The legend of the Groundhog on this day predicts if winter will last another six weeks. It seems we will have a few more weeks of this winter of kindness to experience, learn and reflect on its lessons…and its legends. What better place to continue than Ancient Greece, renown for its legends. The first recordings dated as early as 750 BC, and have been grouped into three “ages.”
First, in the age of the gods, life’s origins are explained. The poet Hesiod was acclaimed for his “Theogony” where Chaos was “a yawning nothingness” that bore the Earth, and her siblings, Love, the Abyss, and Darkness. The Earth then gave birth to the Sky and from their union created the first titans…six male and six female. Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” is best known for its stories of Prometheus and Pandora, as an analogy for the pain of living a human life. Prometheus was a trickster titan who challenged Zeus, the king of gods, by stealing fire for the sake of mankind from the gods. Prometheus’ punishment was eternal torment by being eaten alive by an eagle only to have his health restored at night to endure the same torture the next day. To punish mankind Zeus sent Pandora, known as the “all-gift” and the first human woman created by the gods. She possessed a jar, and in it, diseases, plights, evils, vices and human tragedy poured onto the world. However, she shut the lid before hope was released. To the ancient Greeks, hope was the most disastrous “ailments” mankind could have, as hope is a false belief when compared to all-powerful gods. These stories tried to answer, “why is there evil?”
Next, the age of gods and man was a period when mortals and immortals mingled freely. In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” many of these tales had one of two themes: love or retribution. Tales of love usually involved incest, or the god’s savagery imposing their will on humans. Tales of retribution were about angering the gods, in attempt to explain man’s control of powerful elements, such as fire, domesticated animals and the written word.
Finally, in the age of heroes, gods no longer directly influenced man’s destiny. The stories of Heracles were the dawn of this period. He was a man thought to be half god and known for his legendary feats. The most renowned figure in Greece Literature was the blind poet Homer, who was called the “first teacher” and the “leader of the Greek culture.” Among his work was the Iliad, which told the story of the Trojan War that was ignited by Paris, the prince of Troy, when he took Helen from the king of Sparta on their wedding night. Following that epic was the Odyssey, which told the story of Odysseus, one of the Greek leaders in the Trojan War, and his ten-year journey home. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote tragedies about the characters from these legends…namely Agamemnon, brother to the king of Sparta, who launched the campaign against Troy, and the treacherous fate that awaited him when he returned home. Although the age of gods did excite curiosity of our origins, the age of heroes offered history a much greater prize. It was the first recordings of human events.
These stories glorified divine beings and super-human heroes to explain larger than life questions, such as man’s origins, why we follow religious rituals, or why we behave the way we do in political or social settings. They all assumed we were part of something greater than ourselves. It captivated our sense of wonder, and transformed the fears and unknowns of our small world into legends fueled by our creativity and imagination.
When we try to view these legends through the lens of kindness, it may be difficult to see despite the ruthlessness, tragedy and immortal strife. However, if you look at the lessons we can learn, we may see something greater than tragedy…that heroism should be celebrated, to honor our heritage, respect what we cannot control, and power left unchecked will be abused. But most of all, these stories created one of the first records of man having a sense of enlightened purpose.
Perhaps hope was not left in Pandora’s jar after all.