Notebook, 1993-


[From: Lévêque, Pierre. The Birth of Greece. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. / DISCOVERIES. 1994 [Pierre Lévêque is a professor of Greek history at the Université de Franche-Comté, in Besançon. In addition to his scholarly histories of Greece, he has published several popular surveys of ancient Greek culture as well as guidebooks to Greece and Sicily. His most recent published works are about the history of religion.]

Birth of Greece [cont.]

The Labors of Heracles
The Achaeans carried with them not only jewelry, but also foodstuffs, wine, and ores. They returned with tin, an essential component of bronze that could be attained only in the East or in Italy, the terminus of the great western bronze trading routes. The Achaeans also coveted the fine trees they had found in Lebanon and on the Chalcidice Peninsula, in the northwest corner of the Aegean. [p. 36]

These voyages are dimly remembered in Greek myth and legend, in the heroic sagas of Perseus, Bellerophon, Heracles, and Jason. Heracles, for example, was said to have already been a celebrated hero when his cousin Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, imposed on him the now-famous series of twelve labors. The first of these was to bring the king the hide of the Nemean lion, a fabulous beast living on nearby Mount Tretus. Subsequent labors took Heracles out into the middle of the ocean, to the mythical island of Erytheia--where he was to slay the monstrous, triple-bodied Geryon--and even as far as Africa, there to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides, the daughters of Atlas. Clearly his was the saga of an early Achaean adventurer and conqueror.

Another early explorer is commemorated in the story of Jason and his Argonauts, who voyaged to Colchis, on the Black Sea, to recovered the Golden Fleece and thereby guarantee the prosperity and power of the Achaean kingdoms. Jason never would have triumphed without the love or Medea, daughter of the king of Colchis.

In metaphor, these legends recall the enterprising early mariners who opened up new territories to Greek commerce. They are, moreover, splendid adventure stories filled with the romance of travel, passion, and miraculous exploits that have delighted generations of listeners for nearly three millennia.

The Myth and Reality of the Trojan War
Another series of stories with a background in historical fact has to do with the Trojan War, fought in about 1200 BC. These tales were woven into the epics attributed to Homer--the Iliad and the Odyssey--some 500 years [p. 37] later. There can be little doubt that the events Homer describes actually did take place, especially since archaeologists have unearthed at the site of Troy--in northwest Asia Minor, south of the Dardanelles--evidence of violent destruction dating to the very years in question. Yet it is obvious that Homer's account includes much that is pure fiction. Some authorities consider the character of Helen to be a later addition and argue that the Greeks' need to rescue her from her Trojan captivity is a smokescreen meant to disguise an act of naked aggression. In any case, the Iliad is as much a tale of love and personal revenge as it is of military exploits, and we can only speculate about the Greeks' real motives.

It has been suggested that Troy was of strategic importance to the Achaeans as it dominated the land route to market to the east, a less hazardous passage than the water route through the Dardanelles. Their real interest was doubtless much simpler. Excavations have revealed that the city was extraordinarily wealthy, owing to its ties to the interior of northern Anatolia--and thus with the Hittite empire--and to various Mediterranean ports. The Achaeans had no desire to colonize Troy; they were interested solely in plunder. Their destruction of the city was so complete that the site was subsequently uninhabited for centuries. Whatever else it may have been, the coalition of Achaean princes under the leadership of Agamemnon was above all a pillaging operation against one of the richest cities of the eastern Mediterranean.

There were other occasions when the Achaeans banded together in the pursuit of a common goal. Shortly after their Trojan adventure, they united to close off the Peloponnese from the mainland by building a massive wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow stretch of land connecting the Peloponnese with the [p. 38] rest of mainland Greece. But they were never again as powerful as at the time of their siege of Troy, when they felt secure enough to be absent from their own kingdoms for years on end and wage war on the very border of the Hittite empire.

In this period the Greeks were truly masters of the sea, as is clear from Homer's Odyssey, a maritime epic detailing the adventures of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, on his homeward journey after the fall of Troy. For ten years he was swept from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, suffering shipwreck, falling under the spell of successive enchantresses, and finding himself obliged to navigate some of the most dangerous waters then known. At the end of the saga--a virtual catalogue of the perils and exotic creatures to be met with at sea--he [p. 39 ] arrives home in Ithaca to reclaim his kingdom and rejoin his wife, Penelope.

According to Homer, Zeus and Hera Reigned Supreme over the World of Gods and Mortals
The gods mentioned in the Linear B tablets found on Crete and in mainland Greece constitute a pantheon similar to the one described by Homer and still revered in the later city-states. With the exception of Apollo, Leto, and Aphrodite, virtually all of the principal gods were already represented, though not necessarily in the same roles they would play later [Poseidon, for example, is mentioned more frequently than Zeus ]. It was a confusing assembly of major and minor deities, which can only be explained as a blending of Mycenaean and Cretan traditions.

On their migration into Greece, the Indo-European settlers who came to be known as Achaeans, or Greeks, had naturally brought their own gods with them. Theirs was an extremely socialized religion, one perfectly adapted to the need of these semi-nomadic peoples to group together. It extolled the virtues of absolute authority, military prowess, and fecundity, and in their various ways its deities personified such qualities. The religion of the indigenous peoples conquered by the Achaeans was altogether different, featuring a variety of fertility cults and a concern for the fate of the soul after death.

From the confrontation between these two belief systems was synthesized a new religion that was apparently serviceable enough then but is wholly illogical to us now. Its many mother-goddesses are all derived from Crete, whose Neolithic and Early Bronze Age cults had been established to appease the hidden powers governing the life force and to ensure the prosperity of flocks and herds and the ripening of crops. This is made clear by the large number of terra-cotta idols depicting the goddess of nature, or the mother-goddess, that have been discovered in Greek tombs. Following an important tradition dating back to Neolithic time, she occasionally is accompanied by a daughter goddess and her divine male child.

Cretan concern for the gods of the underworld gave rise to cult practices that prefigure the elaborate mystery [p. 40] ceremonies developed on the mainland, the most famous of which were those associated with Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone [or Kore] at Eleusis, a city located some fourteen miles northwest of Athens.

Significantly, the words "mystery" and "initiate" are part of the vocabulary of the Linear B tablets. Through initiation, one might be placed in touch with the forces of the underworld. The Greeks adopted and expanded upon these beliefs. In classical mythology, Zeus is said to have appointed as judges in the underworld three kings noted for their wisdom: Minos, Rhadamanthys, and Aeacus. It was they who decided whether the souls of the dead deserved eternal bliss in the Elysian Fields [a Cretan term] or were to be condemned to eternal torture in Tartarus [a region believed to be far below Hades].

Great princes were laid to rest in tombs elaborately furnished with treasures for use in the afterlife. It was believed that if properly buried and appeased with regular sacrifices they would continue to protect their subjects in death. In this way such figures became larger than life, the objects of local cult worship. In this context the tablets even speak of a "threefold hero," one whose powers are incalculable. From such beliefs it is but a short step to the all-important concept of the hero in the Greece of the city-states. [p. 42]

Omnipotent Goddesses
Though the Achaeans preserved some traces of their own traditional religious thinking, they wholeheartedly adopted the new deities they encountered in Crete. In no time they were finding goddesses everywhere, as personifications of natural phenomena, guarantors of [p. 43] fertility, and tutelary presences in this world and the next. The marriage of Zeus and Hera, as the summit of the Greek pantheon, is especially telling. It was a discordant union at best, to judge from the quarrels and wrangling we read of in mythology. And small wonder, for Zeus was Indo-European in origin--the supreme god, the god of thunder and of the bright sky to which he owed his name--while Hera was a goddess of the Mediterranean.

Later myths tell us strange tales about Zeus, revealing that his was a difficult birth, that his childhood was filled with danger, even that he died and was resurrected as a young god of nature. We even get a glimpse of him dancing as an adolescent in an attempt to summon the deepest powers of the earth. In these myths his relationship to Hera is highly contradictory; sometimes she is his sister, other times she is variously his mistress, his wife, or even his mother. None of this is surprsing, once we recognize that the Greeks found it necessary to combine in a single diet the divine child--the imperiled offspring of so many Mediterranean goddesses--and the all-powerful, thunder-wielding father-god in the prime of life. [p. 44]

The Collapse of the Palace Culture
The world of the Mycenaean palaces came to a sudden end about 1200 BC. The great unfortified complex at Pylos was the first to fall, soon to be followed by all the other palaces on the mainland and in Crete. Writing disappeared, as did the sophisticated art forms that characterized Mycenaean culture. In place of palaces were built only a scattering of more modest settlements. Why this occurred is a matter of continuing scholarly debate. [p. 45]

Four centuries of poverty and disorder known as the Dark Ages [roughly 1200-800 BC] followed the destruction of the palace culture. But gradually there arose a number of organized communities--the so-called Homeric kingdoms--and by the end of this period these had evolved into true cities. With them, the Greek world was ready to experience a second apogee, an era marked by colonial expansion and a wealth of creative advances. [p. 47]

The collapse of the palaces and the ordered society they represented may have been caused in part by earthquakes in part by revolts by subjugated native people, Yet the main disruptions appears to have been the immigratin of the Dorians, a people whose homeland was in northern Greece, on the slopes of the Pindus Mountains. [p. 48]

[Lévêque, Pierre. The Birth of Greece. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. / DISCOVERIES. 1994]



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