Greek Traditions – Backbone of Civilization

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School of Athens by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), 1511. Fresco. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Vatican Museum. Public Domain. Greek thinkers include Epicurus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (center), Ptolemaios, Apollo, Athena, Herakleitos, Diogenes of Sinope, Plotinos, Hypatia and Alexander the Great.

Prologue

All traditions are human inventions that last briefly or, sometimes, forever. Some of those innovations are extremely useful, and last, others vanish, only to be replaced by better alternatives. We don’t know when traditions, much less history, began. There are periods of human activity dated to prehistoric or Paleolithic / Old Stone Era before 10,000 years BCE.

Greek traditions

In the case of the Greeks, most of their traditions (in religion, agriculture, daily life, politics, and science and technology) started in the Bronze Age, 3,100-1,000 BCE. This was a very creative time when the Greeks developed their identity by speaking the same language, offering their piety to the same gods, sowing the same crops and employing the same methods of cultivating the land in raising food, building homes and temples, establishing poleis (city-states) with cobble stone streets, running drinking water, and sanitation. Some of those early city-states as Mycenae in Peloponnesos had protective walls constructed with very large but tightly fit stones that have come down to us with the name of Cyclopean. The mythic Cyclopes were supposed to have been giant humans with one eye like the Cyclops Polyphemos in the Odyssey of Homer. However, the Cyclopean Walls demonstrate not so much muscle power as advanced knowledge in construction and architecture.

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Cyclopean wall, Mycenae, Peloponnesos. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

Nevertheless, Cyclops Polyphemos was the son of Poseidon, brother of the chief Greek god Zeus. Poseidon and Zeus were two of the Olympian gods to whom the Greeks for millennia turned for inspiration and , sometimes, guidance. The other gods included Hades and Demeter, brother, and sister of Zeus. Hera was the wife of Zeus The children of Zeus included Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Dionysos, Hephaistos, Hermes, and Ares.

The Greek gods were anthropomorphic and specialized forces in the natural world that made life possible. Zeus was god of lightening, thunder, and rain. He was the most popular of all other gods. The Olympics and other Panhellenic games took place in his honor. Justice was one of his virtues. He was Zeus Xenios, protector of foreigners visiting Greece. His daughter, Athena, came out of his head fully armed. She was the goddess of arts, crafts, war, the olive tree, intelligence, political theory, democracy, and freedom. Hephaistos was the perfect metallurgist and engineer. Homer tells us he used silver and gold in fashioning two ageless and immortal dogs to guard the palace of Alcinous in Phaiakia / Kerkyra (Odyssey 7.91-94). Apollo was god of prophesy, light, and music. His Oracle at Delphi was a powerful domestic and international policy institute. Artemis protected the natural world. Poseidon protected rivers, seas, and oceans. Demeter and Dionysos were gods of agrarian life and agriculture. Wheat was the gift of Demeter and wine of Dionysos, who was also the god of theater and tragedy. Aphrodite was the goddess of love. Her son, Eros, was the most powerful of the gods and the almighty force of attraction / gravity that kept the Cosmos together.

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Eros by the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles, 4th century BCE. Naples Archaeological Museum. Public Domain.

The hundreds of temples the Greeks built in honor of these gods throughout Hellas shows the enormous role of the gods in Greek life. Greek civilization is inconceivable without the gods. They were the paradigms of wisdom, perfection, and the good and the beautiful.

Athena demonstrates the esteem Greeks had for their gods. The Parthenon in honor of Athena in Athens, is a masterpiece of architecture, science, and beauty.

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The Acropolis and the Parthenon in June 2023. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos

The Athenians built the Temple of Athena Parthenos (the Virgin) in the fifth century BCE, when they were at their greatest glory. Athena was both Promachos (defender of Athens) and Polias (of the polis of Athens).

Homer and Hesiod wrote extensively about the gods. Moreover, Aeschylos, Sophocles, and Euripides, the great tragic poets of Athens in the fifth century BCE, elaborated the stories of Homer and created masterpieces of tragedy performed at theaters and informed Greeks for centuries.

Agrarian life

The most lasting traditions of the Greeks had to do with the cultivation of the land. Discovering and domesticating the most appropriate wild seeds for their daily bread were great achievements. Here they introduced Demeter for helping them to select wheat as their main crop for sustenance. Homer says that wheat and barley were the “marrow of men” (Odyssey 20.108). The Greeks honored Demeter in Eleusis, near Athens, where they celebrated the annual Eleusinian Mysteries. The other agricultural god of great import was Dionysos who introduced the cultivation of grape vines, harvest of the grapes, and the production of sweet wine. Pan and Aristaios, son of Apollo, were also important agrarian gods. Pan protected goats, sheep, and cattle. And Aristaios protected honeybees, other insects, and biological diversity. Poseidon, god of the seas, protected water animals and fish.

Noikokyrio / Home economics

Another series of traditions revolved around the household. Weddings were fundamental in the propagation and survival of the community of the polis.

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Getting the bride ready for marriage, 5th century BCE. Public Domain.

Getting married was elaborate, joyful, and important. Part of that happy tradition was the expression of pleasure with dancing and good food and drink.

Politics, science, and technology

Aristotle in the fourth century BCE studied under Plato for 20 years. He absorbed Platonic ideas, though he was an original thinker and the philosopher who invented science. He was so well known that King Philip II of Macedonia invited him to tutor his son Alexander.

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Aristotle teaches Alexander. Illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866. Public Domain

Aristotle edited the Iliad of Homer for Alexander, immersing him in Greek poetry, philosophy, political theory, history and science. He urged the young prince to unite Greece and put an end to the Persian danger. Alexander did both. He united the Greeks and conquered Persia, which gave him an opportunity to spread Hellenic culture all over the world by founding Greek cities in north Africa and Asia.

The most prominent of those cities was Alexandria in Egypt. Ptolemaios, a childhood friend of Alexander, became king of Egypt. He established a university-Mouseion and a library in Alexandria. These institutions made Alexandria a center for Hellenic science and civilization. Such a tradition flowered in the second century BCE with the creation of the Antikythera Mechanism / Meteoroskopeion for the prediction of the eclipses of the Sun god Helios and Selene, Moon. This astronomical computer captured advanced astronomy, mathematics and engineering, technologies that were about 2,000 years ahead of the time of the Meteoroskopeion, the second century BCE.

Legacy of Greek traditions

In some 3,000 years, the Greeks developed institutions that helped them become self-reliant in good food and secure and independent cities governed mostly by democracy and the rule of law. The Greeks in those cities educated their children in the arts and sciences, athletics, and the virtues of freedom.

Greek traditions spread with the Greeks in south Italy (Magna Graecia), the coasts of Spain, France, north Africa, Asia, and the Black Sea. Greek traditions thrived for as long as the Greeks were free. But with the coming and ascendancy of the Romans in the second century BCE, Greek traditions declined. Some of them, like science and technology, revived during the Renaissance of the 15th century, thus becoming the backbone of Western civilization.

These traditions need to be revived even more today in the 21st century. The rulers of the world are armed with weapons of extermination and holocaust. Their reliance on fossil fuels is warming the planet. This uncontrolled heat may doom humanity and our beloved Earth. We need Greek reason to humanize and civilize ourselves. Clear thinking will enlighten enough people to change the leadership of the planet and restore affection and protection for our Mother Earth.

The Greeks in Greece must also return to their Hellenic roots. Demetres Voggoles, a retired Greek general wrote to the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, urging him to make Greece the home, once again, of the virtues of ancient Hellas. Start a university of Greek civilization, he said, where the best teachers and students from all over the world immerse themselves in Hellenic studies; invite the graduating doctors from all countries to take their Hippocratic oath at the island of Kos, home of Hippocrates; demand that foreign museums return all looted Greek antiquities in their collections; and bring military education to the virtues of freedom of ancient Hellas. Have the graduating officers of the Evelpidon Military School take an oath at Marathon, when in 490 BCE Athenians defeated a large invading Persian army.

These proposals demonstrate that some modern Greeks realize the significance of ancient Greek traditions and the great implications of trying to move modern Greece, and the rest of the world, another step back to Hellas. I would add that the Olympics must return home to Olympia and Athens. In 2023, more than 30 millions of tourists visit ed Greece. Many of these visitors love the country. They could be a tremendous asset to Greece devoted to display and live its ancient life in front of the entire world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.