On the Homeric Gods

In our survey of antiquity, we have encountered gods, great and small, who command the affairs of human beings. For example, in the Egyptian pantheon, we have uncovered gods of both life and death, including Osiris Winnefer and Amun Re, or the judge of the netherworld and god of the sun. The gods appear to humans in terrifying combinations of half human and half beast forms -for example with the head of a bird, or the body of a cat. Unlike other deities, the gods of Egypt have great control over the fate of the humans, but they exist within the cosmos -they are knowable, but only to a certain extent. On the other hand, recall the single, universal God of the Israelites, YHWH. Here, the figure of God never appears to the humans in full form, yet He establishes covenants with certain particular humans who are unable challenge his authority, such as Abraham or Moses. He is, in a word, ‘other worldly’. He takes the form of certain natural phenomena, such as a “pillar of cloud”, and makes his presence known by dwelling in a small ark that is convenient for the uprooted nature of a nomadic tribe. Like the Egyptian god Osiris, YHWH serves as a judge for human beings. Coming down to us through the cultural heritage of the Canaanite deities, although unlike the Babylonian deities of Uruk found in The Epic of Gilgamesh, YHWH’s chief connection to the human beings is by means of speech. Like the human beings, He is able to “look” and also to determine the moral quality of the cosmos, and He orders or influences the moral quality of the cosmos, by “speaking” laws into existence. For the Israelites, the world is a frightful place full of enemies and YHWH is the god who is removed from far beyond the cosmos. He provides dictatorial fear and trembling, demanding complete prostration by human beings for their lack of faith in Him.

Let us now consider the gods of the Greeks. They are human in almost every respect, excluding their ability to commit miraculous acts and transcend death. They are immortal, yet are ever present in the activities of human beings. The gods, we moderns might say, represent divine impulses, such as Eris and Envy, War and Wisdom, Love and Spite. When a human being is overcome with wrath, the Greek would understand this feeling to be a divine possession by a god. In short, there is no vast separation between the god and the human -there is no ethereal realm of heaven that is infinitely separated from human experiences.

To the Greek, the human experience is paramount. Consider the pale statues that now litter the old classical world of antiquity. Imagine their once colorful forms, now long since worn away with time, as they were each painted and presented to the public. They are representations of human excellence: beauty, wisdom, strife, war, pain, and suffering. To the Greeks, every moment is a condition of competition to prove excellence, or arete (recall the funeral games for the death of Patroclus in Book XXIII of the Iliad). Even the gods cannot escape this powerful celebration and contest among the best of men -they come in the form of human beings, though humans never see more than a glimpse of them, such as a passing foot or calf, or even footsteps. They drink their own divine nectar and eat their own ambrosia for sustenance. Though the humans only ever experience through rumor and by seeing certain short glimpses of them, the gods are nevertheless ever-present. Today, the modern mind is everywhere pressed with infinity and ‘other-worldly’ divinities that find human beings naturally distasteful. The gulf between the gods and man is unending. How foreign is the ancient Greek celebration of life to our modern sensibilities!

Notice the Greek mind -there is no demand for faith, the gods simply are. That is, they have being that is not in need of justification or repression. Their existence is not in question. And they are not immune to injury, such as Diomedes injuring Ares and Aphrodite, or Achilles nearly defeating the river Xanthos. They experience many things human. For example, Zeus is married to Hera, and their divine marriage is far from perfect, Posiedon is jealous and wrathful like Achilles, Athena is wise and cunning like Odysseus. The gods are like humans, but in some respects they are inferior to the human condition because they cannot experience death -the significant moment for the human being in the classical world. All of life is a construction and preparation for a noble death -recall Solon beckoning us to look to the ends in Herodotus’s Inquiry, sometimes translated as the History.

The gods to the Greeks are often a nuisance -recall Poseidon’s wrath for Odysseus, preventing his homecoming at every twist and turn. However, we moderns must consider whether or not it is better to have a god, like Poseidon, harassing our affairs or, alternatively, to face the possibility of eternity alone, without the watchful eyes of the gods. Today, lamentably, we must face the latter option. The gods are gone, in another world far away. They are beyond the reach of oblivion. To the Greek, on the other hand, the gods are infinitely present in the daily affairs of the human beings. We must wonder whether it is nobler to struggle among companions, than be left solemnly and silently alone, as we moderns find ourselves. Following the latter path, we are forced to question, as Hamlet does, that in this world of infinite silence, whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take up arms against a sea of troubles.

The Homeric gods are also political -hierarchical. The three sons of Cronos divided up the cosmos long ago: Zeus rules the heaven and the house of Olympos, Hades rules the darkness of the murky world located under the earth, and Poseidon, the most resentful of the three brothers, won the oceans and rules the earth and the seas. Below these three, are the other divinities such as Hera, Zeus’s wife, and Athena, daughter of Zeus. The political structure is rigidly patriarchal, and thus Zeus faces frequent strife and discord among his children and in his marriage, not unlike the struggles faced by Agamemnon. Below these are the lower demigods, who Odysseus faces in his great epic voyage home.

As aforementioned, the Greek gods are impulses. They constitute all things human, and the gods of Homer are not “believed in.” They have being, not merely in the remote phantasms of the imagination. The way of the gods is of “lightness.” They live lightly, with laughter and sorrow combined, though not a condition drowned in sorrow for, by virtue of forgetting, the Greek god faces laughter at the other end of sorrow. We might say, if the Greek experience of life is like a dream, then imitation of a Greek god would look more like a comedy, in the classical sense, rather than a tragedy.

I do not mean to succumb to mere romanticism in this inquiry, but rather I implore that we consider the Greek mind, in its many facets, and, rather than condescend to classical theology, instead ceaselessly inquire into the meaning of the Greek gods in order to better understand ourselves and our horizon.

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