In December 2022, a book was published that is a catalogue of the AB Paterson archive in the Australian National Library in Canberra. The book is ‘Banjo Paterson, A Life in Pictures, and Words’ from the Banjo Paterson Family Archive. Upon reading it, I found no mention of Homer.
I emailed the ANL saying I was writing an article highlighting similarities between Waltzing Matilda and the Iliad. I asked if there was any evidence in the archive that Paterson had read the Iliad.
It is an interesting question about the power and omnipresence of Homer in Western literature.
Paterson sailed off to WWI on a ship called Euripides, an example of how all-pervasive ancient Greece was in the modern narrative. Playwright Euripides wrote two plays about the Trojan War, ‘Trojan Women’, and ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’.
I have read the Iliad and Odyssey 6, 7, or 8 times. As I repeatedly read Homer, I started thinking that the squatter in Waltzing Matilda has a similar role as King Agamemnon in the Iliad; they both represent judgment and dominion.
The swagman has the same role as Achilles. Both Achilles and the jolly swagman die trying to preserve their self-identity.
The jumbuck must be the body of Hector, the prince of Troy. In the Iliad, the enemy’s armour, shield, weapons and body were prizes to be fought over. The body of Hector is fought over by the Greeks and Trojans. The jumbuck is the centre of dispute in Waltzing Matilda.
Jumbuck is Briseis and Hector
After Achilles kills Hector, he drags the body behind his chariot to his hut in the Greek camp on the shore of the Aegean Sea.
However, the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles is over the captive girl Briseis. The jumbuck could be a composite of characters. Briseis, Patroclus and Hector. Compressing the surfaces of the Iliad into Waltzing Matilda would lead to composites while preserving the essential meaning of the plot.
If the jumbuck is a composite figure representing Briseis, Patroclus and Hector. Briseis is the living jumbuck that comes to drink at the billabong. Patroclus and Hector are burnt on their funeral pyres. They are the butchered, cooked, and portioned jumbuck the swagman stuffs into his tucker bag.
The consumption, sacrifice and offering to the gods of livestock is a frequent event in the Iliad and Odyssey.
The forbidden consumption and sacrifice of the livestock belonging to the god Helios leads to the demise of Odysseus’ companions and his near death.
At the funeral of Patroclus, livestock and Trojan captives are sacrificed.
Though no sacrifices are mentioned at the funeral of Hector, there is a great feast.
Clearly, the forbidden killing and consumption of livestock is occurring in Waltzing Matilda. With sufficient imagination, one could see the similarity with practices in Homer.
The settler could be Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and overlord of the Greeks at Troy, and Priam, king of Troy. All represent dominion over others, granted by a greater power, the gods in the case of the kings, and the system of legal ownership of land and livestock in the case of the squatter.
The troopers are like the heralds Agamemnon sends to Achilles’ Hut to take Briseis.
The settler may get to retrieve the jumbuck in the tucker bag, just as Priam gets to retrieve Hector’s body from Achilles’ hut.
“And his ghost may be heard when you pass by the billabong” has a configurational similarity to when Odysseus talks with the ghost of Achilles in Hades in Book 11 of the Odyssey.
The scene of the swagman’s camp by the billabong has configurational similarity to the setting of the Greek camp on the shore of the Aegean Sea.
The Coolabah tree is like the fig tree by the Scaean Gate entrance to Troy, under which Achilles dies.
Achilles says, “Over me too hangs death and my harsh destiny.” (Book 21, lines 106-110, Anthony Verity translation, 2011, OUP). So, too, the jolly swagman faces his harsh destiny. A warrior for the roving life, he values the honour of freedom more than life itself or more than a life of penal servitude. Sheep stealing was punished very harshly.
The swagman dies without lament. The swagman’s Achilles heel may be that he lives in a society that values property and ownership more than the joy, freedom, and fulfilment of the independent, unencumbered, roving life.
Banjo Paterson lived in a society that valued the bush ballad and entertaining yarn. If 19th-century Australia had loved weighty epic myths, Banjo would have been up to the task.
The jolly swagman goes to the same heroic death as Achilles. He undergoes the same transformation as Achilles from the embodied spirit in the realm of time and space to the ghostly form in the realm of Hades.
But what about the boiling billy?
No one makes tea in the Iliad or Odyssey.
Fire plays a crucial role in the Iliad. The tide of battle, pulled by the gravity of the gods, flows from the Greeks to the Trojans and back several times. The high tide of the fortunes of the Trojans sees them break into the Greek encampment, and Hector sets fire to one of the Greek ships. The sight of the burning ship causes Patroclus to take actions that put the cascade of events in motion, including his death and that of Hector and Achilles.
Later, Achilles almost drives the Trojans back behind the walls of Troy, choking the river Scamander with the blood and bodies of dead Trojans. The river god turns on Achilles, who is at the point of drowning, when Hephaestus, the god of fire, drives the river back.
Fire and boiling are fundamental transformations from one state to another, from solid to gas and liquid to vapour. Fire-gazing is perhaps the most ancient form of meditation. The swagman is meditating on the most fundamental forms of transformation. In Homer, individual destinies are transformed in the fiery crucible of war.
Homer says, “As it is, your fate is soon upon you.” (Book 1, lines 404-5, Barry B Powel translation, 2014) With our destiny set by the gods, one could do worse than sitting by a fire and waiting for our destiny’s events to appear.
I know a great line that could have been adapted and woven into the ending of the Odyssey; “And his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong, you’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.” Such a statement would be a fitting send-off for the wandering Odysseus.
In response to my question Did Banjo Paterson Read Homer? a librarian at the Australian National Library familiar with the AB Paterson archive said in an email, “I would venture to suggest that it is virtually certain that, even if no written evidence is found amongst the papers, that Paterson had good knowledge of the Iliad-he was educated at Sydney Grammar School, where boys studied the Greek and Latin Classics at some depth.”
*Gordon Duncan is a writer from Melbourne with degrees from La Trobe University who has a keen interest in Greek literature and mythology and has travelled extensively to Greece.