Why does Greek mythology ostensibly lack many of the "survivalistic" traits of Jewish holy texts?
January 8, 2007 5:36 PM   Subscribe

Why does Greek mythology ostensibly lack many of the "survivalistic" traits of the Bible?

Since reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, I have viewed religious texts as a survival tools -- that is, books that reinforce a set of beliefs that help a particular tribe or society survive. For instance, most of the stories of the Old Testament seem to fulfill a particular need for the Israelites, by providing comfort, understanding, or order. Some examples I notice in the Bible include the way it consoles human beings who have lost loved ones by promising to reunite them in the afterlife; makes a difficult life easier to survive by promising paradise at the end, and keeps people from behaving immorally or counter to the tastes of the tribal leaders through the threat of hell.

However, Pinker's theory does not seem to hold as strongly for the mythology of the nearby Greeks. There is less moralizing, and punishment or reward in the afterlife are hardly emphasized. Does this mean that the Greeks were less "needy" in terms of spiritual comfort or regulation, or was there some other cultural difference? Did Greek religion have a completely different motive? Feel free to prove me wrong on my interpretation of either the Hebrew or Greek texts.
posted by wireless to Religion & Philosophy (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't cracked my Greek Mythology textbook open in quite a while. However, I recall quite a few instances of 'punishment' tales, such as Arachne and other victims of divine metamorphosis. Not much need for a threat of a future hell, if the gods are present to zap you into another form for having been naughty and/or full of hybris.
posted by CKmtl at 5:52 PM on January 8, 2007

I may be a bit rusty, but I don't remember any kind of reassuring afterlife depicted in the Old Testament. All I remember was the rather unsettling idea of Sheol, which was like Hades in that you weren't reunited with your family at all you didn't even really persist, you were just this sort of shadow flitting around in darkness without any memory or identity. What did I miss?
posted by Hildago at 5:57 PM on January 8, 2007

Go read some Hesiod. There is a lot of moralizing, punishment or reward in the afterlife.
posted by lovejones at 6:04 PM on January 8, 2007

The story of oedipus suggests one ought not kill one's father and have sex with one's mother. This is good survivalistic advice.
posted by extrabox at 6:13 PM on January 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the good points raised.

lovejones: thanks for your interesting point. I'm wondering, though: are you referring to the Theogony? I understand this to be one of the most important stories in Greek mythology, and I don't sense much moralizing in it. Throughout the story, there seems to be no clear force of good or of evil, as would be found in a Biblical story like that of Cain and Abel. The battles, such as that between the Titans and the Olympians, seem much more like typical human conflict, where both sides have components of good and bad. I feel the Theogony glorifies excellence and skill, but not really morality. I'm also wondering which references to punishment/reward in the afterlife you are referring to.

Extrabox, valid point, but do you really feel that the story of Oedipus was a moral tale?
posted by wireless at 6:20 PM on January 8, 2007

Heh. Hesiod says a lot of things, if you know what I mean...
posted by oats at 6:27 PM on January 8, 2007

The makeup of hades, elysian fields, etc are a significant part of greek mythology and other pagan belief systems. I think your question might be a bit biased. Certrainly the Christian scriptures aren't very big on heavenly rewards as much as how these things are preached to the layman.

If anything, in greek mythology the afterlife was a given. Granted it was the grim fate of life in Hades except for those who qualified for the elysian fields.

Also, isnt survavlist literature just a re-hash of Dawkin's meme?
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:29 PM on January 8, 2007

I think you've got some concepts mixed up. AFAIK, there isn't a heavy emphasis on the afterlife and paradise in Judaism. Those are preached more extensively in the New Testament of the Bible and thus irrelevant in a discussion of the Israelite tribe.

However, I think the concept of religious texts as a survival tool is still valid in that many ancient texts contain stories, anecdotes, and rules that guided and helped provide order to ancient peoples. It's one thing for a ruler or tribal leader to arbitrarily define codes/laws but if those some rules are the grounded in the religion, it's harder to refute, ie. "These are not my laws but the will and laws of our deity."

In that respect, I'm sure there are many examples to draw from in Greek Mythology. Don't narrow your research to the mythology and activities of the Greek Pantheon (gods). The Greek gods seemed to be tapped for explanations of natural and supernatural phenomena (macro-events) than role models for survival or proper behavior. It's my understanding that the Greeks drew more inspiration and guidance from the more mortal heroes: Odysseus, Heracles, etc.
posted by junesix at 6:37 PM on January 8, 2007

wireless, Works and Days is what I was thinking of in particular. Let me see if I can dig up some relevant passages...
posted by lovejones at 6:42 PM on January 8, 2007

I'd recommend you pick up a copy of Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths." It's not great dramatic reading, but rather he breaks down the symbolism of the mythology.

What struck me was Graves' assertion that all the rape in Greek myth was preparing and socializing a populus for a patriarchial society after having been dominated by a matriarchial society. He traces the evolution of the tales in that way (of both heroes and gods).

I remember vaguely from school my teacher saying that Greek myth was morality play more than moral code. The stories approximating celebrity tabloids of different cults elevating and dissing their favored god or goddess with their spin. I could be misremembering that.

Now if only Katie Holmes was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a bull.
posted by Gucky at 6:50 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Obviously the Old and New Testaments are two very different books written at different times by different people. One of the great similarities though is that both groups (the Hebrews and the early Christians) are coming from a victimized background. The Old Testament is all about the Jews and their hardships and it's important to remember that the early Christians were essentially a small sect who's ideas eventually won out against competing cults in the uh... marketplace of mythology, but only after years of not only not being taken seriously, but of being down right persecuted.

Obviously this culture of victimization plays a huge role in these two group's ideas of the afterlife. (Which can be crudely distilled down to: life sucks now, what with being thrown to the lions and all, but won't it be great when I'm dead and in Heaven?!)

By contrast the Hellenistic societies are mostly stable and prosperous for centuries and their myths reflect this - so much so that much of their pantheon was adopted by the Romans.

I guess the things that I notice most is that rather than divide the world between life on earth and an eternal life in some mystical realm the myths of the Greeks are much more focused on the supernatural (Gods, heroes, monsters, whatever) interceding in the real world. There wasn't so much a "here (earth) and there (afterlife)" in the Greek mythologies like their are in Abraham religions.

The delineation between life and death is something that the monotheistic religions obsess over while the Greeks and Romans seemed to have a much more easy come, easy go treatment toward the afterlife.
posted by wfrgms at 6:51 PM on January 8, 2007

The reason why a now dead religion has fewer survivalistic traits than a current religion is that if it had more it would still be around. Ignoring that circular logic for a moment...

Religion tends to piggy-back on the "helping people with similar DNA to yours helps you" behaviour. As such, meerly being able to establish easily, through a set of stated beliefs, that you're similar to someone has a small benefit. The flavour is largely irrelivent.

And yes, early religions tended to have a more "pure" motive of wanting to explain the universe. Current popular religions (ie; the big three that are actually flavours of one) were created in a way that was specifically rigged to subjigate women and take over other religions -- their replication techniques were a primative version of Scientology or Thelema, though of course they thrived at the time.

One-god religions, where powerful groups of people proclaim ownership of siad religion, as especially susceptable to delibrate tampering designed to increase the power of those at the top.
posted by krisjohn at 6:52 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

...but do you really feel that the story of Oedipus was a moral tale?

Of course it is. Oedipus makes no sense otherwise; his actions are inexplicable. That's not to say that Sophocles gives us an answer. There's a sense in which Oedipus is doomed from the outset. But he's doomed because of his actions, even if they are fated.

More generally, the Greek tragedies deal extensively with conflicts between obligations to the family and obligations to the state. Take Aeschylus' Oresteia. That trilogy is about nothing if not what one ought to do when faced with conflicting duties. Additionally, the Eumenides establishes the legitimacy of, among other things, trial by jury. The conduct of the heroes and the gods in these and the other Greek tragedies are supposed to impart moral lessons to the audience. The story of Ajax, for example, and the tragedy that bears his name, shows us which set of characteristics are most valued by Athenians. Odysseus gets Achilles' armor even though he's not the strongest warrior. This shows that Athenians value tactics and trickery over brute strength -- although this might have been obvious from their choice of Athena as their patron deity as well.

Homer is full of similar examples. Why did the Trojan War happen? Short answer: because Paris violated xenia. Similarly, Odysseus has license to slaughter the suitors in his house because they, too, have violated xenia. Xenia isn't the only theme. Most obviously, there are lots of notions of glory and honor bound up in those stories as well.
posted by smorange at 7:11 PM on January 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

Many myths enforce cultural codes that ordered the life of the ancient greeks: supplication (Achillees), guest/host relations (Odysseus' return), universal dignity (Antigone), humility (Icarus), as well as enforcing family mores (most every tragedy is a family tragedy).

Their worldview of the supernatural was not so based upon reward/punishment and supernatural judgment, but rather upon fate and reputation. The largest threat to them was war, shame, and overweening ambition -- their myths prepare them for all of these.

This is far from the binary good/evil - sin/redemption of the world's dominant religions.

I think a good exercise to try and reorient yourself would be to compare/contrast the reactions Job and Oedipus have to their misfortunes (especially in Oedipus at Colonus).
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:28 PM on January 8, 2007

Smorange has it.
posted by klangklangston at 7:36 PM on January 8, 2007

The delineation between life and death is something that the monotheistic religions obsess over while the Greeks and Romans seemed to have a much more easy come, easy go treatment toward the afterlife.

This isn't obviously true. Achilles charges into battle, knowing that it will cost him his life. Why does he do this? While the Greeks didn't believe he'd go to paradise, they did believe that timé and kleos, both of which he'd earn, were very important. To Achilles, their acquisition is worth certain death. This is because both of these lend their possessors a certain kind of immortality. So the Greeks did worry about the afterlife, so long as we understand what the afterlife meant for them. On the Christian side of things, much of Christian popular culture, including specific beliefs about the afterlife, derives from later theology, not the Bible. It's not clear to me that monotheistic religions -- throughout history -- obsess over the afterlife that much more than the Ancients did. I can't comment on other religions, mind you, as I haven't read enough of their texts and I'm not familar with their traditions.

wireless, you might be interested to hear that Joseph Campbell, the most significant scholar in this area, argues that all mythology springs from the fear of death and the desire to avoid it. This strikes me as, at the very least, entirely plausible. If you're interested in this stuff, I recommend his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is a great place to start.

And yes, early religions tended to have a more "pure" motive of wanting to explain the universe. Current popular religions (ie; the big three that are actually flavours of one) were created in a way that was specifically rigged to subjigate women and take over other religions -- their replication techniques were a primative version of Scientology or Thelema, though of course they thrived at the time.

Have you read the Iliad? The part where Achilles and Agamemnon establish that women are, essentially, trophies to be fought over? Prior to the war, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to embark on it; Clytemnestra kills him for it, I'll grant you that; but Orestes kills her, and he's vindicated. Clytemnestra goes down as the villian. How about the Odyssey? Odysseus gets laid several times while his wife has to wait years for him to return. I'd say the pseudonymous books of the New Testament are worse for women, but your assertion is unsupported nonsense.
posted by smorange at 8:01 PM on January 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

What we have now as Greek mythology is at best distantly related to the forms in which it was the object of popular, believing worship.

A look at Hinduism might be instructive. As a monolith of cultural anthropology it has a lot of similarities to Greek mythology -- lots of anthropomorphic gods with lots of backstory. In the life of an observant, believing Hindu it is very different indeed -- a lot less on the "mythology" and a lot more on other aspects of the devotion, as well other aspects of cultural overlay like the Caste system.

And, as with Hindus, I suspect that the mythos themselves were always understood by the contemporaries (at least the elites) to partake as much of racial / cultural / literary narrative (and regulation of society going foward) as of literal supernatural truth. One of the real novelties -- and, I suspect, selective strengths -- of monotheism is its ability to foster a much more thorough degree of faith among its notional adherent. A much higher percentage of Christians believe as a matter of true historical fact in the virgin birth and ressurection of Jesus Christ than I suspect any Greeks ever believed that in any of the mythos as actual historical fact.
posted by MattD at 8:33 PM on January 8, 2007

The Bible is not a survival guide, but a tool that helps to organize a class system, which emphasizes producing more offspring under control of the state religion, which spreads the religion over those who don't utilize these techniques. Ancient Greek mythology is more about making sense of nature and freedom, or as Nietzsche would say, a system of right versus right embodied by noble action, rather than an absolute right versus wrong embodied by opposition to sin (conformity).

The entire history of the Old Testament is currently under revision by the way.
posted by Brian B. at 8:38 PM on January 8, 2007

One of my high school teachers said long ago (I don't remember the reference, sorry) that the quality of the afterlife is inversely proportional to the quality of a society's life. In other words, societies that endured a hard life tended to picture an idyllic afterlife of ease and plenty, while societies that had it pretty good didn't dwell so much on how things were gonna be better in the next world. They tended to assume that things would be more or less the same, or even somewhat worse, in the next life.

So the people of the ancient Middle East, trying to scratch out a living in the harsh desert, soothed and encouraged themselves with the promise of a lovely afterlife. The Greeks, living in an easier environment, tended to focus on matters of this life rather than the next. That might be a practical and/or environmental reason for the difference in mythology.
posted by Quietgal at 8:44 PM on January 8, 2007

The Bible is essentially a political document to tell Jews of their special status, how to behave, and how they are justified.

It is not a random collection of random old stories meant to illustrate how the world and society work.

From False testament: archaeology refutes the Bible's claim to historyHarper's Magazine, March, 2002 by Daniel Lazare
The reason had to do with the nature of the northern kingdom's expansion. As Israel grew, various foreign cultures came under its sway, cultures that sacrificed to gods other than Yahweh. Pluralism became the order of the day: the northern kings could manage such a diverse empire only by allowing these cultures to worship their own gods in return for their continued loyalty. The result was a policy of religious syncretism, a theological pastiche in which the cult of Yahweh coexisted alongside those of other Semitic deities.

When the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians, the Jewish priesthood concluded not that Israel had played its cards badly in the game of international politics but that by tolerating other cults it had given grave offense to the only god that mattered. Joining ,a stream of refugees to the south, the priests swelled the ranks of an influential political party dedicated to the proposition that the only way for Judah to avoid a similar fate was to cleanse itself of all rival beliefs and devote itself exclusively to Yahweh.

"They did wicked things that provoked Yahweh to anger. They worshiped idols, though Yahweh had said, `You shall not do this.'" Such was the "Yahweh-alone" movement's explanation for Israel 's downfall. The monotheistic movement reached a climax in the late seventh century B.C. when a certain King Josiah took the throne and gave the go-ahead for a long-awaited purge. Storming through the countryside, Josiah and his Yahwist supporters destroyed rival shrines, slaughtered alien priests, defiled their altars, and ensured that henceforth even Jewish sacrifice take place exclusively in Jerusalem, where the priests could exercise tight control. The result, the priests and scribes believed, was a national renaissance that would soon lead to the liberation of the north and a similar cleansing there as well.
The whole old testament was "compiled" at this time. Parts may have been cooked up as need be because people at that time did not have the sense of historical provenance that modern scholars do.l
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:50 PM on January 8, 2007

Brian B. , you've obviously missed out on the book of Colossians. The whole book is a manifesto on subverting the statist system of the day. I'd recommend Walsh and Keesmaat's Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire for a more thorough treatise. And as far as raising more kids goes, Paul goes directly against the class system of the day (mandatory marriage) by saying it's better to not be married. But beyond the more obvious stuff in Paul's letters, a lot of Jesus's recorded teachings are anti-power (re: class systems): turn the other cheek (and hit me with your fist which shows were are equals, not the back of your hand which is a sign of my inferiority to you); blessed are the meek; if a man asks you for your cloak, also give him your tunic (which shames him with your nakedness); if a man asks you to walk a mile, go two (thus undermining the military structure which allowed a soldier to force someone to carry his pack for one mile), and many more. Don't forget, the language used in "the gospel" of a prince of peace, a savior of all mankind, the son of god, heck, even the word gospel all come from Caesar's propaganda machine. What's more anti-classism than subverting the roman empire using its own words?

If, of course, by the Bible, you mean modern Christianity, that's something else entirely.

Quietgal, that doesn't explain Christianity springing up in the middle of an extremely harsh and oppressive environment. Yes, there are elements of afterlife in Jesus's and Paul's teaching, but on the whole, their messages are more about about life right then: the cloak and cheek and mile references above; all the teachings on marriage; interpersonal relationships; spreading good news in this lifetime, taking care of widows and orphans, seeking justice for the oppressed, loving one's neighbor, etc. Especially since the two major teachers in thsi new religion came form a Jewish heritage, which had very limited mythology of the afterlife (very little of which even got written down until the Talmud, post-Christianity).

Back to the main topic. My problem with Joseph Campbell has always been the nigh-arrogant anthrocentrism that assumed that there couldn't have been any actual supernatural events in history. Not that the anthropological method is unsound, or unworthy as a field study. But I've always thought that it ignores the possibility of myth merely stemming from history (Of course, this is the failing and the strength of any science, it ignores the possibility of the supernatural. Which is why I think it doesn't hurt to at least look beyond science for answers when the possibility for factual anomoly exists) I mean, what if the Israelites(or the Greeks, or the Hindus, or any ancient culture for that matter) didn't create the myths to explain the world. What if the myths were facts, too?
posted by The Mauve Frog at 10:08 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mauve Frog: While that's a whimsical path to consider, and the dangers of taxonomies and definitions in science are always there, the likely answer is not Thomas Hobbes' one that there were miracles, but now they don't happen anymore. The likely answer is that like folklore that's being expanded right now, the myths were legends that sprang out of brief moments of fact and were wrapped with heavy layers of exageration. And even that may be more credulity than most astrological stories are due.

"A much higher percentage of Christians believe as a matter of true historical fact in the virgin birth and ressurection of Jesus Christ than I suspect any Greeks ever believed that in any of the mythos as actual historical fact."

Disagree. When you look at the writings of Plato, or when you look at the contemporary histories of Alexander, the Hellenistic Greeks (and later Macedonians) very much believed that the Iliad was a historical document. They believed that the fall of Troy had happened nearly exactly like Homer said (aided by a lot of non-Homeric echoing of the same stories, and the fact that, y'know, there was a Troy that was sacked). It's just that, aside from a bit of moral instruction and great entertainment, the intercessionary model of gods had waned quite a bit. I mean, Plato's practically a monotheist. And Romans certainly believed in the necessity of worship, of both whatever emperor they were required to venerate and their lares. You can make individual arguments about the piety of ancient people, but I'd argue the same is true for Christians today. I'd say that most that believe the world is 6000 years old do so in a vague, rarely-cconsidered way, just like Romans viewed the divinity of Caesers.
posted by klangklangston at 11:03 PM on January 8, 2007

Mauve frog, the religion was adopted by generations of European nobility, which essentially binded people to a mass conformity under a political priest class. It didn't use it for its opinions, but for its dogma, fables, myths, curses and promises. It ended up to be a message to the poor, which is assumed to be a permanent social condition, providing for each other in their poverty.

Controlling sexuality is the key to the cheap labor breeding program it eventually became. They had what they needed, emphasizing a cursed purpose while on earth that replenishes it with people in sorrow. Then they subjugated women with a few lesser passages, appealing to patriarchy always. But if you can seriously argue against marriage using the Bible in this day and age, then you've made my point about its hidden messages. The joke wasn't on everybody, but nothing usurps the ancient concepts of freedom, justice (rights) and equality like submissive peace, artificial love and class charity does.
posted by Brian B. at 11:43 PM on January 8, 2007

Slight aside, but you may be interested: Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, first chapter, famously compares the Old Testament and the Homeric epics as literature.
posted by londongeezer at 11:52 PM on January 8, 2007

Based on this thread, I picked up Karen Armstrong's A History of God over the holidays. I'm only halfway through, and, aside from some very casual Hebrew school during my elementary years, it constitutes the whole of my religious education, so you'll have to excuse me if I say anything particularly dim-witted.

According to Armstrong, in the earliest parts of the Old Testament, the Hebrew god Yahweh comes across more as a jealous tribal god looking out for his own people than The One True God. The difference between the older Babylonian gods and Yahweh is that their acts were performed in a sacred and mythological frame of reference, but He took action in the current lives of his followers (the Exodus being a prime example). If that thought doesn't provide comfort and understanding, than I don't know what would.

So, I don't think the theory as a whole (religous texts as survival tools) is a bad one, but perhaps the criteria you're using to evaluate it are a bit narrow. I'd also consider the surety that comes of knowing you have a deity on your side. Athens had Athena, Paris (the Trojan, not the city) had Aphrodite, and the Israelites had Yahweh.
posted by natabat at 12:05 AM on January 9, 2007

First, let me put my cards on the table. I think the theory of religious texts as survival tools is intellectually worthless. It treats religion in purely functional terms -- i.e. as a survival kit; a set of tools serving particular purposes -- and, in doing so, ignores the irrational aspects of religious belief, the presence of conflict and ambiguity in religious texts, the role of ritual in religious worship -- almost everything, in fact, that makes religion distinctive and interesting and worth studying. It is also fundamentally mistaken in assuming that there is a single model of 'religion' against which all the major religions of the world can be measured. The underlying problem with Pinker's theory is that while he claims to be talking about 'religion' he is actually talking about the particular variety of religion with which he, as an American academic, is most familiar: i.e. the monotheism of the Old and New Testaments, as received in the Christian tradition.

OK, that's my point of view. Now for your question. The trouble with comparing the Old Testament to Greek and Roman mythology is that you are not comparing like with like. The Old Testament is a set of sacred texts; it has canonical status, and its form and content are very stable. The Greek and Roman myths are a set of stories; they have been the subject of repeated retellings and literary appropriations, and their form and content are very unstable. (Robert Graves's The Greek Myths, which somebody cited above, is a perfect example of this. It is in no sense a sourcebook of Greek mythology; it is Graves's own imaginative retelling of the stories.)

For a better comparison, you need to get away from the familiar Greek and Roman myths (which are very much an elite literary tradition) and look instead at popular religion in the Greek and Roman worlds. There is plenty of literature on this topic; some of the heavyweight scholarly books include:

Jon Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion (1987)
Robert Turcan, The Cults in the Roman Empire (1997)
Mary Beard et al., Religions of Rome (1998)
Robert Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (2006)

Or if you want something more accessible:

E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (half a century old, but still a classic)
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians
Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods (2001)

(By the way, you might also enjoy Mary Beard's blog, which is always entertaining reading and often touches on questions of ancient and modern religion.)
posted by verstegan at 2:58 AM on January 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

Thanks, verstegan, for saving me a lot of effort. I'll just add Greek Religion by Walter Burkert to your list.

I'd recommend you pick up a copy of Robert Graves' "The Greek Myths." It's not great dramatic reading, but rather he breaks down the symbolism of the mythology.

I'd recommend you do that only as a handy compilation of myths and sources. Ignore Graves' elaborate "explanations" of the "symbolism"; they say far, far more about Graves' own mind and preconceptions than they do about the Greeks. (And pretty much the same goes for Pinker; he's no expert on religion.)
posted by languagehat at 5:54 AM on January 9, 2007

Robert Graves's The Greek Myths, which somebody cited above, is a perfect example of this. It is in no sense a sourcebook of Greek mythology; it is Graves's own imaginative retelling of the stories.

More than half the book is a painstakingly detailed discussion of how the myths originated. I'm surprised by all the anti-Graves sentiment here. Are you saying that he just made all that stuff up?
posted by bingo at 6:57 AM on January 9, 2007

Are you saying that he just made all that stuff up?

Yes. Graves was a wonderful poet with a weakness for women and myth, which he combined into his own personal Goddess mythology. He was not a scholar.
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on January 9, 2007

yeah, listen to verstegan and L-Hat, Dodds is necessary reading. even more necessary is Max Pohlenz, a key interpreter of the Greek mind who, unsurprisingly, seems to be mostly out of print in the US (I'm sure your college/school library -- I'm assuming you're a student and this is homework -- must have his books. If they don't have them, consider a transfer to a better college/school): Paideia is ther first I'd check out, and as a bonus I'd say you should also read Die griechische Tragödie. Poor old Pohlenz, blissfully ignorant of the beauty of political correctness and unaware of the existence of the aforementioned Karen Armstrong's invention, the pocket ruler, actually knows what the hell he's talking about. Unlike of course many Greek "scholars" nowadays in print and ruthlessly used by academia to confused innocent young minds.

Another half-forgotten giant, Wolfgang Schadewalt, seems to me to have much to say on the subject.

And I too would use Graves as a useful laundry list, discarding the often zany commentary.

Speaking of confusion, wireless, you're badly mistaken when you confuse "Old Testament" (ie the Hebrew Bible), the New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition -- to boil things down to an embarrassing degree, the Hebrew Bible's (Tanakh) God, let's call him YHWH not to complicate things further, is not a theological God. Repeat: not a theological God. True to His Canaanite origins, He's a God who walks in the garden enjoying the breeze, leads armies, brags of his being a "jealous God" (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), delights in the smell of charred flesh -- often human -- and even wrestles with humans. The Christian God is, on the other hand, a supremely Greek God dreamt up by a Hellenised Jew of the diaspora and whose Son has a Hellenised name (because the historical preacher/healer Yeshua ben Yosef was clearly way too Jewish for the goyim's tastest). The Nicene creed itself centers on that pesky homoousios attribute -- a Greek idea if there ever was one, and an idea that would rightly horrify a devout Jew or Muslim.

the Hellenistic Greeks (and later Macedonians) very much believed that the Iliad was a historical document

yes and no. The Greek idea of μῦθος and Ιστορία was much more in flux than ours, just like their (non)belief in those deeply human, horny Gods.

I mean, Plato's practically a monotheist.

I mean, let's not confuse the poster's ideas further with the necessary mention of the presocratics.
posted by matteo at 7:35 AM on January 9, 2007

Paideia, fuck me, is of course Werner Jaeger's. The Pohlenz you should check out is Die Stoa
posted by matteo at 12:47 PM on January 9, 2007

What about Νάρκισσος and Íkaros? Both seem fairly didactic, albeit an an abstract sense (i.e. the dangers of self-love and ambition)
posted by oxford blue at 2:26 PM on January 9, 2007

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