The difference between humans and other animals is, in the contrary of the general idea, not that humans can think –for there is no proof that animals can’t, quite the opposite- but the ability of the human being to use, interpret and create tools, in the most effective way its limited brain allows. A dog would take a stick, and play with it. A human, would take a stick, and after playing with it for some time, would hit with it its fellow human. Consequently, the human would interpret the stick as a weapon. After using this axe, which is now a weapon, a number of times, recognizing its effectiveness, the human would eventually tie a piece of sharp stone at it and would turn it into an axe, that is, another weapon. After several centuries of collective work where the axe would undergo a number of different stages, finally turning into a nuclear bomb, the dog would still be playing with the same stick.
The ability to create was appreciated by humans so much that they attributed it to certain superb ideas called gods, who, in reverse, were believed to create humans and the whole universe. The creation of gods might be the first known creation of humans where the mind, something immaterial, was used as a tool. Just as in the example of the stick, humans looked at the wonders of nature, and stunned by this beauty, interpreted them as supernatural beings. As with the stick, they liked these ideas so much that they developed them: Mother Nature became a whole pantheon of gods, and every god was associated with different attributes, aspects of nature and different types of behaviors. To share these ideas humans invented song and poetry, and since it was first used to share the knowledge of gods, their creators were seen as sacred people.
The etymological root of poetry comes from the Ancient Greek word “poesis” which means “making”. Therefore the Ancient Greeks agreed, seeing the mind as a tool, and they included every sort of “art” in poetry. According to Aristotle, the roots of poetry came from the human wish to imitate. In childhood, humans imitate their parents and people around them to learn. The poet also imitates everything in his/her environment and besides that, the poet also interprets. Similarly gods are not only interpretations of nature, but also imitations of nature. After humans leave the phase where they only imitate, and enter the phase where they can also interpret, they start to learn from poetry. That is the phase where we start to listen and enjoy fairy tales.
Poetry was sacred to the Ancient Greeks, who gave the attributes of poetry and song to a god: Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, divine song and poetry. They performed drama plays (which were at that time also written in verse) in the feasts made for their god Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility and celebration. Also, poets were believed to be prophet-like people, who were inspired by gods. The etymology for the world “inspire” means “to breathe in”. Ancient Greeks believed that the Nine Muses “breathed” song into poets, as we see in Hesiod. The great poet Homer always starts his poems with an invocation of the Muses, to pay them respect. Plato even rejected, in his work Ion, that poetry was something to be learned. He believed it was absolutely up to the gods, and that it had nothing to do with ability.
The Romans, who inherited religion and poetry from the Ancient Greeks, also believed that poets were divine people. The Roman poet Ovid said that he was a “vates” of Eros, the god of love. “Vates” literally meant in Latin, soothsayer or prophet. In Ancient Greek, prophets were servants of Apollo, and its oracle in Delphi, spoke in verse. So we see in Roman poets the continuation of the Ancient Greek tradition where poetry is divine.
Poetry was also very important in shamanistic cultures. In some Native American cultures, such as the Uitoto Indians, the world was created of dreams and storytelling, and in some African cultures, the world was sung into being. Although stories and songs are not poetry in the way we think of it now, they were told by shamans and wise men, people who are sacred.
The Ancient Greeks also saw poetry as a tool of education, not only for children but also of adults, for it was a way to “spread the word of god”. The best example of this is probably Hesiod’s Theogony in which, similar to the abrahamic religions, the creation of the gods and the world is being told. Although most of the holy scriptures of the monotheistic religions are not considered as poetry today (of course it would be in Ancient Greece), it serves the same purpose.
Another example of poetry being educational is the Finnish epic Kalevala. The Kalevala is not only telling the creation of the world and the gods, but also mentions a bunch of other things such as the making of beer, the discovery of metal and gender relationships, and therefore, it is almost like a guideline for good living (I say “good living” because it doesn’t bore the listener much with moral lessons). The main hero, Väinämöinen, is not a young and glorious warrior, but an old and wise bard and poet. This is very interesting, for the Kalevala is very long, and it takes a lifetime to memorize the whole song. A young bard who would start off as a novice to learn from an old bard would probably leave apprenticeship many years later. By the time he would perform, his hair and beard would be gray, and he himself would become a Väinämöinen, who shares with his audience the knowledge of creation and beer, sacred knowledge which is accessible to the gods, and that makes him also sacred.
This notion that poetry of education and illumination is what made poetry so important. Humans believed that they could acquire, through poetry, knowledge which is accessible to god, and so they felt themselves one step closer to these beings. Humans were so fascinated by gods, that they always had a secret desire to be like them, and so many heroes in epic poetry had god-like attributes. The gods, who came forth from the human mind’s love-making with nature, became tools of poetry. But just as with the example of the stick, after several centuries of collective work, the gods underwent a number of different stages and the gods (which now was in most cultures only one god) got farther away from nature and became monotonous and uniform. Religion became a responsibility –that some people carry out, and some don’t- and the understanding of the sacred branched out and is now something individual, as are most things. For some it is religion, for some nature, for some possession, reputation and individual or collective well-being, or any sort of idealism. And although poets lost their holy reputations in most circles, these are all things poetry still imitates, so that we can still say that poetry, although it has changed a great deal, it hasn’t grown that far from its roots.