From island to island and town to town, across the wide new world of the Greeks, the minstrel wandered, with a harp slung across his back and a batch of stories in his hand. When he knocked at the gate of a palace or great house and offered to sing for his supper, he was never refused. There were no shows to see and no books to read. The people relied on the minstrels to entertain them and to tell their stories of the past, which otherwise might be forgotten.
The minstrel’s stock of stories was a mixture of tall tales, half-remembered history and myths, the stories of the gods. He collected them wherever he travelled, usually from other minstrels. As the stories were passed along from singer to singer, the history grew a little fuzzier and the tales grew a great deal taller.
In the great hall of a palace, where the lord and his guests gathered in the evening, the minstrel was given a place of honour. After dinner, he was invited to sing. Most of his songs began with the Achaean attack on Troy. First, he reminded his listeners of the reason for the war: Paris, a prince Troy, stole Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaus and the most beautiful woman in the world. The minstrel told about Agamemnon’s call to arms and the fleet that was made ready to sail. Then he listed the famous heroes who boarded the ships. Each had his own adventures and the minstrel chose different ones to tell about every evening. He might sing about Agamemnon, who came home from Troy victorious, only to be killed by his wife; or Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors, who slew the Trojan champion Hector; or Odysseus, the craftiest of the Greeks, whose journey home from Troy was a ten-year series of adventures. The minstrel put the stories together until he had a song long enough to fill an evening. The Greeks called him a rhapsode, a “stitcher together.”
The most famous of the rhapsodes was Homer, an Ionian Greek from Asia Minor. No one knows which town he came from or exactly when he lived. About 750 B. C., he wrote down two of his stitched-together stories and they became the story book, history and bible of the Greek world. In a few years everyone had heard of Homer’s poems. Many people could recite them by heart, though they were thousands of lines long. All of the wonder and pride which the Greeks felt for their land and its heroes seemed to be in Homer’s words.
The Iliad and The Odyssey
The stories were old ones that everyone knew. In the Iliad, Homer told about Achilles and his quarrel with Agamemnon over the booty they had taken from a town near Troy. Angry and insulted, Achilles refused to fight against the Trojans. The Greeks began to lose battles and many knights were killed, but Achilles would not change his mind. Not until his best friend was killed by Hector, the leader of the Trojan arms, did Achilles stir from his tent. Then his rage got the better of his pride and he went to the field to take out his anger on the Trojans and particularly on Hector.
To a child, the Iliad was just an exciting story but when he went to school, he found it was his textbook. It taught him history, geography and the honourable behaviour expected of a Greek. As he grew older, he found new lessons in Homer’s book. There was always a line somewhere to settle dispute or advise him when he had a problem.
Homer’s other book was a tale of adventures and a geography of the ancient world. The Odyssey told about Odysseus’ ten years of roaming after the war. Cursed by the sea god Poseidon, he was driven far off course by storms, shipwrecked and tossed onto the shores of mysterious islands. On one, he was chased by cannibals. On another he had to fight the Cyclops, the one-eyed giants. Witches disguised as beautiful girls tried to enchant him and Poseidon did his best to kill him but Athena, the goddess of wisdom, came to his aid and at last he returned to rule his kingdom in Greece.
The Ways of the Gods
Again, it was a good story but it also helped to explain the ways of the gods, which were always a little puzzling. The gods themselves were an explanation of an even greater puzzle. For, to the early Greeks, the world was a frightening place and nature was full of mysteries they could not understand. The sea rose up and smashed their ships. The sun had been known to disappear from the sky at midday. Men were sometimes caught by feelings they could not control – by anger, jealousy and love.
The people could not believe that such things happened by accident. They must be the work of creatures more powerful than men – the gods. For example, the sea which sometimes rose in anger was the god Poseidon. The sun was the god Apollo, whose beams were golden arrows.
As they found gods to explain more of the mysteries of nature, the Greeks began to talk about a kingdom of gods. They said that Zeus, the king, was the sky god. He lived in a palace of clouds at the top of Mount Olympus. All of the other gods were his subjects, each with his own special duties. Hades guarded the underworld, the land of the dead. Zeus’ queen, Hera, looked after babies and mothers. Demeter helped the crops grow and Dionysus kept an eye on grapevines and wine. When people fell in love, they were under the spell of Aphrodite, the beautiful but fickle goddess of love. Her rival was Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. Although Artemis was the goddess of the moon, she was a clear-headed huntress who had no time for such nonsense as love.
Apollo himself was a special god for the people who lived on earth. Farmers prayed to him to guard their fields. Shepherds asked his protection for their flocks. Lawmakers called him the god of discipline, who brought the light of order to a dark, wild world. Apollo could also foretell the future. When any man – even a king – had an important decision to make, he went to Apollo’s temple at Delphi. There the Oracle, a mysterious priestess, spoke with the voice of the gods. In a cave beneath her shrine, the Oracle made her sacrifices and asked the questions which men wanted answered. Then she fell into a trance, shrieking strange messages which only the priests could understand. They explained the meaning to the men who had come for Apollo’s help. Cities went to war or called their armies home, kings chose their heirs and farmers chose a day on which to plant their crops according to the Oracle’s advice. No man dared to disagree with what she said.
It was difficult to deal with gods. They seemed to get angry for no reason and deserted their followers just when the need for help was greatest. The stories in Homer’s poems helped to explain these things. The gods in his tales acted very much like human beings. Of course, they were more beautiful and powerful than men and they did not suffer pain or grow old and die. Homer showed that they could feel and act like men. They bickered and quarrelled, turned jealous and picked sides in human quarrels or wars.
The gods were not examples of good behaviour. Zeus, for instance, had fought his own father in order to make himself the king of the gods. As people read Homer, they learned that they must try to get along with the gods, not imitate them. they must respect the god’s power and try to please them, but they could not expect to be loved by them.
The Power of Poseidon
For men who explored the seas, Homer’s tale of Odysseus had a special meaning. Like Odysseus, they went roaming the oceans beyond their familiar Aegean, guided by the stars and their own courage. Often tossed about by storms or blown far off course, they knew well the power of Poseidon, the god who controlled the waves. They had seen the Black Sea boil like a cauldron and along its shores they had found people as strange as any Odysseus had met.
Homer knew his geography. It was said that he himself had travelled some of the routes he described in his stories. He must also have listened carefully to the reports of adventurers who had been to the distant, unknown corners of the Mediterranean and Black sea. Many of the odd islands Homer wrote about turned up when the people of the new Greek cities sent their own scouts exploring far-off regions.
The Greek Colonists
Where the explorers went, colonists followed, to the Black sea coasts and the western half of the Mediterranean. Most of the colonists were ordinary Greeks in search of new homes. Some left their cities because the laws did not suit them. Others went to find land. Some great cities planted colonies in places where they hoped to trade. The people of Miletus founded a chain of colonies along the Black sea. The people of Megara, following the advice of the Oracle, built a town on the northern side of the channel between the Black sea and the Aegean. The advice was god. The town, Byzantium, became an important city and it remained important for more than 2,000 years.
Sicily and the southern tip of Italy, with their clear air and warm weather, were inviting places to the colonists. The Messenians from southern Greece built Messina on Sicily. Then the Corinthians built Syracuse, which became the largest city in the Greek world. Tarentum, Cumae, Tegium and Neapolis sprang up in Italy. Eventually there were so many Greek cities in the region that it was called Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece.”
The colonising began at the end of the Dark Ages, about 800 B. C. It went on for nearly 250 years. Parents and children, farmers and craftsmen and statesmen braved the half-known oceans to find homes in strange new lands. They carried with them a cauldron of fire, lit from the sacred flame of the city they had left behind. At the end of the journey, it was used to start the fire on the altar-hearth of the new city. It did not matter that the settlers were far from their old homes. They had brought the arts and ways of Greece with them, along with their cooking pots and carpenters’ tools and if they ran into problems, there was always an answer in Homer.