Gregory Nagy. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2013. xvi + 727 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-07340-1.
Reviewed by Nathan D. Wells (Quincy College)
Published on H-War (June, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
While historians remain cognizant of the importance of the Near Eastern cultures of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, many still agree that Western civilization owes most to the Greek societies of antiquity, especially the classical golden age. The best examples are certainly in science, literature, and politics (the very concept of a national identity was something denizens of those old poleis helped cultivate), but the influence goes deeper than that. Part of the panhellenic ideal was to embrace one’s place in the polis and in the world. The values stressed that if one was destined to be a hero, then one must accept that fate. This fate was rarely a kind one: labors, battles, and above all an often grisly death would each come at their appointed time, as would honor and glory. Being a hero was in many ways more a burden or curse as far as mere mortals were concerned; but then heroic fates were usually a result of Olympian meddling. Essential to the heroic worldview was the relation between the Greeks of the Bronze and classical ages and their Olympian gods. As these early Greek societies were in many ways the furnace out of which Western civilization was forged, understanding their worldview is of paramount importance to the historian. Such a culture deserves a thorough analysis, and Gregory Nagy, the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, and director of that institution’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC, has gamely accepted the challenge.
This is not the first time that Professor Nagy has explored the culture of the Bronze Age and classical Greek world. A specialist in the Homeric tradition, Nagy has authored more than a dozen volumes on the subject, and teaches a popular Harvard University course titled “The Ancient Greek Hero.” His love for Homeric and Attic wisdom shines through this book.
Although the book focuses mostly on the works of Homer (unsurprising due to the author’s background), the blind poet’s contemporary Hesiod also receives recognition as a founder of the modern Western literary tradition. This tradition was born in a dark time where Greeks probably thought that their civilization might be snuffed out at any moment. Indeed, the Homeric Age was synonymous with the Dark Age that followed the Doric invasions as part of the late Bronze Age collapse in the twelfth century BCE and lasted for nearly four hundred years. Traditionally associated with attacks by invaders known colloquially as the “Sea Peoples,” the great Bronze Age civilizations of Egypt (who gave the Sea Peoples this sobriquet), the Hittites of Asia Minor, and the Mycenaean culture of Peloponnesian Greece had either fallen or been substantially weakened. The Mycenaeans were most likely the first group attacked, and with little warning suffered the most. Many fled throughout the Mediterranean setting up colonies, to such extent that the sea would be referred to as Magna Graecia, greater Greece (Greek city-states would continue the process of setting up colonies in happier times). Some of the most vibrant of these colonies were on the western coast of Asia Minor, the Ionian cities. It was here that Homer wrote his epics the Iliad (or the story of Achilles) and the Odyssey (or the story of Odysseus). These epics are built around Greek ideals, the heroic fate chief among them.
Writing toward the end of the Dark Age, Homer created characters that spoke not only from a bygone era, but also harkened toward the potential glories of classical Greece, the age of the poleis. Key to this was holding fast to the ideals of honor (both one’s own and that of the extended family, polis included) and heroic sacrifice, as well as being mindful of the interference of the Olympian gods. Nagy’s book gives the reader the essential vocabulary of the age. The concept of kleos, or glory, is at the heart of every epic. Hesiod’s Theogony is an origin (or birth [gonia or genus]) story, showing how the gods came to rule the known and unknown world; whereas his Works and Days stands as a commentary on the fact that Greek agriculture (central to life and death; the Hoplites were farmers after all) had not fully recovered from the Bronze Age collapse. While the Odyssey is often viewed as a quintessential heroic tale, with the homecoming (nostos) of the noble war veteran having to endure years of hardship before returning home to his equally noble and heroic wife and son, it is the Iliad that sets the tone for heroic destiny. To participate in the heroic world of glory (kleos) and honor (timé) one must be first destined (moira) to be a hero; a sacrifice to the goddess Hera and one bound by the fated seasons (hora) to one’s hour (hora again) of death. Due to her animosity towards Zeus, the goddess Hera is often the chief meddler in the affairs of men; and her name, meaning season and hours, harkens to that issue of time. The hero will prove himself as one; and meet his fate at the moment it has been ordained from Mount Olympus.
The fact that Homer and Hesiod’s tales were part of an oral song culture also shapes their effectiveness. For the Iliad, Odyssey, or Theogony to be understood, its audience must be imbued with the same respect for kleos as the tales’ participants. Just as Achilles is inspired by the labors and heroic death of Hercules (Herakles, literally he who has the kleos of Hera), those who have the tales sung to them must have the same values to be inspired by Achilles (p. 33). Indeed, Nagy points out that kleos goes further than simple glory; it is glory “achieved by way of using the medium of song ... of using special speech” (p. 58). Nagy’s class has been popular for several years, which in itself is commendable. Neither Homer nor Hesiod probably assumed that their tales would be fully embraced by someone unfamiliar with kleos. That Prof. Nagy has been able to imbue a generation of underclassmen with it is testament to both his skill and the staying power of the heroic tradition.
This is a fine book overall, but there are some criticisms. The heroic oral tradition is a cornerstone of the Greek culture of antiquity; so too was the rise of the literate historical tradition. While the fifth-century BCE scholar Herodotus is often considered the “Father of History,” in many ways he was a throwback to the myth-based heroic style. As a result, he receives mention in this volume. Hecateus of Miletus, a near contemporary does not, however. Hecateus in many ways was looking forward to the literate tradition. A resident of one of the Greek poleis of Asia Minor, Hecateus is probably best known for his declaration that “What I write here is the account which I considered to be true: for the stories of the Greeks are numerous, and in my opinion ridiculous.” He considered the oral tradition untrustworthy, and the increasing popularity of Ionian prose thanks to him certainly helped speed its decline. If Herodotus in some ways harkened back to the days of Homer and Hesiod, Hecateus was looking forward to the literate historical tradition of Thucydides, who receives a passing mention.
All criticisms aside, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in the Bronze Age Mediterranean or classical world, and especially in Greek mythology.
. Quoted in J. B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (New York: Dover, 1958), 13.
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