To understand Ancient Greece you need to examine Homer and his works. The stuff is about to get exciting.
His great works of literature are important. How they affect us even today and most importantly, how they cast a shadow on the great captains of history.
Just wait until I tell how ‘The Iliad’ drove Alexander the Great to do some of his most stupid yet bravest feats.
The same ideas of nobility and bravery were the basis for us going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Tying it all together takes time, but it is worth it, I promise.
Homer is the accredited author of the two most celebrated and widely read stories ever told. The Iliad and The Odyssey are the first works of European literature. Little is known about the author.
Authorship is usually assigned to a Greek, blind poet named Homer. It is under this name that the works have been published for almost 3,000 years.
The stories however they came about owe a tremendous debt to a long tradition of unwritten, oral poetry. This practice preserved the memory of the two heroic tales of the Bronze Age, 400 years before the poems were published.
Imagine hearing the tales of Columbus discovering America or the battles of George Washington through a traveling storyteller. They would only be told only through song and memory and never read from a book.
Homer’s stories that were told again and again changing each time as they were passed down through history. This how The Iliad and The Odyssey were told. Multiple poets working in collaboration in succession through history. This is how the Afghans, a largely illiterate population hurdling towards the 10th century, tell stories.
Throughout history, Homer was always accredited as the author of the two stories. The Iliad is probably a work of his youth and the Odyssey a work of his old age. There is a difference of style, treatment of the characters. The idea of a man looking back on his life, as Odysseus does, is the reflections of an older author.
The Stories in their time
The historical and archaeological evidence states they were composed between 750 BC and 650 BC (Iron Age). They are set about 500 years before in the Mycenaean Greece in the twelfth century BC (Bronze Age). All the soldiers that Thucydides wrote about in the History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC- 404BC) knew the stories by heart. Just as school children today know the tales of the Bible.
The Greeks believed this this was a more glorious and sublime age. The gods of Olympus walked the earth and demigod men with superhuman powers did great deeds.
Both stories depict life and how it led to the great kingdoms of the Bronze Age. Many scholars throughout history believed that the Trojan War was a creation of Greek imagination.
In the late 19th century an Austrian archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann declared he had discovered the remnants of Troy. The site is a dozen miles from the Aegean coast in northwestern Turkey.
The site fits the geographical descriptions given of Homer’s Troy. Beneath all the poetic embellishment there may be some truth to the two stories.
The Importance of the Tales
The importance of the stories in history cannot be overstated. They affect us even today.
The influence on the kings and warriors of Greek was great. It was how they learned and remembered the meaning of “being noble” with the legends of Odysseus and Achilles as their guide.
“The Iliad” is a 2,700-year-old chronicle of jealousy, pride, cowardice, sacrifice, and war. At the center of the tale is Achilles. He is a demigod who chooses honor and glory and a young death over living a long, happy life into old age. He loves and fights fiercely using his superhuman strength and endurance to help his friends and kill his enemies.
He is the basis for almost all the great heroes of literature. In the end he is willing to sacrifice everything so his name will be remembered. In “Game of Thrones” he is Robert Baratheon, the King of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The perfect warrior who is a savage and good for nothing else.
Odysseus is a major player in the Iliad, but the lead character in the Odyssey. He is the best public speaker (a highly respected skill in Greek literature), he is brave and cunning. In “Game of Thrones” he is Eddard Stark, the head of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell.
Homer’s “The Odyssey” was retrofitted into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. “Gladiator” has elements of both stories in it. The modern blockbuster “Troy” with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Eric Bana as Hector (more about this tomorrow) is a retelling of The Iliad.
Elements of Greek mythology have appeared many times in culture and popular culture, even today. Concepts that utilized the Greek mythology from both The Iliad and The Odyssey can be seen in the television show “Heroes.” The concept of the new generation of gods overthrowing the old.
In the 2000 movie Unbreakable the superhero mythology goes even deeper. It is both a comic book story and a literary one. The narrative (the journey) is done with comic book tropes and themes. It is a character drama.
The movie is a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology. Bruce Willis’ performance as superhuman security guard David Dunn was “what if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?” His tale of the discovery of his powers and what to do next is a retelling of both The Iliad (the superhuman Achilles’ question of how to live) and The Odyssey (once Odysseus is home what to do next).
The importance of literary knowledge
I believe the greatest weakness of man is doubt. Not believing that something is possible can drain your energy. In Matthew 14:31 Jesus asked ”O you of little faith, why do you doubt me?” Whatever you believe it is natural to have fears grown from doubt.
Doubt is silenced by education and knowledge. Looking at the great authors and literary works of all time can answer many of life’s most pressing questions. Soldiers answer those same questions by risking your life in service to your country.
We are the most privileged people in the history of mankind. We have an important job- the education of our young people. Education is the way out of the darkness and into the light.
You don’t need an Ivy League education to know of the great works of history. They are available at your local library.
One of the greatest books I ever read was the Autobiography of Malcom X. I am not a left-wing radical, but I do enjoy reading everything I can get my hands on. I just finished President George W. Bush’s book “Decision Points.” Both books are great reading.
The book was published in 1965 and was the result of a collaboration between human rights activist Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley. In it, he talks about time in prison and how he self-educated himself using the prison library. He memorized a dictionary seeing it as a portable encyclopedia.
Later I was discussing the book with a friend and he told me about the vicious slave owner in the West lndies, Willie Lynch.
The slave-masters in the colony of Virginia were having trouble controlling their slaves. They sent for Mr. Lynch to teach them his methods. The word ”lynching” comes from his last name.
His methods were very simple, but they were diabolical. Keep the slave physically strong, but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master.
Keep the body, take the mind. A mind that is strong, educated and alert is the most dangerous weapon of them all.
By being aware of the great works of his history you develop a righteous mind. You see your world differently. It allows you to live a more meaningful and happier life. It is a journey I look forward to talking with all of you.