Ancient Greece

5d. Greek Literature

Greek theaters were built into the sides of hills. This not only provided excellent seating arrangements, but remarkable acoustics as well.

Thousands would come from far and wide to see the opening of the latest drama by Aeschylus, the most famous of Athenian playwrights. The citizens of Athens felt it was a part of their civic duty to attend as many dramas as possible.

The dramas typically dealt with important issues of the day, posed tough questions, and educated theatergoers. Attendance at dramas was considered such a valuable experience that sometimes the government would pay for the tickets.

Iliad, Theogony, and Poetry

Among the earliest Greek literature was Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is a detailed telling of the Trojan War while the Odyssey recounts Odysseus' 20-year journey home following the Trojan War.

Created as early as 900 B.C.E., Homer's poems were not written down since Greek civilization lacked a written language at that time. Instead, these massive poems were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Immortalized on the walls of the Roman city, Pompeii, the Greek poet Sappho has been highly regarded for centuries. Some people consider Sappho to be the first modern poet. Rather than writing epic poetry of heroic deeds, she wrote short, very personal pieces about love and loss.

An Excerpt from the "Iliad"

The passage which follows is from Book XXII of the Iliad. It describes a scene from the Trojan War that occurs just before Achilles, the Greek warrior, slays the Trojan hero, Hector.

Old King Priam was the first to see Achilles rushing towards the Trojans over the fields. As Achilles ran, the bronze on his breast flashed out like the star that comes to us in autumn, outshining all its fellows in the evening sky — they call it Orion's Dog, and though it is the brightest of all the stars it bodes no good, bringing much fever, as it does, to us poor wretches. The old man gave a groan. He lifted up his hands and beat his head with them. In a voice full of terror he shouted entreaties to his beloved son, who had taken his stand in front of the gates in the fixed resolve to fight it out with Achilles.

"Hector!" the old man called, stretching out his arms to him in piteous appeal. "I beg you, my dear son, not to stand up to that man alone and unsupported. You are courting defeat and death at his hands. He is far stronger than you, and he is savage. The dogs and vultures would soon be feeding on his corpse (and what a load would be lifted from my heart!) if the gods loved him as little as I do — the man who has robbed me of so many splendid sons, killed them or sold them off as slaves to the distant isles. So come inside the walls, my child, to be the savior of Troy and the Trojans; and do not throw away your dear life to give a triumph to the son of Peleus. Have pity too on me, your poor father, who is still able to feel.

As he came to an end, Priam plucked at his gray locks and tore the hair from his head; but he failed to shake Hector's resolution. And now his mother in her turn began to wail and weep. "Hector, my child," she cried, "deal with your enemy from within the walls and do not go out to meet that man in single combat. He is a savage; and you need not think that, if he kills you, I shall lay you on a bier and weep for you, my own, my darling boy; nor will your richly dowered wife; but far away from both of us, beside the Argive ships, you will be eaten by the nimble dogs."

Greek mask
Originally used in religious rituals, Greek masks became an essential part of every Greek performance.
      Translated by Reverend William T. McNiff, The Pageant of Literature: Greek and Roman Writers

Another poet, Hesiod, wrote the Theogony around 700 B.C.E. The Theogony is a genealogy of the gods. Some scholars credit Hesiod with being one of the first to actually write down his work.

Around the same time of Hesiod, there was another growing group of writers known as the Lyric poets. One of the most famous of the Lyric poets was Sappho. Sappho wrote about the world around her and focused particularly on the themes of love and sexuality. Sappho, who was bisexual, frequently wrote about her homosexual love affairs. The ancient Greeks were completely tolerant of homosexuality and did not discriminate. The word "lesbian" comes from the name of Sappho's island of birth, Lesbos.

Oedipus and the Sphinx
In Sophocles' great play Oedipus Rex, Oedipus must solve the Sphinx's riddle in order to save the city of Thebes.

"To Aphrodite" by Sappho

You know the place: then

Leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is

pleasantest, by precincts

sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold
streams murmur through the
apple branches, a young
rose thicket shades the ground

and quivering leaves pour

down deep sleep; in meadows
where horses have grown sleek

among spring flowers, dill

scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar.
       Translated by Reverend William T. McNiff, The Pageant of Literature: Greek and Roman Writers

The Age of Pericles

The years between 461 to 429 B.C.E. marked the Age of Pericles. Named after an Athenian leader, arts and literature flourished in this era. Outdoor theaters were built in Athens and other city-states for performances of the latest dramas. Made of stone, the theaters were positioned so that scenes of natural beauty served as backdrops for the stage.

For example, the Greek theater at Taormina in Sicily is built high upon a rocky hill. Behind the audience's back lay the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Perfectly centered behind the stage and facing the audience, sits the active, smoldering volcano, Mount Etna.

The Greeks held drama festivals in which plays competed against one another for the audience's favor. During these festivals, the Greeks performed the plays as a tribute to the gods. The first major drama festival of the spring in Athens honored Dionysus, the god of grapes and wine. This festival celebrated the renewal of the grape vines.

On stage, actors could play several roles by wearing different masks A chorus of several people in the background chanted from time to time, serving as a kind of narrator, and helping move the plot along.

Tragic Literature

All three of the most famous ancient Greek writers specialized in tragedies. Tragedy is a form of drama in which a strong central character or hero ultimately fails and is punished by the gods. Usually, the hero has a fatal flaw that causes his undoing.

For many years, Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.E.) was the most successful dramatist in Athens winning several competitions. One of his rivals, the Athenian writer Sophocles (496-406 B.C.E.), wrote the famous play Oedipus Rex, (Oedipus the King). In this play, the main character, Oedipus is fated by the gods to kill his father and marry his own mother. Despite Oedipus's efforts to avoid this outcome, it happens just as the gods predicted. In shame, Oedipus blinds himself and is then banished.

A third major writer named Euripides (484-406 B.C.E.) focused more on people than gods in his writing. Among Euripides most famous works are Electra and The Trojan Women

An Excerpt from "Medea" by Euripides

In this tragic story, Medea has been deserted by her husband, Jason, who has left to marry the daughter of King Creon. In revenge, Medea ultimately kills the two children she and Jason share and then herself.

The chorus enters. The following lines between the Nurse, Chorus, and Medea are sung.

ChorusI heard the voice, uplifted loud, of our poor Colchian lady, nor yet is she quiet; speak, aged dame, for as I stood by the house with double gates I heard a voice of weeping from within, and I do grieve, lady, for the sorrows of this house, for it hath won my love.
Nurse'Tis a house no more; all that is passed away long since; a royal bride keeps Jason at her side, while our mistress pines away in her bower, finding no comfort for her soul in aught her friends can say.
Medea (from within)Oh, oh! Would that Heaven's levin bolt would cleave this head in twain! What gain is life to me?Woe, woe is me! O, to die and win release, quitting this loathed existence!
ChorusDidst hear, O Zeus, thou earth, and thou, O light, the piteous note of woe the hapless wife is uttering? How shall a yearning for that insatiate resting-place ever hasten for thee, poor reckless one, the end that death alone can bring? Never pray for that. And if thy lord prefers a fresh love, be not angered with him for that; Zeus will judge 'twixt thee and him herein. Then mourn not for thy husband's loss too much, nor waste thyself away.
Medea (from within)Great Themis, and husband of Themis, behold what I am suffering now, though I did bind that accursed one, my husband, by strong oaths to me! O, to see him and his bride some day brought to utter destruction, they and their house with them, for that they presume to wrong me thus unprovoked. O my father, my country, that I have left to my shame, after slaying my own brother.
NurseDo ye hear her words, how loudly she adjures Themis, oft invoked, and Zeus, whom men regard as keeper of their oaths? On no mere trifle surely will our mistress spend her rage.
ChorusWould that she would come forth for us to see, and listen to the words of counsel we might give, if haply she might lay aside the fierce fury of her wrath, and her temper stern. Never be my zeal at any rate denied my friends! But go thou and bring her hither outside the house, and tell her this our friendly thought; haste thee ere she do some mischief to those inside the house, for this sorrow of hers is mounting high.
NurseThis will I do; but I doubt whether I shall persuade my mistress; still willingly will I undertake this trouble for you; albeit, she glares upon her servants with the look of a lioness with cubs, whenso anyone draws nigh to speak to her. Wert thou to call the men of old time rude uncultured boors thou wouldst not err, seeing that they devised their hymns for festive occasions, for banquets, and to grace the board, a pleasure to catch the ear, shed o'er our life, but no man hath found a way to allay hated grief by music and the minstrel's varied strain, whence arise slaughters and fell strokesof fate to o'erthrow the homes of men. And yet this were surely a gain, to heal men's wounds by music's spell, but why tune they their idle song where rich banquets are spread? For of itself doth the rich banquet, set before them, afford to men delight.
ChorusI heard a bitter cry of lamentation! loudly, bitterly she calls on the traitor of her marriage bed, her perfidious spouse; by grievous wrongs oppressed she invokes Themis, bride of Zeus, witness of oaths, who brought her unto Hellas, the land that fronts the strand of Asia, o'er the sea by night through ocean's boundless gate.

      Translated by Reverend William T. McNiff, The Pageant of Literature: Greek and Roman Writers

Another type of play was the comedy. The most significant writer of comedies in ancient Greece was Aristophanes, whose works included The Frogs and The Clouds.

An Excerpt from "The Frogs"

Enter Dionysus on foot dressed in the skin of the Nemean Lion, and the club of Heracles in his hand, and Xanthias heavily laden on a donkey.
XanthiasMaster, should I tell one of those usual jokes which always make the audience laugh?
DionysusBy Zeus, say what you want--except "I'm hard pressed." Forget that one, it's really quite annoying.
XanthiasNothing else witty either?
DionysusAnything but "What a strain!"
XanthiasWhat then? Can I say the really funny one?
DionysusOf course,Go right ahead--but don't let me catch you saying this.
XanthiasWhat's that?
DionysusThat you must shift your pack to ease yourself.
XanthiasWell, can't I say I've got such a load on me, unless someone takes it off, I'll bust a gut?
DionysusPlease don't, unless you wish to make me sick.
XanthiasSo why should I have to carry all this stuff,without doing any of the jokes that Phrynichus and Lycis and Ameipsias always make the baggage-carriers say in all their comedies?
DionysusJust don't. Since when I'm in the theater and hear any of these stupid jokes, I go away just older by a year.
XanthiasAlas, poor wretched me! My neck is really strained, but can't crack the joke.
DionysusNow is this not outrage and utter insolence, That I myself, Dionysos, son of Winejug, must walk, and let this fellow ride, so he might feel no pain and bear no burden?
XanthiasWhat? I bear no burden?
DionysusHow can you bear anything? You're riding.
XanthiasBut I've got all this!
DionysusHow so?
XanthiasMost heavily!
DionysusThe weight you carry--isn't it carried by the donkey?
XanthiasAbsolutely not; not what I'm holding and carrying.
DionysusHow can you carry, for God's sake, when you yourself are carried by another?
XanthiasI don't know, but my shoulder's sure hard pressed.
DionysusWell, since you say the donkey doesn't help,Suppose you take your turn, and carry him.
XanthiasUnhappy wretch! Why didn't I join the navy? Then I'd tell you to whistle a different tune!
DionysusYou scoundrel, get on down! Here's the doorI'm walking to, the first placeI must stop.--Ho, porter! porter there, I say.

      Translated by Reverend William T. McNiff, The Pageant of Literature: Greek and Roman Writers

His plays were witty and sarcastic. More often than not, comedies poked fun and made light of the major political figures of the day. Fortunately, the government of Athens tolerated this style of criticism.

On the Web
Aesop's Fables: Traditional and Modern
This fabulous website takes the familiar Aesop's Fables and retells them with a modern twist. The Donkey and the Lap Dog, for example, is turned into a story about a laptop and a desktop computer. Each story is beautifully illustrated — some are even animated with sound. Nearly 40 fables are presented in both traditional and modern formats. Requires Adobe Flash Player.
The Odyssey
Now's your chance to be a part of the Odyssey. You can choose to be Odysseus, Telemachus, or Penelope. If you choose Odysseus, the story begins as you leave Troy and set sail for Ithaca. Telemachus' adventure begins when he hears news of his father, Odysseus, from a wandering stranger. Choose Penelope, and your story begins when your son tells you some surprising news. Have fun making your way through this interactive website created by The Classics Pages.
Oedipus the King
One of the most well-known Greek plays is Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. It was written in 430 B.C.E. and is still is widely read today. Why has it remained popular for so long? Part of the reason is because Freud based much of modern psychology on this ancient work! The Internet Classics Archive presents the complete text, translated by F. Storr.
Homeric Singing: An Approach to the Original Performance
In ancient Greece, bards traveled from city to city singing heroic epics and poetry. They were accompanied by a four-stringed instrument called the phorminx. Both the melody and the lyrics changed a little each time so that no two performances were ever the same. This webpage has attempted to recreate what a bard might have sounded like.

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