Old Western Culture Journey Ep. 2: Pagans Bound

It’s been nearly a month since I posted the first “episode” of this series on my personal journey through the Old Western Culture curriculum, and what a month it’s been! We loaded up a U-Haul and set out for a move from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Moscow, Idaho, with unplanned stops in Los Alamos, New Mexico and Red Lodge, Montana. I won’t go into epic detail in telling the tale of our move. If I tell you it was quite an adventure, I know you’ll believe me simply because of the fact that we had two unplanned stops on the way! God was gracious to us throughout; our unplanned stops were in two beautiful towns that were to us on our trip like little Rivendells, especially because of the people in those places who love us and were able to love on us with shelter, food, and care.

Now here I am, back in front of a keyboard in my new office, wishing that for just one post I were writing about the Odyssey instead of the Iliad. I was away from my wife for a time during this recent journey, and I just know I could have put myself easily into Odysseus’ sandals. Other things I have in common with Odysseus are cleverness and sweet archery skills. I’m sure I could have put an arrow through a row of axe heads, no problem!

Instead of arrows and axe heads, I must face the Anger of Achilleus in Wes Callihan’s third lecture of Old Western Culture’s The Greeks: The Epics, covering books 1-4 of the Iliad. I find myself confronting destiny, at a time in my life when my wife and I have made several big decisions and met with several unexpected events.

This blog is a journal of my personal journey through Roman Roads’ The Greeks. In the first installment I established what I expected to be the recurring theme of these posts, which is waking up again. By that I mean that as I’ve gotten older and busier many of the things I had the pleasure of studying in my youth, those things that shaped me, fell off to the wayside. Instead of walking old paths leading me to new paths, I’ve found that I’ve allowed myself to walk in the wagon ruts. I decided on the theme of wakefulness when, as soon as I dove in to Mr. Callihan’s course, old literary and cultural connections and associations began to light up across the ol’ cerebral cortex. It really did feel like being prodded awake.

In such a moment, one’s mind begins to connect what is happening within with what is happening without. That is, to connect what we are reading and thinking with what we are living. So here we are, in the first few books of the Iliad as Achilles and Agamemnon face off, as Thersites plots, as Odysseus saves the day. Here we are, and I think on inexorable fate, on the fickle gods, and above all on the Triune God, who is as merciful as he is terrible. As he is very terrible, he must be very merciful indeed.

Much has been made over the years of the anger and overweening pride of Achilleus in his conflict with Agamemnon, as he refuses to leave his tent to fight. In treading over this oft-trod ground Wes Callihan said something I’d never considered before. Mr. Callihan suggested that, far from being the Danaean equivalent of a modern day super-athlete pouting through a contract holdout, Achilleus was caught on the horns of a dilemma which would force him to make a choice worse than death. Achilleus had chosen a short and bitter life that would give him a glorious ever-living name over a life with a good wife, children, and a happy death in old age. Having made the choice for glory, Achilleus was now being forced by Agamemnon to choose between dishonorable glory-robbing paths, especially when Hera and Athena stop Achilles from striking Agamemnon down.

A perennial theme in the ancient pagan stories is the inescapable nature of fate, destiny, wyrd, the spinners. So many tales tell of humans trying to dodge prophecy and destiny, only to become the instruments of their own demise. If there is one thing the pagan knows is that humans are not in control of their own destiny, and that every choice they make will take them further down their pre-determined path, whether they like it or not. Men cannot help themselves amidst the machinations of the gods, and the gods themselves are subject to the spinnings of the Fates.

Even in human interactions with each other, nature and destiny fix us in place. Agamemnon is a king; he is therefore great, whether he be foolhardy or intemperate hardly seems to matter. When Thersites (whose father’s name in not mentioned) begins to undermine the authority of Agamemnon, whom all can see was foolish in ordering his men to sail home and then ripping their hopes from them by ordering them to stay. Then men are naturally outraged, but the character who is chose by the Homer and the pagan poets preceding him is Thersites, who is mean and small. Odysseus is noble and wise and a wonderful speaker, and he berates and beats Thersites the mean because he has dared to forget in his actions that Agamemnon is a king.

Whether we be like Thersites or like Achilles, we are bound.

Wes Callihan paints in his lectures a vivid picture of the events the students have read about, transporting the reader to the time and place and mode of thought of the characters and even the original hearers of the story. Having recently, and more than once, had my own plans foiled as God revealed his plan for us, Mr. Callihan’s lecture made me think on the difference between the world those Danaeans lived in and the one I live in by the grace of God.

In their world, Fate is greater than the gods. In my world, God is above all, and determines all things. In my world, the highest thing is not a force, but a person. A personal God.

In their world, the gods are cruel and selfish and fickle. In my world, God delights in his Creation and in me.

In their world, suffering is vain, or serves the purposes of some other greater being. In my world, my suffering means something, and makes me more what I ought to be.

In their world, glory is making others remember your name. In my world, I am glorified by a greater one’s name.

In their world, life is now and death is final. In my world, death is now and life is final.

Their world is a tragedy, mine a comedy. Even when it hurts.

All things work together for the good of those who love Him.

The stoic Marcus Aurelius had some good advice: “No man may escape his destiny, the next inquiry being how he may best live the time he has to live.” It’s especially good advice if man’s only real choice is to resist destiny or resign himself to it. Destiny, beloved, is very real. But it is not destiny we resist or surrender to. It is a personal God who predestined us before the world was, who determines our steps, who watches our hairs. God is telling the story he predestined for this world, and it is a good story with a happy ending.

Our family’s recent troubles have not come upon us because a god has been cruel, or deceived, or vain, or gotten in over his head. My God is none of those things, can be none of those things. I’m grateful to have been able to meditate on this truth because of Wes Callihan and his course.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my journey through Old Western Culture.

by Joffre Swait on Posted on


  1. chris.starling.06 says:

    It’s neat to hear your thoughts as you go through this series. I discovered Roman Roads at a conference and not having a classical background decided to homeschool myself. It has been great having a guide to a book I thought was intimidating.

    Thanks and look forward to your next segment.

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