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During both the archaic and imperial times, Greek culture was filled with iconic stories of immortals. However, the culture’s perspectives about these prominent figures changed over time. This essay will describe the changes and continuities in Greek literary treatments of mortals and immortals from archaic to imperial times. The immortals vary from mortal-born heroines and heroes who were promoted to become gods from a process called apotheosis. Many of these gods received their prominent statuses because of their services to mankind; these heroes include Heracles, Aristaeus and Asclepius; others were promoted because they were married to the gods, such as Ariadne, Psyche and Tithonus; a small number were promoted out of sheer luck, such as Glaucus – but the means of promotion and the detailed stories behind these gods was not always consistent. Ultimately, the way that Greek literature treated mortals and immortals from the Archaic to Imperial times changed immensely as the culture gradually saw the stories more as myths.
During the Archaic times, the stories about gods were considered to be the cornerstone of the Greek society. These gods were admired throughout history. One of the first pieces to realize such prominence was Homer’s Lliad, and the accompanying piece, Odyssey, (Nagy, 1). Admired for its high prestige, Iliad is a prime example of the definition of the Greeks’ epic: which is a massive poem with major scope. The poem is constructed with elevated language that explains the various deeds of heroes. “That these deeds were meant to arouse a sense of wonder or marvel is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, especially in a time when even such words as wonderful or marvelous have lost much of their evocative power” (Nagy, 3). It is also difficult to understand the ancient Greeks’ meaning behind hero. These heroes depicted were typically human, descended from immortal gods. One of the major examples of this is Akhilleus, who is typically known now as Achilles (Nagy, 3). He is the most major hero in lIiad, and he was the son of Thetis, who is a sea-goddess that is recognized for her “far-reaching cosmic powers” (Nagy, 3).
In lliad, widely considered the first of the Greek epics, the father of Achilles is a mortal, and this means Achilles, one of the greatest heroes, is also a mortal. This reveals the ancient Greeks’ attitudes during the Archaic times about the perception of mortal. They believed that being heroic was not reserved for the immortals. In fact, all ancient Greek stories that involve heroes depict the mortal as being the heroine, (Albersmeier, 49). Whenever a mortal gene is in the family, according to the Greek myths, the descendent will be mortal, because mortality is the dominant gene (Albersmeier, 24). However, some stories restore the life of mortal heroes during the Archaic times. By definition, they are not immortals if they die and then are brought back to life, but they can live forever in this reorientation of mortal heroes from the Archaic times. “In short, the hero can be immortalized, but the fundamental painful fact remains: the hero is not by nature immortal” (Albersmeier, 32). During the story of Herakles, he had been sired by Zeus, who is the chief of all the gods. This is one of the most prominent representations of a hero dying and then being brought back to life, but the hero must still die. “It is only after the most excruciating pains, culminating in his death at the funeral pyre on the peak of Mount Oeta, that Herakles is at long last admitted to the company of immortals” (Nagy, 5).
In Odyssey, another of the archaic Greek texts, immortalization is discussed at length. The story states that Odysseus will never die, though it is told in a prophecy. The gods were able to live on forever, and never had to die and then be reborn like the heroes who were revived. The gods could not be killed. One of the gods, Ares, went through the motions of death after a time when he was caught off-guard and he was wounded by Diomedes, a mortal. This takes place in Scroll 5 of lliad, (Callimachus, 23). However, there is some humour in the way that Homeric treats the scene, as he shows that this death was in fact a mock death. In the Greek epics of this time, death could only be treated as serious when it happens to a mortal, because it is known that the immortals cannot die, (Callimachus, 44).
Immortality and mortality is a common these in Greek literature during both the archaic and imperial times, but the archaic times was more limited in its use of gods. Iliad and Odysseycertainly represent this aspect during the archaic times. Achilles and Odysseus are particular examples of the representation of mortals during this time. This is a major theme because it provides commentary to the concept of the human condition of mortality. During both the archaic and imperial times, mortality was used to define heroism because those who died were almost always heroes (Cooper, 24). “The certainty that one day you will die makes you human, distinct from animals who are unaware of their future death and from the immortal gods” (Nagy, n.d.).
Often during the archaic times, the death of the hero was extremely violent. The reason for this is likely because the ancient Greek society almost always considered war to be necessary, and it was even considered to be an important component in life (Cooper, 28). However, others have said there is typically a sense of being the victim of forces that are out of the heroes’ control. The concept of force is typically perceived as being and eerie esthetic component (Cooper, 54). However, others, still, have said that this violent depiction is due to religious forces of ancient Greece that condoned animal-sacrifice and hero-worship, which were more embedded in the archaic times, prior to the uprising of Christianity during imperialism (Cooper, 18). During the stories, heroes were often worshipped by killing a sacrificial animal (Cooper, 12). This sacrifice was believed in the ancient times to be for reassembling the hero’s body in the myths of immortalization (Cooper, 32). However, Homer avoided describing the details related to dismemberment of animals, and therefore it avoided the information about the sacrificial practices. The immortalization was also avoided during Homer’s poems. This made the immortalization process too localized in the way that it was described in epics. However, the hero dying in battle was accepted by all at the time. While the texts did avoid the issue Iliad made up for it by discussing the details about the martial deaths of the heroes (Cooper, 63). The extreme details of the heroes’ deaths made up for the lack of information about the about the sacrifice. Homer also found a way in his poetry to immortalize the mortals, in a sense. For example, Achilles chose to die violently so that he could be immortalized by being remembered in the epic poetry (Halford, 21). Being remembered in this sense was a primary goal of Achilles, and so the archaic Greek literature shows that even the mortals were trying to find a way of becoming immortal.
While the archaic times traditionally focused on the use of mortals, there was also a considerable amount of focus put on the immortals, and while they were stoic, they could also be susceptible to emotions. Also, the gods were very connected to each other during each of the texts. For example, Poseidon was the son of Kronos, and Rheia, and the brother of Zeus, Hestia, Hades, Hera and Demeter. He is one of the original six Olympians, who were given much attention during the imperial times. He brings voice to the Earth (Halford, 13). In fact, Poseidon was considered to be the Earth-Encircler and the Earth-Shaker, these were his traditional roles in Homer’s Odyssey and lliad. He is depicted as having incredible power, and this massive power that the gods possess is something that does not change from the archaic to imperial times. Poseidon is depicted as pounding and shaking the Earth and the sea out of sheer enjoyment. He has a broad wrath and does not answer to anyone except for Zeus (Halford, 23). Poseidon has the sea, and represents a vast kingdom for him. It is populated with creatures that he designed and he rides the ocean waves in a dolphin-drawn chariot (Halford, 12). Despite this, the creation that he is most honoured for is the horse, and this shows the respect that the Greeks had for horses during these archaic times. Furthermore, it shows that despite the wrath and punishment that the gods can have on people, they are the ultimate creators, and deserve a tremendous amount of respect. Incidentally, the power of the ocean was strongly linked to the gods throughout the literature, and this is particularly expressed throughout the Greek myths. “Wind-swept and stern is she set in the sea, and, wave-beaten as she is, is fitter haunt for gulls than course for horses” (Callimachus, 2011).
The imperial times discusses cases of mortals who are very clever, and this is a commonality with the archaic and imperial times, as is the respect that is given to many of the mortals. For example, the cleverness of the mortals was expressed in the story of Poseidon and Athene, who were both immortals. The treatment of the mortals in the story represented in the imperial times showed that the imperials were more willing to give some power to the mortals. In archaic times, while the mortals were often depicted as heroes, they were not looked at as being anywhere near the status of gods. While the imperial times did not consider mortals and immortals equal, it did give more respect to the abilities of the mortals than did the previous era (Halford, 22). In the story of Poseidon and Athene, immortals in the story were tasked with developing cunning gifts for the mortals. The mortals, in turn, said they would be eternally grateful to the immortals. Poseidon created a horse, while Athene created the olive tree. Athens was named after the winner of the contest. Athens was named, and Poseidon lost the contest, even though he created the horse, which changed the future of Greece. This was done to show favour for Athene (Halford, 23).
Furthermore, mortals were given more credibility during the imperial times, when the Siege of Troy took place. At the same time, the susceptibility of the immortals to emotions is revealed during this archaic era. During the Trojan War, Poseidon disobeyed Zeus by entering the bloodiest part of the war (Hunt, 3). He entered the ranks and encouraged the army to lust towards victory over the Trojan army forces. At this time, the Trojans appeared to be winning the war. Zeus was seduced by Hera and was hanging about after making love on Mount Ida. This is similar to the susceptibility that the gods feel towards Aphrodite. “Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite the Cyprian, who stirs up sweet passion in the gods and subdues the tribes of mortal men… “ (Homeric, 2011).
When Zeus was done making love, he heard that Poseidon was screaming on the battlefield below Zeus in the valley. However Zeus said all the Immortals needed to keep away from Troy and now Zeus saw that Hera tricked him and that Poseidon disobeyed him. (This interesting use of the emotions of the immortals is common throughout the ancient and imperial times, and shows how similar both eras’ treatment of the immortals was.) The Greek writers believed this was a weakness of the gods. “Every false judgement, and especially concerning these matters, is a mischievous thing; but where emotion also enters, it is most mischievous” (Plutarch, 1874). However, in this case, Zeus managed to contain his anger, and he did not reprimand his brother. Instead, he sent the storm-footed messenger, Iris, who warned Poseidon. He quickly withdrew from his participation, but he was very defiant about the ordeal. Poseidon said that he was leaving out of respect for his brother, not because he feared him (Stickland, 12). This, again, shows the emotions that are strongly embedded into the immortals, and draws on the resemblance they have to humans: Poseidon was a proud person, who did not want to say that he was fearful of his brother, Zeus.
The punishments and rewards that Poseidon and various other Olympians in the Greek myths bestowed upon the mortals were limited to what Zeus would allow. For example, when Odysseus blinded Poseidon’s son, he received a major punishment. In fact, if Odysseus had only blinded Polyphemos he could have been forgive, but he went too far. Odysseus added insult to injury and he and his family needed to pay for his transgression. Polyphemos was one of the Cyclops, who was called a “wheel-eyed” giant and he assisted Hephaistos. Poseidon was Polyphemos’s father, and the Sea nymph Thoosa was he mother. Odysseus had come to Polyphemos’s cave, and discovered, along with his ship mates, that Polyphemos ate men. Polypohemos was thinking that the small sailors were trapped, and so he let down his guard. During this time, Odysseus made Polyphemos relax with some strong wine, and he talked to him very cleverly. When he was not expecting it, Odysseus jumped at Polyphemos with a burning spear. He was blinded with the spear that boiled his eye in its socket. Odysseus escaped but due to his pride, he turned to taunt Polyphemos with some major insults. Poseidon could not forgive the indignity shown by Odyssey. Also, Zeus was not able to save Odysseus from Poseidon. While Poseidon caused a considerable amount of misery to Odysseus and his family, he did not kill him. Instead, he continued to drive him away from his home, robbing him of his happiness. One time, (during Odyssey, book 5), Poseidon discovered Odysseus, who was being resourceful on a raft that was in sight of land. At this time, the wind and the sea rose at Poseidon’s orders and in doing this, he staggered the sea and let the storm loose, blasting against Odysseus and destroying his small raft. Just prior to the raft being smashed to bits, Leukothea, the sea goddess, saw Odysseus and handed him her veil to make sure he did not drown. However, Odysseus thought that the offering from the sea goddess was a trick by Poseidon. Odysseus waited until his raft sank underneath the crashing waves, and then he accepted the help from the goddess, and this began is three-day swim to shore. However, he arose in a foreign land (Stickland, 54). Poseidon intended to harm the cursed hero, but not to kill him. This shows the complications of the immortals as depicted more in the imperial times. While Poseidon wanted to cause hardships to Odysseus, but not to kill him. Also, this shows the similarities between people and immortals, and that is that they are extremely complicated.
During the ancient times, the immortals were divided into approximately eight categories. In the first category, the Protegenoi were considered to be the First Born gods who were the primeval being and they emerged during the creation of the universe and formed the fabric of everything, including the sea, sky, Earth, day and night. While these gods were divine, they were still only in elemental form. For example, Gaia was the literal Earth, Pontos was the sea, and Ouranos was the dome of heaven. In same instances, they assumed anthroporphic shapes, though they could not be divided from their element. The second category of gods were the Daimones, who were the spirits. They nurtured life in the four elements, such as the forest of Dryades, the fresh aster of Naiades, the marine Tritones and the beast-loving Satyroi. The third category was the body and the mind, which affected the Daimones. For example there was sleep, love, joy, hate, fear, death and old age. In the fourth category, the gods controlled the various forces of nature and created civilized arts for mankind. The fifth category consisted of the Olympian gods, and these are frequently depicted as characters in various Greek myths. The Olympians commanded the legions of spirits and lesser gods, while also commanding the universe. In the sixth category, the immortals were considered spirits of the constellations, circling the heavenly skies. In the seventh category, there were beasts, giants, and monsters, and they were considered semi-divine, as they were closely related to the gods. In the eighth category, the semi-divine heroes were designated, and they were worshipped after they died as being minor divinities. Achilles was considered to be a part of this category (Strickland, 23).
The depiction of the immortals through the archaic and imperial times as being extremely emotional beings, is a key indication that they did not change much from each time period. However, the stories of the immortals grow more flexible in the way that they are depicted during the imperial times. The dynamics between the mortals and the immortals change in the imperial times to the point where the gods are not viewed as being all-controlling. This could be due to a departure in beliefs about the gods during the imperial times.
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