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)
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 266-72; Postlethwaite 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 (1.536-611) echoes 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.
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).
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 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.