I grew up in southern Maine in the United States, spending most of my childhood outdoors in the pine forests in the 1980s and 1990s. As an adult, I now live a few hours south, outside of Boston and I find myself shocked after another season of records. I can’t remember a winter with so little snow; when I was young, a summer day or two in the mid-90s would go on the evening news.
This year New England has had record high temperatures (a dozen days or more near 40°C) accompanied by a drought that people barely mention. The leaves which turn brown and fall at the end of September are already dry and crumbling; unwatered lawns are dust.
Many fields of the humanities have written about our relationship with the environment for more than a generation (in a field called ecocriticism). Those of us engaged in the ancient world, however, have been a bit slow to relate our work to the extinction level event on the horizon. The lack of engagement is perhaps unsurprising to many. What does the ancient world say about climate change?
destroy the world
Ancient Near Eastern traditions, from the Atrahasis to the poems of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible, frame the destruction of the human and natural world through divine wrath or retribution. These stories give human beings a modicum of comfort by providing at least an explanation for human suffering. Although there are echoes of these flood stories in Greco-Roman myth (the most important, perhaps, in the Greek history of Deucalion and Pyrrha as the Roman poet Ovid recounts), destruction does not figure so prominently in ancient Greek myth.
The main exception to this statement comes from the hesiodic myth of the ages. At Hesiod Works and dayspoem addressed by the narrator Hesiod to his brother Perses, there is an account of the degradation of the generation of human beings, named after less and less precious metals: the “gold” generation was close to the gods, the silver is like children, the bronze generation was warlike, and we, more or less contemporary humans, are a race of iron.
Wedged suspiciously between the races of bronze and iron, we find the race of heroes, according to Hesiod. This is the generation that was the product of the unions between mortals and gods, the glorious era of Heracles, Achilles and Odysseus. This generation died out fighting around Thebes (where the story of the Oedipus family took place) and Troy. According to a popular epic fragment of a poem called the Cypria, it was Zeus’ plan to relieve Earth of the burden of these heroes by arranging their violent death in war.
The theme of bad leadership
When I teach students of myth the stories of destruction, one of the things I emphasize about ancient Greece is how one of their main foundational stories – the Theogony – created the universe at through a complex system of biological relationships: almost everything in the world is born from Gaia. , Earth.
This includes human beings. The Theban poet Pindar praises Gaia saying, “The race of gods and the race of men are separate; but we both breathe thanks to a mother. (Nemea Ode2) while a fragment of Euripides (484) reports that “earth and sky were once but one form” to separate and then together produce creation. At a fundamental level, stories of destruction project onto the universe the truth of individual life: all that lives must die.
The story of Hesiod and the fragment of Cyprus alter this understanding by placing human beings as separate and utterly useless creations. We are a burden to the Earth, a threat to the rest of creation. Ancient lore and modern scholarship have defined “Zeus’ plan” as the destruction of the hero race to reset the world. Most receptions understand its action as part of a cyclical process, rather than some end.
But ancient stories have added a personal dimension. While everything that happens in the Homeric Iliad is supposedly part of “the completion of Zeus’ plan” (…Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή, Iliad 1.5), the story we hear is about leaders destroying their people by making bad decisions. Agamemnon acknowledges this, admitting that his greed and anger have sent countless men to their doom (Il. 2.115) and Hektor fears that people will remember him as one who destroyed his people through his own recklessness.
Much ink has been spilled on the relationship between divine determination and human will in Greek myth. I think there is an easy way to figure it out, but avoid it because it cuts pretty close to the bone. As the Homeric epic shows, there are things in life we can control and things we can’t. Human life is lived in the space that separates them. There are always tendencies or patterns in which our actions seem predetermined; yet, when we make our decisions, they are meaningfully ours.
Zeus picks up this theme at the beginning of the Odyssey where he complains that “mortals always blame the gods for their fate, even if they suffer more than is allotted to them because of their own recklessness” (Odyssey, 1.32 -34). Before vigils like “self-sabotage” or “their own worst enemy”, Greek myth strove to help its audience understand that human beings may not be creating our own problems, but that we actively aggravate them.
Epic tales are far from the only narrative traditions that explore such bitter lessons. Indeed, the need to explore human madness is central to the fascinating nature of tragedy. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have returned frequently to Sophocles’ Oedipus scenario. The purpose of the play is not to shock ancient audiences with the story of a man who randomly killed his father and slept with his mother. Instead, it’s the story of how a leader known for his wisdom not only failed to protect his people from a plague, but actively compounded their suffering and his own through his aggressive denial of the truth. .
Oedipus tries to do everything right from the start of the play when his people beg him to help him against the play. The sickening power of tragedy lies in its exploration of a person’s capacity to be wrong. Oedipus Tyrannos does not inspire identification or empathy in the audience because we know what it is to be a king or to rule a city through a plague. It touches our hearts because each of us knows a little of the price to pay for refusing to expose our own lies.
Climate change and myth
COVID-19 can and must be contained due to a dangerous relationship between humanity and the environment. Our overpopulation, pollution and destruction of ecosystems make future pandemics more likely than less likely. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have hardly seen better leadership than that offered by Agamemnon and Oedipus in recent years. I am deeply concerned about our ability to deal with these coming dangers.
A common refrain in ancient Greek songs is that none of us know what tomorrow will bring, but it is certain beyond doubt that each of us will die. I’m not sure the ancient Greeks had a qualitatively different view of mortality from ours, but I’m sure they probably wouldn’t toast the end of all of humanity.
Ancient Greek myth and literature may seem like a useless weapon against climate change, but they are still an important tool to help us understand how we have brought ourselves to the brink of destruction. Our capacity for denial can be seen as a necessary talent: how else could we go about our daily routines without the ability to avoid thinking about our inevitable ends? What the Greek myth provides, however, is a way of thinking about the consequences of denial and the social costs when those we trust to lead us cannot and will not face the most important challenges of our time.
At the creation of the universe, the Greek myth teaches us that we were a part of the earth, an extension of it. Generations later, we learn that humanity in its most glorious and outsized form has proven to be a burden on the earth. So the gods decided to kill them all. My only hope is that Zeus’ complaint about human beings in the Odyssey contains an unspoken corollary: if we make our lot worse than it should have been through our recklessness, maybe we can make things better. in turn through the intelligence, diligence and concern of another.
Our selfishness and madness put us all in danger. And if we don’t change our ways, there won’t be anyone to tell our story.
Joel Christensen is a professor and senior associate dean for faculty affairs at Brandeis University. He has published widely and some of his works include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020 he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.