Πέμπτη, 10 Μαΐου 2012

The Nature of the Greek Gods

Amongst the many creations of Greek culture, the Olympian gods have a particular interest. As with anything in the ancient world, we have various types of information about them. Some comes from archaeology, some from texts, some concerns history, some concerns thought. But whereas the great sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was,and is, real, and we discover about the same sanctuary from our various sources of information, it is different with the individual gods. The ancient gods are not real – at least, that is the general supposition – and what our evidence leads us to is pictures that peoples created in their minds and shared in their imaginations. The gods are in fact the most powerful work of art created by the Greeks. And they live in different,but intersecting, dimensions, which combine to create the illusion of a single personality.
The primary dimension is that of cult (religious practice). Greeks prayed, sacrificed,poured libations, held festivals, demarcated places which would be precincts, built altars and temples, gave gifts and built ‘‘treasuries’’ to hold them all. In doing all this they represented themselves as performing acts to, for, or at least with an audience of, gods. It is far from unusual to have many gods (‘‘polytheism’’) or to think of them somehow as persons. But by the standards of other nations, Greek gods were exceptionally anthropomorphic – they were ‘‘shaped like people.’’ The focus of Greek worship tended not to be mighty stones or trees (‘‘aniconic,’’ non-representational, objects of worship), though they admired those too, but stone or wood shaped into statues of personal gods. Each god was an individual person and each was thought of as having their particular identity.Different Greek cities or ethne¯ (peoples who were not yet urbanized) worshiped broadly similar gods to each other. But the system was far from uniform and the Zeus
imagined in one place might be rather different from the Zeus imagined in another.Indeed, in a single place you might worship a variety of Zeuses, distinguished by their epithets – so Zeus ‘‘Meilichios,’’ Zeus the dangerous but hopefully ‘‘gentle,’’ is a different business from Zeus ‘‘Olympios,’’ the Zeus who is king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Each Olympian god is particularized by epithets, which are a bit of  compromise: they maintain a single identity (of Zeus), but diffract it into a rich spectrum of locations, functions, and traditions.
The second dimension is that of mythology. Myths might be local and might present for instance a supposed reason for a current religious practice, when they are described as ‘‘aetiological.’’ This would not be an actual, historical reason, because myths are no more true than gods are real. They are a way of thinking about the world around us and the people in it. It is in the nature of the worship of the Greek gods to generate myths,and it is in the nature of poets, the entertainers of Greek culture, to collect them and
synthesize them into a compromise set of stories that develop shared ideas of what the gods are like and how they behave. The principal Greek myths are widely known in ancient Greece and find their place in epics, lyric poetry, drama, and all manner of cultural production. They are everywhere in Greek art too.
The third dimension is that of thought about gods and the divine, ‘‘theology.’’ But Greece did not have official theologians: what it had was poets, philosophers, and anyone else who was prepared to think. Here finally we may worry about how the universe is run and speculate on the justice or the goodness of the gods. It is at this point that personal gods have their weakest grip and abstraction sets in most easily.So, to take the major cult site of Zeus in the Peloponnese, the huge temple of Zeus at Olympia (built for cult, decorated with  myth) provokes reflection on his power (theology). The ceremonies and celebrations enact that power with grandeur and significance, and in so doing focus something of Greek identity onto this site. This happens explicitly once every four years and implicitly, through memory and monuments, at all times in between, as this is always the place that carries the history of the ritual and its apparently limitless future. The huge altar of ashes grows with this year’s offerings; and the animals sacrificed in large number to the god, awesomely struck down and wailed over, give their lifeblood not to us but (back) to the god. This is the ‘‘same’’ Zeus whom Homer celebrates in the Iliad, mighty, remote, never actually walking the earth, distributing human happiness and misery, deciding the end of everything, including us. But he also behaves in ways that are harder to understand: he is said to have flung the god Hephaestus from heaven to land on Lemnos where the worship of the god of fire can take place; he argues with his wife (for why else should their marriage need to be renewed annually?); he is seduced by her on Mount Ida, in a scene presented rather daringly or wickedly by the poet. 
At Olympia we will also look forward to the traditional ritual song celebrating his thunderbolt, and we will think, as we look to the sky in prayer, about that great being whose justice is so hard to grasp, as Aeschylus showed us in his last plays – the Agamemnon and the Prometheus Bound (if it is by him). And as we look at the temple’s sculptures, we see a mythology surrounding Zeus – a pediment showing the chariot race of Pelops for the hand of Hippodameia, a pediment displaying Zeus’s son Apollo bringing order to Centaurs and Lapiths, and the metopes displaying the work of another of his sons,Heracles, founder of the Olympic Games, namely his twelve labors to civilize the world and overcome the adversity that Zeus’s wife Hera had put in his path. Zeus himself once again is mysteriously absent from these scenes, but we may reflect upon
his world order and then enter the temple to see what came to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the huge enthroned Zeus by Pheidias, a statue which changed the path of Greek art.Greek gods may not be neatly packaged, but that helps them to provoke thought as we bring together ideas from all the different places where we encounter them –participating in cult, watching cult, seeing the myth depicted, hearing it acted out,listening to it sung. You could only emerge humbled from the experience of Zeus.

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