Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece

By H. A. Shapiro | Go to book overview

1

INTRODUCTION

THE WORLD OF GREEK MYTH

What we call mythology was, for the Greeks, the early history of their own people. They saw themselves in a direct line of descent from men of the Heroic Age, a period that modern archeological research would identify with the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1400-1200 B.C. Those heroes were, in turn, never more than two or three generations removed from that of the Olympian gods. Thus the gods, the heroes, and the “historical” Greeks of the Classical age formed, in their own view, one long continuum, albeit disturbed by periodic movements of peoples, invasions, colonization and the like. No wonder Hesiod, the Boeotian poet of the early seventh century, could complain that his own era, the Iron Age, was by far the worst in man’s history. For once men and gods had mingled freely with one another and were part of one extended family; but in Hesiod’s time, the gods seemed remote and uncaring, leaving man to eke out a miserable existence on his own.

In those hard times one of the Greeks’ few remaining pleasures was the memory of that earlier time, the many tales of heroes and gods that had been passed down over the long centuries conventionally known as the “Dark Age.” Only a generation or two before Hesiod, the poet we know as Homer had shaped some of these stories into a definitive form, as the Iliad and Odyssey. Even though these two epics cover only a fraction of the whole corpus of heroic saga, their most lasting impact was in creating a unified vision of the Heroic Age, of the nature of the gods and heroes, their relationship to one another, of fundamental issues of life and death.

At the divine level, Homer defined a pantheon presided over by Zeus, the “father of gods and men.” It is itself an extended family, with most of its members either Zeus’ siblings (sisters Demeter and Hera, also his wife; brothers Poseidon and Hades) or his various offspring (Athena, Apollo and Artemis, Ares, Hermes, Aphrodite). The intermarrying of gods and mortals is a practice well illustrated in Homer, through their offspring: Aeneas, son of Aphrodite by the Trojan noble Anchises; Sarpedon, the Lycian prince

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Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Preface xix
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Epic 11
  • 3 - Lyric 71
  • 4 - Drama 124
  • Bibliography 183
  • Index 192
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