Obsolete Philosophy: The Old Gods, AKA Politics and Religion
As I mentioned in the kickoff post, I wrote a lot of papers in college.
This one I kind of enjoyed re-reading. I’m completely wrong in my conclusion, of course, but I do think that there is a nut of something worth exploring in the middle parts.
The transition of oral history culture to written history culture and transitioning from a particular need for a particular level of poetic accuracy in tale-telling to a need for a particular level of more concrete accuracy means that our stories of the gods quietly became our stories of ourselves. But it’s also exceptionally easy to assume that the level of concrete accuracy we require in the current year indicates a level of sophistication higher than that of our ancestors. Easy to the point of laziness.
But, hey. Every generation thinks that they’re the one that invented lots of things.
The Old Gods, A.K.A. Politics and Religion
Storytelling is an art almost as old as speech, and the oldest extant stories are the stories of the gods and creation. The Greeks have some of the most engaging myths, and certainly more of these myths have endured the ravages of time than the myths of any other culture. Surprisingly, the myths are not stories filled with morality, but with gods betraying each other, and displaying pettiness, envy, and other bad behaviors. These stories were not told with the intention of having the listener adopt the morality of the characters, but they do lead to this question: Why did the gods act like this? Plato himself couldn’t come to a quick answer; in his Republic, he claims, through Socrates, that “these stories are not pious, not advantageous to us, and not consistent with each other” when he is explaining that an ideal society should have an ideal mythological background, and not one with the habits of the Greek gods. This paper will look at these impious, unadvantageous gods and heroes, and attempt to give an social interpretation as an explanation for why the various stories evolved the way they did.
The theory held by this paper is that the religion tells the stories of the first peoples; for example, when Hesiod tells us that a god was killed, the story is really a simile for the political forces at the time of the legend’s origin, and the gods are seen as personifications of the peoples involved in the struggle. Perhaps the people would have been seen as the pawns reflecting the cosmic forces fighting, but it amounts to the religion telling the story of what happened to the people. Having the gods as simile to the forces does much to explain the amount of bad behavior in gods, despite the fact that the deities are, well, deities.
A good example of this is found in the plethora of stories involving Zeus. Zeus, the god of heaven and lightning and thunder, is a simile for the mountain dwelling peoples who worshiped him. The story of Zeus and the Titans (Hendricks 19-23) is a thinly veiled account of one of the early wars between the first clans of people. The titans, who were claimed to be older than the gods, represented the opposing forces who were the original controllers of the land, called “earth” in the story, and Zeus, and his brethren, sent to the underworld those who did not side with him. Since Zeus is from Olympus (hid atop the highest mountain), it is safe to assume that the original followers of Zeus came from the mountains as well. These mountain people came to the land of the people represented by the Titans (the people who were there first) and some of the “Titans” acquiesced to the followers of Zeus and some fought against them. Those who fought were “sent to the underworld” (killed). The hundred-headed giants who sided with Zeus are a simile for the large armies of those who sided with Zeus (remember, at this time in history, gatherings of this many people for the one purpose of war were unthought of).
The next story of note is the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the dead, and taken to the underworld. Demeter withheld her fertility from the planet, and it gave no grain. Zeus was upset by this, and said that Hades had to let Persephone go and rejoin the gods in Olympus. Hades had a trump card, though, and by making Persephone eat some seeds from a pomegranate fruit, bound her to stay in the underworld. Zeus was upset, but ruled that since Persephone ate one third of the seeds, she must stay in the underworld for one third of the year. For the remainder of the year she would be allowed to leave and live for the rest of the year with the gods in Olympus. Because of this, Demeter was cheered immensely, and would allow the world to be fertile for 8 months out of the year, and would cause it to be barren only 4 months (Hendricks 42-50).
On the surface, this seems to be a simple story of the origin of the seasons, but it can also be interpreted as a political struggle that began with the abduction of the daughter of a leader of the followers of Demeter. According to Professor Redacted (CU-Colorado Springs), the oldest gods in the geographical area of the Greeks are the earth gods, Demeter and Hades being among them. Younger gods are the sky gods such as Zeus. Keeping the theory of the struggles in myth are retelling stories of human struggles in mind, this becomes a struggle between two of the early peoples, and it was resolved by intervention of the followers of the Zeus.
As time went on, and society flourished, more wars inevitably occurred. However, as people could remember the wars, or as time went on, remember grandparents talking about the wars, it became much more difficult to claim that the gods were the only causes for all of the fighting. In the later legends, the people involved in the wars became demi-gods, and in the wars much closer to the time of the civilization, the people involved were not descendants of the gods, but “merely” heroes.
For example, in the great Trojan war, there was a hero called Achilles, who reportedly died when shot in the heel with an arrow. As the story goes, Achilles was dipped in the River Styx as a baby, which provided him with skin that couldn’t be pierced by any weapon. But his mother, holding him by the foot, did not want to touch the water herself, and so Achilles’ foot was not immersed, causing his heel to be his weak point. It seems unlikely that this is factually accurate; a better explanation is this: Achilles was a great hero in the war, but, toward the end, got shot in the foot. Blood poisoning set in, and Achilles died. The people witnessing this must have been flabbergasted that a man who endured so much, and did so many heroic deeds, could be taken down by a foot wound. The story of Achilles’ heel followed, as explanation.
The stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey are troublesome as Homer refined an old legend and made it into an epic poem, but one can still see how the wars and troubles are merely offshoots of the problems that the gods are having. The Iliad started because Paris, a prince of Troy, was asked to judge who was the most beautiful goddess: Hera, Aphrodite, or Athena. Paris was offered a bribe by Aphrodite with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, who was Helen, Queen of the Greeks. He chose Aphrodite, and Helen, the wife of Menelaus the king, fell in love with Paris. Paris ran with Helen to Troy, the royal city, and the Trojan war ensued. This is an example of how the causes of a war were given celestial cause, when there (very probably) was no divine intervention whatsoever.
The Odyssey is another example of attribution of celestial powers to a heroic effort for the sake of making the story more religious. The fact is that Odysseus took ten years to get home and lost all of his crew in the meantime. Homer took these facts, along with the fantastic stories told of the ten-year Odyssey, and made them into a wonderful story, still as powerful today as when it was composed. But one must glean what is factually accurate from what is not in the story, and one comes up with the bare bones of the plot: Odysseus took ten years to get home, and lost his crew doing it.
Later on, when civilization reaches the point where people like Aeschylus write plays within which the gods play principle roles, the gods become similes for social (e.g. laws) forces and the wars between them become similes for the discussions regarding which laws should be held in the highest regard and which should have secondary status. Aeschylus’ The Eumenides (translated: the nice ladies) tells the story of the war between Apollo and the oldest of gods: the eumenides. Apollo has Orestes kill his mother Clytaemestra, as revenge for her killing his father, the king. The “nice ladies” are the gods who avenge those who were killed by their blood relations. The Eumenides did not care that Clytaemestra killed her husband, as she was not related to him by blood. However, when Apollo demands revenge against the killer of the king, he chooses the queen’s son Orestes, and the Eumenides begin their punishment of Orestes for the spilling of family blood. The situation finally reaches the point where there is a trial, and Orestes must defend his actions, and Apollo must defend his orders. This is obviously a reflection of the change in morality, where once upon a time the greatest sin would be to kill one’s mother, father, or other blood relation, and becomes a turning point where it became worse to kill a king than to kill a relative.
At this point, it should be noted that while the above has precious little physical evidence, it was the practice of the time to have the gods of defeated peoples be subjugated to the gods of the victors. An example of this is found in 1 Samuel 5:1-5. This chapter explains how it was a practice of the Philistines to bring in chains the idols of the people defeated in combat and place the chained idols prostrate before their god Dagon. The Philistines knew to describe the wars in which they engaged and won as cosmic battles between Dagon and the gods of the people with which they went to war. It is unlikely that the Philistia was the only country to engage in this psychological tactic. And, it follows that, after a while, the telling and retelling of how one god defeated another would evolve past the berating of prisoners and become part of the mythological tradition. While there is no direct evidence that the myths of the wars between the gods in Greek mythology are also stories of the wars of ancestors, it seems unlikely that they are exact accounts of the wars between cosmic beings, and the explanation that these are just good stories does not satisfy like the theory that the myths are the retelling of the wars of the first peoples.
The gods evolved in their role as the similes for events. They started out as representatives of the armies of the first peoples, and the victors of the wars of the first peoples had their gods higher in the pantheon than the losers. As time went on, the gods became driving forces behind the calamities of the various heroes of old, and the squabbles of the gods translated as the real reason for the many wars in which the Greeks fought. Finally, with Aeschylus, the gods become representative of the different aspects of morality. The old gods had their laws, and the new gods had theirs, and whoever won between the two factions had their laws trump the laws of the others.
In conclusion, the myths are not moral fables as are the stories of the Brothers Grimm. The myths are similes for history, and as time went on, the people forgot that the stories were similes and they became religion. Plato is upset at the lack of moral rectitude shown by the gods, and rightfully so, but he does not know that the stories are not the stories of gods, but of his ancestors. One cannot read these stories as having the intention of being religion, but as a way for people to not forget their past, and their forefathers.
New King James Version Bible Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville
Aeschylus I University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London
Classical Gods and Heroes Morrow Quill Paperbacks, New York
The Encyclopedia of Classical Mythology Prentice Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
The Odyssey New American Library, New York and Scarborough, Ontario