Greece and Greek Civilization

Due to the enormous diversity of Greek myths and legends, it is hard to envisage a proper understanding of European culture as a whole without some understanding of, or at least familiarity with, these stories as well as how Greek civilization evolved and was subsequently absorbed.

The gods and goddesses of Greek culture derive their origins from a number of widely diverse, largely uncivilized earlier cultures; they were amalgamated, absorbed, modified, and assimilated to produce a highly complex yet also highly organized hierarchy among the deities worshipped within an increasingly civilized society. Their evolution into the pantheon of gods inhabiting Mount Olympus is very closely allied to the emergence of this civilization.

The first farming settlers in Greece, prior to 6000 B.C., brought with them many cults, but most importantly they introduced the ambivalent Mother goddess who presided over land and fertility. This goddess was to evolve through various stages, from the self-created Ge to the far gentler Demeter, who was yet capable of displaying the ferocity of her evolutionary partners.

The first Hellenes appear to have started their influx into Greece with the Minyan and Ionian peoples sometime around 2000 B.C. They came from the north and brought with them the art of horsemanship, and their mastery of horses and wheeled vehicles made their conquest of the region remarkably simple. They penetrated far into the south and well into the islands and branched out to Sicily, southern Italy, and Asia Minor. Becoming excellent navigators as they expanded, they were greatly influenced by the flourishing Minoan culture they discovered on Crete. They brought back features of this cult, and it began to have a considerable effect on Greek mainland culture beginning about 1580 B.C.

Calamity then overcame Knossos, which fell c. 1400 B.C., destroyed either by an earthquake or by the second wave of Hellenic invaders— the Achaeans, who founded Mycenae on the mainland, which probably became the center of civilization in the Aegean world. The site of Mycenae even today indicates the former glory and stature of this city of Agamemnon, which was thought to be purely legendary until it was uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann.

The best view of this Mycenaean culture is through the epic works of Homer, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The Mycenaean dominance of the Greek world was centered around a feuding aristocracy, a feature well illustrated in the stories of the era, particularly that of the siege of Troy.

Following the collapse of Mycenae, the Dorians, who have obscure origins but are ancestors of the classical Greeks, arrived in Greece c. 1100-900 B.C. These settlers sprang from a great many different prehistoric origins, dorian being a generic term for settlers of that era, and as a consequence worshipped a wide variety of deities. They practically destroyed the Mycenaean culture, and their wide diversity in origin led to many wars between the ancient city-states. These are believed by some to have given rise to the greatest epic of Greek mythology, the Trojan War. Traditionally this mammoth enterprise took place c. 1184 B.C., but archaeological evidence suggests that it took place some time before and was an attempt by the Achaeans to capture the Black Sea trade route.

Both Troy and Mycenae have been excavated, most notably by the eccentric millionaire Heinrich Schliemann in the nineteenth century. The excavation of two of the most important city-states of preclassical Greece has revealed a great many facts originally thought to be pure legend and has added an early topic to the history of Greek evolution, that of the Mycenaean culture that flourished from c. 1550 B.C. to 1200 B.C. Troy itself was considered to be legendary before these excavations took place. The excavated sites of Troy and Mycenae can be visited today, those of Mycenae being the more impressive.

The evolution of myths during the period between the arrival of the Dorian settlers and the eighth century B.C. may be viewed as the reflection of events that are now lost to history. They can all be interpreted beyond face value. Many were probably used for purely political purposes. Others probably embodied traditions from earlier periods. The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur, for example, would seem to reflect the memory of the palace at Knossos, which certainly is labyrinthine in construction, the Minotaur itself mirroring the Minoan bull cult.

From the eighth century B.C. Greek civilization was once again ascendant. Of the many city-states of this time, Sparta and Athens grew to prominence, peaking in the sixth century B.C. One hundred years later, during the fifth century B.C., Athens in particular, but Greece as a whole, led the world in philosophical thought and artistic achievement. In 490 B.C. Athens was triumphant in one of the most famous battles ever fought, that of Marathon.

Here the Persians were defeated, and Greece entered a new Golden Age. Athens’s period of predominance and prosperity was, however, short-lived, for Sparta and its allies successfully attacked Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars (460-445 B.C. and 431-404 B.C.). The city-states then engaged in a power struggle that ended with the rise of Macedonia under Philip II. His successor, Alexander the Great, one of the most famous leaders known to history, conquered the Persian Empire and carried Greek influence as far as the River Indus. Upon his death in 323 B.C. his generals quarreled, leaving Ptolemy to conquer Egypt and Seleucus to found a dynasty in Asia.

Worship within Greece was important for uniting the small, constantly squabbling city-states. Major shrines to the deities attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek world and became important markets where business could be transacted under the patronage of the gods. However, ethnic barriers still existed, with certain ethnic groups concentrating their worship at particular sanctuaries. The sanctuary of the Ionians was at Delos; the Dorians favored Mount Olympus.

Prayer became an important way of life, but not in the manner that modern minds would consider it, for by prayer the gods could be persuaded to intercede in worldly matters. Much of Greek worship therefore concentrated on propitiating the gods, with offerings, sacrifices, and libations being made to put the gods in a good mood, for results depended on the mood of the particular deity being called upon. When prayers were answered the gods were rewarded with special offerings such as a new statue or a thanksgiving altar or, in exceptional circumstances—for example, where the help received bordered on the miraculous— the establishment of a new sanctuary. Allegiances also shifted between the worshippers, for if one god would not answer their prayers, ancient Greeks saw no harm in shifting faith to another who might be more receptive. For these people there was no promise of a happy afterlife in return for piety, a situation clearly illustrated within the structure of the Greek Underworld. Here a dead spirit would not even be admitted if the worldly body had not been buried with an obolos on the tongue, a coin to pay the ferryman Charon to transport the spirit across the River Styx. No coin, no crossing. To their sensibilities, the situation was that clear-cut.

By the fifth century the Greeks had begun to consider even their Olympian gods insufficient, and many turned to philosophy in an attempt to discover a rationale for life. They also turned to increasingly exotic and mystic cults. Those that offered the worshipper hope for immortality or close union with the god, as well as those that emphasized the exclusivity of their votaries through wild, complex, and sometimes extremely libidinous initiation ceremonies, became increasingly popular. Eleusis became one of the most important centers of worship at this time, and the Eleusinian Mysteries, which centered on the worship of Demeter and Persephone, attracted a huge number of followers.

Greek art also developed in distinct stages, with early attempts at statuary dating from before the seventh century B.C. probably being simple wooden carvings. The seventh to the late sixth century B.C. is known as the Archaic period of Greek art. Here the artistic representations were stiff-standing, striding, or seated figures, their poses copied from cultures that had drifted into Greece and settled there.

However, by the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the classical period, Greek artists, particularly sculptors, had mastered their medium, having lost all the contrived awkwardness of their earlier pieces. The most important sculptor during the fifth century B.C. was probably Phintias, though Polykeitos was possibly just as famous during his own time. In the fourth century B.C. greater naturalism and individuality developed, particularly in the written word but also in the visual arts. Three sculptors of this period remain perhaps the most outstanding of all ancient Greek artisans: Skopas of Paros, Lysippos of Sikyon, and the great artistic genius Praxiteles of Athens.

The last period of Greek artistic development was the Hellenic, a development that was subsequently to inspire the Romans. Figures became even more naturalistic, but they were more attenuated and less pleasing.

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