I’ve blogged before about post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction. These are forward-looking horror stories that either extrapolate from present trends or presuppose some civilization-ending disaster, leading to a world that is darker and diminished from the one we recognize.
Books in this genre can help us to better appreciate the world we have and, in the best of cases, inspire us to action necessary to preserve and protect our actual future. They are prophecies that must not come true, and every time our society comes up with a fresh anxiety, the post-apocalyptic genre evolves to include it.
On a seemingly unrelated topic, I’ve been immersed in Greek mythology for the past few months for my current writing project. That’s not enough time to become an expert, but just enough to start making connections. The other day, it struck me that many stories of Greek mythology fall into a genre that’s the polar opposite of post-apocalyptic fiction. They are, if anything, pre-apocalyptic.
In the 8th Century BC, Hesiod defined five ages of mankind. He believed that he was living in the Fifth Age, and he regretted not being born instead into the Fourth Age, the Age of Heroes, where the bulk of classical Greek mythology is set.
In the works of Homer, there are constant references to how the Fourth Age heroes of the Trojan War were better, stronger, and more glorious than the Fifth Age men of living memory. The way Homer described it, three or four men of the Fifth Age would be required just to lift the weapons that Fourth Age heroes wielded to battle each other.
Hesiod and Homer were telling stories set in a past that was better than the present, before some civilization-ending disaster led to a world that’s now darker and diminished from the one that came before. They are writing about stories set on the other side of an apocalypse, but one that’s in the past instead of the future.
In stories of Greek mythology, the problems in heaven get resolved by the gods outsourcing their problems, and increasing human suffering in the process.
For example, the insubordination of Prometheus was a problem for Zeus. He couldn’t tolerate other immortals going behind his back, subverting his will, and gifting mortals with awesome new technologies like fire. Just punishing Prometheus, by having an eagle tear out his liver on a daily basis, was only a partial solution. To really fix the matter, Zeus created Pandora and her box of plagues in order to make mortal life more difficult.
The story of Pandora is the story of an apocalypse, told by people living after the fact.
Another problem for Zeus was a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would outshine his father. To avoid being overthrown exactly like he overthrew his father, and like his father overthrew his grandfather, Zeus breaks up with Thetis and introduces her to a mortal. The child of prophecy, Achilles, turns out to be greater than a man but less than a god, and Zeus’s kingship is saved, at the cost of a decade-long war that cost so much blood and treasure that all of human society collapsed.
The story of the Trojan War represents another apocalypse, and is also told by people living after the fact.
When archaeologists discovered Troy, the date of its destruction matched the time of the Late Bronze Age Collapse that toppled ancient civilizations like dominos from Italy to India. In the land that is now Greece, populations crashed, cities and farmland were destroyed or abandoned, technology regressed, culture regressed, skills and knowledge were lost, and writing all but disappeared.
The ensuing Dark Ages lasted for centuries. It was a post-apocalyptic time, during which the stories we know today as Greek mythology developed and spread through an oral tradition. These stories were a post-apocalyptic society’s backward look at the better, brighter times before the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and a means for which they tried to explain what happened and why.
These pre-apocalyptic stories weren’t meant for us, or for any audience at our position in civilization’s grand cycle of ebb and flow. We aren’t capable of fully relating to them. But still, something about them appeals to us.
Given the choice, any of us would rather be living in a Golden Age while reading about a post-apocalyptic age, rather than the other way around. It’s hard for us to even imagine being among a post-apocalyptic audience, hearing a tale that can only be told orally, because literacy is no longer a thing, about an actual Golden Age that has become a time of fading legends.
But maybe we need these stories as well, to remind us that history is a cycle. Unimaginable things have happened in the past, and can happen again if we ignore the warnings in our post-apocalyptic stories.
And on a less depressing note… Homeric trivia!
- The Trojan Horse doesn’t actually appear in the Iliad. That scene happens in a separate part of the epic cycle that’s been lost to us.
- Also not included in the Iliad, Achilles getting fatally shot in the ankle. That scene also happens in a part of the epic cycle that’s been lost to us.
- The epic cycle included an army of women led across the plains of Troy by an Amazon queen named Penthesilia, and an African army led by King Memnon of Aethiopia. That has been lost to us as well.
So why does every adaptation of the Trojan War recreate the death of Achilles and the deployment of a giant wooden horse while completely ignoring the armies of Penthesilia and Memnon?