Bring Back The Greek Gods
Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.
By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007
secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion
"poisons" human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the
poison isn't religion; it's monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn't
advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not
pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion
made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting
them recognize multiple points of view.
There is much we still
can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree
that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and
divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well
My Hindu students could always see something many scholars
miss: The Greek gods weren't mere representations of forces in nature
but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the
world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such
as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as
Zeus, his siblings and his children.
Zeus did not communicate
directly with humankind. But his children -- Athena, Apollo and
Dionysus -- played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest
to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes
could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what
the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception
to make people see what's not really there. He was worshiped in
antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the
god of psychology.
Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his
power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his
father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but
granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic
ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.
to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek
theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better
outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative
system of government the Athenians called democracy.
monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The
Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews
that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient
peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female
divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers
held by the male gods.
The world, as the Greek philosopher
Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such
a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient
Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people's gods and to
admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of
piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation,
they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian
goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they
incorporated other people's gods into their pantheon.
did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe
in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented
Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but
he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence
of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or
seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.
existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account
than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A
mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of
another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess
Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him
kill his wife and children. Heracles' father, Zeus, did nothing to stop
her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.
the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always
good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though
God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old
Testament, God takes away Job's family and his wealth but restores him
to prosperity after Job acknowledges God's power.
The god of the
Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the
Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn't seek to
improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a
palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was
memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy
life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably
did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.
separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans
to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity
of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the
character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard
questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the
possible causes of events. Philosophy -- that characteristically Greek
invention -- had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.
the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to
recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that
they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do
are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet
resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or
not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments
when they think they know what they are doing. gods are fully aware of
this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they
tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals
Ancient Greek religion gives an account of
the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by
the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind
confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in
the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and
achievements has never been needed more than it is today.
Lefkowitz is professor emerita at Wellesley College and the author of
"Greek Gods, Human Lives" and the forthcoming "History Lesson."