Ancient History & Civilisation

2. The Olympians

All these were the less famous, though not necessarily the less honored, gods of Greece. How is it that we hear so little of them in Homer, and so much of the Olympians? Probably because the gods of Olympus entered with the Achaeans and Dorians, overlaid the Mycenaean and chthonian deities, and conquered them as their worshipers were conquered. We see the change in action at Dodona and Delphi, where the older god of the earth, Gaea, was displaced in the one case by Zeus, in the other by Apollo. The defeated gods were not wiped out; they remained, so to speak, as subject deities, hiding bitterly underground, but still revered by the common people, while the victorious Olympians received on their mountaintop the worship of the aristocracy; hence Homer, who composed for the elite, says almost nothing of the nether gods. Homer, Hesiod, and the sculptors helped the political ascendancy of the conquerors to spread the cult of the Olympians. Sometimes the minor gods were combined or absorbed into the greater figures, or became their attendants or satellites, very much as minor states were now and then attached or subjected to greater ones; so the satyrs and sileni were given to Dionysus, the sea nymphs to Poseidon, the mountain and forest sprites to Artemis. The more savage rites and myths faded out; the chaos of a demon-haunted earth yielded to a semiorderly divine government that reflected the growing political stability of the Greek world.

At the head of this new regime was the majestic and patriarchal Zeus. He was not first in time; Uranus and Cronus, as we have seen, preceded him; but they and the Titans, like Lucifer’s hosts, were overthrown.* Zeus and his brothers cast lots to divide the world amongst them; Zeus won the sky, Poseidon the sea, Hades the bowels of the earth. There is no creation in this mythology: the world existed before the gods, and the gods do not make man out of the slime but beget him by union among themselves, or with their mortal offspring; God is literally the Father in the theology of the Greeks. Nor are the Olympians omnipotent or omniscient; each limits the other, or even opposes the other; any one of them, especially Zeus, can be deceived. Nevertheless they acknowledge his suzerainty, and crowd his court like the retainers of a feudal lord; and though he consults them on occasion, and now and then yields his preference to theirs,23 he frequently puts them in their place.24 He begins as a sky-and-mountain-god, provider of the indispensable rain. Like Yahweh he is, among his earlier forms, a god of war; he debates with himself whether to end the siege of Troy or “make the war more bloody,” and decides for the latter course.26 Gradually he becomes the calm and mighty ruler of gods and men, bestriding Olympus in bearded dignity. He is the head and source of the moral order of the world; he punishes filial neglect, guards family property, sanctions oaths, pursues perjurers, and protects boundaries, hearths, suppliants, and guests. At last he is the serene dispenser of judgment whom Pheidias carves for Olympia.

His one failing is the youthful readiness with which he falls in love. Not having created women, he admires them as wonderful beings, bearing even to the gods the inestimable gifts of beauty and tenderness; and he finds it beyond him to resist them. Hesiod draws up a long list of the divine amours and their glorious offspring.27 His first mate is Dione, but he leaves her in Epirus when he moves to Thessalian Olympus. There his first wife is Metis, goddess of measure, mind, wisdom. Gossip says that her children will dethrone him; therefore he swallows her, absorbs her qualities, and becomes himself the god of wisdom. Metis is delivered of Athena within him, and his head has to be cut open that Athena may be born. Lonely for loveliness, he takes Themis for his mate, and begets by her the twelve Hours; then he takes Eurynome, and begets the three Graces; then Mnemosyne, and engenders the nine Muses; then Leto, and fathers Apollo and Artemis; then his sister Demeter, and has Persephone; finally, having sown his wild oats, he weds his sister Hera, makes her Queen of Olympus, and receives from her Hebe, Ares, Hephaestus, and Eileithyia. But he does not get along well with Hera. She is as old a god as he, and more honored in many states; she is the patron deity of matrimony and motherhood, protectress of the marriage tie; she is prim and grave and virtuous, and frowns upon his escapades; moreover, she is an excellent shrew. He thinks of beating her,28 but finds it easier to console himself with new amours. His first mortal mate is Niobe; his last is Alcmena, who is descended from Niobe in the sixteenth generation.* He loves also, with Greek impartiality, the handsome Ganymede, and snatches him up to be his cupbearer on Olympus.

It was natural that so fertile a father should have some distinguished children. When Athena was, born in full development and armament from the head of Zeus she provided the literature of the world with one of its most hackneyed similes. She was an appropriate goddess for Athens, consoling its maids with her proud virginity, inspiring its men with martial ardor, and symbolizing for Pericles the wisdom that belonged to her as the daughter of Metis and Zeus. When Pallas the Titan tried to make love to her she slew him, and added his name to hers as a warning to other suitors. To her Athens dedicated its loveliest temple and its most splendid festival.

More widely worshiped than Athena was her comely brother Apollo, bright deity of the sun, patron of music, poetry, and art, founder of cities, maker of laws, god of healing and father of Asclepius, “far-darting” archer and god of war, successor to Gaea and Phoebe at Delphi as the holiest oracle of Greece. As god of the growing crops he received tithe offerings at harvest time, and in return he radiated his golden warmth and light from Delos and Delphi to enrich the soil. Everywhere he was associated with order, measure, and beauty; and whereas in other cults there were strange elements of fear and superstition, in the worship of Apollo, and in his great festivals at Delphi and Delos, the dominant note was the rejoicing of a brilliant people in a god of health and wisdom, reason and song.

Happy, too, was his sister Artemis (Diana), maiden goddess of the chase, so absorbed in the ways of animals and the pleasures of the woods that she had no time for the love of men. She was the goddess of wild nature, of meadows, forests, hills, and the sacred bough. As Apollo was the ideal of Greek youth, so Artemis was the model of Greek girlhood—strong, athletic, graceful, chaste; and yet again she was the patroness of women in childbirth, who prayed to her to ease their pains. At Ephesus she kept her Asiatic character as a goddess of motherhood and fertility. In this way the ideas of virgin and mother became confused in her worship; and the Christian Church found it wise, in the fifth century of our era, to attach the remnants of this cult to Mary, and to transform the mid-August harvest festival of Artemis into the feast of the Assumption.29 In such ways the old is preserved in the new, and everything changes except the essence. History, like life, must be continuous or die; character and institutions may be altered, but slowly; a serious interruption of their development throws them into national amnesia and insanity.

A thoroughly human figure in this pantheon was the master craftsman of Olympus, that lame Hephaestus whom the Romans knew as Vulcan. At first he seems a pitiful and ridiculous figure, this insulted and injured Quasimodo of the skies; but in the end our sympathies are with him rather than with the clever and unscrupulous gods who maltreat him. Perhaps in early days, before he became so human, he had been the leaping spirit of the fire and the forge. In the Homeric theogony he is the son of Zeus and Hera; but other myths assure us that Hera, jealous of Zeus’s unaided delivery of Athena, gave birth to Hephaestus without the aid of any male. Seeing him to be ugly and weak, she cast him down from Olympus. He found his way back, and built for the gods the many mansions in which they dwelt. Though his mother had dealt so cruelly with him, he showed her all kindness and respect, and defended her so zealously in one of her quarrels with Zeus that the great Olympian seized him by the leg and hurled him down to the earth. A whole day Hephaestus fell; at last he landed on the island of Lemnos, and hurt his ankle; certainly thereafter (before that, says Homer) he was painfully lame. Again he found his way back to Olympus. In his resounding workshops he built a mighty anvil with twenty huge bellows, made the shield and armor of Achilles, statues that moved of their own accord, and other very wonderful things. The Greeks worshiped him as the god of all metal trades, then of all handicrafts, and pictured the volcanoes as the chimneys of his subterranean forges. It was his misfortune that he married Aphrodite, for it is difficult for beauty to be virtuous. Learning of her affair with Ares, Hephaestus fashioned a trap that fell upon the lovers as they loved; and then the limping deity had his lame revenge by bringing his fellow gods to look in laughter upon the bound divinities of love and war. But to Hermes, Homer tells us, Apollo said:

“Hermes, son of Zeus . . . wouldst thou in sooth be willing, even though ensnared with strong bonds, to lie on a couch by the side of golden Aphrodite?” Then the messenger answered him: “Would that this might befall, Lord Apollo, that thrice as many bonds inextricable might clasp me about, and that ye gods—aye, and all the goddesses, too—might be looking on, but that I might sleep by the side of golden Aphrodite.”30

Ares (Mars) was never distinguished for intelligence or subtlety; his business was war, and even the charms of Aphrodite could not give him the thrill that came to him from lusty and natural killing. Homer calls him “the curse of men,” and tells with pleasure how Athena laid him low with a stone; “he covered, as he lay, seven acres of the field.”31 Hermes (Mercury) is more interesting. In origin he is a stone, and from the cult of sacred stones his worship is derived; the stages of his evolution are still visible. Then he is the tall stone placed upon graves, or he is the daimon, or spirit, in this stone. Then he is the boundary stone or its god, marking and guarding a field; and because his function there is also to promote fertility, the phallus becomes one of his symbols. Then he is the herm or pillar—with carved head, uncarved body, and prominent male member—which was placed before all respectable houses in Athens;32 we shall see how the mutilation of these hermae on the eve of the expedition against Syracuse provided the proximate cause for the ruin of Alcibiades and Athens. Again he is the god of wayfarers and the protector of heralds; their characteristic staff, or caduceus, is one of his favorite insignia. As god of travelers he becomes a god of luck, trade, cunning, and gain, therefore an inventor and guarantor of measures and scales, a patron saint of perjurers, embezzlers, and thieves.33 He is himself a herald, bearing the billets and decrees of Olympus from god to god or man, and he moves on winged sandals with the speed of an angry wind. His running-about gives him a lithe and graceful form, and prepares him for Praxiteles. As a swift and vigorous youth he is the patron saint of athletes, and his shamelessly virile image has a place in every palaestra.34 As herald he is the god of eloquence; as celestial interpreter he is the first of a long hermeneutical line. One of the “Homeric” Hymns tells how, in his youth, he stretched strings across a tortoise shell, and so invented the lyre. Finally it comes his turn to appease Aphrodite; and their offspring, we are told,35 is a delicate hermaphrodite, sharing their charms and named from their names.

It was characteristic of Greece that in addition to deities of chastity, virginity, and motherhood it should have a goddess of beauty and love. Doubtless in her Near-Eastern origins, and in Cyprus her half-Oriental home, Aphrodite was first of all a mother goddess; to the end of her tenure she remained associated with reproduction and fertility in the whole realm of plant, animal, and human life. But as civilization developed, and increasing security obviated the need for a high birth rate, the esthetic sense was left free to see other values in woman than those of multiplication, and to make Aphrodite not only the embodiment of the ideal of beauty, but the deity of all heterosexual pleasure. The Greeks worshiped her in many forms: as Aphrodite Urania, the Heavenly, the goddess of chaste or sacred love; as Aphrodite Pandemos, the Popular, the goddess of profane love in all its modes; and even as Aphrodite Kallipygos, the Venus of the Lovely Nates.36 At Athens and Corinth the courtesans built temples to her as their patron saint. At the beginning of April various cities in Greece celebrated her great festival, the Aphrodisia; and on that occasion, for those who cared to take part, sexual freedom was the order of the day.37 She was the love goddess of the sensual and passionate south, ancient rival of Artemis, the love goddess of the cold and hunting north. Mythology, almost as ironic as history, made her the wife of the crippled Hephaestus, but she consoled herself with Ares, Hermes, Poseidon, Dionysus, and many a mortal like Anchises and Adonis.* To her, in competition with Hera and Athena, Paris awarded the golden apple as the prize of beauty. But perhaps she was never really beautiful until Praxiteles reconceived her, and gave her the loveliness for which Greece could forgive all her sins.

To the legitimate or illegitimate children of Zeus we must add, as major Olympians, his sister Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and his unruly brother Poseidon. This Greek Neptune, secure in his watery realms, considered himself fully the equal of Zeus. Even landlocked nations worshiped him, for he commanded not only the sea but the rivers and the springs; it was he who guided the mysterious subterranean streams, and made earthquakes with tidal waves.39 To him Greek mariners prayed, and raised appeasing temples on perilous promontories.

Subordinate deities were numerous even on Olympus, for there was no end to personifications. There was Hestia (the Roman Vesta), goddess of the hearth and its sacred fire. There was Iris, the rainbow, sometimes messenger for Zeus; Hebe, goddess of youth; Eileithyia, who helped women in childbirth; Dike or Justice; Tyche, Chance; and Eros, Love, whom Hesiod made the creator of the world, whom Sappho called “a limb-dissolving, bitter-sweet, impracticable wild beast.”40 There was Hymeneus, the Marriage Song; Hypnos, Sleep; Oneiros, Dream; Geras, Old Age; Lethe, Oblivion; Thanatos, Death, and others beyond naming. There were nine Muses to inspire artists and poets: Clio for history, Euterpe for lyric poetry accompanied by the flute, Thalia for comic drama and idyllic poetry, Melpomene for tragedy, Terpsichore for choral dance and song, Erato for love verse and mimicry; Polymnia for hymns, Urania for astronomy, Calliope for epic poetry. There were three Graces, and their twelve attendants, the Hours. There was Nemesis, who meted out good and evil to men, and visited with disaster all who were guilty of hybris—insolence in prosperity. There were the terrible Erinnyes, the Furies who left no wrong unrevenged; the Greeks with deprecating euphemism called them Well-Wishers, Eumenides. And finally there were the Moirai, the Fates or Allotters who regulated inevitably the affairs of life, and ruled, some said, both gods and men. In that conception Greek religion found its limit, and flowed over into science and law.

We have left for the last the most troublesome, the most popular, the most difficult to classify, of all the Greek gods. Only late in his career was Dionysus received into Olympus. In Thrace, which gave him as a Greek gift to Greece, he was the god of liquor brewed from barley, and was known as Sabazius; in Greece he became a god of wine, the nourisher and guardian of the vine; he began as a goddess of fertility, became a god of intoxication, and ended as a son of god dying to save mankind. Many figures and legends were mingled to make his myth. The Greeks thought of him as Zagreus, “the horned child” borne to Zeus by his daughter Persephone. He was the best beloved of his father, and was seated beside him on the throne of heaven. When the jealous Hera incited the Titans to kill him, Zeus, to disguise him, changed him into a goat, then a bull; in this form, nevertheless, the Titans captured him, cut his body into pieces, and boiled them in a caldron. Athena, like another Trelawney, saved the heart, and carried it to Zeus; Zeus gave it to Semele, who, impregnated with it, gave to the god a second birth under the name of Dionysus.*

Mourning for Dionysus’ death, and joyful celebration of his resurrection, formed the basis of a ritual extremely widespread among the Greeks. In springtime, when the vine was bursting into blossom, Greek women went up into the hills to meet the reborn god. For two days they drank without restraint, and like our less religious bacchanalians, considered him witless who would not lose his wits. They marched in wild procession, led by Maenads, or mad women, devoted to Dionysus; they listened tensely to the story they knew so well, of the suffering, death, and resurrection of their god; and as they drank and danced they fell into a frenzy in which all bonds were loosed. The height and center of their ceremony was to seize upon a goat, a bull, sometimes a man (seeing in them incarnations of the god); to tear the live victim to pieces in commemoration of Dionysus’ dismemberment; then to drink the blood and eat the flesh in a sacred communion whereby, as they thought, the god would enter them and possess their souls. In that divine enthusiasm they were convinced that they and the god became one in a mystic and triumphant union; they took his name, called themselves, after one of his titles, Bacchoi, and knew that now they would never die. Or they termed their state an ecstasis, a going out of their souls to meet and be one with Dionysus; thus they felt freed from the burden of the flesh, they acquired divine insight, they were able to prophesy, they were gods. Such was the passionate cult that came down from Thrace into Greece like a medieval epidemic of religion, dragging one region after another from the cold and clear Olympians of the state worship into a faith and ritual that satisfied the craving for excitement and release, the longing for enthusiasm and possession, mysticism and mystery. The priests of Delphi and the rulers of Athens tried to keep the cult at a distance, but failed; all they could do was to adopt Dionysus into Olympus, Hellenize and humanize him, give him an official festival, and turn the revelry of his worshipers from the mad ecstasy of wine among the hills into the stately processions, the robust songs, and the noble drama of the Great Dionysia. For a while they won Dionysus over to Apollo, but in the end Apollo yielded to Dionysus’ heir and conqueror, Christ.

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