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                                                          The Homeric Age 
Homer In order to understand the evolution of the Hellenic civilization it is necessary to go back to the first period of its history, the Homeric Age which extended from approximately 1200 to 800 BC. It was the that the Greek nation was formed and the foundations laid for many of the social and political developments of subsequent centuries. Not all of the glory that was Greece can be traced to the Homeric Age, but it is nonetheless true that several of the most typical institutions and attributes of the Greeks in their prime were modifications of forms which had survived from the earliest days.



By 1200 BC the Greeks had  occupied most of the northern sections of the peninsula and a few scattered locations along the coast. At first they filtered in slowly, bringing their herds and flocks with them and settling in the more sparsely populated areas. Many of these early immigrants seem to have belonged to the group which later came to be known as Ionians. Another division the Achaeans pushed further south , conquered Mycenae and Troy, and ultimately gained dominion over Crete. Soon after 1200 the great Dorian invasions began and reached their climax about two centuries later. Some of the Dorians settled in central Greece, but most of them took to the sea , conquering the eastern sections of the Peloponnesus and the southern islands of the Aegean. About  1000 BC they captured Knossos, the chief center of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.

Whether Achaeans , Ionians , or Dorians , all of the Greeks in the Homeric Age had essentially the same culture , which was comparatively primitive. Not until the very last century of the period was there any general knowledge of writing . We must therefore envisage the Homeric Greeks as a preliterate people during the greater part of their history , with intellectual accomplishments that extended no farther then development of folk songs , ballads , and short epics sung and embellished by bards as they wandered from one village to another. A large part of this material was finally woven into a great epic cycle by one or more poets and put into written form in the ninth century BC. Though not all of the poems of this cycle have come down to us , the two most important , the Iliad and the Odyssey, provide us with our richest store of information about the ideals and customs of the Homeric Age.

The political institutions of the Homeric Greeks were exceedingly primitive. Each little community of villages was independent of external control , but political authority was so tenuous that it would not be too much to say that the state scarcely existed at all. The king could not make or enforce laws or administer justice. He received no remuneration of any kind , but had to cultivate his farm for a living the same as any other citizen. Practically his only functions were military and priestly. He commanded the army in time of war and offered sacrifices to keep the gods on the good side of the community. Although each little group of villages had its council of nobles and assembly of warriors, neither of these bodies had any definite membership or status as an organ of government. The duties of the former were to advise and assist the king and prevent him from usurping despotic powers. The  functions of the latter were to ratify declarations of war and assent to the conclusion of peace. Almost without exception custom took the place of law , and the administration of justice was private. Even willful murder was punishable only by the family of the victim. While it is true that disputes were sometimes submitted to the king for settlement , he acted in such cases merely as an arbitrator , not as a judge. As a matter of fact , the political consciousness of  the Greeks of this time was so poorly developed that they had no conception of government as an indispensable agency for the preservation of social order. When Odysseus , king of Ithaca , was absent for twenty years , no regent was appointed in his place , and no session of the council or assembly was held. No one seemed to think that the complete suspension of government , even for so long a time , was a matter of any critical importance.

As is commonly known, the deities of the Homeric religion were merely human beings writ large. It was really necessary that this should be so if the Greek was to feel at home in the world over which they ruled. Remote, omnipotent beings like the gods of most Oriental religions would have inspired fear rather than a sense of security. What the Greek wanted was not necessarily gods of great power, but deities he could bargain with on equal terms. Conse­quently he endowed his gods with attributes similar to his own— with human bodies and human weaknesses and wants. He imagined the great company of divinities as frequently quarreling with one another, needing food and sleep, mingling freely with men, and even procreating children occasionally by mortal women. They differed from men only in the fact that they subsisted on ambrosia and nectar, which made them immortal. They dwelt not in the sky or in the stars but on the summit of .Mount Olympus, a peak in northern Greece with an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

The religion was thoroughly polytheistic, and no one deity was elevated very high above any of the others. Zeus, the sky god and wielder of the thunderbolt, who was sometimes referred to as the father of the gods and of men, frequently received less attention than did Poseidon, the sea god, Aphrodite, goddess of love, or Athena, the goddess of war and patroness of handicrafts. Since the Greeks had no Satan, their religion cannot be described as dualistic. Nearly all of the deities were capable of malevolence as well as good, for they sometimes deceived men and caused them to commit wrongs. The nearest approach to a god of evil was Hades, who presided over the nether world. Although he is referred to in the Homeric poems as "implacable and unyielding" and the most hateful of gods to mortals, he was never assumed to have played an active role in affairs on earth. He was not considered as the source of pestilence, earthquake, or famine. He did not tempt men or work to defeat the benevolent designs of other gods. In short, he was really not regarded as anything more than the guardian of the realm of the dead.

The Greeks of the Homeric Age were almost completely indifferent to what happened to them after death. Not only did they bestow no care upon the bodies of the dead, but they frequently cremated them. They did assume, however, that the shades or ghosts of men survived for a time after the death of their bodies. All, with a few exceptions, went to the same abode—to the murky realm of Hades situated beneath the earth. This was neither a paradise nor a hell: no one was rewarded for his good deeds, and no one was punished for his sins. Each of the shades appeared to continue the same kind of life its human embodiment had lived on earth. The Homeric poems make casual mention of two other realms, the Elysian Plain and the realm of Tartarus, which seem at first glance to contradict the idea of no rewards and punishments in the hereafter. But the few individuals who enjoyed the ease and comfort of the Elysian Plain had done nothing to deserve such blessings; they were simply persons whom the gods had chosen to favor. The realm of Tartarus was not really an abode of the dead but a place of imprisonment for rebellious deities.

Worship in the Homeric religion consisted primarily of sacrifice. The offerings were made, however, not as an atonement for sin, but merely in order to please the gods and induce them to grant favors. In other words, religious practice was external and mechanical and not far removed from magic. Reverence, humility, and purity of heart were not essentials in it. The worshiper had only to carry out his part of the bargain by making the proper sacrifice, and the gods would fulfill theirs. For a religion such as this no elaborate institutions were required. Even a professional priesthood was unnecessary. Since there were no mysteries and no sacraments, one man could perform the simple rites about as well as another. As a general rule, each head of a family implored the favor of the gods for his own household, and the king performed the same function for the com­munity at large. Although it is true that seers or prophets were frequently consulted because of the belief that they were directly inspired by the gods and could therefore foretell the future, these were not of a priestly class. Furthermore, the Homeric religion included no cult or sacred relics, no holy days, and no system of temple worship. The Greek temple was not a church or place of religious assemblage, and no ceremonies were performed within it. Instead it was a shrine which the god might visit occasionally and use as a temporary house.

As intimated already, the morality of the Greeks in the Homeric period had only the vaguest connection with their religion. While it is true that the gods were generally disposed to support the right, they did not consider it their duty to combat evil and make right­eousness prevail. In meting out rewards to men, they appear to have been influenced more by their own whims and by gratitude for sacrifices offered than by any consideration for moral character. The only crime they punished was perjury, and that none too consistently. The conclusion seems justified, then, that Homeric moral­ity rested upon no basis of supernatural sanctions. Perhaps its true foundation was military. Nearly all the virtues extolled in the epics were those which would make the individual a better soldier— bravery, self-control, patriotism, wisdom (in the sense of cunning), love of one's friends, and hatred of one's enemies. There was no conception of sin in the Christian sense of wrongful acts to be repented of or atoned for..

At the end of the Homeric Age the Greek was already well started along the road of social ideals that he was destined to follow in later centuries. He was an optimist, convinced that life was worth living for its own sake, and he could see no reason for looking for­ward to death as a glad release. He was an egoist, striving for the fulfillment of self. As a consequence, he rejected mortification of the flesh and all forms of denial which would imply the frustration of life. He could see no merit in humility or in turning the other cheek. He was a humanist, who worshiped the finite and the natural rather than the otherworldly or sublime. For this reason he refused to invest his gods with awe-inspiring qualities, or to invent any conception of man as a depraved and sinful creature. Finally, he was devoted to liberty in an even more extreme form than most of his descendants in the classical period were willing to accept.




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