We tend to think of ancient Greece (and the ancient world generally) as belonging to a single period: antiquity. The closer we look, though, the less antiquity looks like one internally consistent era—in fact, ancient Greece had its own rupture between ancient and modern. Between the two are the fascinating works of Homer and Hesiod.
The Greeks’ own Greek classics
By the time Aristotle composed his first arguments against Plato, the works of Homer and Hesiod were already hundreds of years old and venerated as classics. Most modern historians place Homer between 800 and 700 BC; Hesiod was active between 750 and 650 BC. (For reference, that puts us squarely in OT times: around then, Isaiah would have been carrying out his ministry in Judah.) Homer you know from his epics the Iliad and the Odyssey; Hesiod you know from the story of Pandora’s Box, which was actually a jar. The Greeks thought of Homer and Hesiod as a pair: the former gave the culture its great shared narratives, and the latter filled in the details—Hesiod described Greek mythology, farming, economics, astronomy, time-keeping, and more. Generally, his poems are didactic: they told the ancient Greeks how to live. Between Homer’s myth-building and Hesiod’s instructional goals (not to mention his exacting detail), these poems give us a remarkable window into ancient Greece.
A vexed relationship with the past
One of the things that make Homer and Hesiod so interesting is how they negotiated their own sense of ancient and modern. Bertrand Russell writes, “The Olympian gods, who represent religion in Homer, were not the only objects of worship among the Greeks, either in his time or later. There were other darker and more savage elements in popular religion, which were kept at bay by the Greek intellect at its best.” H.J. Rose describes these elements in his Primitive Culture in Ancient Greece: there were statues of Pan, which were beaten when food was scarce; there was a cave favored by the wolf-Zeus, in which no one cast a shadow and after entering which no one survived longer than a year; there was a clan of possible werewolves. We associate ancient Greece with pure reason, but all of this was still going on in classical times.
Russell argues that “The Homeric poems, like the courtly romances of the later Middle Ages, represent the point of view of a civilized aristocracy, which ignores as plebeian various superstitions that are still rampant among the populace. . . . Guided by anthropology, modern writers have come to the conclusion that Homer, so far from being primitive, was an expurgator . . . holding up an upper-class ideal of urbane enlightenment.” That is, Homer’s works aren’t just a window into ancient Greece—they were a biased, active hand in shaping its religious customs.
We see a converse phenomenon in Hesiod, and this time the primitive customs are the Olympian myths themselves. Hesiod’s Theogony lays out Greek belief point by point, from the creation of the universe through the gods’ rise to power. The interesting part, though, isn’t what he writes—it’s how he was read. Even as the Greeks began to turn away from this mythology and seek purely rational explanations for the world, they continued to read Hesiod out of a sense of tradition: out of respect for antiquity.
It’s easy to think of the ancients as credulous, grasping at the nearest magical explanation for the phenomena around them. What we see in Homer and Hesiod, though, is a self-aware tension between past and present—one that feels very modern. Homer distances himself from ancient pagan belief to advocate for the Olympian pantheon. Hesiod fleshes out that Olympian pantheon but is, as the times change, relegated to a mere emeritus role. In many ways, the relationship of ancient Greece to its own antiquity looks like the relationship of modernity to ancient Greece. That’s what makes Homer and Hesiod so interesting: they represent not only timeless literature, but also an influential culture navigating its past and present.
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