Otto Steinmayer: CLASSIC GROUND

The Greeks and their gods

[New Straits Times, 8 January 1992]

lighting up

People who know nothing of the Greeks except through "Jason and the Argonauts" or maybe a Klassix Komik may believe that the Greeks were grossly superstitious, or had no religion at all. The truth of the matter is different, and rather complicated.

The wonderful thing about being a human being is to be alive and conscious, with a will and feelings, on this awesome earth. As the philosopher Wittgenstein said: "Things exist; that is the mystical." How could the world not be alive? People imagined the sky, the wild forests, and the underworld inhabited by beings like them. "Everything is full of gods," said the Greek philosopher Thales, a good motto for the way the primitive man felt.

Primitive peoples worship the great forces of nature, wind and weather, water, the earth, and growing things. The remote ancestors of the Greeks personified them as gods. Scholars think that the Earth-Mother was paramount in earliest times, but that men, getting jealous, overthrew her in favour of male gods.

We would not call these beings "gods" exactly. They were more like "spirits," hantu. They differed from men in being more powerful and undying. They were not responsible for the creation of the universe, nor for the ultimate fate of man. The majority were not necessarily good or evil, but you could manage to stay on friendly terms with them with a little offering of food, a poem in their praise, or an invitation to a party with the tribe.

The most important of these was the Sky-Father, who appears in the Rig Veda as Dyaus-pitr. The Greeks called him Zeus, and the Romans Jupiter. His weapon is the thunderbolt, and his most famous act was killing the cosmic dragon. England's St. George, strangely enough, is a considerably watered-down version of the same deity.

Over the centuries, a whole host of gods and goddesses collected around him.

By the time of Homer, the Greeks had civilized their spirits pretty thoroughly. The major gods and goddesses were reduced to twelve in number, moved to heaven (on earth imagined as the top of Mount Olympos, like the Indian Mount Meru), and settled in a copy of a Greek royal court. Zeus was the king and father and one of his prerogatives was sleeping around with anybody he liked. Hera was the long-suffering queen. Other relatives held lesser posts in the administration. Poseidon took care of the ocean, Pluto the underworld. His name means "the wealthy one," because gold and silver came from deep below the ground.

Greek poets invented all sorts of stories about these gods and goddesses, their births and adventures. Each deity developed a particular personality. The gods like to take part in human affairs. The Trojan War nearly split heaven in two along party lines. The ancient Hymns that date from Homer's time also tell many delightful stories.

The very literary beauty of the stories made spiritual Greeks dissatisfied with these rulers of the universe. The Olympian mythology could not explain the important questions: Why are we here? Is this world just? Homer's all-too-human Zeus did not inspire much respect. How, said the philosopher Xenophanes, could you worship gods that went around fornicating, stealing, and quarrelling? He doubted that they truly appeared in human shape. "If cows and lions had hands," he said, "they would paint their gods looking like cows and lions."

Most serious people quickly decided that God is not to be limited by human imagination, and that God is perhaps not to be comprehended at all.

Hints of this higher conception of God had been around from the beginning. An unknown poet in the Rig Veda (whom one reader quoted here not long ago) says that the World appeared from the Void by the power of Love. The earliest Greek poem on the creation by Homer's contemporary the poet-farmer Hesiod parallels the Indian idea.

Philosophers took over the task of investigating what we think are the profound issues of religion. Day to day religion remained on the traditional path. Greek religion, as people practised it, means the religion of the state and the home. Each city-state had public festivals in honour of its patron god or goddess. In Athens, they worshipped Athena. At harvest time, people everywhere worshiped Demeter, the goddess of grain, whom people in Southeast Asia called Sri Devi.

These festivals were large parties which worshipers invited the god to share. The god was treated to food, drink, presents, and entertainment, just like the human guest of honour at an ordinary party. The god consumed the spiritual essence of the food, while people ate it in reality. Sacrifice was nothing more than the dedication of the animal before it was killed, cooked, and served. (The Greeks looked on human sacrifice with utter horror, and so did their gods.) Everybody had fun, and the god was pleased to renew his protection until the next party came round.

Apart from the state festivals, religion was not particularly organized. There were no scriptures, though there were myths for every occasion. The gods and goddesses were firmly on the side of morality. Each household worshiped a set of minor gods that looked especially after them, and daily rites included little offerings of food, wine, and prayers. Unscrupulous people practised magic. At the temple of Delphi, the god Apollo gave oracles.

By the middle of the 5th century B.C., philosophical speculators had divided into two camps. Freethinkers dared to question the reality of the traditional gods and their cults. The philosopher Protagoras began a treatise with a famous statement of agnosticism: "Concerning the gods, I have no way to know either that they exist, or that they do not exist..." Euripides in his tragedies dramatizes the cruelty of the traditional deified forces of nature. "Gods should be wiser than mortals," he said, though he suspected that often they were not.

Others, like Socrates, while admitting they knew nothing certain about the gods, devised a religion of faith. Socrates believed only that God existed, was good, and judged men's good evil actions in the next world. The will of God was inscrutable; but being good, it must be obeyed. "No harm," he said, "can come to the good man."

The concept of the afterlife developed slowly. Homer conceives the soul as the breath of life. When a man dies, his empty shadow drags out a dismal half-existence in a gloomy underworld. Later Greeks rejected such an unhappy prospect, and there arose mystic societies that taught the initiate how to live a life fit to continue in the blessed lands beyond death.

Euripides, in a remarkable fragment of a lost play, wondered whether our present being was a mere shadow of a reality to come:

Who knows if to die is really to live,
And what we think life is death here below?

Pindar ends a long festive ode on a serious note, and in a moment where Greek poetry holds its breath, he looks at human life as it must appear from eternity's view: a little, mortals' pleasure increases, so
It falls to the ground, shaken
By the turning away of a thought.
We---creatures of a day. What is someone?
What is he not? Man is the dream
Of a shadow. But when the Godgiven gleam comes,
There is bright light and men's time is consoled...

Religion and things of the spirit are difficult to talk about. We all grope towards divinity in one way or another, as best we can, and I believe that the Greeks got close to the source.