Ancient History & Civilisation


The Immortal Gods

There is the virgin Justice, too, daughter of Zeus,

respected and revered among the gods who hold Olympus.

And when anyone scorns her by his crooked speech and harms her, at

once she sits by her father Zeus the son of Cronos

And tells him the unjust purposes of men so that the people pay for

the follies of the noble princes

Hesiod, Works and Days 256–61

Anaxippus asks Zeus Naos and Dione about male offspring from his wife Philista… by praying to which of the gods might I fare best and most well?

Oracular question, inscribed on lead at Dodona

In Homer’s poems, the dominant image is that there is no life beyond the grave. In the world below, the ‘souls’ of the heroes live a shadowy life, fluttering like bats, but in the main lines of the epics they have no power to influence events on earth and none, certainly, to rise from the dead. This superb view of man’s condition heightens the poignancy of a hero’s life. We are what we do; fame, won in life, is our immortality. Until Achilles cremates his dear Patroclus, the dead man cannot cross over finally into the house of Hades. So Patroclus’ spirit appears to Achilles by night, asking for the last rites: ‘give me your hand, I beg you in sadness: for I will never come back again from Hades once you have given me my due of fire’.1 Achilles reaches out with his hands, but Patroclus is gone ‘like smoke’: Achilles never sees him again.

Few, if any, aristocrats shared this poetic view of death which so greatly enhanced the pathos of the epics and their legendary choices. All over Greece, they honoured rather different local heroes, in the belief that their anger and favour still worked locally in the world: this cult was logically inconsistent with the predominant view in Homer’s poetry which, therefore, did not inspire it. For themselves, many of the nobles may have expected rather more than a bat-like afterlife of shadows, a life, perhaps, in the ‘Elysian fields’ at the far ends of the earth with some of the games and contests which they had known in life or, if not, perhaps some punishment (at least for their enemies) for wrongs done here on earth. Homeric life was ‘this-worldly’, but in one corner of their minds few Greeks in the seventh and sixth centuries BC would have been quite as certain as a Homeric hero that it was all there was.

In the early sixth century BC a post-Homeric hymn imagines for us how the gods enjoy the ‘lyre and song’ up on Mount Olympus. All the Muses, we learn, ‘sing antiphonally with their fair voices of the immortal gifts of the gods and the sufferings of mortal men, all those which men have from the immortal gods as they live witlessly and helplessly and cannot find a cure for death or a defence against old age’.2 So much for ‘justice’ or ‘love’ in heaven: life is as it is, and the gods simply like to hear it contrasted with their own immortal ease, much as aristocrats on earth might listen to songs of the toils of the lower classes.

It is, again, a magnificently hard image, but one, also, which Greeks would not quite so readily sustain throughout their own ‘witless’ lives. Greeks were polytheists, accepting that many gods existed. Homer’s poems had said most about twelve gods (Dionysus and Demeter having the least mention), but the ‘twelve’ on Olympus were a poetic convention, and in real life there were hundreds more. Titles and adjectives linked gods with a particular place or function (Zeus Eleutherios, of freedom, or Apollo Delios, from the island of Delos) and brought them especially close to local worshippers: in Attica, at least ten ‘varieties’ of Athena are attested. Outside the Homeric circle, there were gods who were even closer, the sort of gods we find in the local cult-calendars of Attic villages or the gods of crops and farms for the ordinary man. In grave-mounds and special places, there were also the un-Homeric heroes, the semi-divine figures whose potential anger was so unpredictable: hundreds of these heroes existed in Attica alone, and Athenians maintained due relations with them. For, at all levels of a community, all Greek social groups looked to particular gods or heroes, whether the hunting-groups in Macedonia who looked to ‘Heracles the hunter’ or the phratries in Attica who looked to a local god or hero, to ‘Zeus Phratrios’ or Ajax or simply the ‘hero by the salt-deposits’. Gods and heroes were bound up with the social infrastructure as well as with the land and citadels of each city-state. On the streets and outside the houses of many Greek cities (Athens is the best known) there were stone pillars, or ‘herms’, with a god’s head on top and erect male private parts lower down. They were probably a warning, to keep off bad things (‘watch out, or you will be penetrated’).3 As time passed, educated minds regarded them as rather ridiculous, and so groups of clever young things smashed off the herms’ parts on one famous night in 415 BC, probably so as to scare the simpler classes into feeling that the gods would oppose their forthcoming naval campaign to Sicily. In fact, the simpler classes turned on the arrogant ‘herm-smashers’ and put them on trial.

The gods, on the whole, were imagined as more kindly than cruel, though their cruelty could be spectacular. Their justice was most divine when it was most random, sending a punishment many years later for the misdeed of a previous family member. For the gods did have their values too: they expected oaths to be observed, strangers to be respected and their shrines not to be polluted. When a spectacular misfortune occurred, Greeks tended to look back to the gods and the past for an explanation, a way of making sense of the world which never died out among most of them in the course of their later ‘classical’ history. In the poetry and oracles of the archaic age, this belief in divine punishment is particularly prominent, but even then people were not oppressed by holy dread. For most of the time their religiousness was passive, ticking over with a few of the usual offerings and no undue anxiety. Only in a crisis, whether personal or collective, did it become active, and then belief in divine justice across the years or generations was one way of making sense of grave misfortune. Until such a crisis, ‘act first, explain later’ was one way of keeping it all in perspective; another was to try to win a god over before risking an adventure. If it failed, the god might have been the wrong one, or unwilling, this time, to ‘get involved’.

These gods and heroes were not simply up in heaven, enjoying the Muses’ gloating over human suffering. Greek life was lived with a sense of their potential presence, in the clamour of storms or the stresses of sickness, in the dust-clouds of battle or on distant hillsides, especially in the midday sun. ‘Not to everyone’, Homer had said, ‘do the gods appear’, but they were most freely accessible at night, in dreams. For, as the painted sculptures multiplied, Greeks saw around them the representations of gods crowding their public spaces: at night, the images, fixed by their craftsmen, then seemed to ‘stand beside’ them as ‘manifest helpers’. The choral hymns, the poems, the stories of childhood, the talk at festivals all helped this nightly converse. They referred so often to the gods and their earthly appearances and their doings in the flexible stories, or muthoi, which we rather grandly call ‘myth’. Like the nobles, most of the gods of these statues and stories stood for shining beauty and grace: ‘they were marvellous figures; their deeds and their loves were as fascinating as those of film stars.’4 Like superstars, gods and goddesses were said to have made love occasionally to mere mortals, never better than Poseidon, who swept his girl away in the folds of a purple wave.5 Like film stars, gods might love a boy (as Zeus loved Ganymede, or Apollo the hapless Hyacinthus) and their female lovers were not always virgins. Unlike film stars, gods always made their lady pregnant. If a god made love to her twice in succession, she had twins. But she was also commanded not to ‘kiss and tell’.6

The potential presence of these gods was keenly felt on festival days when their statues came out from the temples which were built to be their houses. On other days visitors might find a temple unlocked and go in to contemplate a god’s statue. What visitors did not do was sit inside and participate with a priest in a service. There was no polytheist Church, no special training or theological essentials for being a ‘priest’ or a ‘priestess’. There were no sacred scriptures in the main cults: religious texts were a distinguishing mark of the minority, ‘secret’ cults. The core of polytheism was the paying of honours to the gods in the hope of favours or of appeasing and averting divine anger. The honours might be cakes or first-fruits or libations of wine or honey. Above all, they were offerings of animals, killed for the occasion on altars, whether birds, sheep, piglets (costing about 3 drachmas) or the most expensive, cattle (costing ‘90 drachmas’).7 There were ‘gods below the earth’, for whom blood and libations would be poured out onto the ground and the animal totally burned (the origin of our word ‘holocaust’). Or there were the Olympians and the gods ‘above’ with whom the animal’s meat would be shared. The gods enjoyed the smoke and mostly received the fat and bones (although Aphrodite did not like pigs, except in semi-Greek Aspendus). The mortals cannily ate the meat themselves.

These ‘sacrifices’ emphasized the line between mortals and immortals and although anyone might offer a victim, they were most frequent in cults paid by social groups, especially by the city-state or community. Each city-state had a calendar of yearly festivals which varied from place to place, but everywhere the dead, the crops and human fertility were the unpredictables whose well-being underlay much of this cultic activity. Citizens did not have to attend the rites, but a priest or priestess did, and there would often be meat or little gifts for the crowds on the day. Particular festivals were focused on women, too. In the Attic calendar, the Thesmophoria (widespread in the Greek world) was celebrated by respectable married women only, in honour of Demeter and the Maiden (Persephone). They spent three days with their priestesses which ranged from a sacrifice of piglets to a day, at least, of fasting while sitting on mats on the hard ground and a day of celebration on which the women offered sacrifice in honour of ‘fair Birth’. Sexual abstinence was required before and after the festival. At the Haloa, by contrast, Attic women carried models of male and female private parts, while cakes of a similar shape were set before them and priestesses (it was said) whispered to them to commit adultery. Outside the civic calendar, women also sometimes celebrated an exotic festival for young Adonis, the gorgeous beloved of Aphrodite. The rites involved some hasty gardening in flowerpots, bare-breasted lamentation and a sense, it seems, that divine Adonis was the ideal lover whom these ‘desperate housewives’ failed to find in their typical Greek husband.

A recurrent feature of these festivals was a suspension of ‘normal time’ and social rules, either by briefly inverting the usual reality (the ‘world turned upside down’) or by enforcing an exceptional routine. Inversion and exceptionalism were most visible in the cults of the rampaging Dionysus, the god of wine, growth and life-giving forces. Dionysus was often represented in feminine dress himself, as an asexual being among his female maenads and the half-bestial satyrs who were so very over-sexed. We should not deny the revelry and ‘altered states’ in Dionysus’ real-life cult or limit the women participants merely to dancing, as if only the men drank the wine. Drinking, ecstatic dancing and (in Macedonia) snake-handling were indeed practised by women: sometimes they worshipped Dionysus in ‘wild’ nature, even up on the mountains. Nonetheless, worshippers of either sex probably never ripped up living animals (let alone a slave) in real life as opposed to myths or drama. Dionysus was included among the civic cults of city-states, even though his worship was especially conducted by women: their ‘wild’ worship projected the image that women were ‘wild’ and ‘irrational’ (their laments at funerals, women’s business, gave a similar impression). Then, as the cult ended, the brief festival-time of release was over, and so the controlled norms of sound everyday behaviour (guided by men) were reasserted: as the festival showed, these ‘irrational’ women really needed a sober-minded man. But Dionysus, though long known in Greece, remained potentially exotic. Myths therefore characterized him as a foreign invader from barbarian, ‘irrational’ lands, from Thrace or Lydia or even India (where Alexander the Great and his soldiers later believed that they had discovered real traces of him). In fact, Dionysus was not an intruder at all, or somehow ‘younger’ than the sober, rational Olympians. He was an old member of the total Greek pantheon, but his wildness was accommodated by these myths and imagery of ‘eastern’ luxury.

Rituals with these sorts of contrasting references ran through each city-state’s calendar and, in that sense, ‘religion’ was intertwined with ‘politics’: increasingly, citizens voted funds for the cults, or chose their priests by lot or election or passed decrees to keep the sanctuaries orderly. It was not, conversely, that ‘politics’ were somehow always ‘religious’ or that laws were really ‘sacred’. For the polis was not a religious community organized simply for cult or the worship of the dead: it was a community of citizens whose political meetings were prefaced by prayers or religious honours but whose debates, decisions and conflicts were quite independently political, about contested human ends and means. The gods were appealed to, rather, as ‘helpers’. Throughout this book, the Greek city-states and armies must be thought of as carrying out repeated honours for these ‘helpers’, occasions which brought crowds together, suspended public business and even delayed soldiers on the march: there were almost no known atheists. Citizens had to accept that the civic gods existed (only a very few philosophers seemed not to), but otherwise the main limit was only that they must not worship some weird god who denied that the other gods were gods needing worship too. Until the Greeks met Jews or Christians, this exclusive sort of god was not an issue. ‘Freedom of worship’, therefore, was not a freedom for which Greeks fought and died amongst themselves. Nor was religious ‘tolerance’ an issue in their struggles. As polytheists, the Greeks accepted many gods, and the gods which they met abroad were usually worshipped and understood as their own gods in yet another local form. The only major attempts to ban ‘private’ cults were in the pages of that political revisionist, the philosopher Plato. Like the rest of his horrible ideal city, they were ignored by every other Greek in real life.

Nor was Greek religion simply ‘polis-religion’. Beside the calendar of public cults, families observed their domestic cults on their own properties (especially to Zeus ‘of property’) and in their households (in Alexandria in Egypt, the ‘good daemon’ or snake was to prove very popular). Families would also worship together, led by their father, as we can see on sculpted votive-reliefs which show them paying their vows. For beside the public cults there was a flourishing culture of personal vows to the gods by individuals, whether in hope of, or thanks for, a favour. Individuals ‘vowed’ sacrifices, statues or even temples, let alone the little clay and terracotta statues that turn up by the thousand in excavations of sanctuaries, especially in some of the shrines of the western Greeks. These vows were made for worldly ends, for conception, childbirth or success in love, for victory or profit and especially for recovery from sickness: gods were widely represented as healers, even by educated doctors. The god who received a vow did not have to be a god of a civic cult. Hesiod’s poetry contains a lavish tribute to the powers and functions of the goddess Hecate whom his family had perhaps met on their travels:8 a cult of Hecate is not known then or later in the region of his Boeotian polis. The idea of a ‘vow’ paid for a favour could quite easily slip over into a ‘curse’ made for the favour of doing harm to somebody else, a rival in love or at the games or even in democratic politics. Curses also followed precise rituals, but although they were sinister, they too were trying to bring the gods to bear on a personal interest much as a vow or a conventional prayer did.

Prayers do often stress the hope of reciprocity which underlay so much of the giving between Greeks, except (in my view) between aristocrats. The pattern was taken for granted in earthly social relations and so it was projected onto heaven: ‘If I ever gave you a pleasing sacrifice, Zeus, please give me…’ The aim was not bribery but the continuance of relations with a divine superior who, like a social superior, might sometimes (not always) intervene. Worshippers never knew when he would, and when not.

But they did have a chance of discovering what the gods’ commands and wishes were. Experts would watch the flight of birds and interpret any unusual omens or the tangled entrails of an animal when sacrificed. In such contexts, the will of the gods might be discoverable. Again, many of the decisions of individuals throughout the classical world would have been preceded by prayers or divination. The gods were not only spectators or ‘listening’ gods: they also communicated, albeit very obliquely.

Outside one’s dreams, these communications were most accessible at particular sanctuaries, above all at the oracular shrines where prophets and prophetesses ‘spoke’ for the gods. In the eighth century the reputation of the most famous, at Delphi, became established: its priesthood were later described as immigrant Cretans, a tradition which I accept, at least until a Sacred War there, c. 590 BC, may have expelled them.9 On a few favourable days a priestess would respond at Delphi on the gods’ behalf to the questions put by visitors. She usually became inspired, perhaps after drinking toxic fresh honey and chewing ‘daphne’ (it may be wrong to translate this plant as non-toxic ‘laurel’).10 The responses were then given as prose or hexameter verse (with the help of priests), but, Apollo being the god he was, they were very often ambiguous or perplexing. So, human intelligence was needed, and frequently, the god only said ‘it would be better if…’. However bad it proved, the alternatives would then be known to be even worse.

In the aristocratic age, oracular sites flourished in the Greek world, not just Delphi but Dodona in north-western Greece or Didyma and Claros on the western coast of Asia, among many others. Much of the business might be the everyday anxieties of individuals: whom to marry, whom to blame, how to have children. But these sanctuaries also offered an external sanction for major civic decisions, a stamp of divine approval which would reassure and exculpate the small, fractious ruling class of a community who submitted a question. In due course, democracy would tend to provide its own fully authoritative stamp anyway. Then, too, oracles would be a community’s resort when coping with questions of innovation in a cult or fears of unusual divine anger: they allowed a god to speak out on matters which were the gods’ own affairs. In the age of aristocracy they were also a support for proposed new settlements abroad or major changes in the political order. In turn, the outcomes of these ventures enhanced their reputation: ‘at the beginning it is surely true that colonization was far more responsible for the success of Delphi than Delphi for the success of colonization.’11

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