The Dark Ages

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The Dark Ages

The Beginnings of the Polis.

In the Dark Ages that followed the end of the Mycenaean world, Greece sank back into illiteracy. "Linear B" writing had been only a tool for keeping records in the little bureaucracies in the Mycenaean palaces, and once the palaces were destroyed, and records were no longer kept, "Linear B" died out. Central authority collapsed, and once stability reappeared in the Greek world, some 700 little independent states called poleis (translated rather inadequately as "city-states") are found—each a little urban center with a market, surrounded by its territory where the citizens had their farms and pastures. The urban center was the seat of government and the market was intended both for commerce and as a gathering-place for the citizens to discuss matters of common concern. Since life in the "Dark Ages" was insecure, the preferred site for an urban center was around an acropolis—the word means simply "high city," or "city on a mount"—which was a defensible hill, able to provide a place of refuge. Of the hundreds of poleis, modern scholars are familiar with only a few of the largest, such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes, and these were not the most typical. They revered the same pantheon of gods; yet each had its own favorites, and sometimes even its own versions of the myths about their favorite gods. Moreover, within the poleis, there were great families; Corinth, for instance, was dominated by one extended family called the Bacchiadae, who elected one of their members king. Elsewhere there were various family alliances called phratries, each of which might have its own patron god. What gave the religion of the "Dark Ages" whatever unity it had was the common memory of the Mycenaean world and the mythology that arose from it.

The Importance of Oral Tradition.

The oral culture of the Greek world remained lively. Oral bards sang their poems at religious festivals or in the banqueting halls of the great aristocratic families, and they related stories of a time when gods walked the earth and fought beside their favored warriors on the battlefield. It was the poets who gave shape to the Greek ideas about their gods. They imagined deities in human form, though in the standard epithets that were applied to them there seems to be a folk memory of an early time when some of them were theriomorphic gods. Athena was called "owl-eyed" and her special bird was the owl, which may recall an early, primitive belief that the owl incorporated her spirit. An owl gliding to its perch on silent wings, for example, was Athena manifesting herself. Hera was called "ox-eyed," perhaps for the same reason. The gods' association with animal totems aside, the poets made their gods in the likeness of man, and they thought of them as a divine version of an aristocratic clan, whose members had all the human failings. There was this important difference: the gods were immortal. They were safe from the fear of death, and thus they could afford to be more irresponsible than mere humans.


introduction: The "Homeric Hymns" were composed by the Homeridai, a guild of rhapsodes (bards who recited poetry in the epic tradition, sometimes composed by themselves) who performed at religious festivals. The festival of Apollo and Artemis at Delos was celebrated by the Ionians; there were twelve cities founded by Ionian Greeks on the coastline of Asia Minor and the Dodecanese islands, including such famous places as Miletus, Ephesus, Chios, and Samos. The following excerpt comes from a Homeric Hymn that celebrates the festival at Delos. The bard gives us his "signature" at the end of the hymn: he is a blind man living in Chios, which led some Greeks to speculate that the bard was Homer himself, who, according to legend, was blind.

Phoebus [Apollo], you get your greatest pleasure from Delos, where the Ionians in their long robes gather with their children and their esteemed wives; and they commemorate you and delight you with their boxing, dancing and song whenever they hold their competitions. Anyone who chances on a gathering of the Ionians would say they were a deathless people who do not grow old; for he would see how graceful they all are, and he would rejoice in his heart as he watched the men and the well-girdled women and their fast ships and their many possessions. Besides, there is a great marvel here whose glory will never perish: the Delian maidens, the servants of the Far-shooter. For they sing praises to Apollo first, and then Leto and Artemis the shooter of arrows, and then they recall the men and women of old, and sing songs about them, enchanting the tribes of men. They know how to represent the voices of all men, and the beat of their music. One would say those men themselves were speaking, so realistic is their lovely song.

But come, Apollo and Artemis, give your blessing; and [maidens] farewell to all of you. Remember me in times to come, when a stranger from among the men who haunt the earth, who has seen and suffered much, comes and asks: "Who do you think, girls, is the sweetest of the singers who frequent you here? Who delights you most?" With one voice, all you who stand about me, give him answer: "The blind man who lives in rocky Chios; all his songs are the best and will be, too, in time to come." And I shall carry your fame with me as I go about the world, visiting the well-sited cities of humankind. And they will be persuaded, for it is the truth. For my part, I shall not cease hymning Apollo of the silver bow, the son of fair-tressed Leto.

source: Homer, "The Delian Festival," in The Penguin Book of Greek Verse (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971): 120–122. Translated by James Allan Evans.

The Importance of Homer.

Two poets in particular can be singled out for their role in shaping religious concepts. The first is Homer, whom legend said was a blind poet who composed the two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the Homeric Hymns which were sung at religious festivals. Whether a poet named Homer ever existed or not is much debated, but it is the least consequential of the many questions which this body of literature raises. What is important is that the Greeks at a later time looked back on these poems as the literature that gave shape to their concept of the gods. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey take their subject matter from the most famous myth that Greece inherited from the Mycenaean world: the story of the siege of Troy. According to the myth, a Trojan prince, Paris, also known as Alexander, abducted Helen, the beautiful wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaus. A Greek coalition led by Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, sailed to Troy in pursuit of Helen and captured the city after a ten-year siege. Archaeology shows that a city on the site of Troy did stand siege and was destroyed at about the date that the Greeks assigned to the Trojan War, and so the Trojan War-myth must have a kernel of truth to it. But the oral bards who performed in the halls of warrior aristocrats in the "Dark Ages" developed a Trojan myth that mingled the human realm with the divine. Homer, who may have been the poet who first put the Iliad and the Odyssey into writing, belonged to this bardic tradition. His tales of the gods helped form the Greek conception of them as immortal beings that are powerful but not omnipotent, and capable of doing mortals good or evil according to their whims of the moment. They answered a human's prayers if they were well disposed. They had their favorites, they carried grudges, and they loved to receive honors. When they appeared to humans in divine epiphanies, they were always tall, handsome, and sweet smelling. They were super-human, but they were also unreliable creatures and not to be trusted. They had both the vices and virtues of mortal men, but since they could not die, their lives were untouched by tragedy as were the lives of humans.

The Contribution of Hesiod.

The other poet who helped shape the Greek religious beliefs was Hesiod, author of the Theogony which is a creation myth, and the Works and Days which describes a farmer's life and sets it in a world where the relationship with the divine element was important. The fifth-century historian Herodotus—the first European author to write history that was more than a chronicle of facts—relates that it was Homer and Hesiod who described the gods for the Greeks and gave them all their appropriate titles, functions, and powers, and he suggested the poets lived sometime before 800 b.c.e. That date may not be far wrong, for some scholars think that by that time the Greeks had already learned to write again, having borrowed their alphabet from the Phoenicians. Once the texts of Homer and Hesiod were written down, they gave whatever standard form there was to Greek religion.

Other Writers.

The gods of Homer were never canonical, and later writers were free to develop their own concepts that fitted the intellectual currents of the day. Greek story-tellers presented gods that were envious divine powers, and the tragic poets—the greatest of whom were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides—took up the theme: the standard subject matter of tragedy was a human who became too great or too lucky, and aroused the jealousy of the gods who struck him down. Greek philosophers freely criticized the conduct of the Homeric gods and even began to point out in the fifth century b.c.e. that there was no way of demonstrating the actual existence of the gods or, if they did exist, what they looked like. Yet worship of the gods was deeply embedded in Greek society. It was sustained by ancient custom, and the Greeks revered the way of life that their ancestors had bequeathed to them.


V. R. d'A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages (London, England: Ernest Benn, 1972).

W. K. C. Guthrie, In the Beginning: Some Greek Views on the Origin of Life and the Early State of Man (London, England: Methuen, 1957).

A. M. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1971).

Carol G. Thomas, Myth Becomes History: Pre-Classical Greece (Claremont, Calif.: Regina Books, 1993).

H. S. Versnel, "What Did Ancient Man See When He Saw a God? Some Reflections on Greco-Roman Antiquity," in Effigies Dei. Ed. D. van der Plas (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1987): 42–55.