Before we go any further in the discussion of the origins of fantasy and science fiction in ancient literature, I wanted to address a basic question:
Did the Greeks believe any of this was true?
When we sit down to read a work of fantasy, we are very aware of reading about a constructed space. We know we are temporarily inhabiting an imagined world, and much of our delight comes from that work of imagination. Our appreciation of any verisimilitude comes attached to that sense of creation: it is exciting to us that the work we are reading is believable even though it is pretend.
(This is, of course, what non-geeks often don’t understand about those of us of the geekly persuasion. How, they wonder, can you spend so much time arguing over the minutiae and plot holes of a story in which a basic premise is “we live in space and , even more unbelievably, do without money”? The answer is that even a pretend world needs internal consistency, and we argue because tolerances on that consistency vary. I can’t stop tearing my hair out at the messed up timeline of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, my husband thinks this is hilarious, I love him anyway.)
But what about the person in the fifth century BC, listening to Homer? What did they think they were listening to? History, fiction, or something else?
That’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think. The idea of “genre” didn’t quite exist yet, so you couldn’t ask someone “is this history, or fiction?”
You could ask, “Is this true?” But even then you’d be dealing with a pretty new idea, in the grand scheme of things.
Did the Greeks believe their gods were real? Yes. Real like you and I are real? Yes, and if they doubted that they believed it was awfully dangerous to not do what you were supposed to do just in case. Philosophers would later ask whether the gods were memories of great humans or pure invention, but the average person on the Greek street didn’t spend much time on the question. The gods were forces to be satisfied and kept happy, and they didn’t much care what you thought about them as long as they got their due.
Did they believe the Trojan War actually happened? Yes (and it appears they were right, even if we don’t know much else about it). Did they believe it happened just like in Homer?
Ah. There it gets sticky. When we talk about truth, we have the idea of one correct story in which all the facts are correct. The Greeks on the other hand were much more comfortable with the idea that there could be many stories, all of which contradicted each other, and one way a poet could show off was by demonstrating how many versions of a story he knew. So when you asked that Greek person about whether or not Homer’s work was true, he’d have to ask you which of those versions you meant. And then he might just tell you that they were all true, although he didn’t know which was the one that actually happened.
These works, what we call the “Homeric Corpus”, are still in the realm of of oral tradition. They were written down at some point (Probably – maybe – in the sixth century BC) and then over the next few hundred years were edited by many, many hands. So rather than the work of one author we have the imagination of many, tangled with half remembered stories and embellishments.
As we move on to our next work, Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, that will no longer be the case. While much of the Odyssey evolved organically the Argonautica is a very deliberate artistic work.
But don’t let that scare you: there are still monsters. Lots of monsters. And some of them don’t even look like us.