Everyone’s first instinct when reading the ancient Greeks is to think that the gods are merely personifications of natural forces. The story is that the ancients would see things happen, and then, being dumb primitives, would say: “That thing there, that was done by a god!” Pretty silly, right?
But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t even think modern people think this way. When we are hit by natural forces, we feel like we percieve something personal in the attack. Stand outside in the storm, and you will know that Zeus exists, and just might hit you with a thunderbolt. Yes, I know that as a Christian I am not to believe literally in the Greek gods, except perhaps as demons. My point is that your experience of the powers of the world is every bit as personal as the ancients.
Consider the god Apollo, the god of light and music, but also the destroyer. He is called, in the beginning of the Iliad, “Farshooter Apollo”. ἑκηβόλου Ἀπόλλωνος. It might be better translated as “crack-shot Apollo.” Deadeye Apollo? Sniper of snipers, Apollo. Whatever he aims at, he hits. But what does he shoot? In the beginning of the Iliad, it’s plague. He sends disease, unerringly to you. When you get sick and die, it’s because the gods have targeted you.
The modern equivalent: consider the way people think about cancer. It’s not a merely natural misfortune that happens, but rather a malevolent force that steals away life and loved ones. People even say “Cancer is a bitch,” personifying the disease as a goddess.
One of my rules of reading is that the ancients were not morons. If they believed something, they had good reason to believe it. Your job as a reader is to figure out what they believed and why. Victor Hugo says somewhere the job of history is to understand, not to judge. Now, beware of Eagle-eye Apollo!
3 thoughts on “Briefly on the gods”
In an interview Gene Wolfe, whose Soldier series happened in Ancient Greece, mentioned that he thought the Greek gods were real powers though as a Catholic he did not worship them. I always thought that odd. I don’t believe in the Greek gods (though I believe in the Christian one) but I don’t think the ancients were morons. Plato or Aristotle is worth half a dozen modern thinkers.
Your point about the ancients not being morons is very timely, Karl. Indeed, many today act like the development of modern conveniences has somehow fundamentally altered the ontology and metaphysics of humanity. This is so obviously silly and usually based on ignorance.
Your point about the reality of the gods as understood in the example of how we view cancer is well taken. The personal understanding of the gods – i.e.: the use of personal language to describe our run-ins with them – is akin to the analogical way that we describe God. Holy Scripture says we all know God to a degree simply by nature of His law being written on our hearts and via experiencing Him daily through observation of His creation. But even when describing the personal Godhead of Christianity who has revealed Himself to us specially, we are forced to use descriptors within our capacity. And these often come down to analogies. It’s intriguing that God interacts with us in this space rather than leaving us incapable to fathom Him at all.
Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing.
Moderns confuse technological advancement with intellectual advancement. If anything, the former allows the latter to be dulled because of the lack of necessity of it to simply survive and thrive in a harsher time.
CS Lewis has a whole bit on the various mythologies being through a glass darkly sort of things until Christ.
God has put eternity in men’s hearts, so we have dim memories of home even if we have forgotten the way there.