Reflections on Trump, Thersites, and Disability Experiences in the Iliad: Personal Encounters with Classical Texts

It can be easy to think of ancient stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey as unconnected to our modern world because they come to us from a distant time and mythological reality. But a recent — and uncomfortable—parallel between the Iliad and today’s politics has caused me to re-evaluate my view of the text in light of my own personal experiences.

Consider the following scenarios: A disabled person challenges the claims of a politician and has his physical appearance mocked. A commander-in-chief threatens critics and protesters with violence before a crowd of supporters to maintain his political authority.

In the American political context, I am referring to candidate and now-President Trump, who in November 2015 mocked the appearance of Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a disability, after he contested Trump’s claim that “thousands and thousands” of people celebrated in New Jersey after 9/11. The second scenario refers to Trump’s incitement of violence against protesters or reporters and the press at rallies, and his Tweets that seem to promote violence.

But change a few words, and I could also be referring to an episode in Book 2 of the Iliad. Before an assembly, Thersites criticizes Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks at Troy. From Homer’s description, Thersites is clearly disabled or suffers from physical deformities:

‘This was the ugliest man who came beneath Ilion. He was bandy-legged and went lame of one foot, with shoulders stooped and drawn together over his chest, and above this his skull went up to a point with the wool grown sparsely upon it.’ (Iliad 2.216–19; Lattimore translation)

An illustration of Thersites with other Greeks, from a volume of Shakespeare’s plays (Thersites is also a character from the play Troilus and Cressida).

Thersites accuses Agamemnon of claiming most of the war prizes, captured by other warriors, for himself (Iliad 2.225-38). His arguments are accurate and parallels those made by Achilles in Book 1 (Postlethwaite 126-36). He adds that Agamemnon has made a mistake in dishonoring Achilles and losing his support (Iliad 2.239-42), when he seized his war prize— also true.

Yet his words are not considered. Odysseus berates him for challenging Agamemnon (Iliad 2.246-56) and threatens to “strip away” his clothing and send him “bare and howling back to the fast ships, whipping you out of the assembly place with the strokes of indignity”(Iliad 2.260–4).

Odysseus then beats him violently with a scepter (Iliad 2.265-9). As Thersites is humiliated, the soldiers laugh at him (Iliad 2.270-7); Odysseus unites them in laughter and averts the potential for political disruption. Thersites becomes the target of violence and mockery to maintain political authority — not so different from a Trump rally.

Thersites’ challenging of authority is specified as the reason for his beating, not his disability. Still, scholars suggest that Homer’s description of Thersites’ ugly appearance characterizes him as a morally shameful, unheroic figure intended for comedic purposes (Kelley 40; Meltzer 266-72Postlethwaite 126, 133). Similarly, Trump says that he was only mocking Kovaleski in general, not because of his disability (though his arm-jerking imitation suggested otherwise).

Nevertheless, there emerges — separated by thousands of years — a disturbing pattern in which the cruel mistreatment of a disabled person arouses laughter and mockery toward political ends. Trump’s tactics also parallel Odysseus’ in the use or threat of violence to silence opponents and critics — an uncomfortable similarity, given the central role that freedom of political expression is thought to play in our “modern” democracy.

Another episode in the Iliad (1.536-611echoes the same issues (Kelley 35-41; Meltzer 271-2): to mend a rift between Zeus and Hera, Hephaestus, the lame smith-god, reminds Hera of when he was thrown from Olympus for challenging Zeus, and proceeds to act as cup-bearer for the feast, stumbling comically around the palace. The gods all laugh at him, and the quarrel comes to an end. On the mortal and divine levels, the mockery of the disabled in the Iliad converges with implied violence for the purpose of maintaining the political order.

My personal stake in this discussion comes from my experience as a person with a disability, muscular dystrophy, which requires me to use a wheelchair. One might assume that I would have an emotional reaction in response to the story of Thersites. The truth is that, as a disabled person, I rarely found it necessary, at least at first, to read my personal identity into Classical texts.

There are two reasons for this. One is that students of Classics are taught not to judge the ancient world too harshly from our modern perspective.

An example: In my first undergraduate Classics course, we discussed the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon (Iliad 1.105-348). After being forced to give up his war prize, the captive girl Chyseis, Agamemnon seizes Briseis, the prize of Achilles, who angrily retreats from battle. The instructor asked us to write papers on whose position had greater merit.

A student responded, “But aren’t they both wrong to keep slaves?” He was right that the central conflict of the Iliad extends from an argument over the ownership of war captives. The instructor responded that, though slavery is wrong, we cannot judge the Iliad too strongly from a modern perspective, as that might prevent us from understanding what it is trying to tell us.

From then on, I attempted to adhere to this philosophy: read ancient texts in their own context, and let them speak for themselves. I became used to taking the position of a detached reader, treating ancient texts as distant, with little impact on our modern selves.

Second, my identity as a disabled person has almost never felt threatened or insulted. Unlike many others, I have been fortunate enough to receive support and kindness from every community I have been a part of. In my bubble of relative safety, I have not needed to think too much about my identity as a disabled person or about “what it means” to have a disability. I did not identify my experiences with those of disabled figures in Classical texts, like Thersites and Hephaestus, whom I tended to treat as any other fictional characters.

Various experiences have caused me to re-consider the role of identities in Classics. While I was, coincidentally, taking a Latin reading course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a debate erupted over whether instructors should implement trigger warnings when teaching rape narratives in the Metamorphoses. The controversy was ignited by an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator describing how a student and survivor of sexual assault felt triggered and marginalized by the narratives of sexual assault in the Metamorphoses and her instructor’s dismissal of her concerns.

An edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, likely used by college students, with a 17th century Bernini statue on its cover depicting the sexual-assault narrative of Daphne, who turns into a tree to escape from Apollo.

I disagreed with the op-ed’s premise that the Metamorphoses is a text of “exclusion and oppression” whose “offensive material marginalizes student identities,” since my view is that Ovid challenges the exclusion of marginalized voices. However, I agreed that sexual-assault survivors might react uncomfortably to the material in the text, and that it was important for instructors to be respectful and inclusive in their teaching of sensitive topics.

Readers inevitably have different reactions to a text based on their individual experiences, and their personal identities can rarely be disentangled from their reading of the text. As I looked into the challenge of teaching about Ovid’s rape stories and read scholarly works like Amy Richlin’s “Reading Ovid’s Rapes,” I recognized that any interpretation of a work of media has to contend with its impact on the identities of the readers.

I saw the importance of examining identities in Classical texts. Yet it remained an academic issue; I did not think of the impact on my identity.

Then, Donald J. Trump emerged on the American political scene and proceeded to claim the presidency. With him came a series of assaults against personal identities. He called Mexican immigrants rapists, murderers, and drug-dealers. He mocked a disabled man. He characterized Muslims as a threat and attempted to implement a Muslim ban.

His history of sexist comments toward women came to light. He characterized black communities as hotbeds of crime, violence, and poverty. He demonstrated an inability to immediately condemn white supremacists, the KKK, and neo-Nazis after the events in Charlottesville and blamed the violence on “many sides”. He has announced a ban on transgender people in the military.

My identity was impacted in two ways. First, Trump’s attacks on immigrants and his Muslim ban, which would impede the entrance of Syrian refugees to America, were upsetting, because my parents were among the Vietnamese refugees accepted to the US at the end of the Vietnam War and had worked hard to build their new lives in America.

Second was Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter. His goal, I think, was not to insult disabled people in general. Instead, he wanted to discredit Kovaleski specifically, and immediately thought of his physical appearance: a callous reduction of Kovaleski down to his disability. What was disturbing to me was that a disabled person could be silenced because of a physical disability beyond their control.

The parallel with the Iliad became clear when Meryl Streep characterized Trump’s treatment of Kovaleski as a “performance” designed to make “its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.” Everything clicked: Odysseus does the same, when he makes a spectacle of humiliating Thersites before an audience. Hephaestus, sadly, does it to himself, when he prances around comically to make the other gods laugh.

With the ascent of Trump, I have observed an increasing need to defend personal identities from attack. His support of derogatory attitudes towards entire groups of people has led me to understand the importance of engaging in politics through identity, for how can politicians be expected to respect our interests in matters of policy, like healthcare, when they lack basic respect for who we are?

As the role of identity takes on greater power and significance in areas beyond politics, with statements of identity transforming into acts of resistance, I have recognized the value of defending and articulating personal identities in all realms, from politics to academia to culture, art, and the media.

Seeing Trump’s attack on an aspect of my own identity reflected in an ancient text led me to realize that the same would have to be true in the realm of Classical literature: instead of viewing the Iliad from a distance, I would necessarily have to relate to it and articulate my understanding of it through the lens of my personal identity. If Classical texts still have value today, we must read them for today, and to do so, we must confront their impacts on our identities, just like any other work of media or art that we encounter today.

After going through the above thought process, I decided to reflect more deeply on my personal feelings, as a disabled person, regarding the portrayal of disabilities in Homer.

Except when a disabled character is laughed at, I appreciate the portrayal of disabilities in Homer, for it acknowledges the contributions of disabled people to their communities. Hephaestus, though lame, is a powerful god of fire, with the ability to create beautiful works of art and dangerous weapons (Kelley 40-1).

Artist’s interpretation of Achilles’ shield, famously forged by Hephaestus in Book 18 of the Iliad, on view in the Huntington Library. Created in John Flaxman in 1821.  Image by Thad Zajdowicz:

Demodocus, the blind bard, is a respected singer of songs (Odyssey 8.62-92, 254-69, 470-534), while Tiresias, the blind prophet who appears in the underworld of the Odyssey (10.488-95; 11.90-149) and in the Greek tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, is famed for his clairvoyance (Kelley 41-4).

The ghost of the blind prophet Tiresias appears before Odysseus in the underworld, as portrayed in this 18th century watercolor by Henry Fuseli.

The prominent position which, it appears, some disabled people were able to claim in society encouragingly helps us to recognize that the range of perspectives and experiences in Homer’s audience may have been more diverse than we might expect. For me, it is heartening to see my modern identity, or at least an aspect of it, represented in Homeric society, and perhaps, even within Homer’s audience. The “distant” works of Homer may not so distant after all.

Still, I am concerned that the notion being promoted is that disabled people are “special” or possess special abilities as a result of their disabilities: perhaps his inability to see the physical world allows Tiresias to “see” a different level of existence (Kelley 41-4). This creates the expectation that disabled people need to rise to a higher standard to “make up” for their disabilities. Just as disabled people are often placed on pedestals as sources of inspiration today, this uncomfortably marks them as different and abnormal, when most people like me want to live normal lives.

Back to the Thersites scene, which is ambiguous and invites multiple readings. It is important to remember that just because an author portrays something disturbing does not mean that he condones it.

My first instinct, likely because the Iliad is a personal favorite, was to assume the best of Homer and find an interpretation I am comfortable with. The problem is that my reading of the text may end up guiding my evidence, rather than the other way around.

My preferred reading is that Homer portrays Thersites as a speaker of the truth who makes the same arguments as Achilles (Postlethwaite 126-36), to point out how a heroic, aristocratic figure can get away with challenging authority, but when an unheroic disruptor with a disability who represents the common people tries to do so, he is shut down by the political authorities through mockery and violence. We are meant to recoil against this, just as many did when they saw Trump taking similar actions against a disabled man.

But, there exist opposing readings, hinging on the meaning of the word “aischistos”(Iliad 2.216) used to describe Thersites: it could mean “ugliest” physically, or “most shameful” morally, or both (Meltzer 267). While the former is a statement of fact, the latter is a statement of condemnation suggesting that Homer portrays Thersites, whose arguments are characterized as “disorderly words”(Iliad 2.212-3) and “shrill abuse,”(Iliad 2.222) as a sower of chaos, who shamefully disrupts political power structures and is beaten down as a result (Postlethwaite 123-26). This depiction espouses the values of the aristocratic class, regarding the maintenance of (their) political authority.

If “aischistos” here means both “ugly” and “shameful,” Homer is likely conflating physical deformities with morality, as the ancient Greeks often did, or saying the disabled deserve this type of treatment— a harmful view of disabilities, in line with the modern portrayal of movie villains, like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.

On the other hand, given the positive portrayal of other disabled characters, this might be an attempt to acknowledge the different people — good and bad — who exist among the disabled. Though I disagree with the politics— his acts do not make Thersites a wicked figure, but a courageous protester — this is not necessarily a negative view of his disability itself.

There is another issue: the narrator of the Iliad might be different from Homer himself. Authors can create narrators who function as their own characters. Homer could be criticizing the narrator by having him unrealistically justify the treatment of Thersites: excessively, not only do Achilles and Odysseus hate him (Iliad 2.220), but the entire army agrees with his treatment (Iliad 2.270-7).

So, what are we left with? The multitude of interpretive problems makes it difficult to determine how to respond to the Thersites episode.

One route is to follow my interpretation and take this incident as part of the acknowledgment of the real range of disability experiences in the time of Homer: disabled people have skills and important perspectives to offer — Thersites is a skilled speaker of the truth  (Meltzer 269)— and though some are valued for their contributions, others are mistreated and mocked (Kelley 44-5).

His cruel humiliation evokes sympathy for Thersites; the Iliad thereby acts as an inclusive affirmation of the dignity of marginalized voices and identities, among which, perhaps, I can see a reflection of my modern identity. This comfortably aligns with my view that the Iliad seeks to recognize our shared humanity and present the human experience with sympathy. This ancient text takes on modern significance.

The other path is to accept that Thersites is presented in an unflattering light and is supposed to deserve his humiliation. That means accepting, at least in this scene, that Homer does not speak to our modern experiences after all, that his intended audience is exclusive to that aristocratic society of the distant past and remains closed off to us. This is disappointing and difficult, since the Iliad is one of my favorite texts, yet I cannot allow my enjoyment of the text prevent me from having a nuanced view of it or acknowledging its failures.

If we continue to read the Iliad and believe that it has value for today’s world, we must break open that barrier of exclusivity, become part of Homer’s audience, and accept that we will necessarily relate to Classical texts through the lens of our own identities. As audience members, we are responsible for challenging and critiquing the impact of Classical texts on our identities, just as we are for any piece of media or culture today.

That means we can resist the Iliad’s stance of exclusion in its silencing of Thersites. Or, we can go further and re-appropriate it: find our own understanding of this episode, and look upon Thersites’ experience with sympathy, even if the Iliad does not.


Homecomings and Reunions in Game of Thrones: Echoes of the Odyssey?

The following post contains minor spoilers for “Spoils of War” (episode 4 of Game of Thrones season 7).

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of Game of Thrones, say in a behind-the-scenes video that Arya’s homecoming scene in the latest episode of Game of Thrones was inspired by Odysseus’ return to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey. But the parallels with the Odyssey in that particular scene are not all that strong.

The similarity is that both return home unrecognized and have to spend time proving their identities, but that comparison misses the point. Odysseus was unrecognized because he was in disguise, in order to scope out the situation and figure out what his enemies, the Suitors, were up to, before revealing himself. Arya simply walks up to the front gates as herself–no disguise.

There is a significant reunion scene between Arya and her sister, perhaps similar to Odysseus’ reunions with his son or wife–we’ll get back to this in a bit. Beyond that, there is nothing else that is similar to the Odyssey. At first, it seemed to me that the producers only say that this scene is inspired by the Odyssey to give it an extra sense of importance by calling on a work of Classical literature.

However, even if this one scene has little to do with the Odyssey, there are a number of major parallels between the Odyssey and other aspects of Arya’s journey that are quite interesting to point out.

Both have traveled long distances and gone through many struggles to arrive home. They’ve survived by keeping their wits about them, using their cleverness to handle tough situations, including using disguises, but that’s all pretty basic stuff.

The more fascinating, thematic parallels come out when we start talking about the Faceless Men. Arya, in the past few seasons, had been trying to gain power by becoming “No One” and learning the skills of these anonymous assassins who serve the god of death. Essentially, she attempts to gain advantages for herself by putting aside her own personal identity.

Similarly, Odysseus puts himself in an advantageous situation by becoming “No One.” In the Cyclops’ cave, he introduces himself as “No One,” so that when he blinds the Cyclops by stabbing his eye out, the Cyclops calls out to his neighbors that “no one is killing me.” It is one of Odysseus’ most well-known tricks, and thematically, it suggests that anonymity gives you power–just as it does for the Faceless Men.

But the call toward one’s personal identity often wins out, in the end. Arya uses her newly-acquired skills to seek personal revenge against Ser Meryn Trant, and is punished–ironically in a manner like the Cyclops, by being blinded. Odysseus, eager to claim the glory of his exploit, reveals his name to the Cyclops, and as a result, is cursed by the Cyclops’ father, Poseidon, to have a long and difficult journey home.

Both eventually head home to seek revenge on those who have wronged their families. The Suitors have been violating the tenets of Greek hospitality (xenia) by taking over his home to throw endless banquets, feasting on his livestock and drinking his wine without permission, and attempting to woo his wife and kill his son. In response, Odysseus disguises himself, attends a banquet with the Suitors, and then reveals himself, before proceeding to slay them all.

File:Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg - Ulysses' revenge on Penelope's suitors - Google Art Project.jpg
Odysseus engages the suitors in violent combat. 1814 painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Similarly, Walder Frey violated hospitality when he invited the Starks to a wedding feast only to kill them. To attain her vengeance, Arya disguises herself to attend a feast with the entire Frey family present and kills all of them in one fell swoop. She then declares her identity by turning her family’s words into a statement of vengeance: “Winter has come for House Frey.”

As it turns out, it is quite fruitful to compare Arya’s journey with the Odyssey. How does this comparison help us as we look forward to the end of Game of Thrones?

One themes of the Odyssey is the difficulty that Odysseus has breaking through the emotional and psychological shell he’s developed after ten years at war and ten years traveling at sea. He has had to be a warrior and survivor, who keeps his feelings locked down to make it through to the next obstacle, and so, when he returns home, he has to rebuild his relationships and personal connections with his family and friends.

In the same way, we can speculate that Arya’s struggles and experiences (e.g. magical assassin school) have changed her so much that it becomes difficult for her to reintegrate with her family, especially as Sansa starts to realize her sister is no longer a little girl but is now a vengeful, dangerous, and cold-blooded killer. It’s not going to be easy for the Starks to be a family again (I haven’t even mentioned Bran turning into an emotionless psychic). Arya may have returned physically to Winterfell, but now, what will it take for her to truly return home and be part of a family once more? Or has she gone too far down this dark path of violence to ever be part of a family?

So, back to that reunion scene: Sansa and Arya reunite in the catacombs of Winterfell and start to reconnect through the statue of their father. They recall their shared “roots,” despite how far they’ve diverged from one another. Then, the “root” imagery is brought to life via the Weirwood Tree, as they meet Bran in the Godswood. In a similar way, Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, reconnect on the basis of an object with important emotional resonance: their bed, which contains a secret only husband and wife know, that it was constructed out of a solidly rooted olive tree.

In the end, what is Odyssey-like about Arya’s return to Winterfell is not the fact that nobody recognizes her at first, but rather, her reunion with Sansa and Bran, and the rebuilding of family connections–and the challenges that will entail down the line.

‘Wonder Woman’ and Greek Gods At War: The Mythology Behind the Film

The new ‘Wonder Woman’ movie provides a goldmine of opportunities to discuss the influence of Classical mythology on modern media. Diana of Themyscira is an Amazon, part of the mysterious tribe of women warriors described in Greek mythology, and the backdrop of the Amazon origin story in the film is a clash of divine proportions between the Greek gods.

It is this battle between divine forces that I would like to explore, especially the portrayal of Zeus, the king of the gods, and his son Ares, the war god. Although the film relies heavily on many elements of ancient Greek mythology, it does not align very well with the themes of those myths, and instead relies on a more Christian perspective to inform its narrative.

The following contains spoilers from ‘Wonder Woman.’


Worshiping the Gun: The Evolution of Vulcan from Roman Mythology to ‘American Gods’

The essential conflict of STARZ’s American Gods is between the Old Gods, who are being weakened as fewer people worship them, and the New Gods of modernity and technology who are rising to dominance. To retain relevance and a source of worship in this rapidly-changing world, Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, adapts himself to American culture by “franchising” his faith and transforming from the god of fire into the god of firearms.

The following post contains potential spoilers for “A Murder of Gods” (season 1, episode 6 of American Gods).


Latin — Wanted, Dead or Alive? (Latina — Desiderata, Vivens Mortuave?): Elegiac Experiments in Latin Composition

Latin inscription on the tomb of the poet Vergil: Photo by Schoen at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In my experience, Latin education at the advanced level rarely emphasizes, strangely enough, how to speak or write Latin. Though often helpful at the introductory level, these skills seem to carry limited advantages in the end because Latin is a “dead” language few people communicate with today. Instead, the goal is generally to read Latin texts in order to understand them, interpret them, and learn about the society that produced them.

Doctor Who Season 10: Review of “The Pilot” and “Smile” – Promising Start Marred by Weak Writing

Season 10 of Doctor Who was off to a relatively promising start in its premiere episode “The Pilot,” which utilized a fresh back-to-basics approach in introducing the Doctor’s new companion, Bill Potts, and in (re-)defining the Doctor’s character and identity. Unfortunately, the main plot of the episode was marred by weak characterization that reduced the impact of its resolution. The unimpressive follow-up episode “Smile” did contain some interesting themes, but they went nowhere, due to a simplistic, unsatisfactory resolution that did not engage very well with any of them.

The following contains spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of Doctor Who season 10.


Adele as a Modern Roman Elegist: Reinventing the Exclusus Amator

Adele, the Grammy-award winning singer behind the album 25, is a modern musician whose work mirrors the ancient genre of Roman elegaic poetry. In the same way that Latin elegy is characterized by an emphasis on love and relationships, Adele’s songs focus on the nature of love and relationships almost exclusively. Many other modern singers explore love as well and might also be called modern elegists, but Adele earns that description because her work in its examination of love recalls the language, tropes, and style of Roman elegy to a remarkable extent.