Summary and book reviews of Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Why the Greeks Matter

By Thomas Cahill

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2003,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2004,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

In the fourth volume of the acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill brings his characteristic wit and style to a fascinating tour of ancient Greece.

The Greeks invented everything from Western warfare to mystical prayer, from logic to statecraft. Many of their achievements, particularly in art and philosophy, are widely celebrated; other important innovations and accomplishments, however, are unknown or under-appreciated. In Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill explores the legacy, good and bad, of the ancient Greeks. From the origins of Greek culture in the migrations of armed Indo-European tribes into Attica and the Peloponnesian peninsula, to the formation of the city-states, to the birth of Western literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, art, and architecture, Cahill makes the distant past relevant to the present.

Greek society is one of the two primeval influences on the Western world: While Jews gave us our value system, the Greeks set the foundation and framework for our intellectual lives. They are responsible for our vocabulary, our logic, and our entire system of categorization. They provided the intellectual tools we bring to bear on problems in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, physics, and the other sciences. Their modes of thinking, considered in classical times to be the pinnacle of human achievement, are largely responsible for the shape that the Christian religion took. But, as Cahill points out, the Greeks left a less appealing bequest as well. They created Western militarism and, in making the warrior the ultimate ideal, perpetrated the assumption that only males could be entrusted with the duties of citizenship. The consequences of their exclusion of women from the political sphere and the social segregation of the sexes continue to reverberate today. Full of surprising, often controversial, insights, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is a remarkable intellectual adventure—conducted by the most companionable guide imaginable. Cahill’s knowledge of his sources is so intimate that he has made his own fresh translations of the Greek lyric poets for this volume.

CHAPTER I
THE WARRIOR

HOW TO FIGHT

Zeus, who controlled rain and clouds and held in his hand the awful thunderbolt, was Lord of the Sky and greatest of the gods, but not the oldest. He and the eleven other Olympians--the gods and goddesses who dwelt in the heaven at the top of Mount Olympus, Greece's highest mountain--had been preceded in their reign by the elder gods, the Titans, whom they had overthrown. The Titans had been formed by Father Heaven and Mother Earth, which had existed before any of the gods, having emerged from the primordial Chaos, whose children, Darkness and Death, had given birth to Light and Love (for Night is the mother of Day), which made possible the appearance of Heaven and Earth.

Zeus, son of the deposed Titan Cronus, was perpetually falling in love, wooing and usually raping beautiful women, both immortal and mortal, who would then give birth to gods and demigods, complicating considerably family relations on Olympus. Hera, Zeus's wife and ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In his analysis of Homer's Iliad, Thomas Cahill cites the epic's intense depictions of loyalty, villainy, and the honorable way to fight. Yet Homer ascribes noble behavior to both Trojans and Greeks. What parallels do you see between Homer's perception of heroism and our own? What do you make of the mythic justification for the Trojan war—a golden apple inscribed "to the fairest," bestowed by the Spirit of Discord? Do the mythic aspects of the Trojan War reveal any truths about why we do battle?

  2. The book addresses the question of luck versus prowess in the rise of a powerful civilization [see p. 49]. Intellect and drive obviously contributed to the Greeks' success, but do you consider them to be fortunate also? If so, ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Library Journal

Cahill does for the Greeks what he did for the Irish and the Jews in previous volumes of his Hinges of History series--though he points out the unfortunate legacy of militarism and the exclusion of women from citizenship.

Kirkus Reviews

Like having a worldly, well-versed, and imaginative uncle tell you a good story, tendering the known while fearlessly filling in the gaps with seamless, colorful graftings.

Publishers Weekly

In this elegant introduction to Greek life and thought, Cahill provides the same majestic historical survey he has already offered for the Irish, the Jews and the Christians.

Reader Reviews
Anonymous

This book was a help to me, in putting into clearer perspective the Greek portion of the Western Civilization courses that I took in school. Since I have a little knowledge of the Greek langauge, but not enough to read his poems in the original, ...   Read More

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