Sign In
Forgot Password? Register - AS/A2 English Literature Study Guides - texts in context.


The Golden age

Happier times

When we talk of a ‘Golden Age' of Brazilian football or a ‘Golden Age' of English drama, we are employing an extremely ancient concept. However, we use the phrase much more lightly, less literally than the ancients did: they believed there had been a distinct age in which the world as a whole had been much better.

Signs of a longing for a better past can be seen in some of the earliest human writing. The first known works of literature, the writings of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq in the third millennium BCE, are full of references to a former age, from which Sumerian writingthe present time could only be seen as a falling-off:

Measured out in metals

The ancient Greek idea of the Golden Age of human perfection is first recorded in the work of the poet Hesiod, who was writing in about the eighth century BCE. It was a time, he said, when men and women lived ‘like gods': they did not have to work to support themselves, because a benevolent nature supplied them with all their needs:

It goes without saying that this was not the age in which Hesiod and his contemporaries felt they lived. The ideal Golden Age had ended at some vague time in the distant past, giving way to a ‘Silver Age', a ‘Bronze Age', then the race of heroes (half gods like Hercules, who approached the 'golden' race). However, things had got worse since then, wrote Hesiod. His was an ‘Iron Age' in which people had to break their backs with work to feed and clothe themselves and in which war, injustice and nastiness were rife.

More on different Iron ages: Hesiod's ‘Iron Age' should not be confused with that of the modern archaeologists. They too describe human development in terms of metals, according to the skills different societies had attained. Making bronze from a mixture of copper and tin was comparatively easy: ‘Stone Age' cultures had gained the necessary skills from about 3000 BCE. The ‘Bronze Age' went on until the (much harder) techniques involved in working iron had been mastered: this happened from about 1200 BCE. Iron is much harder, more durable and more adaptable than bronze, so from the archaeologists' point of view, the coming of the ‘Iron Age' marked an advance.

Paradise before a fall

The world of Hesiod's Golden Age closely resembles that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as recounted in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. They were expelled from their earthly paradise because the devil (in the guise of a speaking serpent) tempted them to aspire to god-like status, leading them into disobedience against God.

The Greek tradition has some similarities. Although the mythology is muddled, with conflicting versions of the story, there is general agreement that it was after the overthrow of Cronos, King of the Titans, by his son Zeus that the mythical Greek Iron Age began.

The role of Prometheus

The onset of the 'Iron Age' is also linked to when Prometheus gave the secret of fire to humanity:

PrometheusMore on Prometheus: Fire was an invaluable gift: it allowed humanity to move forward, allowing forests to be cleared for agriculture, and the arts of metalworking to be developed. Given the importance of his contribution to technological progress – and what he suffered to help bring that about – Prometheus has been associated ever since with heroic daring and originality in the cause of science. Today we use the word ‘Promethean' for a scientist or scientific venture which seems especially intrepid in its ambition.

Degeneration and hope

The myth of the Golden Age implies the progressive degeneration of the human race. However, according to Hesiod, the race of heroes did not all die out; some survived on the Isles of the Blest, which contained the garden of the Hesperides (which had trees bearing golden fruit) or, according to Homer, on the Elysian Fields, both these mythical places being 'in the west'.

Gradually, Elysium was seen as the reward for right living heroes after death (i.e. the classical equivalent of the Christian heaven); it was the destination of Aeneas, where he was reunited with his dead father and witnessed the Blest dancing and singing. Whether 'in the west' or in the afterlife, the physical and moral perfection of these destinations was seen as a return to the original Golden Age.

Other cultural references

Book of Genesis

A major poem or fiction depicting events of significance in the history of a civilisation.
According to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), Adam is the first human being, made in the image / likeness of God, placed in the Garden of Eden and given dominion over the earth.
According to the book of Genesis in the Bible the first woman, said to have been created by God out of Adam's rib, to be his companion.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
A place of beauty and perfection, associated in the Bible and literature with both the Garden of Eden before the Fall, and heaven. Often used as a synonym for heaven.
Also known as Satan or Lucifer, the Bible depicts him as the chief of the fallen angels and demons, the arch enemy of God who mounts a significant, but ultimately futile, challenge to God's authority.
A snake. In some religions and mythologies seen as the embodiment of deceit, cunning and evil, and associated with Satan.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
in Greek mythology, the gods who dwelt on Mount Olympus, presided over by Zeus.
(9th or 8th century BCE). Greek poet to whom the highly-influential, epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, were attributed.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
In many religions, the place where God dwells, and to which believers aspire after their death. Sometimes known as Paradise.

The Creation; Fall of humankind and universal or original sin; Noah and the Flood; the call of Abraham (start of salvation history), followed by the stories of the other patriarchs, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

The Creation; Fall of humankind and universal or original sin; Noah and the Flood; the call of Abraham (start of salvation history), followed by the stories of the other patriarchs, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

Prometheus ' creator of the human race; punished by Zeus for giving man fire.
The twelve Titans were gods who were overthrown by Zeus, the son of Cronos, king of the Titans.
Son of Cronos, ruler and chief of the Greek gods, originally a sky-god. (Roman name: Jupiter.)
Home of the gods.
In Greek mythology, the paradisiacal place where heroes and the virtuous went to live after they died. The islands were free from sadness and associated with elysium.
The 'Daughters of Evening' were nymphs who lived in a garden in the west, beyond the sunset.
Elysian Fields - the home of the blessed in the Underworld.