THE GENERAL'S DREAM
SERIES II · EPISODE X
Smoke rises over the Greek camp, the rolling fields of battle, and the walls of Troy. A city, an army, and a harvest of souls—who today live only beyond the Rivers of Death, and behind the Gates of Dream...
The General’s Dream explores Odysseus’ relationship with the mythological figure of Palamedes, one of Agamemnon’s other generals during the Seige of Troy. These days, Palamedes is a little-known figure who does not share the fame of Odysseus. But Palamedes is remarkable for his status as an apparent equal of Odysseus, a culture hero who was credited with nothing less than the first invention of the Greek alphabet, of numbers, and standardised measures used in trade and commerce.
He was also said to have invented popular games of chance and strategy. Pausanias said that in Corinth there was a Temple of Fortune to which Palamedes dedicated the dice that he had invented. The invention of dice probably evolved out of the game of knuckle-bones, which involved gambling on which side the ankle-bones of a sheep would land; and this game itself probably evolved from a practice of divination. Indeed, early dice were carved from animal bone.
Anachronistically, Palamedes would sometimes also be claimed as the inventor of draughts and of chess, but the games played at the time were very different. Homer wrote that the Greek warriors Achilles and Ajax became so engrossed in a game of petteia during the Trojan War that they failed to notice the battle around them. Petteia translates as ‘pebbles’, and may have been similar to the later Roman game latrunculi or ‘The Game of Robbers’.
Palamedes does not figure in the most influential depictions of the Trojan War by Homer, the Illiad or the Odyssey. This led Philostratus to declare that:
Palamedes found his bitterest enemies in Odysseus and Homer; for the one laid an ambush against him of people by whom he was stoned to death, while the other denied him any place in his Epic.
- Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3.22
But his story is recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, which sees Odysseus (Or Ulysses, as the Romans called him) in a contest with the warrior Ajax to claim the armour of the fallen hero Achilles, the central figure of the Illiad. In this contest, Ajax specifically refers to the story about Odysseus and his betrayal of Palamedes, in his attempt to paint Odysseus as treacherous and unworthy to the memory of Achilles.
Our knowledge of Palamedes comes instead from accounts by people like Philostratus, Apollodorus, Pausaunius, Hyginus, and later Virgil and Ovid. They tell of how Agamemnon dispatched Palamedes to call Odysseus into service for the war against Troy. Odysseus attempted to dodge this draft and feign madness by ploughing his fields with a donkey and sowing it with salt, but Palamedes’ saw through the deception, and proved him sane by endangering Telemachus. Accounts of Odysseus’ revenge differ. Many said that Oddysseus had him accused and executed for treachery by forging a letter from the Trojan King Priam. Odysseus and Diomedes then stoned him death, drowned on a fishing trip, or lured him into a well with the promise of treasure, and filled the well with stones. In some accounts, Odysseus makes sure the treachery is confirmed and burying gold beneath Palamedes’ tent; another variation says that Odysseus buried the gold and then told Agamemnon that a dream had warned him the Greeks needed to move their camp. This led to the discovery of the freshly dug earth beneath Palamedes’ tent, and the uncovering of the gold which incriminated him.
The animosity between Odysseus and Palamedes thus forms another strand in the dense cluster of myths which surround the central myth of the Seige, the Fall, and the Return from Troy. Their animosity is animated by their similarities: they are both skilled speakers and tacticians.
In the Illiad Odysseus uses his great skill as an orator and a rhetorician to turn around the Greek army when they begin to run for home, the result of an ill-advised test of loyalty by their leader, King Agamemnon, and again to claim Achilles’ armour in the Metamorphoses. Palamedes’ own reputation for rhetorical skill is reflected in the Defence of Palamedes, a text by the Ancient Greek sophist Gorgias which modeled rhetorical strategy.
But the contest over the armour of Achilles, where Ajax attempts to shame Odysseus by bringing up Palamedes, highlights what may have been an important difference between the two: while Palamedes may have been considered honourable, Odysseus was often unscrupulous. Indeed, the Defence of Palamedes opens with this line:
This trial is concerned not with death, which comes to all, but with honor: whether I am to die justly or unjustly, under a load of disgrace.
- The Defence of Palamedes, Gorgias (Trans. Kathleen Freeman)
Sebastian’s take on these myths pits the rhetorical skills and strategic politics of these two generals against each other in a battle to control the sympathies and passions of the Greek camp and its leaders. Odysseus’ employs the tricky use of a dream differently here, using it as a strategy to point out Palamedes’ tent, rather than moving the Greek encampment.
Odysseus’ use of dreams to manipulate and control those around him is a recurring theme in depictions of his wit and strategy: as well as causing the execution of Palamedes, the Odyssey tells of how a disguised Odysseus convinces the swine herd Eumaeus to give up his cloak, by telling a story about he once met the legendary Odysseus, who had tricked one of his soldiers into dropping his cloak by saying that a dream from the gods had told him that the camp was too far away from the ships:
Listen to me, friends.
As I slept here, a dream sent from the gods
came to me. We’ve moved a long way forward,
too far from our ships. I would like someone
to tell Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
a shepherd of his people, in the hope
he’d tell more men to come out from the fleet.
- The Odyssey, Bk. 14 (Trans. Ian Johnston)
A soldier jumps up to deliver the message, leaving behind his cloak, which is what Odysseues really wanted. It is almost the same as the story about Palamedes, suggesting this was a reliable way for Odysseus to manipulate Agamemnon, or that they were part of the same plan and incident!
The story of Palamedes also carves out an significant role for his father in the mythos of the Trojan War and Returns cycle. Enraged by the execution of his son, Nauplius becomes a kind of villainous mastermind behind the misfortunes that befall the Returning Greeks, a human antagonist who plans the destruction of the Aegean fleet and the overthrow of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and his step-brother Aegisthus. Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon describes how the return of the fleet is signalled was the lighting of beacons along the coast of Greece, alerting the usurper’s to Agamemnon’s return. Nauplius, meanwhile, was said to have stationed spies all along the coast, and to have lured many of the Greek ship’s onto the rocks at Mount Caphareus in the island of Euboea, seizing the opportunity provided by the divinely ordained storms which enveloped them during their journey home. It continues the central themes of the Trojan epics, in which the ego and hubris of the key heroes during the events of the war are revisited on them by the gods, to whom they have not paid the proper respects or dues, and through the legacies of their human victims.
Sebastian’s interpretation expands on the revenge narrative by representing the ships that Nauplius destroyed as being the ships of Odysseus’ comrades from the Ionian isles, though this is not specified in ancient sources. Seen through the prism of Odysseus’ and Palamedes first encounter, his story explores the similarities in character and temperament between this complex of characters: the father-son relationship reflected between Odysseus and Telemachus, and Palamedes and Nauplius. Inveitably, in the context of Greek myth, these similarities are the basis of discord and tragedy rather than consensus and harmony,
Ancient Greek pottery art famously depicts Achilles and Ajax engrossed in their board game in the camp at Troy. It is a tableau which might also fittingly recall the character of Palamedes as the mythical inventor of games. Indeed, some authors would tell that Palamedes was observed in the Underworld after his death, playing dice with his old comrades, Ajax the Great and Thersites — all of three of them had suffered injustice at the hands of Odysseus.
Story interpreted and performed by Sebastian Odell.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
Lore & Legend Series Themes composed and performed by Robert Bentall.
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Additional sound and effects sourced from the community at Freesound.org.
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