As British MPs debate whether or not to bomb Syria, insulting and bullying each other as they go along, I came across the most delightful critique of the idiocy of war. It is a short ‘epic’ Greek poem entitled Batrachomyomachia, the War between Frogs and Mice. This is a short parody of the Iliad. It involves, as the title makes it clear, mice and frogs. I came across the poem serendipitously while looking for an edition of the Homeric Hymns, a beautiful collections of Hymns dedicated to several of the Greek gods (I highly recommend the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which has to be among my favourite Greek texts).
The war between the mice and frogs starts when a frog king swims across a lake with a mouse on his back. On their way, they encounter a dreadful water snake. The frog dives, forgetting about the mouse, who dies drowned. The scene is witnessed by another mouse, who calls his co-citizens to war. The mice and the frogs arm themselves.
From heaven, Zeus observes the rising tension and asks his daughter Athena whether she will defend the mice. The reasons Athena gives not to assist either side are priceless:
O father, never would I the mice in distress
Consider helping: they have caused me many ills,
Damaging my wreaths and my lamps on account of the oil.
And this stung my heart particularly, this deed they did:
They nibbled at my robe, which, toiling hard, I wove
From a fine yarn, and I had spun a long thread for it,
And they made holes in it! And the needlewoman fell upon me,
Asking me for interest payments – such a miserable situation for immortals –
Because I borrowed for my spinning, and I couldn’t pay back.
Still, I shan’t be willing to help the frogs,
For they are not steadfast of character either.
Recently, as I came back from battle, exhausted,
In great need of sleep, they did not allow me to close my eyes,
Not even for a while, with their clatter; sleepless I lay there
My head aching, until the cock crowed.
So let’s forget, gods, about helping them,
Lest one of you should be wounded by a sharp missile:
They fight hand to hand, even if a god should come against them.
Let’s all enjoy watching the battle from heavens.
In the actual battle, the mice win. The frogs are at risk of being annihilated. Zeus decides he cannot let that happen and sends a troupe of crabs. Frightened, the mice scamper off. The war ends at sundown.
I would not want to replace the words ‘frogs’, ‘mice’, ‘Athena’ and ‘Zeus’ with those of current protagonists. Still, may our leaders understand that childish bickering high up ‘in heaven’ is unacceptable when the lives of people are at stake!