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.

Nor, finally, were statues and temples objects of purely aesthetic sensibility. In the fifth century BC the processions which wound round the Parthenon were not composed of tourists. More importantly, the temples whose ruins we admire were not the only – or even the most significant – locations of religious ritual. The gods were served elsewhere. Indeed, the gods were served everywhere, and ceaselessly. Greek public life was measured by a sequence of rites: festival succeeded festival and marked the calendar, sacrifice and prayer preceded all business, gods stood on every corner to receive the salutations of the passer-by. Whenever the Athenian Assembly was to meet, a group of officials carried piglets round the agora: they cut their throats, castrated them, and sprayed the seats of the assembly with warm blood. Before the battle of Salamis, the Athenians ‘prayed to all the gods, summoned Ajax and Telamon from Salamis itself, and sent a ship to Aegina to fetch Aeacus and his sons’ (Herodotus, VIII 64). Fortified by dead heroes, the troops were led by living prophets: an inscription records that in 394 BC a victorious seer, a Thasian called Sthorys, was invited to a public banquet and given hereditary Athenian citizenship.

Ritual and cult were not confined to public ceremony. Xenophon was a down-to-earth cavalry officer with an intelligent interest in Socratic philosophy. When he was asked to take sole command of the mercenary army in which he was serving, his decision was determined by the sacrifice of two animals and the interpretation of an eagle’s cry (Anabasis, VI i 23). After the war Xenophon used a part of his booty to found a sanctuary to Artemis near Olympia (V iii 9). When the god Asclepius, in the form of a sacred snake, came on a visit to Athens from Epidaurus, he lodged with the tragedian Sophocles. Sophocles was publicly thanked for this act of social piety, and was granted the title of The Receiver. Almost the whole population of Athens, it is said, was initiated into the secrets of the Eleusinian mysteries – and even so the secrets were so well kept that little is known of the point or purpose of those solemn celebrations.

Greek life, in short, was riddled with religion. Modern scholarship has insisted on the fact, and the place of religion in Greek thought and practice has been a vital theme of scholarly research. For English readers, and not only for them, the seminal work is E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational, first published in 1951. Geoffrey Lloyd’s several studies of Greek science have shed much light on the uneasy relation between reason and unreason in this area. A recent and distinguished contribution is Robert Parker’s essay on pollution and purification, Miasma. One main feature of this research has been its invocation of comparative anthropology and sociology: not only ancient texts and remains but also the findings of modern fieldworkers have been adduced in the effort to understand the phenomena. The practices of Papua illuminate the glories of Greece.

The leading Continental scholar here is Walter Burkert. His Greek Religion, first issued in German some eight years ago, already has the standing of a classic, and the publication of an English version, which incorporates new material and is in effect a second edition, demands a toast.

Burkert’s investigations cover a period of half a millennium, from about 800 to 300 BC, but he prefaces his main text with a valuable account of Minoan and Mycenaean religion. He deals in successive chapters with rituals and sanctuaries, with the gods of myth and cult, with heroes and demons, with the religion of the state, with the mysteries, and with ‘philosophical’ religion. The account is not – and cannot be – exhaustive, but nothing of importance is passed over.

The evidence for these things is scattered and multiform: it has been unearthed by archaeology, it is visible in sculpture and on vase-paintings, it is inscribed on stone, it is found in large or small pockets throughout the whole of extant Greek literature. And there are also the Papuans. Anyone who pretends to survey Greek religion must be phenomenally learned. Burkert is. His book is a marvel of professional scholarship.

At the same time, the book is accessible. Burkert does not require his readers to know Greek, or to have any previous acquaintance with his subject. The narrative is not exactly lively, and the English translator is occasionally cloth-eared: but the story is always readable, and the pages (numerous and crammed with print) do not drag their feet. Anyone with an interest in the ancient world can follow the book with pleasure and advantage. No one whose interest has been caught by the Parthenon or by Homer’s stories should miss it.

Burkert rightly insists that our approach to Greek religion must be by way of myth and ritual, and his primary aim is to accumulate and arrange the evidence for religious practices. It is this evidence which has destroyed the enlightened vision of Greece. Yet the evidence alone is not enough: it must be interpreted, and the problems of interpretation are severe. Our own lives are full of queer practices. Audiences stand during the Hallelujah chorus. People cross their fingers and touch wood. At Oxford High Tables dinner is preceded by a Latin grace. But such things are rituals only in the most etiolated of senses: they have nothing to do with religion – they do not bind us. Can we be sure that the Greek myths and practices were somehow more engaging? That the myths were more than stories, the rituals more than games or gestures? Must we really suppose that the Greeks always took these funny things seriously? The important issue concerns the mental attitudes, the beliefs and the feelings, which lie beneath and explain the behavioural facade. That, in brief, is the problem of interpretation, and our whole understanding of Greek religion is involved in its solution.

The Athenian festival of the Skira was reserved for women: on the day of the festival, women were allowed to leave their own quarters and meet together. ‘For the men,’ Burkert comments, ‘the whole business is deeply unsettling.’ But was it? Were Greek men any more unsettled by the Skira than Englishmen are by a meeting of the Women’s Institute – or of a Feminist Action Group? Perhaps they were patronisingly amused, or pleased that the womenfolk could have a day off, or simply indifferent to the whole business. Or again, various religious festivals included competitions for poets and choruses. Burkert remarks, persuasively, that ‘the religious function, the relationship with the gods, is in danger of being lost in the rivalry.’ But he adds that ‘all are well convinced that the gods, like men, take a delighted interest in the contest.’ Are all ‘well convinced’ of this? How can we be sure? Why not suppose that the religious function was indeed entirely lost?

The enlightened visionaries, observing that a set of practices will form part of a religion only if it is backed by belief and commitment, mildly inquire how firm the backing was in ancient Greece. And certain concessions must at once be made. On the score of belief, Greek religion differed from orthodox Christianity (the religion with which most readers of Burkert’s book will probably compare it) on at least three counts. First, as Burkert stresses, Greek religion had no creed, no sacred texts, no revelation; there was no profession or caste of priests; there was no orthodoxy, and in consequence no heresy. It was a religion without articles and without dogma: if the Greeks had religious beliefs, they did not come in a canon. There were no doctrines codified by a Greek Church, and there was no Church to codify Greek doctrines.

Secondly, Greek religion had no particular attachment to an eschatology. After death nothing much was threatened or promised, and post-mortem hopes and fears played little part in normal Greek religion. (I say ‘normal Greek religion’: many Greeks feared death and ‘the things in Hades’; several off-beat sects – Orphics or Pythagoreans or Platonists – described an after-life of one sort or another. But these groups form a special case.) Homer and the later poets do, it is true, tell stories about life in the underworld. But these stories are vague, half-hearted and dispiriting: they appeal neither to the intellect nor to the emotions. The hereafter was of little interest to the Greeks.

Lastly, Greek religion had little to do with morality. Homer’s gods (as the philosophers complained) behave in an unedifying way, and not just in matters to do with sex. The Olympians are not, and were not thought to be, moral exemplars or moral instructors. Homer, it is said, was the teacher of Greece: but it was his mortal heroes, not his immortal gods, who were the models for imitation. Cult practices and rituals required and prohibited this and that. But the rules of cult define, so to speak, a religious etiquette and do not determine a practical morality. However urgent it may be to wear clean wool and garland yourself with laurel as you go to a sacrifice, such things have nothing to do with everyday ethics. If there was such a thing as Greek popular morality – a set of shared ethical values and beliefs – it was only loosely connected to Greek popular religion.

In these three respects Greek religion did not demand the sort of belief and the sort of commitment which many modern theists will regard as partly constitutive of the religious life. To that extent the enlightened vision is not entirely insubstantial. But it cannot be inferred that Greek religion made no demands on the mind, or even that it was satisfied with that slightly embarrassed semi-belief which seems to be the particular mark of the Church of England. There is evidence enough for the contrary conclusion.

Strikingly severe punishment was inflicted on those who offended religious sensibilities. The most celebrated example took place in Athens in the summer of 415 BC, on the eve of the departure of a great naval expedition to Sicily. The Athenians awoke on a June day to discover that the statues of Hermes which guarded their houses had been systematically mutilated, each deprived of its nose and its penis. According to Thucydides, ‘no one, either then or later, has been able to give a clear account of who the perpetrators were.’ Nonetheless, trials were instituted, prosecutions were made, many men were forced to flee the country, and several were executed. The issue was complicated by political factors, but the central fact is plain: an act of minor vandalism was treated as a capital offence. This reflects no credit on the Athenians. But it does suggest that they took their Hermes seriously – that these stone pillars had, in many cases, a powerful hold on their emotions and beliefs.

Or again, religion was not a phenomenon reserved for Sundays and holidays. On the contrary, in various ways it was woven into the cloth of everyday life. Thus oath-taking, for example, formed a normal part of any contract, however trivial. Oaths were solemnly sworn by the gods, and the penalties invoked against oath-breakers were almost comically excessive in their savagery. At the end of his discussion of oaths Burkert justly concludes that ‘the usability of gods and sanctuaries, in short religion, was here the foundation of the entire organisation of the state, law, and commercial life.’ The ‘So help me God’ of an English courtroom evinces little religious belief. It is difficult to imagine that Greek oaths were as non-committal.

Considerations of these sorts may convince us that beneath the ubiquitous rites and rituals lay a firm foundation of belief. The enlightened optimist may finally wonder to what extent the rationalists and sceptics weakened the power of traditional religion. Sceptics had proclaimed agnosticism or even atheism; rationalists, more insidiously, had identified the divine with some natural force or substance – with air or ether or fire or the heavenly bodies – and had thereby suggested a distance between divinity and religion. In certain intellectual areas the Greek philosophers had some influence, and from time to time individual thinkers, or philosophy itself, was persecuted. Such facts suggest that in matters of theology the philosophers were not wholly ineffective – or at least that they may sometimes have been perceived as dangerous men. Burkert goes so far as to speak of a ‘crisis’ facing religion as a result of sceptical and rationalist attack, and he portrays the new philosophical religion of Plato as an answer to the crisis. But the word ‘crisis’, if it is taken to imply anything other than a purely intellectual pother, is probably unwarranted. For according to Burkert himself, ‘the decisive turn seems to have been taken from the very beginning, but it remains without effect in practice. The picture of religion as practised changes hardly at all, in spite of the deeds of all the intellectual heroes.’ A few fashionable young men may have been excited or even worried by the clever philosophers. But the man on the road to Larissa remained unmoved.

The subtlest challenge to the Greek gods was issued after 300 BC and hence does not fall within the scope of Burkert’s survey. It came from the Epicureans. Epicurus was no atheist. He believed in the gods – and in the old Olympian gods at that. But they exist, as outsize humans, somewhere in intergalactic space, where they enjoy a life of Epicurean bliss. Wholly indifferent to human affairs, they are neither to be feared nor to be loved. They are not creative or provident beings; they expect and deserve neither prayer nor sacrifice; they do not want worship. The enlightened vision of how the Greeks viewed their gods is close to the Epicurean vision of how the gods should be viewed. But the Epicureans, asthey were the first to insist, were not typical Greeks.

Why, a colleague asked me, should one read about Greek religion? What interest still resides in those ancient follies and futilities? The first and chief answer is trite: religion is a fascinating and pervasive aspect of Greek life; anyone with a civilised concern for Greek thought or Greek literature will wish to study it. But there is also a second answer. We see the follies of others more quickly than we see our own. It is evident at a glance that Greek religion was a crass compilation of the crude and the vulgar, the foolish and the fatuous. It is also evident, on further thought, that in this respect at least the Greeks were no match for us. No age is more vulgar or more superstitious than our own. Newspapers carry columns of astrological predictions; politicians proclaim that God wants the shops to be shut on Sundays; a leading statesman has recently declared that dead soldiers have paid for their crimes in a nether world; the foremost churchman of the West believes that he regularly eats human flesh and drinks human blood. Such things are risible, grotesque. They are also contemptible: like all lunacies, they demand toleration from the rational man, but they have no call on his respect. Reflection on the idiotic practices of the Greeks should encourage us to take a rational attitude to the idiocies of our own age.