Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remembrance - Honouring the Dead

Monday, November 11th, is Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

For some, this is just another day they might get off work. They’ll carry on as usual, ignorant or uncaring of the reasons for this day or why so many people are wearing red poppies.

Thankfully, many people still do remember that Novebmer 11th is a day for remembering those men and women who have died in the line of duty. You may not agree with the motives for some of these wars, you may support them vehemently. Whatever your opinion of the battles, this is a time to honour the courage of the soldier on the ground, the warriors past and present.

This year, I’d like to share an excerpt from Homer’s Odyssey. Below is a moving description of the funeral of Achilles, the Greek warrior who has inspired soldiers and others for thousands of years. Here, in the meadow of asphodel, the 'dwelling-place of souls', Agamemnon meets Achilles and tells the hero of his funeral in the land of Troy:

Happy son of Peleus, Achilles like the gods,” answered the ghost of Agamemnon, “for having died at Troy far from Argos, while the best of the Trojans and the Achaeans fell around you fighting for your body. There you lay in the whirling clouds of dust, all huge and hugely, heedless now of your horsemanship. We fought the whole of the livelong day, nor should we ever have left off if Zeus tore their hair and wept bitterly round about you. Your mother, when she heard, came with her immortal nymphs from out of the sea, and the sound of heavenly wailing went forth over the waters so that the Achaeans old Nestor whose counsel was ever truest checked them saying, `Hold, Argives, flee not, sons of the Achaeans, this is his mother coming from the sea with her immortal nymphs to view the body of her son.' Thus he spoke, and the Achaeans feared no more. The daughters of the old man of the sea stood round you weeping bitterly, and clothed you in immortal raiment. The nine muses also came and lifted up their sweet voices in lament—calling and answering one another; there was not an Argive but wept for pity of the dirge they chanted. Days and nights seven and ten we mourned you, mortals and immortals, but on the eighteenth day we gave you to the flames, and many a fat sheep with many an ox did we slay in sacrifice around you. You were burnt in raiment of the gods, with rich resins and with honey, while Achaean heroes, horse and foot, clashed their armor round the pile as you were burning, with the tramp as of a great multitude. But when the flames of heaven had done their work, we gathered your white bones at daybreak and laid them in ointments and in pure wine. Your mother brought us a golden amphora to hold them—gift of Dionysos, and work of Hephaistos himself; in this we mingled your bleached bones with those of Patroklos, who had been closer to you than any other of your comrades now that Patroklos was no more. Over their bodies we the sacred army of Argive spearmen piled up a huge and perfect tomb, on a jutting headland, by the wide Hellespont, so that it may be bright from afar for men coming from the sea, both those who are now and those who will be in the future. Your mother begged prizes from the gods, and offered them to be contended for by the noblest of the Achaeans. You must have been present at the funeral of many a hero, when the young men gird themselves and make ready to contend for prizes on the death of some great chieftain, but you never saw such prizes as silver-footed Thetis offered in your honor; for the gods loved you well. Thus even in death your kleos, Achilles, has not been lost, and your name lives evermore among all humankind.” (Homer; Odyssey. Book 24. lines 35–95)

Troy - Kesik Tepe, Turkey - possible Tumulus of Achilles where
Alexander the Great made sacrifices to the heroes of the Trojan War

This passage never fails to move me, for it honours one of the greatest heroes of the ancient world in such a beautiful way. Today, Achilles may seem outrageous and brutal, selfish. But to ancient eyes, he was what every warrior aspired to. For thousands of years afterward, the ghost of Achilles’ exploits followed men into battle at home, and on foreign fields.

Achilles is buried with his brother-in-arms, Patroklos, in a tumulus overlooking the sea, far away from their home in Greece.

So too are buried hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought in the horrible wars of our modern era. They lie in orderly rows, also overlooking the sea, where they were buried by their brothers and sisters in war.

Never mind the political machinations of the past and present. Those who have lost, and fought, and suffered, and died, are no less deserving of our remembrance than the heroes of that long ago war beneath high-walled Troy.

I remember you all and thank you for your sacrifices. Wherever you may now be, I hope my thanks, and the smoke from my offerings will reach you there.

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