LECTURE 1: The hero as defined by ancient Greek song culture. Case in point: Herakles in the Iliad.

"One is no longer at home anywhere, so in the end one longs to be back where one can somehow be at home because it is the only place where one would wish to be at home: and that is the world of Greece." Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (tr. Silk and Stern 1981:4).

  1. Key word for today: kleos 'glory, fame, that which is heard'; OR, 'the poem or song that conveys glory, fame, that which is heard'. LINK Video: The key to everything.

1a. This word was used in ancient Greek poetry or song / music to refer to the poetry ["epic"] or the song / music ["lyric"] that glorifies the heroes of the distant heroic past. (Since the references to kleos in archaic Greek poetry and song / music make no distinction between poetry and song / music, I will simply use the word "song" in this lecture.) The song of kleos simultaneously glorifies the gods--as they "existed" in the heroic age and as they continued to "exist" for their worshippers at any given moment in historical time.

(For a five-minute sketch of ancient Greek history, see Appendix #1 below.)

1b. Why did they glorify heroes? Partly because the ancient Greeks worshipped not only gods but also heroes. This is a fundamental fact of ancient Greek history (again, see Appendix #1).

1c. To say it another way: this word kleos was used to refer to both the medium and the message of the glory of heroes. The dictum of Marshall McLuhan {his main interest: popular culture} applies here: the medium is the message. Today I will concentrate on the medium of song as marked by the word kleos. In ancient Greece, kleos was the primary medium for communicating the concept of the hero, which is the primary topic (or "message") of this course.

(For other media that we will study in this course, see Appendix #2 below.)

2. In the Iliad, the main hero of the Iliad, Achilles, is "quoted" as saying (Sourcebook I p. 75):

  • My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end [telos]. If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming [nostos] but I will have a glory [kleos] that is unwilting: whereas if I go home my glory [kleos] will die, but it will be a long time before the outcome [telos] of death shall take me.
  • This translation, based on that of Samuel Butler, has been adjusted by me to fit as accurately as possible the meaning of the original Greek. The wording of Samuel Butler is as follows:

  • 'My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live for ever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.'
  • This is a literary translation, not a literal one. Butler's translation of the Iliad in general is literary, meant to be pleasing to the ear when read out loud. In the case of this passage, it is also successful in capturing the general idea of what is being said by Achilles. I focus your attention on the part that I underlined.

    Let me repeat for you my own more literal translation of this underlined part, which is Iliad Book 9 line 413 in the original Greek:

  • I shall lose my safe homecoming [nostos], but I will have a kleos that is unwilting.'
  • 2a. Interpretation. Achilles already knows the consequences of his decision to reject the option of a safe homecoming. He is in the process of deciding tochoose the other option: he will stay at Troy and continue to fight in the Trojan War. This choice will result in his death, and he knows it, but he is ready to give up his life in exchange for getting a kleos that will never "wilt." Unlike natural flowers that go through the cycle of blooming and then wilting, this unnatural flower, this kleos, will forever stay the same, never losing its color, aroma, and overall beauty. Here we see a very ancient theme that is built into the traditional symbolism of kleos, which we will explore in more detail later. Like a natural flower, Achilles will "wilt." But his kleos will never wilt because it is not a thing of nature: it is a thing of art, a song. This kleos is the story of Troy, the Iliad (the name of the poem means 'story of Ilion = Troy'). Achilles the hero gets into the Iliad by dying a warrior's death. The consolation prize for his death is the kleos of the Iliad.

    3. In ancient Greek culture, the distinction between art and nature, between the artificial and the natural, is not the same as in our culture. Their culture was what anthropologists call a "song culture."

    3a. In our culture, artificial implies "unreal" and natural implies "real." (I quote the words of the TV commercial: "Is it real--or is it Memorex?") In a song culture, the artificial can be just as real as the natural. In a song culture, the words of an "artificial" song can be just as real as the words of "natural" speech in a real-life experience. In a song culture, the song can be just as real as life itself.

    {A modern attempt to capture this sense of reality is the poem of Wallace Stevens, "Peter Quince at the Clavier."}

    3b. In ancient Greek song culture, the "story" of the Iliad was felt to be not only "real" but "true." As we will see in later lectures, the Homeric Iliad was felt to convey the ultimate truth-values of the ancient Greek song-culture.

    3c. Because we English-speakers have a different cultural perspective on the word "story," which implies fiction and is therefore not expected to be "true," I will ordinarily use the more neutral word narrative in referring to the "story" of the Iliad and other such "stories."

    3d. To distinguish the Iliad from stories within the story of the Iliad, I will refer to the Iliad as the Narrative, with a upper-case N, and to the stories within the Iliad as narratives, with lower-case n. Also, I will as a rule use the word Narrator in referring to "Homer," the prehistoric culture-hero who was venerated by the ancient Greeks as the ultimate "singer" of the Iliad and Odyssey. (I will return to the concept of "culture-hero" in later lectures.)

    4. To experience song in a song culture is to experience a real-life experience. For the Greek hero, as we will see, the ultimate real-life experience is death. (Which can be an alternative to sex, as we will also see later.)

    4a. The hero must struggle against the fear of death, in order to achieve the most perfect death. Such a perfect moment must be recorded in song, kleos. In ancient Greek traditions, a hero's dying words are a "swan song"; according to myth, the swan sings his most beautiful song at the moment of his death. We will study this myth at the end of this course, when we read Plato's Phaedo: in this work Socrates talks about the concept of the swan song at the moment of his own death by hemlock. What Socrates is quoted as saying, as we will see, turns out to be his own swan song.

    5. Brief remark about expansion vs. compression in the traditional media of ancient Greek songmaking: the principle of compression results in micro-narratives; the principle of expansion results in such monumental compositions as the macro-Narrative of the Iliad itself.

    5a. In many ways, as we will see, a movie clip is like a micro-narrative in ancient Greek songmaking. That much said, let's now look at a micro-narrative in the Iliad.

    6. Iliad 11.227: 'Married, he went away from the bride chamber, looking for kleos from the Achaeans'.

    6a. I am quoting here from a micro-narrative (compression) within the macro-Narrative (expansion) that is the Iliad. This micro-narrative is almost like a clip from a movie. The micro-narrative is about a hero who decides to interrupt his honeymoon and go to Troy to fight on the side of the Trojans against the Achaeans [= Greeks]. At this point in the micro-narrative, he has just been killed in battle. Why did this hero give up his life, a life of newlywed bliss, just to fight and die at Troy? The Narrator gives the answer to this question: this hero did it in order to get included in the kleos of the Greek song culture. He was 'looking for kleos from the Achaeans'. This kleos is the macro-Narrative of the Iliad.

    6b. Again we see a hero getting into the Iliad by dying a warrior's death. But this hero dies for just a bit part.

    6c. Achilles will die for the lead part.

    6d. These "parts" are just as real for these heroes as their lives.

    6e. At #2 above, we have seen Achilles in the process of "scripting" his death. We may compare the video "Like tears in rain. Time to die," where Roy "scripts" his own death.

    7. For Achilles, to repeat, the song of kleos is just as real as his own life is real to him. The infinite time of the artificial song is just as real to him as the finite time of his natural life.

    7a. Similarly, the infinite time of the gods, who are everlasting, is just as real to the Homeric hero as the finite time of his natural life. The gods are "artificial" but real, just like kleos. Even the sky, which is the abode of the gods, is therefore "artificial." The movements of the celestial bodies--the patterns of the stars and even sunrise and sunset--belong to the realm of immortality. By contrast, the earth, which is the abode of humans, is therefore "natural": it is mortal territory. In lectures coming up, I will have much more to say about this opposition of mortal = natural vs. immortal = artificial.

    8. The ancient Greek word for natural time, natural life, natural life-cycle, was hôra. See also the other definitions in the Glossary in the Sourcebook: 'season, seasonality; time; timeliness'. The English word hour is derived from Greek hôra.

    9. The goddess of hôra (plural hôrai) was Hêra (the two forms hôra and Hêra are related to each other). She was the goddess of seasons, in charge of making everything happen on time, happen in season, happen in a timely way, etc.

    10. Related to these two words hôra and Hêra is hêrôs (singular) / hêrôes (plural), meaning 'hero'. As we will see in lectures coming up, the precise moment when everything comes together for the hero is the moment of death. The hero is "on time" at the hôra or 'time' of death.

    11. Case in point: Herakles = Hêraklês 'he who has the kleos of Hêra'. (The Romanized name is "Hercules")

    12. Iliad 19.85-133: micro-narrative (compression) of Herakles (please read this with special care). Here we arrive at the central point of the lecture: the macro-Narrative of the Narrator of the Iliad sets up the micro-narrative of Herakles as a model for Achilles. The king Eurystheus is to the king Agamemnon as the warrior Herakles is to the warrior Achilles.


    Quick recap of the narrative of Herakles (based mainly on the retelling of Diodorus of Sicily 4.8-39 [we will not otherwise be reading this 1st-century author in our course]).

    12a. The supreme god and king of gods, Zeus, impregnates a mortal woman. The wife of Zeus, Hera, is jealous; she decides to intervene in the life of the hero who is about to be born, Herakles. If this hero had been born on time, on schedule, in time, he would have been the supreme king of his time. But Hera makes sure that Herakles is born not on time, not in time. Herakles' inferior cousin, Eurystheus, is born ahead of him and thus is fated to become king instead of Herakles. During all of Herakles' lifetime, Eurystheus persecutes him directly; Hera persecutes him indirectly. The superior hero has to spend his entire lifespan obeying the orders of the inferior king. The orders add up to the Labors of Herakles (in the Classical version, there are twelve: the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Hind of Ceryneia, the Erymanthian Boar, the Stymphalian Birds, the Augean Stables, the Horses of Diomedes, the Cretan Bull, the Amazon's Girdle, the Cattle of Geryon, the Apples of the Hesperides, and the Hound of Hades). Herakles' heroic exploits in performing these Labors (and many others) are the contents of the heroic song, kleos, that is sung about him. Thus Herakles owes his kleos to Hera. Hence his name: ‘he who has the kleos of Hera'. The goddess of being on time makes sure that the hero should start off his lifespan by being not on time and that he should go through life by trying to catch up and never quite managing to do so until the very end. Herakles gets all caught up only at the final moment of his life, at the moment of death.

    12b. At the final moment of Herakles' heroic lifespan, he experiences the most painful death imaginable, climaxed by burning to death. This form of death is an ultimate test of the nervous system, by ancient Greek heroic standards. Here is how it happens. Fatally poisoned by the semen of a dying Centaur (his ex-wife Deianeira gave it to him in a phial as a "wedding present" on the occasion of the hero's re-marriage to the girl Iole: the ex-wife had mistakenly thought it was a love-drug that could win back the love of her ex-husband). Burning up on the inside with the excruciatingly painful poison that is consuming his body, Herakles climbs up on top of his funeral pyre, on the peak of Mount Oita, ready to be burned up on the outside. He yearns to be put out of his misery. He calls on his best friend Philoktetes to light his pyre. (Compare Jim Morrison: "try to set the night on fire.")

    12c. At that precise moment of agonizing death, a flaming thunderbolt from his father Zeus strikes him. He goes up in flames, in a spectacular explosion of fire (the technical Greek term is ecpyrosis). In the aftermath, his friends find no physical trace of him, not even bones. At that same moment, Herakles regains consciousness and finds himself on the top of Mount Olympus, in the company of the gods. He has awakened to find himself immortalized. He is then adopted by the theoi 'gods' on Mount Olympus as one of their own (the technical Greek term is apotheosis). Hera now changes identities: from Herakles' stepmother to Herakles' mother. I translate from Diodorus of Sicily 4.39: "Hera got into her bed and drew Herakles close to her body. She let him fall through her garments to the ground, re-enacting [= making mimesis of] the genuine birth." (More in lectures to come about the concept of mimesis as 're-enactment'.)

    12d. Addenda: two interesting details from Herakles myths.

    12d1. Hera finds an abandoned baby, who happens to be Herakles. She takes a fancy to the baby and breast-feeds it, but the baby bites her. The cosmic explosion of milk results in galaxy (Greek galakt- means 'milk')--or the Milky Way {Hyginus Astronomica 2.43; Eratosthenes Catasterismi 44; "Achilles" introduction to Aratus 24.}.

    12d2. Herakles' mortal mother, Alkmene, conceives another son by her mortal husband, Amphitryon, on the same night that she conceives her son Herakles by her immortal paramour, Zeus. This twin, Iphikles, is 100% mortal. The other twin, Herakles, is mortal only on his mother's side. (I do not say 50%. More in lectures to come on the question of immortal vs. mortal "genes" of heroes.)

    12d3. According to tradition (Diodorus of Sicily 4.14.1-2), Herakles was the founder of the Olympics, and he competed in every athletic event on the mythical occasion of the first Olympics. On that occasion, he won first prize in every Olympic event. This tradition about Herakles is the perfect illustration of a fundamental connection between the labor of a hero and the competition of an athlete at athletic events like the Olympics. As we will see later in the course, the hero's labor and the athlete's competition are the "same thing," from the standpoint of ancient Greek religious concepts of the hero. The Greek word for the hero's labor and for the athlete's competition is the same: athlos. Our English word "athlete" is derived from this Greek word.

    12d4. In the ancient Olympics, the program of events in athletic competition (called agôn or athlos) was organically linked with concepts of the hero as a sacred being who is worshipped by the local community for his or her powers of blessing the community with fertility and prosperity (when the people are just) and harming it (when the people are unjust). Next to Herakles, the most important hero of the Olympics was Pelops, accepted by all Greeks (regardless of politics) as the ancestor of the three main royal houses of the Peloponnese (meaning "Island of Pelops"). The Peloponnese is the part of "mainland Greece" (as we know it) that contains the once all-important population centers of Argos, Sparta, and Messene. The Peloponnese was accepted by all Greeks (regardless of politics) as the epicenter of Greek civilization. The site of the ancient Olympics, called Olympia, was located in the NW Peloponnese. The Festival of the Olympics, held on a seasonally recurring basis every four years, was accepted by all Greeks (regardless of politics) as the most ancient, most prestigious, and generally post important athletic festival of them all (there were hundreds of other seasonally recurring athletic festivals, spread all over the Greek-speaking world). During the season of the Olympics, the participating city-states suspended all warfare with each other (note that warfare between Greek city-states was considered a ritual activity, like athletics). The first event in the program of athletic events at the Olympics was the stadion. This word was borrowed into Latin and then into English as stadium. The length of a stadion run was the length of the Olympic stadium; in earlier times there was no building per se called a "stadium," and the concept of the length of a stadion preceded the concept of a building that we call "stadium."

    In the earliest times of the Olympics, the length of the stadion was defined in purely heroic terms. It was the distance between two sacred points, one called the "Pit [bothros] of Pelops" and the other, the Altar [bômos] of Zeus. On the night before the morning of the first set of athletic events at the Olympics, a black ram was slaughtered in sacrifice, and its blood was ritually poured [the technical term for such pouring is "libation"] into the Pit of Pelops. Also, the meat of a selected herd of ritually slaughtered rams (rams / ewes were the premier sacrificial animals for male / female heroes) was cut up and thrown into huge caldrons filled with water, located at the Altar of Zeus with the firewood underneath all prepared for lighting. On the morning after the night of the sacrifice of the black ram at the Pit of Pelops, these caldrons, filled with the meat of rams, were waiting at the Altar of Zeus fo r the fire of the first athletic victor. Here we see a fundamental difference between the ancient Greek Olympics and the reinvention that we know as the modern Olympics. The lighting of the fire of the ancient Olympics happened not before the first athletic event but after it and in fact because of it. The idea of the stadion footrace was that the runner who wins that prototypical race had the honor of lighting the sacrificial fires at the Altar of Zeus (this fire would cook the rams' meat into mutton stew for the subsequent banqueting of the athletes).

    The fire that lit the Altar of Zeus was thought to be the fire of victory, generated and fueled by the physical and mental effort (or ordeal: in Greek, athlos) of the athlete who had the honor of winning the stadion footrace. This fire of victory in the ritual of athletics was thought to be equivalent to the fire of victory in the myth of Pelops. According to this myth, the hero Pelops was once upon a time killed, dismembered, and boiled in a caldron, much like a sacrificial ram - only to be reassembled by the gods and brought back to life. The fire that boiled the meat of Pelops was a sacred fire that brought him back to life after death. The fire that boiled the meat of the sacrificial rams at the Olympics of historical times was thought to be that same fire, regenerated in every recurring Olympic Festival by the victory of the athlete who won the stadion footrace that started from the Pit of Pelops, the sacred point of the sacrifice, blood-libation, and dismemberment of the black ram. The ancient Olympics, then, the athlete's victory in the ritual of athletic competition is symbolically the same as the hero's victory over death in myth. The athlete's physical and mental struggle - both with others and within himself - is the ordeal or athlos that re-enacts the hero's prototypical athlos.

    With this background in mind, there is one special thing I would like for you to look for as you view this video: consider the symbolism of the burning torch headed for the altar of Zeus. This symbolic act, a centerpiece of the ancient Greek Olympics, is re-enacted in the modern Olympics when a chosen athlete lights the fires of the festival with his burning torch; the place of the fires, from the ancient Greek point of view, is the Altar of Zeus: in order to reach the Altar of Zeus, the chosen athlete has to perform his own "heroic labor," his own athlos.

    13. Characteristics of a hero, from the standpoint of ancient Greek hero cults (on the concept of hero-cults, see Appendix 1):

  • A) unseasonal

    B) extreme, positively (for example, "best" in whatever category) or negatively; in the negative sense, it is easy to see how this is a function of #A. Compare the Celtic notion of warp spasm in Old Irish sagas

    C) antagonistic toward the god who seems to be most like the hero; antagonism does not rule out an element of attraction (compare our notion of "fatal attraction"), which is played out in a variety of ways.

  • 14. Let us go back to #12, a perfect illustration: Herakles. His name marks both medium and message.

    14a. Herakles is the ideal hero to start with in this course, though he is, as we will see, unique (by becoming a theos 'god' after death). Just as we may think of him as our first example, so also characters in epic think of him as a model. More on that later.

    14b. Let's go back to his name, #11 of lecture notes: 'he who has the glory [kleos] of Hera'. Our first impression: it seems to us strange that Herakles should be named after Hera, that his kleos should depend on Hera, since he is persecuted by her throughout his heroic lifespan.

    14c. But without the unseasonality, without the disequilibrium brought about by the persecution of Hera, Herakles would never have achieved the kleos that makes his achievements live forever in song.

    15. We come back to the hero Herakles. Let us review his heroic characteristics:

    A) He is made unseasonal by Hera.

    B) His unseasonality makes it possible for him to perform his extraordinary Labors. He also commits some deeds that are morally questionable (to say the least): for example, he destroys the city of Iole and kills her brothers in order to capture her as his bride--even though he is already married to Deianeira (Diodorus of Sicily 4.37.5). {It is essential to keep in mind that whenever heroes commit deeds that violate moral codes, such deeds are definitely not condoned by the heroic narrative.}

    C) He is antagonistic with Hera throughout his lifespan, but he becomes reconciled with her through death, becoming her "son." As the hero's name makes clear, he owes his heroic identity to his kleos and, ultimately, to Hera.

    16. We also come back to where we started: the hero Achilles. He choses kleos over life itself, and he owes his heroic identity to this kleos. He achieves the major goal of the hero: to have his identity put on record through kleos. For us, a common way to express this goal is to say: "you'll go down in history." (That is what the song is saying to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.) For the earliest periods of ancient Greece, the equivalent of this kind of "history" is kleos.

    17. From J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye.

    17a. Holden Caulfield is given a quotation by the teacher: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."

    (My guess is that Achilles would answer: in that case, I would rather be immature than mature. Still, as we will see, he will achieve a maturity, a seasonality, at the moment in the Iliad when he comes to terms with his own impending heroic death.)

    17b. The teacher continues speaking in Salinger's narrative: "Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them...if you want to. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."--emphasis mine.



    Appendix #1. Relevant facts about ancient Greek history (a five-minute sketch):

    A. Time covered in this course: eighth through fourth centuries before our era (unless otherwise noted, all dates are "BC"). The term "ancient Greece" will include "Archaic" (up to roughly the middle of the fifth century), "Classical" (roughly, the second half of the fifth century), and "post-Classical" (fourth century and beyond). A convenient point for dividing "Classical" and "post-Classical": the death of Socrates in 399. A convenient stopping-point for this course: the death of Alexander the Great in 323.

    B. Place. "Ancient Greece" (in the historical periods outlined above) was not really a "country" or "nation," as we ordinarily think of these terms (and certainly not a centralized kingdom, as you might guess from the depiction of the heroic age in the Iliad). Rather, it was a cultural constellation of competing city-states that had a single language and civilization in common. During all the historical periods that we are studying (see above), "ancient Greece" included not only the city-states in the geographical area that we know as "modern Greece" or "Hellas," the most prominent of which were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Argos, and Thebes, but also other equally important city states all over the Mediterranean Sea. Here are some examples... In the East and North-East: Miletus, Smyrna (= Turkish Izmir), Chios, Mytilene, Byzantium (= Turkish Istanbul); in the South: Cyrene (in African Lybia); in the West: Syracuse (Sicily), Tarentum (Italy), Naples (Italy), Massalia (= French Marseille). See the map in the Sourcebook. The ancient Greeks would agree that they shared the same language, despite the staggering variety of local dialects. They would even agree that they shared a civilization, though they would be intensely contentious about what exactly their shared civilization would be. Each city-state had its own institutions, that is, its own government, constitution, laws, calendars, religious practices, and so on. Both the sharing and the contentiousness lie at the root of the very essence of the city-state. What I am translating here as "city-state" is the Greek word polis. This is the word from which our words political and politics are derived.

    C. A most basic observation about ancient Greek society: 'The human being is an organism of the polis'.--Aristotle, Politics I 1253a2-3. (Often mistranslated as 'Man is a political animal'.) Here we see the basis for the concept of civilization. In other words, human beings achieve their ultimate potential within a society that is the polis. From this point of view, the ultimate humanism is achieved politically.

    D. The most basic aspects of their civilization that most ancient Greeks could agree about:

  • 1. interpolitical festivals; primary examples: the Olympic festival (= "Olympics") at Olympia, the Pythian festival at Delphi, the Panathenaic festival at Athens

    2. interpolitical repositories of shared knowledge; primary example: Delphi

    3. interpolitical poetry; primary examples: the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, the Theogony and Works and Days of Hesiod.

  • E. I use "interpolitical" instead of "international" because I do not want to imply that each polis is a nation. In my own writings, I use a cover-term for "interpolitical": Panhellenic. Panhellenism is the least common denominator of ancient Greek civilization.

    F. The impulse of Panhellenism is already at work in Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. In the Iliad, the names "Achaeans" and "Danaans" and "Argives" are used synonymously in the sense of Panhellenes = "all Hellenes" = "all Greeks."

    G. We will start with Homer. Homer represents an interpolitical or Panhellenic perspective on the Greeks. Homeric poetry is not tied down to any one polis. It presents the least common denominator in the cultural education of the elite of all city-states. How can a narrative or "story" like the Iliad be an instrument of education? We will get to that later.

    H. In the Classical period, an authoritative source is on record as saying that Homer and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. See the statement of this 5th-century source, Herodotus 2.116-117 in Sourcebook II). Notice that Herodotus defines civilization in terms of religion (the forms and functions of gods).

    I. Finally, an essential point about ancient Greek religion: not only were the gods worshipped. Heroes too were worshipped. The worship of heroes was very much like ancestor worship. (Compare similar customs in other traditional societies, including the Japanese.) Besides the word worship, we may use the word cult. As in hero cult. {Other relevant concepts: cultivate and culture. More on these concepts in later lectures.} That is one of the main topics of my book Best of the Achaeans (1979; revised ed., with new introduction, 1999). Another useful word: ritual. I will have more to say on the concepts of worship, cult, and ritual in lecture 2. {It is enough for now to give two main examples of ritual: sacrifice and war. Moral problems of killing animals to eat their meat, killing other humans. A classic discussion is Walter Burkert's Homo necans.}

    Appendix #2. Facts about the "Heroes" course (a five-minute sketch):

    A. What kind of media were used to convey the message of the concept of the hero? Here are seven that we will study in this course:

  • a) epic and lyric poetry, b) wisdom poetry, c) drama, d) history, e) Plato, a category all by himself, f) ancient art, g) religious practices (worship of heroes and gods: see no. 14 above). In today's lecture, I concentrated on (a) and mentioned (g) briefly in my notes above.
  • Most of you have never studied any of these media before. Even those of you may have already read the Iliad or the Odyssey in translation will nevertheless find that this course will give you perspectives that are different and even new. In any case, there are no prerequisites for this course. There is no language requirement, there are no previous readings required or assumed.

    B. Of the seven media that I listed, the first six cover most of the subjects that people expect to learn in a course like this. This course gives you a major part of the core of Classical Greek literary masterpieces (for a more detailed list, see the first page of the syllabus):

  • #a) all of Homer for epic; highlights from lyric, #b) all of Hesiod, #c) 9 Greek tragedies, three each from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; #d) highlights from the History of Herodotus; #e) two works by Plato about the last days of Socrates; #f) a slide lecture on heroes as represented in Black Figure painting. I will also provide for you, in the lectures and in the notes to the lectures, #g) documentation of ancient Greek religious practices involving the worship of heroes.
  • So, your readings give you a very full knowledge of Classical Greek culture (especially the literature), which is an important aspect of becoming an educated person. But your goal, I hope, is not only to achieve a solid foundation in Classical civilization. An education in the Classics is not merely a commodity, something that can be evaluated and even rated by a Consumer's Report mentality.

    C. Work-load. While we are on the subject of consumerist thoughts.... People tell me that the reading load for this course is light. Well, there is less in volume than in other courses, let's say in a course on the novel. In that kind of course, you might have to read 10x as much as in this course.

    But here is the thing: the reading experience in this course is very different--more challenging in many ways than what you read in other courses that focus more on our own cultural values. Reading in ancient Greek culture was a very different experience from reading in our culture.

    D. The readings in this course will expand your ways of thinking. I will encourage you to produce your own ideas on the basis of the facts you will learn and, even more important, on the basis of the new reading skills you will develop. The best advice I can give at this point: keep thinking while you listen to the lectures and keep thinking while you read the assignments. And take notes about what you are thinking: these will be very useful for you later, when the time comes for you to write your papers and to take the mid-term and final.

    E. I hope you and I will have a chance to talk, at the very least via e-mail. I enjoy talking with students about ideas, about facts, about anything at all (though I don't enjoy quarreling about grades!).

    F. In short, this course is about how to think about literature--a very different kind of literature.

    G. Optional: a word about the history of the course. {What makes this course similar to other courses taught in other colleges and universities about Greek literature in translation: this course has a "Great Books" dimension, since we will be reading so many of the major works of the Greek Classical canon. What makes this course different: the perspective on ancient Greek religious practices and thinking as reflected in the literature. This perspective is tied in with one of my own major research projects, as reflected in the 1979 book that is recommended for the course. I started teaching the course around the time that I finished writing the book, because I wanted to find a way to communicate my findings with those who are not experts in the Classics. One of my inspirations had been the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Erwin Rohde on Greek concepts of heroic psukhê, death, and immortality. The course draws from a variety of different disciplines. Comparative literature, study of religion, history, sociology, anthropology, linguistics. Plus the perspectives of the study of oral traditions, as pioneered at Harvard by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. Plus, in general, the study of literature: how to read it in new ways, how to write about it in new ways--as well as in old ways.}

    H. Optional: a word about Classics as a field. {In the history of European civilization, the field of Classics has been the core of humanities--and of humanism.It used to be hermetically sealed, to be used only by and for the élite. Classics has become democratized in the U.S., much as the ideals and the life-styles of aristocracy were democratized in 5th-century Athens. But it has not always been a smooth journey. Even in the history of the U.S., Classics has in the past tended toward social élitism. This tendency, which can have a variety of negative consequences for the field, has been for the most part transcended in the U.S. Another negative tendency, one that the field has in many ways also transcended, is an attitude of intellectual superiority leading to the slighting or even exclusion of other fields. The resulting dangers are obvious: (1) any exclusiveness in the field of Classics impoverishes its own humanism and (2) other disciplines will try to bypass the Classics, thus cutting themselves off from the historical core of humanism. The study of Classics at Harvard reflects the ideals of the field: intellectual inclusiveness and vigorous concentration on learning and thinking about central facts and values of civilization.}