Friday, June 26, 2009

Where are the Greek Villains?

Where are the Greek Villains?

Greek mythology introduces a pantheon of heroes, superhuman beings capable of performing impossible deeds, unbound by human limitation. Modern narratives typically dictate a force in opposition to heroism: villainy. Often the Gods and heroes themselves are embodied as agents of both forces. Gods punish wantonly, demanding vengeance, blood, destruction and sacrifice from those who offend them; heroes slaughter entire cities kit and caboodle for the sake of glory and treasure. While morality certainly does exist within the scope of Greek literature, the characters are reflections of an imperfect world capable of good and evil. Perhaps one of the keys to reconciling the context in which a laudable hero can commit acts of treachery and wholesale slaughter is an understanding of the one-world model of Greek mythology. The gods do not inhabit some other plane of existence, but rather make their homes at the peaks of mountains and within the temples of their favored cities and islands. While their domains are rarely accessible, they are present in the lives of mortals. Even the land of the dead can be reached by a particularly bold traveler. The entire spectrum of being existed in this mutually shared space. A world model which does not separate goodness from evil into meaningfully distinct camps precludes the creation of villains as they appear in modern works.

In order to advance this argument, it must be first demonstrated that despite the fact that many of these tales are born of a more distant past, they do actually reflect the world view of the Classical Greek audience. Within the texts of the Epic Cycle there are repeated indications that the events occurring are not contemporaneous with the poet. The opening invocation of the muses indicates a lack of firsthand knowledge in the matters being discussed; after all, why should a poet need to invoke a minor goddess to tell him how to describe an event he bore witness to? (Carpenter, 24) Archaeological findings confirm the separation between the Mycenaean Greek origin of these myths and the Classical Greek cultural prism through which modern readers interact with them. The degree to which Homer, as an Archaic or early Classical Greek, is capable of detailing the warriors’ impedimenta and the architectural style is doubly significant in that he describes them in great specificity and equally great historical inaccuracy. The implication is that he substituted what he knew for those things which he either did not know or did not see value in repeating. (Carpenter, 31) It stands to reason then, if Homer altered the story to reflect details which would be familiar to a Classical Greek audience then he likely emphasized or introduced themes which would also resonate culturally. Though these myths may be the product of another age, the form encountered by modern readers is certainly one which was intended for, and therefore reflective of, Classical Greek audiences. Were the opposite true, then The Lion King and West Side Story might be called accurate portrayals of Shakespearian drama, an assertion unlikely to win praise in any scholarly circles.

Having established that these texts were composed with a Classical or pre-Classical Greek audience in mind, it becomes necessary to turn to the works of Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days to define the nature of the Greek cosmos. Greek cosmology occurs entirely within the scope of that which is observable; Hesiod describes all of existence, excluding that which is generated exclusively by the yawning nothingness of chaos, as the product of the Earth and the Sky, everything in existence lies between. “In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth[…]And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.”(Hesiod, “Theogony” ln.116-126) The Earth, Gaia, created a domain in which the Gods would dwell, and by extension the creations of the gods. Within the Greek tradition, the Gods take on a decidedly anthropomorphic form, reflecting successive familial lineages stemming from the origin of existence, leading to an ordered cosmos under the rule of Zeus. (Clay, 13) Within this existence the gods create humankind, which takes on varying permutations through the ages as the divine powers apparently attempt to get the formula right. The final incarnations of the human race, the races of heroes and iron, would seem to blend into one another, a progression characterized by a diffusion of the divine stock present in the gene pool. (Clay, 93) This distinction between the mythological races of men is vital to the Classical Greek understanding of Homer’s works, as the mortal characters belong to the race of heroes and the audience to the race of iron. It is additionally useful in illustrating the mixture of good and evil within their world. “For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.” (Hesiod, “Works and Days” ln.176-179)

The fact that Homeric characters exist in a world without absolutes helps to explain why Hector, the mightiest Trojan warrior in the Iliad, with his perfect filial loyalty and prowess in battle can also stiffen out of fear at the thought of fighting Achilles. It can also serve to explain how Athena, the goddess of wisdom, can engage in trickery to convince him to fight Achilles by posing as his brother and successfully goading him forward with the prospect of victory through dirty two-on-one tactics, only to disappear, abandoning him at his final moment. Hector’s lapse of courage and brief abandonment of honor do not rob him of his heroic status, nor do Athena’s actions make her monstrous, instead it fixes them within the framework of functioning singular cosmos. In this sense, Greek mythical figures, though exaggerated, are made compelling by their realism, as opposed to exemplifying a purely static and impossible ideological archetype. Ancient Greeks allowed for the possibility that their heroes might, in certain circumstances, behave badly. This is not to say that these characters go without judgment, on the contrary, the gods constantly weigh the virtues of their actions and mete out punishment as they see fit. The gods, being themselves imperfect, often appear heavy or light-handed in their verdicts. The magnified scale of Greek mythical figures often results in an almost absurdist system of crime and punishment. Within a single story one might find both a hero, Odysseus for example, who is guilty of genocide and is sentenced to slowed return home, waylaid by the inconvenience of erotic extramarital episodes with divine beings. In that same tale, one also finds a group of lousy houseguests, at worst guilty of conspiring against the host, who are met with wholesale slaughter. These inequities of justice are reflective of a reality which is not always fair to its participants. It should be noted that, in spite of obvious favoritism in the distribution of justice, proportionality is essential to the Greek concept of virtue versus guilt. In a world without purely manifested ideological extremes, the sum of a character’s actions determines his or her fate. A person who has done more evil than good is subject to divine wrath, whereas a character that is largely virtuous is likely to be reprieved. In the Agamemnon, Clytemnestra can be seen as just for killing her husband out of vengeance for the duel crimes of sacrificing their virgin daughter to Artemis for the sake of sacking Troy and the utter destruction of Troy itself. However, the fact that she is also an adulteress who, along with her lover, profits from the execution by usurping the kingdom dooms her. The righteousness of her actions is outweighed by the evilness of her intent. Had she been otherwise virtuous she might have escaped punishment. Orestes, her son, in killing her, balances the crime of matricide by avenging the murder of his father.

In an ethical system founded on the principle of doing more good than harm, true redemption does not exist. A character cannot achieve spiritual forgiveness, they can merely stave off the wrath of the gods by not pushing so far beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct that divine favor completely abandons them. This is reflected through the competing agendas and judgments of the gods. Odysseus, to his credit, manages to appease most of the gods, but consistently brings down the wrath of Poseidon on himself and those around him. Judeo-Christian monotheism differs in that divine forgiveness is absolute; this is reflected in the clear separation of mortal and divine affairs with the deity existing on another plane of being. Absolute goodness exists in Heaven and absolute evil exists in Hell, the mortal realm exists as a testing ground, but eternal forgiveness or damnation are uncompromising ends to which a mortal can aspire. A polytheistic one-world cosmic model differs from a monotheistic multi-world model because one offers an eventual release from the dictates of knowable existence, while the other anchors the soul to the mortal experience. Monotheism offers two possibilities, complete bliss and complete suffering, whereas the Greek system delivers the dead into a grayish limbo which is, at its finest, reflective of Thesiod’s view of the best possible life—a balance of good and evil.

Aristotle’s work Poetics provides modern scholars with a significant insight into the workings of Greek narratives. In this work, the philosopher considers the nature of the tragic narrative as well as tragic elements of the Epic Cycle. His work helps modern readers to distill the elements of Classical Greek narratives valued by those chronologically proximate to the texts.

Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear […] There remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. (Aristotle, “Poetics” ch.xiii)

This Aristotelian view of tragedy conceives it as a narrative detailing the downfall of a person who is neither completely virtuous nor wicked, one who is not brought to ruin through sin but rather through miscalculation, ignorance or inability which leads to a tragic turn of events. At the risk of contradicting earlier assertions regarding the moral balance of characters, it should be noted that Aristotle seems more concerned with the shocking immediacy of a narrative’s turn of events than the justness of the circumstances. (Jones, 14) Central to Aristotle’s argument is the idea that human beings are caught in the snare of fate or circumstance, in which case the morality of the participants is a secondary consideration dictating the action (response), but not necessarily the outcome. This concept can be seen to function in a variety of ways in Classical Greek narratives; the most accessible example is perhaps those warriors of the Iliad who are destined to fall in combat. Patroclus is slain because he ignores Achilles’ warning to not venture too far into battle, his mistake is hardly relevant since Apollo orchestrated his death at the hands of Hector. The role of Patroclus’ actions in this case becomes negligible since it is divine will which decides his fate. Beyond the maneuvering of mortal and divine characters within the text it is clear that Patroclus’ death serves the narrative function of drawing Achilles into battle, turning the tide of war. A direct corollary can be therefore be formed between the divine will present in the text and those things which occur to advance the narrative. Returning to the question of morality in regards to the actions of Athena and Hector, his timidity in the face of danger and her ignoble methods become nearly immaterial byproducts of fate and artistic design. In order to avoid the somewhat conspicuous contradiction between the previous claims made regarding the balance of morality and the endorsement of Aristotle’s view of the dramatic form, it becomes necessary to refine the primary argument being made. The ancient Greek world, while wholly contained within a single sphere of existence is not egalitarian in nature; fate always takes precedence over mortal ambitions. Therefore, the miscalculations of characters which are often presented as poor moral decisions serve to deliver them to their fate. The simple fact that they are destined, in the narrative sense, to make a particular choice does not preclude them from being judged.

It is fitting, having moved from discussion of a one-world cosmic model to Aristotelian dramatics, to briefly address the ontology of 5th century BCE Athenian philosophers. Firstly, the work of Plato is a two-world metaphysical model consisting of physical and metaphysical existence. The actual distinction between these planes of existence does not divide the world in a way which meaningfully damages the properties of the one-world existence previously mentioned. Plato’s two-world model separates perfect from imperfect concepts, and while he would surely argue that all perfect concepts are “better” than their imperfect counterparts, it is doubtful that he would consider them inherently “gooder” since a concept can exist in perfection without existing in a state of goodness. This separation of pure divine concepts from impure mortal concepts advances the argument that the Greek cosmos was hierarchical in nature, even outside the domain of folklore. Aristotle, Plato’s student, returns to a one-world ontological model in his Nichomachean Ethics, thus returning the divine to the immediate human experience. Aristotelian virtue relies on a concept of proportion and moderation, essentially systematizing the traditional Greek worldview to reflect a clearly defined ethical system. Returning to the fallen warriors of the Iliad, Patroclus and Hector, when their cases are applied to the Aristotelian definition courage, their actions can be further explained.

Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will face them as he ought and as the rule directs, for honour's [sic] sake; for this is the end of virtue. […] Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; […] The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and from the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; […] the man who exceeds in confidence about what really is terrible is rash. […]The rash man, however, is also thought to be boastful and only a pretender to courage; at all events, as the brave man is with regard to what is terrible, so the rash man wishes to appear; and so he imitates him in situations where he can. […] The man who exceeds in fear is a coward; for he fears both what he ought not and as he ought not […] The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed towards them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position. (Aristotle, “Nichomachean Ethics” book iii, sec. 7)

Patroclus, in defying Achilles’ warning, demonstrates brashness in the face of danger; he puts on Achilles’ armor and imitates his courage in battle, but ultimately falls short of the Greek virtue of bravery because he chooses not to demonstrate reasonable fear of danger. Hector is not a coward by this Greek definition as the fear he harbors is reasonable given Achilles’ prowess in battle. By choosing to face Achilles he demonstrates moral virtue. It could be argued that his momentary willingness to abandon honorable combat is indicative of cowardice; however, the fact that he stands his ground against his opponent even after Athena abandons her ruse illustrates his true nature. The mere act of considering dishonorable action in the face of certain death does not, by Greek standards, make him a coward.

The ultimate effect of the Classical Greek worldview is the production of works devoid of true villains. At most two mythical figures might find themselves in opposition to one another, each performing virtuously in accordance with their own telos. This absence of ideological extremes is brought about by the formulation of a world view which does not subscribe to the concepts of absolute good and evil, but is more mindful of the orderly procession of a hierarchal existence. This relegates morality, in the sense that it applies to good and evil, to a secondary consideration mediated by circumstance and divine necessity. This worldview is not completely removed from modern audiences, but rather quite close to the reality which we exist. Though modern western thinkers would like to consider themselves virtuous creatures driven by a desire to perpetuate a greater good, the reality is that seemingly moral decisions are rarely absolute. These choices are made on the basis of a limiting ideology centered on the self, the social unit or the political unit. Frequently, people are called on to make decisions which benefit one group over another, and while these actions may not be called evil, they are likewise not wholly good. Ancient Greek narratives embrace this ambiguity of action, accepting that individuals and groups often work in their own interest at the detriment of others. Perhaps the modern constructions of heroism and villainy are manifestations of a deep cultural denial which seek to conceal the failings of absolutist thinking by inventing a world in which a human being can act in an irreproachable and categorically impossible inhuman manner.

Works Cited

Aristotle. (c. 350 BC) Poetics (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Web.


Aristotle. (c. 350 BC) Nichomachean Ethics (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Web.


Carpenter, Rhys (1962). Folktale, Fiction and Saga. Los Angeles: University of

California Press

Clay, Jenny Strauss.(2003). Hesiod’s Cosmos. New York: Cambridge University Press

Hesiod. (c. 350 BC) Theogony (Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Trans.). Web.


Hesiod. (c. 350 BC) Works and Days (Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Trans.). Web.


Jones, John. (1980). On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. Palo Alto: Stanford University



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Excellent! The only real quibble I have is that Plato didn't create a two world model. The only REAL world was the ideal. The physical world didn't actually exist according to him. It WAS absolute that all ideas were perfect in the "real" world. As you can see this leaves no room for the divine, which is why Socrates was accused of heresy and forced to drink poison.

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