Greek Gods, Human Lives
by Dr. Mary Lefkowitz
My thanks to all of you for taking time from your busy schedules to listen to me talk about my book Greek Gods, Human Lives. Maybe I can tell you enough about it so that you won’t have to read it, but I’d love it if you did want to read it. I wrote the book because I think most of us have learned not to take the Greek gods seriously, or at least seriously enough. And I wanted to try to argue that Greek myths, however frivolous some of them may seem to us to day, still have something to teach us.
We learn about the gods from myths because myths (as opposed to other narratives) stories with a religious content: they explain our relationship to forces beyond our control. Greek myths in particular have a continuing appeal because they are, first of all, great stories. The trouble is that most children, and many adults as well, do not always read ancient Greek narratives in the original sources. The myths they encountered have been repackaged for modern audiences. Accounts of the Greek myths in many standard handbooks tend to downplay or to trivialize the role of the gods.
An example: the Odyssey begins at the moment when Athena has decided that Odysseus should return home. But when Thomas Bulfinch or Robert Graves tell the story they start with his journey to Troy. Edith Hamilton tells us that the Greeks had “human gods” and that the Greeks felt at home on Mt. Olympus (the myths say just the opposite).
To Joseph Campbell also the Greek gods were just another species of human being. Or he sees them in completely modern ways: it is the moment of highest illumination when Odysseus comes to the island of the Sun (never mind that in the Odyssey his visit to the island of the Sun the nadir of his journey).
The ancient Greeks would have been surprised and even shocked by these modern interpretations. The vast majority of ancient people believed in these same gods, and when ancient writers tell the stories, the gods play an important and even dominant role in them. Myths were fundamentally religious stories, narratives about how to come to terms with forces beyond human control. Ancient Greeks learned about the gods from myths: they had no canonical text like the Bible.
Every educated person read (or heard) the Iliad, the story of the wrath of Achilles, the destructive wrath that brought great suffering to the Greek army at Troy, and sent “many mighty souls of heroes to Hades…and the will of Zeus was accomplished” (1. 1-5). Schoolboys (and girls) learned to write by copying passages from the Iliad; it was read everywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world as long as ancient Greek was spoken.
The Iliad told them that even the greatest of heroes could never have accomplished anything significant without the aid of the gods, and that even the greatest heroes could not know for sure what the consequences of his actions would be. Achilles himself is a prime example. He causes the deaths of many men because he is angry with Agamemnon, who took his prize from him. The prize was Briseis, a woman whose husband and brothers Achilles had killed when he was sacking their city. Because he is angry Achilles refuses to fight until the fire comes to his own ships.
But Achilles is able to do additional damage to his own side because he is the son of a goddess. Through his mother, Thetis, he can appeal directly to Zeus, the greatest of the gods. Thetis asks Zeus to honor her son Achilles by favoring the Trojans against the Greeks in battle. Because in the past Thetis helped him when other gods conspired against him, Zeus agrees to do what she wants.
But even though Achilles is the son of a goddess, he does not fully understand what the consequences of his actions will be. His decision not to fight will not harm Agamemnon. Instead many other persons will die, including his closest friend, Patroclus.
Achilles himself is the final victim of his destructive wrath. After Patroclus is killed, Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, offers her son a choice: he can leave Troy and go home to lead a long but unmemorable life, or he can return to the battle, win glory, and die at Troy. Achilles chooses to die in order to avenge his friend’s death.
Nor does Achilles see always see how large a role the gods play in determining what happens in the course of the epic. Everything that happens at Troy is the will of Zeus: “Sing, goddess, of Achilles’ anger, which brought sorrow to many Achaeans, and sent many mighty souls of heroes to Hades, and turned them into food for dogs and all the birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished” (Dios d’eteleieto boule, Il.1.1-5).
Zeus intervenes again and again to help the Trojans against the Greeks, but since he never appears on the battlefield himself, the Trojan prince Hector thinks that his side is winning because he is such a great fighter. He imagines that he has defeated Achilles’ comrade Patroclus single-handed. But in reality (as the dying Patroclus tells him) Hector is only Patroclus’ third killer: the first was the god Apollo himself, who had approached Patroclus hidden in thick mist, knocked off his helmet, and shattered his spear.
When Achilles comes after Hector, eager to avenge Patroclus’ death, Hector most unwisely remains outside the walls to confront him, thinking that he might possibly win, even though Achilles is the greatest of the Greek fighters. But Hector is easily defeated by Achilles, not just because Achilles is swifter and stronger, but because the god Apollo abandons Hector and the goddess Athena tricks him, by pretending to be his brother, so that Hector thinks he can stand and fight the great Achilles because he has an ally.
Mortals are not aware of what the gods are doing because they appear on earth shrouded in mist or in disguise, like Athena, when she stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon, or when she pretends to be Hector’s brother so that she can lure him to his death. Gods intervene directly to take mortals away from the battlefield. Aphrodite comes to assist Paris, because he had judged her to be the most beautiful of the goddesses; she also comes to bring her son Aeneas to safety.
Gods also can influence human action by sending messages to mortals through dreams, sometimes in order to reassure them, but often in order to mislead them. When Zeus shows his support (or disapproval) by thundering: it is up to mortals to determine what exactly he means. A flight of birds might (or might not) be a sign of approval. Messages may also be read in the entrails of sacrificed animals.
Anything uncanny, sudden, or unpredictable, may be an omen. When in the second-century A.D. the Greek writer Plutarch describes the assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., he talks about “signs and apparitions” that occurred just before Caesar’s death. The animal that Caesar was sacrificing proved to have no heart. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia dreamt that he was dead.
A prophet had told Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March. But Caesar ignored all these warnings, and went to the senate house, where he was murdered (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 63. 1-9). Caesar ought to have remembered, since he was very well educated and spoke Greek fluently, that the myths tell of many other people who suffered and died because they were not prepared to believe what the prophets told them. The prophets are the gods’ interpreters, who can read the signs and interpret the dreams that the rest of us do not understand.
The myths also indicate that any mortal who is about to embark on a great undertaking should first try to see if he has the approval of the gods. Certain gods, among them Zeus and Apollo, are prepared to advise mortals about the future, but their messages are relayed through their priests and priestesses, and are usually phrased in language that is ambiguous or hard to interpret. The god Apollo “whose oracle is in Delphi, does not reveal nor conceal but sends a sign,” said the early Greek thinker Heraclitus of Ephesus (22 B 93 DK).
The Delphic oracle gave a famously ambiguous response to Croesus (the proverbial king one would like to be as rich as). Croesus, who was king of Lydia in Asia Minor (now part of modern Turkey), asked the oracle of Apollo at Delphi if he should attack the Persians. The Delphic oracle replied (as the fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus tells us): if you cross the Halys river you will destroy a great empire (1.53.4).
Many of you know what happened: Croesus did not perceive the ambiguity in the response or stop to reflect that the gods do not always (or often) give straight answers to mortal questions. He crossed the river, but it was his own empire that was destroyed.
Gods who keep their distance, or, worse, deceive and deliberately mislead; gods who help to kill; gods who do not always tell mortals what is best for them: If this notion of what a god does sounds unfamiliar, or totally unacceptable, it is because our notion of divinity is so different from that of the ancient Greeks. People who were raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition (or who grow up in societies where these religions are dominant) believe that God is good, that he cares for and wants ultimately to help humankind. God takes away everything that Job has, but after doubt, questioning, and acceptance, God gives it back again.
No ancient Greek or Roman writer would have been prepared assume that any of the gods in their religious tradition cared for mankind in the aggregate. Their important gods kept themselves apart from men in their homes on Mt. Olympus. And while these gods sometimes cared for mortals, especially those mortals who were their own children, they did not love any mortal person unconditionally. A god or goddess might pursue a beautiful mortal and make love to him or her, but sooner or later (mostly sooner) they would abandon their human partner.
In the other great ancient Greek national epic, the Odyssey, Athena appears from time to time to help Odysseus and his family. She always comes in mortal form, often in disguise, and never sticks around for very long. She is fond of Odysseus, because he always has his wits about him: “That is why I cannot abandon you in your misfortune” (Od. 13. 331). But she is prepared to leave him on his own for years at a time. She cannot oppose her uncle Poseidon when he is angry with Odysseus, and, in any case, she cannot be everywhere at once.
The ancient epic poems told their audiences who the gods were, and what they were like, and why these divine beings were ultimately very different from mortal beings like themselves. Most importantly of all, the myths help mortals to try to come to terms with the limits of their own understanding, to see that even a very clever and courageous mortal like Odysseus will not always know what he is doing, and will never completely realize the extent of his own ignorance. At the end of the Odyssey Odysseus almost loses everything he has fought so hard to recover, by being too angry and too eager for revenge. Athena has to intervene to stop him.
To give another example: Oedipus’ problem is not (as Freud would have it) that he was in love with his mother. That interpretation of the myth tells us more about Freud than it does about Oedipus. As Sophocles told the story in the fifth century B.C. in his drama Oedipus Tyrannus, it is that Oedipus did not know who he really was.
At the beginning of the drama, the citizens of Thebes appeal to Oedipus because there is a terrible plague. The oracle at Delphi says (without of course, being specific) that the gods have sent the plague because the city is polluted by the presence of a murderer, and the prophet Tiresias tells Oedipus that the murderer is in fact Oedipus himself. Oedipus does not believe him, and undertakes his own investigation, only to discover that the oracle and the prophet were right.
In Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus did not want to commit the crimes of killing his father and marrying his mother. In fact, it was in the process of trying to keep the terrible prophecy from coming true that he did what the oracle said he would do. Because he thought he was the son of the king and queen of the city of Corinth, he did not worry when on the road, far away from Corinth, he killed an older man who insulted him. Because his mother was living in Corinth, he was not concerned when he married in Thebes a woman considerably older than himself.
Why did the gods allow Oedipus to commit these crimes, when they could so easily have prevented them from happening? They were punishing Oedipus for a crime that had been committed by his father Laius. Laius had raped a young man, who then killed himself. Laius was warned not to beget any children, because his son would murder him. But one night, when he had had too much to drink…
When the forbidden child was born, he and his wife Jocasta could not kill it (because that would be murder), but they could “expose” it, that is they could give it to a servant who would put it in a deserted spot where it might die, or be eaten by animals (this was a common method of population control in the ancient Greek world). But the shepherd who carried the baby off to expose it took pity on it, and gave it to another shepherd, who in turn gave it to the king of Corinth. So the son survived to murder his father and the prophecy was fulfilled.
Oedipus’ children suffer as well. His two sons kill each other in single combat, and his daughter Antigone dies because she gives burial rites to one of them, against the orders of Creon, the new king of Thebes. Creon had been certain that he was justified in refusing to allow Antigone’s brother to be buried. Finally the prophet Tiresias (who is still around, and, as always, right) is able to persuade Creon that the gods wanted the burial to take place. But it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself. Creon’s son and his wife have killed themselves, and at the end of the play he is left alone.
Antigone was right, but the gods do not intervene to prevent her death. As the chorus says in Sophocles’ drama Antigone, one crime leads to another, until the gods bring about the destruction of the whole family:
For those whose house is shaken by the gods, no part of ruin is wanting, as it marches against the whole of the family; like the swell of the deep sea, when darkness runs beneath the water, brought by the dire blast of winds from Thrace, it rolls up from the bottom the black sand and the wind-vexed shores resound before its impact (Ant. 558-92, tr. H. Lloyd-Jones)
“to practice moderation and to honor the gods is best. I think that it is also the wisest possession for mortals who use it” (Euripides, Bacchae 1150-52).
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