped off on Lemnos. Odysseus is the prime mover here. Stupid move for such a reputedly smart guy. Maybe Odysseus, the sneakiest fighter of all, besides whom Phil is an amateur, feels those barbs the worst. Phil is really getting to him, really getting to the truth of him. The brainiac who was to come up with the wooden horse is having his honourable persona shot full of holes. Time to use the cauterising knife and the tourniquet on poison-tongued Phil.
Lemnos is white craggy rock and maquis and forest. Phil has taken possession of his kingdom. He holes up in a cave on the sea shore and..
...And what? He has ten years on that island. I can’t imagine ten years solitary. Can you? And this is really solitary. There aren’t even any pig-ignorant, white-trash guards to rattle the bars. There aren’t even any other prisoners that you know to be there even if you can’t see them. Phil is utterly alone. If he chalks up days on the wall of his cave, he’s going to run out of wall- space before he’s through.
He sits on the beach and watches the horizon. That’s what castaways do, isn’t it? He watches till his eyes swim and he’s seeing things that might just be ships but never are. He talks to himself a lot. By the end of the ten years, he has a whole a menagerie of invisible playmates. Some are friends and some, I’ll bet you, are out to get him. He moves round his island on the que vive, afraid of the people who aren’t there who are lying in ambush. He fires his arrows at shadows on rocks. One of the invisibles is his old pal, Herc. Phil gets to try out his barbed remarks on Herc and Herc laughs. Herc says he’ll do what he can to help. And does he? Does he, fuck.
Meanwhile the Trojan War is grinding away. The Iliad is a hard read. All that repetition. All those duels between similarly unpleasant hard men. Maybe the Iliad is the one wholly true war epic. It is almost as nut-wringingly boring as the real thing. The Greeks are in trenches like it’s the Western front. They go over the top again and again and win nothing. Edged bronze has a slower rate of attrition than the weaponry they had on the Somme, but the dead keep piling up nonetheless. The Greeks build pyres, drink wine, eat beef. Phil is well out of it.
Tell him that.
Patroclus gets dead. Hector gets dead. Achilles gets dead. We’re out of the Iliad now but the war is still dragging on. Now maybe, after all, Herc had been doing a little lobbying on Phil’s behalf in Heaven, because Apollo’s oracle announces that the only way to shorten the war is to bring Phil out of retirement and have him shooting those poison arrows of his at the Trojans.
Odysseus is sick of honour by now. And so he heads up the expedition to go fetch Phil. You’ve got to wonder about that meeting. It’s a miracle if Phil was capable of talking about anything but toasted cheese. But it seems like he was compus mentus enough to square up to Odysseus and tell him to go screw himself.
That night, he’s asleep in his cave and Herc shows up.
“Well my son,” he says, “I’ve swung it for you at last. I told you you could trust your Uncle Herc.”
“Sod off.” says Phil.
“But son,” says Herc, “its your ticket off the island.”
“Who says I want to leave the island?” says Phil.
“How about your foot?” says Herc, “they’ve gone and found a cure.”
That clinched it. Now I’ve already indicated that I think the foot is a symbol as much as anything. So what was this cure? I reckon that ten years of fighting had brought all the Greek captains down to Phil’s level. No more of that stupid honour business, no more of that heroic duelling; they wanted the war over and done with the quickest way and all the Trojans dead. Phil, the technician of death would receive honour among them now- well, a sort of honour. Not honour in the old sense, but recognition. He’d get to be an insider at last.
So next morning, Phil limps down to the ship, looks Odysseus offensively in the eye and says, “OK, old buddy. Lets go kill Trojans.”.
It’s Machaon, the son of Aesculapius, who heals him- or whatever. No more stinky foot. Now Phil is in with the in-crowd. The legends are most of them dead, so here’s a new one. A new kind of ace for a new dirtier kind of war. Phil gets to skulk and shift and snipe. He’s hiding in ditches and clumps of trees and on grassy knolls and bringing down Trojans right and left. He gets the little prince’s seat next to Agamemnon. Lots of wine. Lots of beef.
And if he makes one of his mean gibes, they laugh. They’re all alternative comedians now. But he’s still the best. He sticks it to them and they wince and laugh. But you can’t lower the tone in this assembly. These guys gave up on the higher virtues a good while back. In the kingdom of the utterly shagged out and cynical, Phil is number one. Fuck it, he’s Oscar Wilde.
But there’s still Troy. In his high chamber in the citadel, hung with gold-embroidered Tyrian purple, Paris the high prince still lies down nightly beside the white ghost Helen. From his windows he looks across the tiny Greek camp to the wine-dark sea. To the Greeks this is insufferable
(Was Helen a real woman or a ghost? Homer says one thing and Euripides says the other. I go with Euripides, because he’s a modern author and cynical like me and I enjoy him more.)
So Phil gets the job of killing Paris. He is given an escort of shield bearers and behind this moving wall stalks his prey across the battlefield. It will take a single arrow. All he has to do is graze the high prince and the high prince dies. Slowly. In pain. Just like all the others.
Paris is lovely. His hyacinthine locks flow free below the rim of his bronze helmet. Aphrodite tends him. Ten years of war have only made him leaner and darker and more hungrily beautiful. He does not slay men as fast as his dead brother Hector, but why should that matter? He is Troy’s standard. The troops may curse him in the wine bars, but when they see him, they love him and no longer mind fighting to secure his happiness.
Paris is the man. Paris is the dude. You Greeks are all bum-boys. Helen stays with us.
It is only a matter of time. Sooner or later the man behind the shield wall will come within range of the man in the chariot. Let us leave Philoctetes there. It is his finest hour. Everyone loves him now.
But the body of Paris was borne from the city onto the plain behind, and laid upon a pyre of good stout cedar logs, drenched in wine. And when the healer Oenone, who was Paris’s first love, but, from jealousy, had refused him succour in his pain, saw the smoke rising, she ran to the spot and asked of the mourners whose funeral it was, and when they wouldn’t answer her, she knew, and so she climbed the pyre and laid herself down beside her lover and passed with him in fire and smoke to hell.