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)

By this time you are probably wondering what you can possibly have learned from myth, except to stay at home and not try to do anything ever. In fact minor characters in the ancient dramas occasionally recommend that course of action. At the end of a particularly grisly narrative that describes how a mother in a Bacchic frenzy killed her own son, a slave concludes:

“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).

That is sensible advice, but how can anyone possibly follow it? How do we know what moderation is, if we are mortal, and tend to get things wrong? How can we possibly know what exactly the gods would like us to do, if the messages they send are ambiguous, and the gods themselves come in disguise, so that even the wisest among us cannot be sure who we are talking to?

So perhaps we (as mortals) are really asking: Why aren’t the gods prepared to help mortals to be less ignorant? An ancient Greek might answer that question by saying that the gods do not exist for that purpose. Zeus and his family, the gods who are currently in power, did not create humankind; they simply inherited them as part of a world that had been created by their predecessors. Perhaps the Titan god Prometheus created mortals to help him in the war his generation of gods fought against the younger generation of gods led by his nephew Zeus. Perhaps humankind came into existence in some other way; the early sources are not explicit.

In the Old Testament (by contrast) God himself creates man in his own image, and he wants man to have a happy existence, and makes him immortal, though inferior to himself, because when God creates the man (Adam), he does not allow him to know what God knows. God creates woman (Eve) to be a companion for the man. But the woman and man disobey God and eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and so lose their immortality (Genesis 1. 17) and ensure that life is hard for themselves and their descendants. It is largely their own fault that they are driven out of paradise.

The God of the Old Testament tried to make the man happy in the Garden of Eden, but Zeus’ attitude toward humankind is generally almost hostile: he hides the means of life so that man will need to till the soil in order to eat. He is angry when the god Prometheus gives men fire to improve their existence, so that they no longer have to live in caves, but can build houses and implements that make their lives easier. But when Prometheus steals fire and gives it back to men, Zeus punishes them by having the gods Athena and Hephaestus create a woman to make their lives more difficult. Men will need women to produce heirs, but they will need to feed the women, and must put up with their deceits and treachery.

So ancient Greeks did not expect Zeus to care for them like a father, or his wife Hera to be a surrogate mother –that was a role that most angry and self-important goddess would never have been prepared to play. Instead mortals tried to get the gods to help them by acts of respect and piety, sacrifices if they could afford them, or small offerings at the many shrines or sacred spaces one might pass in the course of an ordinary day. Gods were everywhere, and it was not safe to neglect any god, even if one didn’t particularly approve of them, or know exactly who they were.

The religious observances in Homer’s day were still being recommended in the early centuries of the Common Era. Here is advice for hunters from a Greek living in Syria in the second century A.D.: “I declare that nothing turns out well for mankind without the gods…(he gives a long list of particulars)…If they neglect the gods, they must come away with their pursuits half-accomplished, and with their dogs injured, and their horses lame, and the human beings will hurt themselves. That is what Homer teaches in his poetry.” (Arrian, Cyn., 35.1 -36.1)

It may seem that a religion like this would offer very few advantages, especially when compared to the three great religious traditions that derive from the texts collected in the Old Testament. Why believe in gods who are prepared to think of themselves before they think of us, who punish crimes only when they get around to it, and do not offer any prospect of a reward for any mortal after death, or at some future time or place?

Yet (by way of conclusion) let me suggest some of the reasons why this religion for at least a thousand years made sense to its adherents, and why Greeks for many centuries were prepared to believe in their own myths, at least as they themselves told the stories. Their religion describes the world the way it is, with a terrible realism.

Myths provide, by combining realism with fantasy, a way to understand why it is that disasters will strike, often when we are least expecting them, or why great prosperity cannot last, especially if it is acquired through dishonest means, or how we will not always see justice done in our lifetimes. This way of looking at the world made sense in the eighth century B.C. and in the second century A.D.

The myths explain why a person cannot escape a terrible fate by relying on his own intelligence; in the process of avoiding the oracle about killing his father and marrying his mother, Oedipus contrived to fulfill it. The myths describe how a person like Antigone can do what is right, but will nonetheless die and not be rewarded in her lifetime.

The myths tell us in many different ways why life will never be easy, and why it will even be absolutely miserable for many people. At the end of the Iliad, after Achilles has avenged Patroclus’ death, the gods intervene to stop him from dragging the dead body of Hector around Patroclus’ burial mound. Then Hermes brings Hector’s old father, Priam, the king of Troy, to Achilles’ hut in the Greek camp. There the two men weep together, Achilles for his friend Patroclus, and Priam for his son Hector.

Achilles tells the old man about the two jars on the threshold of Zeus’ house. One is full of good things, and the other of evil. Zeus can give a man a combination of evil and good things, or just evil (Il. 24.527-30). I can’t tell you how many students have summarized these lines by saying the possibilities are all good, or a mixture. But in the Greek text there is no possibility of a mortal life that is all good. Absolute happiness is reserved for the gods themselves, who never grow old and never die.

If mortals cannot look to the gods for comfort, they are compelled to go to other mortals for understanding and consolation. In the Iliad Achilles comforts Priam, the father of the man who killed his friend, and Priam kisses the hands of Achilles, who has killed so many of his sons. At the end of the Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus, now blind, asks that his daughters be brought to him.

Mortals must turn to each other for support and affection, because they can at best only obtain a distant sympathy from the gods on Olympus. In the Iliad Homer Zeus lets tears of blood fall to the ground when his son Sarpedon is about to be killed by Patroclus, but Sarpedon does not realize that they have been shed in his honor; nor is Sarpedon’s mother there to see them.

Because in this religion, there is no orthodoxy, and no one deity to depend upon, more responsibility is left to the individual. It is a religion for adults, which offers responsibilities rather than rewards. It is a religion that encourages questioning of the divinities, and the oracles, because such questioning helps to lead to a better understanding of human limitations.

Yet despite the clear differences between this religion and the leading religions of our own time, these same stories can still offer a reliable guide to life. Do we really know what we will happen to ourselves when we take it upon ourselves to “destroy a great empire”? Don’t we need, rather than constant self-congratulation, frequent reminders of how little we really know, not only about rest of the world, but about ourselves?

Even if we are not prepared literally to believe in their theology, we still have much to learn from listening to the myths as the ancient writers tell them.

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