Religion

The (Greek) gods must be crazy

My classical studies course on ancient Greek civilization has inspired me to do some more research on Greek myths for my Ancient Mythology website.  I’m working on expanding the Greek section, which at the moment has basic descriptions of the major gods, goddesses and heroes in Greek legend (along with the full texts of the Homeric poems and Oedipus Rex).


The Flaying of Marsyas (by Titian, c. 1570-1576) depicts a scene in which Apollo cuts the skin off of the satyr Marsyas, who had the arrogance to challenge him to a musical competition.

I’m always amazed by the stories of the Greeks.  In modern, monotheist religions, the beauty and elegance of the world is usually represented by a supreme being.  God is normally considered to represent the highest moral authority, one that is meant to inspire positive qualities among humankind.  This is probably due to our relatively stable society, and our relative wealth.

But Greek stories are different.  The gods seem largely uninterested in the affairs of human kind, and when they do appear to humans it’s rarely in a benevolent state.  The gods often represent the worst qualities of humankind–they’re lying, stealing, adulturous beings who breed monsters and deliver plagues.  They are constantly killing and punishing each other in escalating feuds.

Take Apollo, whose article I’m still sorting out.  He’s a part of several of these disputes, some of which involved his son, Asclepius.  He had his sister kill Asclepius’ mother when he learned that she had been having an affair.  In retribution, Asclepius’ maternal grandfather burned down one of Apollo’s temples, so Apollo killed him, too.  But Ascelpius later displeased Zeus, so Zeus killed him with one of his iconic thunderbolts — and in return Apollo killed the Cyclops, who had created Zeus’ bolts in the first place.

While some modern religions do describe a sometimes vengeful God, it’s not in the tenacious, unforgiving light that the Greeks saw their dieties.  Even the Vikings, whose mythology saw the deaths of their gods, painted them as heroic figures.

Why do you think the ancient Greeks imagined such gods?  Did they see these qualities in themselves, and assume that they were created, in every respect, in their gods’ eyes?  Or more likely, perhaps, they saw a less forgiving world than modern society.  Greek religion and myths arose out of stone age cultures, where life would have been more difficult–leading them to blame the gods for their suffering and fear the worst from them.

Then again, maybe it was just good storytelling.

4 Comments

  1. So are you suggesting that the Greeks focused so hard on what held them back that they deified those traits? And that culturally we fixate on our own agency to the point of deifying a singular omnipotence?

    That would make a great book!

    Reply
  2. Colin Temple Author

    I think the Greeks saw a hostile, absurd world and so imagined it to be created by hostile, absurd gods. As time goes on and civilization develops, life becomes a little more moderate, and so too do the gods. And as we get comfortable with a life protected by the divine and padded by an afterlife, even awful things like war have a sense of purpose and moral value. Feeling better about ourselves, we feel better about the world, and what surrounds it. We invent gods that reflect our lives, imagining instead that we’re a reflection of them.

    I’m not sure I took it as far as what you’re saying about monotheism as an expression of agency, but I like it. If you don’t write that book, I might!

    Reply
  3. I currently have too many projects to take on that assignment, Colin. But if you write it, I’ll read it.

    I just think that the way you’ve contrasted Greek polytheism with Western monotheism makes the latter expression seem cocky–or excessively confident, let’s say.

    If you wanted to write this book, you’d have to compare and contrast the Greek gods with the Greek emphasis on perfecting the self (which implies that the natural starting point is excessively flawed), and Western monotheism with the growing focus on personal agency. We’ve taken personal agency to the point of a democratic political system, which Plato condemned because of the fallibility of the common man (the mob). In contrast with the Greeks, we don’t look to improve ourselves so much as to “tap into our unused potential.” Even our self-help books are written in terms of agency.

    One might even go so far as to say that once Christianity revised the angry god into a benevolent source of omnipotent agency, the protestant reformation was inevitable.

    Of course, these are just sweeping statements that would need careful study to validate or dismiss, but those types of statements create great research questions.

    There are a lot of gems there for you to mine, Colin!

    Reply
  4. The way I think about it is that Greek Gods represent the worst of Human emotions. Greek Gods act a lot like humans. When we think of God, we think of perfection. As the case for the Greek Gods, these gods are far from perfect.

    Reply

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