Storytelling was a prevalent tradition throughout Ancient Greece. Originally the mythical stories were told orally and later performed by playwrights at the cities’ festivals, until the Ancient Greeks re-discovered the tool of the written word and Homer’s epics quickly became physical texts. The origins of lyric poetry can be originated to Ancient Greece, being heavily insightful in the modern understanding to the beliefs and customs of the early Greeks. Lyra, which came to be known as lyric poetry, has multiple forms. However, the most influential are arguably the archaic methods of storytelling seen in Homer’s epics.
The archaic lyric poetry is narrative storytelling of heroes and myths and was always created with the purpose of teaching morals and beliefs to society. Undeniably, the most famous and well-preserved poetry from the era was Homer’s, in particular, his Iliad. Plato, a famous Athenian philosopher would later tell us that Homer had gained a reputation as being “the educator of all Greece.” As the main form of Ancient Greek education occurred through the teachings of playwrights, modern audiences can see just how influential the classical figure of Homer was to the Ancient Greeks and how true Plato’s expression is. Plato’s expression illustrates the impact Homer had not only during his time but the long-standing impact his work would garner centuries after his death. This demonstrates how the Iliad was impactful for so long as a formative text for the Ancient Greeks to be taught socio-cultural customs and beliefs.
Memory is a significant theme explored in Homer’s Iliad. His epic poetry illustrates how people, their actions and the past can be remembered, even memorialised. As an educator of the people, Homer illustrated his understanding of the influence of playwrights in teaching the polis in a section of the Iliad. Homer’s argument was through an “inspiration of the Muses,” who were the daughters of Memory, and said that poetry can save the memories of the past – the people and the events that transpired. We know this because the Iliad was copied down centuries after Homer’s death; it had become so memorable that people brought the stories down through generations until it was written down between 750 BC and 700 BC (though the events of the Trojan War depicted in Homer’s epic originate from the Bronze Age). Homer tells the audience, “Muses, who have your homes on Olympus – for you are goddesses, and ever-present, and know all things, and we hear only rumour, nor do we know anything.” In this long passage in the Iliad the argument is illustrated that through the Muses one could preserve the actions of the past. In other words, in the minds of the Ancient Greeks, while those in the present “hear only rumour,” the stories told from older generations are there to learn from as “nor do we know anything.”
Homer’s Iliad not only is revolutionary for the time, through the introduction of the epic poem, but from a modern perspective is influential in illustrating the nature of the archaic Greek world. Homer’s epic confronts the Trojan War. Audiences are introduced to the heroic archetype Achilles – a central figure to Ancient Greek mythology, who demonstrates the socio-cultural and political attitudes of the Ancient Greeks. The audience is shown a dilemma through Achilles as to whether one should aim to live a long and happy life without any reverence for the afterlife or die heroically as a young man and war hero. As an allegory, these central ideas are significant in illustrating what the audience learns about the Ancient Greek world from lyric poetry. Audiences learn that the Ancient Greeks put a heavy significance on the role of death and the afterlife within their society, especially how the dead are remembered through the living.
The Trojan War is a significant historical event in the era of Ancient Greece and has been continually mythologised by different cultures to illustrate strength and overcoming adversity. Homer’s poetry can be considered to a great extent behind why the Ancient Greeks viewed the Trojan War as such a significant historical event. Homer’s specificity within the Iliad allows the audience to learn the collective Ancient Greek sense of a collective identity. When there were times of crisis for the Ancient Greeks, the famous text became a unifying factor which signified the glory of the great Achilles. The spirit that Achilles has in the Iliad, the audience learns, is used by all Ancient Greeks to overcome war, suffering and hardship. The mythologizing of the event helps the audience to understand how myth’s role in changing history can be used to unify people during difficult times. The goal of this was for the Ancient Greeks to remember and memorialise their military victories to garner patriotism in order to die as a hero for one’s country. Homer in the Iliad even uses the event of the fall of Troy as an example to illustrate these attitudes: “a thing … whose glory shall perish never [Homer, Iliad 2.324].” The theme in the Iliad that resounding fame achieved in dying as a young war hero would gain you as an individual the right to be memorialized in history, and for your community to honour and glorify you as a hero, further demonstrates the extent of the Ancient Greeks’ fixation on death and the afterlife and how this was impacted by memorialisation as a war hero. Social standing as an Ancient Greek citizen often depended on family history and how they were remembered. Homer uses the character of Odysseus to illustrate that the wrong action to take would be “disgraceful to wait long and at the end go home empty-handed [Homer, Iliad 2.297].”
Homer’s Iliad tells a modern audience much about the lives of the Ancient Greeks and the text’s survival for a prolonged period of time after its original conception demonstrates the extent to which memory was a vital belief and social custom of the Ancient Greeks. Audiences are also introduced to the archetype of the hero and how that manifests in a patriotic but collective group when mythologizing is used during times of strife to raise morale in people. Finally, audiences are drawn to the concept of death and the afterlife and how Homer explores the concepts of memorialization and remembrance of the heroic archetype. Most importantly, audiences learn through the ideas of Plato of Homer as “an educator” of Greece. The argument that Virgil stole the Iliad to write the Aeneid about Roman history shows how vital the text is as a way of teaching vital social customs and beliefs to the ordinary citizens.
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