Big in Ephesus

James Davidson

  • The Gods of Olympus: A History by Barbara Graziosi
    Profile, 273 pp, £18.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 321 3

When I imagine the Greek gods on Olympus I conjure up a lofty polished marble palace with colonnades and porticos open to the air, its Ionic and Corinthian capitals picked out in gold, rather like the Athenian Acropolis redecorated by Catherine the Great. Its dozen or so denizens pose listlessly in gaps between columns, dressed in fine white robes rather flimsier than the high altitude might warrant, surrounded by banks of fog and talking in an English accent.

This is childish, I know, a vision informed by staying up too late to watch Jason and the Argonauts. Since then I have learned an awful lot more about ancient Greek religion. I know that different Olympians were differently honoured in different cities. Athens belonged to the virgin goddess Athena, Aphrodisias to Aphrodite, Potidaea to Poseidon. In Argos and Samos, wifely Hera was queen. Artemis was big in Ephesus. So far as we can tell there were no daily multitudes making a lung-testing pilgrimage up the great and mostly snowy mountain in the far north of Greece that was identified as Olympus by Homer and Hesiod.[*] To get close to Apollo you might go to Delos, the place of his birth, or to Delphi, where you could actually ask him a question and receive an answer of some kind. To establish a relationship with Demeter, and to enjoy all the benefits she could bring in this world and the next, you would do better to travel to Eleusis on the borders of Attica and be initiated into her ancient mysteries there. To get nearer to Dionysus you might choose to climb Mount Cithaeron, get drunk and/or go a bit wild.

In certain respects, Olympus resembles a rather jolly Senior Common Room, where the gods met to feast and debate in between attending to their responsibilities elsewhere. The gods seem to have had their own establishments within the compound. When Thetis goes to fetch a new set of armour for Achilles we learn that the house of Hephaestus the master craftsman is the most impressive of the houses of the immortals, completely made of bronze. His dwelling takes on a more active role in the Odyssey, where it is the site of an affair between Ares and Aphrodite, Hephaestus’ wife. Hephaestus learns the truth from the all-seeing sun-god and plots revenge in his forge. He announces that he’s off to Lemnos. As soon as he’s gone, Ares comes cuckolding, but he and the goddess of love are trapped in Hephaestus’ bed by a web of fine invisible wires rigged up between the bedposts and the roof beams. Hephaestus has meanwhile doubled back and summons the gods to witness the crime against his marriage bed. The gods obey, although ‘the female goddesses stayed each at her home from a sense of shame.’

Olympus also features in the so-called Homeric Hymns, which sing the praises of individual gods in Homeric language and metre. In several of these the arrival of the god on Olympus serves as a quasi-formal recognition that they have reached the status of a true god and/or been acknowledged as a true son of Zeus, triumphing over the obstacles placed on their path to godhead by the jealous Hera. She did her utmost to prevent Leto giving birth to Apollo, so one feels for her a bit when the poet describes Apollo returning home to Olympus and his mother, who proudly hangs his bow and arrows ‘on a golden peg on a pillar in his father’s house’.

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[*] The only religious monument on top of Olympus is one of those shrines to the Prophet Elijah found on every peak in Greece; the only evidence for Zeus-related activity so far discovered seems to belong to a later Roman period.