In this week’s installment, one man’s dispute with a king is appealed directly to the gods.
King Agamemnon of Mycenae, Overlord of the Army of Hellas, is at the top of his political and military order. Whether his actions cause the death and enslavement of his enemies, bring dishonor to a priest, or invite disease among his troops, there is no human authority that can force compensation or even an admission of blame. Others may see him as a villain, as Chryses does in this installment, but Agamemnon sees himself as infallible.
A while back, I joked that it would have been hard to be an atheist in the world of Greek mythology, where you might stumble upon a goddess bathing in a spring or a god chasing a nymph through the forest, and where every other person claims to have a divine parent. But also in a political sense, even in the absence of supernatural evidence, the king’s supporters had to believe in the gods that put him on the throne, while the king’s critics had to believe in the gods who were their last recourse to correct a king’s bad actions.
Belief could be reinforced by the perception of results. A petitioner, aggrieved by the king, would appeal to the gods, as Chryses does in Iliad I. The kingdom might then experience plague, famine, pestilence, or death. From this, a story might spread that the gods listen to prayers and are sometimes willing to intervene in human affairs. Eventually, such stories are added to the society’s governing mythology.
Power in Agamemnon’s Hellas didn’t flow from the consent of the people, but from the consent of the gods, manifested in a king and mediated by a priestly caste. The power structure of this society influenced its mythology, justifying and perpetuating power structures as a result. Agamemnon had no term limits, could not be voted out of office, and was not subject to impeachment, indictment, or punishment under any human law.
Today in America, we have our own mythology, a traditional set of stories we tell about colonization, revolution, our Founders and foundational documents, the institution of slavery, a civil war, ongoing civil rights struggles, innovation, exploration, and more. After a free and fair election, power is peacefully transferred from one administration to the next because a democratic tradition is at the core of our story about what kind of country we are.
It’s interesting to think about how different the opening to Homer’s Iliad might have been if it took place within a different system of mythology.