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.