Statues crumbled

Barbara Graziosi

  • Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh
    Faber, 290 pp, £25.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 571 27930 2

Zeus delivers the first speech in Homer’s Odyssey, and it soon transpires that he is in a petulant mood. ‘This is horrible!’ he thunders. ‘See how mortals blame us, the gods! They say that all bad things come from us, but it is through their own foolishness that people suffer beyond their portion.’ It isn’t immediately clear why Zeus sounds so frustrated, even impotent, despite being ruler of the universe, but on closer inspection it becomes apparent that he suffers from a common complaint. The powerful are often thought to have more power than they actually do, so are blamed more viciously than they deserve. But they can also see what we choose not to – namely, that their victims are, in part at least, the makers of their own misfortunes. As soon as Zeus has finished, Athena mentions Odysseus: he has been languishing on the island of Calypso and ‘only wants to catch sight of the smoke curling up from his own land’. Zeus considers the case. He has nothing personal against Odysseus, indeed he knows that Odysseus is ‘exceptionally clever and assiduous in his sacrifices to the gods’, but Poseidon has a grievance: Odysseus blinded his son Polyphemus, ‘the greatest of all the Cyclopes’. Still, there might be a way round the problem: Poseidon has gone to Ethiopia to attend a banquet, so Odysseus can be set on his way home without causing a commotion on Olympus.

It all makes for a strange theology. First, Zeus delivers a grand statement about human autonomy: we blame the gods for our suffering when we should blame ourselves. But then Odysseus is allowed to go home simply as a result of a casual conversation on Mount Olympus, an exotic banquet, a momentary distraction. Only the little phrase Zeus uses at the beginning of his outburst can explain it: ‘People suffer beyond their portion.’

Homer and his near contemporary Hesiod produced influential portraits of the gods – this is one – but their stories were never above suspicion. In the sixth century bce, Xenophanes of Colophon was already complaining that Homer and Hesiod ‘ascribed to the gods every action that causes shame and reproach among human beings: theft, adultery and cheating each other’. He insisted that their gods were too anthropomorphic and too Greek to be credible universal powers: ‘The Thracians,’ he pointed out, ‘think that the gods are red-haired and blue-eyed, the Ethiopians that they are snub-nosed and black.’ ‘If cattle and horses and lions had hands,’ he added, ‘and could paint with their hands and accomplish works like men, horses would paint the gods in the image of horses, cattle of cattle, and they would each shape the bodies of gods in the shape of their own.’ Xenophanes concluded that there had to be ‘one god, the greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in appearance or thought’.

He was not alone. Several other early thinkers criticised the complicated accretions of myths and cults and attempted to establish the true nature of the divine. Their focus was on nature (physis) and the ‘order’ of things (kosmos). The early Greek philosopher Anaxagoras saw the divine not as a family of gods but as an organising mind that made order out of matter. His near contemporary Heraclitus was more concerned about ritual: praying to statues was, he insisted, like ‘holding conversations with houses’. For him, the true divine was a single unified principle that steered all things. That principle was ‘both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus’.

Greek philosophy developed out of this kind of criticism. Plato rejected traditional Greek polytheism and devoted long sections of the Republic to attacking the gods of Homer and Hesiod. He was by no means an atheist – for both Christians and Muslims, elaborating on Plato became an important way of thinking about God – but he was certainly prepared to make radical criticisms of prevailing views. Some of his contemporaries rejected traditional religion without proposing alternatives. Diagoras of Melos developed a reputation for atheism. According to one anecdote, when he saw votive offerings made by survivors of a shipwreck, he pointed out that there would have been many more of them, had the drowned been in a position to leave gifts for the gods.

Radical opinions about the divine were not restricted to the intellectual elite. Euripedes’ tragedy Hecuba exposed the 15,000 spectators in the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens to the view that ‘habit’ was stronger than the gods, because it was through habit that people believed in them in the first place. ‘What you call Aphrodite is just your own shameless lust,’ the mythical queen Hecuba ranted at Helen of Troy in Trojan Women. A comedian complained that sellers of wreaths and other religious paraphernalia were going out of business because ‘Euripides has persuaded people that the gods do not exist.’ We shouldn’t take this quip at face value: people did continue to worship. Priests were still appointed, offerings were made, and wreaths, no doubt, were woven and sold. Euripides continued to write plays for the festival of Dionysus. But doubts about the nature and existence of the gods were widespread too, and often voiced with clarity and vigour.

Tim Whitmarsh traces the history of those doubting voices in a narrative that starts with early Greek myth and ends with the advent of Christianity. Traditionally, scholars have explained the free-thinking spirit of the Greeks in terms of political freedom. They argue that the Greeks enjoyed greater freedom than the peoples of ancient Egypt, Iraq, Persia or India, and that this enabled them to challenge not just other men, but the gods themselves. Whitmarsh isn’t entirely convinced: ‘The idea of an essential difference between Greek culture and those of the Ancient Near East is not as widely accepted as it once was, and the idea that any such difference should be defined in terms of “freedom” looks uncomfortably close to Western propagandising.’ He endorses a different theory: that contact with the cultures of the Near East, and specifically their traditions of cosmological speculation, contributed to the development of Greek thought. At times he overstates the case: Xenophanes didn’t appeal to Thracian and Ethiopian views of the gods simply because he was ‘a well-travelled cosmopolitan’: he was also a shrewd critic of Homer. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the gods deal with Thracians and Ethiopians, so it was reasonable to ask what those people might have made of the Olympians. Had Xenophanes engaged more closely with foreign conceptions of the divine (Babylonian planetary deities, say, or Egyptian animal gods), he would quickly have revised his assumption that all people imagine the gods in their own image.

Still, Whitmarsh is right that the Greeks questioned their own views about the gods in part because they were confronted with the views of others. Herodotus gives a good example:

The Persians do not make statues, temples, or altars; in fact, they count those who do so as fools, because (I suppose) they do not anthropomorphise the gods as the Greeks do. Their worship of Zeus consists in going up to the highest mountain peaks and performing sacrifices; they call the whole vault of heaven Zeus. They also sacrifice to the sun and the moon, and to earth, fire, water and the winds. Originally, these were the only deities to whom they offered sacrifices, but since then they have also learned from the Assyrians and Arabs to sacrifice to the Heavenly Aphrodite. Aphrodite is called Mylitta by the Assyrians, Alilat by the Arabs, and Mitra by the Persians.

This bewildering, accelerated (and rather inaccurate) ethnography of the ancient world reflects widespread attitudes. The assumption was that deities revealed themselves in different forms and guises. It was therefore possible, by meeting people and talking to them, to learn more about the gods, including their names, powers and manifestations in other parts of the world. This attitude made it possible for Alexander the Great to present himself as both the son of Zeus and of the Egyptian god Amun – or rather, of the deity called Zeus and/or Amun. It also created problems for the Christians when they began proselytising. Acts 14 tells us that when Paul and Barnabas travelled to the city of Lystra, in southern Turkey, they healed a cripple. Impressed by the miracle, local people immediately concluded that the two visitors were gods disguised in human form: ‘Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.’ The crowd wanted to make sacrifices to Zeus and Hermes, but the apostles would have none of it. They tore off their clothes and rushed into the crowd shouting that they were only men, ‘human like you’. Whatever happened in Lystra, the story represents an all-out attack on ancient religion: there was to be no sacrifice, no identification of deities and no possibility of translation. Instead of worshipping beautiful statues of gods, the people of Lystra were confronted with the naked, vulnerable, imperfect human bodies of the apostles.

Christianity proved far more effective in wiping out ancient paganism than the sceptical remarks of Greek philosophers and playwrights. Statues crumbled, and the gods of Homer and Hesiod survived only as literary devices, figures of the imagination. Scepticism about the gods died out with them. Whitmarsh is eloquent on the silencing of atheist expression; that belief in the gods and doubts about them went hand in hand interests him less. Intelligent piety is to him a contradiction in terms. Unlike Zeus at the beginning of the Odyssey, who commends Odysseus for being ‘exceptionally clever and assiduous in his sacrifices to the gods’, Whitmarsh seems to suggest that clever people could not possibly believe in the gods. In his view, Sophocles’ Oedipus ‘opposes rational human intelligence to divine mumbo-jumbo’ – never mind that the oracles turn out to be right, and Oedipus is exposed as a clever man who understood nothing. As for Zeus, Whitmarsh depicts him as a thug: his ‘authority consists in his monopolisation of violence and force … From a Greek point of view, divine power means brute force, the ability to battle down your foes. Not for nothing is Zeus the wielder of the thunderbolt, the ancient equivalent of the atom bomb.’ This is reductive. Zeus rules through a mixture of violence and justice, and the thunderbolt is a symbol of both. Hesiod offers an elaborate account of how he came to control that weapon, and emphasises consensus and intelligence (even, specifically, female intelligence), in addition to force.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, the most influential Greek account of the creation, Earth emerges from Void and generates Heaven, who then becomes her sexual partner. That union causes the first conflict in the history of the universe. Afraid that his children may succeed him, Heaven tries to keep them inside Earth’s body, an ‘evil act’ which is met with ‘an evil plan’. Earth manufactures a sickle, arms her unborn son Kronos, and makes him castrate his father. Kronos eventually becomes the ruler of the universe, and in turn faces the problem of succession: his solution is to swallow his children as soon as they are born. Again, his wife manages to trick him, and saves her youngest son. Zeus frees his siblings and liberates the Cyclopes, who give him the gift of the thunderbolt in return. When it comes to maintaining his own power, Zeus heeds the advice of Earth and Heaven, and swallows his wife Metis (‘Intelligence’) before she gives birth to twins. He lets Athena out through his head, but ensures that her twin brother never sees the light of day. Like his father and grandfather, Zeus uses violence to acquire and maintain power, but in his case, advice, the exchange of gifts and the incorporation of female intelligence are also important.


Several generations of feminist scholars have worked on the Theogony, but Whitmarsh is more interested in the poem’s sequel, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women. He points out that, after the gods settle on Olympus, they start having sex with ordinary women who give birth to mortal men bent on fighting the authority of their divine fathers. Bellerophon, Sisyphus, Salmoneus and others are theomachoi, ‘god-fighters’ determined to claim divine privileges for themselves. Whitmarsh rightly presents them as engaged in a zero-sum game: what the theomachoi gain in terms of power and prestige, the gods must necessarily lose. He also argues that there is nothing immoral about their quest: ‘If theomachy was “wrong”, that was not because it contravened any heaven-sent rule book but because it was (at least in myth) a horrible misjudgment of the odds.’

The problem is that Whitmarsh himself seems to underestimate the divine. He writes admiringly about ancient ‘atheists’, but doesn’t give a clear definition of the term, or offer a convincing account of the powers the atheists were fighting against. Indeed, his gods are so weak that there seems to be little point in doing battle against them. Their strength, however, becomes intelligible as soon as we consider human powerlessness and fear – our ‘portion’, Zeus might call it. Occasionally, there might be an opportunity for improving our lot: Poseidon may be away at a banquet, Athena may manage to reason with Zeus. In such cases, ‘being clever and assiduous in sacrificing to the gods’ may make a difference, or so the Odyssey suggests. Interaction with the gods is not necessarily a zero-sum game; it can be understood in terms of favours, offerings and the hope to please.

Whitmarsh notes in passing that ancient ‘women had no role in political life and little public recognition, outside of religion,’ but he doesn’t interrogate the fact. Quality of life, for ancient women, must have depended on the ability to please the men who had power over them and somehow make those men do what they wanted. They would have considered carefully when and how to approach a father or a husband with a request (Athena certainly knows how to do that in the Odyssey: she indulges Zeus’ speculations about human and divine responsibility, then suggests that by Zeus’ own logic he may now send Odysseus home). The ability to please and influence from a position of weakness must have seemed useful not just when women needed to deal with men, but also when men and women felt the need to entreat the gods.

Some modern atheists think that religion and science are locked in a game with only one victor – that if rationality wins, divinity must lose. But this is not how the ancient Greeks thought. Whitmarsh acknowledges this, in his careful readings of ancient sources. ‘Xenophanes,’ he writes, ‘was not an atheist in any straightforward sense. He was not denying the existence of a deity but radically redefining it: shifting it away from anthropomorphic projections, so that it became instead the explanation for life and motion.’ But just as Xenophanes redefined the divine, Whitmarsh redefines Xenophanes, turning him into what we would call an atheist: his ‘god’, Whitmarsh argues, ‘is, in our terms, nature itself’. A lot depends on what we mean by ‘our’ terms: Xenophanes is quoted by early Christian authors as a precursor (indeed, that is why fragments of his work survive). Depending on who is reading, Xenophanes can seem like a proto-Christian, or a proto-atheist, or neither, or a mixture of both.

Whitmarsh repeatedly argues that it is possible to remove the religious elements from the language of his ‘atheists’ to show more clearly their commitment to rational inquiry. He constructs a narrative in which humans progress towards atheism until the advent of Christianity, when suddenly ‘that dream was dead.’ The notion of intellectual progress informs many of his readings. When discussing the intellectual innovations of the fifth century bce, for example, he quotes a medical writer who argued that ‘those who attribute epilepsy to divine causes are actually being offensive to the gods, by blaming such seizures on them.’ Medical thinking on epilepsy was indeed innovative in the fifth century bce, but the writer’s attitude to the gods is old. Homer’s Zeus also believes that the gods are blamed for all manner of problems they never caused. Whitmarsh makes an impassioned argument for the existence, and importance, of atheism in antiquity – and he is absolutely right to point out that doubt is as old as belief. Modern atheists will, I imagine, welcome this book, as it celebrates some impressive intellectual ancestors; modern believers are unlikely to be offended by it, since it attacks deities that have long lost their credibility. But the modern dichotomy between atheism and religion remains hard to map onto the ancient world. Two ancient thoughts, in particular, might have helped to make this a better book.

The first is clearly stated by Cicero in his sceptical treatise On the Nature of the Gods: ‘No people, no race of men, lacks some untutored conception of the gods.’ It was partly in recognition of the fact that religion features in all cultures at all times that many of the thinkers Whitmarsh discusses sought to redefine the divine, rather than deny divinity altogether. They were, in fact, engaged in a broader culture of translation and accommodation: the point was to seek common ground (‘what you call this, I conceptualise as that’), not set up a zero-sum game (‘if I am right, you are wrong’). The second thought is that we would do well to take seriously human vulnerability and fear. Again, many of the ancient thinkers Whitmarsh discusses were good at that. Epicurus, for instance, wasn’t particularly interested in denying the existence of the gods (indeed, he assumed they existed, in some realm, given that all human beings had a conception of them). What he really wanted to do was to help human beings free themselves of their fear of the gods, and thus empower them.