The Gods of Greece

Jonathan Barnes

  • Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical by Walter Burkert, translated by John Raffan
    Blackwell, 493 pp, £29.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 631 11241 3

Every pilgrim who ascends the Acropolis is seized by the splendour of the Parthenon, its ruined elegance, its marmoreal serenity. But the pilgrimage is secular: although we know that the Parthenon was a temple, we do not experience it as a numinous haunt of the gods. The power of its finished form is now perhaps beyond imagination: but it may be doubted whether even the vast chryselephantine statue of Athene which it housed – and which was, by all accounts, incomparable in its vulgarity – added any awfulness to the place. The museum visitor who contemplates a marble Aphrodite may likewise know that Aphrodite was a Greek goddess. But her smooth contours are unlikely to excite thoughts of religious passion.

In Greek literature there is something similar. The Olympian gods whom we meet in Homer are, despite their immortality, irredeemably human: they act as humans act and they are moved by human motives. It is not merely that their morals are mortal – that the King of the Gods is more renowned for the ingenuity of his philandering than for the wisdom and justice of his rule. Olympus is also a theatre of the trivial and the frivolous, of tiffs and squabbles, and of buffoonery: limping Hephaestus is a figure of fun – and of somewhat coarse fun at that.

Architecture, sculpture and myth suggest an urbane secularity. And the intellectual heroes of Greece seem to provide corroboration for the suggestion. From the time of Xenophanes in the sixth century BC philosophers had mocked the traditional gods. Heraclitus ridiculed ritual. The Hippocratic doctors poured scorn on the ‘magicians, purifiers, mendicant priests and charlatans’ who purported to cure disease by supernatural methods. In Plato’s dialogue, the pious Euthyphro complains that ‘when I say anything in the Assembly about things divine and predict the future to them, they laugh at me as though I were mad.’ No wonder, then, if Plato himself lamented that most Greeks of his day were in one way or other fundamentally irreligious (Laws, 948C).

Hence the enlightened vision of ancient Greece, in which the Greeks are seen as a singular race, undisturbed by religious terrors, uncorrupted by superstitious folly, their lives governed by human reason – or misgoverned by human passion. The gods were there, but they were aesthetic fictions. They were subjects for art, not objects of veneration.

Many (I include myself) find that vision cheering. But it is a mirage. Plato was guilty of gross exaggeration. And his own case shows how even the most intellectual of Greeks could wallow in the glorious mud of religiosity. As for the sceptics, their very mockery itself testifies to the popular force of ritual and myth: there would have been little point to Protagoras’s punch-line – ‘Of the gods I can know nothing’ – had his contemporaries not generally professed a smarter acquaintance with the subject.

In Homer the gods are indeed often charmingly unvenerable, and when the old myths are allegorised by scholarship or sugared by poetry, they surely lose all touch with the common conception of religion. But there are darker myths even in Homer. The Olympians do not always sport. Zeus was a parricide, his father a cannibal. The Titans fought a bloody war against the gods: defeated, they suffer eternal torment in Tartarus, the pit of Hell which holds the fallen angels and awaits the falling sinner. The Olympian gods have chthonic counterparts – or rather, the gods have two aspects, uneasily united: Zeus Olympius, the dashing Don Juan whom no pretty face can resist, is the same god as Zeus Chthonius, the frightful potentate whom every mortal man must seek to placate.

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