We should make clear that most of the details, adventures, names in Greek myth are handed down to us in the writings of the Greek poets, especially Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod’s THEOGONY tells of the creation of the world as well as of the activities of the gods, heroes, giants and so on. I can do no better than paraphrase a paragraph in an internet article (www.greece.org/poseidon//work/argonautika/cosmo4.html) on Hesiod where it points out that the THEOGONY is a historical narration covering a long era which starts with the appearance of the first men in the mountains and ends with the post-Zeus epoch. It was an important work for the ancient Greeks because it enabled them to check which of the various beliefs about gods were reliable. It constituted the religious canon for Greeks just as the Bible was for Jews. It had a great influence over Greek religion because the Greeks sought for unanimity on religious matters. The great pre-cataclysm lost civilisation is unfolded slowly before the reader’s eyes through innumerable references to persons, situations, events, scientific and empirical knowledge as well as historic elements.
There are differences it must be said in the accounts concerning myths written by Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod was always accepted as the authoritative text however but this does not mean that some of what Homer wrote was not equally generally accepted. Again, the much later writer and poet, Appolodorus differs from the above two in certain details. Homer’s influence taken all round was at least as great as Hesiod’s and the two disagree over some detail concerning the generations of the gods. Other theogonies tell different stories, so it is clear that there was no one “true” account of gods, heroes and giants, but rather several strands emanating no doubt from the individual idiosyncracy of the oral story teller from the earliest times. Perhaps we may end this section by stating again that Hesiod’s version does agree with all other versions (of creation etc.) in its assumption that the Greek gods had births (and sometimes deaths), that the gods were not everlasting but had several generations; that divinity had different classes.
Homer and Hesiod were near contemporaries both writing in the 8th century BC. Unfortunately we know little about either. It is even thought by some that Homer as such never actually existed and that his works are really a composite of several authors. The most famous works of Homer are the ILIAD and ODYSSEY in which he writes principally of the deeds of daring-do of the heroes. Of course the Greeks knew of ancient tales handed down in oral tradition long before the two great poets mentioned but the actual committing to paper of the elaborate mythology by Homer and Hesiod gave them greater credence among the populace. It might be fair to claim that the years approximately 900 BC to about 100 BC saw the greatest flowering of the incomparable ancient Greek genius. It is important to realise this as in the following sections we are going to look at some of the strictures of Plato (about 427-348 BC) on his poetical predecessors.
Homer writes of a race of gigantic men living on one of the Greek islands; the heroes in the Trojan war according to Homer attacked their enemies by throwing huge stones (which could not be moved by ordinary men). Other Greek poets, such as Apollodorus and Hesiod, supported these stories of the huge size of these gods and heroes. We have already remarked that Latin and Greek poets seemed to believe that their ancestors were of giant stature, compared to the pigmy size of contemporary man. It is no exaggeration to say that belief in giants was part of the very fabric of ancient Roman and Greek life. It appears also that a belief in giant beings or ancestry dominated thinking (and construction) in Egyptian and other civilisations as witness the Seven Wonders of the (ancient) world and monuments across the globe, of which the Easter Island giant statues are an example. E.J.Wood in his GIANTS AND DWARVES (p.19) succinctly expresses the above theme: “No doubt these various ancient representations of huge human forms were the corporeal forms of those gigantic myths which existed in the imaginations of our ancestors and which having been perpetuated in stone served to aid and continue the early belief in giants and man’s innate reverence for the colossal”.
A mention here of the interweaving of story (or mythology) in Hesiod, Homer and Plato may help to illuminate some of the discourse above on giantology. Hesiod mentions that the giants of ancient story were destroyed in a deluge (associated with Biblical and Atlantean tradition); later, Plato may have had this in mind when he spoke about the Atlanteans (of which, more to follow) who were it seems destroyed by a flood; Hesiod writes of Zeus meeting with the gods and declaring that the giants will be destroyed by a great flood.
THE CRITICISM OF POETS BY PLATO
For about another 400 years the stories enshrined in Hesiod and Homer held sway among the Greeks. For the most part they were implicitly believed in -until the great philosopher Plato came along! Plato discussed many things in his writings (mainly dialogues), so much so that we have the famous comment of the British philosopher, A.N. Whitehead, who said that all subsequent philosophy was in the nature of footnotes to Plato. Be that as it may, one of Plato’s most important writings is on education, particularly in the REPUBLIC where the theme is that kings should be educated as philosophers or that philosophers should be kings (or rulers).
EDUCATION should consist of the study of mathematics, training in dialectic (reasoned argument), music and what he called gymnastic. There are other elements but these are among those most valued by Plato. What he did NOT value -and therefore criticised -was poetry, especially the kind which perpetuated mythological story. Accordingly, poetry and poets were rigorously excluded from his ideal “curriculum” as deleterious to the young mind. As far as Plato was concerned, the poets with their tales of gods, heroes giants, etc., were guilty of warping malleable minds and worse than that, of actually lying: stories which are “in the main fictitious, though not wholly destitute of truth” (Quotations are from the Jowett translation as given on the web pages, plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/republic9.htm under the heading “Exploring Plato’s Dialogues
What in fact Plato was doing was censoring literature for school use. Plato himself never appears as himself in the dialogues but expresses his views through an interlocuter (imagined to be Socrates). So when we read that we should not allow children to hear “casual tales” and that they should not “receive into their minds ideas …the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up” , we have Plato’s view. Most of the tales, Plato says, must be discarded, namely those which are “narrated by Homer and Hesiod…who have ever been the great story tellers of mankind.” The fault he finds in the poems (or the stories they recount) is that of “telling a lie”. This fault occurs whenever “an erroneous representation is made of the nature of gods and heroes”. This erroneous representation will make young people believe that the reprehensible actions of the gods is to be emulated. These tales says Plato are simply “not true” and therefore the battles of the giants for example “we shall never mention”. The young person cannot judge what is “allegorical and what is literal…it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts”. Therefore, we should not “listen to Homer”.
This type of castigation goes on at length. Stories told by the poets are in Plato’s view, a fiction [which] is “suicidal, ruinous, impious”. Above all, poets traduce [the idea of] God, giving wrong impressions, such as that they are magicians or deceivers. Therefore some poetical passages are to be struck out because they give the wrong message; Homer especially is criticised as depicting gods and heroes in a base or at least unflattering light. Many of the passages in poetry reveal “unworthy representations of the gods”. Plato’s central charge against the poets is that the young will be harmed in their aim to become “warriors” and “philosopher kings
It is noticeable that Plato does not categorically deny the quondam existence of giants but rather objects to the promulgation and dissemination of stories about them being involved with gods and heroes which show the latter in an unflattering light.
It is therefore not hard to see Plato’s objection to poetry enforcing myths which, as the Encyclopedia Britannica has it, “were viewed by the Greeks as embodying divine or timelesss truths, whereas legends were quasi-historical. Hence famous events in epics such as the Trojan War were generally regarded as having really happened and the heroes and heroines of the Homeric poems were believed to have actually lived”. (From the article “Greek Mythology”) Many scholars hold that as the tone of Homer is lighter than that of Hesiod, the Greek people would not have taken the doings of the gods seriously as depicted in Homer. However there is no proof that the Greeks regarded Homer (and other writers) as simply entertainment. We do know that Plato took very serious notice of these tales! Others in Hellenic times (and in times much later) have argued that much of the poetical myth is but allegory, saying that the events narrated imply something “beyond their literal sense” (Britannica article: “fable, parable, and allegory”). Whether the events were to be regarded as literal or allegorical made little difference to Plato, who as an Idealist philosopher “occupies a central position with regard to Greek allegory”. Paraphrasing the article from Britannica, Plato’s own myths imply that our world is a shadow of the ideal and eternal world of “Forms” (one of his key ideas) …and that the true philosopher must therefore be an allegorist in reverse. He must regard phenomena …only [as valid] if they reveal their ideal reality in the world of forms. Consequently, Plato attacked Homeric narrative whose beauty leads men away from the philosophic life and attacked other fashionable allegorists because they did not lead to reality but limited speculation to the sphere of moral and physical necessity.
In Hesiod, the relationships of the deities, heroes, giants, monsters and so on, are used to explain why the world is as it is -a very important consideration, as we have mentioned, for the Greeks. The deities were “a super-aristocracy”, (Britannica article on Greek religion), and a scale existed “on which the position of every human and every deity could be plotted” so that god and man “were likely to resent any attempt of an inferior to move higher on the scale”.It is no wonder that Plato with his concept of “Forms” and an ideal, true world, would have none of (for him) a misleading, poetic, mythological ancient Grecian history.
© A.B. Finlay Ph.D