The Stories That Create Societies

Eric Voegelin writes the following intriguing remarks about a possible connection in Homer’s mind between the catastrophic fall of the Mycenaean civilization (the world of the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey) some four hundred years prior to his own time and the very events of the Iliad itself:

As the subject matter of the Iliad, Homer did not choose a splendid enterprise, but an episode of disorder which presaged the catastrophe that was to overcome Mycenaean civilization. In an earlier context we have suggested the internal exhaustion of civilizational societies in the area of town culture by the twelfth century B.C. The Iliad, now, furnishes a paradigmatic study of the causes of the decline in the Aegean-wide Mycenaean order. For Homer’s Achaeans are not Hellenes, and his Trojans are not barbarians; they both belong to the same society and their strife is a civil war. The one Olympian order extends over them all: the Zeus who endows Agamemnon with his royal authority is also the protector of Troy against Hera who sides with the Achaeans. But the gods are divided. The rift among men is a disturbance in the Olympian order of the world; and the division among the gods is a disturbance of human order. While the war is conducted, on the pragmatic level, as a sanction against a Trojan violation of law, the human disorder reaches into the divine sphere. Something more is at stake than a breach of order that could be repaired by due compensation or by an Achaean victory. For the war itself, destructive for Troy and exhaustive for the Achaeans, is a wanton indulgence; it reveals a universal order–embracing both gods and men, both Trojans and Achaeans–in decline and judgment. The misery of the vanquished will fall back on the victors.:”(Eric Voegelin, The World of the Polis [Louisiana State University Press, 1957], from a discussion spanning pp. 82-110 as cited in Kenneth Atchity, ed., Critical Essays on Homer [Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987], pp. 64-65.)”:

Previously Voegelin had cited Herodotus’ claim that it was Homer and Hesiod who literally invented the traditions and myths about the Greek gods:

Whence came into being each of the gods, or whether they had all for ever existed, and what forms they had, the Hellenes did not know until the other day, so to speak. For the age of Hesiod and Homer was not more than four hundred years before my own, I believe. And they were the first to compose theogonies for the Hellenes, to give the gods their epithets, to allot them their ranks and functions, and to describe their forms.:”(Herodotus, The Histories II, 53, as cited in ibid., 62-63.)”:

What Voegelin is getting at is that Homer (or, “whoever it was” if one accepts doubts about the real existence of a particular man by that name who wrote the epics) and Hesiod essentially created a new kind of social order, apparently from scratch. Homer and Hesiod knew that a fairly advanced civilization had occupied the land before them and that it had fallen hundreds of years earlier, creating a long dark age in which much previous knowledge was lost. Voegelin thinks that the remnants (refugees) from the collapse managed to retain enough threads of tradition, however, to keep their spirit alive “however straitened and precarious the material circumstances of the reorganized communities.” Building on this, he says, the work of Homer and Hesiod was part of a bold attempt to recapture the lost past and “make the glory of its past the guide for its present and future,” not to mention unite the otherwise disparate and fairly primitive groups squatting around the rubble-strewn Aegean.:”(Ibid., 62.)”:

Ultimately, he says, the epic work of Homer and Hesiod kept the old society from entirely dying by transforming it into the form we think of as “classical Greece”:

The Hellenic society did not have to die as did the Babylonian or Egyptian, the Cretan or Achaean. Hellas could transcend itself into Hellenism; and it could transcend the symbolic form of the Olympian myth, in which it had constituted itself, into philosophy as the symbolic form of mankind.:”(Ibid., 65.)”:

These suggestions by Voegelin are enormously interesting to me as insights and speculations into the things that make societies work. Indeed, I have seen evidence that other societies–the Christian ones of the 11th and 16th centuries, in particular–have gone through similar processes of dealing with big questions of Decline, Order, and Purpose. Pope Gregory VII has been said by one author to have deployed a grand idealistic vision of the papal past to combat the troubles of his present. It would not be hard to see the Protestant reformers as doing something similar in their own age. But to think of Homer and Hesiod doing it, too, so long before, suggests that there is something deeply and profoundly human about not just storytelling (whether epic or not) but about the relationship of stories to societies.

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