Notes: Ancient Greek Power Structures & the West
It’s unfortunate that someone with the innate poetic sensibilities of Emily Wilson so pollutes her talent with projecting the incorrigible present onto the past. But alas, it’s a temptation so strong it’s rarely denied for everyone to become an historian. Such is Naomi Wolf’s latest crime that the New York Times, a publication sympathetic to long, ludicrous careers, inveighed against “Naomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career.” Wolf’s latest circus trick is to grossly misread historical records so that she simultaneously condemned several 19th century men to death (when the courts hadn’t) and absolved several 19th century pedophiles (when the courts hadn’t). It seems she hadn’t intended to perform either miracle, and her publisher has pulled her book from publication.
Wilson does a similar trick, as does the much less talented Mary Beard, by projecting modern definitions (“slavery”) and concepts (power) onto ancients with the rudimentary consistency of a Victorian tin-stamping machine. Of course, Wilson knows better, but without much effort to apply such knowledge one amounts to the credentialed but impractical type that pollute academia. Knowing better isn’t an excuse.
And so she acknowledges that “the Greeks” is a meaningless term (and it is until the 19th century), then expounds on “the Greeks” as if it was meaningful. Let’s recall that the Athenians viewed Alexander’s arrival as a foreign invasion, and, if for example, The Iliad was originally created in Chios, then it was created in a language that those in Attica likely wouldn’t have understood, and those same Chioti would have had more in common with the Egyptians than the Atticans. One could go on about the ways in which “the Greeks” conceals more than it reveals, but it’s fair to summarize the term as deceptive shorthand for “people who lived on the eastern Mediterranean,” though not all of them. (Fun fact: when the Muslims took Egypt in the 7th century, the most commonly spoken language there was Greek, and many of the inhabitants were Greek… so are we including Egyptians in “the Greeks?”) (Of course not.) I suppose you have to call them something, as long as everyone bears in mind that “the Greeks” is mostly meaningless other than it excludes the Chinese and perhaps a few others.
And so, a few articles entitled THINGS MOST CLASSICISTS SCREW UP. First one: power.
Perhaps most interesting about “the Greeks” and which is under-appreciated or entirely missed by those amateur autopsists of the ancient corpus is their understanding of and relationship to power.
Consider: Io is a beautiful mortal priestess. Zeus falls in love with her, as is custom. Likely through some confection of coercive shenanigans, Zeus finds himself with Io. The problem is that Zeus is married to Hera, and she’s less than tolerant of Zeus’ shenanigans. To hide Io from Hera, he turns Io into a cow. Hera discovers Zeus with the cow (she’s a normal-sized cow so not readily concealable), and Zeus then feigns that he purchased the cow as a gift for Hera.
So now Hera has a cow that was once a woman.
Hera puts the cow wherever she keeps her cows, and has a guard put in place. Hera is fully aware that there’s something up with this gift cow. (This is the premise of most Benny Hill skits.)
Zeus, completely lacking anything that resembles common sense or decency, sends Hermes to kill the guard. Now he has his cow back. The fact that the cow is actually a woman doesn’t really make the situation seem more reasonable.
I suppose I should mention that Io was a priestess in a temple of Hera. So Zeus was not only attempting to hide a woman from his wife (who is a goddess), but the woman was also one his wife’s priestesses.
So in what would become a standard among wives, Hera discovers again that Zeus has repossessed his cow-mistress, and Hera sends the cow to wander the earth, forever being stung on her butt by a female horsefly. (This is the premise of most Monty Python skits.)
Eventually Zeus repossess his cow-mistress, sends her to Egypt, converts her back into a human (not a necessary step for Zeus but he does it anyway), and has sex with her. Apparently, Hera doesn’t know about Egypt.
Versions of this myth were shared throughout the Mediterranean for centuries (long before Homer). Consider the people who shared such stories: they both genuinely worshiped their gods (sacrifices, etc.) and thought they were total dipshits. That is not a combination one would find in Egyptian or Mesopotamian or Jewish or eastern religions. Sure, some have pranksters to varying degrees, but this is Zeus — the god at the top of the god-pyramid. And he spends a non-trivial amount of time trying to hide a cow from his wife. Perhaps you don’t remember the time that Yahweh of the Jews rode a unicycle down the hill of Moreh while holding a chicken (a woman) while being chased by his wife with a baseball bat? Me neither. Would never have happened. Consider the difference that metaphorical Egypt held for the Jews and the Greeks. For the Jews, it was the land of bondage, God’s promise and miracle, and the Jewish striving to be nearer to God. For the Greeks, it was a place to hide your cow-mistress.
Or consider one of Zeus’ most famous capers: he turned himself into a swan and had sex with Leda (a human).
Why didn’t he just walk up to Leda and introduce himself; he’s Zeus. Why would he have a better chance if he were a bird? What kind of woman is Leda? If he didn’t want to get caught, he could wear a disguise. He’s Zeus.
The basic classicists would tell you that the swan raped Leda. Also, classicists are known for their lack of imagination. We do not know if the swan asked for consent, or if Leda had any idea the swan was Zeus in disguise (you’d think people would start to suspect that), or if the swan impressed Leda with his new car and fancy watch, or if Leda was a freak. Emily Wilson doesn’t have special swan-sex knowledge. Mary Beard probably doesn’t. You are left with a void of explanation and aren’t sure if this exercise of power is grotesque or consensual or absurd or all of the above because power often looks like all of the above.
The point is: the people who shared these stories had a unique perception of power; they recognized power without respecting it. They patronized authority without necessarily dignifying it. They witnessed supremacy without worshiping it. This relationship with power is on full display even in modern Greece and powerfully informs modern Western culture. While “the Greeks” traded their all-powerful dipshits for Christianity, their conception of power untethered from respect crafted the contours of Western institutions.
After all, it is this conception of power that initially gave life to elections and democracy (6th and 5th c. BC). We think of elections as “power to the people,” but in fact it was more an expression of a lack of respect and trust in the state. These “Greeks” not only rejected kings long before others — and the idea that anyone had any special authority to rule others — but they also instituted annual elections (6th c. BC), which demonstrates that they didn’t particularly trust anyone in office for too long. This was essentially an institutionalizing of the sentiment that all kinds of dipshits can run the government, just don’t let any particular dipshit run the government for too long. They could have been talking about an archon (e.g. Athenian mayor) or a god. As far as “the Greeks” were concerned, there was a high correlation between dipshittery and power. And democracy looked consensual and grotesque and absurd all at the same time.
I’d be remiss not to point out that the Puritans believed and instituted much the same. They had annual elections (which were standard in New England up until 1776) and they had a separation of church and state — not so that the church didn’t influence the state but rather so that the state didn’t corrupt the church. For the Puritans, it was the state that was the corrupting filthy swan-sex enterprise that needed to be quarantined. “The Greeks” would have agreed.
Wilson’s unfortunate fault is that everything she writes is about herself. Her Odyssey is more interpretation than translation and reminds me of Richard Bentley’s criticism of Pope’s Iliad: “A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you mustn’t call it Homer.”
About Nathan Allen
Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….