The Greeks created myths to explain the world. Ancient Greek literature provides some of the world’s greatest poems and stories. Greek literature lives in and influences our world even today. The ancient Greeks created great myths and works of literature that influence the way we speak and write today.
Suppose you were there...
As a farmer in ancient Greece, your way of life depends on events in nature. The crops you grow need sunshine and rain, though thunder and lightning scare you. When you look up at the night sky, you wonder about the twinkling lights you see there. You know that at certain times of the year, the weather will turn cold and gray and plants will die. Then, a few months later, green plants will grow again.
How might you explain these natural events?
BUILDING BACKGROUND The Greeks lived in a time long before the development of science. To them, natural events like thunderstorms and changing seasons were mysterious. Today we can explain what causes these events. But to the Greeks, they seemed like the work of powerful gods.
Myths Explain the World
The ancient Greeks believed in many gods. These gods were at the center of Greek mythology—a body of stories about gods and heroes that try to explain how the world works. Each story, or myth, explained natural or historical events.
Greek Gods People today have scientific explanations for events like thunder, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The ancient Greeks did not. They believed their gods caused these events to happen, and they created myths to explain the gods’ actions.
Among the most important Greek gods were the ones listed below:
The Greeks saw the work of the gods in events all around them. For example, the Greeks lived in an area where volcanic eruptions were common. To explain these eruptions, they told stories about the god Hephaestus (hi-FES-tuhs), who lived underground.
The fire and lava that poured out of volcanoes, the Greeks said, came from the huge fires of the god’s forge. At this forge he created weapons and armor for the other gods.
The Greeks did not think the gods spent all their time creating disasters, though. They also believed the gods caused daily events. For example, they believed the goddess of agriculture, Demeter (di-MEE-tuhr), created the seasons. According to Greek myth, Demeter had a daughter who was kidnapped by another god. The desperate goddess begged the god to let her daughter go, and eventually he agreed to let her return to her mother for six months every year. During the winter, Demeter is separated from her daughter and misses her. In her grief, she doesn’t let plants grow. When her daughter comes home, the goddess is happy, and summer comes to Greece. To the Greeks, this story explained why winter came every year.
To keep the gods happy, the Greeks built great temples to them all around Greece. In return, however, they expected the gods to give them help when they needed it. For example, many Greeks in need of advice traveled to Delphi, a city in central Greece. There they spoke to the oracle, a female priest of Apollo to whom they thought the god gave answers. The oracle at Delphi was so respected that Greek leaders sometimes asked her for advice about how to rule their cities.
The Minotaur lived in the Labyrinth, a large chamber with many twisting passageways. Before entering the Labyrinth, Theseus was given a ball of string, which he tied to the door and used to find his way back out of the mazelike chamber after he killed the Minotaur.
Heroes and Mythology
Not all Greek myths were about gods. Many told about the adventures of great heroes. Some of these heroes were real people, while others were not. The Greeks loved to tell the stories of heroes who had special abilities and faced terrible monsters. The people of each city had their favorite hero, usually someone from there.
The people of Athens, for example, told stories about the hero Theseus. According to legend, he traveled to Crete and killed the Minotaur, a terrible monster that was half human and half bull. People from northern Greece told myths about Jason and how he sailed across the seas in search of a great treasure, fighting enemies the whole way.
Perhaps the most famous of all Greek heroes was a man called Hercules. The myths explain how Hercules fought many monsters and performed nearly impossible tasks. For example, he fought and killed the hydra, a huge snake with nine heads and poisonous fangs. Every time Hercules cut off one of the monster’s heads, two more heads grew in its place. In the end, Hercules had to burn the hydra’s neck each time he cut off a head to keep a new head from growing. People from all parts of Greece enjoyed stories about Hercules and his great deeds.
How did the Greeks use myths to explain the world around them?
What were some events that the Greeks believed their gods were responsible for?
What role did heroes play in Greek myths?
Who are some of the Greek heroes that are featured in myths?
Let the Games Begin!
One way the ancient Greeks honored their gods was by holding sporting contests like the one shown on the vase. The largest took place every four years at Olympia, a city in southern Greece. Held in honor of Zeus, this event was called the Olympic Games. Athletes competed in footraces, chariot races, boxing, wrestling, and throwing events. Only men could compete. The Greeks held these games every four years for more than 1,000 years, until the AD 320s.
In modern times, people began to hold the Olympics again. The first modern Olympics took place in Athens in 1896. Since then, athletes from many nations have assembled in cities around the world to compete. Today the Olympics include 28 sports, and both men and women participate. They are still held every four years. In 2004 the Olympic Games once again returned to their birthplace, Greece.
How do you think the modern Olympics are similar to the ancient Games? How do you think they are different?
What was the purpose of the ancient Olympic Games?
Why is it important that the 2004 Olympic Games took place in Athens?
Ancient Greek Literature
Because the Greeks loved myths and stories, it is no surprise that they created great works of literature. Early Greek writers produced long epic poems, romantic poetry, and some of the world’s most famous stories.
Homer and Epic Poetry
Among the earliest Greek writings are two great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, by a poet named Homer. Like most epics, both poems describe the deeds of great heroes. The heroes in Homer’s poems fought in the Trojan War. In this war, the Mycenaean Greeks fought the Trojans, people of the city called Troy.
The Iliad tells the story of the last years of the Trojan War. It focuses on the deeds of the Greeks, especially Achilles (uh-KILeez), the greatest of all Greek warriors. It describes in great detail the battles between the Greeks and their Trojan enemies.
The Odyssey describes the challenges that the Greek hero Odysseus (oh-DI-seeuhs) faced on his way home from the war. For 10 years after the war ends, Odysseus tries to get home, but many obstacles stand in his way. He has to fight his way past terrible monsters, powerful magicians, and even angry gods.
Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are great tales of adventure. But to the Greeks Homer’s poems were much more than just entertainment. They were central to the ancient Greek education system. People memorized long passages of the poems as part of their lessons. They admired Homer’s poems and the heroes described in them as symbols of Greece’s great history. Homer’s poems influenced later writers.
They copied his writing styles and borrowed some of the stories and ideas he wrote about in his works. Homer’s poems are considered some of the greatest literary works ever produced.
Homer 800s–700s BC
Historians know nothing about Homer, the greatest poet of the ancient world. Some don’t think such a person ever lived. The ancient Greeks believed he had, though, and seven different cities claimed to be his birthplace. According to ancient legend, Homer was blind and recited the Iliad and the Odyssey aloud. It wasn’t until much later that the poems were written down.
Why might scholars not be sure that Homer existed?
What purposes did Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey serve for the Greeks?
How have recent writers been influenced by the poems of Homer?
Other poets wrote poems that were often set to music. During a performance, the poet played a stringed instrument called a lyre while reading a poem. These poets were called lyric poets after their instrument, the lyre. Today, the words of songs are called lyrics after these ancient Greek poets.
Most poets in Greece were men, but the most famous lyric poet was a woman named Sappho (SAF-oh). Her poems were beautiful and emotional. Most of her poems were about love and relationships with her friends and family.
Other Greeks told stories to teach people important lessons. Aesop (EE-sahp), for example, is famous for his fables. Fables are short stories that teach the reader lessons about life or give advice on how to live. In most of Aesop’s fables, animals are the main characters. The animals talk and act like humans. One of Aesop’s most famous stories is the tale of the ants and the grasshopper:
“The ants were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing [dying] with famine [hunger], passed by and earnestly [eagerly] begged for a little food. The Ants inquired [asked] of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?” He replied, “I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.” They then said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.”
–Aesop, from “The Ants and the Grasshopper”
The lesson in this fable is that people shouldn’t waste time instead of working. Those who do, Aesop says, will be sorry. Another popular fable by Aesop, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” teaches that it is better to work slowly and carefully than to hurry and make mistakes. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” warns readers not to play pranks on others. Since we still read these fables, you may be familiar with them.
Aesop before 400 BC
Historians don’t know for sure if a man named Aesop ever really lived, but many ancient legends are told about him. According to one story, Aesop was a slave in the 500s BC. Another story says he was an adviser to a king. Some historians think that the fables credited to Aesop were actually written by many different people and collected together under a single name.
Why might the Greeks have wanted to list a single author for the fables?
What types of stories are credited to Aesop?
Why do you think most of Aesop’s main characters are animals rather than humans?
Greek Literature Lives
The works of ancient Greek writers such as Homer, Sappho, and Aesop are still alive and popular today. In fact, Greek literature has influenced modern language, literature, and art. Did you know that some of the words you use and some of the stories you hear come from ancient Greece?
Probably the most obvious way we see the influence of the Greeks is in our language. Many English words and expressions come from Greek mythology. For example, we call a long journey an “odyssey” after Odysseus, the wandering hero of Homer’s poem. Something very large and powerful is called “titanic.” This word comes from the Titans, a group of large and powerful gods in Greek myth.
Many places around the world today are also named after figures from Greek myths. For example, Athens is named for Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Africa’s Atlas Mountains were named after a giant from Greek mythology who held up the sky. The name of the Aegean Sea comes from Aegeus, a legendary Greek king.
Europe itself was named after a figure from Greek myth, the princess Europa. Even places in space bear names from mythology. For example, Jupiter’s moon Io was named after a goddess’s daughter.
Greek Influence on Language
In Greek Literature and Mythology…
Achilles was a great warrior who was killed when an arrow struck his heel.
An “Achilles heel” is a person’s weak spot.
Hercules was the strongest man on earth who completed 12 almost impossible tasks.
When a person has a really hard job to do it is called a “Herculean” task.
A fox wanted to eat some grapes but he couldn’t reach the branch they were on, so he said, “Those grapes are probably sour anyway.”
When people pretend they don’t want something after they find out they can’t have it, they are said to have “sour grapes
King Midas was granted one wish by the god Dionysus, so he wished that everything he touched turned to gold.
A person who seems to get rich easily is said to have a “Midas touch.”
Tantalus was punished for offending the gods. He had to stand up to his chin in water and he was always thirsty, but if he tried to drink the water it went away
!Something is “tantalizing” if you want it but it’s just out of your reach
Greek myths have inspired artists for centuries. Great painters and sculptors have used gods and heroes as the subjects of their works. Writers have retold ancient stories, sometimes set in modern times. Moviemakers have also borrowed stories from ancient myths. Hercules, for example, has been the subject of dozens of films. These films range from early classics to a Walt Disney cartoon.
Mythological references are also common in today’s popular culture. Many sports teams have adopted the names of powerful figures from myths, like Titans or Trojans. Businesses frequently use images or symbols from mythology in their advertising. Although people no longer believe in the Greek gods, mythological ideas can still be seen all around us.
How did Greek myths influence later language and art?
Give two examples of terms in our language that have been influenced by Greek stories.
What are some modern references to Greek mythology?
Why have many modern writers and moviemakers borrowed from Greek stories and myths?
19. a. What is mythology?
b. Why did the ancient Greeks create myths?
20. a. What are Homer’s most famous works?
b. How are fables different from myths?
21. a. In what areas have Greek myths influenced our culture?
b. Why do you think mythological references are popular with sports teams and businesses today?
c. Why do you think Greek literature has been so influential throughout history?
22. Draw a chart that lists two characteristics of each type of Greek literature.
Epic Poetry, Lyric Poetry, Fables
SUMMARY AND PREVIEW The myths, stories, and poems of ancient Greece have shaped how people today speak, read, and write. Like democracy, these myths, stories, and poems are part of ancient Greece’s gift to the world. In the next chapter you will learn more about life and culture in ancient Greece.