Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 31, 2018

The gray moral world of the Greeks

Filed under: Iliad,Myth — Razib Khan @ 7:02 pm

Listening to the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast on The Iliad was very interesting. As some readers know, I came across Greek mythology as a child. Though I began with Bulfinch’s Mythology, I did not stop there. Soon enough I moved beyond the juvenile material, and read darker, more violent and sexual material that to be entirely frank I was not prepared to comprehend.

Of course, Greek myths are not the only literature from the ancient world which contains adult material. Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible highlights those stories passed down from Hebrew tradition which is perhaps glossed over. The young David’s defeat of the giant Goliath is known to all schoolchildren. Less well publicized to the religiously illiterate American public is his adultery with Bathsheba (though obviously more observant people are quite aware of this aspect of his biography).

In the podcast above there is extensive discussion of the fact that the Trojans are not depicted as evil in The Iliad. As someone who came to maturity at the end of the 20th century, this struck me as somewhat strange as a child. I grew up on a diet of films about evil Nazi and Communist adversaries. The game of great powers for me was also fundamentally a moral one. We were the good guys. They were the bad guys.

In reading The Iliad it was difficult for me to understand why the Trojans were often depicted as such noble characters. And it wasn’t clear that the Greeks were good and moral. I particularly recall the vicious brutality of Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son.

This comes to mind because of late because due to the popularity of George R. R. Martin’s work there has been a rise in popularity of gritty and morally gray works of speculative fiction. And when I read histories of World War I, it is also not entirely clearly to me that the Central Powers were truly malevolent and dark forces. I do wonder if the second half of the 20th century was a world of particular blacks an whites, of an almost Manichaean vision of conflict which emerged out of World War II, and continued with the rise of global Communism.

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