The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Theogony

How these epic poems shaped culture and depicted ancient history and formed the Myths of the Ages of this world

Introduction to the epics

The influence of Greek culture extends down to us today from the philosophical and mathematical advancements to the political and the literary. Some of the most influential pieces of literature on Greek culture are Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as Hesiod’s Theogony.


These pieces of literature immortalized the complex and rich stories of Greek mythology. They documented the many stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, the creation of the world according to these myths, and even the ages and cycles of the world.

Homer’s poems helped cement the shared values and beliefs of the Ancient Greeks, providing examples of heroism and explaining humanity’s place in this vast world.

Similarly, Hesiod’s Theogony details the origin of the universe as well as the ascendancy of the gods and the complex history of their reign. This poem shows how the world has and continues to be shaped by the will of these divine personalities.

These epic poems are not only studied today for their literary techniques, but for the cementing of culture and complexity of the myths they were able to record.

A glimpse inside Greek culture

Homer and Hesiod’s contributions to the world of literature continue to astound scholars to this day. Their works are epic poems, meaning they are a literary genre of heroic oral poetry.

Modern academia understands that neither Homer nor Hesiod created these myths. These works were born of an oral tradition meaning that the tales of the Trojan War or the War of the Titans depicted in these epic poems were passed down orally for centuries before being compiled into the written poetic form.


These epic poems are still studied today for their literary feats and are a major source of Greek mythology. While stories of the Greek gods and heroes may now be viewed as purely literary spectacles, in Ancient Greece, these were considered to be accounts of historical events or explanations for the universe.

Both Homer and Hesiod’s epic poems provide a glimpse into the basis of religious practices and rituals that took place in Ancient Greece and provide us insight into the beliefs and values of the Ancient Greeks.

Introduction to the Iliad

Because of the lack of historical records, not much is known about the poet Homer, but scholars believe the epic poem The Iliad to have been written around 750BC. The Iliad is just one of two epic poems attributed to Homer.

Homer’s The Iliad depicts the history of the Trojan War between the Achaeans, the Greeks, and the Trojans. Divided into 24 books, the poem details the complex series of events and motivations for the start of the war as well as what keeps it going.

The Iliad also importantly depicts how people viewed the way the gods and goddesses interacted with humanity. The history and development of Greek civilization was seen as being at the mercy of divine forces that could work in conjunction or at odds with humanity.

In these accounts of the Greek myths, humanity was either blessed by the deities and provided with gifts and knowledge to turn the tide of the war or was scorned by them and bestowed a punishment.

Fact or fiction

Homer’s Iliad was written around 400 years after the fall and destruction of the city of Troy. Because of this, it is assumed by scholars that Homer’s depictions of the events of the Trojan War are not entirely historically accurate and may be viewed more as a condensing of many battles into one nine-year war, with some literary flair thrown in.

Despite the debate on historical accuracy today, the Ancient Greeks of Homer’s day considered his epic poem to be a true depiction of history. So why does this matter?


The myths that Homer cemented in his work were a collection of the beliefs circulating in Greek culture. The stories in his poems of Achilles form the basis for the morals and virtue that are associated with the standard for being a hero and provided the Ancient Greeks with a standard of excellence to venerate and live up to.

The interaction of gods and goddesses and their influence in the events of the war only further solidified the Ancient Greeks’ view of the world and humanity’s place within it as destined to live at the will and whim of deities more powerful than they are.

Introduction to the Odyssey

Homer’s second epic poem, The Odyssey, is believed to have been written in the eighth century BC and is broken down into 24 books. This poem tells the story of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus, who after the end of the Trojan war, wandered for ten years attempting to return home and to his wife, Penelope.


The poem focuses on only the last six weeks of his journey and the many trials he must face to return to his kingdom and ward off the many suitors that sought his wife.

At the time that Homer penned The Odyssey, Greece was waning.

The political systems were tense, people were unhappy, and the number of scholars and literate people was dropping. But Homer’s epic poem helped to revive Greek culture, giving people a shared history and tales of morality and heroism to renew their faith and pride in their own culture.

The impact of The Odyssey doesn’t end there. From Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad to the Coen Brother’s 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou, this epic poem continues to inspire literary and artistic works. Despite the centuries separating modern art from Homer’s first poem, the stories in The Odyssey tell a story that is universal and remains relevant.

Homer's Hexameter

Both The Iliad and The Odyssey by the poet Homer are written in a distinct style called dactylic hexameter or sometimes called heroic hexameter. This is a metered or rhythmic verse scheme made up of dactyls, a stressed syllable, and spondees or unstressed syllables. These metered feet form a pattern of rhyme and length that adds a song-like quality to the poems.

This musical rhythm underlying the poem is not only a spectacular literary feat but is also an important continuation of the oral tradition that these stories and myths were originally passed down.


Homer intended for this poem to be read out loud as not everyone in Ancient Greece was educated or literate enough to read it. The tradition of oral storytelling unified people from all classes and education levels.

Homer’s strong rhyme scheme and metered verses help The Odyssey to be told orally to many people and unite them in a shared passing on of mythology that transcended class or education level.

Homer’s Similes

These epic poems also feature the literary technique commonly referred to now as the ‘Homeric simile.’ A normal simile compares one thing to another using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ for example, ‘our love is like a fire.’

However, Homer’s Similes were complicated and detailed. He would begin with a description of an event, such as Odysseus weeping at the recounting of the battle of Troy, and then follow with a lengthy description of what this weeping was like, such as a widow being beaten and torn away from her fallen lover. Homer would then return to the original image of Odysseus weeping to remind the audience what the detailed scene was being compared to.

These are extremely detailed and provide graphic imagery to the poem. Scholars believe this was Homer’s way of not only adding emotion to the epic story but also providing historical detail or examples that people from all walks of life could relate to in order to make Odysseus a more heroic and tragic figure.

Introduction to the Theogony

Hesiod’s Theogony is an epic poem believed to be written around 700-730BC that details the creation of the gods, their complex history and relationships, and the eras of the world past and the world to come. Hesiod believed in these myths as truths and is credited as being the first to try to record the history of the gods and goddesses and the function of the universe according to the Ancient Greeks.


This epic poem immortalized the Greek deities with their human-like characteristics and details the creation of the world and how exactly it is that Zeus became the king of the gods.

Similar to Homer’s epic poems, the Theogony is written in an oral tradition which made it easy to be read aloud and understood by people of all classes or literacy.

This poem provided the Ancient Greeks with a cosmogony, or a story of creation, and helped explain humanity’s place in a universe dominated by deities. This pre-scientific view of the world plays a key role in providing the Ancient Greeks with a unified vision and understanding of the universe.

Breakdown of Theogony

The Theogony by Hesiod is an epic poem relating the complex history of the gods and goddesses as well as the creation of the universe.

This poem is broken down into two sections. The first is The Works and Days which is a series of verses functioning like a farmer’s almanac. This section explains the natural world and how the various gods and goddesses exert their influence over it and how humanity is meant to live in the world.

The second section is the title section of the work, Theogony. This section of the work is about the creation of the universe and the various alliances and relationships of the gods and goddesses.

It is in these two sections that we are given, even today, a glimpse into Ancient Greek culture and how these people viewed the universe. It also details the daily practices and rituals that the Ancient Greeks participated in and how they saw their lives being constantly affected by the deities that ruled the natural world and their theodicy or justification for morality.

The Early Ages of the World

This invaluable glimpse into the mythology of the Ancient Greeks provided by Hesiod’s Theogony also provides us with an interpretation of the Ages of the World. These Four Ages are eras that the world has gone through from its creation to the changing ascendancy of gods to the ultimate end and destruction of the universe.

The first age is the Golden Age. This was a time believed to be in Hesiod’s past when the Titan Cronus was in charge of the gods. Humans were believed to live in complete harmony with the gods and did not need to toil or work throughout their lives and eventually died peaceful deaths. This age came to an end with the creation of the Olympian, Zeus.

The second age is the Silver Age. In this age, men lived long and spent their first 100 years on earth as children. Times were peaceful and did not require any toil or laboring from man, but man began to neglect to worship the gods, especially Zeus, and took this peace for granted.

According to Theogony, Zeus ended this age by killing these humans and burying them in the underworld where they would become spirits among the dead.

The Late Ages of the World

In Theogony, the writer Hesiod details the Ages of the World or eras that the Ancient Greeks believed had already happened or would eventually come to pass.

The third age, following the Golden and the Silver Age, was the Bronze Age named after the weapons man created to first begin a cycle of violence and destruction against one another. This age was plagued with violence and ended with a flood wiping out humanity.


The fourth age, according to the Theogony, is the Heroic age where Greek heroes such as Odysseus, Achilles, and Heracles lived. Marked by its violence, it is the first time that heroes are made of humanity by their ability to live morally and worship the gods despite the continuing decay and violence of the world.

The final age, and the one that Hesiod saw his own life taking place in was the Iron Age. This is the worst age after the point when Pandora opened a cursed box and released all manner of evils into the world. This age was marked by selfish men turning against one another and perpetuating a cycle of violence and destruction.

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