Gods and Men in Greek Religion

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Gods and Men in Greek Religion

And straightway music and singing beguile the immortals.

All the Muses together, voice answering heavenly voice,
Hymn the undying gifts of the gods and the sufferings of men,
Who, enduring so much at the hands of the gods everlasting,
Live heedless and helpless, unable to find for themselves
Either a cure for death or a bulwark against old age.

--Homeric Hymn to Apollo 3.188-192

It may seem to the student that the Greek gods act capriciously, frivolously, and even immorally, that they are not particularly heroic, and that they lack the religious seriousness we might expect from a god. All of this is true, but it is also not the complete picture of the Greek gods. For the Greeks did not always think of their gods in the same way many Americans think of God. In the usual Judeo-Christian way of thinking, God is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, and is the source of moral goodness. The Greek gods were much more insightful, knowledgeable, and powerful than humans, but not infinitely so. Moreover, their most distinctive quality is not goodness, but power: "The distinguishing quality of the [Greek] gods is, above everything, power" (Bowra 58). Power defines a god: "A [Greek] god is a power that represents a type of action, a kind of force" (Vernant 273). Thus Aphrodite is the force of love and lust; Zeus is the power of the thunderbolt and of kingship; Ares is the power of battle run amok, and so on.

The Greek gods may seem all-too human to us: they get angry over little insults; they let their lusts carry them away (Zeus; Aphrodite and Ares); they steal from each other (Hermes); they engage in petty feuds with one another (Zeus and Hera). Moreover, the Greek gods appear to humans and mingle with them, helping or hindering them and at times, making love with them. (Throughout your reading, note down how many different disguises and stratagems the gods use to appear to men.) But though the gods may look and act like humans, they are not at all the same as them. For one thing, men inhabit a body that grows old and can die, one which needs to be replenished with sleep, and one that needs food for its belly to survive. The gods, on the other hand, inhabit a body that is "deathless," that is always young and beautiful, and that does not need the same sort of nourishment as men. The gods may bleed when their skin is pricked (Iliad book 5), but they bleed a special blood called ichor, and they cannot die of their wounds. Unlike men who eat bread and wine, the gods eat immortal, uncooked food called ambrosia and nectar. And since the sacrifice at which Prometheus tricked Zeus, the gods no longer eat cooked meat, but savor only the smoke from the altars. Though the gods have no need to eat meat to keep their bodies going, they "assemble as guests for the pleasure of it, for the splendor of the celebration and the radiant joy of the banquet" (Vernant 35).

Humans are said to be "like gods" when they exhibit extraordinary power or resourcefulness, or when they possess extraordinary beauty or strength. Humans want to imitate the gods' admirable qualities of power and beauty, and sometimes, as in the case of Achilles and Helen, excessive behavior can be godlike, but such behavior can also go too far, exceeding human limits to become arrogance and pride (in Greek, hubris). Since they are more powerful than humans, gods may commit incest or rape, but humans need to observe some limits. The Greek human commits a fault not by disobeying divine law, as in Hebrew religion, but by exceeding human limits, or by trying to out-do or rival or mock the gods.

Even though the gods cannot die, they are subject to a certain kind of fate. For example, it is Apollo's portion (moira--one of the Greek terms for fate) to be the archer-god of plague and healing, of prophecy and singing, etc. The fates of men are more complex, pitiable, and tragic than those of gods, for men must die and must suffer whatever the gods send them. For the gods are neither good nor evil, merely powerful, and humans must watch out for and propitiate that power. Gods were admired and feared, but not particularly beloved. A pupil of Aristotle wrote: "It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus" (quoted in Bowra 71). Humans are fated to suffer the pangs of love, the pains of sickness and old age, and finally death, the ultimate fate. And, as Achilles finds out in book 11 of the Odyssey, afterlife in the underworld is a tedious affair at best. With little to look forward to in the afterlife, the Greek hero strove for honors (timé) in this life and, through the medium of the poet and singer, glory (kleos) after he died. And a grave stele (tombstone), perhaps adorned with a likeness of the hero in the full power and beauty of his youth, would remember him to casual passers-by. The great playwright Aeschylus (513-455 BC) does not mention his career as an author on his grave-marker:

Under this monument lies Aeschylus the Athenian,
Euphorion's son, who died in the wheatlands of Gela. The grove
of Marathon with its glories can speak of his valor in battle.
The long-haired Persian remembers and can speak of it, too.
        (Grene and Lattimore 1)

The desire for glory ran deep in Greek society, long after the age of Homer.

This view of human life, fate, afterlife, and religion may strike some as pessimistic, but the Greeks did not see it that way. As C. M. Bowra says, the Greeks "accepted the melancholy fact that much of life is indeed frail and insubstantial and even the greatest endeavours might fail, but they believed that it could suddenly be enhanced and illuminated and made full and wonderful. This could happen only if they exerted their powers to the utmost and set them harmoniously to work. At such times a man realizes his full nature, and if the gods are willing, enjoys an exalted happiness, which is indeed like their own in its celestial completeness" (75-76).

Works Cited

  • Bowra, C. M. The Greek Experience. 1957. New York: NAL, 1988.

  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. 1977. Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Viking- Penguin, 1964.

  • Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

  • Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San  Francisco: Harper, 1991.

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 Vols. New York: Penguin, 1955.  Revised 1960.

  • Grene, David and Richmond Lattimore, eds. Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Chicago: U of  Chicago P, 1953.

  • Hesiod. Works and Days / Theogony. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hacket,  1993.

  • Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. W. H. D. Rouse. New York: NAL 1937.

  • Hooper, Finley. Greek Realities. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1978.

  • Nilsson, Martin P. The Minoan-Mycenean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1950.

  • Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso).  The Metamorphoses.  Trans. A. D. Melville. New York:  Oxford UP, 1987.

  • Sargent, Thelma. The Homeric Hymns. New York: Norton, 1973.

  • Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP,  1991.

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