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Chapter 06

The Nature of the Gods


Anthropomorphism. The Greeks and Romans (like most peoples) conceived of their deities as ANTHROPOMORPHIC, that is, human in form and character. These gods and goddess are idealized mortals in their physical beauty (although Hephaestus is lame), human beings made larger than life through the intensity of their emotions (however grand or petty these may be) and their superhuman powers. They perform extraordinary feats, change shape, become invisible, and fly. On the other hand, they appear tragically human in their pain and sorrows, their rivalries, and their sins. ICHOR, not blood, runs through their veins, and they feast not on the food of mortals but instead drink NECTAR and eat AMBROSIA. In the last analysis, proof of their divinity lies in their immortality.

Olympian Deities. The major deities have as their home Mt. Olympus, where they dwell in splendid houses and enjoy opulent feasts in halls that echo with their inextinguishable laughter. Individual gods and goddesses frequent favorite cult-places or cities. These immortals are worshiped by mortals in temples and honored with statues, altars, and animal sacrifices. Priests and priestesses serve them and officiate at celebrations; at an oracular shrine such as Delphi, they convey the god's responses to the prayers and inquiries of suppliants.

Chthonic Deities. Those gods and goddesses who are primarily associated with the Underworld are called CHTHONIC ("of the earth"). Although Hades is an Olympian, he is primarily a chthonic deity because he is king of the Underworld and so is his wife and queen, Persephone, at least for the part of the year that she is with him. Hecate and the Furies are other examples of important chthonic deities.

Nymphs. Among the various lower echelons of divinity are spirits who animate aspects of nature, all of whom may not necessarily be immortal but merely long-lived. The feminine spirits are often imagined as attractive nymphs, called NAIADS if they inhabit waters and DRYADS if they inhabit trees.

Zeus and Greek Monotheism. Within the polytheistic cast of Greek and Roman mythology and religion, there is a strong element of monotheism from the very beginning. In both Homer and Hesiod, Zeus is unquestionably the sovereign deity, and he is very much concerned with moral values. Yet his monotheism and patriarchy are severely tested by other divinities, especially goddesses. Hera’s power is able to thwart Zeus’ plans. Aphrodite can bend all the gods to her will, Zeus included, except for the three virgins, Hestia, Athena, and Artemis. Demeter, angry at the rape of her daughter, Persephone, forces Zeus and the gods to come to her terms. And Zeus yields to fate or the Fates, although this need not always be the case.
At the same time, in the evolution of Zeus as the one supreme god, he became the almighty god of morality and justice until he could be referred to without a name and simply as god in an abstract, rather than as a specific, anthropomorphic conception. This greater sophistication in thought, which gave Zeus a more unquestionable, absolute authority, came about through the writings of religious poets and philosophers. Ultimately in the sixth century B.C., Xenophanes argued against the folly of conceiving deities as human beings and insisted (frag. 23) that there is “one god, greatest among gods and mortals, not at all like them, either in body or in mind.”

Greek Humanism. A belief in the inevitability of fate or the Fates created a particularly somber mood for the development of Greek literature. This sense of predetermined destiny for each individual was analyzed in terms of the meaning and possibility of free will and independent action. There also developed a strong and realistic awareness of the misery, uncertainty, and unpredictability of human life ordained by the gods. If we are lucky, our lives will be more blessed by happiness than doomed to misery; still, the terrible vicissitudes of life lead to only one conclusion: it is better to be dead than alive.
In opposition to this pessimism was an uplifting faith in the potential of human endeavor to triumph against all divine odds. According to the fifth-century philosopher Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things,” meaning that mortals, not gods, are the arbiters of the human condition. In this optimistic mood about the hope and achievement possible in this life, Achilles in Homer’s Odyssey cries out that he would sooner be alive, the slave of a poor man, than dead, a king in the Underworld.
These two seemingly irreconcilable views account for a unique humanism originated by the Greeks, its emphasis upon the beauty and wonder of mortal achievement attained in the face of horrible disasters, which a vindictive god may dispense at any moment.


In his History of The Persian Wars, Herodotus presents a brilliant crystallization of the tragic, yet uplifting nature of Greek humanism, which can be truly understood only through the emotional and intellectual experience afforded by great art.

Tellus the Athenian. After a year of office in Athens with extraordinary powers (594/3 B.C.) during which he wrought many political and economic reforms, the wise man SOLON [soh'lon] set out to see the world. Among those he visited was the rich and powerful CROESUS [kree'sus], or KROISOS, the king of Lydia, whose capital was at Sardis. Croesus tried to impress his guest with a tour of his vast treasures, before he asked Solon the question, “Who is the happiest of human beings?” Croesus, of course, expected that he would be so designated, but Solon, surprisingly, identified an unknown Athenian, named TELLUS [tel'lus], or TELLOS. His reasons for the choice were as follows: Tellus came from a prosperous city and was prosperous himself (by the standards of Athens, not Lydian Croesus) so that he could fulfill his full potential as a human being. He had beautiful and good children, to whom he saw children born and all survive. Finally he died gloriously fighting on behalf of his family and his city, and was honored with burial at public expense in the place where he fell.

Cleobis and Biton. Despotic Croesus, taken back, persisted in asking who was the second happiest, fully expecting that he would at least win second place. But Solon refused to flatter or be intimidated and named two young men from Argos, CLEOBIS [kle'-o-bis], or KLEOBIS, and BITON [beye'ton], who had won prizes in the athletic games. Their mother was a priestess of Hera, who had to be present at the festival of the goddess. Once when the oxen did not arrive in time, her two sons yoked themselves to their mother’s chariot and brought her to the temple, a journey of five miles. The whole congregation marveled at this deed, congratulating the youths for their strength and their mother for having such fine sons. She was overjoyed and prayed before the statue of the goddess to give her sons the best thing for human beings to attain. After they had sacrificed and feasted, Cleobis and Biton went to sleep in the temple and never woke up. The end of their life was the very best, and thereby the god showed clearly how it is better to be dead than alive. Statues of the brothers were set up in Delphi, since they had been the best of men.

The Nature of God and Human Life. Angrily, Croesus asked why his happiness was dismissed as nothing and he was not even put on a par with ordinary men. Solon explained. All deity is jealous and fond of causing trouble. Furthermore, in the length of a lifetime of seventy years there is much that one does not wish to see and not one of the days in all those years will bring exactly the same experiences. A human being is completely a thing of chance.
A human life cannot be judged happy until it has been completed. The one from whom fate has kept most evils and misfortunes and to whom fate has given most blessings and good fortune, this one is the happiest, provided as well that his death at the end is good. It is too soon to judge Croesus happiest because his life is not yet over and can not be reviewed in its entirety. A rich king, seemingly blessed with happiness now, may at any time in the future meet with disasters, just like any other ordinary mortal.
Croesus considered Solon a fool, but NEMESIS (“retribution”) punished him for his hubris in thinking that he was the happiest of mortals.

Croesus and His Son Atys. Croesus had a fine son named ATYS [a'tis], “the doomed one,” in whom he placed all his hopes. A dream came to Croesus as he slept and foretold that Atys would die, struck by the point of an iron weapon. Croesus forbade his son to engage in any further military activity, removed all weapons from the men’s quarters, and arranged that his son should get a wife. In the midst of preparations for the marriage, an unfortunate suppliant, polluted by blood, arrived and begged Croesus for purification. His name was ADRASTUS [a-dras'tus], or ADRASTOS ("the one who cannot escape fate"), a Phrygian from a royal family; he had killed his brother unintentionally and had been driven out by his father. Croesus benevolently purified Adrastus and accepted him in his palace.

The Mysian Boar Hunt. It happened that the neighboring Mysians were unable to overcome a monstrous boar that was destroying their lands. They appealed to Croesus to send his son with an expedition to come to their aid. Croesus, remembering the dream, refused. But his valiant son, anxious to help the Mysians, convinced his father to allow him to go. Atys argued that the fight was not against men but a boar; since a boar did not have hands or an iron weapon, how could he possibly die by the point of an iron weapon, if he went on the hunt?
Croesus was won over but, nevertheless, was still concerned about his son’s safety. So he asked Adrastus that, in return for the great kindness that he had done him, he go along with Atys to act as his guardian. Adrastus, although reluctant, could not refuse Croesus’ request.
In the midst of the hunt, as the attackers hurled their weapons against the wild beast, Adrastus missed his aim and hit instead Atys, and killed him. And the prophecy of the dream was fulfilled.

The Suicide of Adrastus. When the expedition arrived home, Adrastus stood before the corpse and begged Croesus to kill him. But the bereaved Croesus answered that it was the god who had warned him of this evil who was responsible. He forgave Adrastus. Yet Adrastus could not forgive himself. Alone at the grave of Croesus’ son, Atys, whom he had murdered, he slaughtered himself on the tomb, realizing that he was the unhappiest of mortals, most oppressed by misfortune. In the final scene of this tragedy, we cannot help but contrast the unfortunate and most unhappy Adrastus with Tellus and Cleobis and Biton, the happiest of men who ended their lives well.

Croesus on the Pyre, Attic red-figure amphora by Myson, ca. 500 B.C.

The Defeat of Croesus by Cyrus the Great. CYRUS [seye-rus], or KYROS THE GREAT, king of the Persians, had been carving out a vast empire to the east. Now, however, he threatened Croesus’ kingdom of Lydia to the west. Croesus sent magnificant offerings to Delphi before consulting the great oracle of Apollo there for advice. The ambiguous answer given by the god was that if he marched against Persia, a great empire would fall. Croesus foolishly did march against Cyrus, but it was his own Lydian empire, not that of the Persians, which fell.
The Enlightenment and Salvation of Croesus. When Sardis, the capital of Lydia, was captured, Cyrus had a great pyre built and Croesus placed upon it. As Croesus stood on the pyre, about to be burned alive, he now understood that the words of Solon about the nature of happiness for mortals were inspired by god. Croesus called out the name of Solon three times, and Cyrus, who heard him, was perplexed, and Croesus explained the truth expounded to him by Solon: bo one can by judged happy until dead. After the fire was lit and the flames began to burn the outer edges of the pyre, Cyrus, fearing retribution for himself, ordered the fire quenched and Croesus saved. When Croesus realized Cyrus’ change of heart, and saw that the men were unable to put out the fire, in tears he called to Apollo. The god answered him by sending out of the clear and calm sky, torrents of rain that extinguished the fire.
Cyrus knew then that Croesus was a good man, beloved by god and made him his wise and benevolent counselor. Later Croesus inquired at Delphi why Apollo had deceived him by his oracle. Apollo, his savior, answered that it was Croesus’ own fault for misinterpreting the oracle and not inquiring for further elucidation; Croesus agreed.

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