Is ancient Greek verse “literature”?

Recently, I received a request to share a post about the figure of the hero in classical Greek thought. In order to do that, I realized, it may be helpful first to address an adjacent issue, which is this: What do we call ancient texts that have come down to us from (mostly) 5th and 4th century BC Athens? Typically, we refer to them as ‘literature’ because that is what they are to us: They are texts that we read on our own and then perhaps discuss with classmates, teachers, or friends. But were they ‘literature’ to 5th and 4th century Athenians?

I don’t know. They were legal documents. They were inquiries into human events and experiences. They were sacred stories about the gods and heroes around whom the city-state was organized. But literature…I’m dubious. It does not seem that texts functioned for these ancients as they do for us. While the technology of writing was useful, texts did not exist so much for an individual reader as to facilitate communal occasions, whether a trial, a recitation, or a sacred ritual. There are further questions that I could raise (and will, inevitably, in a future post) re: what is literature? Would we call philosophy, laws, and history ‘literature’?

All this occurred to me as I was translating Thetis’ conversation with Achilles at Iliad 1.424-427. In this section, Thetis is explaining to Achilles that she will supplicate Zeus on her son’s behalf, but as Zeus is presently among the Ethiopians, she will have to wait until he is present at Olympus again:

“Yesterday, he stepped through a feast, and the other gods followed him.
In 12 days, he will come back to Olympus again.”

Because I have been striving to translate as literally as possible, I chose ‘stepped through a feast’ rather than some version of ‘Zeus is feasting with the Ethiopians,’ which feels more relatable because it renders Zeus as a character rather than a divine presence. My clumsy literal rendering made me wonder what the Greek is saying here. Did the ancients think Zeus was bodily present with the Ethiopians? Possibly both yes and no, at the same time. Zeus seems to have been, to these ancients, not a made-up character but a superhuman force whose presence could be felt, even when it is not seen. But also, his presence may be conceived as ‘bodily’ via (for example) a cult statue. My friend Lauren also brilliantly pointed out that “stepped through” (the Greek verb in Homer) evokes the idea of steps in a ritual, which much be followed precisely to work.

I was trying to capture the idea of the sacred: That whether or not the ancients imagined that Zeus was literally at the feast, his attention and focus remain, during this time, with the Ethiopians because they are honoring him with a sacred festival (suggested by ‘12 days’). I don’t know if I captured it or even if it can be captured. Mostly, I want to remember and convey that it does not matter whether we believe in the gods that the Athenians worshiped. If we want to approach these texts with respect and understanding, we must be willing to see through their eyes, to whatever degree this is possible.

I would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

6 thoughts on “Is ancient Greek verse “literature”?

  1. I don’t think it sounded clumsy at all, to me it sounded inspired, like each particular step he took there had deep meanings and consequences. I think steps taken after you’ve bound imperishable leather or glittering golden sandals upon your feet are more profound than regular steps.

    1. Thank you, Alysa! One of the things I love about these ancient texts is how they kind of force me to confront some of my most basic assumptions. It’s exciting 🙂

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