monsters of antiquity

All people, particularly people from powerful nations, must ultimately grapple with the theme of my nightmare: at what point does the hero, the warrior, the protector of civilization, turn into the monster…”


by kevin p. keating


Like most dreams this one begins in media res.

I was incarcerated in an old industrial complex not unlike those abandoned, asbestos-filled warehouses that crowd the neglected streets and labyrinthine alleys of my hometown Cleveland. Around the crumbling ruin of this makeshift prison stretched an imposing gray wall topped with glimmering razor wire. Rumors circulated that the wall had a secret opening, a small hole just big enough for a man to squeeze through and make his way back home to friends and family. At certain times during the day prisoners were marched outside and permitted to stretch in a narrow concrete pen along the wall, but no one dared search for the opening in broad daylight. Somehow I knew, with the inexplicable logic of all dreams, that this “exercise yard” was frequently used for other, more diabolical things. When the guards informed us that it was time for our daily “exercise,” many of my fellow inmates would turn pale, cling to their cots, kick their legs like small children, scream for mercy.

Escape became my only goal. It so happened that my prison cell was accidentally left ajar one night, and in the dark hours just before dawn I slipped down a gloomy corridor and made my way across the yard toward the wall. I paused, listening for the slightest sound, my fingers searching frantically for a crack, a secret lever, a soft spot in the earth where someone had tunneled under the wall. In the darkness I could see nothing, and a black miasma of dread swept over me.

In a tower high above the yard someone stirred, a guard. He seemed to have known all along that I’d be coming. Maybe my cell had been left unlocked intentionally, a cruel trick. The guard shouted, commanded me to halt, and from his tone of voice I knew that this was no ordinary guard, not some rube who was paid ten bucks an hour to keep an eye on the junkies and pimps and gang bangers in a state pen somewhere along the Ohio River. This was an Ivy League graduate with important family connections, a young man who’d once studied the classics, committing long passages of Homer to memory just for the hell of it, but who at some point during the course of his promising academic career had been approached by an uncle, a blustery old man of no small importance and reputation, and persuaded to join the Company, the CIA. Now, after much training, he’d been entrusted with the task of interrogating-and liquidating if need be-detainees.

A red laser crawled across the yard and made its slow way up my leg and torso and rested between my eyes. I dropped to my knees and lifted my arms, a useless gesture. Maniacal laughter echoed in the yard, laughter and then the deafening eruption of gunfire. Debris exploded all around, cement, dust, stinging shrapnel, and though a white light didn’t envelop me just then, I knew with absolute certainty that I was no longer a man writhing on the ground in an orange prison suit but an impartial observer-a ghost, I think-floating above the ground, watching as my dream body was ripped apart by an unceasing barrage of bullets, my flailing limbs reduced to scattered clumps of steaming flesh.

In that unremitting gloom I managed to make out the intensity, the concentration in the eyes of the CIA officer, how he took great pleasure in the bloody work of dismembering my body, and I saw that, to his way of thinking at least, even my corpse was infested with a virulent strain of evil that had to be eradicated once and for all from the planet. The fact that this man came from a privileged background and chose to do this kind of work made him somehow more sadistic.

Rarely do I have dreams so intense that I dwell on them for longer than the time it takes to drink my morning coffee, but I felt so unhinged by the vivid imagery of this dream, the details of which stayed with me for days, that I felt compelled to write about it.

Obviously the war in Iraq has been weighing heavily on my mind, but there seems to be something deeper at work here than my own opposition to the notorious prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. My personal beliefs have been sublimated by a greater reality that is affecting all Americans (or at least those of us who are reasonably well informed). Call it an archetype of the collective unconscious. When coming to terms with the carnage of war, all people, particularly people from powerful nations, must ultimately grapple with the theme of my nightmare: at what point does the hero, the warrior, the protector of civilization, turn into the monster, and at what point does the villain become deserving of our sympathies?

Just days after my dream I was stunned to read an article in The New Yorker by staff writer Jane Meyer describing the case of Saudi detainee Mohammad al-Qahtani, a man who underwent considerable trauma at the hands of his U.S. handlers at Guantanamo Bay:

Qahtani had been subjected to a hundred and sixty days of isolation in a pen perpetually flooded with artificial light. He was interrogated on forty-eight of fifty-four days, for eighteen to twenty hours at a stretch. He had been stripped naked; straddled by taunting female guards, in an exercise called “invasion of space by a female”; forced to wear women’s underwear on his head, and to put on a bra; threatened by dogs; placed on a leash; and told that his mother was a whore…Qahtani had been subjected to a phony kidnapping, deprived of heat, given large quantities of liquids without access to a toilet, and deprived of sleep for three days…Qahtani had been stripped and shaved and told to bark like a dog. He’d been forced to listen to pop music at an ear-splitting volume, [and] between confessing to and then recanting various terrorist plots, he had begged to be allowed to commit suicide. (New Yorker, February 27, 2006, pp. 34, 37)

This case, which seems characteristic of hundreds of cases, has led many Americans, including several high ranking conservatives who work in the current administration, to suspect that our nation has lost-or has at least misplaced-its moral compass and is now stumbling toward a dangerous precipice of amorality. I would argue that these feelings of outrage and disgust are not limited to present day Americans but in fact have ancient parallels from which we can all learn a great deal.

For several months now I have been engaged in a study of Homer’s The Odyssey in which the eponymous hero, “the man of twists and turns/driven time and again off course, once he had plundered/the hallowed heights of Troy,” must face the cannibalistic Cyclops Polyphemus. The prototypical survivor, a man willing to lie, cheat, steal and even disgrace himself in order to keep his head above water (sometimes literally), Odysseus must outwit the ogre or face being devoured for a late afternoon snack. War has taught Odysseus much, but there lingers in the psyche of this poor, beleaguered veteran the idea that the Greeks are in some way (and perhaps in every way) superior to other people.

Even as he faces death Odysseus can’t help but lecture Polyphemus about the Greek rules of etiquette and how a host is supposed to welcome guests with gifts of food and drink. Homer treats this theme at length since The Odyssey culminates in a particularly brutal scene in which Odysseus exacts revenge against the suitors who have abused his wife’s hospitality while he risked life and limb fighting in Troy (more on this episode in a moment). Odysseus, rather naively, expects these rules to be universally recognized by all-monsters and gods included–who inhabit the strange and mysterious islands scattered over the wine dark sea.

Odysseus issues his plea to Polyphemus:

..since we’ve chanced on you, we’re at your knees
in hopes of a warm welcome, even a guest-gift,
the sort that hosts give strangers. That’s the custom.
Respect the gods, my friends. We’re suppliants-at your mercy!
Zeus of Strangers guards all guests and suppliants:
strangers are sacred–Zeus will avenge their rights!

But Polyphemus has no interest in Greek niceties, and before scooping up two of Odysseus’ men and bashing their brains out against the cave walls, he grumbles with outrage and indignation:

…you must be a fool, stranger, or come from nowhere,
telling me to fear the gods or avoid their wrath!…
I’d never spare you in fear of Zeus’ hatred,
you and your comrades here, unless I had the urge.

Though he hints at the imposition of Odysseus and his men, Homer describes the scene more or less in terms of moral absolutes. Polyphemus is a bloodthirty monster, hell-bent on feasting on human flesh and licking clean the bones, while Odysseus is the luckless hero who has the misfortune of stumbling upon his cave. But never fear. All is soon put to rights when the hero cleverly blinds the one-eyed villain and escapes his treacherous lair. It’s the classic Hollywood conflict-good guy v. bad guy, no thinking required, with the hero emerging victorious after a prolonged battle.

Toward the end of The Odyssey, in what must have been regarded as the climatic shootout of its day, Homer gives us a stark and vivid portrayal of torture and death. Odysseus at last faces the suitors who have been wooing his wife and draining his estate of its once prodigious resources. He commands the few men still loyal to him to capture his betrayers and to mete out swift justice:

Quick, they rushed [the suitor], seized him, haled him back by the hair,
flung him down on the floor, writhing with terror, bound him
hand and foot with a chafing cord, wrenched his limbs
back, back till the joints locked tight…
they strapped a twisted cable around his body,
hoisted him up a column until he hit the rafters…
So they left him, trussed in his agonizing sling.

After the battle is over, Odysseus’s men capture the goatherd Melanthius, a rather insignificant figure whose transgressions have no real import, but Odysseus is no mood to grant the whimpering fool a pardon:

They hauled [Melanthius] out through the doorway, into the court,
lopped his nose and ears with a ruthless knife,
tore his genitals out for the dogs to eat raw
and in a manic fury hacked off hands and feet.

A satisfying display for any fan of Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino. Now-fast-forward several hundred years from the time Homer composed his epic poem (roughly 750 BCE) to the time the Greek tragedians were presenting their works in and around Athens (430 BCE). Suddenly we see a great deal of criticism of Odysseus’ character. In his play The Cyclops Euripides portrays Odysseus not as a swashbuckling adventurer but as an agent of civilized brutality whose blinding of Polyphemus is unnecessarily cruel. In other plays like Philoctetes Odysseus is transformed into a depraved politician who subjects his adversary to subhuman torments. The point the tragedians were trying make is that violence in the guise of civility is somehow more savage than mere “barbarism”, and the moral absolutism of Homer is regarded as the stuff of some farfetched, quasi-mythical Bronze Age.

The emergence of democracy with its “marketplace of ideas” may account for this dramatic shift in consciousness; maybe a playwright thought it would be clever to dramatize the confrontation between Odysseus and Polyphemus from the perspective of “the monster;” but there is another crucial historical matter to take into account. At the time these plays were written the Athenians were engaged in a war with the Spartans. Bernard Knox, writing of the Peloponnesian War, describes the initial mindset of the ambitious Athenian ruling class:

Athens towered over all other city-states of Greece and seemed destined to become the power that would unite under its leadership and eventually control the whole Greek world…Its formidable navy, superior not only in the number of ships but also in the technical skill of their crews, gave it control of the seas; and its wealth…gave it the capacity to face a long war.

But the Peloponnesian War would last for more than two decades, depleting the city’s treasury and exhausting its armies. The citizens, rightly or wrongly, were getting sick and tried of the interminable bloodshed and began expressing their views in art. After twenty years of sporadic fighting perhaps the fog of war had set in, and no one knew any longer what the fighting was all about. Eventually, of course, the Spartans were victorious, and the seemingly invincible Athenians were forced into an unconditional surrender.

The war and its ensuing revolutions had long and lasting effects. In the plays of the tragedians there is no character who can be described as entirely innocent. In The Cyclops and Philoctetes there is a complexity missing from the mythological figures of the Homeric epics. To be sure, The Odyssey is a complexly structured work of art, but I think it would be difficult to argue that Odysseus himself is very complex as an individual. Having endured the hardships of a real war rather than a mythological one, the tragedians were able to see that Odysseus was capable of certain monstrosities against his fellow man. The national hero, the protector of civilization and of Greek etiquette, was now regarded as a brutal politician who brought suffering to others. According to Homer’s own etymology, the name Odysseus means “one who endures suffering and administers suffering to others.”

Perhaps we have entered a similar stage in our own history, an essential stage of maturation in our national character when we see beyond the innocence of moral absolutism and finally acknowledge that America, while certainly capable of suffering, is equally capable of inflicting suffering on others, even needless suffering. For over a century now the United Stated has engaged in an endless string of wars, and its citizens are now beginning to question the wisdom and motives of its ruling class.
I often wonder how many people today, having never fought in the desert sands near the Syrian border or the dusty streets of Iraqi villages, have nevertheless woken up with a start after dreaming of terrible death and pointless destruction.

Each dream is an odyssey, a journey to a world that is part myth, part folktale, part personal history, but despite the effusion of spectacular images and emotions we encounter there, most of us tend to forget the nature of our dreams moments after waking up. Some neuroscientists speculate that we forget our dreams because if we remembered them as clearly as we do our everyday experiences our brains might get confused and start mistaking those surreal visions with reality. A mix-up of this sort could have some pretty dire consequences. Invariably we wage battles, endure searing agonies, shudder, gasp, scream. Sometimes, if luck is on our side, we fly away just before the monster lunges from its festering lair to grab our thrashing legs. More often than not we find that our feet are mired in invisible quicksand, our legs immobile, useless, like tree trunks rooted to the ground.

But surely the ultimate horror will occur when we wake up one morning and realize that we are the dreaded monster plaguing our dreams.

Originally published:
Issue Forty-Six
December 2006


Kevin P. Keating is a most peculiar gentleman who teaches in the intellectual purgatory of composition classes. In order to escape from this unending toil he sometimes writes fiction and essays, usually late into the night. His work has appeared in a number of places, including Megaera, The Truth Magazine, Double Dare Press, Exquisite Corpse, The Spillway Review, Subtle Tea, Fiction Warehouse, The Oklahoma Review, The Rough Road Review, and many others.

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