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.

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