People forgot many skills, including the art of writing. From the end of the Mycenaean civilization in about 1100 B.C. until about 800 B.C., Greek civilization seemed to step backward. Over time, the newcomers absorbed stories and traditions from the Mycenaeans into their own heritage. In this way, they built on the legacy of earlier civilizations to forge a new, Greek civilization.
Historians know little about this period when the Dorians arrived in Greece, but we get hints about life at the time from two great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epics may have been the work of many people, but they are credited to the poet Homer, who probably lived about 750 B.C. According to tradition, Homer was a blind poet who wandered from village to village, singing of heroic deeds. Like the great Indian epics, Homer's tales were passed on orally for generations before they were finally written down.
The epic tale told in the Iliad is our chief source of information about the Trojan War, although it includes many fantastic stories about gods, goddesses, and even a talking horse. At the start of the poem, Achilles (uh KIL eez), the mightiest Greek warrior, has withdrawn from battle because he has been unfairly treated and insulted by his commander. The war soon turns against the Greeks, but Achilles stubbornly refuses to listen to pleas that he rejoin the fighting. Only after his best friend is killed does Achilles return to battle to strike down many Trojans.
The Iliad's first word and major theme is anger, especially the anger of Achilles. The singer-storyteller calls on the goddess of memory to tell the story of how anger caused great losses and misery for Greeks and Trojans alike.
The Odyssey tells of the many struggles of the Greek hero Odysseus (oh DIS ee us) on his return home to his faithful wife, Penelope, after the fall of Troy. On his long voyage, Odysseus encounters a sea monster, a race of one-eyed giants, and a beautiful sorceress who turns men into swine.
In the Odyssey, the first word is man, and the story show the many sides of the man Odysseus. He is a determined resourceful hero who must overcome great odds to make it home. The Odyssey features the story of the Trojan Horse, which allowed the Greeks to win their victory over Troy.
The Iliad and Odyssey reveal much about the values and culture of the ancient Greeks. The heroes display honor, courage, and eloquence, as when Achilles rallies his troops:
In this scene from the Illiad, the water goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles, brings her son new divinely forged armor after his best friend Patroclus dies wearing Achilles's armor.
“Let not the Trojans,” he cried, “keep you at arm's length, Achaeans, but go for them and fight them man for man. However valiant I may be, I cannot give chase to so many and fight all of them … nevertheless, so far as in me lies I will show no slackness of hand or foot nor want of endurance, not even for a moment …”
—Homer, Iliad (translated by Samuel Butler)
Tales from the Iliad and Odyssey have been told and retold for almost 3,000 years. The Greeks thought of Homer as their greatest poet, a cultural hero. His epics have been admired throughout later Western civilization, and their stories have inspired Western writers and artists to the present.
The epics portray a wide range of characters, some brave and courageous, others cowardly and weak. Almost every kind of character written about since then was first captured in Homer's epics, including the faithful dog Argus, who waited patiently for the return of his master, Odysseus.