Sri Aurobindo's Ilion
If we regard the powers of reality as so many Godheads
we can say that the overmind releases a million godheads
into action, each empowered to create its own world,
each world capable of relation,
communication and interplay with the others
Overmind consciousness is global in its cognition and can hold
any number of seemingly fundamental differences together
in a reconciling vision... what to the mental reason are contraries
are to the overmind intelligence complementaries.
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine
In Sri Aurobindo’s own words, his work on Ilion (then entitled The Fall of Troy, an Epic) was started in Alipur jail¹ in 1909 and later resumed in Pondichery where he took refuge in April 1910.
The whole work, a long poem written in hexameters,² and left unfinished, was finally published in 1957, seven years after Sri Aurobindo’s passing. The opening of the first hook alone had been revised by him and published in his Collected Poems and Plays in 1942. Inspired of Homer’s Iliad, Ilion covers the events
of one day, the day when the fate of Troy was sealed. It starts at dawn with Talthybius, herald of Argos, arriving at Troy with a proposition of truce sent by Achilles to the Troyan chieftains; a proposition to join forces thus offering the possibility of an harmonious and less destructive process for, as Achilles declares,
Fierce was my heart in my youth and exulted in triumph and slaughter.
Now as I grow in my spirit like to my kin the immortals,
Joy more I find in saving and cherishing than in the carnage.
But unfortunately, in their pride, the Trojan chieftains refuse a settlement they see as a, surrender and prefer to face death and the doom of their beautiful city.
Death and the fire may prevail o'er us, never our wills shall surrender
Lowering Priam's heights and darkening Ilion's splendors.
So the Trojans get ready for a final battle, and, after parting with their dear ones, arm for the combat while Talthybius returns to Achilles with the following response:
Son of the Aeacids, spurned is thy offer; the pride of thy challenge
Rather we choose; it is nearer to Dardanus, king of the Hellenes.
Neither shall Helen captive be dragged to the feet of her husband,
Nor down the paths of peace revisit her father Eurotas.
And Achilles, "musing of fate and the wills of men and the purpose of heaven,” towards battle turns in his soul. To the wearied Greeks he send his herald with the message that, if need be, he is ready to resume the fight alone, with his army of myrmidons.
But, after a long debate, most of the Greek chieftains favor a last and decisive battle that will see them back to their ships and their beloved homeland.
We are then told of the parting of Achilles and Briseis, and are
reminded of the fate of Achilles who is to find his death at Paris’ hand.
Over the sea in my dream an argent bow was extended
Nearing I saw a terror august over moonlit waters,
Cloud and a fear and a face that was young and lovely and hostile.
Then three times I heard arise in the grandiose silence,
Still was the sky and still was the land and still were the waters,
Echoing a mighty voice,' Take back, O king, what you gavest;
Strength take that strong man, sea take thy wave, till the warfare eternal
Need him again to thunder through Asia's plains to the Ganges.³
Achilles knows tha-t nothing can alter his fate, fate that the stern gods have planned from the first when the earth was unfashionned. So clasping her against his breast and kissing her for a last time, from her he departed. Leaping in his chariot and shouting his war cry, Achilles rushed Troyward to meet his destiny.
If mythologically the Trojan War follows the abduction of Helen by Paris, historically it is no doubt that the main cause was political, as well as economical. Troy occupied a very important position in the region and was the door to the riches of the Orient. It commanded most trade between East and West and levied heavy taxes on all ships crossing the Hellespont. Therefore, it is only understandable that, in their need for expansion, it became the target of the Greek peoples.
In Sri Aurobindo's poem, the fall of Troy takes an added dimension for, as he reveals to us, the issue at heart is the direction humanity had to take, for its own progress, in the centuries to come. In his address to the gods, Zeus declares,
Twilight thickens over man and he moves to his winter of darkness.
Troy that displaced with her force and her arms the luminous ancients
Sinks in her turn by the rudder strength of the half-savage Achaians.
They to the Hellene shall yield and the Hellene falls by the Romans.
And, with the following, offers us a great teaching,
Ever since knowledge failed and the ancient ecstasy slackened,
Light has been helper to death and darkness increases the victor.
So shall it last till the fallen ages return to their greatness?
For if the twilight be helped not, night over the world cannot darken;
Night forbidden how shall a greater dawn be effected?
The fall of Troy certainly marks the end of a long age, known as the Bronze Age. The Dorian invasion which soon followed the Greek victory brought with it a long period of darkness and it will be many centuries before the Greeks, rising out of their ashes like the legendary Phoenix,4 developed what has been recognized as the most brilliant civilization of the ancient world.
Mythologically it also marks the end of an extremely long period going back to prehistory in which the object of people's worship had been the Mother Goddess known under many names.5 As Aphrodite, addressing her "father” Zeus, and foreseeing the times to come declares,
Only my form he pursues that I wear for a mortal enchantment,
He to whom now you givest the world, the Ionian, the Hellene,
But for my mind is unfit which Babylon worshipped and Sidon
Palely received from the past in images faint of the gladness
Once that was known by the children of men the thrill of their members
Was the immortal joy of the spirit overflowing their bodies.
And she adds,
Once could my godhead surprise all the stars with the seas of its rapture;
Once the world in its orbit danced to a marvelous rhythm.
Now shall my waning greatness perish and pass out of Nature.
Earth restored to the Cyclops shall shrink from the gold Aphrodite.
If the reign of the Great Mother is receding, so is the reign of Mystic Apollo. The age of illumination is soon to be replaced by the age of logic and reason inspired and guided by young clear- minded Athena, who, we are told, was born directly from her father's head.6
Wroth is my splendid heart with the cowering knowledge of mortals'
Wroth are my burning eyes with the purblind vision of reason."
Cries Luminous Apollo. But he knows that there will come a time when,
Jealous for truth to the end my might shall prevail and for ever
Shatter the moulds that men make to imprison their limitless spirit.
Athena knows that too, and later declares,
This too I know that I pass preparing the paths of Apollo
And at the end as his sister and slave and bride I must sojourn
Rapt to his courts of mystic light and unbearable brilliance.
Presented here is book eight. The Book of the Gods. At their father’s call, together with all the other gods, impetuous Ares, lovely Aphrodite, beautiful Apollo and clear-smiling Athene have come to an assembly. Zeus speaks to them "in their soul” and "in their soul” they answer him. Then, looking neither for fruit nor for failure, and in all knowledge, they take their place beside their favorite hero.
Left: Apollo and the Muses. Apollo plays on the lyre while the Muses dance. Attic vase.
Top right: Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, beauty and fertility. She is supposed to have been washed up on the shore by the waves. (relief c. 470
1. Alipur: Soon after his return from England, at the end of the 19th century, Sri Aurobindo became deeply involved with the young nationalist movement that had taken birth in Bengal. On May 1908, following a failed assassination on a British judge, he was arrested and put to jail. During the year he spent in prison (he was acquitted in May 1909) Sri Aurobindo was most of his time in deep meditation and had crucial revelations and experiences. He also composed some poetry that he committed to memory (not being allowed any writing material) and wrote down after being released.
2. Hexameters: A line of verse consisting of six metrical feet. The hexameter was very much used by Homer, Virgil and other Greek and Latin poets.
3. "To thunder through Asia plain to the Ganges": With this line Briseis takes us almost a thousand years after the Trojan war when Alexander the Great was to fulfill Achilles' vision of a unified land going from Xanthus to the Ganges. Exceptional man of war and great visionary, Alexander conquered the whole Persian Empire (334-326 BC) from the Mediterranean to the Indus valley, thus spreading Hellenistic culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia.
4. Phoenix: A mythical bird of the size of the eagle, and graced with certain features of the pheasant. Legend has it that, when it saw death draw near, it would make a nest of sweet-smelling wood and resins, which it would expose to the full force of the sun's rays, until it burnt itself to ashes in the flames. Another phoenix would then arise from the marrow of its bones. It came to symbolize destruction and recreation.
5. "Under many names": When the agricultural communities in Greece worshipped Mother Earth they called the Great Goddess or the Mother Goddess by many names, (Gaea, Rhea, Demeter). Most of the female divinities in Greek mythology were originally Great Mother Goddesses; Hera in Argos, Artemis in Crete, Aphrodite in Cyprus. Their role changed when they were incorporated into the male-dominated religion of Zeus. Aphrodite was also known as Ishtar
in Babylon, and as Astarte in what is now Syria and Palestine. In Sumer she was worshiped as Innana, the great cosmic mother. In the Homeric hymns, which reflect the ideals and beliefs of a society pre- dominantly patriarchal, Aphrodite is said to be the daughter of Zeus, but in earlier myth she is said to have sprung from the foam of the sea. Her name, Edith Hamilton writes in her Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, was explained as meaning "the foam-risen" (Aphros meaning foam in Greek).
6. About Athena's birth: Legend tells us that Athena was the favorite child of Zeus and that she sprung directly from his head. Here is a short tale about her birth as told in D' Aulaires Greek Myths: "Athena's mother was Metis, goddess of prudence, the first wife of Zeus. He depended on her for he needed her wise council, but Mother Earth warned him that, were Metis to bear him a son, this son would dethrone him. This must not happen, thought Zeus, but he couldn't do without her advice, so he decided to swallow her. Slyly he proposed that they play a game of changing shapes, and Metis, forgetting her prudence, playfully turned herself into all kinds of animals, big and small. Just as she had taken on the shape of a little fly, Zeus opened wide his mouth, took a deep breath, and zip! He swallowed the fly. Ever after Metis sat in his head and guide him from there.
Now it happened that Metis was going to have a daughter, and she sat inside Zeus's head hammering out a helmet and weaving a splendid robe for the coming child. Soon Zeus began to suffer from pounding headaches and cried out in agony. All the gods came running to help him, and skilled Hephaestus grasped his tools and spilt open his father's skull. Out sprang Athena, wearing the robe and the helmet, her gray eyes flashing, Thunder roared and the gods stood in awe."
Hephaestus is shown here splitting Zeus's skull open. Athena springs forth fully anned.
Left: Apollo (bronze, 500 BC). This staute portrays the god in the act of receiving an offering.
Right: Athena in war attire (temple of Athena Aphaiia on Aegina (510- 500 BC).