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Who the heck is Thersites? Has anyone ever heard of him? Apparently, not many. But we hope that is going to change.
Thersites is one of history's most obscure char-acters. But from a free speech point of view -- that of most Americans today -- he should be standing along side Patrick Henry, Nathan Hale, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, for he gave up his life rather than keep his mouth shut in the face of arbitrary, foolish authority.
Thersites, the only common soldier mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, must have been an extraordinary man, for he had the guts to tell his comrades, their king Agamemnon and his officers, that they had been sent on a fool's errand, chasing after a silly twit named Helen who ran off withyoung Paris. And for his pains Thersites was savagely beaten by Odysseus, killed by the coward Achilles, and portrayed by the aristophile Homer in the most calculated, cruel and derisive manner, all for telling the simple truth. (Achilles a coward? Well, who wouldn't be bold and fearless if his mother was a Goddess who had made him invulnerable to mortal man. But of course, that was just another of those myths with which people love to surround men in high authority -- probably to advance their own personal fortunes.)
I.F. Stone, himself one of history's true free speech heroes, and a very learned man indeed, described the setting:
Homer shows a distinct class bias in his very description of Thersites. Homer can be touching and affectionate in des-cribing common folk, even swineherds and slaves, provided that these common people "know their place."' Toward Thersites, who didn't, the aristocratic bard shows no mercy. No other character in Homer -- not even the cannibal Cyclops -- is pictured more repulsively than Thersites.
The Greeks liked their heroes handsome. Homer makes Thersites so misshapen as to be virtually a cripple. Homer describes him as the ugliest of all the men who marched on Troy. He is "bandy-legged" and lame in one foot; his round shoulders were stooped forward over his chest; he was pointy-headed and almost bald, only a scant stubble grew on his head. In short, this was one man Helen would never have run away with.
The modern reader wonders how Thersites ever got by the recruiting officer. One Homeric commentator, the By-zantine scholar Eustathius, suggested that the only reason Thersites was allowed to join the expedition was the fear that if left behind he might incite a revolution! The ancient fabulist Lucian, waxing satiric about Homer's description of Thersites, says that when the rebel got to Hades he sued Homer for libel.
The Greeks also loved eloquence and Homer made sure to let them know Thersites was as unpleasant to listen to as he was to look at. Homer says he was an endless talker, his mind full of "disorderly words, with which to revile kings." He did not speak with grace, and he was ready to say anything that would get a laugh from the troops. Homer adds that Thersites was especially hateful to Achilles and Odysseus, for they had frequently been the objects of his coarse humor. Apparently he had been an agitator and activist for some time.
When Odysseus has finally prevailed on everyone else to sit down at the assembly, only Thersites refuses to be silent. Despite Homer's description of Thersites as a man of dis-orderly speech, he speaks here not only boldly, but succinctly and to the point. (I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (1988) Little, Brown, pp. 33-34.)
Thersites, whatever his faults, apparently expressed a point of view shared by his comrades, officers and common soldiers alike, because when Agamemnon orders his army to lift the siege and launch their ships to test its morale, expecting the troops will protest his order before they have a chance to take and loot the city, "his words are hardly out of his mouth when there begins a mad rush for the ships. . . . All alike show themselves sick of the long and fruitless war." (Op.cit. pp. 30-31.)
In a footnote Stone wrote:(Op.cit. 250-251)
It is amazing how the prejudice stirred up against Ther-sites by Homer lives on to this day in classical scholarship. Typical is the snobbish treatment given him in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, where he is described as "an ugly, foul-tongued fellow, who rails at Agamemnon until beaten into silence by Odysseus." The OCD adds, "Evidently, from his description, he is of low birth." The German equivalent of the OCD is even harsher. In Der Kleine Pauly, Thersites is des-cribed as a Meuterer, Laesterer und Prahlhans -- mutineer, slanderer, and braggart. His attack on Agamemnon is termed a Hetzrede -- the inflammatory speech of an unscrupulous agitator. Neither the German nor the British reference work in their articles on Thersites mentions this as the first time a commoner tried to exercise free speech in the assemblies of Homer. But in the OCD's article on Democracy, the vener-able Victor Ehrenberg traces "the germ of Greek democracy" back to the second book of the Iliad. "Beginning with Ther-sites," Ehrenberg wrote, "there were always movements against the role of the noble and the rich, as the lower ranks of free people tried to win full citizenship."
Christopher Bungard in Encyclopedia Mythica wrote:
Thersites incurred Odysseus' wrath when he called Agamem-non greedy and Achilles a coward. Odysseus struck Thersites upside the head with the royal scepter of Agamemnon. Later, Achilles struck Thersites upside the head for mocking his sorrow at the death of Penthesilea. No one grieved for Thersites when he spat out teeth and fell to the earth dead.
Penthesilea was the beauteous warrior queen of the Amazons who joined the Trojans in their struggle against the Greeks.
Thersites may have merely been an undiplomatic teller of truth, a common man impatient with the pretensions of a posturing aristocracy given to pur-suing folly, but he should be celebrated by History for he dared to speak the universal truth that mankind's most esteemed political leaders, all too often, have simply been damned fools, vain Pied Piper's leading better men from one disaster to another.
And so we shall here celebrate and grieve Ther-sites. We will also follow Bill Long's proposal that the word "thersitical" be taken as meaning "a bold and revolutionary character, who has enough courage, rather than simple unmitigated gall, to point out the hypocrisy of leaders." (www.willamette.edu/~blong/Words/ Thersites.html )
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But why do we use that droll picture of a red-blooded American lad admiring one of nature's wonders? Truth be told, I couldn't find a photograph that would fairly represent Homer's crabbed des-cription of Thersites' physical characteristics, and I had not yet persuaded one of our directors to don the rude garb of an Achaean soldier and be photo-graphed staggering about as if he had just received brave Achilles' mortal blow. Besides, the chosen photo really is relevant, for surely there is more Truth in this single shot than in the entirety of Homer's celebrated epic.
Our Roving Reporter and brash Truth-Sayer, Yuri Thersites, will also tell it like it is, especially about arbitrary, stupid authority. To keep him in character, he also will be our Jokester, gathering unusual stories and amusing cartoons.
And now our Thersites has a great story to tell. We have not been able to establish its authenticity. But perhaps one of you can do so. If not, perhaps we can get away with calling it an allegory. We hope you enjoy his reprint of a report from Down Under entitled RAMBO GRANNY.
Thanks for that great introduction, Marie. But all this heavy stuff is just too much. How about taking time out for a story about two alligators who live in our strange capital city with all the other alligators? Let's call it
THE ALLIGATOR ALLEGORY
Two alligators were enjoying the sun laying on a mud bank in a swamp near Washington, D.C.
The smaller gator turns to the bigger one and says, "Huccum you be so much bigger’n me. We be same age, same mammy, same batch a eggs -- Don’t know who our pappy be -- I jist doan get it."
The bigger gator replies, “Cain’t hep you there boy. They say it be a wise gator what know his own pappy.”
“Hell, I knows that. I may be little but I ain’t no fool!”
Well, the gators just lay there awhile, sunning them-selves. Pretty soon the big gator lets go a big old fart and a yawn, and says, “Say, boy, what you been eatin?”
"Politicians, same as you," replies the puny gator. “Ain’t nuthin else t’eat round here.”
"Hmm. Well, where do y’all catch em?"
"Down to the side a the swamp near the parkin lot by the Capitol."
"Same here. Hmm. How do you catch 'em?"
"Well, I crawls up under one of them Lexus and wait fer one to unlock the car door. Then I jumps out, grab 'em by the leg, shake the shit out of 'em, and eat 'em!"
"Well, now!" the big alligator exclaims. "That’s your problem. You ain't gettin' any real nourishment. Y’see, by the time you git done shakin' the shit out of a politician, there ain't nothin' left but an asshole and a briefcase."
Quod Erat Demonstrandum!
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