Friday, March 12, 2021

Greek Literature (and why it matters).

 To my dearest friends and followers,

Last week I shared on my blog my love for Greek mythology and Greek literature. Today, as someone who has appreciated both for over a decade, I'm here to explain why I think they matter and how the Greeks have influenced the modern Western world.

While the people of ancient Sumer (a region in Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq) were the first known civilization to have a written language in a script known as cuneiform, and the Chinese were the first to have invented a complex writing system, the Greeks were the first European civilization to create complex literature, including history, philosophy, comedy, and poetry.
In fact, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote mostly comedies, tragedies, and poetry, and further popularized the writing style heavily influenced by the Greeks. Until the mid 1800's, most literature produced in the Western world was written by writers who were extremely familiar with Greek traditions and Greek literature. 

Epic poetry is believed to be the oldest form of literature and is verse which tells a long story about a hero.
The oldest known epics are The Iliad and The Odyssey, believed to have been written by Homer around 800 BC. Both of Homer's works are some of the most read books today, as they set the standards for storytelling, such as the characteristics of a heroes journey and how we still tell stories to this day.

Around 1990, American professor of literature, Joseph Campbell, recognized the patterns in Greek storytelling and defined what he called "the hero's journey," the path that every hero takes. The basic stages of the hero's journey are: ordinary life, call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting the mentor, crossing the threshold, trials and enemies, approach the inmost cave, the ordeal, the reward, the road back, resurrection, return from the unknown, and coming full circle again, ordinary life. It was this formula or template which made every story interesting and memorable. This pattern is seen over and over again in modern storytelling, whether it be on screen or in a book, and it almost always guarantees a satisfying story to the consumer. Just a few examples of stories which follow the hero's journey include The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, Sam Raimi's Spider Man movies, The Lion King, The Wizard of Oz, Kung Fu Panda, Finding Nemo, and Mulan.

The Greeks have influenced the Western world in more ways than just through storytelling though.
They contributed heavily to modern mathematics and geometry. 
Hippocrates established a medical school and had an empirical-ethical viewpoint. He is still considered the founder of modern medicine. 
Hipparchus of Nicaea, who was an early Greek astronomer, "discovered" the earth's axis, and claimed that the sun was at the center of the solar system.

Plays had been around for a long time, though they were primarily tragedies performed at religious ceremonies and festivals. Aeschylus introduced the then foreign idea of having multiple characters on a stage at once, interacting with dialogue, thus changing the way plays were performed forever. Sophocles and Aristophanes then introduced other types of plays to the already popular tragedies, such as comedies and satire.

The court system and trial by jury was invented by the early Greeks.
Architecture invented by them can still be seen today, such as the capital buildings in the United States, and the British Museum in London. Even the design of modern theaters dates back to ancient Greece. 
The English alphabet is largely influenced by the Greeks. 
The popular Olympic games originated in Greece around 770 BC. The period of 4 years in between games was called an "olympiad" and was used to measure the time rather than years. The games were named after Mount Olympus, where the Greeks believed the Olympian gods ruled from. Originally, the Olympic games were held every 4 years to honor the gods, Zeus in particular.

Greek influence is found everywhere. Look at the logo for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. It's a sandal with wings on it, the shoes worn by the Greek god Hermes (Roman equivalent, Mercury), who was the swift messenger of the gods. Think of the medical symbol with a snake (or two snakes) wrapped around a rod or staff. The staff with two snakes and wings on the top, Caduceus, was held by Hermes. The rod with a single snake, the Rod of Asclepius, was held by the god of healing, Asclepius. Starbucks Coffee uses the twin tailed siren from Greek mythology as their logo. Nike, Inc. is named after Nike, the goddess of speed, strength, and victory. Dove soap is named after the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, whose symbol and sacred animal was the dove. Venus razors for women are also named after the goddess Aphrodite, whose Roman equivalent is Venus.

As I said, Greek influence is everywhere in the modern Western world. I believe, to better understand where that comes from, and to understand how storytelling came to be what it is today, Greek literature is a great place to start.
Thank you so much for reading!!

Yours truly,

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