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Chapter 6: The Nature of the Gods


Read the Commentary for Chapter 6, paying particular attention to the Greek conception of god and Jack Miles’ study, God: A Biography.


From the Perseus Project read the following sections of the Historical Overview
Religion, Myth, and Community (4.12)
The Mythical Origin of Justice (4.13)
The Ionian Thinkers (6.33)
Near Eastern Influence on Ionian Thinkers (6.34)
The Cosmos and Logos (6.35)
Rational Thinking (6.36)


In Homer, Zeus can appear both as the creator of fate and as subject to it. But in time, Zeus becomes for the Greeks more and more detached from the other gods, more and more austere, more and more the God of the cosmos. Consider the choral hymn, in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, to an almost nameless Zeus, almost an abstraction of divinity:

Zeus, whoever he may be,
if it is pleases him to be so called,
this is the name I give him;
I have no comparison to make…
weighing everything in the balance…
Nothing but Zeus,
If one is really to dispel the fruitless burden of cares.

Not even he who was once great,
teeming with reckless violence,
Not even he will be remembered.
And he who came next,
he was pinned in the third round and is gone;
But he will come straight to his senses,
the one who earnestly sings hymns to Zeus…

who has set mortals on the path of understanding,
who has given the command “Learn by suffering”;
the misery of remembered pain falls by drops
each sleepless night before the heart;
and reluctantly we are brought to wisdom;
the gift of the gods, seated in majesty at their oars, is powerful.

Compare and contrast the story of Croesus in Herodotus with that of Bacchylides, Ode 3.15—62.

It may be worthwhile to read the selections of Herodotus in which he compares Egyptian myths and religious practices with those of the Greeks. Use caution, however; Herodotus almost invariably and uncritically ascribes an Egyptian origin to everything Greek.

In God: A Biography, Jack Miles attempts to delineate the God of the Bible as a literary character, with evolving personalities. How does the sometimes capricious, multifaceted God of the Bible compare with the gods of Homer and Herodotus, or the Zeus of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon? Do you agree with the notion that within the polytheistic framework of Greek religion there are monotheistic elements? If so, is it possible that there might be polytheistic elements within the monotheistic cast of the Bible?

Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion offers a fertile ground for a more historically oriented study of the subject, especially the interplay of myth and ritual. You might pay particular attention to Chapters III and IV, which deal with the Olympian and chthonic deities, as well as Chapter V: Polis and Polytheism. In your reading, consider the following questions: Why is it inaccurate to consider the polytheism of Greek religion as merely a laundry list of deities, their attributes, and stories? How does one actually practice a polytheistic faith? What differences are evident between Greek religion and practice and Judeo-Christian religion and practice? What similarities? Why does Burkert believe that morality and ritual inevitably come into conflict? What impact does the development of Greek philosophy have on the conception of deity and religious practice? (See especially Chapter VII.)

Compact Discs and Videos

You may want to explore an early opera by Reinhard Keiser, Croesus, Haughty, Fallen, and Again Exalted, based on Herodotus’ story about Croesus, Solon, and Cyrus.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold has written an opera incorporating the legend of the tyrant Polycrates from Herodotus, which could very well have been included in our text. It is similar to the legend of Croesus in its theme of the inevitability of fate. Korngold’s works are justifiably becoming part of classical repertoire today. Many have long admired his brilliant scores for many Hollywood movies, including The Adventures of Robin Hood and Kings Row.


Know the English meaning of ambrosia and ambrosial and nectar and how the word demon and its derivatives got a sinister connotation. Explain the English words ichor, nemesis, catamite, nymph and their derivatives, and the expression rich as Croesus.

Essay Questions

  1. Defend this statement using Greek mythology: Monotheism and polytheism are not mutually exclusive terms.

  2. In the Greek tradition, anthropomorphism and humanism are bound together. Explain.

  3. How might we describe the story of Croesus as a Greek tragedy?

  4. Though the Greek gods are conceived in human terms, discuss the gulf that separates mortals from immortals.

  5. Explain how Greek religion, myth, philosophy, and history are intertwined.

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