ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Keys for the study of Homer, Plato and "Greek" literature
A warrior tradition was responsible for the survival and territorial expansion of the Hellenes, but it was also a crippling problem for social development. Centuries of chaotic violence apparently preceded Homer. This catastrophic time, the Helladic Dark Ages (cir. 1200 - 750 BCE), was perhaps a reign of terror ruled by marauding hordes of pirate-raiders like Achilles, Odysseus and the other city-sacking Achaeans described in the Homeric songs. During this 300- or 400-year period, except for occasional visits by squatters, cities throughout the Greek-speaking world were abandoned. Their former settlers, like Homer's Trojans, may have been slaughtered or carried off into slavery, or they may have fled into the remote mountains of Arcadia, the island of Cyprus, and other hiding places.
Return of civilization, the rise of Hellenism: for unknown reasons, a time of social renewal known as the Greek archaic period began in Homer's era, about 750 BC. Developments during this more stable age included:
In Homer's day, the Greek-speaking peoples did not yet have a common name. The Homeric songs seem to use the names "Achaeans" and "Danaans" and "Argives" inter-changeably to refer collectively to most of the forces massed against Troy. But Homer's Trojans also are Greek-speakers, and they are presented no less heroically than their attackers. The Homeric songs can't be identified with any particular tribe or cult. Their broad point of view, their unifying pan-Hellenic vision allowed them to become the most famous of all Greek poems.
Greek religion also had been a local matter in the beginning. For example, Athens was the place (among others) where the goddess Athena was worshipped, while the goddess Hera was worshipped at Argos in the Peloponnesus to the south. "Culture" begins with cult, or group worship, but there had been many cults among the Greek-speaking peoples, cults that divided the separate communities.
Polytheism (the worship of many gods) in the Hellenic case seems to have been a poetic attempt to build a larger, more unified society--as we would call it today, a tolerant multi-culture. Homer and Hesiod merged the separate gods and goddesses into a single, grand mythological framework. Their songs helped to invent the Hellenic group identity, much as the Books of Moses established a unified cultural framework for a collection of disparate tribes through stories of a shared, divinely inspired past.
Local ancestors, or "heroes," were as important as the gods for the development of Hellenic literature and thought. All over the Hellenic world, hero cults gathered on feast days at local heroes' tombs or memorials, usually in burial groves or gardens outside of town, not to commemorate the past but to meet the heroes! The dead, when properly buried, were believed to remain present in the ground, where they were responsible for local fertility, including the reproduction of plants from the soil. Hence "cult" is the root word in "cultivation" and "agriculture." (If I farm the land where my ancestors are buried, they are feeding me, so I keep them happy by singing their praises and giving them a share of the food, a "sacrifice." If things are going wrong, it probably means that they are angry because I haven't paid proper attention to them, so I'll have to work harder at caring for them with better memorials, praises and feeding.)
The form of worship included food-animal sacrifice and a communion meal followed by communication with the spirit of the hero. Having been fed a libation (the pouring of blood or wine or other drink on the burial ground), the hero regained the strength to speak. Heracles (Hercules) was the most widely summoned spirit, but there were hundreds of others including not only warriors and wise men but also women and children. Anybody who died and was buried and remembered could be a hero.
How did the dead speak to the living? In each of these local rites someone necessarily took the hero's part or sang the hero's words. It would have been sacrilegious to think of this inspired singing as a dramatic performance, or a pretense for the entertainment of the crowd. In the rapture of the ritual, the hero was presented--that is, actually made present, in the belief of the cult members. The song or voice in the ceremony, as the faithful heard it, was the hero, not some actor's imitation, old timer's remembrance or historian's lore. The hero impersonator was "possessed" by the spirit and voice of the hero.
Hero rites created the miraculous illusion that the dead (or at least their voices) can be brought back, by sharing picnics with them at their tombs. The sacrifice of a food animal and its consumption in a stylized ritual meal, repeated year after year in the customary way, generated belief in the transcendence of time. The living fed the dead, and the dead fed the living. Sacrifice united all mortal beings of all time in an inter-dependent cycle of life and death.
What do these ancient religious practices have to do with literature?
The Homeric songs, and other archaic Greek poetry, used present-ing techniques of ancient hero worship, especially spiritual possession that allowed the ancestors to speak to the living through the medium of an entranced singer. The bard's impersonation of heroes, however, no longer took place at the heroes' graves. In a king's great hall or other communal dining facility, the relics of the heroes were not physically present, so the songs of the heroes came to be understood as fictitious. A professional entertainer only imitated the voices of Achilles or Odysseus, but a good imitation nonetheless could trick an audience temporarily into believing that the past actually was present. Homeric storytelling and its later development, Greek tragedy, can induce grieving, as if we are visiting the tombs of loved ones, but of course this enchantment fades when the performance ends, and we realize that we've been under an artist's spell.
This imitation of heroes was the beginning of the entertainment industry in Europe, insofar as anyone today can tell. It was closely akin to religious practice, rich in spiritual depth and emotional power.
Inspired connection with the heroic past is an enduring element of western civilization, long after Achilles and the ancient heroes generally have been forgotten. Aspects of ancient Hellenic hero-worship carried over into Christianity in the veneration of martyrs and saints whose bones and relics were collected at Christian shrines and cathedrals everywhere across Europe. But even today, long after the gods have stopped talking to most of us, everyone still is guided (or misguided) by heroes. We still call them back from the dead in illusory spirit worlds of literature.
Secularism or humanism is clearly the other most important contribution of the Hellenic people to later western civilization. This self-reflective process began with the development of secularized heroic art, especially the Homeric songs, but that was only the first step.
The idea that Homer and other poets had made up the stories of the gods seemed perfectly obvious to many philosophers, scientists, poets and historians in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the age that we call the Greek classical period.
The literary response of the classical age was not to replace polytheism with a new religion (that would come later in the first century AD, with Paul's introduction of Christ among the Greeks), but to tell new kinds of stories, especially stories about people in isolation from the gods, people in whose affairs there was no clear divine intervention.
These secularized classics were great novelties in their day:
Most of this new kind of literature appeared in a surprisingly short span of time and within a single city: for the most part, these things happened at Athens, within a few generations after the invention of political democracy there.
What happened? It has been argued that there was a breakdown of religious values in classical Athens. But it appears to be more accurate to say that audiences became specialized and differentiated, particularly with the rise of urban life, trade, democracy and literacy. There needed to be more kinds of stories because people had (or believed that they had) less in common with one another. Turning from Homer's concern with the general culture of all Hellenes, the new literature cultivated specific factions or professions.
The new social subdivisions can be described as secular cults. Plato's Socrates, for example, became the hero for a new way of life called philosophy (or love of wisdom), which was clearly not for everybody. This new sub-cult was set apart from the rest of society with the establishment of a university, Plato's Academy. This innovative school did not emphasize the traditional, general culture (the gods or rituals or collective history), and it did not teach scribal skills or rote learning of any kind. Students here learned to be Socratic (Socrates-like), by searching for truth through thought and argument. Truth needed to be uncovered by the mind because it remained hidden to the physical senses, like the non-apparent laws underlying the operation of the universe. Historically at least, this core belief in mystery and wonder underlies all western research institutions and think tanks.
Historians often present Homer and Plato as distinct opposites: spiritual man versus rational man, poet versus philosopher, etc. But the similarities far outweigh the differences. Above all, what unites the two--and other founders of western civilization--is their understanding of the power of literature to make and re-make culture. This story-telling or mythic power can provide a unifying vision for a whole society, as in Homer's invention of Pan-Hellenism, or for social institutions, as in Plato's invention of academic life. The source or underlying nature of western culture is poetic.
(Dates before about 500 BCE are very speculative.)
Before 2000 BCE.The beginnings of heroic singing are unknown but probably date from very early times, even before the Bronze Age. The small stylized figure shown here (image right) from the Cycladic Islands (between modern Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea), dates possibly as early as 3000 BCE, in any event centuries before the arrival of Greek speakers in the area. The Cycladic figurines were used in funerals or ancestor worship. They were buried with the dead.
1600 BCE. The early history of the Greek-speaking people is a mystery, but scholars speculate that the Hellenes, as they later called themselves, came as conquerors from eastern Asia Minor or the area of Armenia in the middle of the Bronze Age, about 1600 BC. With the technological advantage of war chariots, they took over the plains of Thrace in the north of the Greek peninsula and of the Peloponnesus in the south. Their greatest city, Mycenae in the Peloponnesus, apparently reached its economic peak in about 1550 BC.
1400 BCE. Indigenous or at least earlier peoples in the region, before the Hellenes, included the Minoans on Crete. The great Minoan civilization ruled the seas in the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years, but it collapsed at about 1400 BC, evidently through conquest. For the next 100 years, Greek-speaking people occupied the Minoan capital of Cnossos until the city finally was abandoned. This occupation is evidenced in the ruins on Crete by tablet writing in Linear B script, thought to be an early form of Greek.
1200 BCE. The Bronze Age ended suddenly. Mycenae and other cities in Greece sank into serious decline or were abandoned completely from about 1200 BC to 900 BC or later, the dismal period that is known today as the Helladic Dark Ages. People seem to have fled into the remote countryside or distant islands to hide from sea raiders. Knowledge of writing and other arts appears to have been lost; Linear B tablets are no longer found in the wreckage.
1184 BCE. The traditional date for the fall of Troy. (There may or may not have been a Trojan War, such as Homer describes in the Iliad. Most scholars think that there was. Most guesses date the war to sometime between 1250 BC and about 1050 BC.)
1000 BCE or slightly earlier. The Iron Age began in Greece.
850 BCE. Homer composed his songs, or so says the great story-teller Herodotus, known to us today, incorrectly, as both "the Father of History" and "the Father of Lies." (Herodotus was writing long after Homer's time, at about 450 BC.) Many modern scholars place Homer's date in the mid-700's BC, but there is no satisfactory evidence for Homer's date. Among other questions: How did Homer know about a war fought 200 to 500 years before his time, if writing was not in use?
776 BCE. The Olympic games were founded. The games, and religious shrines that developed at about the same time, were open to all Greek speakers to appease the gods and to celebrate the common culture of the diverse cities, the multi-culture known as Hellenism.
725 BCE. The Homeric songs perhaps were first written down at about this time, using an alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians. Some modern scholars think that the poems first were composed at this time, but many others believe the poems were composed as songs many generations earlier and passed down by oral tradition until the alphabet came into use.
550 BCE or so. The first mention of Homer in Greek literature, still surviving today, is a criticism by Xenophanes of Colophon, a jealous poet. The review isn't very favorable. Monotheist Xenophanes says that Homer's portrayal of the gods is immoral and implausible.
546 BCE. Peisistratus seized control of Athens and ruled as its tyrant. According to the story, Peisistratus offered a bounty for anyone who could supply missing lines from Homerís songs, and suddenly all kinds of people turned up to claim prizes. Establishing definitive texts of Homer took the next 350 years to complete! Although we speak of "The" Iliad and "The" Odyssey, the texts that we have today were compiled in antiquity from different versions of the songs, probably very many versions. (See Alexander the Great, below.) At least a few small inconsistencies remain in the modern texts.
507 BCE. or thereabouts. Democracy was invented in Athens after the one of the sons of Peisistratus was assassinated and the other was expelled from the city. The novel idea was that leaders would have to rule by persuasion, not tyranny. This development established public interest in politics, rhetoric and argument. Instructors known as sophists (meaning wise men) began teaching the arts of persuasion.
490 BC to 479 BCE. United against a common enemy, the Hellenic city-states defeated two invasions of the Greek peninsula by the powerful Persian Empire. Victories in these Persian Wars inaugurated the "Golden Age" of Greek classical civilization.
460 BCE. Pericles ruled democratic Athens at the height of its political power. The Parthenon was built at this time, and Greek tragedy (elaborated Homeric performances) reached sophistication in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
431 to 404 BCE. The principal Hellenic city-states Athens and Sparta destroyed one another and their allies in the Peloponnesian War. The tragic history was written by Thucydides, an Athenian general in the war and the greatest historian of the classical world. Spartan troops occupied Athens at the end of the war in 404 BC, and they set up a puppet government nominally controlled by "Thirty Tyrants" (Athenian aristocrats sympathetic to Sparta), temporarily ending the democracy.
399 BCE. A bloody counter-revolution restored democracy in Athens, and there was a wave of political persecution in reaction to the oppression of the Thirty Tyrants. In this climate of social fervor, Socrates the philosopher was tried and sentenced to death by the citizenry of Athens, allegedly for impiety and for corrupting beliefs of young people. It was the beginning of the university system.
387 BCE. One of Socrates' students, a creative young poet and mathematician named Plato, returned to Athens from hiding (two of the Thirty Tyrants had been his uncles) to found the Academy where he taught philosophy, politics and math until his death in 347. Plato's famous dialogues, of which about 30 survive today, were written during this period. Plato's interest in developing a mathematical model of the universe led to important discoveries in geometry that paved the way for Euclid and the development of mechanical science.
335 BCE. Plato's most famous student Aristotle founded his own school at Athens, The Lyceum. Aristotle laid the foundations of biology, but his main contribution was the collection of all human knowledge into a central repository.
336-323 BCE. After visiting Troy and paying homage to Achilles, Aristotle's most famous student Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire including all of the Near East, Egypt and much of central Asia. Alexander's followers built the first world class library, the library at Alexandria, Egypt, partly to collect, edit and study Homer's manuscripts. (They called it a "museum" or house of the Muses; Alexander's mummy was there, with a copy of the Iliad under its pillow.) Standard texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey eventually were established here by the Alexandrian scholars in about 200 BC.
336-31 BCE. The Hellenistic Age marked the high point of the international political influence of the Greek-speaking people. Hellas and the Near East were ruled by Alexander's successors until Octavius (later known as Augustus Caesar) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra (the last of the Greek pharaohs) at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.
19 BCE. Homer more or less survived the Roman occupation. The Roman poet Virgil composed an epic poem in Latin so that Augustus' new empire would have a great poem of its own. This Roman national epic, the Aeneid, was modeled closely on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Its hero Aeneas is Homer's pious man of destiny, the Trojan who escapes the fall of Troy to lead his people on a mission to found the Eternal City, Rome. Poetic traditions of imitating Homer and running off to Rome have continued ever since.
415 CE. The great library at Alexandria was burned and destroyed, and the lady chief librarian was butchered, by a violent mob of Christian zealots. Afterwards, for the next 1000 years, Homerís texts were preserved only in the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople. Plato's texts apparently were preserved only in the Arab world, where the last scholars of the Academy fled from persecution by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 CE. The Academy had a 900-year run.
1321 CE. Based on Virgil and other Latin imitators of Homer, Dante's poetic catalogue of human mental conditions, The Divine Comedy is completed in Ravenna, Italy, and becomes an instant hit.
1453 CE. Homer was reborn in western Europe after Constantinople fell to the Turks. Scholars fled to Italy bringing with them ancient Greek texts, including Homer, that had been lost for centuries in west. Simultaneously, the Renaissance and neo-classicism dawned in Italy.
1488 CE. The first printed edition of the Homeric poems was published in Florence.
1600 - 1603 CE. William Shakespeare inaugurated Homer's rule in England by writing a trilogy of ingenious Homeric adaptations: Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. The first complete translation of Homer into English followed in 1611. when George Chapman published The Iliads of Homer, Prince of Poets, Never before in any language truly translated.
1720 CE. Poet Laureate Alexander Pope produced his famous translation in rhymed heroic couplets, The Iliad of Homer. Neoclassicism reached its height of fashion in English literature and other western European arts at this time.
1872 CE. Heinrich Schliemann, father of modern archaeology, excavated "Troy" and "Agamemnon's Mycenae" or claimed that he did. No indisputably Homeric artifacts ever have been found, but the dig goes on, with the belief that Homer's world must exist somewhere underground.
2000 CE plus. You are here, perhaps 3200 years after Achilles (if any) raged and Odysseus came home.
FOR DETAILS ON GREEK HISTORY: see Thomas Martin's Historical Overview at the Perseus site. Martin has updated his history in book form, too: see Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (Yale U. Press 2000).
Troy (Homer's Ilium, the setting for the Iliad) guarded the Hellespont, the strategic narrows connecting the Aegean Sea (shown left) and the Black Sea to the northeast above Asia Minor.
Helladic Dark Ages
Image left: primitive figurine of a bard or singer from the 8th century BC. Homer at work?
Figure left: one of the most important images in all of western art, a representation of a Hellenic hero ritual in progress. "Performers" include Muse and singer at left of the tomb and a libation bearer (with a bowl of drink) and torch bearers at the right. The hero spirit will speak through the medium of the singer, if the hero can be awakened with the drink.
Polytheism is multi-cultural.
Figure left: Hero ritual performed solo, the singer pours a libation to find the words.
Left: a Minoan longhorn. If you're into cattle, you'll love Homer.
Image left: I call this one "My summer vacation," but it wasn't, unfortunately. It's the Lion Gate at Mycenae.
Homer: 2700 years old? or 3200?
In a comic scene in the Iliad, Hera seduces Zeus to keep him from helping the Trojans thrash the Achaeans. There's a range of emotion in Homer from humor to despair, all of which makes for dramatic opportunity in the bard's performance.
but the comedians lampooned Pericles mercilessly for his egg-shaped head, which he tried to hide under a helmet... a great reason for Athens to be continually at war!
Apollo's oracle called Socrates the wisest of mortals, a title that made him fascinating to students and otherwise unpopular.
Alexander, and the Hellenistic world that he founded, translated Homer into a world culture.
Image left: Virgil's Aeneas tried to carry the ancestors from Troy to Rome.
The arrival of Homer in Italy opened the Renaissance and the modern age
Homer is a poet's poet, a favorite of great writers of all kinds down through the ages in the west.
Image left: Herr Schliemann carried poetry into the age of science by inventing stories about the heroes' physical remains. This was called archaeology.