From The Guardian, October 7 2011
By Tariq Ali
I was in my mid-teens when someone gave me a copy of Pears Encyclopaedia of Myth and Legends as a birthday present. It sat on my shelves for many months before I looked at it. When I did, I couldn't stop reading it. I became an obsessive. It was much more interesting than the boring old monotheistic religions with the single deity in the sky and his enforcers below. The Greek gods and goddesses, and their Egyptian and Indian equivalents (of which I knew very little at the time), were exciting characters, full of foibles and emotions far more closely associated with humans: love, sex, anger, jealousy. The main difference was that the gods were immortal. And yet even in ancient times there were sceptics who denied the existence of the gods, or gods who rebelled and were punished, such as Prometheus, chained to a rock for eternity because he broke the Mount Olympus monopoly and provided humans with the secret of fire. Because of this, he was for ever Marx's favourite Greek god. "I detest all gods," said the enchained Prometheus, and the 19th-century philosopher used the image to proclaim his own philosophy: "What was inward illumination becomes a consuming flame that turns outward."
Later, Prometheus sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, packing with a memorable verbal kick up his backside: "Be sure of this, I would not change my evil plight for your servility. It is better to be slave to the rock than to serve Father Zeus as his faithful messenger." A sentence, I think, that could never be understood by contemporary European politicians, permanently in thrall to a system that worships commodities more than human beings, and under the military command of the Father in the White House.
It was reading and rereading the old myths that sent me off happily to Homer, both his tragedy (The Iliad) and his comic and happy-ending Odyssey. The goddess Athena became an instant favourite. Still is. Hesiod came later, much later, but encountering him was a delight that took me back to the encyclopedia, only to transcend it. Hesiod's cosmic poetry, recounting the history – Theogony – of the pagan gods, has no equal in the literature that followed. Killing the father, something Freud picked up, plays a central part in the evolution that leads to the victory of Zeus and stability on Mount Olympus.
What of that other mound that bears the name of Venus? Where did that originate? Our poet's version is as follows. Cronus kills his father Uranus, uses a flint to saw off his testicles and hurls them into the sea (some claim the ancient Greek sport of throwing the discus has its origins here). From this blood and gore there emerges the goddess of love and beauty. A playful dialectic is obviously at work. What can compete with Hesiod's description of the birth of Venus? Certainly not the undialectical Florentine Sandro Botticelli: "The genitalia themselves, fresh cut with flint, were thrown / Clear of the mainland into the restless, white-capped sea, / Where they floated a long time. A white foam from the god-flesh / Collected around them, and in that foam a maiden developed / And grew. Her first approach to land was near holy Kythera, / And from there she floated on to the island of Cyprus. / There she came ashore, an awesome, beautiful divinity. / Tender grass sprouted up under her slender feet."
There is no real agreement among scholars as to whether Homer and Hesiod were contemporaries or whether Homer came a hundred or so years later or earlier. How could there be, given that both poets recited and sang in an oral culture. The writing came later. Some zealots invented (based on a few lines from Hesiod's Works and Days) an ancient poetry competition between the two poets and claimed that Hesiod won the prize. Pure fantasy.
Theogony should be read before the great Homeric epics because it gives an account of the cosmology that is taken for granted by Homer. It does for paganism what the Old Testament attempted to do for monotheism. The latter was, of course, multi-authored, whereas the burning and passionate force of Theogony suggests a single, driven author and, perhaps later, a gifted and creative editor.
Later works completely ignored the gods in explaining the origins of the world. Anaximander (and, to some extent, his Indian contemporaries) spoke of a chaotic mass of stuff in eternal motion that created explosions in space, antagonisms between heat and cold that created a nucleus. The cold produced a watery earth wrapped in clouds. The hot was a permanent ring of flame that surrounded earth, and when it burst all was cold till the sun, moon and stars, flames in the sky, dried the earth and the seas reduced in size. Life emerged from the slime. First to come were sea-urchin type creatures, then land animals and, finally, man. Natural events, not supernatural forces, were responsible for the creation of our world. Orthodox monotheists still deny this fact. Perhaps we would have been better off under paganism.
What was it about ancient Greece in the first millennium BCE that made its culture so important for the epochs that followed? It was not alone in producing a high-quality literary culture. The bronze age past that it shared with China and India helped in the formation of the other two civilisations as well: Homer's epics had their counterparts in the Chinese classics and the Vedas. And, even more interestingly, all three civilisations were, in the middle of that millennium, engaged in sharp philosophical and scientific debates. But geography and size differentiated each from the other and China and India from Greece, determining in the last instance their evolutions from antiquity to modernity. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment traces enlightenment thinking back to the age of Homer. And Gibbon predicts in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the synthesis created by the death of antiquity and the fall of Rome constituted "a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth". It is today: the domination of the west is being challenged economically from the east but it is far from over.
The Greek city-states politicised citizen and subject, creating institutions that were way ahead of anything in China or India. The politicians of antiquity exercised a political and military, if not economic, hegemony on the culture as a whole. The idea of democracy was first born and practised here. At that time it was regarded as subversive by some and regularly strangled by despots and dictators – as it is today. The wealth on which the dazzling urban culture was based lay in the countryside. It was landed proprietors who controlled the production of oil, wine and corn, without which the cities would have collapsed. It is this that makes Hesiod's Works and Days unique as a document from that period. It also gives us a few ideas as to the background of the poet himself, something impossible to detect in Homer (or, a millennium later, in Shakespeare). Hesiod's father was a poor peasant-farmer, a migrant who went in search of work: "He was fleeing you can be sure, from something other / Than wealth and good things: loathsome poverty / Zeus visits upon men."
The poet admired his father's virtues, but despised his brother. That loafer was no help at all. Instead of working, the idiot chattered his life away, refusing to accept that "work is no shame, not working is the shame". Works and Days is the product of an amazingly gifted peasant poet who stresses the rituals and restraints of the time insofar as they involve men: "Don't piss standing up while facing the sun. / Between sunset and sunrise, remember, / Don't piss on the road or on the roadside, / Or naked. The blessed gods own the night. / A religious man squats down, if he's got any sense, / Or he goes by the wall of an enclosed courtyard." This particular ritual is virtually the same as Islamic rituals today – though not what follows, which might well have been another reprimand to his reprobate brother: "Don't let your privates be seen smeared with semen / Near the hearth at home. Be careful to avoid this."
On a loftier plane, Hesiod suggested a moral universe that appears to be absent from the world of contemporary politics, war and law: "But if you bear false witness / Or lie under oath, and by damaging Justice / Ruin yourself beyond hope of cure, your bloodline / Will weaken and your descendants die out."
The prescription is on the mark. The prediction, alas, has yet to be fulfilled. If we wish, we can still learn a great deal from the ancients. Hesiod is a good place to start.