The Quest To Retell An Epic

At last, the 'Fall Of Troy' project, my retelling of an ancient tale from the Iliad cycle, is actually becoming a long awaited reality. I've been working on this ongoing project for the past two years to create an online storybook. This is going to be a recitation I composed based on researching ancient Greek epics, embellished by the inclusion of beautifully commissioned photographs of talented actors & models posing in ancient costumes for a visual effect. Ancient music was composed and sound effects added to enliven the telling of the tale. Unfortunately the project was on hold for the year 2020 because of Covid 19. The nearly year long closure of recording studios inhibited the required recording and mastering of the recitation and the music, but now after two photo sessions and much rewriting of the script and the necessary re editing of photography the project is back on track and finally there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. This was a big project and effort. To present an ancient epic as an epic as recounted by bards of old in an online storybook format demands that the recitation, music and visual elements all line up and come together for the delight of the viewer. Hopefully this attempt at presenting the ancient tradition of the epic bard will inspire others to revive or draw inspiration from this nearly lost art form from an age when stories were told without the assistance of technology but was a tradition that did utilize music, movement and even props or costumes. Ancient storytelling became a rich art form that eventually developed to become drama, the theater, opera, and of course in our own time, film.

I composed the recitation for this story which tells of the final battle that preceded the destruction of the fabled city of Troy. In a true ancient epic ballad fashion following the style of the Iliad it is told as a story of war through the individual confrontations between heroes and champions on both sides of the conflict; Greeks, also known as Achaeans and Argives inspired and led to battle by the black armor-clad Myrmidons and the newly arrived allies of Troy, the Amazons and an army from Africa known by the ancient Greeks as Aethiopis. I was always intrigued by the fact that while the Trojan War is known to all of us from studying the Iliad in our literature classes supposedly written down by a bard named Homer, this final battle is mysteriously omitted from the text, this important final and bloody event that seals the fate of the beleaguered city forever. The Iliad itself actually ends at the death and funeral of the Trojan hero Hector, his corpse having been dragged around the city walls attached to a chariot driven by the invincible Achilles. In this mysteriously omitted tale taken from other external or sequel texts, allies arrive to assist the Trojans who have lost most of their army after ten years of conflict defending their city against the invading Achaean Greeks. It remains a mystery why this part of the story was omitted and never added to the Iliad proper, and to this day it is not included in the text. The final battle included, according to these external texts, some of the greatest and fiercest foes who ever confronted the Greeks; Penthesilea, the Amazon queen and her female warriors of renown as well as Memnon, the powerful king of Aethiopia and his huge army made up of legions from all over Africa. We all know of the story of the Trojan Horse, but not from the Iliad itself. It is after this final battle that we learn of the Greek plan to conceal their best warriors inside a fashioned, wood framed horse left as a gift for the Trojans, who despite being defeated on the field of battle remained safe and protected behind the impregnable walls of their well defended city. Thinking the Greek army had retreated after realizing the impossibility of taking the city the Trojans brought the gift inside the city. The Trojans reveled and celebrated with much wine drinking their assumed victory. While they slept afterwards the Greek warriors hiding inside the horse emerged in the wee hours just before dawn. They opened the gates of the city and the Greek army poured in and proceeded to slaughter the inhabitants, rape the women and take the children as slaves. Yes, we certainly all know this story of treachery as well as how Achilles met his death inside the walls of Troy by a poisoned arrow being shot into his tendon, but we never read of this in the Iliad. This omitted portion of the Troy story was nonetheless popular and recited orally by bards in ancient Greece and later recounted in Roman literature as well, told as part of the Iliad cycle. An early version of this written tale was authored by Arctinus, supposedly a student of Homer who wrote 'The Aethiopis' sometime around 770-740 BC. However, only fragments of this work survive which tells of the combat involving the slaying of the Myrmidon Antilochus by Memnon the Aethiopian king and the subsequent call for revenge by Antilochus' old father Nestor, for which Achilles responds and in turn, slays Memnon. Arctinus interestingly treats the subject of Achilles somewhat differently and even in more depth than Homer does and gives him his due not only as a warrior but delves deeply into his inner being, honoring him as a human entity combating besides powerful enemies, fate itself. If Homer was but a myth himself, the epics and the sequels attributed to him represent a highly developed style of storytelling examples of early Western literature, as these epics explore the inner feelings of the heroes, champions, kings, queens and priestesses as well as the common soldiers in the front lines of the conflict. Greed, ego, lust and desire, love and hate, death and immortality, fate and even the questioning of the need for divinity as well as attitudes towards gender role, ethnicity and race are all dealt with in these and in particular this magnificent work. These epics are replete with the suggestion to ask questions then question the answers, debate using critical thinking, and from the human imagination allow freedom of expression stemming from the belief of the human being, beautiful in body and in mind is at the very epicenter of the Cosmos. This is the contribution of Greek civilization to the world, built upon the very foundations of logic and reason rather than a supposed reliance upon a hierarchy of deities and as a result, the need for scientific proof. Throughout these epics and in other Greek myths we read about the inner feelings and personal thoughts of the many individuals who often question the gods. The doubt and personal struggle regarding the benefit of relying on these deities and their supposed will represented by the institution of religion itself is seemingly always in question, which is a precursor to the eventual struggle between religion and science which will occur much later in the Age of Enlightenment. The Greeks glorified human deeds in a beautiful, muscled body and worshipped the life of the mind. Over one thousand years later the story of the fall of Troy was still a popular tale recited and retold by bards. Clearly, the popularity of this particular unwritten tale as originally codified by Arctinus with its vivid and visceral accounts of the individual confrontations between powerful warriors who sought victory or immortality through a violent death stirred something in the hearts of listeners. The author Quintus Of Smyrna committed the story in its entirety to writing in his 'Fall Of Troy' also known as the 'Posthomerica' in the 4th century AD, and this version we thankfully do have in its entirety. Quintus included and expounded upon the pathos and humanity suggested in the Arctinus version of the story as both authors were in the debt of the tradition of Homer, whoever or whatever he was, who deals with human feelings and emotions in the face of war and the reality of fate for which we as mortals can do little in the two works attributed to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the recitation I endeavored to remain faithful to the style of the ancient bards in recounting the epic tale, portraying and describing the individual heroes and champions and their bloody combats and remarkable duels to the death. My version of this story differs from Quintus slightly, with a slight variation of the characters and events as they occur in his version. There have been alternate versions of nearly every epic in the past according to the individuality of the bard just as modern authors retell stories from various perspectives and film makers present remakes of earlier movies. So popular were these ancient epics- whether the accounts of the Trojan War, the Mahabharata or Ramayana of India, the Shahnameh of Persia or that oldest of written epics, the Gilgamesh cycle of ancient Mesopotamia that in every culture authors used the basic story to tell and retell fantastic accounts of the individuals. This is a phenomenon we witness within religious traditions as well, with stories being told about a saintly or evil character found in the pages of a particular scripture who becomes the source for an outside work of literature. I also wanted to keep in mind the actors and models and their costuming I had at my disposal for the photographs used for this project. I wanted to stay somewhat connected to the time period of the tale but also, like the painters of the Renaissance portray the characters and their actions as an expression of neo classicist art. Historically accurate costume authenticity as well as valuable information, group and individual choreography and direction was graciously shared and provided by Sybilla Bakzaza-Dodds, the director of the reenactment troupe Warriors of Elysium who are featured in the production with armaments such as the black armor of the Myrmidons or the fabled boar tusk helmet of the bronze age or the curved and somewhat pointed Phrygian helmet which was actually worn by such ancient peoples as the Scythians and Thracians, reflecting the armaments mentioned in the ancient epics. This was in wonderful contrast to my own desire for the use of later period armaments such as chain mail or Roman belts, resulting in a rich panorama for the viewer. We often see in the art of the neo classicists depictions of the armaments of many periods, with some of the warriors unlikely barefoot; so as to convey the sense of something ancient, something beautiful rather than just historical accuracy, as storytelling is art and not necessarily history. As the bards, authors and artists have demonstrated over the centuries, imagination so expressed opens us up to the exciting possibility of exploring the knowledge and thus the true history of the past, and the portrayal of ancient epic themes supports the ongoing popularity of these stories. Included in the visual presentation are works of art in the form of paintings, sculptures, vases and friezes from the genres of various time periods such as the ancient era, the Renaissance and the great paintings of the Romantic and pre-Raphaelite artists. The music composed and utilized for this production is meant to give a feeling of the past as well. The 'Overture' and the 'Invocation to the Gods' are somewhat modern sounding, utilizing vocalist Deborah Karpel's beautiful classically trained vocals supported by an overlay of traditional instruments and modal structures. Reed flute, lyre, saz lute, double reeds and accordion played using drones and intervals of fourths and fifths begat archaic sounds and melodies. Dumbek, large frame drum, a traditional conga drum with African origins from Colombia known as an 'alegre', didgeridoo as well as varied percussive effects performed by Natalia Perlaza all contribute to the ancient effect I was seeking to convey. We also had fun creating many of the vocal sound effects which were used to accentuate the actions of the various scenes. We laughed, we cried, we screamed and grunted. The recording and the lengthy mixing and editing process was mastered at Soundworks Studios in Astoria, New York by Kamilo Kratc who worked closely with me to achieve what I was aiming for, and the final product is the result of his expertise and professionalism in sound and visual technology. All who contributed to this huge effort are given their due in the credits at the end of the production, as I am sure they have been waiting as patiently as I to see the results. As I write, I am in the final stage of production, which is the lining up of the visuals to the already recorded and edited recitation with its accompanying music. Due to the length of the epic, I am considering presenting it in two parts, as Fall Of Troy I and II. Hopefully the full, final product will be completed and ready in about two months from now.

~Ismail Butera April, 2021

Note: You can click on 'Epic Storybook Art' to view some beautiful and exciting photos which were commissioned for this upcoming project. Also, check out 'Recitations & Music' to hear samples of what we do :)