August 11, 2008


The Olympians, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope these days is The Odyssey of Homer, although you will also find links and comments about current events. The series began Aug. 4. If this is your first visit and if you find the subject congenial, please click on earlier posts.

A few years back, I was excited to hear that someone was making a movie about the Trojan War. Fool that I was, I thought they might actually stick a little to the Iliad. It was terrible! AND there weren't even any gods in it. I was mortified.

Talking about Homer without gods is kind of like playing a guitar without notes or chords. They are as much a part of the story as the people.

Still, Greek gods seem a little strange to people brought up on a legacy of monotheism. When many people today hear the word god, they imagine some kind of solitary being that is eternal, all good, all powerful and all knowing. None of these apply to the Greek version. Let's run down that list.

Solitary? Nope. There were a bunch of them. Aside from the Big Twelve (or Thirteen, depending on who you count) on Olympus, there were several dark, scary chthonic gods of the underworld, an older generation of imprisoned Titans, and any number of lesser divinities. It was a pluralistic view of the universe. Sometimes there were even different versions of the same god.

Eternal? Nope, at least not in the sense of always existing. The gods of Olympus were a few generations removed from the primal Chaos that Hesiod says was there "in the beginning." They are immortal and free from aging and sickness however. That's the main difference between us and them.

All good? Hardly. They could be petty, spiteful, lusty and vindictive. The philosopher Xenophanes wrote that

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is a shame and disgrace among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving one another.

It's probably more to the point to say that Greek gods were beyond good and evil. Many were related to, if not personifications of, natural forces. And, as you may have noticed, nature isn't very moralistic or puritanical.

All powerful? Not quite, although they are very powerful. As Apollo warns the warrior Diomedes in the Iliad,

Gods are to humans what humans are to crawling bugs.

Still, one nice thing about polytheism is that the power of one god can be checked or influenced by others. A kind of divine coalition politics sometimes prevailed. Although the most powerful god by far is Zeus, even his power is limited by Fate.

All knowing? Not exactly. They know a lot and eventually find out a lot more but they can be fooled and tricked. They sleep and take trips and don't know what goes on at such times. At one point in the Iliad, the goddess Hera tricks Zeus into a zesty bout of lovemaking so that she can work mischief while he sleeps afterward. In the Odyssey, the sea god Poseidon takes a trip to visit the Ethiopians and nearly lets Odysseus get home early in his absence.

All these things made Greek religion a lot different from what we're used to. More on this tomorrow.

LET'S GET DIPLOMATIC. This NY Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof talks sense about America's undervalued and underfunded system of diplomacy. He notes that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been one of the most forceful advocates of a greater investment in this kind of "soft power." You can't bomb your way out of everything.

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION--INCLUDING MODERATION. This item argues that voters are often more attracted by extreme opinions than by reason and moderation. That would explain a lot.

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS to our economic mess? Here are some solid recommendations from the Economic Policy Institute.

OLYMPIC QUESTION. Who would win in a competition between modern and early humans?


No comments: