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Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

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The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]

Bibliography

Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1235 (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1181 (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1110 (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

[16] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[17] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

The Parthenon: Context and Interpretation

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How does the historical context of the Parthenon influence the way in which we ‘read’ the building and its decorative program?
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Our interpretation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is coloured by our understanding of the historical context in which it was built. The period in which Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens is characterized as a period of Athenian dominance and prosperity in which the city became practically the seat of an empire, as it led the Delian League of Greek city-states, set up to resist the encroaches of the Persian Empire. While possibly considered little more than a treasury and a home for the statue of Athena Parthenos by the ancient Greeks, we cannot help but interpret the site, probably incorrectly, as a ‘temple’. Undeniably though, it was a monument to Athenian hegemony, articulated through architecture and sculpture which drew upon a blend of mythology, history and politics in its imagery, expressing, among much else, the many successes the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had over the much more numerous and powerful Persians in various armed conflicts, such as the battles of Marathon and Salamis.

The significance of the Persians wars for Athenians lies in the very large role that Athens played in these precarious victories, at least in the version of events that has come down to us in Herodotus. The victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. was largely an Athenian victory. Athens was mostly fending for itself in this battle which marked the first time that a Greek city-state had effectively resisted the Persians. The earlier Persian threat of 492 B.C.E. was met with little resistance from Thrace and Macedon, and in 490, before arriving at Marathon, the Persians burned Naxos and Eretria. Through all of this, Sparta, for example, made promises of assistance to the Athenians, but delivered in only a perfunctory manner. When Persian forces returned in 480 B.C.E., the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis involved the forces of a consortium of allied Greek city-states lead by Athens and Sparta. A similar consortium defeated the Persians again the following year in Plataea and Mycale.

Athenians were in the thick of these wars in a number of ways. Geographically, Athens was centrally located on the Greek mainland and in relation to the islands in the Aegean Sea. Sparta was well defended to the south and inland; Athens did not enjoy such a convenient geographical position and so could not afford the same isolationist attitude as the Spartans. As a result, Athens was involved in these conflicts to a greater degree, reaping the benefits of victory, and paying the price in defeat – Athens was sacked and burned twice during the Persian wars, during which the old temples on the Acropolis were effectively destroyed, along with an earlier Parthenon. The Athenians did not rebuild immediately, not until they had taken a more proactive approach to their defenses. The Persian Wars ultimately brought the disparate city-states of Greece together against the common enemy. Athens was at the head of the Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states set up in 477 B.C.E. to defend Greece from any future Persian aggression. As the Persian threat receded, the Athenian statesman Cimon began to transform the contributions city-states paid to be part of the League into something resembling tributes paid by subject-states to a dominant empire-state. Cimon began to bully and lay siege to city-states who were not part of the League or wished to leave it. This caused frictions with Sparta, leading to the First Peloponnesian War.

By 446 B.C.E., Athens had formed peace agreements with Sparta and with the Persians yet was still quietly receiving tribute from many city-states. Under Pericles, the Athenians continued centralizing power and dominating both economically and culturally, taking on legal administration, standardizing currency, weights and measures, even making political decisions without directly consulting the city-states involved. This was a period of huge economic growth in Athens as wealth from the city-states flowed into the city. Athens became a cosmopolitan hub for the arts – sculpture, painting, theatre, and philosophy flourished. It was in this context that it was decided to begin rebuilding the monuments on the Acropolis including the new Parthenon in 449 B.C.E.

Importantly, the building we know as the Parthenon was apparently built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos. The name Parthenon simply means ‘unmarried women’s apartments’ (presumably the goddess’s) and may have only referred to part of the building originally. The building receives surprisingly few mentions in the surviving literature, ancient writers instead seeing the statue of Zeus at Olympia as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Also, ancient writers do not refer to it as a ‘temple’; there is little evidence for ritual practice in the building. This is another reason why we tend to interpret the building as having a specifically Athenian ‘nationalistic’ rather than a general religious significance. The building was used as a treasury, a storehouse of much of the wealth of Athens – it became the treasury of the Delian League when this was moved from Delos in 454 B.C.E.

The design of the building resembles temple designs of the past, but is on a monumental scale and has many unique features. One of these is the combination of Doric and Ionic stylistic features. The inner frieze, originally forming an uninterrupted band around the inner building as one continuous figured sculptural work, is a Ionic feature. Given our understanding of the context and purpose of the building, we can interpret this as recognizing a unity if not a dominance over the Ionian Greek city-states which were officially part of the League and empire. The building is also distinctive for not being strictly straight in any of its dimensions – it is subtly curved, supposedly to counter optical illusions which make straight lines appear curved on this scale. We could also interpret this as exhibiting Athenian ingenuity, even crafty duplicity, or as simply another element lending the monument an impressive effect. The profound sense of graceful balance in its measured proportions may also be interpreted as reflecting robust Athenian democracy.

Of course, much of the sculptural decoration has been weathered, defaced or destroyed in the Parthenon’s long history, but ancient and modern historical sources contribute to supply us with a general idea of the scenes depicted on its pediments, metopes, and inner frieze. The west pediment is believed to depict Athena and Poseidon in a gift-giving contest for ownership of Athens. Given the context, we would interpret this as documenting a significant Athenian event; not exactly the founding of Athens but the event that led to its gaining Athena as its goddess. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree whereas Poseidon provided a natural spring which disconcertingly issued forth salt water (since Poseidon was a sea god). Presumably, Athena won the contest because the ancient Athenians were farmers and not seafarers. Poseidon was reportedly furious and so flooded Athens. However, in light of the fifth-century context, we know that Athens had since become a great naval power; its fleet was after all its most powerful force against the Persians and the basis of its continued power in the Delian League. We therefore tend to interpret this pediment as something more like a friendly contest rather than a war between Athena and Poseidon. The Athenians probably chose this myth to include and appease not exclude Poseidon.

The east pediment portrays the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, another scene significant for the goddess’s city. The metopes around the outer building depict scenes of war: we see Greeks versus Amazons, Trojans, and centaurs, and the Olympian gods fighting the giants. We may assume that not only do these scenes symbolize the cultured self-control of the Athenians over primitive, inferior forces, but, given the context, we may note the link with the Persian wars and even the Delian League in relation to the Trojan War, a famous mythological instance of another victorious Greek alliance. The inner Ionian frieze appears to depict the Panathenaic festival in which the Athenians took part in a procession to the Parthenon in order to present the statue of Athena Parthenos with the peplos, a special robe made by the women of Athens. Some scholars have questioned whether this scene actually is a Panathenaea as depictions of non-mythological scenes in friezes is extremely rare, instead suggesting it is a depiction of the sacrifice of Athenian King Erechtheus’s daughter. Either way, this event seems to draw together all the threads of our interpretations from the historical, cultural and political context: the event celebrated the power and glory of Athens. Athenian colonies sent gifts and sacrifices for such a ceremonial procession, reinforcing the nationalism of Athens. It brought together Athenian citizens and, through ritual, linked them to their goddess Athena.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the Parthenon and its decorative program are perhaps not overly specific, the sculptures and friezes do not reference the Persian Wars or the Athenian Empire directly, but what we know of this historical context indeed forces us to posit a general nationalistic program, especially considering the size and location of the Parthenon. We may also garner further interpretive insight by also considering what the Parthenon is not. It is not a monument to a particular king or leader, at least not outwardly. There is no giant statue of Pericles, for instance, even if the sources suggest that he was the main instigator of the building work. Instead we see a respect for the gods, and the impressive artistry of the masons and sculptors of antiquity. We cannot help but interpret this as exhibiting a respect for craft, for the gods, and, in the graceful ease and balance of the monumental architecture, for democracy.

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm

Ancient Greek Pederasty: Love, Lust, Power & Pedagogy

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pederastic_sceneI wasn’t going to post this essay from my BA as it does not directly concern the arts or myth like most posts on this blog, but I reread it recently I think it is interesting for the interpretation of culture (which is related to arts and myth). I hope it is of interest to some. 😉

The ancient Greek discourse of pederasty challenges many of our modern conceptions of societal normalcy. An erotic relationship between a 12-17 year old boy and a mature man would be considered illegal not just in Australia but in most modern cultures today. As to whether this relationship was romantic, the primary sources are equivocal. It all depends on what one means by romance and what exactly would be convincing evidence of such. David Halperin and Michel Foucault have argued that the ancient Greek pederastic relationship had more to do with power than love, but I shall argue that this is by no means clear, or even particularly meaningful in itself.

That the social custom of ancient Greek pederasty existed is not at issue. We have Greek pottery painted with images depicting a young man (the eromenos or ‘beloved’)[1] being effectively courted by an older man (the erastes or ‘lover’),[2] in rare instances even going so far as to portray sex between them, in the form of intercrural intercourse.[3] We have the Symposium of Plato, exploring the nobility of ‘boy-love’. The works of the lyric poets, though fragmentary, clearly record the pederastic eroticism of ancient Greek writers. The institution seems to have arisen in the sixth century B.C.E., and was a much-lauded social custom for over a thousand years, disappearing only with the triumph of Christianity in the 5th century C.E.[4]

A difficulty with interpreting a social custom such as Greek pederasty is that a custom is not an event or a thing, but a collection of values, beliefs and experiences. These are, of course, not found expressed directly in archaeological evidence but have to be inferred from often disparate and fragmented discourse. Furthermore, a particular piece of evidence apparently concerning a social convention may only provide the opinion of an ancient individual or minority; it may not reflect the broader social conventions of the majority. We need to be highly cautious and skeptical when applying a meaning or explanation to human cultural institutions. Culture involves a large element of complex human experience that often defies explanation on the basis of logical thought or strictly practical necessity. For example, the practical purpose of clothing, and the available technologies for its construction, does not always or adequately explain a particular fashion or style. The reason why humans choose to do things of a cultural nature is not explained entirely by any one economic, social, political, personal, practical, or aesthetic reason, but by a combination of all of these, and even then, the custom, particularly if it is outside our modern experience, may still remain mysterious.

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet...

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet…

In order to investigate whether or not Greek pederasty entailed a romantic element, we need also to define what we mean by romantic. Immediately, we have a demonstration of the difficulties of interpreting human culture – it is not entirely clear what modern people mean by the social conventions surrounding romantic love. We can propose that romantic love involves the idea of a magical, individual, caring, consensual relationship between, usually, a man and a woman, necessarily involving some intimacy and sexuality, often leading to marriage. Yet this ‘definition’ itself sounds dubious for a number of reasons. For starters, these ideas are not often expressed so clearly – most of us ‘just know’ what we mean by romantic love. Furthermore, these conventions are clearly in flux especially with the relatively recent separation of marriage from strict religious principles and the rise in recognition of women’s rights; the paradigm is no longer that of the husband breadwinner, and his obedient housewife. Add to this the variation between different individual tastes and experiences of love and an account of romantic love becomes even more difficult to define.

Historically, we might also question what the ancient Greeks meant by love, aside from the issue of pederasty. C. S. Lewis and Morton Hunt, among others, have argued that romantic love, as we mean it today, is an ‘invention’ of Middle Ages Europe.[5] This idea initially sounds farfetched, but we are forgetting that romantic love is quite a specific concept, carefully ‘itemised’ in the poetry of the medieval troubadours, for instance. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[6] Indeed, we do not find conclusive proof of the unique, individual, mutual, anti-instrumental and uneconomic conception of love in any ancient source – not in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or hunter-gatherer myths, for example.

For the sake of the argument, I will nonetheless examine Greek pederasty from the point of view of modern romantic love, since this is usually what we mean by the term. Leaving aside the experiential quality of the relationship, we might first observe that the actual quantitative parameters of the relationship are distinctly different. The eromenos is always a 12-17 year old boy, who is on the cusp of puberty, “before the killjoy hairs begin to sprout” (Strato, Puerilities XXI).[7] The erastes, as far as we can tell, was always a mature man, often represented with a beard in pottery art.[8] Already, this does not coincide with our modern ideas of romantic love. Of course, a romantic homosexual relationship with partners of radically different ages is possible, but there is no ‘expiry date’ on the relationship like there is with pederasty. This is one of the characteristics that makes pederasty distinct from ancient Greek conceptions of homosexuality. (The ancient Greeks seemed to define adult homosexuals only as those who were the receptive partner in intercourse and who continued the custom beyond their youthful 17 years.)[9]

P0217In addition to age conventions, pederasty was distinct in that it was supposed to provide the eromenos with an older male mentor from which he could learn wisdom.[10] In this sense, ancient Greek pederasty resembles modern ideas of brotherly love or paternal mentorship. This idea is somehow familial, like a father-son bond, yet the erastes’ admiration of the eromenos’ physical beauty does not seem to fit the familial paradigm. Furthermore, Alcibiades, in Plato’s Symposium, exclaims, after a disappointingly chaste night with Socrates, “‘I had in no more particular sense slept a night with Socrates than if I had been with my father or my elder brother!’” (Plato, Symposium 219c). This suggests that the usual pederastic interactions did not resemble ancient familial relationships.

In terms of the distinct fundamental quality of love felt by those involved in a pederastic relationship, we must draw upon the literature, particularly the poetry, to investigate how this love was expressed. To begin with, there appears to be no extant poetry written in the eromenos’ voice – it is only the erastes speaking.[11] This itself may suggest something of the lopsided nature of the relationship. The mature man principally admires the eromenos for his physical qualities: his “girlish glance” (Anacreon, PMG 359), his “honey-coloured” skin (Strabo, Puerilities V), his “delicious bottom” (Rhianus, Puerilities XXXVIII). It seems that the eromenos was occasionally unwilling, flirtatious or downright manipulative towards his admirers, but also proud of his attractiveness and occasionally very willing: “‘That feels so good!’ you cry, ‘Do that again!’” (Asclepiades of Adramyttium, Puerilities XXXVI) – at least, according to the erastes-poet.

The erastes is also somewhat possessive and jealous of his boy – criticizing him for choosing bad or even just other lovers (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1305-16), or “slutting around” (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1271). This may be an element of shared wisdom – the eromenos learns to distinguish an honourable from a dishonourable man. Yet this seems to be a self-serving form of wisdom, if, for instance, the erastes is warding the eromenos away from other men simply to retain his own possessive bond. Plato’s Symposium is the principle repository of the higher nobility of pederastic love. Here it is conceived as a lofty, intellectual, heavenly type of love, in contradistinction to the earthly, physical, common type practiced in heterosexual relations (Plato, Symposium 180c-182a). However, one must question who exactly Plato is representing in this text as it seems to embody a variety of sometimes contradictory views on love, perhaps influenced by its setting at an aristocratic drinking party.[12]

From this, we gain the impression that a pederastic relationship was passionate, physical, probably quite superficial, but also rather one-sided. On the whole, this does not sound like romantic love, but a combination of paternal mentorship with fiery lust. (Perhaps one was ‘payment’ for the other.) The age disparity between partners has led David Halperin and Michel Foucault to propose that the relationship had probably more to do with power than love: an older mature man not exactly ‘taking advantage’, but enjoying his superiority over a younger male.[13] This theory holds some credence when one considers that it was the passive, receptive partner in intercourse that was considered disreputable in adult homosexuality.[14] We might also liken the relationship between man and boy with the relationship between man and wife, as girls were married from around 15 years in ancient Greece,[15] suggesting that the submissive role was assigned to all non-mature people, regardless of sex.

6821810_origPersonally, I find this theory highlights an important element of the relationship but does not explain what it was ‘all about’. It is clear that pederasty was quite distinct from modern ideas of homosexuality, pedophilia, marriage, mentorship, male camaraderie and romantic love. Ancient historians offer their own explanations of pederasty, claiming that the legendary lawgivers Lycurgus, in Sparta, and Solon, in Athens introduced it as a form of population control along with the seclusion of women, late marriages and nude athletics.[16] This suggests that the unique custom of exercising nude in the gymnasia was developed in order to encourage eroticism and pederasty.[17] However, while population control may be an ancient justification for the practice, revealing something about the expressed beliefs and ‘explanations’ of the time, the prospect that an ancient Greek adult male’s practical concern for population numbers was at all motivating him to notice the beauty of a 16-year-old boy’s “honeyed voice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) or “accommodating orifice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) does not sound credible. Almost as strange is the idea that he was salivating over boys in order to ‘express his power’.

When it comes to an alien tradition from an ancient time such as pederasty, the closest we can come to understanding this custom is by a kind of combined analogy. We have seen how the custom involved a homosocial interaction between an older and a younger man involving something approximating paternal wisdom and aesthetic admiration. Population control or power play can possibly explain aspects of this, but we must be wary. These practical and intellectual theories of justification either operate in an intellectual vacuum, divorced from the experienced reality of the ancient Greeks, or function as illustrations of a kind of subconscious experience of these customs. The former sheds next to no light on the social custom itself (only upon ancient or modern interpretations of it), while the latter explores the nature of human sexuality and social behaviour in general, as exemplified through ancient Greek customs rather than as an explanation of them. One might similarly interpret modern romantic love as a power play or as, say, an offshoot of the evolutionary drive to reproduce. This would not be incorrect as such but the experience of such love is hardly captured in such a view. Whatever its fundamentals, ancient Greek pederasty was certainly unique as a social custom.

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Anacreon PMG 359 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Plato Symposium trans. H. N. Fowler (1925), accessed 17 Sept 2013 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DSym.%3Asection%3D172a
Theognis Erotic Elegies 2 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Various Puerilities from The Greek Anthology 12 trans. Daryl Hine (Princeton, 2009)

Secondary Sources
Averill, J. R. and E. P. Nunley. 1992. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press.
Bing, P. and R. Cohen, trans. 1993. Games of Venus: an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. London: Routledge.
Campbell, J. Creative Mythology. 2001. Reprint. London: Souvenir Press, 1968.
Chong-Gossard, Dr. K. O. 2013. “Queering the Past: Pederasty in Ancient Greece.” Lecture. Parkville: Melbourne University, 3rd Sept.
Karras, R. M. 2000. “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities.” The American Historical Review 105: 1250-65.
Lear, A. and E. Cantarella. 2008. Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Morris, I. and B. B. Powell. 2010. The Greeks: History, Culture and Society. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Percy III, W. A. 1996. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Scanlon, T. F. 2005. “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece.” Journal of Homosexuality 49: 63-85.


[1] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[2] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[3] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[4] Percy 1996, 192.

[5] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21.

[6] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21; Campbell 2001, 175-86.

[7] Note: all references from the Puerilities (Greek Anthology 12) are listed under ‘Various’ in the Primary Works Cited due to the many ancient authors in the anthology.

[8] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 192.

[9] Percy 1996, 172, 173, 186, 188; Karras 2000, 1256.

[10] Morris and Powell 2010, 36-7.

[11] Bing and Cohen 1993, 93.

[12] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 10.

[13] Chong-Gossard 2013.

[14] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[15] Morris and Powell 2010, 28.

[16] Percy 1996, 71; Lear and Cantarella 2008, 8.

[17] Percy 1996, 84, 98; Scanlon 2005, 66, 72.

Written by tomtomrant

6 March 2014 at 5:24 pm

Might, Cunning and Order in Hesiod’s Theogony

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Is the narrative of the unfolding cosmos in Hesiod’s Theogony an explanation of the contemporary world of the Ancient Greeks?

Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the earliest extant ancient Greek texts, charts the creation and evolution of the cosmos and the genealogy of the gods up to the reigning supremacy of Zeus. The text, full of divergent narratives and genealogical minutiae, is not easy to interpret. As an explanation of the contemporary world of the Greeks it is particularly troublesome, not only in light of limited archeological evidence and scant contemporary literature, but the very nature of its mythology makes historical evaluation largely a matter of supposition. Saying this, there are some general reflections that can be made on the basis of the text, especially concerning the importance of power and intelligence in shaping the burgeoning social order; yet such reflections are hardly explanations in the usual sense of the word.

The Theogony’s social context is largely unknown or suppositional. Judging mainly from his Works and Days, Hesiod seems to have been a poor shepherd who lived around the late 8th or early 7th centuries B.C.E., in Boeotia in what is now Greece.[1] However, since Hesiod only makes one brief mention of himself at the beginning of the Theogony,[2] we must admit that his supposed biography is not exactly pertinent to our question. Similarly, we can garner a rough idea of the historical pre-history of Greece from archaeological data, yet this sheds very little light on the cultural context of the Theogony, coming as it does at the end of a period regarded by historians as a dark age due to the scarcity of artifacts.[3] The poem’s divergent structure, declamatory opening song to the Muses, and prevalence of formulaic phrases[4] suggest oral storytelling; the myths recounted are believed to be of incalculable age.[5]  There are a number of scholarly theories regarding possible Indo-European,[6] Hittite,[7] and Mesopotamian[8] influences with the appearance of common motifs such as father castration, yet most of these merely confirm the existence of ancient links with the Near East and do not help to explain the contemporary culture which probably absorbed these elements centuries earlier.

Importantly, the Theogony is not an account of ancient Greek society but a somewhat obscure semi-chronology of the early Greek pantheon; this is not societal exegesis but mythology. We must interpret this text in accordance with the spirit in which we understand the Greeks to have taken their mythology. We know from subsequent literature that Greek myth is not dogmatic or systematic; there is no single canonical version of the Greek mythic corpus.[9] Greek myths are rather like traditional folktales rife with deliberate and accidental integrations of cultural ideas, such as legendary episodes, political biases, moral postures, religious beliefs, philosophical reflections, social customs and elements of pure entertainment. In most instances, it is impossible to untangle the web of integrated ideas with any degree of certainty; such a task is compounded by the multiplicity of meanings that a single element can possess. However, we can attempt a cautious reflection on such ideas, provided we are wary that a broad thematic examination will yield merely a suggestion of early Classical Greek cultural sentiments and not explanations of society or lifestyle in concrete detail.

The Theogony has something of a confusing structure. It begins with an appraisal of the Muses, who meet with Hesiod on Mount Helicon, inspiring him to declaim the Theogony (Hesiod, Theogony 1-115); this is followed by the story of the evolution of nature and the gods as the developing offspring of Chasm and Earth, through the generation of the Titans, then on to that of the Olympian gods. The poem wavers between sections of chronological narrative, mostly describing the transitions between the generations (for example, the story of Cronus against Sky at 154-83 and Zeus against Cronus at 453-506), and sections of lengthy genealogical listings of the pairings of the various gods and their offspring (such as at 241-382 and 901-1019). The genealogical asides often distort the chronology of the poem by interspersing details of much later events, for example, the account of the birth of Medusa includes the details of her death during the later Heroic Age (Hesiod, Theogony 270-94). This has the effect of further confusing the focus and final meaning of the text, especially when, for example, Zeus is described as organizing his war against the Titans (Hesiod, Theogony 391-4) before his birth is narrated (Hesiod, Theogony 465-500). I think this confusion is largely incidental and a result of the oral background; the pre-existent structure of the basic myths recounted does not fit perfectly into the chronological sequence. Yet I believe this structural distortion reveals that Hesiod is deliberately re-structuring the myths, twisting them into a super-narrative that may reveal a paradigm pertinent to the contemporary Greek ethos. This re-structuring could be seen merely as the necessary form for a poem, or it could be interpreted as an early form of rationalization, similar to the attempt of a scientist or historian to catalogue thoughts in a stratified sequence.[10]

Either way, the Theogony seems to be an account of the establishment of order[11] – this much is obvious from the contrast between the opening primitivity of Chasm and his ilk, and the concluding ordered hierarchy of Zeus’ pantheon. However, the exact nature of this new order is not immediately apparent on first reading. We may initially be confused by apparent similarities between the old and new orders – there are ways in which the poem can be considered as a mere continuity rather than a progression. For example, both orders exemplify the power of brute force; Sky’s constriction of Earth (Hesiod, Theogony 156-61) and Cronus’ defeat of his monstrous father (Hesiod, Theogony 174-90) may not seem significantly different in sentiment from Zeus’ swallowing of Metis (Hesiod, Theogony 886-90) or his punishing defeat of Typhoeus (Hesiod, Theogony 853-68). Cunning or intelligence also plays a pivotal role on both sides: Earth deviously exhorts Cronus to attack his father (Hesiod, Theogony 163-6), Prometheus is cunning in his fire-theft (Hesiod, Theogony 565-6), while Zeus contrives to create woman (Hesiod, Theogony 567-84), and entices Obriareus, Cottus and Gyges to fight on his side in battle (Hesiod, Theogony 639-53). In fact, the entire Theogony can be seen as an alternation of acts of deceit with acts of force.[12] Scholar Stephanie A. Nelson argues that Hesiod attempts to change or gloss over elements of pre-existing myth in order to fit this plan;[13] for example, he tries to make Zeus’s devouring act – properly an act of force – into an act of cunning to fit the structure: “he [Zeus] deceived her [Metis’] mind by craft and with guileful words he put her into his belly” (Hesiod, Theogony 888-9).

But the Olympian ordering principle is not simply a continuity of the primitive brute force and cunning of the earlier gods; it is a new combining of these elements – this integration is the new order. The two principles of intelligence and force are united at last in the figure of Zeus.[14] This “puts an end to the continual overthrow of cunning through force and of force through cunning.”[15] The transformation is epitomized when Zeus swallows Metis and assumes the wisdom (Metis) unto himself (Hesiod, Theogony 886-90). This is a key coming together of opposites – not only of cunning and force but also of genealogy, of mother and father.[16] Recall, Zeus’s father and grandfather performed similar acts of constriction and absorption – but of their offspring not their wives (Hesiod, Theogony 156-61, 459-62). In fact, it is their wives who cunningly plot against them with the next generation (Hesiod, Theogony 163-6, 467-74). Zeus essentially stops (or contains) this endless cycle of parental violence and cunning patricide by absorbing the mother instead of the son. Zeus uses his unique combination of masculine force and feminine wisdom to re-order the cosmos hierarchically. He does this both genealogically, by taking multiple wives and filling out the hierarchy with his progeny, and diplomatically, by absorbing pre-existing gods into his new order through the distribution of honours (Hesiod, Theogony 884), the apportioning of roles and duties.[17] Nelson notes that Hesiod appears to pointedly avoid the myth that the gods decided their stations by casting lots – “[n]ot chance, but the combination of intelligence and force in Zeus are, for Hesiod, the sole source of divine order.”[18]

This divine order is reflected simultaneously in the natural cosmological order and the divine familial/political order under the reign of Zeus; in fact, it is possible to read these two ‘orders’ as not just concurrent but equivalent.[19] Zeus is not like the God of the Abrahamic traditions who positions himself wholly outside nature and time; Yahweh upholds a social morality considered to be intrinsically right – this is why he is so dogmatic. Zeus only appears in this way at the moments in which he is personified and acts on the world.[20] At other times, he appears to be guided by a nature which unfolds of its own accord.[21] This nature is often exemplified in subsequent texts by the prophesies of the Fates; in the Theogony the prophecies come from primeval Earth and Sky (Hesiod, Theogony 889), forces which Zeus has largely subjugated and assumed. These two aspects of Zeus are also represented in the narrative sections of the poem, where Zeus directs the action, and in the genealogical sections, where he is apparently produced and guided by a self-motivated unfolding.[22] And yet these two threads are represented as the same god; for the archaic Greeks, “the paradigmatically divine event [was] a natural one.”[23] Zeus’s laws, his morality, his deeds, his hierarchy, and his existence, his progeny, and the pre-existing nature of the world – are one.

This uniting of social, familial, and natural forces under a powerful intelligent ordering principle permits a greater philosophical flexibility than with a moralistic or dogmatic mindset. This flexibility is exemplified in the Theogony not only by Zeus’ multifarious identification and participation with the earlier generations of the gods, but by the inconsistencies which he takes in his stride. For example, at 520, Zeus is described as binding Prometheus and setting an eagle to tear our his liver every day. Then we are told this eagle was subsequently killed by Heracles, and Prometheus was freed (Hesiod, Theogony 525-27). We might be given to wonder here how all-powerful Zeus could be so defied. But Hesiod explains that such was “not against the will of Olympian Zeus,” (Hesiod, Theogony 527) who apparently allowed the eagle to be killed “so that the glory of… Heracles would become even greater than before” (Hesiod, Theogony 527-30). Here Zeus seems to be in conflict with himself, and yet we are assured of his consistency – we have switched from Zeus’ ‘acting’ aspect to his ‘happening’ aspect. This suggests that what appear to be inconsistencies are human, not divine notions; Zeus is playing an ordered game which humans will never completely understand, like nature and life itself in its often unpredictable mysteriousness.[24] Thus nature (and Zeus) is both contained within and beyond the Olympian order, itself exemplified by an intelligence which both subsumes and unfolds alongside natural processes – rather like the processes of empirical rationality, testing and ordering while unfolding in accordance with natural laws.

This orderly paradigm is, I believe, the principal explicating suggestion we can take from Hesiod’s Theogony concerning the archaic Greek world. It appears reflected in the new centralizing city-state of the polis, which could be seen as uniting political structure,familial household genealogy, and the sometimes mysterious processes of nature and time by means of a dynamic but evolving order, both powerful, intelligent and socially flexible.[25] This intelligent order may foreshadow the development of rationality in subsequent centuries, with the result that Hesiod’s text could be interpreted as midway between mythology and early philosophy.[26] However, this is only a reflection on the order of Zeus as exemplified in the mythology of Hesiod’s epic poetry; it is not an explanation of the ancient Greek world or its prevailing cultural ethos. For this, more corroborating evidence is required.

Bibliography

Primary sources:

Hesiod Theogony trans. G. W. Most, from Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia (Cambridge, MA, 2006).

Secondary sources:

Athanassakis, A. N. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, 2004).

Holscher, T. ‘Myths, Images, and the Typology of Identities in Early Greek Art’ in E. S. Gruen (ed.) Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean (Los Angeles, 2011).

Hine, D. Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns (Chicago, 2005).

Kirk, G. S. The Nature of Greek Myths (London, 1974).

Luce, T. J. The Greek Historians (London, 1997).

March, J. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths (London, 2008).

Most, G. W. Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia (Cambridge, MA., 2006).

Nelson, S. A. God and the Land (Oxford, 1998).

Pomeroy, S. B., Burstein, S. M., Donlan, W., Roberts, J. T., and Tandy, D. W. Ancient Greece: a political, social and cultural history, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 2012).

West, M. L. Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford, 1988).


[1] Pomeroy (2012), 120; Nelson (1998), 37.

[2] Hine (2005), 5.

[3] Pomeroy (2012), 57.

[4] March (2008), 8.

[5] Hine (2005), 7; Pomeroy (2012), 92-3.

[6] Athanassakis (2004), 3.

[7] Kirk (1974), 117; West (1988), xii; Pomeroy (2012), 59.

[8] Pomeroy (2012), 83.

[9] March (2008), 4.

[10] Luce (1997), 11; Holscher (2011), 50.

[11] Athanassakis (2004), 5.

[12] Nelson (1998), 46.

[13] Nelson (1998), 99.

[14] Nelson (1998), 43, 46, 99, 101; Athanassakis (2004), 6.

[15] Nelson (1998), 46.

[16] Nelson (1998), 101.

[17] Nelson (1998), 103.

[18] Nelson (1998), 103.

[19] Nelson (1998), 44, 105.

[20] Nelson (1998), 61, 62.

[21] Nelson (1998), 61, 62.

[22] Nelson (1998), 62.

[23] Nelson (1998), 62.

[24] Nelson (1998), 71.

[25] Pomeroy (2012), 104.

[26] Most (2006), lxvii; Hine (2005), 18.

Written by tomtomrant

25 August 2013 at 8:16 pm