I recently watched another very interesting documentary from the History Channel, "Gods and Goddesses”, about Greek Mythology. Jotted down several items of interest…
The Greek Gods are diverse. They incorporated elements from the many cultures in Greece. But they are likewise distinct from the gods of non-Greek cultures. The myths were based on oral tradition until around 750 BCE. The popular belief is that Homer wrote the myths down. Homer was like the Greek Bible.
Fifty years after Homer, Hesiod created The Theogony which explains the creation of the gods. For Hesiod, the world began with a supernatural presence named Chaos. By Chaos, Hesiod meant emptiness, not disorder.
Love and war/sex and violence, are intricately linked in Greek mythology because ancient peoples felt that deeply passionate feelings were somehow connected in the human mind and in the human emotions. Great desires and great fears were somehow linked.
The Judeo-Christian creation story culminates in God’s creation of man who is given dominion over all the creatures on earth. But for the ancient Greeks, human-kind was of little consequence to the universe. According to Hesiod, the first race of man was gold (the Golden Age). Their lives were easy, crops abundant and they literally feast with the gods. Everybody was good and everybody was just. It was very much like paradise. But these people vanished without explanation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, life’s hardships are seen as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the garden of Eden. But for the Golden race of men in Greek mythology, there is no such reason for their disappearance. In Greek mythology, disobeying the gods isn’t as big of a deal as it is in the Judeo-Christian myths because the Greeks did not attempt an explanation of why life is so difficult as did the Judeo-Christian tradition.
After the golden race disappears, Zeus creates a race of silver. These people were not particularly evolved. They were babies forever, had a short maturity, a horrible old age, and disappeared under the earth. They were arrogant and did not worship the gods sufficiently. Next came the men of bronze who exterminated themselves thanks to constant warfare. And next come the men who live today. These are men of iron.
The explanation of the races is only for men. The first woman was sent to the earth as a punishment to mankind because Prometheus (who represents humankind) had tried to trick Zeus. Women are considered a beautiful evil. There is an emphasis on the threat that women pose. The beautiful evil that Zeus gives mankind is Pandora with a jar of evils that she accidentally opens and all of the evils of the world are let loose. She closes the jar as quickly as she can, capturing hope.
Hope is considered an evil because it gives you the delusion that you can control the future. Hope was left in the jar because it was ambiguous. Whether hope is good or bad depends on how humankind uses it.
Greek mythology never lets people off the hook. It doesn’t say, this happened because the gods willed it. It always has to do with something that humanity has done – some way in which human beings have provoked the gods.
The gods are not always ethical or honest and they don’t have to take the consequences of anything they do. The burden of acting ethically falls on human beings, not on gods. An example is the story of Pericles who was born of Zeus and mortal woman. The mortal woman was faithful to her husband so Zeus had to trick her into sleeping with him. Zeus’s wife Hera was so angry about the birth of Zeus’s son by another woman that she took vengeance upon Pericles. Zeus finally saved Perlicles from Hera’s wrath by making him immortal. This may have paved the way for the Apostle Paul to present Jesus to the Greeks. The notion that a Greek God could take on human form and look like one of us was already familiar to the Greeks. Pericles is not quite a Christ figure, but there are definitely elements that are similar. Especially in terms of Pericles’ suffering before ascending to his divinity.
Greek heroes are extraordinary, but not necessarily extraordinarily good. Oedipus is a Greek hero who kills his father and marries his mother. He blinds himself and seeks redemption. Much of Greek mythology was concerned with the conflict of father and son. This story raises and age old question: are the lives of human beings preordained? Or are they predetermined? At the end of the play, everything he has ever done has been pre-aligned. But he also made choices. Fate didn’t make him do what he did.
Fate was portrayed in the form of three goddesses. On the one hand, fate is three women whose names mean the weaver, the alloter, and not turning back. They weave a thread for each person’s life and determine when that person’s life is going to end. But on the other hand, fate is above the gods. Even the gods bow to fate. Oedipus was fated to kill his father and wed his mother. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have free will. It simply means this is what is going to happen. Human beings could control their own destinies and control a lot of the shots, but what they control is somewhat ambiguous. It is in this way the ancient Greeks came to terms with the fact that there were no guarantees in life.
The main difference between gods and mortals was that the gods could do as they pleased. They didn’t have to respect boundaries. But mortals had to respect boundaries and avoid excess. The gods were subject to the same passions and weaknesses of mortals and were in human form. But unlike humans, they healed quickly, they never died, they had incredible powers of strength and knowledge. The reason the gods are in human form is because the Greeks could not imagine a more noble form to attribute to the gods. They were not perfect, but they were not to be trifled with. If you set yourself up as equal to the gods, that was to invite disaster.
Apollo is the most beautiful male. He’s the perfect male but he falls in love over and over again and none of the women want him. So he attempts to rape girls. He’s more of a god of distance and rationality than a god of love. Apollo falls in love with Cassandra which directly impacts the course of history. Cassandra is a princess in Troy. Apollo says he will give her the gift of prophecy if she will sleep with him so she agrees and then rejects him. So Apollo makes it so that nobody will believe Cassandra’s prophecies. Cassandra tries to warn her people that the Trojan horse is a trick, but they won’t listen to her and this is how Apollo gets his revenge on Cassandra.
Dionysus is in stark contrast to Apollo. He’s the god of wine, vegetation, and the sea. He’s a god of fluidity. He’s a god who can induce madness on the individual. Your mind can turn to a fluid mush if you are under the influence of Dionysus through drink or some sort of religious ecstasy. Strong emotion is Dionysus. Formal expression is Apollo. Dionysus is the god of civic disorder but the god of imperial democracy. Apollo is the god of civic order. Dionysus is a god worshiped by women who are led out of their homes and up into the mountains where they dance and, according to men, drank a lot. Apollo is the god of reason and order. (Nietzsche was always pitting Dionysus against Apollo.)
The Greeks believed human beings had a soul which they called Psyche. Psyche means breath. Psyches in the underworld have no consciousness. Hades was the ruler of the underworld but he did not inflict punishment as did the Judeo-Christian Satan.
Plato criticized traditional literature because he didn’t think the gods acted like gods. Plato had a problem with how the gods acted – raping women, ravaging humans, etc. He believed the gods should represent something more perfect and other-worldly.
Rome absorbed Greek religion in the third century BCE. They took over the Olympian symbols and realigned their gods with the Greek gods. They assigned them Roman names and Roman characteristics so the Greek pantheon became the Roman pantheon.
Christianity found connections in Greek and Roman mythologies, primarily through Paul. Notions that had developed in Platonism were brought into Christianity to make it more palatable to the educated class in the Roman-Greco world. The Christian belief that Jesus was the son of a god but born of a mortal woman resonated with the Greeks. Christianity cannot be wholly attributed to the Greeks, but the Greeks most definitely laid the ground work.
The Greek world had shifted to a sort of monotheism with the advent of philosophy. Aristotle and Plato were critical of the traditional religion and preferred the idea of an all-knowing power of perfection. Paul was familiar with this shift to monotheism as is apparent in Acts 17:22-28:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
The traditional Greek word for sin meant “to miss the mark”. If you go too high, you are living beyond human expectations. If you go to low, you are not living up to them. So what sin meant was that you weren’t living up to who it is you are.
Greek myths say something very complicated about the world. They speak to a sort of optimism and pessimism at the same time. They speak to the nature of reality and the nature of life – what is important and what we ought to care about. They are timeless treatments of big human questions of personal morality against the morality that is imposed by the state or ruling class who can potentially get by with more than those who aren’t in power. How do you negotiate your behavior?
We are left with the feeling that we don’t know who these gods are or what they are. But we know there is some huge force out there that is controlling our lives and that we have to keep an open mind to what the force is doing. That is why the ancient Greeks can speak across 3000 years of history.